Quarterly Potpourri: 2013, Q3
The disappearing middle. A study out of Oxford University, written up on Slate.com, says that 47 percent of US jobs are "at risk" of being automated in the next 20 years. The Slate guy says we have to Fix The Schools so that everyone is still employable. In the leftist mind there's no social problem that can't be solved by Fixing The Schools, which seems to translate as "making dumb people smart." Yeah, we should get right on that.
Economist Tyler Cowen is plowing the same furrow in his new book Average is Over. Smart people will get rich; dumb people will keep the place clean; Joe and Sue with middling IQ will be out of luck.
Anecdote: A few months ago I was at a dinner with, seated at my left [sic], Roger Kimball, publisher of Encounter Books and The New Criterion, and Norman Podhoretz of Commentary. I mentioned the rising waters of automation. Roger: "Oh, I've been hearing about that all my life, about how we'll all be put out of work by machines. Yet I'm working harder than ever!" Norman: "Me too! Ha ha ha!" Everybody: "Ha ha ha!" Uh …
Mnemonicizing the Civil War. In a blog post at VDARE.com I mentioned the old schoolroom mnemonic for the sequence of battles in the Wars of the Roses. Is there a mnemonic for remembering the battles of the War Between the States?
I couldn't find one, so I thought I'd make one up. Two problems arose immediately. First, there are just too many battles — at least thirty, depending on what you count as a significant battle. A thirty-word mnemonic is too unwieldy. And then there's the double-name issue. The South remembers several battles by the names of nearby settlements: Manassas, Sharpsburg, Murfreesboro. The North remembers the same battles by terrain features: Bull Run, Antietam Creek, Stone River.
Picking the dozen biggest engagements, by butcher's bill, putting them in chronological order, and using Union names, I came up with this mnemonic: "Dinner: String Beans And Stuffed Chicken, Grilled Very Crisp With Swiss Cheese." No, it doesn't make much sense; but then, neither does "Kings Play Chess On Fat Girls' Stomachs."
Right and wrong. I went to a talk addressed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote this really terrific book about our moral faculty. The big takeaway from the book (though there is much, much more in it than just this) is that our moral intuitions can be modeled in five dimensions: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. People who identify as liberal are strong on the first two dimensions but light on the other three; conservatives are better balanced. That made liberals mad (see the one-star reviews on Amazon), though Haidt says he's mainly liberal in sentiments.
Haidt is as interesting in person as in print. He's been toiling in the vineyard of moral psychology for years. He knows all the players and all the theories. He has the data at his fingertips and cogent answers to all objections.
Listening to him, though, I felt a breath of chill wind. The left-liberal outlook, with its scant regard for those last three dimensions, is completely dominant in the Western world. So will our concerns for loyalty, authority, and sanctity just fade away? Humanity's long aversion to homosexuality, for instance, is surely based on the notion that it's degrading. Now that we are not allowed to think that, is our Sanctity/Degradation module weakened? Will it atrophy and die? Or is our disgust just retargeted to something else — to homophobia, perhaps? And our reverence also, to new objects?
Contrariwise, liberals don't at all mind harming people who violate their dogmas; and how many of these perps in the Atlanta Schools cheating scandal do you think self-identify as conservative?
Beats the band. Here's a wee linguistic curiosity. In Chapter 36 of Gone with the Wind Scarlett is struggling to run a business in post-Civil War Atlanta. Rhett Butler walks in on her and they talk, to a point where she thinks he's offering her financial assistance. She says she doesn't want his money. Rhett: "Oh, don't you! Your palm is itching to beat the band this minute …"
That rang a bell. The boastful Sergeant Major in Ernest Longstaffe's song — one of my dad's favorites — says:
When I'm here on parade in the square
How the folks passing by turn and stare,
For they say "This beats the band;
The way he handles the men is grand!
The song dates from 1925; GWTW from 1936; so around those years people in the Anglosphere were saying "beats the band" to suggest something intense or superlative. In West Virginia it's still current, apparently. Why have I never heard anyone say it? Would a Southern gent in the 1860s have said it?
Smart mice. When the pressure's on, natural selection works awfully fast. An acquaintance who'd driven a lot around the old Soviet Union in the 1960s, when there weren't many cars there, told me that in country districts a motorist left a trail of dead birds behind him. The birds didn't know to get out of the way. Now they've learned; or rather, the ones who have whatever it takes for a bird to be automobile-wary survived and passed on the trait while the others died.
The same thing's happening in my house. A mouse has been nibbling my wife's stored food packages, leaving telltale little droppings in the vicinity. She went to the hardware store and got a box of glue traps.
Now there are glue traps everywhere in the kitchen and basement. The mouse laughs at them. He's still nibbling and pooping but is skillfully avoiding the traps. It's like those Soviet birds or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Nature is just one humongous arms race.