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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Bitcoin and Venezuela

Instapundit already linked to this, but I found the article very interesting as it finds the intersection of two very, very different topics - a country (Venezuela) destroyed by inept government and the cryptocurrency Bitcoin where the currency is possibly making lives better for at least some people in Venezuela because it can be traded and kept securely at very low cost.

Bitcoin's (legitimate) use has been limited so far because the U.S. dollar is a reasonably stable currency to use even in unstable regimes. But as the U.S. (slowly) follows Venezuela's footsteps into banana republicdom (I had a banana for breakfast again!), there may not be a stable unit of account supported by any country. In which case Bitcoin might save us all by enabling efficient trade in the chaos since it doesn't rely on any government or other bureaucracy and can provide a very stable unit of account.

I hope you enjoy the article!

Monday, November 28, 2016

A New Game

Even though we have all voted, the election continues and it's actually a long and easily contestable path from here to having a President Trump in the White House. To me, the latest maneuvers look like brilliant moves in chess and the political future of the country looks very uncertain.

Jill Stein filed a recount petition in Wisconsin a mere 90 minutes before the filing deadline:
An election recount will take place soon in Wisconsin, after former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein filed a petition Friday with the state’s Election Commission, the first of three states where she has promised to contest the election result.
The move from Stein, who raised millions since her Wednesday announcement that she would seek recounts of Donald Trump’s apparent election victories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, came just 90 minutes before Wisconsin’s 5 p.m. Friday deadline to file a petition.
She raised millions for the Green Party and that in itself is quite clever. Well played, Ms. Stein!
As of Friday evening, Stein’s campaign reported taking in over $5.25 million in recount-related donations — the most by a third-party candidate in history.
But the more brilliant move is the "90 minutes before" part. From what I can tell at this point, Wisconsin will very likely NOT be able to complete the recount before the December 13th deadline:
Wisconsin will almost certainly miss that deadline, since the last recount took more than a month. And that recount was for a state Supreme Court contest where only 1.5 million votes were cast.
If Wisconsin misses the December 19 deadline, the electoral votes may not be counted. 
Stein is going to ask for a hand recount, which will slow the process even further.
Stein is also petitioning for a recount in Michigan and Pennsylvania. With suitable delays, these states may also miss the December 13th deadline, and if so, in combination with Wisconsin, that alone would deprive Trump of enough electors to directly become President. But even if one or more of the states finishes the recount and convenes a meeting for their electors to cast their ballots according to the recounted vote (which, assuming no shenanigans, will still go for Trump), it may enable enough defecting electors (if any, but I'd be surprised if there aren't any at all) to also deprive Trump of the 270 electoral votes he needs.

In the 2000 Florida recount, the US Supreme Court intervened at the last minute (December 12, 2000):
Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the Dec. 12 date will be unconstitutional ... we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering the recount to proceed ... It is obvious that the recount cannot be conducted in compliance with the requirements of equal protection and due process without substantial additional work.
People who are more politically aware than me will have to clarify, but this seemed to me to tell Florida to wrap it up by the deadline (which was the same day as the Court's intervention) and do the best they could by said deadline.

The current Supreme Court could do something similar. However, as you probably remember, at the moment there are only 8 justices and any attempt to decide something could easily be split 4-4 with the Supreme Court doing nothing at all.

So what then? It seems that the House of Representatives would likely decide the Presidency and the Senate would decide the Vice-Presidency. The House and Senate are majority Republican but they don't particularly like Trump. Here's one scenario:
Still if all 3 states fail to make a timely recount and fail to appoint their slate of Trump-Pence electors…then the presidential race will be thrown into the House where each State has one vote. Under Article II and the Twelfth Amendment, Trump has to carry a majority of state delegations (26 of 50). There is a separate quorum requirement: 2/3 of the States (34 of 50) must have one or more members present. Trump can probably meet this bar: 32 of the state delegations in the 115th Congress will have Republican majorities (albeit some are narrow majorities), and 11 other state delegations have 1 or more Republican members. So the Republicans should be able to reach a quorum of 34 States with one or more members present.  
However, if all three 3 states fail to make a timely recount and fail to appoint their slate of Trump-Pence electors…then the vice presidential race will be thrown into the Senate. Under Article II and the Twelfth Amendment, Pence will need a majority of the “whole number” of senators. The Republicans have such a majority. But the Twelfth Amendment also has a quorum requirement: “two-thirds of the whole number of Senators.” [2/3 is 67 of 100 senators, assuming all elected Senators are alive and sworn during the proceedings to select a Vice President.] The Republicans cannot meet this bar, at least not absent Democratic participation. By absenting themselves, the Democrats can block the narrow Senate Republican majority from selecting Pence.
But even the above scenario is not the most chaotic possibility:
Worst or best case situation…depending on your point of view…the Senate fails to elect a Vice President and the House fails to elect a President. How could the latter happen? Paul Ryan will be in the chair. Ryan might delay the vote or he might allow the vote to be delayed by dilatory opposition motions. If something like that should happen, and if no President and no Vice President are elected by the House and by the Senate, respectively, then the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 kicks in…and the acting presidency will fall to…the Speaker of the House (if he chooses to take it), and if the Speaker fails to take it, then to the Senate President Pro Tempore (“SPPT”) (if he chooses to take it), and if they fail to take it, then to cabinet members. By this time, most (perhaps, all) of President Obama’s cabinet will have already resigned, and so the acting presidency might fall to someone not holding a highly significant cabinet post.
There is now a significant academic literature suggesting that it is unconstitutional for the acting presidency to fall to House and Senate officers, such as the Speaker or SPPT. (I note that I do not share this view which is now commonplace in academia.) Based on this view, should the Speaker or SPPT (as opposed to Donald J. Trump) succeed to the (acting) presidency, it is likely that an outgoing Obama-era cabinet member would sue to displace (as in “replace”) the Speaker or SPPT who is acting as President. 
So in other words, the next President of the United States might be a janitor (Secretary of Cleaning Services) currently serving in Obama's cabinet. There might be a wee bit of a fight over that! Quite chaotic, no?

In other news, I'm eating more bananas lately... :-)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Shocked by Those Shocked by Trump Win

It looks to me like New York Times readers were especially surprised by Trump's win. It seems that the paper really hadn't prepared them for the possibility. Of course, that's because the Times itself was caught completely off-guard. Many internal and external criticisms have followed. Here's an excerpt of an internal one by Liz Spayd, the Times Public Editor:
The red state America campaign coverage that rang the loudest in news coverage grew out of Trump rallies, and it often amplified the voices of the most hateful. One especially compelling video produced with footage collected over months on the campaign trail, captured the ugly vitriol like few others. That’s important coverage. But it and pieces like it drowned out the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.
Funny she mentions "agenda" and "narratives." Because Michael Cieply, an editor who worked for the Times up until July wrote:
[At the Times] by and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line. [...] 
...one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. ... 
I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?” 
The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”
To summarize, they come up with a narrative, then find stories to fit it. That's journalism? This is the venerable Grey Lady, the paper of record? Really?

When I first read this via a link from Instapundit, I thought it was satire or a hoax or something. After all, if the Times was really doing their reporting backwards by coming up with the narrative first, we would have heard about it long ago, wouldn't we? Isn't that a rather important detail? Wouldn't some Times journalist or Times ex-journalist happen to mention that, perhaps inadvertently, to the world?

It might still be a hoax, but right now it doesn't look like it to me. Many other clearly legitimate media organizations have now quoted this story. If it was a hoax, I think someone would've pointed it out by now.

But what's further bewildering me is that the other organizations' attitudes seem to be something like, "yeah, sure, no surprise that's what the Times does, and really, no biggie." Okay, well, good to know it's no biggie, because otherwise I might've been outraged. No, wait! I am kinda outraged! The Times is trying to tell the country what to think. And they're succeeding for much of their readership. A readership that is fortunately dwindling. A readership that is absolutely baffled about the Trump phenomenon, mostly thanks to the Times (and the rest of the Main Stream Media).

I've been skeptical of the Times for a long time. Now I'm gonna have trouble believing anything I read in that paper.

How Many Racists Does It Take To Change A Presidency

I might as well start with some humor, one that's apropos to the vast number of people who are very upset after this election.
Question: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? 
Answer: None. The light bulb has to want to change!
One of the reasons given why Trump won the election is that racists propelled him to victory. So I was curious about just how many racists there are in the United States and tried a variety of google searches including "how many racists in america." The results are surprisingly unspecific and I'm finding them uninterpretable (so far).

I've been pulled down lots of dead ends in trying to quantify this. For example, I learned that about half of Hispanics in the U.S. (52%) say they have experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity. Sounds really bad, right? But then, 43 percent of Americans told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as large a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups. While those two things aren't necessarily contradictory, it seems that either everybody's discriminating against everybody else, or lotsa folks are making mountains outta molehills.

And then discrimination and racism are different things. As I try to get my daughters into good colleges I find that in the name of racial diversity, some spots are reserved for others of different races. Since I think that's a load of BS and since blue-eyed, blonde, Senator Elizabeth Warren got away with claiming native american ancestry, I've told my daughter to just check the "African-American" box on the applications (I figure we're at least 1 part in a trillion black), but unfortunately, she's uncomfortable doing that (maybe I would be too). But the folks reserving spots aren't necessarily racist, just discriminatory. And unfortunately for me, discriminatory against my family.

And then there are degrees of racism. Is it racist to be attracted for mating purposes to only people of your own race or is it merely discriminatory? I claim that it's mild racism and that indeed, since that applies to me, I'm mildly racist. But statistically, given that most married people in the United States are married to someone of the same race, that would basically mean that nearly everyone is mildly racist. In which case, yes, most people who voted for Trump are (mildly) racist. But so are most of those that voted for Clinton!

I went on to consider people who are clearly extremely racist: those belonging to white supremacy groups. For that, at least, one can get a hard number - people who belong to such a group. Percentage-wise, there aren't all that many:
Levin estimated fewer than 50,000 people are members of white supremacist groups...
That's slightly more than one in ten-thousand people and really not enough to have affected the election outcome. That's a lower bound, of course, but it's one of the few hard numbers I could find on the topic.

The last bit of evidence I found intriguing is the number of predominantly white counties that voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. In other words, white folks who, when they had the chance to vote for a black person, did so. I find it hard to interpret that voting pattern as racist against blacks. And it seems that these particular voters were extremely important in putting Trump over the top.

In conclusion, I think it's really hard to find hard evidence that Trump won because of racism. Perhaps he did, especially depending on how you define racism, but I think that, at best, the focus on racism detracts from other factors that are likely more important.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Most Telling Statistic

Now that I'm (mostly) over my surprise that Trump won, the most telling statistic to me is this: Clinton won 93% of the vote in Washinton, DC (to Trump's 4%). 93%! 93% of those living in the heart of the elite's power voted for Clinton, thereby clearly and unequivocally identifying this election as being one that pitted the elites versus the commoners, special interests against the masses, the powerful against the powerless, and yes, the refined against the deplorables.

Even more importantly, it was a contest between those that actually have to do things versus those that live off and lord it over the doers:
America is a nation of many economies, but those that produce real, tangible things — food, fiber, energy and manufactured goods — went overwhelmingly for Trump.
The elite have unabashedly and purposefully made things harder for the workers and business owners that actually do and make things and Trump was the only one who even considered addressing the growing frustration and anger of those folks. As far as I can tell, Hillary never reached out to them, instead not only ignoring them but deeming them deplorables, mostly beneath her notice and certainly unworthy of her respect.

I personally was unable to bring myself to vote for either candidate, but fortunately the results in California were so certain (for Hillary) that I knew my vote wouldn't possibly matter. To me, Clinton was a known awful and Trump was an unknown ... well, just mostly unknown. Oh sure, he's crude, rude, and lewd, and flawed like every human, but I don't much care about that. In fact, that part is almost refreshing to me. It's what he'll do as President that's pretty much unknown, at least to me.

I guess we'll find out.

I'm Back

A week or two ago I was finding the whole political thing so annoying that I decided to crawl into a (metaphorical) cave and ignore all news and social media until after the election. It's now after the election so I'M BACK!!!

First, I have to congratulate President-elect Clinton on her ... Wait! ... What? ... Trump won? ... Wow. Something must've happened while I was in my cave. Maybe I should look into that.

But anyway, I'll now catch up on all the great guys comments and get back to posting.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

End State Socialism

Marx was right, there is an arc to history. Unfortunately, it isn't what he thought it was:

Caracas, Venezuela — The decision on Thursday by several Venezuelan courts to annul the signatures gathered to activate a recall referendum casts into limbo the possibility of removing President Nicolás Maduro from office by constitutional, peaceful and electoral means. Unsurprisingly, the National Electoral Council used the decision to announce a few hours later that this week’s signature collection had been suspended, thus preventing the referendum from being carried out.

This judicial stratagem exudes an aura of illegality and cannot be explained without taking into account the ironclad concentration of powers wielded by the Chavista government in Venezuela since 2005.

Is there an example anywhere, anytime of a socialist country that didn't end up on those rocks?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Response to "Open Letter to Commenter Bret Wallach"

Hi Don,

You asked the following in your Open Letter to me:
Do you, in short, believe that you have an ethical right to grow your own tomatoes with your own resources if you choose – a right that trumps other tomato-growers’ insistence that you instead buy your tomatoes from them?
I've never had tomatoes thrown at me before in a debate, even figuratively, so this is a first. I'm sure it beats being hit with actual tomatoes. :-)

But I wonder if you've asked yourself that very question? And I wonder what your answer to yourself would be?

I wonder that because you seem to be a strong supporter of patents. If so, consider the following. I'm happily and honestly growing my tomatoes using only my own and all completely legal resources. As they're growing away, some tomato DNA from an adjacent field of tomatoes grown from Monsanto tomato seeds blows into my field and inadvertently contaminates the tomatoes that I've planted for next year's seed stock. Unfortunately for me, Monsanto's patent protection on the DNA disallows me from planting and selling tomatoes next year using my own seed stock. These Monsanto patent rights that prohibit me from growing my own tomatoes have been upheld by the Supreme Court:
The US Supreme Court upheld biotech giant Monsanto’s claims on genetically-engineered seed patents and the company’s ability to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto materials.
Of course, other tomato-growers who use Monsanto's seeds will be quite happy that I'm stuck buying tomatoes grown by them instead of growing my own. I assume that as a supporter of patent rights that you side with the Supreme Court and Monsanto on this one and you, in short, do NOT believe that I have an ethical right to grow my own tomatoes with my own resources if I choose. At least not an inherent right - Monsanto's patent right trumps any rights I might have to grow my own tomatoes.

Or am I mistaken? Perhaps you're going to tell me that the DNA that trespasses onto my property is not my resource? Perhaps, but then neither is the sun that falls on my crops nor the CO2 that the tomatoes need to grow that blows through my fields nor the earthworms that migrated from adjacent fields nor the rain that falls from the sky, etc. If you follow that line of reasoning, I'm therefore not able to grow tomatoes with solely my own resources and so your question becomes meaningless. Or perhaps I could grow them in an airtight greenhouse with only artificial lights and sterilized topsoil purchased elsewhere rejuvenated by microbes I buy elsewhere, etc., but such tomatoes would have no chance to be commercially viable making your question still mostly meaningless.

Or perhaps you're a strong supporter of patents except in this case? And cases like it?

Do you support precluding an inventor from using a method he invented independently (and possibly before anybody else) with the sweat of his brow risking his own capital simply because he filed his patent application a nanosecond after someone else filed a patent application for more-or-less the same invention (also invented independently)? This happens quite frequently (though there's usually a bit more than a nanosecond between the applications) and is quite a severe restriction on the freedom and even life of the very slightly slower-to-file inventor.

But that's all well and good: them's the rules and them's the breaks. We've collectively, via the State, decided that patents benefit the collective in aggregate and if some folks are deprived of the fruits of their labors and possibly severely damaged because of that, tough luck - the freedom to use what you've developed is trumped by what benefits the collective. And you support that, right?

To me, a patent is a GOLEM (Government Originated Legally Enforced Monopoly) and GOLEMs are a subset of GOLERTs (Government Originated Legally Enforced Restrictions on Trade). Your support of patents makes you perfectly okay with GOLEMs and therefore at least that type of GOLERT. To paraphrase an old joke, now that we've identified that you're perfectly happy and supportive of the collective placing some restrictions on trade, all that's left is to haggle over the details. :-)

Oh, I have no doubt you'll find some way to rationalize it. Perhaps you'll say "BUT IT'S PROPERTY!" Okay, but then why isn't it property for the other guy who invented it (perhaps he even invented it first, he was just slower to file)? Why isn't it property after 20 years? Or is it property but then it's okay for the State to take it away after 20 years? In which case why wouldn't it be okay for the State to take away any property if it benefits the collective? And if inventions are property, why were they not generally described as property prior to the 1960s, the decade when the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was founded (with the purpose of getting everybody to think of inventions as property)? Etc.

Applying this to growing tomatoes, perhaps the invention that I invented first using only my own resources but was slightly slower-to-file than someone else was a new-fangled super-duper tomato transplanting system (since I'm a roboticist who develops agricultural automation products, I actually bid on developing exactly such a system a few weeks ago). Assuming the other inventor got the patent, it would be illegal to use my invention to grow my own tomatoes. However, I could probably prevent anyone from proving that I was doing so (since I simply wouldn't allow them on my property) and could use my invention without fear of punishment. Would that be unethical? Immoral? Would it matter whether or not I sold the tomatoes?

In thinking about one small aspect (patent considerations) of your seemingly simple question of whether or not I should be able to grow stuff (tomatoes) on my own property using my own resources without any interference from the collective (the State) or subsets of the collective (other growers), more than a dozen questions have already come to mind. That's because your question is not simple. Everything that everybody does affects everybody else and nothing that involves large numbers of people is simple.

My answer to your seemingly simple question of whether or not I should be able to grow stuff on my own property without any interference from others is "it depends."

Sincerely,
Bret Wallach
President
Vision Robotics Corporation
San Diego, CA

P.S. If you excerpt any of the above, please also provide a link to this page (http://greatguys.blogspot.com/2016/10/response-to-open-letter-to-commenter.html) so readers can see the full context of what I've written.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Response to Don Boudreaux - Rough Draft

Hi Don,

You asked the following in your Open Letter to me:
Do you, in short, believe that you have an ethical right to grow your own tomatoes with your own resources if you choose – a right that trumps other tomato-growers’ insistence that you instead buy your tomatoes from them?
I've never had tomatoes thrown at me before in a debate, even figuratively, so this is a first. I'm sure it beats being hit with actual tomatoes. :-)

But I wonder if you've asked yourself that very question? And I wonder what your answer to yourself would be?

I wonder that because you seem to be a strong supporter of patents. If so, consider the following. I'm happily and honestly growing my tomatoes using only my own and all completely legal resources. As they're growing away, some tomato DNA from an adjacent field of tomatoes grown from Monsanto tomato seeds blows into my field and inadvertently contaminates the tomatoes that I've planted for next year's seed stock. Unfortunately for me, Monsanto's patent protection on the DNA disallows me from planting and selling tomatoes next year using my own seed stock. These Monsanto patent rights that prohibit me from growing my own tomatoes have been upheld by the Supreme Court:
The US Supreme Court upheld biotech giant Monsanto’s claims on genetically-engineered seed patents and the company’s ability to sue farmers whose fields are inadvertently contaminated with Monsanto materials.
Of course, other tomato-growers who use Monsanto's seeds will be quite happy that I'm stuck buying tomatoes grown by them instead of growing my own. I assume that as a supporter of patent rights that you side with the Supreme Court and Monsanto on this one and you, in short, do NOT believe that I have an ethical right to grow my own tomatoes with my own resources if I choose. At least not an inherent right - Monsanto's patent right trumps any rights I might have to grow my own tomatoes.

Or am I mistaken? Perhaps you're going to tell me that the DNA that trespasses onto my property is not my resource? Perhaps, but then neither is the sun that falls on my crops nor the CO2 that the tomatoes need to grow that blows onto my fields nor the earthworms that migrated from adjacent fields nor the rain that falls from the sky, etc. If you follow that line of reasoning, I'm therefore not able to grow tomatoes with solely my own resources and so your question becomes meaningless. Or perhaps I could grow them in an airtight greenhouse with only artificial lights and sterilized topsoil purchased elsewhere rejuvenated by microbes I buy elsewhere, etc., but such tomatoes would have no chance to be commercially viable making your question still mostly meaningless.

Or perhaps you're a strong supporter of patents except in this case? And cases like it?

Do you support precluding an inventor from using a method he invented independently (and possibly before anybody else) with the sweat of his brow risking his own capital simply because he filed his patent application a nanosecond after someone else filed a patent application for more-or-less the same invention (also invented independently)? This happens quite frequently (though there's usually a bit more than a nanosecond between the applications) and is quite a severe restriction on the freedom and even life of the very slightly slower-to-file inventor.

But that's all well and good: them's the rules and them's the breaks. We've collectively, via the State, decided that patents benefit the collective in aggregate and if some folks are deprived of the fruits of their labors and possibly severely damaged because of that, tough luck - the freedom to use what you've developed is trumped by what benefits the collective. And you support that, right?

To me, a patent is a GOLEM (Government Originated Legally Enforced Monopoly) and GOLEMs are a subset of GOLERTs (Government Originated Legally Enforced Restrictions on Trade). Your support of patents makes you perfectly okay with GOLEMs and therefore at least that type of GOLERT. To paraphrase an old joke, now that we've identified that you're perfectly happy and supportive of the collective placing some restrictions on trade, all that's left is to haggle over the details. :-)

Oh, I have no doubt you'll find some way to rationalize it. Perhaps you'll say "BUT IT'S PROPERTY!" Okay, but then why isn't it property for the other guy who invented it (perhaps he even invented it first, he was just slower to file)? Why isn't it property after 20 years? Or is it property but then it's okay for the State to take it away after 20 years? In which case why wouldn't it be okay for the State to take away any property if it benefits the collective? And if inventions are property, why were they not generally described as property prior to the 1960s, the decade when the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was founded (with the purpose of getting everybody to think of inventions as property)? Etc.

Applying this to growing tomatoes, perhaps the invention that I invented first using only my own resources but was slightly slower-to-file than someone else was a new-fangled super-duper tomato transplanting system (since I'm a roboticist who develops agricultural automation products, I actually bid on exactly such a system recently). Assuming the other inventor got the patent, it would be illegal to use my invention to grow my own tomatoes. However, I could probably prevent anyone from proving that I was doing so (since I simply wouldn't allow them on my property) and could use my invention without fear of punishment. Would that be unethical? Immoral? Would it matter whether or not I sold the tomatoes?

In thinking about one small aspect (patent considerations) of your seemingly simple question of whether or not I should be able to grow stuff (tomatoes) on my own property using my own resources without any interference from the collective (the State) or subsets of the collective (other growers), more than a dozen questions have already come to mind. That's because your question is not simple. Everything that everybody does affects everybody else and nothing that involves large numbers of people is simple.

My answer to your seemingly simple question of whether or not I should be able to grow stuff on my own property without any interference from others is "it depends."

Sincerely,
Bret

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Don Throws Tomatoes at Me

Here's a post from today at Cafe Hayek (I assume that since it's an "Open Letter" to me that I have every right to reprint it verbatim):

=======================================================================

Open Letter to Commenter Bret Wallach
by DON BOUDREAUX on OCTOBER 19, 2016


Bret Wallach

Mr. Wallach:

I close my recent “Elemental Case for Free Trade” with the following ethical argument: “if you work and earn income honestly, that income is yours to use as you choose.  You may use it to buy tomatoes from your neighbor or to buy tomatoes from a farmer in Mexico.  It’s your money.  It belongs neither to the state nor to any domestic producer.  Yet protectionist arguments rest on the premise that your tomato-growing neighbor has some positive claim on your income.  If you are prohibited from buying tomatoes from Mexico, or – more commonly today – penalized with a tariff for doing so, the state is insisting that domestic tomato growers have an ethical claim on part of your income.”

You disagree with my argument.  That is, you apparently believe that the state acts ethically if, in its efforts to increase sales made by existing domestic tomato growers, it penalizes you for using your own income to buy foreign-grown tomatoes.  Do you, then, also believe that the state would be acting ethically if, in its efforts to increase sales made by those same domestic tomato growers, it penalized you for using your own income to buy potting soil, fertilizer, and tomato seeds that you use to grow your own tomatoes?

If you believe that there’s nothing ethically objectionable about Uncle Sam penalizing you for spending your income in ways that cause the sales of some domestic producers to be lower than otherwise, surely you then have no objection to Uncle Sam penalizing you for growing your own tomatoes.  Nor must you object if Uncle Sam were to penalize you and other Americans for buying used rather than new cars (or, indeed, for putting off buying new cars by keeping your existing cars in good repair) – or for buying previously owned rather than newly build homes – or for growing beards rather than shaving daily (think of all the sales that Gillette loses because more men today wear facial hair!) – or for recycling aluminum cans and plastic cartons – or, indeed, for doing anything with your own resources that Uncle Sam judges to wrongfully reduce sales made by its favored domestic producers.

Do you, in short, believe that you have an ethical right to grow your own tomatoes with your own resources if you choose – a right that trumps other tomato-growers’ insistence that you instead buy your tomatoes from them?  If so, how do you square this belief with your insistence that it is ethically acceptable for the state to penalize you and others for spending parts your incomes on the purchase of imports?

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

=======================================================================

I'll (most likely) respond to Don in the next few days.

The gross simplification of Don's philosophy is "BUT FREEDOM!" where freedom to do as you see fit, as long as it's peaceful and voluntary for all parties, trumps (nearly) all other considerations. The gross simplification of my philosophy is "WHEN IN DOUBT, CHOOSE FREEDOM!" and that means that I basically believe that some ends can sometimes justify some means that might restrict peaceful, voluntary freedom, but the case for doing so has to be really strong. I think there's a lot of overlap, but I think that the hairs we split are important to some degree.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Exceptionally Exceptional

In Deploracism, Clovis made the comment below. It raises enough questions that I figured it deserves a post all its own.

Well, [Americans don't actually enjoy equality before the law], I don't think the word "exceptional" [wrt American Exceptionalism] means what you think it means.

Also, ideals which you are supposed to never live up to aren't "ideals", they are only ink over dead trees. After all, living by one ideals is what is supposed to be exceptional.

As an Air Officer, you took an oath to abide by the Constitution. Why the heck did you pledge your life to something you don't believe in??

"Exceptionalism" is exactly the right word. The US is exceptional in the sense that being American is all about a set of ideals, not ethnicity, religion, place of birth, etc. Compared to Japan, Europe, or anywhere else I've been, that is very much the exception.

Moreover, the US is exceptional in another dimension, perhaps less apparent at first glance: the imposition of constraints on government. The Constitution says nothing about what government must do, but goes into some detail what it may not do: impose religious tests for office; limit the ability to write, speak, read and hear; restrict meaningful self defense, usw. In other words, Americans have rights through negation -- natural law, expressed in the Declaration, implemented in the Constitution, strictly limits what a legitimate government may do.

Of course, there are numerous, often wide, gaps between "ought" and "is".

The Declaration and many parts of the Constitution express "ought". Everyone ought to be equal before the law, be completely free to speak, own a gun, not be subject to religious tests for office, etc.

So, in essence, the Declaration and Constitution amount to a governmental moral code, without which it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, ascertain illegitimate governance. Moreover, the gap between is and ought provides a basis for a moral arc to history.

Over time, the circle of moral regard has widened. People take a very different view of what constitutes moral behavior to those qualified to be within their group, as opposed to those outside it. So long as black Americans were considered an inferior version of humanity, they were outside circle of moral regard: it was perfectly fine to treat them in ways that would never be remotely acceptable for white Americans. But as reality intruded, it became progressively more difficult to maintain the notion that blacks aren't just as human as the rest of us, and just as increasingly difficult to continue excluding them from the circle of moral regard. This, in turn, created a gap, not new in reality, but newly perceived, between ought and is. And, therefore, the organic, and exceptional, imperative to close that gap.

Imperfectly, yes. Slowly, yes. Undoubtedly the knock-on effects will burden us for generations to come. But the imperative meant that black Americans, over the last 40 or so years, have gained complete legal parity with white Americans, while avoiding, to an astonishing extent, the violence oppressed groups have had to engage in elsewhere in order to lift their oppression (e.g., South Africa).

This is exactly why these ideals aren't ink smeared on dead trees.

So long, of course, as people understand and appreciate the timeless enlightenment principles embodied in the Constitution.

Unfortunately, that is far from the case. Hillary!, Trump, and the New York Times have all advocated "No Fly, No Buy". That is, if someone's name appears on the No Fly list, they may not purchase a gun. Only those who either don't believe in natural rights, or believe in unfettered government power, can possibly push such a thing. Our very existence entails the right to meaningful self defense, just as it entails the right to think, believe, speak, and hear freely. Advocating abridging such a right outside the due process of law is manifest proof that whoever does such a thing either doesn't understand, or is happy to willfully disregard, the very basis for our society.

Hillary!, Trump, the New York Times, and Harry all believe the political class is entitled to control political speech and, therefore, political thought. Unfortunately for them, since the US Constitution is based upon the concept of government that is legitimate only to the extent that it defends natural law, it is easy to see all of them for the tyrants they hope to be.

Hillary! is a pathological, ironically inept, given all her practice, liar. She clearly is a pandering sexist, and, as if that wasn't enough, a rapist enabler. Her house should have been raided, and she should be in jail. Trumpster is the distillation of ADD and Asperger's, leaving out all the good parts: whenever he gets bored, he sets himself on fire. At any given moment, it is almost impossible to tell whether his prodigious gift for arrogance is more, or ever so slightly less, appalling than his irremediable ignorance. He wouldn't know the Constitution if it smacked him upside the head, and is no more inclined to protect and defend it than a cat is a mouse.

Yet, despite all that, I'm confident the Republic will soldier on. Why? Because of that other source of American exceptionalism: the balance of powers. The differing sources of political power, tenure, and authority just about guarantee that no matter which of these complete knuckleheads wins the election, the other two branches will frustrate their manifest stupidities.

So there you have it: is and ought; the very real difficulty of having a moral code without some objective basis; and, the unique ability of Constitution to frustrate the fever dreams of arrogant, ignorant, idiotic, perverted, stupid, boneheaded, should have been strangled at birth politicians.

Which is to say, damn near all of them.

Those are reasons enough to pledge my life to defend something I believe in very much. No matter the gap between aspiration and reality.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Singing for Mom

My sister and I went back to upstate New York for our Mom's 80th birthday. My mom seems to have pretty much everything she wants so it's hard to figure out what to get her. So, my sister and I recorded, A Cappella, a song of love for her which we delivered on an MP3 player and small speaker so she can hear us sing it whenever she wants.

Since I wrote about A Cappella singing the other day, I thought I'd share the recording with y'all.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Conjecture Explaining Downward Pitch Drift of A Cappella Singing Groups

I've been doing some barbershop singing lately, both in a chorus of about 30 men and also a quartet. I'm still learning the ropes so (fortunately) there are no recordings of me (yet) doing this particular form of music. But if you're curious about the sorts of things we sing, the following video shows Ringmasters, a really excellent quartet, performing one of the songs we're working on (both the chorus and the quartet I sing with) and is a good example of "modern" barbershop music.



Because there are no instruments to anchor the pitch, even a top notch group like Ringmasters will end the song at a slightly different pitch level than they start with. In this case, my "pitch pipe" tells me they end very slightly sharper than they started. They're so close that my ear couldn't tell and I needed an electronic tuner to discern that.

While a group can end either sharp or flat, the vast majority of a cappella groups end flat a majority of the time. This is especially true for bigger groups and often I can easily tell that with just my ear and without any sort of electronic help.

The question is why flat and not sharp? I've not found any of the answers to be compelling. Therefore, I've crafted my own conjecture, but I'm pretty confident that it's at least part of the explanation since it matches my experience recording music. On the other hand, it's so simple and obvious that I would've thought that it would be a common explanation, but I haven't seen it.

When we speak and sing, we usually mostly hear ourselves via internal pathways. In other words, our vocal cords flap about and the vibrations from that flapping are transmitted via our flesh and blood and bone up to our hearing apparatus. There's also reflected sound from the vibrations coming out our mouths (and noses to some extent) and then bouncing off of surfaces around us back to our ears. However, most of what we hear under typical conditions is received by our ears via the internal pathways.

Many of us who are past the half-century mark may have never heard ourselves speak or sing until we were teenagers or older. There simply wasn't all that much access to recording equipment and the early consumer recording devices had dismal accuracy when playing back a recording. I remember being SHOCKED when I first heard what I sounded like. It sounded nothing like I sound to me via my internal pathways.

In particular, I sound slightly sharper to myself via the internal pathways than I do via the external pathways. When singing along with instruments, I always sound very slightly flatter during playback than I expect given what it sounds like to me during recording.

It's very slight. So slight that it's hardly out of tune. The perception is more a matter of the other definition of "flat": dull; lifeless; low-energy. Whereas being very slightly sharp is perceived as alive, brilliant, and exciting! A somewhat related fact is that classical instrumental groups were tuned to ever higher pitch levels over the centuries:
During historical periods when instrumental music rose in prominence (relative to the voice), there was a continuous tendency for pitch levels to rise. This "pitch inflation" seemed largely a product of instrumentalists competing with each other, each attempting to produce a brighter, more "brilliant", sound than that of their rivals.
Another experiment that confirmed that I sound sharper internally than externally is what I call the "wall trick." To hear myself better from external reflections, instead of singing into a room, I'll stand facing a wall, about a foot away. It looks kinda silly, but instead of hearing myself mainly internally, I'm also able to hear the external reflections and it gives me an idea of what my pitch and tone sound like to the rest of the world. Recently, I sang a single note into a tuner while walking towards the wall. I maintained the same pitch the whole time. As I got closer to the wall, I sounded progressively flatter even though the tuner said I was singing the same pitch the whole time.

So both record/playback and external reflections confirm that I sound a tiny bit flatter externally than internally. I suspect, but haven't yet proven, that's true for most people. After all, people are similar physiologically, and I think the effect is due to our internal transmission filters being slightly more high-pass than the external transmission filters which probably are more affected by the resonating cavities that form our vowel sounds. Well, that's my conjecture anyway. I really don't know why. All I know is that internally I sound sharper than externally.

When we start a song in an a cappella group, someone blows the root of the key on a pitch pipe or electronic equivalent. If I sing my note and it sounds right to me internally, it will sound very slightly flat to those around me. Everybody around me will also do the same thing and sing very slightly flat. I'm going to sound flat to everyone else and everyone else will sound flat to me. But we want to align so we'll all adjust incrementally downwards a little tiny bit. And then we all sound flatter to each other so we adjust downward again. And again. And again. They're all tiny adjustments, minuscule really. But over the course of a whole song, all those increments add up and the group might end up noticeably flat, maybe even a half-step. Maybe even more. Even for very accomplished groups.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Deploracism

Today's attempt at witticism is to coin a new word:

deploracism




noun
1.a belief or doctrine that certain worldviews held by various groups of people in the United States determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that the progressive worldview is superior and has the right to dominate or that the worldview held by white male conservatives/libertarians is inferior to the others and deplorable.
2.a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine;discrimination.
3.hatred or intolerance of white male conservatives/libertarians.
This was taken from the dictionary.com definition of racism and modified very slightly. Whereas racism is considered evil by many, deploracism is wholeheartedly embraced by the ruling class and considered to be the height of morality by that class to the point that a presidential candidate (Clinton) enthusiastically noted that her opponent's supporters were a "basket of deplorables." That statement was quickly defended and embraced by many mainstream media outlets. For example, from the venerable NY Times: "What Clinton said was impolitic, but it was not incorrect."
No, probably not incorrect, but it does leave a problem. There are an awful lot of us deplorables and it might not be terribly easy to dominate and oppress us. To have a large part of the population at odds with right thinking people is likely to tear the country apart. It might be possible to find compromises that would allow everybody, even the deplorables, to peacefully coexist, but the rampant deploracism embraced by the ruling elites excludes that possibility.
Angelo M. Codevilla, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University, believes that the conflict between the elites and deplorables has ended the United States that was once a constitutional republic:
Over the past half century, the Reagan years notwithstanding, our ruling class’s changing preferences and habits have transformed public and private life in America. As John Marini shows in his essay, “Donald Trump and the American Crisis,” this has resulted in citizens morphing into either this class’s “stakeholders” or its subjects. And, as Publius Decius Mus argues, “America and the West” now are so firmly “on a trajectory toward something very bad” that it is no longer reasonable to hope that “all human outcomes are still possible,” by which he means restoration of the public and private practices that made the American republic. In fact, the 2016 election is sealing the United States’s transition from that republic to some kind of empire.
I've noted in the past that I've felt that I've gone from citizen to serf in my lifetime and Codevilla's description of those like me as subjects is close enough - I'm definitely NOT a stakeholder:
In today’s America, a network of executive, judicial, bureaucratic, and social kinship channels bypasses the sovereignty of citizens. Our imperial regime, already in force, works on a simple principle: the president and the cronies who populate these channels may do whatever they like so long as the bureaucracy obeys and one third plus one of the Senate protects him from impeachment. If you are on the right side of that network, you can make up the rules as you go along, ignore or violate any number of laws, obfuscate or commit perjury about what you are doing (in the unlikely case they put you under oath), and be certain of your peers’ support. These cronies’ shared social and intellectual identity stems from the uniform education they have received in the universities. Because disdain for ordinary Americans is this ruling class's chief feature, its members can be equally certain that all will join in celebrating each, and in demonizing their respective opponents.
As noted above, there's nothing new in the stakeholders considering us deplorable. In fact, deploracism is the unifying core of Progressive politics:
Progressivism’s programs have changed over time. But its disdain for how other Americans live and think has remained fundamental. More than any commitment to principles, programs, or way of life, this is its paramount feature. The media reacted to Hillary Clinton’s remark that “half of Trump’s supporters could be put into a ‘basket of deplorables’” as if these sentiments were novel and peculiar to her. In fact, these are unremarkable restatements of our ruling class’s perennial creed. [...]
If trying to persuade irredeemable socio-political inferiors is no more appropriate than arguing with animals, why not just write them off by sticking dismissive names on them? Doing so is less challenging, and makes you feel superior. [...]
Hillary Clinton’s attack on Trump supporters merely matched the ruling class’s current common sense. Why should government workers and all who wield the administrative state’s unaccountable powers not follow their leaders’ judgment, backed by the prestige press, about who are to be treated as citizens and who is to be handled as deplorable refuse? Hillary Clinton underlined once again how the ruling class regards us, and about what it has in store for us.
Being one of the deplorable animals is an uncomfortable position to be in.
How far will our rulers go? Because their network is mutually supporting, they will go as far as they want.
Things have often turned out poorly for societies' deplorables and I suspect it will turn out poorly for us as well. The conflict will intensify and I believe that by the end of this century the United States will be unrecognizable and there will potentially be a lot of bloodshed, not only within our borders, but all over the world since the United States is still an important player in holding together western civilization.
We have stepped over the threshold of a revolution. It is difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate where it will end. Our ruling class’s malfeasance, combined with insult, brought it about. Donald Trump did not cause it and is by no means its ultimate manifestation. Regardless of who wins in 2016, this revolution’s sentiments will grow in volume and intensity, and are sure to empower politicians likely to make Americans nostalgic for Donald Trump’s moderation.
I guess the good news is that I probably (hopefully) won't live to see the worst parts of the revolution. Too bad for future generations though.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"Run Them Down"

In a real life variation of the Trolley Problem, there's the question of what to do when folks around you are rioting and attacking your vehicle. Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee Law Professor, and the blogger and tweeter known as Instapundit had a simple answer (via a tweet): "Run Them Down." That promptly got his twitter account suspended, his weekly column with USA Today either cancelled or suspended, and he is now being investigated by the University of Tennessee for possible punishment. Sometimes three words are really powerful!

I guess I really am deplorable because I can't even begin to understand why what he said is wrong. If one or more of my wife or kids was in the car with me and I felt they were in significant danger from violent rioters, I would do anything I could to get them to safety and if that involved running down 1 or 10 or even 1 million rioters to do so, I wouldn't hesitate and I wouldn't feel guilty afterwards even as I spent the rest of my life in jail or ended up in the electric chair for doing so. And I can't begin to imagine why any other husband and father wouldn't do the exact same thing.

If it was just me in the car? I don't know. I'm not sure my own safety would motivate me to run anybody down just to save my own skin.

One of the interesting issues with the Trolley Problem and other related problems is the following:
Greene and Cohen analyzed subjects' responses to the morality of responses in both the trolley problem involving a switch, and a footbridge scenario analogous to the fat man variation of the trolley problem. Their hypothesis suggested that encountering such conflicts evokes both a strong emotional response and a reasoned cognitive response, and that these two responses tend to oppose one another.
My experience and knowledge tell me that in the heat of the moment, the "strong emotional response" usually wins. The emotional response affects the lower mammalian/reptilian brain and that part of the brain is between the cognitive part of our brains and motor control and the lower brain can completely lock out the upper brain if it so "chooses" under strong emotional stimulus. It's instinctual and reactive and when a split second decision needs to be made it makes it and not always in agreement with what the cognitive portion of the brain would choose if it had more time.

The Trolley Problem and its variant are usually applied to strangers. I'd like to switch it around a little. The trolley is headed for your child or spouse tied to the tracks and you have an instant to decide whether or not to pull a lever to divert the trolley where it will instead run over 1 stranger who is tied the tracks. Or 5 strangers. Or 1 billion strangers. What if you and your spouse or child happened to discuss this ahead of time and they said that they would feel so guilty about the strangers' deaths that they wouldn't want you to pull the lever to save them? In each case, you have 1 second to react.

I don't think you can know the answers to any of those questions. Sure, you can cognitively think about them and know what you would logically decide. But, in the heat of the moment, your logical brain isn't the one to make the decision. I think that a lot humans, possibly myself included, in the heat of the moment, would end up pulling the lever and saving our child or spouse in all of the above cases.

I believe that our lower, primitive brains are actually always in control or at least exert a constant pressure and that the cognitive brain that we consider to be "us" is mostly just a tool used by the primitive brain. Some of the whispering pressure from the primitive brain is obvious: eat, mate, etc.

But some of the whispering pressure is more subtle and hardly even noticeable but has a profound effect on behavior. It sorts people by importance and makes even your cognitive brain react differently to the Trolley Problem when the people are known to you and at different levels of importance. For example, instead of strangers, it's your mother, or cousin, or friend, or important colleague, etc. And it's not just how you react in the heat of the moment, but how you provide for some, criticize others, cut yet others slack, hire others who really aren't the best objective choice, etc.

One Libertarian question is what's really the difference between trading with one of your countrymen and trading with someone in China. Objectively, there may be little difference. However, our lower brains may simply view strangers in China as less important than strangers in our own nation. We can say that's an immoral view, but if that's innate, and I think it is, at least for many people, we're really just saying that (many) humans are innately immoral.

Or deplorable.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Worth A Thousand Words?

Or so they say of a picture.

Knowing some of our regulars here take a very skeptical stance towards global warming, AKA climate change, I can only give them the latest Weapon of Mass Diffusion, a xkcd infographic (it is just too big to embed it here).

Graphic communication is sure effective. But is it convincing enough? You tell me.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Basket of Deplorables

More than a few people have questioned me when I've said that I don't really feel there's a place for me in this country anymore.

Well, the likely next president of the United States, soon to be President-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton, has described me as a member of a Basket of Deplorables:
"You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the 'basket of deplorables.' Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it."
I readily admit that I'm arguably all of those things (and "you name it" would cover it even if not). I've certainly been called racist, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic and I have little doubt that Clinton would consider me so, even if I'm also arguably NOT those things.

deplorable



adjective
Causing or being a subject for censure, reproach, or disapproval; wretched; verybad:

Given that the future leader of the country views me like that, I think it's perfectly reasonable to feel that I'm not welcome in my own country and don't fit in, pretty much by definition.

Hillary's Health

Some people are concerned that Hillary Clinton isn't particularly healthy. For example, she apparently fainted today during a 9/11 ceremony.

I'm not concerned at all. In fact, if you guaranteed me that she was so unhealthy that she would die shortly after taking office, I would vote for her in a heartbeat. Kaine may not be my first choice for president, but I prefer him to either Clinton or Trump. By a lot.

Is that a politically incorrect thing to say? Oops, sorry! :-)

100,000 Page Views

I'm a round numbers kinda guy.

Great Guys Weblog has just passed 100,000 page views, whatever that means!

Yay, us!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Nat Geo Special

Trigger warning: This post is both very long and excruciatingly dull. Travel writing is something best left to experts. I am not one.

[This trip happened nearly a year ago. Letting that amount of time elapse will have done the story no good whatsoever. Although it has given me a greater appreciation for those pocket notebooks that real writers carry with them where ever they go.]

Ironically, I never particularly had the goal of getting around. Traveling — meh. Yet somehow that thing that I don't care much whether I do keeps happening. I have been across the US by car or bus 31 times, lived in a couple dozen places across the US, as well as England twice and now Germany. Some of that is side effect: travel is going to come with the military pilot territory. But the rest I, through long chains of very improbable circumstance, happened upon: my wife, whose love of travel rivals that of fire for gasoline, and FedEx, which is a gasoline gusher.

TOSWIPIAW had already been to Africa three times, and decided my none times could no longer stand. Besides, we were already in Europe, which is right next door [not really, not where we were going, but her instinctive feel for maps doesn't deviate from the breed standard; besides, her traveling gland was painfully swollen.]

Since we already had favorable experiences with Overseas Adventure Travel (Antarctica (me), Costa Rica, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos) we decided to fatten their bottom line once again. They do small group — 12 to 16 people — expeditions, and get off the beaten path. The downside, for me anyway, is their NPR tone, and way too much participation in the local. I loathe them for their staginess, forced familiarity, heavy handed suggestions for donations, and eating guinea pig (Machu Picchu).

For the record, my wife thinks me a misanthrope. I think she is leaping, okay half-stepping, to a conclusion.

To be there, we had to get there. While the trip is no longer admirable feat, Johannesberg, South Africa is about as far away from Germany as it is possible to be from anyone place to any other place and still stay on the planet.

Making matters far worse was Heathrow security. Perceptive minds may be flashing question marks here. Knowing I live in Germany, those very same perceptive minds quickly realize that I had to get through security in order to get to Heathrow.

Yes, indeed that is true. And absolutely no barrier to that full employment scheme for petty tyrants known as airport security. (Donald Trump has made a lot of mileage on immigration; why he hasn't thought to aim his verbal scattergun at the TSA is a singular mystery. Loathing of the TSA, which does a necessary job about as badly as it is possible to imagine, and then even worse, is universal. Hillary! wouldn't stand a chance.)

Ten minute security line in Düsseldorf. Hour flight to Heathrow. Hour and twenty minutes getting re-securitied, which gave me plenty of time to observe passive-aggressiveness in action. The screeners concern for people missing flights was amply confirmed by their glacial pace. If there was ever a group of people that needed punching good, hard and often, this was them.

Which is why our two hour layover was rescued from being 20 minutes too short by a twenty minute late departure. Even after passage of a year, my blood goes right to the boiling point just thinking about it.

(Side note. Last week I went through screening in Cologne. A screener deemed my clear plastic bag too big — never mind the very sparse contents thereof and sent me off to get another bag, and the back of the line. Finally making it through, the same screener, now at the X-ray machine, deemed my travel size can of shaving cream a suspect nuclear weapon. I stand for a few minutes while they get an explosives swabber, who swabs my stuff and tells me to wait. No surprise there. While waiting, I put my laptop and iPad back in their respective places. He comes back to tell me I'm good to go, then gets indignant: where were my computers?! And started in to giving me a sound lecture, only to come to a quick stop. Might have had something to do with murder in my eyes. Every time Harry extols how wonderful socialism is, all I have to do is recall airport security. A few days ago in Keflavik, I had a 3.07 oz deodorant applicator confiscated because it exceeded the 3 oz limit. Just like it had done dozens of times before. And despite the easily ascertainable fact — the applicator being transparent — it was very nearly empty. Hillary!, The Donald, here's a pro-tip. Want to be president? Stop talking about Syria and start talking about the TSA.)

Aaaannnnddd twelve and a half hours in an A380 later, we are in Jo-berg, with a day and a half to kill before heading off into the bush. The first half day we put to excellent use, hanging around the hotel pool and having a contest as to see who could run up the biggest bar bill.

The next day was entirely different. We hired a local guide to give us The Tour. I'm old enough to remember apartheid, and to also think that was a pretty mean thing for the government to be doing.

Pretty mean doesn't begin to say it. Despite having had a current events knowledge back in the day, there is nothing like seeing it in person, even nearly 30 years removed. The institutionalized awfulness was crushingly pervasive, and mostly left me with this question: what the hell were they thinking? I get the trap that is so easy to fall into — judging our forebears by our standards. But still. Did none of the Afrikaners think "What if we got this wrong?"

The next morning started the main program: 21 days, divided pretty equally among four bush locations, plus a stop at Victoria Falls and then Cape Town.

First stop, the Jackalberry Lodge in the Thornybush Game Reserve.

Let me translate that into English: Four star glamping in the African answer to a dude ranch.

Our subsequent accommodations were far more spartan — no air conditioning.

Perhaps that isn't enough detail. Twenty-odd years ago, some enterprising people fenced off roughly 400 square miles of South African savannah, then, with some degree of forethought, stocked it with roughly the right amount of the right kinds of animals to provide a roughly self-sustaining answer to the Wild Kingdom safari park.

The place was so big that there was never the impression of being inside it. Except for the very stout electric fence that surrounded our compound.

Note the stanchion on the left supporting the electric fence separating TOSWIPIAW from Very Large Animals.

This fence, surrounding the entire compound, except for where it met a lodge at the far side, was very effective at keeping predators out, less so with elephants who, fortunately, didn't want in, and not at all against the various variants on the impala who simply leapt the thing to get at the salad bar within.

So it was something of a surprise coming out of the, ummm, glent? — in the morning in search of coffee, only to round a corner and be confronted with a half dozen animals the size of elk built like gazelles and crowned with very twisty horns. Perhaps my murderous gaze was sufficient to convince them they were in a very dangerous place indeed, between me and my first cup of coffee. Or it might have been pure coincidence.


Either way, I got my coffee.

As it happened the glent we were in stopped the gap between the ends of our electric fortification. And it had a back porch that opened onto the savannah. We were warned, in a suitably stern and forthright manner that so long as we stayed on the porch, we were OK. But beyond that lie monsters.

I took them at their word.

Later that afternoon, I was in our glent, and heard some rustling about. Poked my head out and saw this:

Mind you, I never strayed from the porch. Nonetheless, I got yelled at. Not entirely sure what I did wrong, but frightening the elephant probably wasn't high on the list.

The next day started what was pretty much the routine for then next 16 days. Get up early, park our glamping butts in a couple Toyota land cruisers and spend four hours bouncing over perfectly horrid roads hoping for Sightings. At about the halfway mark we'd stop for coffee and a snack. Repeat in the late afternoon, only with adult beverages instead of coffee. The driver and guide were conspicuously well armed. Something to do with predators, apparently.

Ready to head 'em up and move 'em out. Harry, trigger warning: the tan case contains a high powered rifle.

Whereupon we see things:

Lions on a union break.


And elephants who want our trail more than we do.

There's a bit of a story here. The guides are very strict about protocol. The animals can't, or don't, distinguish between the Land Cruiser and the people in it. So long as we sit down and shut up we are just a — something — to these creatures that isn't the least bit relevant to their daily lives.

So when that big ol' elephant came up, we did as instructed: sat on our hands, and kept our lips zipped. Well, it just kept coming at us, until it used the left rear corner of our Land Cruiser as a sratching post. That happened to be where TOSWIPIAW was sitting, and she had to practically climb into my lap to avoid coming very much eye to eye with the elephant's eye. Since, for some reason, TOSWIPIAW had a death grip on our camera, I couldn't get the video.

My wife didn't get yelled at.

On our evening drive, we learned that it is all fun and games until …


And so on, for another couple weeks. The glaring suspicion should be, I should know, because it kept occurring to me, was that eight hours a day on spine crunching roads might get a bit repetitious.

The companies that run these trips aren't staffed by fools. They know that full well, and right at the point where repetition is starting to rear its ugly head, they hauled us off, by bush plane, to the next glamp where the same routine was very different.


In that spirit, let's move on to … Chobe National Park in Botswana. This glamp marked a change from our first stop. Instead of walled and air conditioned lodgings, surrounded by wires carrying very many of Edison's very best volts, we had soft sided A-Frames and not heck all of a fence.


The consequence being that, after dark, we were not allowed to move from the common area to our glents without an armed escort. Something about predators. Along those lines, we got some instructions, among them being: "If you have an emergency, give three blasts with the air horn on your nightstand, and turn on your porch light. Everyone else, stay in your glents and keep the lights off."


Emergency equipment, flanked by industrial strength bug stuff. We quickly found the best approach was to leave the light on, then go all fire hose on it.

Seemed sound advice, as we were unpacking that mid-afternoon. Not five minutes later: BLAT BLAT BLAT from the next glent over.

DaHeck?

Our group of 15 included two women traveling by themselves. One of them saw a spider in her bathroom. To be fair, spider might not begin to say it:


It was near as darnnit to hot, but separated from miserable by a admirable lack of humidity. Starting around 10 pm, I saw lightning on the horizon, and suspected we might be in for a show. Sure enough, two hours later the temperature started dropping like a greased safe. And that can only mean one thing: lots of meteorological sturm and drang. The wind, conveniently aligned, was blowing rain right into our glent.

Being Mr. Man, it was up to me to go outside and figure out how to make that stop. Despite the darkness, I found the lashings that released the drop down covers.

And came back in to find a millipede the size of Clovis's forearm crawling down the mosquito netting on TOSWIPIAW's side of the bed.

This is not an insignificant problem, because I have to break the news without getting deafened by an air horn. Having managed that task, made far easier by TOSWIPIAW being a very steady hand, I then had to be Mr. Man again and get the thing out. A trash can — the sure sign of glamping — was at hand, so I slid it up and dislodged the millipede into the can.

Where it landed with a prodigious thump, before getting unceremoniously launched into the aforementioned sturm and drang. Which had, by this time, been even more dranged by a pride of lions not a hundred yards away expressing their displeasure with the lightning (I presume it wasn't the millipede).

I could go on, but not profitably. Pictures at this point will say far more, and annoy you far less, than anything I could write.

Save for a few parting shots.

Once upon a time ago, I read The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

The accident of natural circumstances can't be ignored. The southern third of Africa — an area a good chunk as large as the continental US — has no meaningful natural barriers, no navigable rivers, the tsetse fly, and malaria. If the entire world was like that, civilization would never have happened.

Oh yeah, and one other thing. Nature's great insecticide: winter. I'm not bug phobic, but after having been concussed for the third time by an onrushing dung beetle (imagine an iridescent VW Beetle — the original one — with wings, and an iridescent paint job, but bigger) I was starting to get my fill of things that were at least six times larger than they should have been. Most of the women were on the verge of going spare.

The night after our fun with weather, and its rain, we got treated to the ground termites and their airborne mating ritual. In their billions. These things are the size of your thumb, and come in the kind of swarms that belong in nightmares.

Except they don't bite, nor much care for anything else than their regenerative part in the circle of life. The next morning, they are have all gone to ground, leaving only piles of wings behind. Those, that is, that haven't been captured by the locals, to be boiled and eaten as a delicacy the next day.

Having a sensitive palate, I declined, since they couldn't possibly go with gin & tonic.

Our tour leader was a native Zimbabwean. He went into great detail about Mugabe's rule. Yes, Ayn Rand was a wretched writer, but she was on to something.

He mentioned, without my asking, Bret, that family sizes had plummeted during his lifetime, from more than 6 to right around 3.

25% of children have lost both parents to AIDS.

Our only real experience with Africa outside the bush came in Livingstone, near Victoria Falls. That place is properly poor. I'd far rather be there than in the late stage Soviet Union.



Going out on a limb here, but I don't see fried caterpillars having the same market making power as, say, McDonald's french fries.



Capitalism is an amazing thing. It provided people the means with which to start significant businesses — setting up and provisioning a glamp in the bush is no mean feat. It makes people want to please others, and others appreciative of being pleased.

For the most part, the scenery in southern Africa is quite monotonous. So flat that rivers peter out before they get anywhere, and trees that rarely get more than a dozen feet tall before elephants flatten them. Cape Town was entirely different, as abundantly blessed in scenic pulchritude as the surrounding millions of square miles are deprived.

Am I glad I went? Yes. Would I go back? Ummm. Probably not. I can see where Africa, and the people, could get under someone's skin.

But not mine. Probably.