Thursday, December 21, 2006


Welcome to my semi-facetiously named blog. Only semi-facetiously; even if I am kidding a little bit, the joke points in the direction of a basic truth about where our country is headed, with the world hot on its heels as it does so.

Back in days of yore, I got a lot of heat for myself on Usenet by telling people what they needed to hear, instead of what they wanted to hear, at a time when I still hadn't heard of "Postmodernism". Not that I hadn't grown up running into its equally ill conceived precursors - consider "The Power of Positive Thinking" by Norman Vincent Peale. "We make our own reality" is a delusion that resonates with the psyche of a good chunk of the American populace. The sad and wonderful truth is that we don't make our own reality or realities, Reality is out there to be discovered, and we will either deal with it on its own terms or be smashed flat by it.

But to accept that would call for humility, and far too many Americans have had difficulty distinguishing between that and weakness or low self-esteem. In one of its less humble moments, one particular segment of our population, the corporate community, began to inflate its expectations regarding the credentials of new job applicants beyond reason. One advanced degree should certainly be plenty to get one that first job, but back when I started writing about the subject, it wasn't. I didn't have to make any guesses about this subject. All I had to do was do what should have been second nature to anybody with an interest in the sciences - I went out and looked.

At that point, employers were, in fact, extremely open about the fact that they had no intention of hiring anybody who had only a Math degree, or only a Physics degree, and likewise in a variety of fields. Chemistry seemed to fare better than most majors, I'm guessing because of the great body of practical lab skills a chemist would develop in the course of his studies, and the intimate relationship that apparently existed between theoretical and applied work in his subject. Most other pure science programs, however, tended to have an almost phobic response to the very concept of application, and employers weren't interested in graduates whose knowledge was purely theoretical. They went so far as to insist on seeing second degrees in areas of application. If you wanted to do mathematical modeling work for Intel, for example, to merely have a degree in Mathematics was insufficient; one needed that degree and one in electrical engineering as well.

If you aren't suffering in grad school, you're doing something wrong; most likely, you aren't learning as much as you think you are and need to, if your school is anything but a diploma mill. The stories you've heard about psychological breakdowns are in no way exaggerated. To find somebody who has just gone through such an ordeal, and shove him into another one in such an unnecessary way is purely inhuman. A numerical analyst who sets up a model for an engineering team does not need to be an engineer, himself, in order to do his job competently. He merely needs to be a good listener who is willing to fully benefit from the expertise of others, before adding his own to the mix of talents and skills that make a project move. There might be something said for having him learn something about the field of application; having him go through a whole degree program would be (and was) gross overkill. But some ill-informed suit somewhere had a bright idea, the bright idea became a management fad, and many, many hard working people had their lives thrown into reverse because of it. This was unreasonable and morally wrong, but it was reality.

Reality, however, was counting for very little in some circles in those days, as I would discover. There is an expression from that era, "acting as if", that referred to the practice of trying to make reality what one wishes it would be by acting as if it were so, in the hope that others would be sucked into the mass hallucination one was creating for them. In real life, there are many, many things that scientists, mathematicians and researchers in the applied sciences (engineering, medicine, etc) are needed to do, far more than they can hope to do, because scientists are born and not made, though they can certainly be unmade. One is either born with the intellectual capacity to handle these subjects or one is not, and the vast, vast majority of the population simply isn't.

Where nature decrees the inevitability of scarcity, that which is scarce should, in principle, become dear and thus expensive. In a market governed by rational economic calculation, the scenario I described above could never have arisen, because the rational market value of the labor squandered would be far too high; as the labor would be left underutilized and the price for it dropped, rational actors in the marketplace would move in and capitalize on the temporary dip in cost, driving the cost back up - in theory. The catch, though, is that nothing compels people to be rational, especially when prejudices run out of control and drugs are in wide circulation.

I still remember the interviewer who, with an absolutely straight face, told me that 600 new PhDs in my particular branch of Mathematics had applied for work at his office that week; there weren't that many on the planet, but by descending into the realm of fantasy, he was able to give himself a feeling of power, and if reality is subjective, then to feel powerful is to be powerful, right? Meanwhile, back in reality, somebody's attitude problem meant that work that could have gotten done didn't, but ... how to put this delicately? The man was a member of the generation that coined the saying "if you remember the 60s, you weren't really there". Reality was the least of his concerns, because like a lot of those holding the upper hand in society today, he had visibly fried out his brain so badly during what was probably his joyously misspent youth, that reality was precisely what he could never connect to, again.

When one combines that kind of widespread artificial cognitive impairment with the equally widespread generational attitudes toward science and those who study it ... but it isn't in fashion to remember that little detail of a bygone era, is it? Especially when it explains so much in a manner so not in keeping with the standard Neocon rhetoric that holds that business decisions may never be criticised on moral grounds, because Occult market forces compel people to be rational. But even so, the facts are there for all to see because the 1960s, as an era, were very much in love with themselves, with the result that the documentation of the popular culture of that era is extensive, and talk about the evils of science and technology, and how we'd all be better off if we abandoned all of that "irrelevant" stuff and moved back to the communes to live on organic alfalfa or something like that was all the rage in those days. So was disrupting class, vandalising labs and professors offices, and otherwise acting up - and now that those unruly, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific and antitechnology students of the 60s have become the gracelessly aging elder management of the early 21st century, the ones making the hiring decisions, the new generation of scientists and engineers coming up behind them, those trying to begin their lives, are finding that those elders are closing off opportunities to them in a way precisely in keeping with the hate-filled proclamations heard out of them during their own youths.

Remarkable coincidence, isn't it? No, it's got to be a coincidence. It's physically impossible for people to act in economically dysfunctional ways because of their own personal issues. I mean, take a look at how attempts to deny job opportunities to qualified black people failed for so many years, as racism was crushed instantly by market forces wherever it appeared ... what, it didn't happen that way? Institutionalized racism actually kept good people down for generations, until the government came in and slammed more than a few heads together? Couldn't be! OK, that must be the exception that proves the rule. Like the way in which Germany nurtured and loved its historically loyal and productive Jewish population, providing opportunities to the many talented and hard working people coming out of the ghettoes and ... and ... what's that you're saying? Something about Nazis ... they did what?

NO! Surely THAT can't have happened? There's no profit in that at all!!!

Quite obviously, History teaches us that populations are free to act on their irrational prejudices, and that the semimythical market is not going to keep them from being just plain, downright evil. The only thing that the "market" promises us is that such choices will come at a cost; if people are crazy enough to not care about the cost, they are absolutely free to do any sick and foolish thing they please, en masse. What becomes unusual, in the case of the United States - though not unique - is the way in which the hatred of the many is so ready and eager to strike the many. How often does one see a population so ready to get onboard for its own destruction? Let us consider recent policy changes that the bulk of the population seems to think are just brilliant. Specifically, I'm thinking of outsourcing.

Before, back in those earlier mentioned days of yore, we were issued insane demands for minor rewards - but at least the minor rewards were held out as a possibility. Now, even if one has everything on that insane wish list, and manages to find somebody who isn't playing the "I won't hire anybody for his first job until he has 2-5 years of experience" game, it doesn't matter. Your entry level job has gone sailing off to Bangalore, or Canton, and all of that insanely great amount of work was for absolutely nothing. You've been played.

The governmental remedy for this sort of thing is a simple one, and it's been with us for centuries - the setting of tariffs, which eliminate the financial reward of relocating work to places where labor is rendered cheap by soft currency and the resulting exchange rates. It is difficult to imagine how anybody is supposed to thrive in the short run on the terms now given, in the fashionable absence of trade protection; low level jobs got shipped out with NAFTA, and the upper level jobs can be done for the equivalent of starvation level wages here. In the long run? Let us use our common sense. What is being dismanted is America's industrial capacity. What do you suppose happens when almost all of that has been shipped overseas to countries that have been traditionally hostile to the US (India), or to ones in which there is barely the pretense that they are anything else (China)? Were we asleep during History class, boys and girls? What happens in wartime to countries without significant industry?

Don't ask me, ask a confederate.

What Bush is doing, and what the American people think is absolutely brilliant, is rendering his own country defenseless and improverished for the shirt-term gain of an overcompensated few, while those to be impoverished and left undefended applaud. How stupid, how very, very stupid. At the very least, as America and the West become powerless, the very threat of any meaningful reprisal will become laughable, raising the question of how the investor's investment is to be defended. If all our country is left with are the investments held by a few in facilities that exist under the rule of other governments, then all we are left with is paper, paper which those other governments may safely disregard as they nationalise those facilities, leaving the once favored few with nothing. Contacts rest on the force of law, and the law can only be as strong as those who enforce it.

But this makes sense to people.

Let the country, any country, deteriorate enough, and it will attain the status of a potential colonial acquisition. How do the American people think they would fare, were this to come to pass? In the case of Shrub and his Old Boy's Club buddies, the very class of people who expect to come out on top, past performance tells us exactly what to expect. At best, reeducation and forced labor camps, more likely the firing squad. Conquerors seldom leave the ruling class alive, and our own eventual conquest and colonization is what the deindustrialization and de-development of the West are paving the way for. Consider the tykes you see coming out of self-esteem based education these days, our early 20-somethings whose education has been so much more ideological than professional, leaving out so much of that nasty scholarly and technical irrelevance so devalued by those in charge of business and government today. Let us say they continue down their path of glorious nonachievement, and one day find themselves facing a technologically superior enemy three times their size, with a comparatively vibrant research community there to improve their materiel and infrastructure a little more, ever day. What would our new generation do to turn back an invading army? Hug them to death?

But this makes sense to people.

What this is, is insane. It is utter madness, the reward our civilization wins for accepting decades worth of Political Correctness, of accepting the idea that one should go along to get along and not challenge the popular consensus, no matter how visibly laughable it is. Having gotten out of the habit of dissecting and challenging absurd statements, of trusting in their own judgement and common sense, the American people and their even more beaten down European relations have allowed their own critical judgement to atrophy from disuse, rendering themselves easy prey for any charlatan or well-connected fool who comes by - and one could hardly ask for a fool more well-connected than our current president, the American Commodus.

Not that the American people deserve much better. As opportunity has left these shores, let us remember why the electorate has been accepting of the policies that pave the way for their destitution. Because each of the many thought that as his neighbor was brought low through no fault of his own, that he would, himself, prosper from the misery of his countrymen, turning shattered careers and destroyed lives into fuel for the engines of the new economy, the one that would give him cheap consumer goods. There is nothing being done unto the common man that he wasn't eager to do to those around him for a quick buck, and self-righteously proud of doing to those who had dared to work harder and understand more than he. There is something fitting in such an end for such a people, to be destroyed by their own vices; it this is the path that the American people would choose for themselves, then let them pass from this world unmourned, as the few of us who aren't willing to sink to the depths our countrymen plumb with pride seek opportunity elsewhere.

I had mentioned reality being out of style, all around. Back in those much earlier days on Usenet, I found myself amazed by how casually people would lie online. The truth truly was nothing to them. They would go so far as to not merely lie about what they had seen in the world offline, things more difficult to confirm, but literally about others had just posted, and were sitting out on the board for all to see with their own eyes. To my amazement, I discovered that the group would get angry, not with the person who had lied about what others had written, but with those who, having been libeled in this manner, challenged the distortions of what they had to say. Morality had been completely inverted, with predictable results. When a few - very few - of us went online to do no more than report what we had seen and hard in the real world, contrarians were standing by, ready to make their own reality as they pretended to see the exact opposite, or to attribute remarks to us which we had never made.

For people to have found reality for themselves, in a matter in which good or bad judgement would have such a profound impact, would have been simple - all that one had to do was go out and ask. But that's the absurd beauty of Postmodernism - if reality is nothing more than something we collectively dream, then there is no need to ever go out and look. Reality is whatever the people around one say that it is. The kids of that era refused to look, stumbled into some dark and unpleasant experiences that they had been given fair warning about, and then really couldn't seem to understand why they were getting very, very little sympathy out of some of us. Now, we see the same idiocy on a grander scale. Consider how many times the statistical fakery of the federal unemployment rate has been exposed, and how many times the same debunked claims have been embraced by a national audience that acts as if it had no short term memory. They look and will not see, they hear and will not listen, and so they suffer and we will not care.

This blog will really not be about national politics. For that to be worth attempting, there would have to be some actual values in place in this country, and there aren't, any more. Part of the change that comes of getting a little older, I think, is gaining the ability, when one sees somebody about to step off a cliff and gets cursed out by him for shouting out a warning, is to cheerfully wish him a fond farewell and happy landings. One's younger self would have worried about the soon to be departed; one's older self just hopes that one parked one's jeep outside of the splatter zone.

New paintjob, you know.

Along the way, and it's been a dark and rocky one, there have been a few people who've given me a reason to care about them, and I do, and if I can help them, I will, but I have better things to do with my time than try to save a world that won't be bothered to save itself. Mainly, because it's just a blog - and does anybody even read these things - I'm just going to be goofing around, and sharing a hobby or two. A little math, a little very amateurish art that relates to mathematics, and from time to time an attempt to address a question that only becomes more timely as our era progresses. What can a young or youngish mathematician who finds himself stonewalled by human resources do about his poverty? It won't solve or even address the problems of anybody outside of our little demographic slice, but that's fine. Nor will even those be addressed very often, because I have far more places to be than I did back during my salad cutting days, and I just don't have time to do that much posting. That may make me sound a little selfish and nasty, but these days, who isn't?