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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Putting on the goop: Building Meerkat, a very small catboat, cont'd

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, I did my first pour of the epoxy and milled fiberglass that is supposed to hold the boat together. I really don't look forward to sanding this stuff and putting a bunch of tiny glass daggers in the air, so I put waxed paper over it in hopes that that might make it cure a bit smoother.

It looks a bit sloppy with the waxed paper on it, like a fellow who shaved his face with a dull blade and had to put tissue on all the wounds, but if this works, it's going to be a real gift to the folks who build stitch & glue boats. This is the face mask and respirator a friend bought for sanding the milled fiberglass fillets on his boat:

And in his build thread, someone suggested that the itching that comes from sanding the stuff could be ameliorated by taking a bath in water with a good portion of vinegar added to it, though he reported smelling like a salad afterward.

So you can see why I've been casting about for a way to avoid this part of the build. After all, wooden boat building is supposed to be a craft, and how crafty do you feel in a space suit and helmet?

Getting the boat to assume its proper shape involved not having it sitting on the table I've been building on, and having it sort of suspended in the air tends to reveal its deep-chested shape, so reminiscent of Uffa Fox's revolutionary International 14s.

Here's his design for a frostbite class 11 1/2 footer, which it's a shame no one thought to put into fiberglass construction. In wood it would be challenging, but someone more skilled than I ought to do it.

Anyone inclined to build that boat, by the way, can get the plans from his estate here, and the more Uffa Fox designs that get built, the better.

And here's what Meerkat currently looks like:

And again, for comparison, the design I'm building:

More posts on this topic:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is the Republican Party becoming a cult?

by Jamie Lutton

 On Monday, July 23, the NYT's had a cover story with this headline:

As bad as the regional Democrats are at fixing the  economic woes of California, the Republicans are in no shape to step in and take over in the next election cycle. .

They have lost too many voters in the last few years.

“It’s no longer a statewide party,” said Allan Hoffenblum, who worked for 30 years as a Republican consultant in California. “They are down to 30 percent, which makes it impossible to win a statewide election. You just can’t get enough crossover voters.”

“They have alienated large swaths of voters,” he said. “They have become too doctrinaire on the social issues. It’s become a cult.”
“The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. “It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money. The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics.”

“When you look at the population growth, the actual party is shrinking,” Mr. Schmidt said. “It’s becoming more white. It’s becoming older. “

There are several reasons given for the decline of the Republican party in California.  What seems to be the leading cause, however, is the 'business of hunting out heretics'.  20 years ago, a Republican in office could be Pro-choice, have a conciliatory attitude toward the immigration problems. He or she could be be against the inflation of the military budget. Many of them were sympathetic to gay causes, such as gay marriage. It was acceptable to challenge the Republican Party, and stand alone, when voting.  The 'big tent' was a reality, not a hollow shell.

But no longer. The rise of the 'Tea Party' faction in the Republican party has shifted party to the right, in an effort to hand onto conservative voters, in the last few years.
Office holders who do not exactly toe the Party line are called RINOS, Republicans In Name Only, and replaced in the primaries by candidates who will toe the line. Usually, nowadays, they are candidates anointed by the Tea Party. Many good men and women have retired or have been driven out of the Republican Party, for not being 'conservative' enough.

And the national Republican party is still strongly apposing gay marriage, even though important Republicans like Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter who recently got married, and Laura Bush have come out in favor of it.
They have pounded the drum of calling gay marriage 'immoral and wrong' and stoutly resisting it. State by state, when there is  a referendum supporting gay marriage, it is Republican money that apposes it.  This, too, is at least partly the influence of the Tea Party wing of the Republicans. While the Tea Party is on record wanting government to be smaller, they want to government to also interfere in the right of citizens to marry who they please.

But the national party, in particular with the drive to the right in the national campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, has alienated the average voter in California.

As another expert put it in the New York Times story, “The national party is becoming a party of very enthusiastic social conservatives driven by Southerners,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “It’s a problem if you’re an independent voter in California. If you think about the Republican Party, what national figure comes to mind? George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich.”

The average voter in California is more interested in hearing  working plans for the economy, and job creation, not tirades about illegal immigration, same sex marriage, and birth control.
Many of them are second generation Hispanics, children of immigrants, the ad hominem attacks on 'immigrants' make them uneasy. They fear being  personally swept up in hunts for illegals, such as what is happening in Arizona.
And California, home of the both the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and the city of San Francisco, is the home to the largest gay population in the country.  The face of the Republican party is the face of intolerance, even hate, to this community.

Even though California is struggling with cities going bankrupt, and a 11% unemployment rate,  the average voter is not interested in voting in Republicans, because of this focus.  The voters, perhaps rightly, see the Republicans as overly focused on trivial or even hostile positions, not understanding the lives and stuggles  of ordinary Californian citizens. . 

California is very like the rest of the country, just a little ahead in social trends.  Their population profile is thought to mirror what the rest of the country will look like, in ten or twenty years.

 The Republican Party may have taken hemlock for being the party of 'no', and not addressing our dire economic problems in the midst of the worst crisis in 80 years.

As California goes, goes the country?

All stitched up: Building Meerkat, a very small catboat, yet again

by John MacBeath Watkins

All stitched up!

I apparently overdid the hollow in the front of the garboard planks, leading to a little "clipper bow" in that part of the stem. Haven't decided whether it's a feature or a bug. It seem to me that the developed plates in Freeship show more hollow there than the ones in Delftship, so perhaps this is what I get for outputting the design in the free version.

Again, here's the goal:

More posts on this topic:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Building Meerkat, a very small catboat, continued

by John MacBeath Watkins

Life keeps getting in the way, but I'm making progress. At this point, I've got all the panels and all the bulkheads I need. There are lots of fiddly bits to make, but I decided I couldn't wait, and stitched some panels together tonight.

Stitch them together, and you start to get the rocker and shape of a boat:

The hollow in the ends of the garboards is what this boat has instead of a curved stem. These should fold up nicely into a plumb stem, as illustrated in our first Building Meerkat post.

Just to keep our goal in view, I suppose I should reference the plans in each of these posts. Tomorrow, I'm off to the mainland to buy some books, and I'll have to do a fair amount of cataloging once I've done that, but I'm determined to get this boat done before the weather turns.

More posts on this topic:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Your book number

by Jamie Lutton
I have been recommending books to people for 29 years, more or less, as my job.  People ask me for suggestions, but most of the time, they already have an idea about the kind of book they want. Science Fiction fans want Science Fiction. Literature readers want another novel that suits their pre-formed taste.  A few people are more adventurous, but mostly, people don't want to be surprised, or have to work too hard.
This phenomena got me to thinking, and I have a reply worked out.  That is, what an individual's ''book number'' is. I ask you, reading this, to do a some simple math.
Take the age you are now. Figure out how many books you read in a week, or say in a month. Take a wild guess on how long you think you will live. The actuarial tables say most people die, on average, at age 78.
So, you read a book a month. That is - 12 books in a year. You are, say 48; that means you have about 30 years to live.  Take that 12, and multiply that by 30.  The number is 360.  That is your 'book number'.
Now, some years you will read more books; say after you retire. Or you might join a book club, and end up reading a lot more books.  Or perhaps you die younger (hopefully not) than this age.
But using this number as a start, you have 360 books to pick out and read.   I suggest, then, that you make those 360 books count.   You need not even read outside your genre, though that might make the rest

I know that, for instance, the great Science Fiction writers are history and science readers, and sometimes poetry and literature. You can tell this by there referring to other writers in their books (and in interviews with them).  I ran into this when I read, as a child, Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.  Out of the blue, he throws in a quote from a poem, and talks about the Greek Parthenon, when he has the teen age hero defending the Earth, when he is put on trial to defend her.  I read this when I was 10 years old, and immediately went and looked for a book on Greek history I could understand, to learn about what the Parthenon was.
This book was a juvenile, but really popular adult writers do this, too. In The Stand by Stephen King, the author drops in a reference to Yeats poem The Second Coming.  Most horror readers hunted down that poem, out of curiosity, after reading that reference.
Yeats poem The Second Coming is a great hook.  Reading one poem is like eating one potato chip; it often leads to a poetry addiction.
The titles of books are hooks, too. So very many books written in the twentieth century take their titles from the King James Bible and  Shakespeare. Brave New World is from The Tempest.  When Miranda first sees humans that are not her father, she exclaims "Oh, what a brave new world it is, that has such people in it".

So all these authors are telling their readers "Look. I am only the gate. There are so many other books you should read".  And in particular, the King James Bible and Shakespeare's collected works.
These two books are large, and difficult, as they are written in a dialect separated from us by time, rather than geography.  But I think they should make people's life "book list".

The trick is, you don't have to read either of these books in their entirety.   Shakespeare, you can read The Tempest, Macbeth, the sonnets, and Henry V to start. And not all of the sonnets, even. There is a short number, maybe 20% of them, that are familiar from all the reference to them in our casual day to day English. And the same with Macbeth, Henry V and the others.
And the King James Bible is even more copied.  All that is necessary to read (in my own opinion) is Genesis, and Exodus. The beginning of Exodus is the most important part, with it's clear portrait of a evil tyrant, the Pharaoh, and the cruel hand he had on the people of Israel. Genesis is wonderful for its tale not only of the beginning of the world, but of the tale of the fate of Jacob.

And the King James Bible is what I specifically recommend, because it is so heavily borrowed from, and it has beautiful writing. No other translation is as beautiful.  When it is obscure in meaning, another translation at hand can be helpful.
The book of Job is not to be missed. When God speaks, it is moving. The atheist and agnostic will not be bored.  The God that roars "where were you when I made the world" and speaks of the Unicorn and the Leviathan, is some of the best writing the West has created, divinely inspired or not.
So, read Genesis, the beginning of Exodus at least, Samuel 1 and 2, Job, ecclesiastics, proverbs. Then read the words of Jesus in the New Testament.  The encounter with the mind of Jesus is not to be missed.
These two books can be skipped. but they are a start for that 'life list'.   I suggest them, mostly, not only for their beauty, but that all writers after1630 in the English language, till perhaps ww2 heavily borrowed from them for language and inspiration.
But even if you want to limit your 'life list' to genres you like, read the very best in those genres.  For the Romance fan, read the very best romances (such as Georgette Heyer, which I suggested last week). For the Science Fiction readers, read Ray Bradbury, Ursla le Guin, and the older writers like Hal Clemet and John Hogan.

For people reading literature, read Chaucer, Milton, Proust. Stretch you mind against the very best.  And for people who prefer non-ficton, try reading original sources in the area that interests you. for the history fans, read the people your favorite writers read to create the books you like.   People who write about Shakespeare read Holinshed, a encyclopedia written in 1575 that Shakespeare borrowed from to write Henry V. Shakespeare's Henry V is word for word a rewriting of Holinshed. (some editions of Henry V now have that passage in the front of that edition).  Or Ovid, where Shakespeare got some of his plots.
For people who hate and fear Marxism, read some Karl Marx. For people who hate and fear conservative thought, read Adam Smith.
And try reading books that seem 'too hard'.  Some people can't afford college, or forgot a lot of what they learned, if they went. The books that college textbooks are adapted from are lying about, and easy to find.  The trick is to do a bit of research.
Americans tend to live in beat up, run down shacks, when next to them, all around them, is the golden palace of the accumulated knowledge of humanity.    And it is free to enter, to come and go.
And with such a short time on this Earth, it is not a bad idea to try to read the best.

 ".but at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity......"
Andrew Marvell
                         To His Coy Mistress

Friday, July 20, 2012

Violent images beget violent acts

by Jamie Lutton

I am not expert on violence. I am not a psychologist or a mental health professional. But the  senseless mass shooting, new, yet dreadfully familiar, this time in a Colorado movie theater, has compelled me to write again about this hideous phenomena.

We have a terrible curse walking the land.  The madman who wishes to kill many people at once, and with firearms.

I have a thesis  I want to propose as to the reason this epidemic is occurring. The advent of very violent television, movies and video games, that simulate not only real deaths, but construct a reality where violence, mostly gun violence, is a creative, powerful act. Even a grotesquely humorous and sexy 'fun' act.
The mentally unstable shooters got the idea for picking up guns and attacking strangers from  television programs (there are a lot that use this sort of plot), violent movies and video games. And  from watching and playing many, many of them, over many years.

The shooting happened during a shooting scene in a really violent movie. The madman when he was arrested, told the arresting officers that he was a character from the previous, very violent movie in the series, and had dyed his hair to match the character's hair.

As a society, we worry about pornographic sexual content in commercial media.  When are we going to start worrying about ultra- violent content in movies and TV? The weak minded and mentally ill among us are easily influenced by this material.  And all of us are desensitized to the presence of violence all around us, 'pretend' or otherwise.

I have an analogy I want to make here.

It is sort of like trying to lose weight personally, or wondering why there is so many fat people in our society right now, and that this problem is growing rapidly.

We seem, as a people, to be getting fatter every year.
We have TV selling fattening food every few minutes on TV in commercials that pay for the programming we watch. This TV is watched by children as soon as they are old enough to  face the screen. So, people go out and buy junk to eat, and they eat far too much of all food. They have been programmed to think eating itself will make them more popular and happy. Their unconscious has been convinced that junk food is good food, and safe, and even necessary to happiness.

And so we have an epidemic of obese people, adults and children, such as we have never had before.  And this is threatening our national health.

So,  really violent content in TV shows , movies, and video games, are absorbed for years on end by everyone. Then   someone who is mentally ill, now and then,  becomes delusional, and shoot ups a school, a workplace, or a movie theater, killing and wounding people, we should not be too surprised. .

It is really simple, and very sad. And it is not about 'gun control'; it is about telling people, over and over and over, via TV and movies and video games that guns are fun,  and it is 'fun' to shoot people.

The NRA types and the liberal types might be able to agree on this problem.  It is not the guns; the guns are the symptom. It is living in a society that has the viewing of people being killed as entertainment.  It does not matter that the killings are '''fake'''. The 'killings' are engineered by experts in Hollywood special effects to look as real as possible, with background music to enhance the pleasure of watching people 'die'.  And the hero as well as the bad guys, often, kills a lot of people as part of the plot.

Even though such programs and movies are 'fun to watch', or that we are conditioned to think such things are fun,   they are  very dangerous.  I am no different; I have watched such programming with pleasure, in the past. But what has this done to us, as the killings are made more graphic all the time.
What do we tolerate as 'fun'.
The shootings in work places started some 30 years ago in a few post offices. That is where we got the new term 'going postal', for someone going mad and shooting their workmates.  But now it is so commonplace to open the newspaper and read that someone goes to where they used to work, and shoots several people dead, or to a loved ones home, that we hardly pay any attention.

Only when many, many people are shot dead and wounded do we look up, and worry. And these victims in Colorado were shot in a movie  theater, which is new.

If we want to change this, it would behoove us all to avoid violent programming, games and movies.  Or to at least  avoid exposing children of all ages to this sort of recreational violence.
And as I said in a previous post, to start making mental health care more available and affordable, and take away the stigma of being mentally.  Begin to treat it as no more shameful than having diabetes.
This young man, up to a week ago, was just a paranoid and confused person who needed help desperately.    .
It would have been so much easier to treat him then, before so many people were killed and lives ruined.
We can all start now, by demanding that as a society we remove graphic 'pretend murders' from our entertainment, and start at our own home when we do this. And to consider such material as a horrible thing to expose children to, instead of a harmless pastime.

Experts have been warning all of us since the 1950's that violence acts would be the outcome of this kind of saturated exposure to violence in the media.

When are we going to say, 'that's enough',  turn away, and refuse to participate?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Memoriam Marco, the panda cat

 by Jamie Lutton

A few days ago, Twice Sold Tales/Capital Hill lost its shop cat, Marco. He was 15 years old.  He was stunningly cute; looked like a small orca or panda bear. He was white, with big black dots, and a black mask on his eyes.
For 15 years, he put up with small children who wanted to hug him and hundreds of tourists who took his picture.  All he wanted was really regular meals, (he got a little fat) including wet food, and a lap to sit on. If you sat near him, he would move in and bury his face against the chest of the person holding him. Then, would knead his paws against their chest. If you lay on the floor on your stomach, he would jump on your back and pin you down.
He was not a small cat.   He was lucky enough to have good health all his life, until the end, when he got diarrhea that could not be controlled. Despite the best efforts of a very good vet, he slipped away from us Monday, July 16.
When I got him, 15 years ago, the shelter told me that he had dozens and dozens of half siblings who looked just like him. Seems that there was a Tom in the Everett area (where he came from) that fathered a lot of kittens that year. So, out there, in the world, there are lots of Marcos, his nephews and grand nephews and nieces.  I hope that they are in good homes, being as loved as we loved this cat.
We have two other shop cats, and they are as precious as Marco was to us.  But, this cat was special. If you walked near him, he would look at you, and tap one of his paws, saying 'come here and pet me.'
The problem with cats is that they don't live long enough.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Building Meerkat, a very small catboat

by John MacBeath Watkins

As mentioned in this post, I've been working on a new design for a boat to build. Now the building has begun on the boat I plan to call Meerkat. She will be 9'6" by 3'9" and I hope to keep the weight under 60 lb.

The boat will look something like this model, but will be big enough for two people. With just me in it, the waterline beam will be about 2'9", so she should row well and not have too much wetted surface. She will be big enough to carry two people with ease.

She will also be narrow enough, at about 3'9", to fit in the back of my '97 Nissan pickup truck with a canopy over the bed. Because I won't be putting it on a trailer, she won't cost the nearly $100 extra it takes to bring Black Swan, my 17'9" sharpie, on the ferry.

I didn't want to mess with my good plywood while I cut out the parts, so I've cut them out of doorskins, and will use those patterns to cut the parts out of my BS 1088 4 mm okume plywood with a router. I'll be building the boat around three bulkheads, two of which will be permanent and will enclose air chambers for positive buoyancy. Here are the patterns as printed out full size by Vashon Printing & Design.

I had to loft the stations for the bulkheads I'm building the boat around, which is why they don't have printed patterns. Did those today.

Now, there are some who will object that this isn't a real catboat, because it isn't a Cape Cod catboat. This boat was inspired by an earlier type, the New York catboat, a type that inspired the Cape Cod catboat and developed into the sandbaggers. Una, a New York catboat that was imported to Britain, became quite influential and may even be viewed as the ancestor of the European centerboard dinghies such as the International 14.

That is, boats like this:
These early centerboard oyster boats were often sailed as sloops in the summer, when the wind was light, and catboats in the winter, using the same rig minus the jib, and set farther forward. The smaller ones were sailed as catboats year around.

A replica of the boat pictured, Comet, has been built, and when towed under power, did not plane. It just dug a deeper hole the harder the towing powerboat worked. Meerkat won't have that weakness. She's designed as a displacement hull, but she'll exceed hull speed rather than dig a deeper hole.

The rig is from an El Toro, which has about the same beam and is about 18 inches shorter. The sail and mast are more than 40 years old, but they were inexpensive, and that's part of what I wanted.

Unlike Black Swan, which takes at least half an hour to rig and launch (more often 45 minutes,) Meerkat should launch and rig in about 5 minutes. I can carry this boat on my back like a great big beetle, plop it in the water, stick the rig in it, and sail away. That's the dream, anyway.

By the way, there's a build thread here:

More posts on this topic:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

They were all disloyal capitalists

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the late 1970s, I noticed a strange thing. Companies that had been built by a partnership between management and labor began to make war on their employees. In the mid-1980s, I was working for a newspaper in Texas and had to come back to the Northwest for my grandfather's funeral on Frontier Airlines, part of the empire Frank Lorenzo built from his hostile takeover of Continental Airlines.

The carpet on that aircraft was patched with duct tape. The cabin crew were obviously exhausted, and consequently had a bit of a bad attitude, not for the passengers but for their job. I wondered how tired the pilots were. On the trip back to Texas, the same airline gave me the hardest landing I've ever experienced, in an airliner, in a military aircraft, or in a light plane flown by an amateur. Guess that answered that question.

Frank Lorenzo was a trend-setter. He showed that a clever operator could make a name and a fortune for himself by using loads of debt to buy a company, offloading obligations through use of the legal system, and cashing in on the rapidly increasing CEO pay. His tactics are one example of what Larry Summers and Andrei Schleiferwere were talking about in a 1988 paper Matthew Yglesias brings to our attention, Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers.

Yglesias does and admirable job of condensing the Summers and Schleiferwere paper, and I recommend you follow the link above and read the full text of his post.

Essentially, companies exist because free individuals contracting with each other to produce the result the company can produce would require cumbersome and unworkable contractual arrangements. Instead, a group of people get together and work toward a goal, and this allows them to cooperate based on informal obligations and trust that all those in the company understand that they are working for the same goal. How to achieve this is the substance of thousands of management books.

Without that trust, the logic of having a firm breaks down. As Yglesias points out, what Summers and Scheleifwere are talking about is the opportunity for the new management to take advantage of their formal rights to violate implicit agreements and take more of the wealth created by the business for the management. From Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers:

One striking fact militating in favor of. the importance of wealth
transfers as opposed to pure efficiency gains is that a significant fraction
ed of hostile acquisitions are initiated and executed by only a few raiders.
It is hard to believe that Carl Icahn has a comparative advantage in
running simultaneously a railcar leasing company (ACF), an airline 
(TWA) and a textile mill (Dan River). It is more plausible that his
comparative advantage is tough bargaining and a willingness to transfer
value away from those who expect to have it. In fact, those who describe 
him (including he himself) point to this as his special skill. The
industrial diversity of many raiders' holdings suggests that their particular
skill is value redistribution rather than value creation.

How does that sort of thing affect employees? Again, from Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers:
The virtually universal lesson that interviewees claimed to have learned from their takeover experience was never again to trust a large corporation. One employee remarked that previously he had believed that if he did a good job, he would be appreciated. Now he thinks, "You have to look out for yourself. You really can't hold any loyalty to a corporation." Another offered his view of long.term contracts: "To the average Joe, life in the business world can be compared to walking a tightrope across the Red Sea. It might break at any time, so don't get too comfortable." Many said their loyalty had been killed, and that they developed a more cynical and cautious view of corporate America. As a result, some reversed their prior belief that continued loyalty to a corporation would be rewarded.
Less dramatically, another asked, "How can you go to another company now and give 100 percent of your effort?"

In short, if the firm has no loyalty to its employees, they will have none to the firm. This sort of transfer of wealth away from people who had a great deal to do with creating it destroys the trust on which the logic of the firm's existence is based.

And in the years since this sort of wealth transfer started to happen, the size of firms has declined, Yglesias informs us, with a helpful link to the blog of Evan Soltas, who in turn informs us that:

Another way to think about the secular shift from large firms to small ones is by using Riemann sums to approximate the average size of a nonfarm private firm in the United States. In December 2000, the average firm employed 213 people; in May 2012, the average firm employed 199 people. That amounts to a decrease in average firm size of 6.6 percent.

And the growth in employment since the depth of the recession is substantially greater at firms with less than 500 employees. That is, firms too small to be of interest to companies like Bain Captial. Could it be that the diseconomies of scale this reflects are linked to a lack of trust?

Yglesias again:

The big socialized loss in the case of this kind of "breach of trust" scenario is loss of trust and economy-wide loss of ability of managers and workers to form flexible implicit arrangements with one another. Summers and Shleifer write that it's difficult to assess the systematic impact of this because to do so "we must analyze a world in which people trust each other less, workers are not loay to firms, and spot market transactions are more common than they are at this time." That's a difficult task. But we do know something about what an economy like that looks like. It looks like Greece or Italy where firms are much smaller and less productive in part as a coping mechanism in a low-trust environment.

One of the remarkable things about human beings is that they will cooperate with others who are not blood relatives. That is vanishingly rare in the animal world. It is also a phenomenon that varies substantially between societies. Great societies have something in common with "the Great Society" that Lyndon Johnson wished to create -- they have fellow-feeling for the large number of people in the society. They work together for common goals.

The breach of trust Yglesias brings to our attention from the 1988 paper by that name is difficult to build and easy to destroy. The financial engineers who managed to claim more of the nation's wealth from about 1980 on gave themselves extravagant compliments, calling themselves "masters of the universe," "big swinging dicks," and the like. Managers who found ways to squeeze more from employees flattered themselves that it made them better than those employees. Of course, getting more efficiency is what management is supposed to be about, but a large part of what's happened in the last 30 years has been redistribution of wealth upwards. Efficiency has increased, but the reward for it has not been shared as it once was.

And when someone has the temerity to suggest that no one creates wealth on their own, they are accused of "hating success." Because the greatest threat to those who have been redistributing wealth away from the middle class and toward the top earners is that people might recognize that redistribution is what is happening, that the creation of wealth is a social enterprise to which many contribute, and few are being rewarded.

From the Congressional budget Office:

Shares of Income After Transfers and Federal Taxes, 1979 and 2007
The share of income going to higher-income households rose, while the share going to lower-income households fell.
  • The top fifth of the population saw a 10-percentage-point increase in their share of after-tax income.
  • Most of that growth went to the top 1 percent of the population.
  • All other groups saw their shares decline by 2 to 3 percentage points.

Suggestions for summer reading (and through the next year).

by Jamie Lutton

 I was told that the prerequisite for a book to be considered a good 'summer read' was that it be  long but portable, engrossing, but not 'great literature'.  A book to read and forget.  I know that there are many other book columnists who come up with lists of books of this type.  I thought, instead to recommend some light literature by older authors who were prolific but maintain high quality.  There are readers  who go through books quickly, or who want to be occupied for several months with one author.

I won't recommend new novels,  as in my business I see 'the latest thing' fade and be forgotten quickly.  So, I thought about what was the best of the best of what I had read in the last 40 years, and came up with a few authors, beginning with my favorites from my 17th summer.
So here is a start of a list of recommendations. I will add to this, in later columns, and tackle other types of good books.

The summer I turned 17, my mother, a public librarian and a speed reader like me,  began to introduce me to her favorites, books that she had read many times.   She was fond of mysteries and lighter fiction, (though she was a also a Shakespeare and poetry fanatic).
I will first recommend a romance author,  Georgette Heyer, British, who is heavily stolen from but not very well known..

She came up with a formula, the 'Regency Romance' in the late 1920's,  that was successful and copied by hundreds of authors who wanted to cash in on her success.  Nearly all  of the writers who copied her were not very good,  however, as they could not imitate the labor and time she went into her books.   She  wrote for fun as much as for money. She was independently wealthy, so she could spend the time researching her books and getting the small details exactly right for the time they were set. The clothing, habits and manners of the characters in her stories are exactly right for the exact year the book is set.
The slang,  fixations, and drinking habits of the characters are exactly right as well. Plus, she came up with interesting, intricate, and amusing plots.
Her earliest books felt the influence of Alexander Dumas and the like - with duels, and intrigues, with plots dangerous and devious. Later on, her books became more sedate, and were more amusing stories of manners and mores, closely resembling the Austen novels. But in all of them, courtship, love, star-crossed and otherwise, was her theme. 

And her men, as well as her women, were well described, in thumbnail sketches, appealing and interesting. She could write a good rogue or ladies man, fop, or dull stick. Her women were often spirited and intelligent. both were splendid examples of the pre-Victorian people who was not yet been captured by the stifling morality of that age.  And above all, her books are always witty, sometimes even farcical.  They are full of good, believable conversations, not just between the love interests (some books have several couples sparring with each other) but between all the characters. 
She wrote, from 1929 to 1970, over fifty novels, and 37 or so are still in print. She set almost all of her books in the period 1795 to 1830, mostly in the period 1790 to 1825.

My mother handed me one of them, I forget which one, when I was 17.  I read mostly science fiction at that time, but would read anything put in front of me.  I was hooked instantly, and ran though all her available books by that October, then began to reread them.
And her plots were original to each book. There was very little overlap, each book had its own wonderful plot, distinct and different from the previous book.   And they all end happily, with the loose ends tied up, with a few surprises along the way.
Of her 38 main books, I would recommend eight of her books to try first.  Faro's Daughter, Venetia, These Old Shades, The Corinthian, The Unknown Ajax,  The Grand Sophy, The Masqueraders. and The Toll Gate
These are not 'serious books', they are what is known as 'good "bad" books', but a critic as well thought of as Jessica Midford called them great 'guilty pleasure'.  For light but very well done comedic-romantic writing, I can't recommend these higher.  And if you have ever picked up a cheap 'regency romance' out of curiosity, this is the master and the creator of the modern genre. She attempted to write like Jane Austen, but had her own, quirky, funny style.  . The hard work and love she put into these little charmers is clear. Rarely does she put her foot wrong.

Rex Stout
Another author I heard about from my mother is Rex Stout. Stout, an author of short, clever  mysteries set in (mostly) New York City, has been voted the great American master, along side of Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammitt
Stout's two detectives' first adventure was written in 1933, and references the end of Prohibition, continuing to his last, which references Richard Nixon and Watergate, are in reality set in a New York of the 1930's to the 1950's. His two detectives, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, do not age or age much.  Stout wrote in those years 37 detective stories. If the first, Fer de lance and In the best of families are read back to back, you can see only a few changes. The author kept the characters consistent.
These are very witty, intelligent books. The first detective and narrator,  Archie Goodwin is in the employ of the other detective,  Nero Wolfe, and comments cheerily on all the mysteries.  He is a youngish ladies man, witty Midwesterner who a sharp dresser and a good shot.  Nero Wolfe,  a believable, overweight cranky genius who rarely leaves his home, which is staffed with an in-house chef (shades of another age!) and has a greenhouse on the roof with exotic orchids.
The  crimes are always murder, but rarely are they  bloody. The great appeal is the banter between Archie Goodwin and his boss, as Archie goads his boss into taking  cases he would rather not, as his preference is to eat, read and tend his orchids.  Seeing Nero Wolfe though the irreverent eyes of his employee is where the real fun is in these books, as he watches his boss untangle crimes, who usually several steps ahead of the reader.
The author's genius is having two detectives to watch while reading his book. This is one reason the books have such a cult following, the detail that has gone into developing the characters, as well as the interesting and clever plots.  
I, fortunately or unfortunately am a speed reader, so that summer I read all of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries in only six months. Then, I set to rereading them. I have read all of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective novels at least 15 times each, as the wit and the clever writing makes them fun to read and go back to. The plots are intricate enough that I often forget who the murderer is, so the exposure of the murderer is still a surprise, on the 16 reading. And it is irresistible to read all of them, start over and read them again. I have done this, as recently as last year.
There have been several adaptions of these novels on the small screen. Only a few of these have been that good. The best way to enjoy these books is to read a few and see if you get the pleasurable addiction that I got.
Of his 37 titles, I would recommend starting with a late one, The Doorbell Rang, written in about 1964.  This one is especially clever, as the author wove a real book into the pages of this fictional one, a nonfiction political expose wrote a year earlier called The FBI Nobody Knows. This book includes all the main characters, and has a good plot twist in the middle. It also reveals the author's annoyance at the over powerful head of the FBI.   Other titles of his that are very good include Some Buried Caesar, The Black Mountain, Over My Dead Body, Too Many Cooks and any of the short story collections.
Next time I will recommend some of my favorite nonfiction, mostly history, and science books. I have a long list of both that I read more than once, that reward looking into, and are guaranteed not to bore.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Monday, July 9, 2012

Leisure and unemployment: What happens when the work disappears

by John MacBeath Watkins

When I was in grad school, there was a professor in the Political Science department whose work was about the leisure she assumed would be produced as society adopted ever more labor-saving devices.

Cynic that I am, I presumed that this leisure would be consumed as unemployment. And it is, for certain people.

The above chart comes from a blog called Race Against the Machine. It seems to me that it illustrates that this is exactly what has been happening.

I'm thinking I'll follow this site, because these fellows have gone to the trouble to write a whole book on the topic.

From  the post where McAfee used the chart above:
So current labor force woes are not because the economy isn’t growing, and they’re not because companies aren’t making money or spending money on equipment. They’re because these trends have become increasingly decoupled from hiring — from needing more human workers.
 What does a society look like, where many workers are displaced from their former employment and the wealth is concentrated in a few hands? Perhaps a bit like the world that produced England's stately homes. That's the world in which my namesake, John MacBeath, left a fishing and crofting village that no longer appears on most maps (Cuaig, about 10 miles north of Applecross) to operate a small boat as a ferry at Inverness.  In that world, my great grandmother, Jean Ann MacBeath, went into service as a maid of all work at a house in Woolford Green, and married the gardener, Edmund Watkins. My father wrote a bit about it here.

Fishing and crofting was not a great life. I sail small, open wooden boats because I like to. John MacBeath sailed them because he had to. Yes, those traditional Scottish yoles were great boats, but there was tremendous loss of life in every fishing community I know of, on every body of water. You get a feel for it when you're reading about the great fishing schooners of the grand banks. No doubt the move to Inverness gave more opportunity for John MacBeath's daughter to be educated; my MacBeath relatives spell the name three different ways, no doubt because much of the family only became literate in the late 19th century.

People were one of Scotland's greatest exports for a very long time. Becoming a maid of all work may not have seemed a step up for his daughter, but it allowed her to marry a gardener who had some education -- Edmund was said to be very proud of his library, and would no doubt be proud to know that his great grandson is a bookseller.

Let's face it, fishing is the last remnant of the hunter-gatherer way of life that all humanity used to engage in. And moving from farming and fishing into service in a rich household allowed my Gammie to live to be 96 years old, with such a forceful personality that her grandson was named after her father.

But her labor as a farming and fishing wife was not required. I doubt staying in that situation was an option. But Edmund Watkins and Jean (MacBeath) Watkins came to America as part of a servant class, to work for a family I believe was named Linklater in a capacity that in modern America would be taken by immigrants from Mexico or some other place that is in fact wealthier than 19th century Scotland.

Now let's look at how we are doing at present. Are the fishers and crofters of today (perhaps factory workers) as employable as ever?

Here's a chart Matthew Yglesias provides us:

The headline for the accompanying post is "Male Employment Never Recovers From Recessions." And he's right.

How are males enjoying their leisure?

A lot of them are cooling their heels in prison.

Others are simply unemployed, perhaps unemployable. And those who are in prison? Perhaps, being otherwise unemployable, they sought some way to get a little cash. They knew it wasn't right, but they lacked options.

I remember a hard man with a scarred face trying to sell me books that I wouldn't buy, because I figured they were stolen. They didn't fit with who he was, and they looked new.

"I'm just trying to do something where I don't hurt anybody," he said.

I said what can I do, I got a business to run, I can't be buying this stuff. He went away, and I don't know what he did then. 

He had a strong back, and he didn't want to go back to prison. He didn't want to hurt anyone anymore, that seemed important to him. There was a time when he could have worked in a factory, or worked in the woods the way my grandpa Brunson did, or my dad and my uncles did as young men.

I've worked in factories, in fact, I've worked with men a lot like him, men who missed work not because they were sick but because they were in jail for a few days. I don't miss factories, I can tell you that, but I'll bet that guy would have preferred one to the kind of options available to him.

So how do we work this? Leisure should be a good thing, but for too many, there's no money to go with that leisure. So here's a song to go out on.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sex, death, and the selfish meme

by John MacBeath Watkins

In theory, the first bacteria to appear on earth is still alive. It has divided billions of times and adapted to new environments, and billions of its cells have fallen to immune systems or other hostile environments, but it has been able to change without dying.

Creatures like us, who reproduce sexually, cannot manage to rearrange our genes so readily. To adapt to an ever-changing environment of bacteria and other changes in our environment, we had to find another way change our genetic structure quickly. While it might be more efficient for all the members of a species to be child-bearing, we cannot afford to reproduce parthenogenically because we need to adapt our genetic structure by mixing our genes. We must reproduce and die off to keep up in the evolutionary battle with other organisms such as bacteria.

Richard Dawkins, in his influential book, The Selfish Gene, argued that in essence that makes individuals the servants of their genes. Genes are biological strings of information that use us to reproduce; a mother that lays down her life to save her children is acting in the interest of passing on her genes, even at the expense of her own existence.

In that same volume, Dawkins gave us another concept; the meme, a string of information that uses the minds of human beings to replicate itself. The implication is that if you lay down your life for an idea, you are acting in the interest of the selfish meme. We have, in fact, an existence in a symbolic world that is nearly as important to us as our physical existence.

This is important in our society because we live in a new Gilded Age, in which an ideology much like social Darwinism minus the bogus biology has taken root. It justifies great social inequity based on the notion that we should be selfish, that greed is the way the world works and successfully greedy and selfish people are to be admired. In the war of each against all, they are the victors.

In part, this is the just world fallacy applied to an unequal society, a Panglossian approach to bad outcomes. In this fantasy, the world rewards those who deserve to be rewarded, so the existence of their wealth is evidence of their virtue, and we live in the best of all possible worlds. But it has also become a meme in its own right, taking over minds like a virus, changing behavior like some parasites do, and ensuring its continued existence even at the cost of the host organism.

Mind you, our minds are in large part made of memes -- they are the software in our brains. But there is code and there is code. Sometimes, memes are malicious code intended to serve those who write it. Agnotology, the science of producing ignorance, is one example of this. The Soviet effort to distribute copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the middle east to make any effort toward peace less likely to succeed  is the meme equivalent of Stuxnet. They were in essence hacking Muslim culture instead of their computers.

In any case, the existence of the selfish meme means that self-sacrifice to continue the meme that makes us who we are makes as much sense as self-sacrifice to continue the genes that make us who we are.

This makes a mockery of Ayn Rand's thesis in The Virtue of Selfishness that altruism is destructive and one should never sacrifice one's self for others.

From the Ayn Rand Institute website:

Manevery manis an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life. Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruismthe claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
Yet why would every man be an end in himself? His end will come soon enough, and his children and his impact on the minds of others will carry on who he is into the future. Self-sacrifice in the service of the survival of his genes and his memes is entirely rational, far more rational, in fact, than actions compatible with any commonly understood definition of selfishness. It is certainly more rational than rejecting any claim that morality consists of living for others or for society.

The question is not whether we should sometimes put the greater good ahead of ourselves. The question is, what memes do we allow to be part of ourselves, and strive to pass on as part of our legacy? A meme that says doing things well is both satisfying and useful will lead to greater success for any descendents and intellectual followers we might leave behind.

But as Stanley Milgram's famous experiment showed, people will do great evil if they think it serves the greater good. You don't get death camps, killing fields, or suicide bombers in societies where everyone is acting selfishly, you get them in societies where a malicious meme has taken hold. Marx made the mistake of thinking that because religion has done bad things, the solution was to get rid of religion, and because property has been the source of much misery, the solution was to get rid of property. Rand made the same mistake with religion, and substituted altruism for property in the things she wished to dispose of.

But religion, property, and altruism are all useful things for a society to have. It is because they are powerful and necessary that they have to capacity to do great harm or great good. They must be challenged to show that they are doing good instead of harm, but to assume that they must be done away with is akin to thinking software is bad because some software is malicious.

edited to add:

A couple of implications have occurred to me since I first wrote this. Since a certain amount of selflessness is needed to assure the reproduction of your genes and memes, I've come up with John's Law: Nature abhors an asshole.

In addition, there is a special case where the ethics of Ayn Rand might make sense. If the individual won't die, and can go on forever, as the bacteria referred to earlier, it might make sense for such an individual to act selfishly at all times. It is the philosophy of the childless.

Which means that Ayn Rand developed an ethical system suitable for bacteria, but not for people.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
On being a ghost in a soft machine