Thursday, November 28, 2013

Freedom in an Unfree World

Government regulations, taxes, international crises, burning issues, social restrictions … You can feel enclosed by despair. Harry Browne’s 1973 classic How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World explores fifteen common traps that people allow to limit their personal freedom. Browne (1933–2006) was the Libertarian Party candidate for President in 1996 and 2000. He made his name in 1970 with How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation. Browne followed that with other books on investment strategy, and eventually on political theory. Like many libertarians, he was influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand.

Browne follows the hierarchy of philosophy, getting to politics by way of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
I bought it in 1973; and 
got it autographed in 1995.

The first snare is the Identity Trap. Things have identities and so do people. We generally do well enough with physical reality. Our personal problems are another matter. Browne delineates two aspects of the Identity Trap: “(1) believing that you should be someone other than yourself; and (2) the assumption that others would do things in the way you would.” Browne also juxtaposes the Intellectual and Emotional Traps. Morality becomes a trap for people who accept some given universal or absolute system without investigating what morality is and why they need it and then discovering and developing their own.

Forty years after the publication of this book, with sales of over 50 books by and about Ayn Rand at 40 million copies, it is easy enough to find self-interested people. Millions of them still feel trapped by government, by regulations, taxes, and burning issues. They seek solutions in political groups, protests, and campaigns to find freedom by denouncing oppression. It cannot work. Browne demonstrates better ways for you to find freedom for yourself by untangling yourself from the Government Trap, Group Trap, the Utopia Trap, the Burning Issues Trap, and the Rights Trap. Identify the true costs and potential benefits of your previous investments in people and society and you can get out of the box of false certainty.

In Part II, Browne suggests ways to gain freedom from government, bad relationships (including a bad marriage), family problems, financial insecurity, and exploitation on the economic treadmill.

In Part III, he ties the arguments together to outline the steps that you can take to make your life what you want, according to your own morality.

The book is easy to read. It is plain and conversational. The insights are deep, cogent, and prescient. For all the headline news, not much has changed in forty years, except perhaps that life has gotten better, a claim that finds no resonance with those who are trapped by taxes, regulations, bureaucracies, an invasion of illegal aliens, unwarranted searches by unconstitutional agencies engaged in shakedowns and shoot-ups, to say nothing of the immanent collapse of civilization whether or not Iran gains atomic weapons. But that is why this book was written. Anyone who wants to discover their self-interest and live their own life will find this book to be time well invested with a man who knew a lot about investments.


Friday, November 22, 2013

City Air Makes You Free

The city is literally civilization.  Cities - not nations or American “states” - are the engines of creation and progress. Geniuses can be born anywhere; but they come to the city. Farming is everyone’s bread and butter, but cities buy their foods from all the farms in the world. Agriculture was invented in the first cities as a consequence of division of labor in an industrial society. While dressed as a federal union of disparate states, the American republic is culturally a very large city. 
  • The City by Max Weber (Translated and edited by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth), Collier Books, 1962.
  • The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1969.

Chase Tower left and Comerica right in Austin
Max Weber investigated the fundamental sociology of the city, given that cities have different origins. Some began as armed camps, others as markets, production centers, consumption centers, or extensions of the household of the strongest local warlord.  However established, the essential function of the successful city is to be a marketplace.

Today, we accept the plurality of cultures in a modern city, but it was a radical idea that you could disassociate from your family and form new bonds with co-workers and customers in guilds and the fraternities, regardless of their own ethnic origins.  Cities always have attracted distant people.  Athens prospered because of the metics, free Greeks from other cities, but forever non-citizens within Athens. 

In the Middle Ages, if you could evade your manor lord for a year within the city walls, you were free.  On the other hand, everyone was expected to contribute to the defense of the city.  Men who work for a living have no time for training, so the city depended on firearms for protection: easy to use and devastating against an attacker.

Also in the ancient city and paradigmatic to the medieval city, political power rested within an elected council.  Democracy and urbanism are intimately related.  Also in the medieval city, women were enfranchised. The city erased previous classes, patrician and plebian, granted that it created new statuses. While some of them were heritable, most were not.

Reading Weber through modern eyes, it is easy to find all of those elements and many others within the society of the United States of America.  We are literally a bourgeois (burgher) society, a nation of cities. That is also the underlying thesis in Jane Jacobs’s The Economy of Cities. 

Frost Tower
Her major premise is that groups of hunters came together at fixed sites which became permanent trading settlements. Division of labor was an inevitable consequence.  From that, agriculture and herding became distinct occupations. This created the crossbred hybrids that we associate with the agricultural revolution.  Gardening requires land and soon farmers moved outside the cities.  Jacobs marshals her evidence and concludes the first chapter with an easy challenge.  Today, electricity is critical to the city and the largest electrical production factories are found in rural areas. In some distant future wrong-thinking archaeologists might conclude that electricity was invented on farms and exported as surplus to cities.  In fact we know that plows, tractors, fertilizers, everything that a farms needs is produced in cities. Jacobs argues that this has always been true.

Moving forward, she explains how complex divisions of labor come from new work invented to supplement existing products and services. She discusses the industries of Birmingham, England, contrasting them with Manchester.  To frame her presentation, she begins with the brassiere.  Invented by Ida Rosenthal, it epitomized the commerce of the city. First, it was a secondary product: as a dressmaker, Rosenthal was searching for a specific solution. Then, it became an independent product according to division of labor; and it spawned subsidiary industries in metal fasteners needed for production. Most subtly, the Maidenform Bra did not meet the needs of Ida Rosenthal’s clients: they would have preferred to keep their dressmaker, rather than have her abandon them for a new enterprise. 

Multiplied by hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions, that is the story of the city.

Cities enjoy explosive growth when many different kinds of enterprises come together in one place. Some succeed; many fail.  The creation of new work is the engine that pumps life into the city. Let its economy become dependent on a single industry and contraction, recession, and depression cannot be avoided.  Any city that enjoys and encourages an uncontrolled riot of many disparate economic activities will survive and thrive.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Neal Adams at Dragons Lair

Neal Adams was in town for Comic Con, signing his art at our favorite comics and fantasy store Dragons Lair.  If you are not a fan of comics, then you do not know the radical and innovative work that Adams brought to the industry.  It is enough to say that of all the great artists of the Silver Age, he worked as an independent contractor to both Marvel and DC. See Wikipedia here.

I bought an autographed print of this for my wife 
who, as a systems security professional, 
is a fan of Batman.

Neal Adams explains the pricing
to fans at Dragons Lair
in Austin, November 20, 2013

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Stadtluft macht frei

"City air makes you free" is a secular prayer from the Middle Ages. If a serf could evade re-capture for a year and a day, the manor lord's bond was broken. Freedom is the ability to choose; and the city offers a multiplicity of choices. You can make yourself anew in the city. We do not question the fact that in our popular culture, all of the superheroes have secret identities and live in cities: Superman's Metropolis; Bruce Wayne in Gotham; The Green Arrow in Star City; Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West, and Bart Allen in Keystone City... 

Frost Tower from the Scarbrough Building

Bank of America Building from the Scarbrough Building

The Littlefield Building from the Scarbrough Building.
In 1910 they competed to be the tallest,
though limited by law not to surpass
the State Capitol.  The Littlefield is Beaux Arts.
In 1930 the Scarbrough was updated to an
Art Deco interior.
The German word is Wolkenkratzer: Cloudscraper.
Around Austin
Austin at Night
Formulas for Success
South by Southwest 2013
Images from SXSW 2013
South by Southwest 2012

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Minimizing the Likelihood of Bad Cops

Recent stories touted by Glenn Beck and flashing across the patriotic blogosphere tell of egregious transgressions by city police officers.  Put your search engine to work on "police violence" or "police corruption" and like the paradox of the marching Chinese, the stories will continue to appear faster than you can read them all.  But the fact is that typically a police officer candidate submits about 40 pages of background in an application. After that investigation, after passing an accredited academy, and after probationary periods and required reviews, some sheep stray from the fold.  Is it the individuals, or the system, or something deeper?

My first class in criminology in 2005 was "Ethics for Criminal Justice" at Washtenaw Community College.  Initially, the syllabus said that we were going to look at police corruption in New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina hit, and our instructor wanted to give the city time to recover.  The irony is inescapable.

In 2008, completing a bachelor of science in criminology at Eastern Michigan University, I had a required senior class in police organization.  For both that first and last class my research into police corruption found that it is known everywhere, and some places have more of it than others. That opens a sociological or anthropological investigation: why do cultures differ? Physical environment and population can be similar, but outcomes can be pleasantly or horribly disparate.  While police corruption is known in Minneapolis their police force seems to suffer less from moral failures. 

We know at the individual level that female officers write more traffic tickets than do male officers.  Females also have statistically fewer complaints lodged against them by the public.  Education also makes a difference: officers with college education (2-year or 4-year) write more tickets than those with just high school diplomas.  Also, educated officers have fewer complaints lodged against them.  It would seem that the ideal police force would be comprised largely of women with college degrees. 

The Fallibility of Fingerprinting
Junk Criminology in the Courtroom
Eyewitness Testimony: Popper, Wittgenstein, and the Innocence Project
Systemic Injustice
Employee Theft
Criminalistics: Science or Folkway?
A Forensics Bibliography

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Money as Press and Speech

Just as coins spoke the language of politics in ancient Rome, industrial England, and the USA of the antebellum era, paper money also carried political messages.  The notes of the American colonies in revolt announced “American Congress / We are One” and “Mind Your Business” and “When it is over, then we will rest” (Cessante Vento Conquiescemus) and “Issued in Defence of American Liberty”. The North Carolina $40 note of 1778 honored “Freedom of Speech and Liberty of the Press.” 

Atlas on the back of a $50 North Carolina 1778

(Early Paper Money of America, 5th edition, by Eric P. Newman)

Vulture tears bound Prometheus $70  North Carolina 1778. 
(Early Paper Money of America, 5th edition, by Eric P. Newman)

Printers on the back of a 50 kronur Iceland 1981
Iceland has the world's highest literacy level
as measured by
the number of books published per capita
in the native language

Krypho Scholeio: The Secret School
200 drachma Greece 1996
Christians study while living under Muslim domination

10 Forint Hungary 1969 (series of 1957)
Sándor Petőfi participated in the 1848 liberal revolution.
He is considered Hungary's national poet.
Wikipedia here
He also appears on the 50 Pengo of 1932.

Independent Bulgaria's first printing press
on the back of a 50 Leva series 1992
honoring Hristo Danov who was "the Bulgarian Gutenberg"
after liberation from Turkey in 1878.

Antoine de Saint Exupery on the back of a 50 Franc 1993. 
The author of the whimsical Little Prince also wrote about his experiences 
as a mail pilot in Night Flight, and Wind, Sand, and Stars, and other books.
 A friend of Anne Morrow and Charles A. Lindbergh,
Saint Exupery returned to France in 1940 to fly for the Free French.
He was shot down over the Mediterranean.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Raymond Loewy

Today's Google Doodle celebrated the 120th birthday of Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design. 

Raymond Loewy is called “the father of industrial design” for a reason.
He took ugly consumer items — pencil sharpeners, refrigerators — and made them beautiful.
He designed cars that were a decade or more ahead of their time.
He created kitchen appliances, crockery and furniture,
and did design work for Greyhound, the U.S. Postal Service and NASA.

(The website cataloging his work is here.) 
"I waited for the S-1 to pass through at full speed.
I stood on the platform and saw it coming from the distance at 120 miles per hour.
It flashed by me like a steel thunderbolt, the ground shaking under me,
 in a blast of air that almost sucked me into its whirlwind.
Approximately a million pounds of locomotive were crashing through near me.
I felt shaken and overwhelmed by an unforgettable feeling of power,
by a sense of pride at what I had helped to create.
I had, after all, contributed something to a great nation
that had taken me in and that I loved so deeply.
And I had come a long, happy way myself from my start in fashion advertising.
I had found my way of life."
Every artifact speaks to us, reflects us.  Loewy delivered the 20th century.  He was not alone but his sense of vision brought form to thousands of common items.  And they inspired a century of material progress that nurtured and rewarded the common (and largely unstated) belief that we can and will make a wonderful future.

The Genius of Design
Space is the Place: Come to the High Frontier
Jack Kemeny Knew: We Shall Have Computed
The Cure for a Failing Empire
The Science of Liberty

Sunday, November 3, 2013

god is not Great

god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (New York: Twelve, 2007) delivers a coordinated series of complaints with deep merit, each of them fashioned by insight, reason, and experience.  That experience defines the reasons for the insights.

This is Hitchens’s own personal accusation of immorality against all religions. As a prosecutor, he accepts no plea bargaining from the perpetrator.  The crimes committed are documented and often stipulated. Hitchens' begging of us to condemn the malefactor is not enough. For all he cares, ultimately, the guilty should go free lest the innocent suffer unjustly.  While he accuses those who are evil, he grants (always tangentially) that many people live well because of their religions. 

That said, Hitchens remains uncompromising in his charges against Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. (Lesser populations draw fewer references.) At the same time, he advocates for reason, reality, the Enlightenment, and humanism. This is not the perfect book to convert the unenlightened. That claim could only be made for a holy book. 

Ethics and morality are central here. Metaphysics does not get much attention. If the universe – alternate time lines and parallels and all that – the entire Universe is all that exists, then anything outside of existence would not exist.  How could any entity outside of existence create  the universe? That is not one of his points.  Hitchens does cite (page 71) the argument of infinite regression: what created god? He quotes William Ockham page 68 et seq., after taking us to an encounter between Napoleon Bonaparte and Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace had constructed an orrery, a model of the solar system.  “Where is God?” asked the emperor. “I do not need this hypothesis.” (“Je ne pas besoin de cette hypothèse.”)
 Among the many insightful theses about God, the Catholic Encyclopedia cautions us that when we say that a brave man is a lion we understand that as an analogy. So, too, when we say that God is infinite or eternal or all-loving or all-knowing are we only expressing by analogy what we truly cannot understand.  But religionists do not torture and kill people over admitted analogies. They claim absolute knowledge and the right to destroy in the most horrible ways those who disagree with their highly putative assertions. Perhaps some un-analogilizable Aristotlean quintessence was the creator of the hyperspace wormholes traversed by Carl Sagan's Ellie Arroway. Do you believe that such an entity cares about who occupies the Gaza Strip, Northern Ireland, or Tibet?

Traditionally, atheists have a well-known attack in pointing out that other assertions about God are internally contradictory or mutually exclusive. Can God make a stone so big that He cannot lift it? Can God change his mind so that he will not know in advance what he will do next? Omniscience and omnipotence cancel each other. The Catholic Encyclopedia addresses those, also. Hitchens does not. 

He also fails to find the center of the target when admitting to the atrocities committed by communists who were atheists. Any one of Lenin, Stalin, or Mao Zedong, among others, were worse by orders of magnitude than the sum total of all deaths attributed to the Inquisition and the Crusades combined. Though not on the bull's-eye, Hitchens does find the target.
When I was a Marxist, I did not hold my opinions as a matter of faith, but I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered. The concept of historical and dialectic materialism was not an absolute and it did not have any supernatural element, but it did have its messianic element in the idea that an ultimate moment might arrive, and it most certainly had its martyrs and saints and doctinaires and (after a while) its mutually excommunicating rival papacies. It also had its schisms and inquisitions and heresy hunts. I was a member of a dissident sect that admired Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, and I can say definitely that we had our prophets... 
... But there came a time when I could not protect myself, and indeed did not wish to protect myself from the onslaught of reality. Marxism, I conceded, had its intellectual and philosophical and ethical glories, but they were in the past. Something of the heroic period might perhaps be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any guide to the future. In addition, the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them. ... 
...  There are days when I miss my own convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general, I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better, too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.  (Page 151)
Near the end, in Chapter Seventeen, he takes on "An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch 'Case' Against Secularism." There he cites The God that Failed, edited by Richard Crossman, which contains essays by Arthur Koestler, Andre Gide, and other former communists. Hitchens acknowledges that totalitarian ideologies bring religion to earth with central doctrines, orthodoxies, and claims of infallibility.

Although he admitted to finding The Virtue of Selfishness to be the best of Ayn Rand’s works Hitchens had contempt for her fiction and most of what she advocated.  Nevertheless, this from him could have come from her:
“Until relatively recently, those who adopted the clerical path had to pay a heavy price for it. Their societies would decay, their economies would contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would consistently be outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. A country like Afghanistan would simply rot. 
Bad as that was, it became worse on September 11, 2001, when from Afghanistan the holy order was given to annex two famous achievements of modernism – the high-rise building and the jet aircraft – and use them for immolation and human sacrifice. The succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry. Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal those things and use them as a negation.” (page 280)
Hitchens was a rationalist and a materialist. Time and again through all of his writings, he appeals to the critical judgment of his reader.  For Hitchens, writing was a conversation between two people. His thesis here is that many people live well and do good by others often because of their own religious experience; and so do non-religious people.  But only religion can justify the horrors perpetrated since its inception, and can only do so exactly because it is not reasonable, not rational, not logical, not empirical, not evidentiary, and not objectively true.

Previously on Necessary Facts