What I’d Do at Night in the Museum

May 30, 2009 at 12:00 pm (By Amba)

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Divided We Fall

May 29, 2009 at 4:18 pm (By Maxwell James)

The recent conversation on self-sufficiency got me thinking about the division of labor in society. At least since Adam Smith, it has been taken for granted that an increasing division of labor is a net positive – it leads to increasing specialization, productivity, and hence wealth for all. Even Marx did not really question this argument – his theory of alienation challenged it somewhat, but he never proposed that a society with decreasing division of labor would be superior.

Because of that, it’s been striking to me how much of the ambiance of this blog has circulated around issues of self-sufficiency. If the division of labor in a society continually increases, it follows that self-sufficiency will continually decrease. More and more work that might have been done on an individual basis gets “outsourced” to firms that can do it faster, better, cheaper, and individuals therefore focus their lives on a narrower and narrower range of tasks.

Is it possible that we’ve arrived at a point where there is now too much division of labor? If so, how could we remedy that?

~ Maxwell

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May 29, 2009 at 12:59 pm (By Maxwell James)

For those with time on their hands: the Edmund Andrews story, which I linked to a little over a week ago, has gotten even more interesting (hat tip to Randy). First, Megan McArdle noted an important omission from his story: his wife had filed for bankruptcy twice before, including as late as 2007. She also argued that his book, more so than the Times’ article I linked to, attempts to place the blame for their troubles more squarely on the shoulders of the mortgage industry.

Andrews and The New York Times ombudsman responded; you can read Brad DeLong and Maguire return the volley with a dose of invective. McArdle considers Andrews’ explanation here. Meanwhile, early reviews of his book at Amazon are pretty negative.

Also: for those still following the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies, the head of the NCEO clarifies that the equity shares granted to UAW do not in fact constitute employee ownership. I’m glad for the clarification.

~ Maxwell

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Tim Pawlenty’s One-Man Tea Party

May 29, 2009 at 10:14 am (By Amba) (, , , , )

Talk about bucking a trend:  In a state with a high sense of entitlement to entitlements, and a liberal legislature poised to jack up taxes to keep the goodies flowing, a lone Republican governor has declared an executive High Noon.

This is the debut scoop reported by my friend of over 40 years, the Prairie Editor, Barry Casselman, a conservative-centrist independent journalist, former columnist for the Washington Times, as well as a poet, playwright, and food reviewer, who has finally, finally, FINALLY (after much nagging from me and others) put up a website and blog.  Barry broke the news of Pawlenty’s groundbreaking coup a couple of weeks before the national media noticed it:

DFL [Democratic-Farmer-Labor] legislative leaders argued over how large the tax increases would be, and who would pay for them. It was expected that most of the taxes would fall on those with highest incomes and on businesses. But the DFL legislature (in its hubris?) went a further step, and decided it would propose tax increases across the board. Pawlenty vowed none of them would get past his desk. Probably short of enough votes to override most of his vetoes, DFLers angled for an end-of-session showdown, assuming Pawently would have to compromise on the tax issue to avoid another very unpopular special session. […]

Then Pawlenty dropped a political bombshell.

Invoking his constitutional powers, Pawlenty said there would be no new taxes and no special session, If the DFL did not cut spending to his liking, he would use his power of line item veto and the little used executive right of “unallotment” to balance the budget unilaterally. The legislature, if this happened, would not be able to override the governor, and his new budget would automatically take effect. […]

On Monday night at midnight, the current session ended. The DFL majorities defiantly passed legislation to balance the budget by raising significant new taxes. The governor then stated he would veto the legislation and keep his promise to balance the budget himself, and not call a special session.

The dimensions of Pawlenty’s action are not yet visible, but it is a rare and potentially huge victory for those who want reduce the size, influence and financial cost of government.

It’s a pleasure to be able to announce the online debut of BarryCasselman.com with such an important and heartening story.  Read the whole thing.

Barry’s editorial archives — a strong body of centrist coverage and commentary — and some of his current writings are available on a subscription basis (his coverage of the 2008 elections can be sampled at the Washington Times archives; particularly prescient are  “Buyer’s Remorse About Obama?” and “Newt and the ‘Pygmies’“), while the blog, to be called Prairie Editor, will be front-page as soon as they learn how to ride WordPress.  Design and format are still in beta; grant patience to us lifelong Gutenbergistas.  The three categories are “Food,” “Poetry,” and “Politics;” other possible topics range from national and local history (Barry talks Lincoln with Newt and shares an Erie, PA background and friendship with Tom Ridge) to music and Spanish poetry and philosophy.  (Hey, we need a blogroll here at Ambiance; officially open for nominations from blogmates and commenters.)

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The Mis[t]ery of Writing [UPDATED AGAIN]

May 28, 2009 at 10:58 am (By Amba) (, )

It’s been long enough since I tried to do any “real” writing (where you conceive something in your head and then try to execute it, and of course it won’t hold still for its portrait) that I’d forgotten the wisdom of my “Note to self:  don’t go there.”

It’s only a blog-essay on the Hubble for my dust-gathering Natural History blog (which died for lack of time and lack of feedback), so it doesn’t quite have to meet the high formal standards of a “real real” essay, to be chiseled into print.  But it sucked me in nonetheless — because I’m enthralled by the Hubble and think its imagery is probably a turning point in human evolution, etc. blah, blah, blah — and I vanished from the “real” world.  The feeling was in every way like nodding off while driving and feeling my hands evaporate off the wheel, the driver’s seat suddenly go empty.  Not least, it’s up to me to keep our life on the road and I can’t let myself be ravished away from the controls.

But there I was yesterday, obsessively reading and linking to more and more, not even caring to tweet or look at my e-mail, struggling to keep formal control of the unwieldy, metastasizing thing, and at the same time feeling driven to be done with it so I could/before I could return to my maintenance and other responsibilities.  Both J and the household deteriorate alarmingly fast when neglected.  Someone I’ve been urging to blog literally for years has finally begun, and announcing it can’t wait either.

Now I remember why I made a pact with myself not to try to “really write” while taking care of J.  Fact checking is bad enough — it has a fainter version of the same obsessive quality, the contradictory drives to overdo it and to get it over with — but while fact checking takes time and attention, it doesn’t take a fraction of the energy writing does.  Writing is like being a spider and spinning a web out of your own guts; it’s like welding with an acetylene distilled by your liver.  It takes it out of you.  To create order that did not exist before defies entropy, which requires a disproportionate input of energy, and that energy is sucked out of your own lower belly. The few times I’ve broken my rule and “really written” something under this regime, I’ve felt drastically drawn and drained.  Dracula is blamed.

Meanwhile, you’re driven by the certainty that any minute, the thing you’re trying to get down will get away, or dissolve and change shape.  (Writing is probably a lot like hunting in the jungle.  If the prey were made of mercury.)  You need to focus on its pursuit with laserlike exclusivity.  You cannot divide your attention or spare a scintilla of your energy.  Interruptions are much worse than annoying, they’re tragic and enraging.  And all this is wildly out of proportion; it’s all for something that doesn’t even need to be written.  (The more I find has already been written about the Hubble in the same vein, the more I have a sense of redundancy.  So then I want to link it all, on the equally false assumption that others are as obsessed as I am.)   At best, a few people will read it and be fleetingly entertained or stimulated.  My need to write it meets no complementary need in the world; if I didn’t do it, no one would know or care.

Meanwhile, J is weak.  A phase?  Or a trend?  Who knows?  All I know is that it’s a vicious cycle.  The harder it is to get him up, the less he wants to get up, and the less I want to struggle to get him up, and the more I yield to escapism.  But the less he gets up, the weaker he gets.

I need a nap.

UPDATE: On the other hand . . .

. . . (and this point almost always comes, always preceded and paid for by misery; why can’t we remember that??) it’s so neat when it starts to come right . . .

UPDATE II: Now it’s done, and of course I’m soaring (probably also disproportionate) and wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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Star Maps [UPDATED]

May 27, 2009 at 1:13 pm (By Amba)

[S]ociety can never hope to settle down as in past ages. The social ship has steamed out of the sheltered bays of established tradition and has begun its cruise upon the high seas of evolutionary destiny; and the soul of man, as never before in the world’s history, needs carefully to scrutinize its charts of morality and painstakingly to observe the compass of religious guidance. The paramount mission of religion as a social influence is to stabilize the ideals of mankind during these dangerous times of transition from one phase of civilization to another, from one level of culture to another.

What the heck is the Urantia book?  A bizarre mixture of good sense and nonsense:

[T]he greatest error of the teaching about the Scriptures is the doctrine of there being sealed books of mystery and wisdom which only the wise minds of the nation dare to interpret. The revelations of divine truth are not sealed except by human ignorance, bigotry, and narrow-minded intolerance. The light of the Scriptures is only dimmed by prejudice and darkened by superstition. A false fear of sacredness has prevented religion from being safeguarded by common sense. The fear of the authority of the sacred writings of the past effectively prevents the honest souls of today from accepting the new light of the gospel, the light which these very God-knowing men of another generation so intensely longed to see.

* * *

The Urantia Book teaches us that there are three planets near us that are suitable to harbor life, but perhaps not intelligent life, as we know it. However, there MAY BE intelligent life on some of the moons in our solar system.

Even if a planetary moon may appear to have no familiar attributes that would support life as we know it on Earth, it may yet be able to support life-forms that are unlike us, for example, the nonbreathers. The nonbreathers are a fascinating group, and they are mortals like us, except that they are not Adjuster-fused. Their lives are very different from our own, as you will see if you follow the links.

We are told in The Urantia Book that there are nine moons in our local universe which can support the nonbreather type of life, and, intriguingly, “You would be more than interested in the planetary conduct of this type of mortal because such a race of beings inhabits a sphere in close proximity to Urantia.” p564:2(49:3.6)

A brave if sometimes screwy attempt to carry Christian wisdom into an expanded universe.

UPDATE:  Related, crazy stuff:

In short, there are two and only two options.  1. You learn to accept the mythic dimensions of yourself (whatever your particular views on God, no God, or whatever) and learn to transmute them.  You learn in other words, as Ricoeur said, to have a second naivete.  You take them with an “as if” quality.  First naivete or actual mythic faith takes the mythic stories as literally/concretely true as Myers, Hitchens, and Dawkins do with their atheist myth.  Numerous theistic fundamentalists could be brought up as examples as well (Pat Robertson, Bill Donahue, etc. etc.). 2. Or you continue to bumble around castigating others for the speck of myth in their eye while never noticing the giant plank of unconscious myth coming forth from yours.

But what myth to teach?  The prime difficulty an atheist religion will have if it tries to translate downward into a mythic form in a honest self-conscious manner is that it is hard to form new myths after the rise of the scientific-critical age.  Just ask The Mormons. Since the Jewish & Christian myths have such a long history they have that piece of Universe Property pretty well in hand. Which is why attempts to generate counter-myths in Western history almost always (if not always) end up parroting the Jewish-Christian myth:  e.g. communism’s ideal state as a secularized version of the myth of the Millennium.  Same with liberal capitalism’s argument for the inevitable land of wealth, peace, and liberty when all adopt those mechanisms of economics and governance (”The End of History”).

Probably the best version of an atheist mythos would be to mythicize the up to date scientific story of Creation.  You don’t need a god/God for that story but properly done it evokes awe, wonder, care, and humility (the best responses to good myth).  It isn’t opposed to religious understandings of the same story–i.e. not a militant anti-theistic atheistic spirituality–though it doesn’t have to be subsumed by the classic religious Western myth either.  It makes science, rightly done, a worshipful devotional act (read: 2nd naivete) without worshiping science. And lastly as a good myth it will need to deal with the question of evil, finitude, and death.  Given that 99+% of all species ever in existence have gone extinct, this worldview is soaked in death (as well as creative rebirth).

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“Oh, Baby, Look At That.”

May 26, 2009 at 10:59 pm (By Amba) (, , )

The Atlantis shuttle crew releases the repaired and upgraded Hubble Space Telescope.

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The Biggest Danger to Our Freedom … [UPDATED YET AGAIN]

May 23, 2009 at 1:21 am (By Amba) (, , , )

. . . is, it strikes me, our incompetence.

The inability of so many of us (in the societal sense of “us”) to take care of ourselves, if we had to, in the most basic, practical ways; our dependence on the electrical grid (I felt so stupid reflexively flipping switches during the last power blackout), on experts, on supermarkets and the vast supply systems that fill them . . . this is at the root of “our” willingness to be taken care of and taken charge of by government.  It has trained us not to be the masters of our own lives, to be needy, willing, dependent.

Participating in these vast systems makes us at once more and less powerful and free.  We do not, each household of us, have to spend our days splitting wood and canning fruit, duplicating these basic survival activities and having little time or energy left to get beyond them.  We have recreational and intellectual lives that were limited to ancient aristocrats — or to children in the century or so since nonworking “childhood” was invented.  No wonder we grow up so late.  The educated “elites” can be particularly — harsh word — parasitic in this regard.

I remember visiting Romania in the 1970s and being astonished by the number of Jacques’ friends and relatives who, as a matter of course, and of necessity, could build, wire, and plumb a house, maintain their own cars, make their own booze, hunt and gather wild food and medicinal plants in the woods, raise and butcher pigs and chickens (callous skills my dislike of which I knew to be a luxury), and (the women) preserve food, cook and bake on a wood stove, make and repair their own clothing.  These were traditional skills that had not yet been lost in that country village, and they were a way that people preserved their independence under Communist privation and tyranny.

I wonder whether basic physical competence tends to breed political conservatism and independence.  People who can take care of themselves would rather be left alone to do so.  There were certainly a good number of American hippies who moved to the country with idealized dreams of self-sufficiency.  A lot of them came back.  Of those who stayed, and became genuinely competent, did their politics change?  Maybe not.  That would make short work of my theory.  But I wonder if many didn’t need to learn from their neighbors and end up learning more than just how to.

If you could put together a short course in basic survival skills, what would the essential ones be?  What would you equip people with to restore their sense that they could take care of themselves if they had to?  Do you think it would change their outlook on life?  Or can such things not be taught in abstraction from actual lived life?

UPDATE: In my inbox just now and surprisingly apropos, the New York Times waxes nostalgic for manual labor:

[N]ow as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses. . . . what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it?

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass.

[T]here is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their
natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. This was something of a regression: I worked on cars throughout high school and college, and one of my early jobs was at a Porsche repair shop. Now I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the work, and it got me thinking about possible livelihoods.

UPDATE II:  In the comments, Edgewise.Sigma links to a proposal for a Museum of Skills — what would really amount to a video library of how-to manuals, as Icepick almost suggested, also in the comments.  (Ice said you would need to be able to read, but in some increasingly postliterate, shoot-me-a-YouTube sectors of our world, video would be safer, and having a known library of these would solve the problem of where to find them.)

People have been pointing out the disaster if the skills of farmers are lost as they are driven from the land. Other skills are being lost as our industries go off-shore. What of all the other skills we will need if ever we must defend our shores or can no longer import everything except restaurants and real estate?

We need videos made of all the skills that are disappearing, before the factories, tools, and workpeople are gone. The Arts Councils, or some other body, should divert their less urgent funding into ensuring that as each skill disappears overseas, some tangible and video record is kept so it can be resurrected if necessary. There could even be a register of surviving skillspersons – and an annual march of survivors – people who know how to make yarn or boots or a sewing machine or an electric kettle or a hotwater bottle . . or how to make machines to make them . .. There could be a television program, and libraries could have DVDs.

The author of this proposal is Valerie Yule.  And she turns out to be a completely fascinating 80-year-old Australian psychologist!  Described as “a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues,” she has a lot to say — bluntly, concisely — about the state of the world.

UPDATE III:Civilization . . . is a prison . . . but you get American Idol and Cool Ranch Doritos, so it’s not that bad.”

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Cheney Vs. Obama

May 22, 2009 at 5:22 pm (By Amba) (, , )

This will sound weird, but what really bothers me most of all about Obama is that he looks like a kid.  His physical type is that of a permanent smart-ass teenager.  In much the same way, what bothered me most about Bush was that he was small, “too small for the job.”  Like Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with the sleeves of the wizard’s robe overshooting his hands.  In both cases, the physical seems to stand for something beyond the physical.  In different ways, neither man had the gravitas, the weight, for the job.

Bush could be humble, and he could be smug — sure he was right without caring to know much.  Obama can be “open” and searching, but arrogant — sure he knows a lot and that that’s more important than being right.  They typify the two inadequate responses so far to the flood of new information from science, IT, and globalization:  just letting it all go by and not move you an inch, or letting yourself get carried away from all solid ground. Rigidity and floppiness.

But this post was supposed to be about Obama vs. Cheney.

The one thing you sure can’t say about Cheney is that he lacks gravitas.  He’s a heavy dude.

I commented on Twitter that the reason, or one reason, I think Obama is retaining so many Bush policies is because he’s really afraid of getting the blame for another terrorist attack.  And he will, if it happens.  We’ll never really know the backstory of the long hiatus without attacks, or of an attack if one happens.  We do know that al Qaeda takes long, patient years to prepare, and we suspect that they don’t want to do less than match or, better, top themselves.  If there is an attack, we’ll never know if it would’ve happened regardless of who was in the Oval Office.  It doesn’t matter.  The human brain in fear seeks bright, clear explanations, and under those circumstances the Republicans’ will be better.

A terrorist attack on Obama’s watch would in one sense be a ripe fruit falling into the Republicans’ lap.  No, I certainly don’t think they’re hoping for it.  I do think their worldview leads them to expect it, and if it happens, it will vindicate their worldview.  It doesn’t matter if the reality is more complicated than that.  Complexity is a luxury.

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The Change We’ll Pay For (Next Year)

May 19, 2009 at 2:37 pm (By Maxwell James) ()

Many readers of this blog probably remember a time, a little over twenty years ago, when credit cards all charged annual fees with standardized 18% APRs and no silly little freebies. That all changed in the late eighties and early nineties, when Capital One pioneered the use of computerized risk models in the industry. This allowed their company to offer customized cards with terms based on the individual credit history of card owners. This in turn led to a widespread burgeoning of the US credit card industry, as other companies followed suit, and large numbers of consumers previously ignored by the industry became credit card users for the first time.

Well, it looks like that period of history may be over. The US Senate just overwhelmingly passed a number of new regulations limiting the ability of credit card companies to make money off of credit card users who carry a balance from one month to the next. Which means that to survive, the industry will have to find a way to instead make money off of credit card users who do pay their balances off each month. That means a return to annual fees, shorter grace periods, and probably less credit extended to consumers of lesser means.

I have mixed feelings about this development. On the one hand, by making the bulk of its money off of consumers who were either cash-strapped or financially undereducated, the credit card industry has always been dancing on the edge of a knife. People who don’t have a lot of liquid assets, and/or who struggle to manage them, are always going to be a higher risk for default. And “responsible” credit card users who pay off their balances every month are probably never going to be worth that much to the industry. They’ve gotten used to having their credit cards for free, and if the terms change too much for their liking, will just stop using the cards. They don’t need them enough.

On the other hand, for people of lesser means to have credit at all is a very meaningful development in the history of the human race. You can make a reasonable argument that the extension of consumer credit in the developed world is of a piece with the breakthrough of microfinance in the developing world. Credit cards do fund a lot of wasteful purchasing, but they aren’t just used to buy “stuff” in the United States; they also fund start-up businesses all the time. Used carefully, they can enable people to fend for themselves while trying to live out their dreams. What could be more American than that?

At the beginning of this blog Rod asked if we have changed. Perhaps not yet. But this strikes me as a genuine harbinger.

~ Maxwell

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