06 December 2011

Bartleby, the Coffee Maker

I always bring my own coffee to work in a Thermos, so the malfunction of the brand new office coffee machine does not affect me personally. However, as an engineer, I cannot help but notice that some very important principle about product design is missing when a machine that is supposed to do something as simple as making coffee politely declines to do so. "Please call operator. (Report error 399)," it suggests--as if that serves as an acceptable apology for refusing to pour hot water through ground coffee.

Perhaps the next generation of such machines will be so advanced they will simply declare, having been asked to produce a cup of coffee, "I prefer not to (Error 401)."

03 December 2011

The Thrilling Perils of Shaving Like Your Grandfather

Shaving used to be an annoying chore for me. I regarded the task as a dreary necessity, a thrice-weekly loss of three to five minutes of my life that could have been spent far more fruitfully than in Sisyphean torment, eternally condemned to roll back the persistent incursion of facial hair. In fact, the only thing that permitted me to summon the energy to shave at all is that after about two or three days of itchy, uncomfortable beard growth, my own face dependably reminded me that my dislike of beards actually exceeds my dislike of shaving.

About a year or so ago, I discovered the pleasures of "shaving like my grandpa," as one article aptly put it.[1] I spent about a hundred bucks on the accoutrements: a Merkur Model 178 classic safety razor, a Tweezerman badger hair shaving brush (don't settle for the inferior boar hair brush!), a nice-looking wooden shave soap dish, a chrome stand, and of course, some double-edged razors and Colonel Conk shave soap. A hundred dollars might seem like a lot of money, but it's really not when compared to the crappy canned shave soap and high-tech multi-blade disposable razors (more than $25 for eight cartridges) that I used to use. It's true that I was stingy enough to use the disposable cartridges until they were as dull as butter knives, but I would bet that my investment in good equipment has already broken even. And even if it hasn't, it is completely worth the cost.

The real benefit to my new shaving habits is not monetary but psychological. It certainly takes more time to shave than it used to--it has increased to about eight or nine minutes--but somehow it's much more pleasurable. It's no longer a chore. To take a minute to whip up a lather in the bowl; to feel the vigorous caress of badger-hair bristles on the cheek and neck; to pause, lean toward the mirror and then back away, to contemplate, examine, and proceed; and, not least of all, to maintain control while being at every moment thrillingly and perilously close to a momentary lapse of discipline; to risk--nay, to invite--the consequences of diverging one's hand even the slightest amount from a direction precisely orthogonal to the cutting edge, which lapse results in a wound that will bleed off and on for the rest of the day--all of these considerations, plus others I have not even thought of (or are too personal to divulge), have made shaving a private celebration. A dreary duty has become a selfish ritual, an indulgence. For a few minutes, the close, humid fog of dissipating shower steam and a clean, invigorating, soapy scent transport me to another time and place, one in which men wear hats, hold the door open for ladies, and speak quickly, wittily, and sparingly. In essence, I am carried away into a black-and-white movie starring Humphrey Bogart.

To all my male friends out there who are, perhaps by default or inertia, currently using the latest triple-bladed gizmos advertised during football games (or worse, using electric shavers), I certainly recommend rethinking the shaving process and considering some older technology. As motivation, I'll leave off with a link to a video demonstrating that the breathtaking perils of shaving are not limited to bloody slips of the hand. 


1. Brett and Kate McKay, "How to Shave Like Your Grandpa," The Art of Manliness, http://artofmanliness.com/2008/01/04/how-to-shave-like-your-grandpa/.

23 November 2011

From the Government and Here to Help

The Ford Hall Forum recently made available the recording from the debate that we attended on the rain-drenched evening of September 29th in Boston. 

The debate pitted ARI's Yaron Brook against David Callahan, the co-founder of Demos. As anyone who knows me would guess, I judged Dr. Brook's position to be rock-solid and consistent with a comprehensive, rational, and principled worldview while Mr. Callahan's was concrete-bound, pragmatic, and "but"-laden. (By "but"-laden, I mean filled with craven, unprincipled compromises following the explicit or implicit pattern, "Freedom is nice, but . . .," "Justice is fine, but . . ., " etc. Actually, come to think of it, such compromises are not merely unprincipled but anti-principled, designed to attack and subvert a principle. In effect, the speaker pretends to stand by an abstract principle so long as it is shackled just a bit by his "nuanced," middle-of-the-road stance--such shackling being all that is required to completely undermine the principle.) 

Judge for yourself.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

17 November 2011

A Kiss

I came across this marvelous quote while browsing the Merriam-Webster web site.

A kiss is a lovely trick, designed by nature, to stop speech when words become superfluous.- Ingrid Bergman


Image credit, Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/top-ten-lists/top-10-favorite-quotations-about-words/top10_favquote_wbsuperfluous.jpg).

14 November 2011

Feel-good Football

I saw this clip on the football news programs yesterday and it brought a smile to my face. It’s the kind of scene that would strain credulity if it happened in a movie: Guy catches touchdown pass; guy runs the entire length of the field to the other team’s cheerleaders; guy hands one special cheerleader (who happens to be his girlfriend) the ball and gives her a great big victory hug. (Well, it wasn’t exactly a victory hug, since his team got crushed.)

Check out the story at NFL.com

Sometimes, life can be a chick flick.

I removed the YouTube link, which infringed upon NFL copyright, and replaced it with an image from NFL.com.

16 October 2011

Mere Hypocrisy

One of the incisive graphics that circulated on the Internet recently is a photograph titled, sarcastically, “Down with Evil Corporations.” The photo vividly illustrates the irony of an “Occupy Wall Street” mob shouting their protests of capitalism . . . all while using the products of the very capitalism they denounce.

It is perfectly valid to shine a light upon the ignorance and hypocrisy of the anti-capitalist crowd, and images like the one above are excellent concrete encapsulations of the protesters’ sheep-like innocence of facts and historical context. But in doing so it is important to keep in mind that there are deeper issues at stake than mere hypocrisy.

The reason I point this out is that on the surface, this common-sense criticism of the “Occupy Wall Street” mobs might seem to share ground with another famous (or infamous) argument that made the rounds on the Internet recently: Elizabeth Warren’s quote, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own, etc.” 

Image from BookWormRoom.com.

Superficially, these arguments may seem similar. The anti-capitalists have no grounds to criticize capitalism while snapping photographs with Sony cameras, shaving with Gillette razors, and wearing clothes from The Gap. In turn, capitalists have no grounds to criticize the government and high taxes while using public roads to transport goods, hiring workers educated in public schools, and feeling safe in their factories because of police protection. (Actually, Warren’s argument goes much further than merely accusing the rich of criticizing the government; her explicit goal is to seize a “big hunk” of producers’ wealth.) Both arguments amount to the idea that it is improper to simultaneously benefit from and complain about some condition or institution. 

However, to unite these two arguments would be a logical error; it would constitute an attempt to integrate concretes by non-essentials. When generalizing, it is necessary to apply the mental process of abstraction--but in doing so, one must not focus on non-essential attributes at the cost of fundamental principles. The mistake that would be made in attempting to unite Warren’s criticism of businessmen with that of bloggers’ and pundits’ criticisms of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters is to gloss over the content of those criticisms. 

The fundamental principle here is force. The "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators voluntarily use the fruits of a free society to complain about that free society. Under capitalism, nobody--including Google, Apple, IBM, Proctor & Gamble, Exxon-Mobil, Alcoa, DuPont, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Abercrombie & Fitch, WalMart, the local supermarket, barbershop, bodega, plumber, service station, or lemonade stand--can force you to use their products. The only way they can obtain your business is by offering you value--a value that you judged to be greater than the money you paid for it. No matter how much one believes big companies to have the “upper hand” over the “little guy,” it is not force.  On the contrary, the more the products of “Big Oil,” “Big Pharma,” “Big Food,” etc. are recognized to be vital human needs, the more crucial it is to identify the political freedom that makes such voluntary transactions possible. 

In contrast, a government by its very nature can only apply force. It is all they do. Force is the raison d’etre of governments; compulsion is all they bring to the table. When government force is used appropriately (i.e. in a retaliatory manner) via the police, armed forces, and court system, it serves to safeguard individual rights. When government force is used inappropriately (i.e. in an initiated manner), which includes any and all intrusions into the economy, education, and morality, it violates individual rights.

The first thing to be observed about Warren’s comment is that she conjoins proper (e.g. police) and improper (e.g. roads and education) functions of government without distinguishing between the two. But the point most relevant to this discussion is Warren’s accusation that the wealthy use government services without paying for them. (She had the brazen mendacity to say “the rest of us” paid for roads, education, etc., when in fact the wealthiest citizens shoulder the biggest tax load by far.) This disregards the fact that such “services” are forced upon all of us. Productive citizens are compelled to pay for government programs whether they like it or not.

Elizabeth Warren’s argument amounts to using the fact that the wealthy were forced to use the “services” of an intrusive government in the past as a pretext to force them to pay for still more government intrusions. These new “services,” being ever more difficult to avoid, serve as justification for the next generation of government intrusions, and so on. Ms. Warren’s declaration follows, in all relevant aspects, the form of a protection racket. Whether or not the self-righteous and thuggish manner with which she delivered it also follows the style of a protection racket may be judged by observing her performance directly.[1]

Those who condemn the “Occupy Wall Street” mob for their hatred of capitalism are right for the same reason that Elizabeth Warren is wrong. The fundamental issue is not mere hypocrisy but political liberty, of which Warren is an explicit enemy and most members of the mob are unthinking antagonists.


1. See the YouTube video, “Elizabeth Warren on Fair Taxation,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOyDR2b71ag.

22 September 2011

An Interesting Omission

In a brief post called "Presidential Plagiarist?" Ira Stoll was sharp enough to notice that in Barack Obama's "jobs speech," the president made a point that he pretty clearly took from the new book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum without giving any attribution to the authors. Now, considering that Mr. Obama is hell bent on destroying our country and the future of Americans, plagiarism is far from the greatest of his offenses, but what caught my eye is what the president did not lift from the passage.

Stoll quotes a paragraph from That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It invented and How We Can Come Back, in which Friedman and Mandelbaum make the following basic argument. (Below, I am paraphrasing and condensing the authors' statement to clarify the point I am going to make.)[1]

President Lincoln's administration passed several pieces of legislation to spur the transition from an agragrian to an industrial society:(1) the Homestead Act of 1862,(2) legislation related to the transcontinental railway,(3) the creation of the National Academy of Sciences, and(4) the establishment of land grant colleges.

In his speech, the President made nearly the identical statement. (Again, I am paraphrasing.)

President Lincoln's administration passed several pieces of legislation to spur the transition from an agragrian to an industrial society:(1) legislation related to the transcontinental railway,(2) the creation of the National Academy of Sciences, and(3) the establishment of land grant colleges.

Do you notice anything missing in the president's speech? Mr. Obama conspicuously dropped the Homestead Act from the items that Friedman and Mandelbaum had listed. Interesting, is it not? The Homestead Act is the one piece of legislation out of the four Friedman and Mandelbaum mentioned that does not constitute government meddling in the economy, science, or education--and Mr. Obama left it out.[2]
I can think of only two reasons why the president may have done so. Either he simply forgot it, being unable to mentally grasp or retain any freedom-respecting policies like the Homestead Act, or he deliberately omitted it because in his worldview, the purpose of government is to command and control individuals, not to set them free. Either way, it is interesting to see that Mr. Obama can't even get something right when he is copying others' work.


1. Ira Stoll, "Presidential Plagiarist?", Future of Capitalism, September 8, 2011, http://www.futureofcapitalism.com/2011/09/presidential-plagiarist.

2. The Homestead Act is a good example of government functioning properly.
In her essay, "The Property Status of Airwaves," Ayn Rand wrote, "A notable example of the proper method of establishing private ownership from scratch, in a previously ownerless area, is the Homestead Act of 1862, by which the government opened the western frontier for settlement and turned 'public land' over to private owners. The government offered a 160-acre farm to any adult citizen who would settle on it and cultivate it for five years, after which it would become his property. Although that land was originally regarded, in law, as 'public property,' the method of its allocation, in fact, followed the proper principle (in fact, but not in explicit ideological intention). The citizens did not have to pay the government as if it were an owner; ownership began with them, and they earned it by the method which is the source and root of the concept of 'property': by working on unused material resources, by turning a wilderness into a civilized settlement. Thus, the government, in this case, was acting not as the owner but as the custodian of ownerless resources who defines objectively impartial rules by which potential owners may acquire them.

This should have been the principle and pattern of the allocation of broadcasting frequencies." 

From Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 124.

15 September 2011

Attack Watch

I've seen some good responses from Americans who are not cowed by the latest snitch line that was established by Obama's minions--the "Obama for America" website, AttackWatch.

My favorite was from my wife:

Dear @attackwatch, I'd like report Reality and History: Both rail against Obama's central planning efforts. You should check them out.


12 September 2011

Faith and Sacrifice

In his recent Forbes article, Richard Salsman made an excellent point that I wish I had thought of when I was writing my last post. On the subject of the September 11 attacks, he wrote:

While 9/11 also exhibited the evils of religion, most U.S. politicians and citizens responded by becoming still more religious. Most people also extol the alleged "self-sacrifice" of "first responders," not realizing how that dishonors the responders' love of life and liberty -- and implies that the suicidal jihadist-hijackers also were morally noble.[1]

That is quite true. To remain logically consistent, those who extol faith and sacrifice would have to reserve special praise for the terrorists themselves, who exemplify faith and sacrifice far more than do the civilized innocents and heroes that they murdered. It is under the banners of faith and sacrifice, in both religious and secular forms, that the worst horrors of history have been perpetrated.

With all respect and sympathy for the family members and friends of the victims, who have endured unimaginable pain, turning toward religion in the mourning of loved ones serves the interests of their killers. Seeking succor in God--seeking everything in God--and rejecting reason is precisely what Islam demands.


1. Richard M. Salsman, "Why Washington Resists Victory in a Post-9/11 World," Forbes, Spetember 11, 2011, http://www.forbes.com/sites/richardsalsman/2011/09/11/why-washington-resists-victory-in-a-post-911-world/.

11 September 2011

Ten Years

Ten years ago, a band of Muslims attacked the United States of America. In the ten years since, the semi-free governments of the world have done exactly nothing about it except to surrender, yield, appease, and apologize. 

George W. Bush immediately (and correctly) called for retaliation against the regimes that harbor and support the killers--but he did it in speech only, not in action, then used his years in office to subvert it all by insisting that we are not a war with Islam and that it is a religion of peace. After this, Americans enthusiastically placed into office the most overtly un-American president in history, Barack Obama, a man who both figuratively[1] and literally bows to the leaders of Muslim nations (as did Mr. Bush). Ten years after the atrocity, we hear Tony Blair boast that he reads the Qur’an every day.[2] (Can one imagine Winston Churchill, ten years after the Blitz, boasting that he reads Mein Kampf every day?)

September 11th was not a tragedy; it was an atrocity. It was not a mass murder perpetrated by mere crazy people, disconnected from larger ideas, as the apologists would have us believe. It was an explicit attack of Islamists acting as Islamists upon the institutions of the West. Robert Spencer summarizes it well:

We were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, by Islamic jihadists who explained, in writings they left behind, that they were committing mass murder in the name of Islam, inspired by the teachings of Islam, and in defense, as they saw it, of Islam. They struck the United States in service of their hope of destroying it, and ultimately imposing upon the U.S., the West and the world an Islamic government that would rule according to Islamic law, which denies the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience and equality of rights for all people.[3]

The fact that mass murderers hijacked airplanes was all but forgotten amid the rush to insist that the murderers hijacked a religion--a “religion of peace.” 

Islam is indeed a religion of peace in one and only respect: When every human being on the planet has yielded to Sharia law, devout Muslim men will at last consent to leave the rest of us in peace . . . to be the subjects of their cruelties, superstitions, appetites, and perversions. Until then, their holy commandment is to “slay the idolators wherever you find them.”(Sura 9:5)

Unlike Westerners, who with few exceptions do not understand the nature and purpose of the enemy, the jihadists know exactly whom they are fighting. In order to make room for Sharia, in order to achieve universal obedience to Allah, in order to enslave the human race to the will of Mohammed and his followers, it is necessary to destroy the human mind. One could hardly have picked a better target than the World Trade Center in New York City. The Twin Towers are--or rather, were--the embodiment of human achievement, set in the capital city of human achievement. Skyscrapers soar skyward with foundations that rest upon science and technology, which in turn rest upon trade, which in turn rests upon freedom, which in turn rests upon reason. The Towers were the conspicuous monoliths of modern civilization--the twin pinnacles of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution--and it is precisely those values that the jihadists wish to knock down. Free men do not obey Allah; thus, freedom must be destroyed.

It is beside the point to cite the fact that America has not been attacked on our soil since that infamous day in 2001. It is no matter to the Islamists if they knock down our institutions or if we will save them the trouble and do it for them. If David Letterman cannot crack a joke without being threatened by killers who are confident that they can get away with their threats, then we are losing--or have already lost--the war. 

War, you may ask? What war? The “war on terror” is not a war. Only Congress can declare war, and our Congressmen lack the courage to do so, despite our enemy declaring war upon us at least as far back as the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. War cannot be declared upon a tactic, terrorism. War must be declared upon an enemy: the states that support Islamic totalitarianism.

In the aftermath of September 11, there was much talk about the failure to “connect the dots,” aimed largely at the intelligence agencies and politicians who “let this happen.” But it is absurd to blame intelligence agents for failing to “connect the dots” when the weight of the mainstream intellectual elite is overwhelming dedicated to disconnecting dots--which is to say, performing the mental contortions required to hold countless Muslim terrorist attacks as disparate and unconnected events, and evading the meaning of the explicit goals and intents of our enemies.

If there is such a thing as a history book in the future--which, in this self-loathing culture bent on submitting meekly to a multiculturalist elite, is no sure thing--the men who are still permitted to read books will be amazed at these inexplicable events of our time. They will see the United States of America, the most glorious product of the Enlightenment values of reason and freedom, being defeated by a marauding band of anachronistic barbarians. 

Why, future historians will wonder, was the strongest nation in the world militarily simultaneously the weakest morally? Stranger still, why was this so when the United States was objectively the most moral nation in history--the nation explicitly founded upon individual rights, the nation born of the idea that all men must be free to live their lives as they judge best? How could mobs of primitive, superstitious thugs who explicitly embrace death cause a population of civilized people who want to live and be happy to doubt themselves?

The answer is that thanks to the philosophical trends of the last century or so, Americans on the whole have lost the moral conviction that we are right--and have lost the moral courage to say so. 

But it must be said: The American way, by which I mean the explicit, constitutional enshrinement of individual rights as the law of the land, is superior in every possible respect to the Islamist way, by which I mean the enshrinement of Mohammedan commands as the will of Allah. Reason is superior to faith. Thinking is superior to believing. Freedom is superior to slavery. Life is superior to death. Trade is superior to murder. Self-interest is superior to sacrifice. Capitalism is superior to theocracy. Acting on one’s judgement is superior to obeying the Qur’an (or Bible, Torah, etc.). The freedom to speak one’s mind (including the freedom to offend someone) is superior to the fear of being beheaded for doing so. Respectfully holding a door open for a beautiful, bare-shouldered woman as she passes is superior to beating her to death for not covering her face.[4]

For holding these apparently controversial opinions, I would be condemned as a “bigot” by nearly every journalist, university professor, and self-proclaimed enlightened intellectual, and condemned to death by perhaps a billion people on the planet. 

As Daniel Pipes has accurately identified, Islamist terrorism does not constitute a clash of civilizations but a clash of civilization and barbarism. The barbarians cannot possibly defeat us militarily, but they can defeat us by default if we do not stand up for what is right. Ten years after the September 11th attacks, we as a nation have yet to do so.


[1] See, for example, Mr. Obama’s 2009 speech in Egypt, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-cairo-university-6-04-09.

[2] “I read the Holy Quran everyday: Tony Blair,” The Express Tribune, http://tribune.com.pk/story/188297/i-read-the-holy-quran-everyday-former-british-pm-tony-blair/.

[3] Robert Spencer, “A decade out, we’re losing,” Jihad Watch, September 11, 2011, http://www.jihadwatch.org/2011/09/a-decade-out-were-losing.html.

[4] I used the term “is superior” here in a terse series of sentences only to emphasize the point from the aspect of cultural evaluation--namely, that America is superior to her enemies. Every sentence actually understates the case. For instance, “reason is superior to faith” hardly captures the fact that reason is the only means of obtaining knowledge and faith is absolutely impotent. Faith is not merely inferior to reason; it is nothing.

02 September 2011

Happy Atlas Shrugged Day!

Cool! I extend a hat tip to The Objective Standard for reminding me that Ayn Rand started writing Atlas Shrugged on this day, September 2, sixty-five years ago.

15 July 2011

OCON 2011

We returned from this year’s Objectivist Conferences a few days ago, so here I will post a few notes about it. I had a really wonderful time. The conference somehow seemed a little more subdued than the last OCON we attended (Boston, 2009), an atmosphere Lynne marked even more than I did, but it was still very inspiring and informative for me.

Yaron Brook set the theme—actually two themes—in his opening lecture: Objectivism is both radical and hard. This is not news, of course, but the two adjectives, radical and hard, kept resurfacing during the lectures. Ayn Rand’s discoveries may seem like common sense—indeed, my reaction, when I first devoured the novels and the non-fiction almost thirty years ago, was that it all seemed so obvious—but in fact the material is difficult and takes years to fully integrate. (I am nowhere near having fully integrated the material myself.) Ayn Rand did all the heavy lifting, but good scholarship is needed today: books, speakers, university positions, etc. And because we are badly outnumbered by the bad guys (i.e. collectivists, statists, and mystics), we who fight for reason and freedom must be excellent. We need to be fighters, to have fire in the belly, to be unafraid.

My “takeaway” from the conference is this. To flourish in life, it is enough to be right in my personal life. However, if I am to participate in a change in the culture—if I am to assist in arresting and reversing the momentum of the civilized world as it hurtles toward statism—it is not enough to simply be right. I must be able to demonstrate and convey the rightness of reason and rational self-interest. The task is nothing short of reversing at least two thousand years of moral inertia. I’ve been living my life and working hard at my job, but I need to accomplish more on this change-the-culture front.

One conference attendee asked an interesting question. Paraphrasing, it went something like this: “It has been said that great ideas are first ignored, then ridiculed, then opposed, then accepted. Where in this progression are we [i.e. Objectivism] now?” It seems pretty clear to me that we are well past the “ignored” stage and have moved into the “ridiculed” stage, perhaps even to the “opposed” stage. An increasing portion of the attention Ayn Rand is getting is serious; her ideas are often disagreed with, but they are represented more or less correctly quite often. This is tremendous progress. Naturally, there still exists an enormous hostility to Rand among certain mentalities, both on the left and the right, who reserve their most revolting vitriol for the ideas that they seem to recognize are the greatest threat to their irrationality (indeed, they are correct on this count), but it has an increasing tone of desperation. 


On Independence Day, John Ridpath did a moving reading of Thomas Jefferson’s last letter, which was written in June 1826. (If you’ve ever heard Ridpath speak, you know how dramatic his deep, sonorous voice is.) The ailing Jefferson was writing to regretfully decline an invitation to attend a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence. The whole letter is amazing, and it includes this gem: 

May it [i.e. the Declaration] be to the world, what I believe it will be . . . the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves . . . All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.[1]



In his lecture, “Individual Rights and Health Care Reform: A Patient’s Perspective,” John David Lewis shared his personal experiences that he had with a team of doctors during a recent serious illness, linking his observations to the wider ideas of freedom and individual rights. It is no surprise that doctors generally exhibit an extraordinary orientation to reality, a “deeply and profoundly Aristotelian approach,” as Dr. Lewis put it. The subjugation of doctors, other health care professionals, and patients to Washington bureaucrats is an evil that is almost too monstrous to fathom. Government rules are placed between minds and reality; they are obstructions, thwarting men’s abilities to judge and act. Government intervention is nothing short of an attack on life itself.


I believe the gem of the conference for me was Thomas Shoebotham’s wonderful set of lectures, “Bach and the 19th Century.” Shoebotham covered Bach’s background and major influences, such as Buxtehude and Pachelbel, as well as the foreign influences from Italy (Corelli and Vivaldi) and France (Lully and Rameau). He reviewed some technical material—counterpoint and fugue, the chaconne, the passacaglia, and the German chorale—then traced the influence that Bach’s music had on other composers, from Beethoven and Mozart, to Mendelssohn (who almost single-handedly revived Bach’s music from popular obscurity), to Chopin, Brahms, and Wagner. He made a lot of fascinating connections, and it was thrilling and very instructive to hear Shoebotham play excerpts on piano and cello, both instruments of which he plays quite proficiently.


In “The Culture of ‘Package-Dealing’,” Peter Schwartz lectured upon the topic of anti-concepts, which are conceptual “package deals” that have the purpose of destroying legitimate concepts. They function by the implicit substitution of essentials by non-essentials. Classification by non-essential properties paralyses an unwitting mind, obstructing his ability to distinguish the proper referents to a concept from improper ones, and crucially, impairing his ability to identify what ought to be regarded as essential. 

A few examples that were given in the lecture will illustrate the idea. The term “judgmentalism,” for instance, obliterates rational judgment; all judgment, including that which is warranted and rational, is condemned under the sweeping rule that “one must not judge.” The concept of a “stakeholder” destroys that of a shareholder, diluting ownership—actual property rights—with the idea that many others have claims to “a piece of the pie.” The word “simplistic” obliterates principled thinking; the practice of integrating information and identifying fundamentals, as opposed to holding all facts as isolated and unrelated, is thus derided as unjustified over-simplification. The term “divisive” silences principled arguments against mainstream irrational ideas (e.g. multiculturalism).

And of course, the archetype of package deals is selfishness. In this case, a new word was not coined, but a new meaning supplanted the proper one. Selfishness should mean a rational and moral concern for one’s own life and values; it is a virtue. But today, selfishness has come to mean “a pursuit of desires at the expense of others.” This is a disastrous package deal. It lumps together the honest man who works for a living with the thug who picks pockets in a crowd. It blurs the distinction between the entrepreneur who opens a bottle of champagne to celebrate a success and the junkie who shoot heroin to temporarily satisfy an urge to escape his miserable existence. The life-sustaining virtue of long range self-interest is thus replaced by the notion that selfishness is hedonistic or predatory, which serves the purpose of destroying the virtue.


Perhaps the most challenging and rewarding class I took was Jason Rheins course, “The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant (part 2): Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” Rheins pointed out that it is Kant more than anybody else who in his ethics has influenced subsequent intellectuals. Rheins did an excellent job covering a lot of difficult material in only three sessions: Kant’s distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge and the epistemological division of the numenal and the phenomenal; the derivation of morality from “practical reason”; a contrast of Kant’s deontological (duty-based) ethics with axiological (value-based) ethics; the concepts of acting from duty as opposed to in accordance with duty, and the resulting moral significance of each; the distinction between moral imperatives that Kant called “hypothetical” from those he called “categorical”; and the “formula for humanity,” the “highest good.” I had had a basic idea of some of this material before, but this course provided a lot of clarification and depth.


The one optional class that Lynne and I took together was John David Lewis’ course, “The History of Ancient Greece: The Early Fourth Century.” (We love Dr. Lewis. He is one of the most brilliant, impassioned, and courageous intellectuals alive today—a hero worthy of the Greeks that he knows so thoroughly. He greeted us warmly even though he hadn’t seen us in two years.) The material he covered was quite interesting—I know a fair amount about the 5th century BC, but I was inclined to regard the 4th century as nothing but a decline for Greece, which is a rather conventional viewpoint. Dr. Lewis sees this as a profound mistake, saying he can “make a good case that the 4th century has it hands down over the 5th!” When the facts are integrated properly, a few important ideas emerge. For one thing, Athens recovered rapidly after the Peloponnesian War, returning to prosperity—and crucially, when it constructed a second Athenian League, it faced and solved many of the problems that had plagued its first attempt with the Delian League in the previous century. (The Athenians did not have the concept of individual rights, of course, but many of their considerations struck remarkably close to a respect for freedom.) This period also saw the decline of statist Sparta, as its façade of invincibility—the “Spartan mirage”—crumbled to expose a rotten core. The Spartan decline corresponded to an ascendancy of Thebes, the great general Epaminondas, and the dramatic liberation of Messenia in 369 BC.

The tale is ultimately tragic, however. The Greeks never quite solved the federalist problem; that is, they never quite resolved the desire for autonomia—autonomy and independence for the polis—with the practical benefits of a joint defense for all of Greece. This left them vulnerable for what was to come: the rise of Macedonia.


Lynne and I both really enjoyed the unexpected surprise of meeting Luc Travers, a teacher at Van Damme Academy, and author of the book, Touching the Art. (Lynne has already read the book, and I have now moved it closer to the top of my pile!) Travers is infectiously enthusiastic, and he generously invited our daughters to his brief presentation (which turned into a standing-room-only performance) of his approach to art, which we all enjoyed.


John Allison, who is one of the indefatigable champions of Objectivism and former chairman and CEO of BB&T, presented a lecture on “Teamwork and Independence,” which presented a view that is undoubtedly unconventional in the business world. In essence, Allison refuted the pat expression, “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” (Those are my words, not Allison’s.) His system is meritorious, rewarding independent thinking, honesty, and productivity.


Another important point for me to keep in mind, which came out in a lecture Dr. Brook and Don Watkins presented called “”The End of Big Government,” is that it is essential to differentiate capitalism from the mixed economy we have today. It is obvious to Objectivists that the mixed economy is not capitalism, but the general public is likely to believe it is, particularly since that is what they are told by their teachers and the news media.

It is thus crucial to demonstrate the win-win nature of unfettered capitalism and the trader principle. And of course, the deeper message is the morality of capitalism; at its root is the protection of individual rights, the elimination of initiated physical force in human relationships, the selfish pursuit of happiness for every person. After all, as Dr. Brook said, “We are the heirs of the Enlightenment.”


I took Harry Binswanger’s class, “Principles,” which had a lot of challenging material that it will take me a while to mentally “chew” on. The basic issue regarding principled thinking is that of fundamentality, which is established from the perspective of hierarchical causal (and, I believe, logical) dependencies. Principles are vital tools of cognition; they offer a condensed view of all consequences to particular actions, and thus permit long-range thinking.

I would guess that much of Dr. Binswanger’s presentation is based upon material from his forthcoming book, which is still in the editing stage, so I am very much looking forward to its appearance. 


One final note on the conference: I would be remiss not to mention the great time we had meeting some old friends and some new friends. On every morning but one, Lynne and I hit the hotel gym at oh-six-hundred hours, where we met two or three friends to do some CrossFit training. We had the pleasure of making some new acquaintances at an HBL get-together, had some nice conversations while milling about in the hotel lobby, and were thrilled to have lunch and dinner with some friends that we had previously only known online. We even went salsa dancing with a few friends one evening, which ended with a limousine ride back to the hotel. (I had fun, though I admit the deepest conceivable incompetence in salsa dancing, not to mention an utter inability to hear a single word of conversation in the din.)


1. “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman,” Monticello, June 24, 1826, Library of Congress, “http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/rcwltr.html”.

04 July 2011

Independence Day 2011

To the Founding Fathers, there was no authority higher than the individual mind, not King George, not God, not society. Reason, wrote Ethan Allen, is "the only oracle of man," and Thomas Jefferson advised us to "fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God." That is the meaning of independence: trust in your own judgment, in reason; do not sacrifice your mind to the state, the church, the race, the nation, or your neighbors.[1]

This excerpt from an article Michael Berliner wrote a couple of years ago reminds us how radical were the ideas of the Founding Fathers. Shamefully, these ideas are nearly as radical (and possibly more so) now as they were then, a testament to how much philosophical ground has been lost in the last century or so. If we are to save the country in which freedom has been most dearly earned, we must convince Americans to "question with boldness" the overwhelming demands to accept sacrifice as noble and moral, and to pursue their own selfish interests, their own happiness, with the confidence that it is right to do so.

This I address to the Americans of the world, where you may still be found: Happy Independence Day.


Michael Berliner, "Put the Independence Back in Independence Day,"1 Jul 2009, Capitalism Magazine, "http://www.capitalismmagazine.com/culture/5217-put-the.html".

Image from capmag.com.

21 June 2011

Jim Williams and Bob Pease

I was shocked to discover that two of the great minds of analog circuitry—two of my engineering heroes—died recently in the span of a few days. Jim Williams of Linear Technology died of a massive stroke that he had suffered on June 10th. Then, incredibly, Bob Pease of National Semiconductor was killed in a car crash after leaving Williams’ memorial service.

Both of these men were unquestionably brilliant in the field of electronics, authors of books, countless application notes, and articles. But what made them stand out in my mind is their unwavering focus upon practical, economical results. These were not academic geniuses publishing esoterica but real engineers that cared about getting their products to work well in their customers’ circuits. Both were outspoken proponents of getting “down and dirty” with the soldering iron, building prototypes and measuring the circuitry itself instead of relying on computer models, and above all, thinking about what is happening in the circuit.

I met Jim Williams once, probably about twenty years ago, at a Linear Technology seminar. I don’t remember if I exchanged more than a couple of words of greeting with him. I was still something of a rookie engineer, and I believe I was a little star-struck. This awe had nothing to do with his personality, though; he was as approachable as it is possible to be.

Williams was a prolific author of applications notes, some of which have come to be favorites of mine. If you’re not an electrical engineer, you may not be familiar with application notes. Essentially, they are technical articles published by integrated circuit companies that give practical advice on the use of the company’s products. Now such articles are available in PDF form on the internet, of course, but in the “old days,” which is to say, the ‘90’s and earlier, application notes were compiled and bound into beautiful soft-cover “data books,” which were available for no charge. (The semiconductor companies would give them away in the hopes that engineers would learn about their products and be that much more likely to use them in designs.)

I accumulated several hundred data books over the years, most of which I have since discarded, but the data books of four companies—Analog Devices, Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor, and Linear Technology—stood far above the rest, and they still populate my shelves. The applications notes of these four companies are classics, generally transcending the ordinary by providing advice and techniques that are widely applicable to all aspects of circuit design. Jim Williams was among the best authors of these notes. His writings were clear, completely free of academic vanity, and peppered with his unique wit and wisdom. 

Some glimpses into the mind of Jim Williams.

I saw Bob Pease once, when he was a speaker at a National Semiconductor seminar, though I don’t believe that I actually introduced myself. I own an excellent book that he wrote, Troubleshooting Analog Circuits, and I am sure that many of the little techniques and habits I currently employ in my designs are derived from Pease’s writings. One article alone, a little gem called “Understand Capacitor Soakage to Optimize Analog Systems,” has revolutionized my designs in sample-and-hold circuits and analog integrators.

Interestingly, my only contact with him was an exchange of letters many years ago. Unfortunately, I cannot find the correspondence in my files (I’ll write a separate post if I ever find it), but I wrote him a note objecting to a point he made in one of his columns—I think he had advocated government interference in an area that ought to be free from meddling. All I remember is that in my note to Pease I believe I mentioned Ayn Rand and certainly quoted Cypress Semiconductor’s T.J. Rodgers (another hero of mine); in his reply to me, Pease was unmoved, writing that T.J. Rodgers could “go to hell”! In any case, this exchange did not significantly detract from my opinion of Pease; if anything, it emphasized his passion. The fact that he even bothered to write and mail a reply impressed me. If his great precision and independence in thinking does not necessarily extend to philosophical matters, he is hardly unique in that. He remains an extraordinary figure and one of my great engineering heroes.

Some glimpses into the mind of Bob Pease.


1. Paul Rako, “Analog guru Jim Williams dies after a stroke,” EDN Magazine, June 13, 2011, “http://www.edn.com/article/518496-Analog_guru_Jim_Williams_dies_after_stroke.php”.

2. Joseph Esposito, “Bob Pease Remembered For Pease Porridge And A Whole Lot More,” Electronic Design Magazine, June 20, 2011, “http://electronicdesign.com/print/analog-and-mixed-signal/Bob-Pease-Remembered-For-Pease-Porridge-And-A-Whole-Lot-More.aspx”.

Be sure to check out this excellent post at the Computer History Museum.

Credit goes to Linear Technology, specifically the data book "1990 Linear Applications Handbook - Volume 1," from which I captured a few pages of Jim Williams writings and drawings. From the EDN magazine web site I obtained the image of Jim Williams, and the picture of Bob Pease comes from the National Semiconductor web site. Finally, the representative images of Pease's column are from some clippings I saved from Electronic Design magazine.

22 May 2011

A Dirty Word

Shortly after formally announcing his entry into the pool of Republicans running for president, Newt Gingrich appeared on "Meet the Press" to present his views, presumably for the purpose of motivating Americans to vote for him in 2012.
Mr. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who led a conservative resurgence in the 1990's, said the Republican Medicare plan was "too big a jump" for Americans and compared it to the health care overhaul championed by President Obama. 
"I'm against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change," Mr. Gingrich said . . . "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering," he said. "I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate."[1]

It would be hard to improve upon these few sentences in articulating a thoroughly middle-of-the-road position. In case there were any lingering thoughts that the "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994 signaled anything revolutionary about the man himself, Mr. Gingrich wishes to reassure us that he is fundamentally a compromising milquetoast--which is to say, he is a suitable Republican candidate.

The essence of Mr. Gingrich's position is that in the midst of rampant federal spending, meddling in the economy, and regulation of every aspect of citizens' lives--all of which has been increasing alarmingly for at least the last two presidential administrations--the proper position to take is: hold the line. The problem, according to Mr. Gingrich, is "radical change" itself, not whether changes are for good or ill.

The real evil of Mr. Gingrich's position can be found in the last words that I quoted: his reference to a "free society." The implication of Gingrich's statement is that anything "radical"--even the restoration of freedom and individual rights in America, which today is about as radical as anything I can imagine--would constitute an undesirable "imposition" upon citizens. I have made the point many times that Republicans are far worse than Democrats in that they ostensibly defend liberty, free markets, capitalism but then ultimately compromise the principles to which they give lip service. This is dreadfully destructive because it undermines liberty; it guarantees all the failures of the welfare state while ensuring that freedom gets the blame. At least Democrats have the honesty to be overt enemies of freedom.

The most alarming part of Newt Gringrich's remarks is that it makes me wonder if his calculations might be correct. He is surely a savvy politician so it is troubling that he has the confidence to present himself as a Washington compromiser in the face of a Tea Party movement that, though far from consistent, is the only bright spot in the political landscape. Can it really be true that so few Americans recognize the peril of the massive government intrusion--the precipitous withering of freedom--that has taken place under Bush-Obama? Can it be true that Republicans will rally around a message of compromise? I hope Mr. Gingrich has guessed badly.

I was encouraged by a recent Reuters special report (hat tip to HBL) that showed that conventional Republicans continue to be punished for plodding on with their compromising ways. The article hit the nail on the head: "The trouble is while compromise is a trademark of Washington politics, to many Tea Partiers it is a dirty word."[2]

The Reuters article included a cute quip that actually revealed more than it may have intended. "'The Ohio state Republican Party would screw up a free lunch in a soup kitchen,' said Ralph King of the Cleveland Tea Party."[2] Perhaps so. However, the real question is not why the Republicans would "screw up" a free lunch but why they are driven to offer a free lunch in the first place. A "free lunch" is a product and apt symbol of the "progressive" socialist policies that have plagued America off and on for more than a century. A "free lunch"--which constitutes the forced "redistribution" of property from those who have earned it to those who have not--is a symbol proudly held aloft by Democrats and (usually) rejected by Republicans. But to the continuing shame of Republicans, even as they decry the "free lunch" they give it moral sanction. Lip service aside, Republicans act at root upon the same principles of collectivism and sacrifice that underpin the Democrats: the idea that the needs of the poor, the elderly, the "underpriviledged," etc. trump the rights of individuals. Republicans routinely invoke the rights to life and liberty in their speeches but compromise at every turn, ultimately asking meekly for simply a little less sacrifice than their Democratic colleagues demand. 

If the country is to be saved, it will not come about by simply taking the foot off the political accelerator pedal as we plunge toward a full-blown welfare state, which is what Republicans are currently offering. It will require a widespread cultural shift away from a morality that holds sacrifice as a virtue, either proudly or apologetically.


1. “Gingrich Calls G.O.P.’s Medicare Plan Too Radical,” The New York Times, 15 May 2011, “http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/16/us/politics/16gingrich.html?scp=1&sq=Medicare%20Plan%20Too%20Radical&st=cse”.

2. "Special report: Stuck between the Tea Party and a hard place," Reuters, 17 May 2011, "http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE74G37C20110517?irpc=932".