This Blog: February 2017

I was in the elevator of a building where important people are known to frequent and I overheard an interesting conversation. Two men were talking about politics in a general way and one of them used the phrase “Cloud People.” In fact, he said “It is Cloud People versus the Dirt People and we will all have to choose sides.” The two men were unfamiliar to me and they did not have the look of important people. Although I have never been an important person, I have been in the same room with them and I can usually spot them.

I guess I was too obvious in my eavesdropping as it was clear to me they noticed I was listening, so I said, “I’m sorry, but I could not help but hear what you said. What did you mean by Cloud People?” The truth is, I don’t think anyone but me uses that term. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the whole Cloud People versus the Dirty People motif is my invention. But, you never know so that’s why I asked. That and I wanted to shift the focus from the fact I was listening to their conversation.

The guy who was doing the talking was quick to volunteer that he had picked up the phrase on Facebook from one of his friends, who he told me worked in politics. Why he volunteered the last bit is unclear, but my guess is he just assumes that’s the origin of the Cloud People stuff. Regardless, it was a funny moment for me. It is entirely possible that I have coined a phrase that is now getting some circulation in the wider world. These things have to start somewhere, but I’ve never put much thought into where or how they get going.

It did remind me that I have not posted a site update in a few months. In fact, it was back in November after the election. The readership keeps growing. According to the tool I use to estimate average monthly readership, I’m pushing 90,000 now, which is about ten percent increase since November. I’m never quite sure if that tool is correct, but it does seem to track with overall site traffic. In fact, traffic is way up setting daily records on a regular basis so maybe that’s why my pithy expressions are getting loose in the general public. I could be famous and not know it.

I am, of course, grateful that people take the time to read my posts and share them on social media. Facebook and Twitter continue to be big drivers of traffic. Gab is now starting to be a big source of traffic. Something I’ve noticed is I get a fair amount of links back to specific comments, meaning that part of the increase in traffic is the active and interesting comments here. I can’t help but notice that the volume of comments is way up too so that means more traffic and more new readers.

One thing I have noticed is that when I write about the Cloud People stuff, those posts get passed around a lot. This one broke a record for hits in a day. I thought it could be the Trump angle, but looking at the traffic numbers, the Cloud People/Dirt People topic is just more popular than I would have guessed. The great divide in America is never discussed in the popular press and even the hate thinkers tend to avoid it. My guess is the admonitions against class warfare from our betters is the reason few talk about it.

The plan going forward is more of the same. I have been looking at maybe doing a podcast or perhaps get on the GabTV ride. I listen to a lot of podcasts and internet radio, but I don’t know if I have the voice or the talent to actually do it. The video stuff has the advantage of being easy as the smart kids have worked out the technology to do it from a  phone or tablet. The downside is that all the ones I have seen look like hostage videos or really bad video dating examples. The result is I’m still mulling these options over.

The other bit of site news is I am working on a book. I’m looking at the self-publishing options mostly because I just want to see how it works, but also because I have no interest in dealing with publishers. I have a friend in the book game who says I am nuts and I’d have no trouble finding a publisher that would make the process simple. We’ll see about that, but I have to write the book first so that means I may stop posting on weekends in order to make time for the new project. We’ll see how that goes.

Otherwise, I thank everyone for reading and I’m grateful to those who pass the word and bring new readers into the fold via social media.

Essential Knowledge: Part V

Rome is such a big topic, it not only deserves a post of its own, but it can be studied in isolation as it encompasses so much of Western history. The most obvious reason for this is the Romans were around for a long time. The traditional dating of the start of the Republic is 509 BC and the end of the Western Empire is 476 AD. That’s roughly one thousand years and it was an action packed and dramatic thousand year run too. Rome features some of the most colorful characters in human history.

There is something else. The Greeks were a culture, but the Romans were a civilization that incorporated the culture of the Greeks. Culture is the spirit of the people, the world view that results from their shared history. The Greek culture was a product of the people and their place in the eastern Mediterranean. It is their literature and philosophy, their understanding of man’s relationship to other men and the world in general. It is the structure of their language, which is a reflection of how they thought about the world.

Civilization, on the other hand, is the end point, the destination of culture. It is the tangible product of cultural yearnings. Culture is the belief in self-governance. Civilization is a constitutional assembly. The Romans adopted Greek culture and built a mighty civilization. Because Rome carried the spirit of the Greeks throughout the known world, planting its seeds throughout Europe, knowing the Romans is to know the essence of Western culture. You cannot know the West, without knowing Rome.

Traditionally, you learned about Rome by reading Gibbon. You can buy the The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from Amazon for $133.00 or if you want to read it from a tablet, you can get it for two dollars, which is one million Canadian dollars.There are many better options than this, which we will get into next, but having some familiarity with Gibbon is a good idea, as you will find that later writers refer to him regularly. Spending a couple of dollars to have him in your digital library is a good idea, even if it is just as a reference work..

Then there is Latin. Learning some Latin is a good idea for anyone who likes knowing stuff. One of the worst things to happen to education in the modern age is the end of Latin instruction in the schools. Knowing even a little bit helps expand your language skills as an English speaker. In the case of Roman history, it is a good idea to have some basic knowledge of Latin, which means buying a primary school grammar used by home schoolers. You are not going to be reading Caesar in the original, but you get enough of the basics.It’s not necessary, but recommended.

The most basic way of thinking about Rome is to break up its history into three periods. The founding through the Republic, the Empire starting with Augustus and then the late Empire, when things got squirrely and the Empire was in decline. A recent book that will take you from the founding through the Empire, but stopping at the Late Empire, is Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. It was a best seller and it a great read. An excellent study on the transition of Rome from a Republic to an Empire is The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire.

A particularly important period in Roman history is the third century, when the Empire was staggering from one crisis to the next. This is the period that gave rise to Diocletian and Constantine, two people who have cast a very long shadow over Western history. It used to be a topic of study in the US Army War College for both military tactics and crisis management. It is fair to say that without Constantine, there is no Christian West. The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine is the only book I know of that focuses just on this period.

A controversial book on Late Empire Roman military tactics is The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century CE to the Third by Edward Luttwak. It is controversial for two reasons. One is that Luttwak is not a historian or classicist, so he is treading on people’s turf. More important, he offers an alternative to the dominant view of how the Roman army managed to keep the barbarians at bay, despite the numerical advantages of the barbarians. It’s an interesting read on a topic that has implications for the modern era.

Finally, for those who like podcasts, one of the best history podcasts ever is also on the history of Rome. Mike Duncan’s podcast is incredibly well done and it covers the entire history of Rome to the fall of the Western Empire.  For those who like a long, dramatic retelling of history, Dan Carlin’s Death Throws of Rome is fun and informative. You can always get the narrated version of Gibbon from Audible, which is becoming a popular alternative to podcasts. Think of audio books as long play podcasts.

Finally, this brings us back to Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire has two interesting angles to explore. One is why it lasted so long despite the external stresses and the internal conflict. History books do a good job of covering that material. The other angle is why did the Western Empire collapse when the Eastern Empire continued on? That’s a subject that offers some insights into why a thousand years later the West was ready to roar past the rest of humanity.

The New Barnum

The Latin proverb audentes Fortuna iuvat is usually translated into English as “Fortune favors the bold.” It has been used by a variety a martial organizations in the West over the centuries. For example, it appears on the regimental insignia of the 3rd Marine Regiment. The British SAS uses “who dares wins” as their motto. The American idiom, “he who hesitates is lost”, is a mistranslation of Cato, but again, the appeal is obvious so it’s easy to see why it has become common.

The point being is that acting boldly has always been seen as a benefit. We associate it with the successful. It’s why mothers tell their sons to stand up straight. It’s why fathers teach their sons to have a firm handshake. The confident guy, who bounds into a room and takes charge will get little push back, because people naturally pick up on his confidence. Boldness is an essential element of leadership. Men will follow a leader who is confident, even if they have their private doubts about the plan.

Boldness is also a good way to rob people.

Victor Lustig was a confidence man living in Paris after the Great War. He read in the newspaper that the city was having trouble maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Lustig came up with an outlandish scheme where he would use that story to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap iron. He forged some documents and cooked up an elaborate story about how he had been tasked to secretly find some buyers. He found some interested parties, had them picked up in limousines for a tour of the Tower and then convinced one of them, Andre Poisson, to make a bid.

That sounds quite ballsy, but he went further. Poisson’s wife suspected that Lustig may not have been on the level. Lustig decided to use this to his advantage so he met with the couple and confessed that he was actually a government employee, not an agent hired by the city. He made it clear that he was not paid well and was hoping to improve on that by finding the right buyer. In other words, he wanted a bribe. This sealed the deal and Andre Poisson, not only bought the Eiffel Tower, he paid Lustig a bribe to do it.

Every time I see a story about Elon Musk, I think of Victor Lustig. The reason for that is Musk often turns up in the news attached to some bold new scheme to do something most people see as futuristic or massively complicated. He’s sort of a Phileas Fogg, that is always announcing some grand new adventure. The publicity stunts have no real bearing on his alleged project, but he puts a lot of effort into getting public notice for them. There is a P.T. Barnum quality to it that does not quite square with the official story.

The tunneling under Los Angeles story is a good example. There’s nothing new about this idea. The Crossrail is a giant rail tunnel under the city of London that was done using boring machines. It is a 26-mile tunnel that was threaded between the exiting tunnels under the city. There was a recent documentary on it, which is probably where Musk got the idea. The London tunnel is an amazing bit of engineering because there’s a ton of stuff under the city that the tunnelers had to dodge as they dug the thing.

That’s not to say doing such a thing under Los Angeles would be easy, but it is hardly a brilliant futuristic idea. In fact, people have suggested this in the past, but such a project would require tens of billions in tax money. More important, there’s no real reason to do it, other than the fact California is a failed state so building roads and bridges the old way is impossible. Musk is levering that reality to propose his futuristic “solution” for the transport problems of Los Angeles. What a guy!

That’s probably the point of the hype. Tesla, Musk’s one big “successful” scheme is entirely dependent on tax dollars. Take away the subsidies and it goes bust. The same is true of the battery schemes, the solar plant, the space program. According to the LA Times, Musk has netted close to $5 Billion in government money. Not all of it is tax money, of course. A lot of it comes in the form of grants for research and credits for doing government approved projects, like making solar panels. It’s not unreasonable to say the Musk is a tax sink.

There’s also a good chance that like Lustig, Musk works both sides of the street. He gets a bunch of attention for some new project, like digging a tunnel under Los Angeles. He then gets investors lined up, promising tax schemes that will multiply their investment, in addition to getting government support for the project. Since Musk appears to have skin in the game and is wildly confident his plan will work, investors line up. Once it all comes together, Musk is a minority share holder, but in full control of the project.

The formula is to use the media to promote the idea to the public. He then gets some other billionaires to back it on condition that Musk can get the government invested. That is used to pure the state into the scheme, which seals the deal with the private equity guys. From there it is just a churn as Musk and his buddies get their seed money out with interests as new investors demand to get in on the action. Since these projects take decades, the risk of it unraveling in the short term in minimal.

The best part of a scheme like this is he can get his seed money out early and still have equity in the new project. The investors and the government are on the hook and they will keep putting money into it no matter how many times a Space X rocket explodes or a Tesla bursts into flames. That’s not to say Musk is a con man like Lustig. The main difference is that Lustig was breaking the law, while Musk is well within the law. In fact, his innovation is to make the law his partner.

Musk is a modern incarnation of P.T. Barnum, pitching the attractions of the technocratic state via public-private partnerships. Barnum would find exotic acts to put inside his act, while Musk finds big technology projects. Instead of getting the public to buy a ticket to see the bearded lady or wolf boy, Musk gets the public to support the expenditure of public funds for his latest whiz bang idea. In the process, he and his associates get an exclusive investment opportunity and make millions from schemes that tend not to result in much of anything, other than hype.

Essential Knowledge: IV

The traditional way in the West of teaching history is to start with the three phases of history. There is the beginning, the middle and the end. This is based on two assumptions that are unique to the West. One is that history is a process where the past casts a shadow over the present to shape the future. History is a long chain of causation. The other assumption is history works toward some end, as if it is by design. The idea of “progress” rests on this assumption. The world is progressing toward some end point.

For the student of history, the habit has been to start at the beginning and read forward, thinking about how each era led to and shaped the next. The tides of history have carried man to the place he is today, not by chance, but through the great chain of causality. Each new civilization was built on those that came before it. In this way, history is a stack of blocks and the story of man is a tower reaching to the heavens. To know what comes next means knowing every block in the stack and why it is there.

A better and more accurate way to read history is to think of each people as having their own beginning, middle and end. History is not one single ribbon in time, but thousands of bits and strands that often lead nowhere and have no influence on what comes next, other than to perhaps stand out as an example for modern people. The emphasis here as we get into the essential knowledge of human history is to stick with books and podcasts that avoid theories of history. Instead, the focus will be on the story of the people in question.

For Westerners, the story of history usually begins with the Greeks, but you cannot really understand the Greeks without knowing something about the Persians. Greek civilization and what we have come to know as the West was forged in the time between the Battle of Marathon and the heroic last stand by the Spartans at Thermopylae. That’s not true, but it is the way we like to imagine it. Still, to understand the Greeks, you need to know something of the Persians. While only lasting 200 years, the Persians are integral to the history of the Greeks and the Jews, which is why Cyrus gets mentioned in the Old Testament.

You could read Herodotus and it is a fun read, but you can also listen to the great Dan Carlin podcast on the Persians. Carlin is a great history podcaster and a great storyteller so it is a fun way to learn a bit about the Persians. An excellent book for the general reader is Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. The Persians did not exist in a vacuum, so learning about the people they conquered is a good idea, especially for Bible studying Christians. Here’s a book worth reading and here is another one that covers the material.

For those who have come to prefer podcasts, there is this ongoing podcast about the Ancient world that covers just about everything. I’ve listened to some of it and it is pretty good. There’s also the Ancient Warfare Podcast. It a product from the Ancient Warfare Magazine and it is a fun way to get your feet wet with regards to the people and civilizations of the ancient world. Unless you intend to search for the Ark of the Covenant, these history podcasts are a good introduction to the essential knowledge of these people.

The big subject, when it comes to this part of the world, is ancient Egypt and we are spoiled for choice when it comes to books. Unless you have a desire to become an Egyptologist, a good survey book like The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt is a solid choice. A highly readable history is The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, which is why it made it to the best seller list. Of course, there’s always the podcast route. This one is probably the most popular one at the moment. It’s well done and entertaining.

Finally, the Greeks. The main reason to know about the Persians, Egyptians, Babylonians and so forth is to have a better understanding of the Greeks. No people has cast a longer shadow and it is impossible to be an educated man without knowing about Greek history, culture and society. It is preferable to know Classical Greek. In a better age, Classical Greek was taught in high school, but that is no longer true. If you want to try and learn a bit, there are on-line course like this one and this one to get you started. You will not become fluent, but you can pick up enough to appreciate the grammar.

For the general reader or someone entirely new to the topic, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times is a great choice. It is one of those books you can read at the beach or at the airport. For something a bit more advanced, a textbook like this one or this one is a good choice. We tend not to think of textbooks as good reading, but modern history texts are aimed at a generation brought up on smartphones so they tend to be a bit more readable. The key is to start with a general, chronological history of the Greeks.

You cannot be an educated man without having read Homer. You can get the Iliad and the Odyssey for close to free as an eBook. The same is true of Aesop’s Fables. Most people remember it from childhood, but in the context of Greek history is recommended reading. Plato’s Republic is also a must read and it can be downloaded free from any number of sources. Of course, you can always find an on-line course on Greek literature if you are the sort who prefers structured learning.

The Greco-Persian wars and the Peloponnesian War are probably the two most important topics in Greek history. You can and should read Thucydides, but Donald Kagan’s treatment of the Peloponnesian War is fantastic and perfect for the general reader. As far as the Greco-Persian wars, reading Herodotus is a must, but you can also read The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, by Robert Strassler. It is a big book, but it is a big topic and this treatment reads almost like a novel.

If you want to have a little fun while learning a little bit about Thermopylae, the Gates of Fire is a fun read. It’s not history, but it give you some sense of life in ancient Greece. A more serious telling is Thermopylae: The Battle For The West. If you prefer a podcast, then an excellent podcast on ancient Greece is this one that I have been listening to recently. The good thing about podcasts on ancient history is they tend to be done by people with the passion of a fan, rather than historians just making a buck.

Finally, a book that does not quite fit into the history category, but one I enjoyed reading is 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. It is not exactly a history book, more of an analysis of what happened at the end of the Bronze Age. Within a period of 40-50 years at the end of the Bronze Age almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed. The reason for this remains a bit of mystery, but it makes for a good transition to Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, a must read.


Americans get their views of the world mostly from TV and movies. Being separated by two big oceans from the rest of the world means we don’t get to rub shoulders with strangers too much. The result is those caricatures of foreigners we see on TV get seared into the our mind, even though they are often wildly inaccurate. The most obvious example is the way in which Germans and Germany are viewed by Americans. Germans are either avuncular clock makers or cold blooded automatons that are ruthlessly efficient.

Of course, Germans are mostly OK with this characterization as it works to their favor, except for the constant Nazi references. Having a reputation for exacting standards and ruthless precision is a good thing if you are in the business of making things like cars or machine tools. It also works when it comes to government. Most people, not just Americans, just assume that the well known German efficiency translates into making the trains run on time and keeping the streets clean and orderly.

The phrase “German engineering” has come to mean high quality and high precision, as if the Germans never made anything stupid or poorly designed. The Beetle was a cheap piece of junk for the most part, but everyone believes the Germans make the best cars in the world. Yet, the Mercedes C-Class is an unreliable jalopy that costs too much to buy and way too much to own. If Germans were anything like we imagine, they would have had the engineers who made those cars sent to a work camp in Poland.

Volkswagen used to have the reputation as the builder of solid, inexpensive cars for working people. Then they came out with the new Beetle. Their marketing efforts made VW the car of choice for hairdressers and homosexuals. If that were not bad enough, they are now accused of committing massive fraud that could be lethal for its North American operations. Not only that, these dummkopfs may have managed to set back the cause of clean diesel technology to the point where it dies out entirely. Way to go Germany.

Even if you want to dismiss this sort of bungling as inevitable, even for people generally good at making things, you can’t ignore the mass insanity that is the current German policy on immigration. Angela Merkel’s decision to unilaterally flood Europe with low-IQ barbarians from the Middle East is going to go down as one of the dumbest decisions in the history of Europe. The fact that the response to the predictable unrest is to turn Germany into a police state suggests the Germans have gone mad.

Calling Merkel’s Million Muslim invasion the dumbest decision means overlooking pretty much everything German politicians have done since Wilhelm I walked into the Hall of Mirrors. There’s any number of reckless moves in the Great War, including the decision to back the Bolsheviks in Russia. Of course, the all time blunder was putting the meth munching morons called the Nazis in charge of the country. Is there another country on earth with a worse record of self-governance than the Germans?

The fact that the Germans and their record of ineptitude are now in charge of Europe does not bode well for the Continent. The Greeks should have been expelled a long time ago, but the Germans insisted they remain and now that dumpster fire is about to reignite. Then there is the fact that the Italians are headed to a crisis and the French may be about to elected a populist government, mostly due to mad Merkel and her efforts to flood the continent with Muslims. The French wanted to build and lead the EU to defend Europe, but now under German leadership, the EU has become a suicide pact.

Getting back to where we started, Americans and most of the world, judging from the international press, have this view of the Germans that is wildly out of phase with reality. The bill of indictment against Germany being anything but a fountain of mischief is rather long. In a little under 150 years, a unified Germany has managed to cause more damage to civilization than the rest of the western people combined. The temptation has been to assign this to a small portion of Germans who are evil. What if Germans are simply stupid? Perhaps to be German means carrying a gene for reckless stupidity.

Whether or not the Germans are the Minus Race is immaterial. The point is we need to seriously rethink our image of the Germans. Yes, they made some of the greatest art in Western history, but then they will tried to invade Russia in winter. They make some of the finest manufactured good in the world today, but they have also elected a collection of suicidal lunatics hellbent on blowing up Europe. Germany may be the land of engineers and chocolate makers, but it is also the home of the world most dangerous morons too.

Essential Knowledge: Part III

Probably the first paradox presented to a young person is the age old question. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? For most people, this is a fun puzzle, which is why it has remained a popular gag for so long. Aristotle concluded that both must have come into being at the same time, as to have either come first violated the logic of causality. Marxists used this example to “prove” that linear thinking was false. Instead, we have to admit that the egg creates the chicken just as much as the chicken creates the egg.

Evolution answers this by pointing out that eggs existed before birds existed in the fossil record, so the egg preceded the chicken. If you reject evolution, this apparent conflict can only be solved one other way. Some agent, outside of observable nature, was the first cause. It created either the chicken or the egg first. It created all of life, setting off the great chain of causality that controls the natural world. Plato believed that all things in the natural world existed in spirit, as an idea, before coming into being. Jews and Christians believe that God created the natural world just like a clock maker builds a watch.

This is not a post about abiogenesis, but rather a starting point for understanding the great debate of the modern age. What is the nature of man? What is his true and natural state, outside the artificial constraints of society? Did society naturally arise, or was it imposed? This is the question that haunted the minds of the Enlightenment thinkers and it is the question that has animated the great political movements since the French Revolution. If we can know the nature of man, then we can built a just society where virtuous men can be free.

One solution to this question, one that is at the core of every Leftist movement in history, is that man is born as a blank slate. Humans come into the world as a formless blob that is shaped into a person by their parents and community. Eventually they are shaped into a citizen by their society. The reason a person born in France becomes a Frenchman is he was shaped and formed by French society to become a Frenchman. A person born in Niger is what he is because he was raised by Hausa. It takes a village to make a man.

There are a number of implications to this that are critical to understanding the last three hundred years of Western history. The first is that all people are the product of their environment. Therefore, if a person turns out to be a criminal or a bad thinker, it is the fault of society. The good citizen was raised correctly and given the proper education, while the criminal was failed by his parents and society. Of course, it is never too late. The criminal can be rehabilitated and people can change. Our nature is infinity malleable.

That leads to the second implication of the blank slate ideology. The virtuous have a moral duty to remake society so that it creates virtuous citizens. Collective guilt is an inevitable byproduct of the blank slate ideology, because all of us are, by definition, our brother’s keeper. That also means we are collectively responsible for “fixing” the defects that arise from our social institutions. This is why Mussolini said “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Society is a unified living organism. When one bit fails, it all fails.

The alternative to this line of thinking is that people are born with qualities they inherit from their parents. Long before anyone knew about genetics, people could see that the son resembled his father or mother, sometimes both in various ways. People saw that the daughter would usually marry a man like her father and a son would marry a girl like his mother. It was assumed that each person was the result of their line of ancestors, which is why the children of great families took up places in the elite, when they reached adulthood.

This was the standard view of humanity up until the Enlightenment. People all over the world just assumed that the people in various lands were the product of their lands. They did not understand biology, but they knew that Africans were different from Persians and not just in appearance. They knew that the Welsh were different from the Angels and the North-men who showed up on long ships. It was always assumed that nature did not distribute her gifts equally among people or between peoples.

The result of this is that the customs and methods of rule are a reflection of the people who compose the society. Arabs have their ways, because they have their own unique history that has shaped their culture and people. China is the way it is because it is full of Chinese who have lived the way they have lived for thousands of years. In other words, there is no transcendent order that applies universally. There is only a natural order that is rooted in the local population. What works in China, will not work in Arabia.

Since the French Revolution, the great conflicts in the West have been over these two conflicting views of man’s nature and the nature of his society. The Left has always assumed that man is infinitely malleable and that virtuous societies make virtuous men. The Right has taken the other side, defending the natural order of man, which is hierarchical and diverse. Since the Enlightenment, the men of the blank slate have held the dominant position, winning the political fights and imposing their views on the West.

It is largely impossible to grasp the last 300 years of Western history without understanding this intellectual conflict. More important, it will be impossible to navigate the coming battles without grasping this. The new science of genetics is largely confirming what people used to know through observation. Not only are people not blank slates, their cultures are rooted in the shared biology of the people. The next era in the West is about the fight between Liberalism and science, the blank slate and the double helix.

Essential Knowledge: Part II

A thorough understanding of human history has been the hallmark of an educated man in the West since the Middle Ages. Herodotus is considered the first historian, but there is debate about whether the ancients had an appreciation for human history. Oswald Spengler argued that the ancients were ahistorical, as they lacked a historical consciousness. Perhaps that is true, but for our purposes, the point is that a classical education in the West has always included a thorough understanding of history.

Now, we live in a post-Christian age, but there remains a high degree of hostility to religion in general and Christianity in particular. As a result, religion is either left out of the history books or cast as some sort of malevolent influence. That’s a big problem as it is impossible to understand human history without understanding religion and its role in human affairs. This is especially true in the West where Christianity is arguably the most important feature of Western culture since the fall of Rome.

Obviously, knowing European history means knowing Christianity and that means knowing something about the Jews and Judaism. I’d recommend starting with Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews as it is very readable and covers the important bits without getting bogged down in academic posing. Given the outsized influence of the Jewish people on world history, as well as current events, you cannot be an educated man without fully appreciating the role of Judaism in world history.

Of course, a solid understanding of Christianity is important. You cannot understand the last 2,000 years of Western history without knowing Christianity and the history of the Church. There are so many books on the subject that you are spoiled for choice, but Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity is the one I’d recommend to every atheist that can read. The point is not to become a theologian. The point is to have an appreciation of and knowledge of the role Christianity has played in Western history.

Eventually, learning Christian history leads to how it evolved from its antecedents. Greek and Roman mythology is not just the starting ground for the fantasy role playing crowd. It laid the groundwork for the monotheism of the Jews to jump into the rest of human society. Once you fully appreciate what came to replace Greek and Roman theology, you can fully appreciate a classics like Edith Hamilton’s Timeless Tales of God’s and Heroes and Hilda Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.

Islam is a thornier topic as there has been a flood of books and articles on the Religion of Peace that are more about modern political topics than the history of Islam. A book worth reading to get a positive introduction to the history of Islam is Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History. Like every book about a specific religion, it has its short-comings and critics, but it does the job. Another good option and maybe a companion to the other book is Reza Aslan’s No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

The hard part about Islam for Western readers is we tend to look at religion through the lens of European Christianity. There was the world before Christianity and then the Christian era. Islam did not spring from nothing. It is the result of a long evolution of religion in the region. A good book to get a fuller understanding of that is Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. It provides a nice history of religion before Islam and a fuller picture of the complexity in the modern Middle East. It’s not all raging Imams and Jihadists.

As far as Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, this is where it can get difficult for the Westerner. Thousands of books have been written on Eastern religions by hippy crackpots  All of them are terrible and useless in terms of learning anything about these religions and their role in the development of those societies. The right answer is an old book by a long gone professor named Huston Smith. The book is The World’s Religions and it has good sections on these topics.

Belonging to a church or religious sect is not the same as joining the stamp club or volunteering down at the school. It is the defining feature of a person’s life and the defining feature of his group. For those who lack faith, this is not always easy to grasp. A good book on this subject is Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. It’s easy to see why a great cathedral could be inspiring, but it is not easy to see what inspired men to build the cathedral. Understanding faith at the personal level is critical to understanding religion.

The point of learning about religion, as an intellectual exercise, is not to become a theologian. The point is to have a grounding in the basics in order to better understand human history. Belief is one of the oldest modern human traits. It is thought to have co-evolved with language. It is the main driver of human history and it remains a principle force in human affairs. There’s simply no way one can have an understanding of history, especially Western history, without understanding religion.

The Day At The DMV

My driving license had expired so I was forced to head down to the local motor vehicle office to get it renewed. The state offers a “service” for renewing by mail, but this requires getting a separate eye exam, filling out some forms and hoping that the postal service does its job. Having had my state tax returns lost the last two years, my confidence in that link in the chain is not very high, so I elected to do it the old fashioned way. That meant standing in lines and dealing with surly functionaries of the state.

When you enter the place, you are “greeted” by a functionary that asks you for the purpose of your visit. You are then assigned a number or directed to a kiosk. More on that in a bit. The numbers are assigned in a way that almost seems random. The person in front of me got “G23” and I was given “B80.” The idea is to make sure no one waiting truly knows who is next in the queue. Maybe they had riots in the past or perhaps people sold their place in line. Maybe there is no reason for it.

The office near me is not in the ghetto, but serves the ghetto so that means lots of vibrancy in the waiting area. One of the first things I noticed was that many of the people there were trying to pay off violations, mostly parking tickets. The angry greeter at the front desk barked at those people to get in the line for the “self-service” kiosks against the wall. He had that look of a man irritated that these people had interrupted his work, even though his work was to greet people entering the facility.

Of course, these kiosks could be located all over the malls and shopping centers around the state so people could do this task anywhere and at any time. For that matter, this could be a phone app, but that’s not how the government works. The kiosks are not for your convenience. They exist for the convenience of the government workers. In all probability they were sold to the state as a way to make life easier for the clerks, who had to haggle with citizens over unpaid fines. Given the color of the place, it is not irrational.

Of course, the lines for those machines were long as most of the machines were out of order. Then you have the fact that the diverse community is not very good at following instructions. You see this in fast food joints where they struggle to order from the menu. A system that requires someone to select from a menu of options, with no modifications, is never going to do well in the diverse community. The result is a struggle of diverse man versus machine, with outbursts and demands for service from the staff.

I spotted a Muslim women in a trash bag shuffling up to one of the counters. Two swarthy men were hovering around her. They guarded her virtue as she exposed her head for the license photo. From what I saw, they have no fears of rival males carrying her off. Everyone in the place was intently watching the scene, even the surly functionaries. For a minute, all of us were plugged into the collective consciousness, wondering why our rulers are doing this to us.

This is an example of why open borders will end in disaster. In a world without government, people will sort themselves out, one way or another. In the custodial state, everyone is dealing with the state. That means the interface has to accommodate all comers. In a world where the picture ID is critical, a people who think photos steal their soul or make Allah angry with their women is doomed to failure. The DMV can handle Mexican fruit pickers, it cannot adapt to Bronze Age barbarians.

The funny thing about the diverse community is they will sit forever, waiting for government service. Honkies get impatient with lines and expect the government to work like the private sector. The diverse are much more reasonable in this regard. Everyone had head phones so they could listen to their music while they stared at their phones, doing whatever it is they do on their phones. They came prepared to entertain themselves for the day. Maybe it is from habit or maybe it is from nature. Regardless, these are not people who will be voting libertarian.

That’s the other thing you see in a government office. Libertarianism works fine as long as your society is composed of high IQ sociopaths, who can manage on their own. Once you have people like those working for the state, and getting services from the state, libertarianism collapses. The people in the waiting area not only need rules, they need help following the rules. That’s not going to happen through voluntary association. Unless you have genocide in your heart, libertarianism cannot survive outside the lab.

The other interesting thing is that the motor vehicle office no longer issues a license. It is mailed to you. I did a little sleuthing and discovered that the selling of ID’s was a problem. No one admits it, but the rules they have in place now are clearly aimed at preventing insiders from selling your information. Allegedly, they now account for each blank that is used for a license. By mailing it, they insure the person applying for the license is at the location they claim.

This will not work so the next step will be bio-metric ID’s where you provide a thumbprint or some other biologically unique credential. All of our credentials will eventually be multi-factor authentication. That means you will present the physical ID, some sort of randomized PIN that is linked to the ID and a password. Secure facilities do this for system access. Adding a thumbprint or DNA sample is the logical next step once the costs are low enough to make it practical.

That also means all of us will be in the government database. Our medical records, credit history, internet pornography interests, will all be tied to our official government issued citizen ID. It’s not unreasonable to think that people will have a chip implanted at birth that links to the ID and other items that require authentication for access. It’s not happening tomorrow, but you can see where it is headed when you look at things like Real ID. Like a fungus, this is slowly growing on us and will one day feel like a normal part of life.

Of course, it will still require us to stand in line to get our license renewed.

Essential Knowledge: Part I

A while back, someone suggested I do a post on the books I think are important. This was within the context of a back and forth on books related to a specific topic. The first thought was the traditional list with some commentary, but that would end up being either a ridiculously long list that no one would read or a short list that simply revealed my selection bias. Plus, listicles are the lowest form of writing, somewhere below grocery lists and ransom notes.

Instead, I decided to do a series of posts on the topics a modern, educated person should have in his inventory of knowledge. Along the way I’ll recommend books, articles and podcasts I think are useful in learning about the subject. Podcasts are what led me to expand the idea from a simple book list. We live in an age where you can download lectures from experts in any field. I have in my rotation lectures from Yale on Ancient Greece, for example. In other words, books are not the sole storehouse of knowledge.

The thing is, you don’t have to be an expert on everything. Simply knowing the basics and the relevance is enough in many cases. You have the entirety of human knowledge at your fingertips so knowing how to look things up is more important than memorization. Einstein allegedly said he had no reason to memorize how many feet were in a mile because he could find in any book. Today, you can find the details off your phone or laptop in seconds. What you need is an understanding of how to find it.

That’s the first thing a modern person needs to know. How to look things up on-line is an essential skill in the modern age. Working with young interns years ago, I was surprised to discover that none of them knew how to be curious. I had to teach them how to find things on-line. They had no idea how to discover the world by inference. What I ended up telling them is always ask what a thing is, not where a thing is. What is its nature, what does it do. Who thinks it is important. Enter those things in a search engine and you will get close to what you seek.

This is probably obvious to most reading this, but there is a reason browsers have bookmarks and there are services that let you synchronize your bookmarks on all of your devices. Most people store knowledge and then remember where they left it. That has its place, but when searching for things on-line, you may, whether you realize it or not, be looking for unknown unknowns. By thinking about what a thing or event is, you will find things like it or related to it that you never considered or simply did not know existed.

This will no doubt strike some as pedantic, but in the modern age, the ability to quickly acquire necessary information is probably the most valuable skill and therefore, the most essential of knowledge. All of us have at our fingertips the totality of human understanding. Knowing how to quickly dig through it to find what it is you need is vastly more useful and important than the ability to remember how many feet are in a mile or where the book you learned it is on your book shelf.

The other bit of basic, ground floor knowledge a modern person should have is a grasp of math. I don’t mean a working knowledge of linear algebra or even the ability to factor polynomials. These are fine skills if you have a need for them or you simply enjoy math. No, the math one needs is much more general and conceptual. Modern discussions of the oldest of issues now contain references to basic mathematical and statistical concepts. Understanding these concepts and their limits is critical to following along with the discussion.

The first bit of math to grasp is the size and importance of numbers. Most people struggle understanding a billion. A billion dollars for a stadium no longer strikes people as a lot of money, because the word billion gets tossed around so much. Similarly, statistics have become the bane of modern debate mostly because people struggle to understand the basics. Ten people in a room may have an average height of 5’8″, but no one in the room may actually be that height. Of course, probability gets confused with causality all the time.

A good book to read for non-math people is The Universal History of Numbers. It is a history of numbers, written for those that like history, but maybe not math. From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers, written by the same guy, is also a useful book. As far as basic statistics, you are spoiled for choice, but if you just want to become familiar with the general concepts, Naked Statistics is a good book to read. It is short and aimed at people who don’t like math. At the minimum, you will understand the general concepts that turn up in modern public debate.

Put the two together and you arrive at the most fundamental of essential skills in the modern world – skepticism. Since you have the totality of human knowledge at your fingertips, you can verify the accuracy of what is presented to you. Having a general grasp of the math, and a way to understand the numbers tossed around in public, let’s you see past the sophistry that is the bulk of public discourse. To be a modern intellectual, you cannot be too skeptical.

I will post the next item in this series next Friday. It’s unclear how long this will go on, but the plan is to do one a week until the subject is exhausted.

The Future Stinks

Try to imagine living as a hunter-gatherer 25 thousand years ago. Naturally, you’ll think about the cavemen you recall seeing on TV or in movies. Museums used to have life sized figures of early humans in their exhibits to give visitors an idea of what it was like to be a person in the Stone Age. Maybe it sounds appealing, maybe not, but most people focus on the material differences. Living in a cave, wearing a loincloth or bearskin, depending upon your locale, would not be fun after a few days. Modern man likes his modern things.

If you think not having cell service would be terrible, imagine a total lack of privacy. Humans in that period did everything in full view of everyone else. They ate together, slept together and did all the other things together. Of course, the lack of complicated shelters made this necessary. It’s hard to have privacy when you don’t have walls. But, there was also the fact that people had no concept of privacy. They did not think of it because it had never existed.

In fact, privacy in the way in which we think of it is fairly new. The Romans famously had public baths and public toilets. Very public toilets. Everyone has probably seen pictures of the remains of Roman public toilets. Here’s a recreation of what it was like to pinch a loaf with your pals. Well into the 19th century, outhouses were common in the West and some of them were two-holers. Abe Lincoln had a three-holer, which was the height of luxury for his day.

The point of all this potty talk is to make the point that personal privacy is relatively new. It is the consequence of wealth and leisure. It’s not just things like flush toilets and indoor plumbing. People’s attitudes about personal privacy changed. We expect our financial affairs, private correspondence, personal foibles, private appetites and so forth to be off-limits from scrutiny. Health companies are required to go to great lengths to guard your medical data, even though no one knows why it matters.

The technological age is promising to change that and maybe do so in a hurry. The roads are now littered with cameras to monitor you as you drive. Street cameras are increasingly common in cities. In the UK, CCTV cameras are everywhere. Big Brother is literally watching you. Of course, big tech companies track your internet habits. The cable companies track your viewing habits. The “internet of things” means your house will be reporting on you to Google, Apple, Amazon et al.

The unwanted gaze is not just at the personal level. Retailers are encouraging people to put themselves into the big database voluntarily. This story about how sports teams are “offering” easy access as long as you let them scan your eyeball on the way in. Of course, they keep track of what you buy and probably how often you cheer. The new payment services are letting our overlords connect your shopping to your mobile phone, which links to all you internet habits.

It does not stop there. The FBI pays computer repair shops to dig around your stuff and report you to the Feds. The tactic is very old school, but the concept is very modern. The combining of our corporate overlords with our government overlords is a handy way around our remaining constitutional protections. How long before your Alexa gets a guilty conscience and reports your drug taking to the Feds? How long before your copy of Quicken starts talking to the IRS about your cash deposits?

This is not a libertarian vision of hell, but a plausible reality that faces us in the technological age. High speed communication, massive data storage capacity and sophisticated search algorithms means all of the particulars of our daily existence, even our private correspondence, can be easily assembled to provide a pretty good picture of our life, without much effort. If the Eye of Sauron falls on you, the authorities will have no problems knowing everything about you but your thoughts. Even those can be surmised by the facts of your life.

So far, people seem to be OK with living in a fishbowl. Maybe they don’t think about it much, but there have been no protests or movements to arrest this trend. Go into any retail shop and customers gladly offer their discount card so the store can put their buying habits into the database. Most people cheer the implementation of video surveillance, in the name of safety. Even the reports of wholesale government surveillance have not been met with much pushback from the public.

Assuming there is no turning back and the surveillance state is inevitable, the question is how does this change how people interact with one another. If you know your most intimate thoughts and deeds could be made public, will you be more careful in your private dealings? Or, will you simply care less about who knows and also stop caring about the private things revealed about others? Hollywood stars live out their lives in public and it has no effect on their conduct. It may even make them less prudent.

Up until fairly recent, people were disgusting. They blew their noses on their sleeves, they farted in public, they went to the bathroom in communal toilets and were generally foul and disgusting. Public manners developed alongside personal privacy. The line between what you would do in public versus what you would do in private, was only possible when privacy was possible. As the material wealth increased, the available privacy increased and good public behavior became enforceable.

If everyone sees you at your worst, there’s no point in hiding it so in a surveillance state, where all our secrets are made public, maybe people will just stop caring. Hollywood always imagines the future to be sterile and clean, a land of stainless steel and glass. Maybe the future will be the opposite. Instead of tidy androgynous people in Lycra jumpsuits, its people with bed-head wearing sweats, scratching themselves in public.The glorious future will be people with nothing to hide and nothing you want to see.