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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, November 29, 2013

CYBER MONDAY SALES

"For your Christmas shopping consideration"

While Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year in stores, Monday following is the biggest online shopping day, so they say.  I never know whether to really believe any of this, it all gets hyped tremendously and I'm sure someone did a study but the truth is often stranger than statistics.
In any case, if you're considering buying a book for someone for this Christmas, I'd like to offer you mine as options.  I like them both quite well and so do the people who've read them.
SNOWBERRY
My first book is Snowberry's Veil, although it was recently re-released.  The tale of Erkenbrand, a ranger for the king of Morien, it follows his adventures as he tries to protect a caravan of settlers traveling through the wilderness to new lands opened for homesteading by the king.  Erkenbrand soon finds himself chased through the wilds, stripped of his best equipment and living on his wits and skill at survival.  He befriends creatures along the way, bests terrible monsters, fulfills several quests, and rescues his lady love, all the while uncovering a terrible evil.
Snowberry's Veil is a small scale fantasy adventure, not a sweeping epic, and reviewers took to it quite well:
Christopher Taylor's first, self-published novel is an imaginative story about a forest ranger/explorer who perseveres amidst dangers such as beastmen, human degenerates, strange hybrid forest creatures, and a harsh, wintry environment. The novel is at its best when the characters are actively engaged in an adventure, and the story is especially gripping when such adventures lead to heroic battles and confrontations. It is clear that Taylor has raw talent as an author. His characters are well-rounded, his descriptive ability is impressive, and his creativity in imagining the world of his story is evident. With a little more practice and polish, Taylor has the potential to be among one of the better fantasy writers of our time.
It seems clear to me, at least, that Taylor is influenced heavily both by the Middle-earth world of Tolkien as well as the world of talking animals, chivalry, and spirituality of C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles. What's interesting is how successful Taylor is in blending these two worlds together.
-James Huck

If I ever needed to explain to someone what role playing games were all about, this book would be a perfect addition to that explanation.
It's a story of one man's adventure in a world where magic exists. The writing is both clear and interesting and the story plausible for the world in which it exists.
-Paul Walker

Like the author mentions this book is not about world-shaping events, but something you could typically imagine happening in a day to day fantasy adventure.
This is a fast-paced read with humor and action springing from the author's detailed world setting. Careful reading rewards those who like to become immersed in an author's imagination. I can see many adventures in the future for the Ranger of this title.
-Nicholas Young

Christopher Taylor has written an engaging fantasy novel that weaves together a couple of different storylines into one enjoyable novel. Taylor is a creative writer who brings the reader into his own world -- and you can't help but enjoy what you see. There were a couple of parts that were a little slow, but overall, the story carries you along. His use of language and descriptive words also helps keep the plot moving. If you enjoy fantasy, you'll enjoy Snowberry's Veil.
-Robert Toornstra
Snowberry's Veil is available in e-book format:
Or in print:
HABITS

The second book is called Old Habits and its been out for a few years now.  A slightly longer story, this covers the misadventures of the thief Stoce.  He lost his treasure, is chased by assassins, is caught up in a plot to take over a castle, has to deal with wizards and a paladin, and finally finds a greater treasure than he lost.  Only an exceptional thief could face these trials, and Stoce is up to it.

I had a lot of fun writing this book, especially playing with language and creating the "thief's cant" that Stoce uses.  And readers seemed to enjoy it as well:
Do our circumstances determine whether we're doomed to evil, or can we choose otherwise?
This story deals with one man's journey from potential damnation to possible salvation.
Well written, and plenty of action at a decent pace.
-Paul D. Walker

Good characters and a good pace. I enjoy first person narratives as it makes for better second readings. It's an interesting world and I hope to see more Stoce stories.
-David McKinnis

As I read Old Habits, I kept flashing on Heinlein - Taylor's fiction be-bops along with an easy wit and droll connivance that hark back to "the Dean".
The theme is a fine old one: a man on a quest. Like all good quests, the object he thinks he seeks is not that which he longs for, yet the search for one leads him toward understanding the other. Like one of Steinbeck's damaged knights, Stoce seeks his fortune, but longs for fidelity; he rescues women and children, but dares not voice his wistfulness for a home that only a wife & child can make. And under it all is a spiritual quest. The reach for a jewel that one may not be worthy of, the search for healing of a wounded soul.
The book rounds out and has a satisfying finale, but I was not ready for this story to be over.
-Tina
Old Habits is available in e-book format:
Or in print as a paperback:
The paperback version of either takes about 10 days for the book to arrive.  And for the next couple weeks you can get free shipping!

Free shipping on up to 14 items

Set your shipping cost to $0 and go find something amazing. The coupon works on books, photo books and calendars.
Offer extended through Dec 15, 2013 at 11:59 PM
Use Code: FREESHIP
I'm not the world's greatest advertiser or promoter, so this isn't what you'd call slick and impressive and I apologize for putting a big fat honkin' ad on my blog, but this is part of what I do for money and it is some of my writing, so I figured some people might be interested.
*UPDATE: fixed the date of major sales.  Supposedly while Black Friday store sales were not very strong, online was up.  People are shopping at home more these days.

SOPHISTRY REVISITED

I wrote this originally in March of 2008, when then-Senator Obama was trying to win the nomination for the Democratic Party. I wonder what people think of his supposedly brilliant speechmaking today. Not many remember the fainting women these days.
"When one speaks out with skillful preparation and delivery amongst a sea of mangled talking-point spouting droids, they might be adjudged articulate and yes even eloquent."

Senator Obama One of the main strengths of Senator Obama is his speaking ability, he is a very good speaker in tone and delivery. He makes speeches so compelling that allegedly women faint at them (which does not speak well for the rational capacity of women and draws accusations of fakery), so powerful that many people listen and figure the case is rock solid.

These speeches are declared eloquent, masterful, a return to the great days of speechmaking of the past. The problem is, they aren't. They are compelling and entertaining, they do hold the attention and are emotionally manipulative, but they don't often say very much. And saying little with lots of flowery phrases does not define eloquence. As Ron Coleman explains on Likelihood of Success:
It once meant a talent for powerfully, persuasively and elegantly communicating ideas. Now it is used to describe the use of pretty language to obscure meaning.
Ronald Reagan was a powerful speaker not because he was particularly eloquent but because he was incredibly gifted at reaching each listener so that it appealed and made sense to them. He would reduce complex ideas to simple concepts, shift the entire discussion away from emotion to basic facts. The left cried about cruelty to the poor needing more tax money, Reagan spoke about the average working man having his wages taken away by an incompetent government. The difference was stark and welcomed.

Senator Obama is an effective speaker, because he can sway and manipulate his audience, but he's not a great speaker in that he cannot relay his information in simple, easy to grasp, reasonable, and logically compelling statements. It is the combination of truth, fact, and elegance in persuasion that defines eloquence. Senator Obama isn't particularly eloquent, but he is a great Sophist.

SOPHISTRY
In the ancient Greek culture, the entertainment was a bit different than we have today. Lacking video games, television, and movies, they had a different system of entertainment. We'd recognize some of it: athletics, theater, hunting, boating, and so on. But there was a form of entertainment that many enjoyed that is sort of alien to modern culture. It was called Sophistry.

There were were itenerate speaker who would travel between towns and make a living by giving speeches. They didn't have a particular product to sell or idea they were pushing, they were simply men who made speeches that people loved to hear. Greeks prized themselves on being great thinkers, men of reason. They enjoyed hearing well-delivered, carefully crafted persuasion and argument on topics, and they would listen to new ideas with fascination and interest. The Sophist had a simple, if challenging job: each area he went to, he'd ask for topics to speak on, and take one of the suggestions and argue it. He didn't argue based on the merits of the case, but on what he could craft that might sway and manipulate his audience.

The arguments would go over great on daytime talk shows, they made powerful political speeches and would convince the less than discerning members of the audience. If you weren't particularly up on the topic or a person well-trained in rhetoric and reason, you could find yourself nodding, they were good at this. The Sophist didn't care about the topic, he wasn't didn't necessarily believe a word he said; his job had nothing to do with that. It was to entertain by presenting a compelling argument.

As opposed to Sophists, philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others were men of reason. They formed their ideas based upon strict rules of logic that were unbreakable, building a case that was powerful and real rather than emotionally compelling. They loathed Sophists, constantly attacking them in their writings and showing how false and poor their logic and efforts were. Sophists were primarily interested in getting people to feel what they said was true, these philosophers were trying to reason people into understanding what they said was true.

That's not to say there's an absolute line between the two concepts. Reason does not negate emotion, and emotion can be rationally based. You can make a case that is emotionally compelling that happens to be true and reasonable as well. You can make a rational, logical case that is persuasive, eloquent, and well-spoken. It's just that the two movements of thought were so contrasted and active at the same time they make a useful illustration for the case at hand.

Senator Obama uses a lot of words skillfully, he sways his audience and is pleasing to listen to. He conceals what he's saying with obscuring phrases and long, flowery statements, but he does not do a very good job of rationally or logically persuading. He tries to get you to agree with what he has to say on a basic, gut level rather than understand what he thinks and why, and come to realize that it is true and reasonable.

He's a Sophist. This isn't new, he's using the same techniques many pastors, particularly black pastors, have used for a long time now. He's simply applied it to politics and like Alan Keyes before him, it is a potent method of delivering your positions. In the end, however, he's saying very little in a very wordy manner that while pleasing to the ear does not convince, and is ultimately not eloquent at all.

SPEECH MAKING
What's interesting is that in the past, people who made speeches had a special voice they would use to speak in, and use language they would not normally use in ordinary conversation. It was part of how you made speeches, it was understood that when you stood up to read or make a speech, you were doing something special and different, and that involved a Speech Making voice. R's were often rolled, the voice was sonorous and deep, to reach the entire audience without amplification. The words were larger and less common in normal speech. There are pastors who do this today, they have a special "preaching" voice that is different than ordinary talk.

That is gone today, and if you watch the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance you get a contrast of the two speaking styles. In the scene where there is a convention trying to decide if Arizona will be a state instead of a territory, there is a man who speaks for the Cattlemen. He's a sophist, but he demonstrates the kind of speaking voice a speaker at that time period could have: it's distinct from ordinary conversation, a powerful, commanding presence.

Listening to old speeches can help understand this better as well; my brother bought a CD series of Great Speeches of the 20th century, and some of the older speeches demonstrate this style. They recorded well on the very poor fidelity systems of the time, and would have carried well over radio broadcasts. Winston Churchill's speeches were made in a Speech Voice, he didn't converse like that.

Now, the "down home honest" version of speaking is preferred so that the speaker sounds like one of the guys, someone who'd never lie, heck he's just talking to you. This was Ronald Reagan's speaking style, with little down home touches and quips. It was deliberate to reach ordinary people and make the case being presented seem more comfortable and accessible. It works, but I do miss the concept of a special way of delivering speeches. It appeals to me at a formal level: it declares that the person speaking is doing something important and special, not just making another statement.

I am not sure how this campaign will turn out, although at this point, it looks like McCain has an easy win; things change so fast in this election year in the Internet Age that we can't really predict with any degree of certainty what will be true in November. All I know is that we'd all be a lot better of if people would stop simply believing speeches because they sound pretty or appeal to one's emotions. There have been some pretty evil people in the past that have been incredibly compelling speakers of this type, you can disguise horrible things in flowery language.

For other thoughts on Senator Obama and speaking, I've written about praise of his ability in the past.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

WHO ARE YOU THANKING?

Remember this Thanksgiving, the point is to give thanks, not stuff your face with food and watch football.  But you can't just thank the air, or nothing at all.  Thanks are directed at someone, not stated without context or subject.  Who are you thanking?
And for American Jews, this year they have an extra reason to give thanks: Hanukkah starts on the same day as Thanksgiving (happens extremely rarely).  Seems to me, they don't have a lot else to be thankful for lately it seems to me with an administration hostile to Israel and antisemitism on the rise.
And for a final pre-Thanksgiving thought: try putting your stuffing into the waffle iron and baking it there after its done.  That way everyone gets crispy parts and you can pour gravy over it instead of syrup.
The waffles turned out great, and people thought they were interesting.  The biggest problem is that they take about 5-10 minutes to cook, so they'll be a longer wait than normal waffles.  Also; it seems like you get less this way than just with ordinary stuffing, probably psychological.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

WHO IS REALLY IN CHARGE?

"I'm black, and I’m dressed all black cause it's good to be black. Black is the new white."
-Jaime Foxx

A while back I posted a quote attribued to Voltaire.  It might be, but nobody can find a source for it linking the quote to him.  Either way, its a good one, and it goes like this:
"To find out who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize."
Now, that's a pretty true statement about life and who's really in charge.  Sometimes someone can be really in power but not have the office or the official position of it, simply by being the one everyone obeys and cannot question.
Its a good quote, but the converse is true. If you want to know who is truly oppressed and ruled over, find out who you are allowed to criticize and attack without consequence.  The ones who are ruled and dominated in a society are the ones who have no recourse and cannot fight back.  A society which ignores slights, attacks, and criticism of a group is one which considers that group to not only be powerless but irrelevant and beneath them.
Now consider a few events with me.  Paula Deen was being sued by someone for harassment and intimidation, and in court the exchange went like this:
Jackson lawyer: "Miss Deen, have you told racial jokes?"

Deen: "No, not racial."

Jackson lawyer: "Have you ever used the 'N word' yourself?"

Deen: "Yes, of course."

Deen testified that she probably used the racial slur when talking to her husband about "when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head."

"I didn't feel real favorable towards him," she said, referring to the robber.

Jackson lawyer: "Have you used it since then?"

Deen: "I'm sure I have, but it's been a very long time."

Deen said she couldn't remember other contexts in which she used the slur, but "maybe in repeating something that was said to me."

"But that's just not a word that we use as time has gone on," she said. "Things have changed since the '60s in the South. And my children and my brother object to that word being used in any cruel or mean behavior."
Now, for that moment of candor, Paula Deen lost her cooking show on the Food Network, lost her sponsorships, and has become a byword of mockery and derision.  She is held up as an example of the bigotry of southerners and treated with contempt for something she said probably happened over forty years ago.
By comparison, consider this quote by Oprah Winfrey:
“As long as there are people who still — there’s a whole generation – I say this, you know, I said this, you know, for apartheid South Africa, I said this for my own, you know, community in the south — there are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.”
Now she's not coming out and wishing death on people but she's basically calling for old white people to die because they're totally racist and will never stop until then.
Oprah Winfrey got a Presidential Medal of Freedom last week, not condemnation or outrage.  Look at the difference at MSNBC where Martin Bashir wished someone would defecate in Sarah Palin's mouth, and he said he was sorry, but has his job.  Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin called someone a "fag" and got fired for it.  Bashir's statement was read off a teleprompter which means it was not only known but agreed to by the producer and all the people working on his show.
That quote at the top, Jaime Foxx gets on Saturday Night Live and says "I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that? And how black is that?" and the crowd goes wild cheering.  Just imagine the response of an audience if a white guy stood up and crowed about how he killed all the black people in a movie then said how white is that?
You can criticize some groups, but not others.  The ones you can question, attack, criticize, or condemn are the ones who are subordinate and dominated by the ones you cannot.  And the groups involved in this modern society are the exactly opposite of what we're told by social engineers, academics, and popular culture.
We'll be told by them until the sun burns out that blacks are forever the oppressed minority crushed by constant racism.  No amount of power or societal change will ever be enough. We'll always be told that homosexuals are a terribly oppressed minority despite their relative wealth, power, comfort, and control of extremely powerful and rich sectors such as entertainment.  No matter what, this will never change.
And the white man will always be the oppressor and the dominant one in power even though they aren't any longer.  New York City being white puts you in a minority.  Los Angeles, the same.  Its not just Detroit any more.  Straight white males are possibly the only minority group in America that's totally open game without any restrictions.
You know what the problem with this is, right?  Its not the identities of the groups, its that anyone is treated unjustly.  It was wrong when blacks were powerless and could be attacked with little to no consequence.  It was wrong when you could mock women without any real negative impact.  And its wrong now that you can attack white people and Christians without the slightest consequence.
No matter how bad things were before, that doesn't justify turning the tables and making things bad for other groups.  Bad is just bad, no matter who it is.

Monday, November 25, 2013

THE STATE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
-Yogi Berra

The internet, it seems, is not "for porn" as Avenue Q tells in a song:


Social Media is the fastest-growing and now biggest use of the internet, according to recent stats.  The business site Fast Company has an article by Belle Beth Cooper examining various stats about social media.
I think most people see social media as a young person's game, something college kids put "selfies" up on and hipster 20-somethings use to post images of their coffee.  But the truth is, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and most other social media platforms are actually used by people older than that.  For example, the fastest-growing group of Twitter users are people older than 50, up almost 80% since last year.  And Facebook and Google+ are experiencing a similar aging boom, with an increase of almost 50% in the 45-54 age bracket.
Another surprising stat is that while porn used to be the biggest internet niche in the past, social media has surpassed it.  That's right, the internet is not for porn, its for pictures of your kids, duckfaced girls, coffee "art" and 140 character comments about what you're having for lunch.  Social Media is the most common use of the internet people are doing online.
In a way, that makes sense.  I think for most people over the age of 14, porn is less about naked people than it is about dealing with loneliness.  It gives you a chance to forget your life and troubles and feel less isolated and unloved for some at least.  And social media can do the same thing (which, I suspect, is why the "online bullying" thing hits so hard for teens who can't seem to just shut it down and forget it).
I'm logged on to LinkedIn, Google+, and a lot of other sites, mostly just to park my business name.  If I was a hot go-getter I'd start up a company that does this for celebrities and famous people, businesses, and so on: hook you up everywhere online and protect your name.  But LinkedIn doesn't seem to actually do anything.  I think a lot of people have noticed this, which is why its one of the smaller social media sites.  Its got a lot of people signed on, but the accounts sit unused.

But that's the secret behind all these sites.  None of them do anything.  All they do is sit there and wait for people to provide content.  Google+ is pretty empty because nobody's there, its one of those Yogi Berra bits.  In order for a social media site to have any notice, people have to use it a lot.  And for people to use it a lot, it has to have people on it.  Its the Internet Paradox: you can't be popular unless people are already there and tell others about it.  But how do they get there to begin with?
If it wasn't for Blogger posting my blog posts on Google+, my account there would be totally stagnant.  I almost never even check it, and I'm not even sure how to really use it.  Because I don't care.  The truth is for me, I only care about Facebook because it gives me a method of reaching out to family scattered across America and the rest only because I'm hoping it leads to book sales.
That's right, I'm not really interested in your new cat or the thoughts you have on Thor 2.  I don't really want to see the picture of your new beard or see that video of a cat falling off the table.  I just am hoping that staying in contact will help me sell.
And a lot of businesses are doing that; 93% of marketers are using social media for business.  I have read again and again its a way of reaching customers, so I'm trying.  I don't have money, or a lot of energy, but I have an online account at these sites and its easy to type a few things and try to gain interest.  My twitter feed is not big (I only have about 400 followers), but its something.
I think for businesses the biggest shift is this one: YouTube reaches more U.S. adults aged 18–34 than any cable network.  Back when Radio came out, it boomed rapidly and became the way to reach customers.  Companies started out with little ads on radio shows and became big companies through the exposure.  Then when TV came out, the sales shifted to there.  But now, online is where the people are at.
The problem for advertisers, of course, is that its easy to ignore ads online.  And if you cannot find an easy way to ignore the ads, most people just won't go there any more.
If I get an ad on Twitter, I hit the DISMISS button.  If I get one on Facebook, I ignore it or if it shows up on my wall in an annoying new stunt, I get rid of it and call it spam.  I doubt I'm alone in this.  I know advertising must work for other people, but all it does is annoy me for getting in the way.  Its like having someone sit on your laptop and start talking to you about why you should subscribe to The Watchtower.
Interestingly enough, a related article on the same site by Leo Widrich, goes through some stats about how to best use and most ideally reach people on social media.  For example, the most popular and active Facebook posts are those under 140 characters... and those that ask a question get more attention.  And the best time to get retweets is around 5PM for Twitter.  If you want more shares, 1PM on Facebook is the ideal time slot.  The optimal number of tweets for attention is 1-4 per hour.  Too many and people get annoyed and scroll past.  Too few and you'll go unnoticed, buried in the rest of someone's feed.  For Facebook its even lower: half a post a day (once every 2 days) is optimal.  But 10 times a day at most is the maximum you can really be effective.
And while on Facebook weekend posts get more notice, on Twitter, weekday posts do.  I suspect this is heavily connected to when and how people are checking these.  Twitter you can check easily and quickly with your phone or online.  It loads fast, reads fast, and doesn't get noticed.  Facebook is harder to look at in class or at work without being noticed.
And that neat social media post you put up?  It has about a 3 hour shelf life.  That picture and responses to it won't get much attention past that point as it scrolls away and gets replaced by something else.  But posting too often will step on that notice point - and you only have a limited number of optimal hours to get attention to your post.  So that limits how often a day you can effectively reach people.
Oh, and this will probably surprise no one, but there are more women on social media than men.  30% more.  Women are more social creatures than men, and communication (as well as mutual approval) is more important to the average woman than the average man.  So if you're trying to target men, you might be better off using a different platform.
So if you're using social media for your business, just some food for thought.

Friday, November 22, 2013

SOME OTHER FELLOWS

“The sum of a million facts is not the truth.”
-William Raymond Manchester

I guess I shouldn't be as amazed as I am at the overwhelming JFK worship across the political spectrum and all ages today.  Seriously, everywhere you turned it was Kennedy love day.  Conservatives were popping out quotes by him about supply side economics and leftists were making bizarre, lunatic connections between Lee Harvey Oswald and right wingers in Dallas.You know who else died that day 50 years ago?  Two literary giants, one far more giant than the other.
 “One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them."
-Aldous Huxley
The first was Aldous Huxley, who gave us Brave New World.  Between Huxley and Orwell's 1984, readers had a pretty comprehensive view of how tyranny could come upon free peoples.  And between the two, Huxley's frightening view of a possible future is the more plausible of the two.
In fact, its hard to avoid the feeling that Brave New World isn't a behind-the-scenes view of our lives today.  A people seduced out of liberty by comfort, ease, and order.  The use of chemicals, social engineering, and manipulation through education and entertainment to create a passive, obedient society run by all-powerful statists.  1984 has a single, all-powerful leader, a figure that everyone is commanded to love and obey.  But Brave New World has no face at all to its tyranny, only the population giving up everything to gain comfort, ease, and safety.
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
-C. S. Lewis 
The second figure, and by far a titan greater than Huxley, was C.S. Lewis.  Both men died the very same day JFK was shot.  C.S. Lewis was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, indeed one of its greatest thinkers.  His writings continue to enchant, amaze, and enthrall readers to this day through the Narnia movies.
Lewis started out a non-Christian, and he was converted by J.R.R. Tolkien, his close friend and colleague.  He, Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers were part of a writer's club called the Inklings, where they talked over writing books such as The Hobbit and That Hideous Strength.  Some of the century's greatest fiction came from that little club in England.
Lewis was one of the best Christian apologists that has ever lived, with a knack of reaching people behind their defenses and making sense out of things they thought were idiotic.  His book Mere Christianity is a compelling piece of argument for Christianity that remains popular and potent today.
Lewis warned the world about what was happening to culture through education in his piece The Abolition of Man and he taught of subjects such as grief, pain, love, joy, and reason with brilliant and easy to access precision.
The loss of C.S. Lewis left the world far, far poorer than that of a politician.  And yet here we are, 50 years later, celebrating a tepid president who couldn't keep his pants on and almost hurled the war in to WW3 trying to show how tough he was on foreign policy.  JFK got us into Vietnam, folks never seem to recall that.  He was likely to lose the 1964 election when he was shot.
But its him people remember and fixate on, not C.S. Lewis, or even Aldous Huxley.  What a world.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SCIENTIFICALLY TESTING SCIENCE

"Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say."
-Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters

In the movie Ghostbusters, there's a fun scene in which Bill Murry is doing a scientific study.  However, because his character (and likely Murry himself) is more interested in  getting laid than doing science, he's destroying the entire study in order to flirt with and attract the cute college coed.

His department chair, upon announcing that the guys are being thrown out of CUNY, says:
Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable. You're a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman, and you have no place in this department or in this University.
And he's right.  And that happens in science, not all people involved in the work are trustworthy and brilliant.
There's an article up on Real Clear Science which has some very good tips which every reporter and anyone who reads about a scientific discovery or theory needs to read.  What Alex Berezow does is give 20 tools to analyze a scientific study to see how valid and reliable it is.
Because not every scientific study is actually trustworthy or factual.  Some are done in order to get a specific result, and others are done with poor methods and cannot be trusted.  And the tips suggested are very good to keep in mind when dealing with a report on scientific studies.  Here are the first five:
1. Variation happens. Everything is always changing. Sometimes the reason is really interesting, and other times it's nothing more than chance. Often, there are multiple causes for any particular effect. Thus, determining the underlying reason for variation is often quite difficult.

2. Measurements aren't perfect. Two people using the exact same ruler will likely give slightly different measures for the length of a table.

3. Research is often biased. Bias can either be intentional or unintentional. Usually, it's the latter. If an experiment is designed poorly, the results can be skewed in one direction. For example, if a voter poll accidentally samples more Republicans than Democrats, then the result will not accurately reflect national opinion. Another example: Clinical trials that are not conducted using a "double blind" format can be subject to bias.

4. When it comes to sample size, bigger is better. Less is more? Please. More is more.

5. Correlation does not mean causation. The authors say that correlation does not imply causation. Yes, it does. It is more accurate to say, "Correlation does not necessarily imply causation" because the relationship might actually be a causal one. Still, always be on the lookout for alternate explanations, which often take the form of a "third variable" or "confounder." A famous example is the correlation between coffee and pancreatic cancer. In reality, some coffee drinkers also smoke, and smoking is a cause of pancreatic cancer, not drinking coffee.
Other tips include "beware of cherry-picked data," "Control groups are essential," and beware of extreme data."  Of particular importance is an understanding of the meaning of terms.  For example, the difference between "significant" and "important."  In statistics, "significant" refers to something which is a stat large enough to not be random and enough to be measurable.
The threshhold most statisticians use is 0.05%, which is a pretty small number, but is their limit of what they can trust to be an actual event and not just something found out by chance.  If they can get data beyond that level it is "significant," as in, not "insignificant" or too small to be trusted reliably as information.
So if someone says there's a "significant" loss of ice on the North Pole, that just means that there's been enough to measure reliably.  It doesn't mean significant the way most people use it (sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy).  Since reporters will pass on this sort of thing without defining the term, the confusion is natural.
But something can be statistically significant but utterly unimportant.  As the paper says, "If chemical X doubles your risk of disease from 1 in a million to 2 in a million, that's not an effect worth worrying about."
There's only one real concern I have with the writer, and its this bit:
Many people wrongly believe that there was no global warming in the 15-year-period spanning 1995-2009. But, the planet indeed kept warming up; the data just wasn't statistically significant.
Except that doesn't mean the planet kept warming up.  It may have, but the data was too small to measure or trust.  And the range of variation means that it very well could have actually been cooling.  In other words, the writer is making the exact same mistake he's warning about by misusing the word "significant."  He's asserting something that the data does not show.
But overall, good article with good tools to understand science better.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Capitalism, part two

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."
-Winston Churchill

So in part one, I tried to clear up some misconceptions on the definition of capitalism and its effects on the economy, because there seems to be a lot of confusion on the topic. Capitalism, most simply defined, is an economic system where the private market controls the economy rather than the government.
In other words, you cannot blame economic woes which result from government programs or interference on capitalism.  And you have to look at the primary source and cause of events, not merely the players.
If you insist that it was businesses which caused the problems by taking advantage of these government events, I would respond to you that you've fallen for the "no true scotsman" fallacy.  See, if you define capitalism as "any economic activity which involves the private market at any level" then there is nothing else in existence.  All economic events are capitalistic in that definition because all involve the private sector at some level.
And if you define socialism as being any economic event which at any level is influenced by government activity, then all economic events are socialistic because the government is inevitably involved at some level, if though nothing other than taxes.  So the key is who was the primary force in causing the event.  Was it free enterprise business or government interference?  Was it due to businesses acting on their own or government involving its self through regulation, manipulation, and intimidation?
Would the markets have done what they did without the government being involved?  And in the end, that's how I make my call on events like the 2008 housing and finance crash: it was governmental interference and manipulation of markets which drove the fall, not free market activity.
Just understanding this helps clear up a lot of myths, but there are plenty more than need to be dealt with.  Here are just a few:
Capitalism is...
Pro business and anti-consumer: this belief comes from the idea that without government control and regulation of business, then consumers are left helpless before the wiles of dastardly corporations and business owners.  Naturally those who are wealthy will abuse and crush their workers to squeeze every last penny out of them, it is presumed.  
Actually, capitalism provides the consumer with more power and protection than other systems.  In socialism you have to hope the government protects you, but in practice it tends to protect the most powerful businesses (I'll explain that more below).  In capitalism, the market pressures will tend to force businesses to compete.  And competition means that these businesses will be forced to try to attract consumers rather than abuse and crush them.
A business that is bad to its customers and abuses them is a business that won't last long... unless its propped up by government bailouts, regulations, and cronyism.
A system which steals from the poor: The idea here is that people get rich in capitalistic economies by abusing those less wealthy and fortunate, by crushing those beneath as you climb to the top.  This idea assumes two things which are simply not so: first that there's a limited amount of money in the world and those who get rich are preventing others from having their share of the pie; and second that poor people have anything whatsoever for the wealthy to steal from them.
Capitalism is actually the system by which everyone has the greatest opportunity to achieve and grow as  wealthy as their ambition, ability, and fortune allows.  It is true that the wealthy tend to get wealthier in capitalism, but that's true in every economic system in the world that has ever been created.  The difference is how and why: is it due to government influence and pressure or due to personal ability?
The truth is, wealth is open ended; if there's an absolute level of wealth, we're nowhere near it, and there's a whole universe of resources to take advantage of.  As people get wealthier, they're adding to the pool, not taking it away from others.  The way this works is a bit complicated, but its not hard to find online.  Here are a few examples:
Results in uneven distribution of wealth: This is true, but not the way that people mean it.  When people say this, they mean it in an unfair sense.  Its not fair that some have so much and some have so little.  Not everyone earned their money, some got it from their parents or further back in their family earning money.  This is related to the "zero sum game" fallacy of believing there's only so much money in the world.
The truth is, capitalism - like every other system in the world - results in an uneven distribution of wealth.  Socialism does too, in practice, as does communism, feudalism, fascism, and any other economic system.  Its just a matter of how and why this uneven distribution takes place.  Capitalism rewards ambition, luck, talent, skill, and effort with wealth, generally speaking.  The other systems reward a closer relationship with those in power.
Leads to Crony Capitalism: As I've pointed out many times in many places, this label is trash.  There's absolutely nothing capitalistic about cronyism.  It is far more fascism than anything else, with business working hand in hand to control the economy with government.  Cronyism is when the government has enough power to control the economy so much that business finds it attractive and useful to cozy up to the ones in power.
In a system where the government has minimal influence and affect on the economy, there's no need or desire for cronyism.  Because the government doesn't have the power to help or affect a business.  In other words, the more capitalism you have, the less cronyism you have.  And the more cronyism you have, the less capitalism.
Big business loves capitalism and hates socialism: Tell that to I.G. Farben or Bank America.  This comes from a misunderstanding of the basic concept of free markets and business.  Big businesses hate competition and hate small businesses getting bigger.  They love the status quo, they love being the big guy on the block.  If a megacorporation has a choice between being innovative, competitive, and working hard to keep customers... and using the government to stop others from being competition, they'll choose the latter every single time.  
That's what's behind cronyism, the desire to use government and law to control the market so that the biggest companies can just crush their competition and keep their market share regardless of market forces.  Nobody wants your product?  Get a bailout and legislation forcing people to buy it!
Suppresses art and aesthetics for money: The idea here is that bald faced greed and a stripped down lust for profit and advancement means all aesthetic concerns and beauty are left behind.  However, historically, the rise of capitalism and the middle class was the cause of the rise of artistic expression in painting, poetry, sculpture, literature, playwriting, dance, music, and all the arts.  In fact, the finest examples of artwork we have in history came from private wealthy patrons rather than government subsidy and payment.
Is based on greed: Yes, it is.  Essentially capitalism harnesses greed in a constructive manner.  This is the fundamental flaw with other economic systems: they tend to try to ignore or change human nature.   Humans are basically selfish and greedy.  You can address that in various ways, but at our heart, that's what humans all are.  That's not going to change with better education or some utopian government/economic system.  Capitalism assumes this and channels this tendency toward something that benefits everyone rather than trying to avoid or change it.
Creates warfare and misery: Actually, as the free market has spread with democracy across the world, moving away from command economies, world war, poverty, and misery has reduced.  Its hard to imagine these days but there was a time when war was much more constant and worldwide than today.  Three hundred or more years ago, war was nearly continuous in one place or another in Europe and Asia, and the equivalent in places without such established nations such as Africa and America.  As the free market has brought greater wealth and prosperity to cultures, reducing lack and famine, the pressures to cause war have reduced.
The truth is, literacy, medicine, health, peace, standards of living, and overall safety have all increased because of capitalism.  The forces that make men compete and drive ambition are redirected in capitalism to personal success rather than conquest, and the result has been a tremendous benefit to the world.  Wars over resources and land fade away when you can use economic forces to gain what you want instead.  Literacy and health increase when people make money and personally advance by helping others be healthy and able to read, and so on.
Individualistic and against society: Capitalism isn't particularly individualistic or collective.  An economic system is both and neither, at its heart.  What capitalism is, is market against government.  In other words, it is the free people doing their thing selling and buying, creating and using rather than government controlling it.
Leads to monopolies: Monopolies certainly can occur in capitalistic systems.  They certainly do in other systems as well, because the more government controls the market the more likely it will tend to favor one business or sector than another, leading to cronyism and a greater gain of the market share.
And that means more monopolies, not fewer.  Government manipulation in the economy can tend to create, not prevent monopolies, despite their best efforts.
Makes consumers powerless: In truth, some of this can happen.  The more powerful business becomes, the less accountability they can have.  But the truth is, the more powerful government becomes, the more big business cozies up to that government for an edge, and consumers have no hope at all of fighting it.
Yet the market can and does tend to deal with businesses that are corrupt or abusive to workers and customers.  If your business treats everyone like trash, unless they're a monopoly, all you're going to do is drive people to competitors.  Part of the reason Ford Motor Company became the most powerful and richest car maker on the planet in the early 20th century is because Henry Ford paid his workers more, gave them more time off, and gave them more benefits than his competitors.  So they worked harder and more loyally, resulting in a better product for the consumer.
Drawbacks
Now all that said, there are some problems with capitalism.  As this is a flawed and imperfect world, no system will be without flaws or somehow manage to be perfect.  And here's where I see capitalism has its problems.
It doesn't always balance out: Monopolies do arise.  Competition doesn't always work.  You can work your hardest and still fail miserably, and there's nothing but the well-meaning of your neighbor to help you out.  It can seem, and even be, horribly unfair and unjust.
For example, Rockefeller owned and ran almost every oil producing land in America.  His Standard Oil basically owned the gas business in the US.  There wasn't any real competition, and where it showed up, he'd just arrive and buy or squeeze them out.  If that had been allowed to continue, we'd still have just one oil company in the US, because when a commodity is so critical and specific as energy - especially gasoline - the power and wealth in it would be incalculably vast and basically impossible to break.  In time, eventually, the market would correct this, but not for a very long time, and probably not until a real alternative source of energy came up.
The funny thing is, Rockefeller got richer by breaking up his monopoly than he ever was while owning it.  And he got that monopoly by owning politicians, using regulations and laws to help him control the business, and buying out anyone who got in his way.
But its true that while the market will correct its self, sometimes it can take generations.  And that's a real problem for the people suffering under the uncorrected market.  Right now, my home town of Salem has one hospital, one newspaper, and one real internet provider.  I mean, you can get other internet providers, but they suck.  There's a basic monopoly in place, and the market isn't fixing it.
Back when other newspapers tried to start up, the Statesman-Journal (Oregon Statesman having gobbled up the Oregon Journal) told advertisers they'd drop anyone who bought ads in the competition.  They leaned on people to not carry the paper, and the competition withered.  Now, newspapers are basically dying out so the era is coming to an end, but it has lasted since 1982.
So there's a real problem with the market and its corrective ability: sometimes the government does, in fact, have to step in and deal with the market.  That's why we have laws against certain things like fraud in weights and measures.
And the truth is, without an ethical and virtuous people, capitalism becomes pretty dark and awful.  Socialism tries to correct this by putting bureaucrats in charge, but they need to be virtuous too.  Shifting the balance of power to someone else doesn't make things any better.  You have to have good folks in business or their nature affects their business practices.  Greed can result in abuse of workers, waste of resources, trashing the environment, and so on.
In a similar way, when people do fail, then if there's not a good and generous portion of the people to help out, things can get pretty horrific.  London in the 17th to19th centuries is a good example.  There were parts of the city so awful its barely possible to comprehend.  Poverty, illness, fires, crime, and dehumanization were ghastly in some portions while the rest of the city tooled along happily.
This changed largely due to the efforts of men like Whitfield and Charles Dickins, changing hearts and souls rather than laws and regulations, but it was very bad for a time.  There must be more than just economics in a society to survive, capitalism cannot be the complete structure of a culture.
And finally, like I noted in the first part, capitalism tends to crest and bottom in a continuous wave of recession and growth.  Its almost a regular pattern as a sector of the economy becomes overvalued then the bubble pops, then another, and so on.  As technology and culture changes, some sectors become unneeded and there is a drop while the market adjusts.
Socialism works under the assumption that if everyone gives a little, then all will have enough.  The problem is that this does not take into account laziness or ambition, it fails to recognize that some people will take advantage of the system in either way.  So you punish ambition and effort and reward laziness and greed.  Its just the greed is that of the people who want everything given them rather than those who want to work to get it.
And in the end, after a while, you can't redistribute it any more.  The number and demands of the demanding greedy begin to overwhelm the numbers of ambitious who realize they're playing a sucker's game.  Why work hard all day to see it given to someone else?  Why not sit back and demand you're cared for as well?
So the system falls to pieces, first becoming massively in debt, then finally tumbling over completely.  And when that happens... the fate of the people who are the most genuinely needy is far worse than it was without well-meaning socialism.  The whole economy craters so badly there's no jobs for anyone and no wealthy to be charitable and generous to help others.
Ultimately socialism is about trying to make everything nice and wonderful for everybody, but all it does is make everyone miserable then crash making things far worse than they were to begin with.  Its unsustainable  and the bottoming out is far more horrible for the needy than the troughs of capitalism.  And in this world, you have to choose the least damaging, best of bad options. 
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE LOW INFORMATION CONTENT

"Bear with me a moment, this is going somewhere."

A great deal has been said about "low information" voters; those who know little about politics or world events and care even less.  These are the sort of voters who in 2008 were mocked in videos showing people interviewed clueless about Obama's positions on issues and even who was in charge of congress.
The latest political theory is that the low info voter is the big moving bloc that decides elections now rather than independents.  Since independents are heavily tilted away from Democrats right now you don't hear much about them any more.  Mostly its "moderates" that republicans are told they have to win, since they already have won independents.
In the past it was basically a divide between about 30% who'd vote for each party and the middle 40% had to be won over to find victory in an  election.  That middle 40% were generally more independent voters, holding no strong allegiance to either party.  These days, it appears that this isn't so much accurate any more.  Romney won independents by a fairly large margin in 2012 and yet still didn't win election.
In the past, Democrats have had a fair section of America as supporters who didn't vote.  This would be college students, inner city folks, and so on.  People who saw the Democrats as the solution to their problems or to hold political positions they found appealing, but thought voting was pointless or too much work.
What appears to be happening to me is that President Obama has figured out how to reach that non voting bloc.  He's continuously campaigning, but not in the usual sense.  The 2012 campaign by the Democrats was awful, it didn't appeal to anyone who normally would vote except the most rabid supporters who already were voting.  It wasn't meant to - in fact it was insulting and condescending toward normal voters.  The purpose of the campaign was to get people who ordinarily don't vote but are Democrats to get out there and hit the polls.
Now there's a lot of anecdotal evidence from various inner city polling precincts that they didn't really show up that much, but enough are said to have to turn the tide.  What I think actually happens went like this: Democrats relied on "get it close enough to cheat the win" for a while now, and President Obama found a way to make it work. 
From the Washington governor Election in 2004 to Al Franken's win in 2008, the win wasn't by the popular vote but by getting the popular vote close enough to find enough ballots to get a win for the Democrat.  It was so blatant in those elections that even supporters were leery of the events.  It is proved now that enough felons were allowed to vote illegally for Franken that they made up the margin of victory for him over Coleman.
With the outreach to the low info voter, President Obama has found the key to get it close enough.  Close enough that the precincts that voted in Ohio for Obama by 99% of the votes (a margin laughable to anyone with any sense) and for the over 150 counties with more people registered to vote than actual voters living in them to push the Democrat over to the win.
In other words, the low info voters gave the Democrats the victory by keeping the margin close enough.
But what drives these low info voters, why are they so reliably leftist.  Where did they come from?  Is this a new phenomenon?
In fact, they've always been with us, and might even make up the largest number of voters.  The voter for whom politics is meaningless and elections are boring is not new.  They've always been around and always have been an impact on society.
What's changed is what the low info voter is being educated and shaped by.
The primary source of information and understanding of the world for the low info voter is popular culture.  Television, music, movies, etc are what drive these people's comprehension of the world around them.  They wouldn't agree to this basic fact, but lacking study and deeper education, personal investigation into events and thoughts, that's all you're left with.  And popular culture can be very powerful in shaping thoughts and understanding.
Because the message in the media of music, television, and movies (and in the past radio and magazines, as well as some books) is delivered in the form of entertainment, it tends to slip past the guard of someone not trained or naturally inclined to be skeptical or analytical. You watch Jon Stewart and laugh without wondering why he's saying this and how true it is. 
For example in the past, images of patriotism, loyalty, hard work, good vs evil, respect for elders and authority, and the failure of crime all had a strong influence on people's understanding of the world.  They might still do evil deeds, but they felt that it was only going to work so long and they would generally know what they did was wrong.
Today, images of mocking authority, questioning parents, personal achievement and pleasure, rejecting absolutes, glorifying crime and greed, and the principle that the most important thing in the world is what benefits you are more dominant.  We're told not to do what is right, but follow our dreams.  We're told not to respect authority but demand respect for yourself.  We're told not of good and evil but of multiculturalism and tolerance.
When a song glorifies pleasure and personal thrill of romance as the highest goal in life, or tells of how you are the best and most important glittering jewel of reality, that sinks in past rational thought.  You might argue people don't listen to or think about the words, but that only proves my point: its not reaching them through their minds.  They remember and sing along and that influences their presumptions and beliefs about reality.
When films portrayed America as a strong positive force, family as a basic good and place of comfort and safety, authority as sometimes flawed but reliable and trustworthy, and truth and goodness as absolute standards, that has an impact on people's presumption as well.
So instead of building a society which embraces concepts of respect, goodness, hard work, personal responsibility, and love of country, we're building a society of dependence on government, personal pleasure and comfort, distrust of authority and the past, and rejection of family.  And the result is an inevitable erosion of a worldview that built the country.
Instead of wondering how I'm going to solve a problem or seeing it as an opportunity to achieve greatness, people see a problem as something other people caused and the government can solve.  Instead of seeing tradition and authority as something to respect and learn from, they see authority and tradition as untrustworthy, out of touch, old, stupid, and that it should be disregarded.
So when the Democrat convention says there's a war on women and Republicans just want to keep you down, people nod without even thinking why.  And when the GOP convention celebrates personal achievement, responsibility, and conquering hardship, that seems weird, scary, alien, and wrong to the low info sort.
Now these sort of people are always going to be with us.  Politics is upsetting and weird and hard to understand.  Easier to just believe what they're told by someone they find fun and trustworthy.  The shift happened in culture and worldview, not at the top in politics.  It was by taking over entertainment, education, and culture that the left managed this, not by passing laws.
And when you manage to achieve that, then you have a population that will more readily support the big government solution to problems without even questioning what that means to liberty, their pocketbook, and the future.  That's why people are so shocked about Obamacare.  They really honestly thought it was just going to be "now I get healthcare without paying, those rich people will be stuck for it" and honestly believed it would all work out great.
So when they sign up and see what its going to cost them, they are shocked and angry.
And folks who saw this coming and said all along what it was going to be like, well they didn't trust us because were were too old and white and sounded uncomfortable to them.  And besides Jon Stewart said that it was stupid to oppose free health care, and he's funny.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A MIX OF THINGS

"Pulling the plug on corn ethanol, officials fear, might mean killing any hope of these next-generation fuels."

Its funny that the only thing that's really wrong with the health care system in America is cost, and none of the big government answers do the slightest thing to reduce that.  Most actually increase cost by increasing paperwork, regulation, and bureaucracy, then try to hide it all behind redistribution.  Its almost as if the purpose of government controlling health care has nothing to do with fixing the problem at all.
They have confirmed the existence of a volcano several scientists had speculated existed in recent years..
Some leftists think that morality and virtue are genetic characteristics, and we should abort babies who don't show the proper leftist attitude toward life in their genes.  Through this system, we could create a master race with all the right ideas and thoughts, and shut out any dissent or disagreement, creating a perfect utopia with the purity of an ant colony and the beauty of a flawless pearl.
Although its been speculated about for years, scientists have confirmed that there is a very large volcano lurking under the section of Antarctic ice that has been slowly melting.  There is some concern that the volcano may erupt, destroying a significantly larger section of ice.  Alarmists are scurrying to find a way to blame SUVs for the volcano.
Something left virtually unsaid is that leftist dictators tend to obliterate the environment in their regimes.  Russia did horrendous damage to the environment under Soviet control, including a radioactive lake near Moscow.  And North Korea, originally a communist dictatorship, now just an insane one, has basically killed the landscape and stripped the land of nutrients.
Like with abortion clinics, organized crime is using global warming schemes to launder money.  These tricks work well because hot political organizations tend to see little scrutiny, because everyone in charge wants to avoid seeming critical of them.  In this case, the mob is using renewable energy subsidies and carbon purchasing schemes to invest in and clean up money without any legal source.  This article claims that renewable energy is the "most promising sectors" but that promise never came to pass.
"Green" energy schemes did well for a bit because they were having money shoveled into them like coal into a locomotive, but even world leaders in renewable energy schemes like Spain are backing off of them rapidly now.  Turns out they don't make money, don't produce very much energy, and the countries can't afford to keep shoveling.  And investors are angry at this.  Charging Spain with violating contracts, investors are planning to sue the country for backing off of "green" subsidies.
And meanwhile in the US, the mad push for ethanol subsidies is resulting in yet another drawback:
As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama's watch.

Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.

Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can't survive.
Now, you have to take some of this with a grain of salt, such as "releasing carbon dioxide" and the Gulf "dead zone" but the general theme is accurate.  Paying farmers to do something will get them to do it, even if they don't really care to.  And despite this, corn prices and have gone up rapidly, food corn supplies have gone down, and food price worldwide have skyrocketed.  All for fuel that doesn't save anything or help the environment at all.
Oh, one more ethanol concern: Energy Return On Investment (EROI) is an analysis of how much energy you get out of a fuel source compared to how much energy it takes to harvest, prepare, and deliver it to a consumer. The EROI is around 1.25:1 on corn ethanol versus 11:1 on oil. So it takes less petroleum to move things than ethanol, by a margin of almost 10 to 1.
Finally, I sold a dozen copies of Snowberry's Veil overnight, and 4 copies of Old Habits, both e-books. I don't know why or how, but I'm certainly happy to see it. I hope the people who bought them enjoy the books. And I hope at least some fire me off a review!
Update: Also sold a copy of Old Habits on Smashwords and a copy of Snowberry's Veil on Amazon UK. The drawback is that I have to sell at least $100 worth of my earnings on Amazon before they will pay me. Smashwords is a bit better, they only require $10 earnings a quarter. At about 70 cents a book for Snowberry and a bit more for Old Habits I have to move a lot of books, but its a start!

Friday, November 15, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Capitalism (part one)

"Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the street."
-Syriana

Capitalism was the main target of Karl Marx' work. He believed it was a great evil that was responsible for all the ills in the world.  This viewpoint has spread even more since the collapse of the Soviet Union, growing more popular and mainstreamed than ever.
In 2008 when the housing market crashed and banking almost collapsed, capitalism was blamed for it.  Some have argued that capitalism has been tried and found wanting, and we've evolved past that to a better system.  In fact, people blame capitalism for pretty much everything: greed, racism, inequality, poverty, disease, war, and so on.
Capitalism, it is argued, is a violation of others because there's a limited amount of wealth and resources in the world, so if one man becomes wealthier, others must become poorer.  It is argued that the rich get rich by stealing from the poor.  It is argued that government is fairer than business, so it should control the economy and wealth.  Some say that capitalism desires anything but a free market, celebrating monopolies and promoting all powerful corporations without accountability.
There are many ways capitalism is criticized, and quite vigorously these days.  Even ten years ago, capitalism was generally viewed as a positive influence and something people should pursue in economics.  It is only very recently that the shift in culture has led many people to think its evil and responsible for all their woes.
Is there any validity to these concerns?  Is capitalism the evil that many claim?
To understand this, we have to really know what capitalism actually is and is not.  The basic definition of capitalism is "an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state."  That's pretty much it.  Its the opposite of socialism which has the system in which the government is the primary force controlling the economy.  That's what the "free" in "free market" stands for: free of government interference.
In other words, we are under a socialist system in the United States in most areas.  No system is ever truly universal; even in Russia there were outposts of capitalism selling black market blue jeans and food at farms.  And even in America at the height of its capitalism in the late 1800s, the government regulated and interfered with the economy.
There is still vigorous capitalism in some parts of America.  Food stands run by farmers, for example, are virtually unregulated and directly deal between the producer and the consumer.  Much of internet commerce is free market.  If I sell my art on a website, the government doesn't get their cut and doesn't control what I sell or how I sell it.  You can tell which areas of the market are primarily capitalistic by what the government is targeting and trying to regulate. The best you can really expect is to have the great majority of the economy one system or another, not its entirety.
And in the United States, the greatest majority of the market is heavily impacted by, regulated by, and run by the federal and state governments.  This has been true for quite a while now, but that's something I'll get back to in a moment.
Capitalism is simply the concept that the market and the economy is best run by the people actually engaging in the market rather than bureaucrats and government officials.  That's really it.  And in America, capitalism used to be not just the presumed norm, but considered a very good thing.  In the movie Its A Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart's crusading hero George Baily is a banker.
These days capitalism has taken a serious hit in the eyes of the public because of the economic crash in 2008.  In fact, a recent Pew poll reports that 49% of Americans 18-29 years old have a positive view of socialism, while only 46% have positive views of capitalism.  When the banks suddenly fell apart just as Barack Obama's polling numbers were dropping, people blamed capitalism for it all.  And it seems to make sense.  The housing market was ridiculously inflated in what economists call a "bubble," and that bubble popped.  
Like the internet bubble before it in 2000, prices were far out of proportion to their actual value and what cannot last forever... didn't.  This was blamed on greed and rich people manipulating the market which was because of capitalism.  Look at what they were able to do because of the free market, now all these people are out of jobs!  And they got away with it because capitalism is all for the rich and protects corporations! 
So what's wrong with this analysis?  Almost everything.
THE HOUSING CRASH
To begin with, the housing market was in that shape because of government regulation and interference with the economy.  Because the federal government passed several bills and leaned on businesses to behave in certain ways, people took advantage of that to become very rich and drive up prices.  This is a pretty complex thing that I've written about in the past but here's a very quick and dirty summary:
The Community Reinvestment Act was passed by Jimmy Carter in 1977 to encourage lending institutions to minorities and poorer people in America, especially inner cities.  This would allow people to own homes and buy property more easily.  
However, banks were hesitant to take advantage of this because it would mean giving loans to people unlikely or unable to repay them, which is a bad investment.
The government responded in three ways: 
  1. The federal government passed legislation under Clinton that allowed banks to trade loans including "toxic" loans as if they were valuable (toxic loans are ones unlikely to be repaid).  That way they could be bundled with real loans and purchased by a larger banking organization as if they had real value.
  2. The federal government assured banks that they would back any toxic loans with the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac corporations created to help minorities find housing and get other loans.
  3. The federal government began leaning on banks which refused to take risky or impossible to be repaid loans.
So, banks started giving loans out to poor people and people clearly unable to repay their debt, confident it wouldn't come back to bite them.  As a result, more and more people started buying more and more houses, and speculating on real estate and property became a hot market.  
Since more and more people were buying homes, it was profitable to build them and sell the built homes to speculators who had a reasonable expectation of sales.
And finally, a tax loophole allowed people to ignore big "capital gains" taxes that are an additional tax rate levied on people who make large amounts of money at once.  If they would immediately turn and put that money into real estate, they could avoid the capital gains tax hit.
The result: banks loaning money to people who cannot pay, people pushing the price of homes up more and more (because the buyers weren't paying with their own money anyway, just getting loans they coudn't hope to repay), and taxes incentivized investing in real estate.
Away went the balloon.  And eventually, the market crashed.  All those banks assured they would be covered weren't, and many were gobbled up by huge mega banks like Citi and Chase Manhattan who were bailed out by the government in a bipartisan vote, fearing total collapse of the economy.
Now look that over.  Knowing what you know about capitalism, how much of that is the fault of the free market?  There's a little bit: people buying and selling property as investments, but they were doing so because of government interference encouraging it to take place.  Tax laws and loaning regulations, government pressure, and legislation concerning banking were what brought this about.  In other words: not capitalism (market drives economy) but socialism (government drives economy).
This is not something that should be shrugged aside.  The collapse in banking was directly driven by government interference with the free market.  It took a long time for all the pieces to get into place and for the disaster to really unfold, and its a bit more complicated than the quick sketch I showed, but that's the essence of what took place.  This was not the result of capitalism, period.
This is not to say that no recessions can occur as a result of capitalism.  Capitalism by its nature causes a sine wave-like pattern in economic activity.  Over time there will be almost regular patterns of growth and boom and then down times.  That's a result of market corrections and giddiness in certain areas.  However, in history and in practical application, it has been shown that these ups and downs are shallower and less dramatic than those which result from socialism.  When the government interferes with the market, natural smoothing and limiting forces do not and cannot take effect.  The more the government interferes, the worse this effect becomes.  Inevitably, eventually, the artificial level of prices, pay, and production will come to an end, and when they do, they don't reduce over time due to lack of demand or market forces, but suddenly, with a horrible crash.
So Capitalism does lead to boom/bust cycles, but much gentler ones than socialism does because it is not hidden behind government manipulation and behind the scenes accounting.  When the bad times come, they come and go rather than crash and stay like the present economy or in the Great Depression.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The Great Depression of the 20th century was a result of what people call "crony capitalism" gone amok.  Hugely rich and powerful men such as Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and so on got that way through using the federal government to help them get land for railroads, oil, and other ventures.  They used legislation and matching loans to purchase land and commodities and as a result became richer than is almost possible to conceive.  These guys were billionaires in the 19th century.
In addition, poor lending laws and action by the Federal Reserve allowed loans and investment in unprofitable areas seem profitable in a manner similar to the banking crisis described above.  And Herbert Hoover pushed through a huge tariff on goods imported into America, trying to encourage self-sufficiency and Americans buying American goods.  Almost immediately, every major nation on earth slapped the US with huge tariffs, killing trade.  Further, Hoover restricted money supply in an attempt to reduce the boom caused by widespread investment (the stock market grew rapidly), and this made it so banks couldn't get money to people when they ran to get their cash out.  This caused banks to collapse, making matters worse.  Finally, Hoover leaned on "short sellers" as unpatriotic and greedy, which prevented stocks from reaching a reasonable price.  
To put it simply, you have to be able to bet on the price going both ways in a stock market, or a given stock will never find its proper price level. Under Hooover (and later FDR), this activity virtually stopped, and nobody was certain whether the price levels on the market were accurate or not.  Trust eroded, and a collapse was set to take place.
Again: capitalism to blame?  Or government interference?  Remember, private markets doing business is not what defines capitalism.  They always will do business, whether under a totally socialist system or not.  What defines the system is who controls the economy, not whether businesses are involved at any level or not.  This is a very common misunderstanding, and often why people blame capitalism for what socialism caused: businesses did it, see they were involved!
That's enough for now, I will cover more capitalism myths in a future post.  There are a lot.
*For more on how the ACA and investment laws caused the housing crash, read this former post by me.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.