Reflections from the Winter of my Life

Having just turned 74, with several medical conditions consistent with that age, awareness of the vulnerability and mortality I used to work so very hard to fend off and deny, is fully upon me. Although I still work one day a week as an anesthesiologist, much of my time is unstructured. I have completed all the tasks I set forth and have passed all the milestones in life to which I used to look forward. Now, I sense I am just running out the clock, one 90-day prescription renewal at a time.

My children are grown and educated without being indebted. I have actuarially-sufficient savings because, by choice, I always lived below my means. Looking back, I can clearly see how, by directing all my conscious energy toward single-minded pursuit of all the outward and visible tasks (B.A., M.S. M.D., J.D., medical licensure and board certification exams, bar exams, pilot’s license exams, including private, instrument, commercial, multiengine, flight instructor), I left myself no time or energy to examine the broader context of my life. One might say that then, I was a human doing rather than the human being I am today. As this human being, I have (too) much time to ruminate, and my inner pessimist has come to the fore.

These thoughts this Labor Day weekend, were provoked by my reading Herman Wouk’s “This is My God.” You see, at this stage of life, in lieu of external goals I am on an inner quest – for understanding. I earnestly long to understand the meaning of not only my life, but of life in the universe and its destiny. We are either blessed to cursed to live in a time when – if not answers – at least the ability to ask better questions has arisen by virtue of our exponentially-increasing knowledge of the physical universe and of our own biology.

The rate of increase of such knowledge and the technology following in its wake, is unsettling. That is the case to those of us who – in addition to seeing beginnings, meanings and ends of things –  also long to understand the context of our lives in the river of time. In that stream, we flail about, imagining we are free to move according to our will, yet often losing sight of the inexorable flow which takes us wherever it is destined. I suppose it is fair to say that nowadays some are aware of this and imagine we may eventually redirect the entire river. Who knows if humans may one day achieve such God-Like powers.

The main intellectual quest I find myself in this winter of life is an attempt to understand human ontology and, to do that it seems to me, I ought to have an intimate grasp of historical facts and also subjective human experience throughout history – even at times prior to written records. What was it like for early humans to merely subsist? To find water, food, shelter, clothing? To have children?  A third reading of “The Source” by James Michener has given me some insight into this, notwithstanding the fact the book is a work of fiction; it was based in much archeological research for which the author is renowned.

The story, set in a 1960’s fictional archeological ‘tell’ in Galilee, Israel, traces the roots of human existence in that area from the posited beginning to the present. Our ancestors first lived there in a cave adjacent to an artesian well (a source, or Makor in Hebrew) about 50,000 years ago. The particulars set forth in “The Source,” I believe, are generalizable to much of humanity in many times and at many places. It is a stark and plausible adumbration of much innate human behavior whose shadows (at least) are still apparent among us moderns.

I found myself moved to tears a few hours ago while reading the aforementioned “This is My God.”  In a chapter entitled “The Nature of Festivals,” Wouk recounts the deep agricultural roots of the Jews and says:

“But the Torah of Moses, which ordained the festivals,… prophesied that the glories would be temporary, that the people in their prosperity would lose their hold on the law and on their land, and would scatter into exile; and it ordained that the nation should go on observing the festivals wherever they dwelt, to all time. And so we do. Our people has lived for thousands of years in the faith that in God’s good time he will restore the nation to its soil, and that the festivals will take on, in their latter days, their ancient force and beauty.

Meantime – and it has been a long meantime! – these holy days, diminished as they are in substance and in pomp, are bulwarks of Judaism in exile. In Israel, even among the non-religious, they have speedily become national celebrations. To neglect them is to neglect the dikes that hold back the sea of oblivion, and to cheat oneself of pleasant and informing experiences (my emphasis). Words are dry and tenuous compared to vivid acts like clearing the home of leaven (ritually removing all traces of yeast before Passover) and marching with a palm branch. You can listen to a hundred lectures and read forty books on what Judaism is, and learn learn less than you can by carrying out in a single year the duties and the pleasure of festivals.”

The tears resulted from a realization so near that I am surprised I never saw it before. I not only did not identify with the religion and practices of my grandparents, all of whom were Ashkenazis from Eastern Europe who fled pogroms around 1900; I positively rejected all of that in a vain effort to be NOT like my father. Believing I might invent myself de novo, severed from those ancient cultural roots, I tried to fashion myself as his negation. If he was a Jew, I was not. Imprinted by childhood memories of the Depression, he lived out an intense need to have enough money and material things and to believe he had control of most everyone and everything in his vicinity.

He insisted I had to become a doctor and tried to “toughen me up” for life with criticism. He did manage to convince me that the world is generally not a safe place (this, he surely learned, himself, as part of trans-generational Jewish cultural history); this made me hyper-vigilant; I never quite lived up to his expectations of me – I never quite ‘got it right’ in his eyes. The silver lining in all that was that I was also driven to excel, which I did manage to pull off, in the eyes of most everyone else. That long list of degrees and accomplishments, in reality, was my way of manipulating the world at large to get it reassure me that I actually am a worthwhile person, despite what my father thinks. It was also my way of being sure I would always have enough, as I secretly bought into his Depression-based fears of scarcity (all the while denying it vehemently).

The essential insight I had this morning was simply this: here I am, single-mindedly (again!) trying – before I die – to understand the human nature and subjective experience of all those who came before me and lived long enough to procreate yet, all the while, rejecting my own real and uniquely accessible history going back over three millennia!

How and why my ancestors lived is explicitly laid out in the Torah, the Talmud and the extensive oral tradition. Today’s tears are tears of grief and regret over having intentionally denied myself and my children “of pleasant and informing experiences.” That is, I denied me and my children the possibility of having been in-formed, of allowing us to be formed within a known, comprehensible and even a reassuring context. I’m not sure, but I suspect that those who grow up in modernity “in-formed” with such traditions can navigate more surely the river of life in the many dimensions in which we all must navigate.

Much of modern anxiety, an attribute of our times I think,  derives from not only the increasing pace of the current of the river of our lives but also from the absence of landmarks and other navigational aids which culture – including knowledge of history – used to provide. As did I, our culture is about the business of ignoring or revising history. Doing so, in my experience, is a grievous error.

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VDH On the Real Consequences of Illegal Immigration

Victor Davis Hanson is one of the most intelligent, temperate and persuasive thinkers and writers of our time. I have followed him for many years and had the privilege of accompanying him on one of his annual tours to Europe – Greece, in my case. These are wonderful trips, complete with daily lectures and first-class accommodations. Information about future trips appears on his website, victorhanson.com .

He is in the fifth generation of a Swedish-American family which has continuously inhabited a farm near Selma in the San Joaquin Valley of California. The area grows raisins and almonds, including almost 100% of the raisins sold in the US. Victor has written intermittently for years about the joys and sorrows of living there.

In this essay, it seems clear that the sorrows have finally overtaken the joys. In Victor’s always understated and ego-free writing, he describes the real-life problems for real people which result from illegal immigration. After reading it, no reasonable person could deny the problems which continue to result from our country’s refusal to enforce its borders or its laws.

This essay is filled with caritas and pathos. I feel compelled to recommend it to fellow Ratburghers (I do think of this as our virtual town, our community, our ‘-burgh’) as one of the most quietly persuasive documents I have ever read. It might even summon forth the vestigial remnant of reason in a few radical leftists who reflexly label opponents of open borders as nativist, xenophobic, racist, hate-filled, etc., etc., etc…

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Homepage Recommendations?

To some extent, I am a creature of habit. This tendency has not improved with age and – being that I am 74 – my formative years did not include computers. Thus, gmail has been my Safari homepage for quite some time. Aside from my increasing desire to jettison all things google, I am particularly desirous of finding a homepage which loads quicker. Every time I open a new window or tab, I must wait for it to load (or stop it from loading with an additional click of the ‘x’ in the url bar) before entering my next search. This has become annoying. I may be old, but I am still type-A  (my wife refers to me as “his royal A-ness.”

I would much appreciate Ratburgher suggestions as to good homepages.


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Longings from Virtual Travel

Maybe, like me, you have some favorite places on Earth. Switzerland captured my heart as a 25 year-old medical student in 1969. Back than, the world was a tumultuous place. The Vietnam War filled the daily headlines, but I was, mercifully, exempt – having failed my induction physical exam due to limited motion of my right elbow. Ten years earlier, I had tripped while making a lay-up basketball shot and fractured the head of the radius. I never regained full motion. In reality, this has not been much of an impediment, although on x-rays it looks really awful. It made me 1-Y. When I asked what that meant, the medical examiner, an older doctor, said it meant that if they took me, he would start to worry they might take him. From that time on, my graceless spill on the basketball court was known to to my family as “the fortunate fall.” I definitely would not have made a good grunt. [End Digression]

Another consequence of the ’60’s was my erratic academic performance, ranging from all A’s to all C’s, depending on my emotional state. I was thus not accepted to any stateside medical schools. I was, however, accepted to the Faculté de Médicine Université de Lausanne. My journey there in September 1969 was my first trip abroad and I immediately fell in love with the place. The physical beauty, I found, had a highly salutary effect on my normally bleak outlook on life (“gravity is superfluous, the Earth just sucks”). I truly loved the surroundings and felt secure by virtue of a crude SPS (Swiss Positioning System); by reference to distant mountains, one could triangulate one’s location pretty reliably.

This, in turn, led me to a fascination with geography of Switzerland. I found myself often trying to understand the relative location of places. Example: looking south over the Aletsch Glacier from the top of the Jungfrau, (it seemed to extend into distant forever) I wondered where the glacier ended up. Which finally brings us to my literary destination. Virtual Travel.

I have an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset I use mainly for flight simulation. My favorite sim software is Aerofly FS2, which has photorealistic scenery of all of Switzerland. With it, I regularly fly down the Aletsch glacier and arrive in the Rhone Valley at Brig. From there, I usually fly west along the valley, eventually arriving at Lake Geneva and my still-beloved Lausanne. Or, I take a left at Brig and head down the valley to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Seeing Switzerland from on high remains exhilarating. So much so that it usually triggers intense desires to go there.

My stint at med school in Lausanne turned out to last only 18 months, as my then wife decided to run off with someone else. I dropped out and returned to New Jersey badly wounded. I still remember tearfully looking out the window of the Swissair flight which brought me home, thinking I would never be happy living anywhere else. In some ways, that proved prophetic. I then somehow finished a MS in physiology and a few years later, I managed to get accepted to med school mid-year at Rutgers. A December ski trip to Zermatt was my pre-matriculation reward.

All of which is merely to offer context to my affinity for Switzerland and the ease with which I can feel intense desires to go back once again. Most mornings, I look at webcams in Zurich, Mount Rigi, Jungfraujoch, and Rochers de Naye. My curiosity is such that I try to find exactly the location of the webcams, using various online maps. Google Earth Virtual Reality is free (my animus toward Google is such that I would not use it if I had to pay for it) and a great VR experience.

I am able to ‘fly’ to Mount Rigi in VR to a place called Rigi Rotstock. There, I switch to street view, and see a photograph which clearly shows the webcam at that location. This is an exercise I repeat often, at many locations, with only mixed success. Sometimes, in street view, I can only see the shadow of a pole. It is fun and I have mental notes to look for certain webcams on my next real visit. Last April, for example, I went up to Jungfraujoch (we own stock in the railroad company which goes up from Interlaken) and found the webcam which does a roundshot including the view over the glacier. I find this to be very satisfying, even though it provokes my frequent, unfulfilled longings to head right out to the airport and go for yet another visit.

As I write, my inner entrepreneur is thinking of writing a book along the lines of “Secret, Public Switzerland – Webcams Revealed.” It would have precise maps and photos of as many webcams as possible, as well frames of their fields of view. I wonder if this might sell…? I could even write off the trip…


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“Fairness” Doctrine for Social Media?

Private companies’ content censorship raises important public concerns of a magnitude meriting book-length treatment. Not here, however, and not by me. The left, for example, saw its near-absolute content control of most public media – print, broadcast, movies, education – as insufficient because of talk radio. Leftist radio programs fell flat while Rush Limbaugh, intolerably, soared to prominence. We know that tolerance has a very restricted meaning for leftists, thus their regulatory effort to quash conservative talk radio with the “fairness doctrine” was a case study in the use of state power in furtherance of their illiberal – totalitarian, actually – impulses and tactics.

The left never hesitates to enforce its rubrics, on pain of abusive name-calling (amplified by their “media”) or ruination at the hands of some public agency or other with enforcement powers. For instance, a Christian baker in Colorado is being singled out yet again.  All sense of proportion has been lost, to such an extent that definitions of basic language and process must be re-examined. Does what we have referred to as media up until now still qualify as media?

Are newspapers and TV newscasts merely  neutral means of communication for all or do they now zealously advocate one single worldview, to the vituperous exclusion of all others? It is no longer merely a medium when the New York Times “news” pages are blatantly editorial and read like daily DNC talking points. Do administrative agencies, whose rules are enacted at every level – federal, state and local – by leftist activists (who are the pervasive and permanent denizens of these administrative swamps) really represent the will of the voting majority? There are literally scores of thousands of such rules – many with huge fines or even prison sentences for non-compliance – at every level of government, so that virtually anyone could be ruined by merely coming to the attention of a “public servant” with an axe to grind – particularly vis-à-vis an uppity, outspoken conservative. Legislative or judicial oversight of such agencies, as a practical matter, is non-existent.

While it would be a terrible idea to attempt to impose a “fairness doctrine” on Silicon Valley, I am heartened that President Trump tweeted today on the subject of censorship of conservative viewpoints by social media and said “…we won’t let that happen”.  As a proponent of small government, I do not advocate promiscuous use of state power to right all wrongs. However, the situation today is intolerable. With the status quo – where we cannot even be heard to object – we can only lose our rights. The power of the state is being used regularly to stifle non-progressive speech and this is being perpetrated in part by state-sanctioned companies with monopoly power. Trump’s statements are useful push-back and very necessary, as the progre$$ive $ilicon Valley types have had a free ride up until now, doing as they like to squash our views.

While I am not thrilled with use of state power generally, one of its necessary powers is to “secure” our fundamental rights – like freedom of political speech. Maybe we ought to recall Obama’s rejoinder that, “You didn’t build that…” These huge companies, to some extent after all, exist at the sufferance of the entire public and the state functionaries which represent us. It is unacceptable for companies with monopoly power to censor speech with which they disagree and to do it by subterfuges such as “offensive” or contrivances like “hate speech”.  Although they are private companies and do have substantial commercial rights, such rights are not without limit and may not legitimately be used to infringe fundamental personal (and essentially political) freedom of speech rights of millions of individuals. To say otherwise is to make the Constitution into a suicide pact for conservatives and libertarians..

It is high time these behemoths began to fear negative consequences for some of their business practices, including censorship. If he chooses, President Trump can make their lives difficult and their bottom lines shrink by executive actions (and not necessarily executive orders). It is time, I think, to set the Department of Justice about the task of examining antitrust aspects of the business practices of Google (YouTube), Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, etc. The exercise will likely prove salutary.


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Family D.I.Y. Backup Solutions?

In my extended family, there are around a dozen computers which should be backed up, not counting an equal number of phones. Myself, I have an old Time Capsule and I do a weekly external drive bootable backup. Most of our computers are for personal matters, not work.

My son is an outlier. He is near completion of a Ph.D. in genetics and does some high-power statistics whose processing often runs for hours. He has many large files of data on a one year-old MacBook Pro. Loss of this would be catastrophic. He has an external drive for backup, but keeps it in his not-too-secure apartment in a ratty (in the negative sense) building. His chained bike was stolen recently from an inside hallway, and that event led to this entire inquiry.

It occurs to me – I like the idea of having my backup local – that the combined annual cost of online backup subscriptions for a dozen computers would quickly far exceed the cost of an online server set up as a personal cloud. For the cognoscenti among us – is this a worthwhile line of thought? Have you better suggestions? Anyone for hire to set it up for me (only half kidding).


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Bruce Thornton and Daniel Greenfield – Each With a Timely Essay Today

I followed the same path – from raging modern liberal as a teenager to classical liberal/libertarian as an adult –  as the founder of Frontpagemag.com, David Horowitz . Thus I follow the site, which frequently offers posts by Bruce Thornton and Daniel Greenfield.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Greece with Bruce and his friend and colleague Victor Davis Hanson (notices of these tours appear on victorhanson.com and I highly recommend them). These tours take place every spring to somewhere in Europe, where travelers are treated to superb  accommodations, along with first class lectures on topics related to the history of the locale visited. I don’t know Daniel Greenfield personally, but find his essays uniformly spot on, often from a different, perspicacious perspective.

Today, each writes about the modern politics of of the word “racist.” Bruce defines the word’s actual meaning and traces its historical roots through its  tortured and perverted current abuse:

To say that someone is a “racist,” then, properly understood is to accuse him of believing that every member of one race is by nature superior to every member of another race.

He explains how the current meaning has changed and diminishes us:

“…it applies to human beings the explanations for differences that are more suited to animals. It depends as well on gross simplifications of what people are­­––not unique minds, but similar bodies. Finally, it ignores culture, the true source of inequality and difference: customs, mores, social habits, political institutions, religion, history, geography, and traditions.”

Daniel looks to specific tactics by analyzing the present war on statues of dead slave owners and the campaign to change the name of Austin, Texas. He takes these absurdities to their logical conclusion and tells what is at stake:

Either we stop the left’s assault on history or we lose our country. Every time a statue is taken down, a school is renamed, a building is vandalized, a holiday is abolished, we move one step closer to the final undoing of our history. We should not be afraid of the truth. And the truth is that history is complex. “

Both essays are timely to me, since the left’s invective – though downright creepy – has become banal.  These two writers clearly and logically articulate the cynical, dastardly and now dangerous use of these ubiquitous ad hominem attacks. Lately, these assaults come from cultural and political “leaders,” and have abandoned all restraint in their effort to dehumanize any opponents; they even include ever more frequent calls for violence.


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Book Review “The Autodesk File”

A comment John made (#18) on a recent post by 10 cents (“Programming Question”), reminded me I had reviewed one of John’s books. The review was posted a while back on the legacy site. As this is one of the most worthwhile books I have ever read, I thought it should be posted it here.

A work of non-fiction is understood in a context. A great work actually articulates the context before anybody else gets it. A review of such a book may go seemingly far afield, if the book’s power can be construed to provoke and, indeed, license the inspired musings of its readers. Such is the case here, as “The Autodesk File”’s roots are deep in the intellectual, technological, economic, financial, and even spiritual soil of this, the spring garden of the information age.

When was the last time you couldn’t put down a book which had not a single murder, courtship, love or sex scene? OK, I’m not counting some ancillary trysts consisting of mergers and takeovers, which some might construe as sexy, or at least allude to being on the receiving end of a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund. This book contains no obscenities, save a rare mention of taurine spoor. That serves as a welcome reminder: important ideas and even emotions are amenable to description sans vulgarity.

Lest one think this a narrow commercial exposition, “The Autodesk File” is in the public domain in multiple formats. Neither is it a mere exposition of commerce. About half way through, amidst essays explaining the nature of businesses dealing in intellectual property (rather than capital-intensive equipment), the reader is treated to a short science fiction story whose theme is no less than a plausible tale of the origin of human life. Our bodily construction is, after all, prescribed in lines of code, albeit compressed into helixes wound around themselves then wrapped around histones. Like some of their software counterparts, they, too, must be unzipped before use.

Also punctuating this eclectic opus are quotes from Aristophanes. It is a tour de force, a truly awe-inspiring account of much more than the building and workings of one trailblazing company. It encapsulates the noblest of human aspirations, idealizations, creativity, ingenuity and critical self-examination; inescapable is the conclusion that voluntary cooperation and exchange of ideas, knowledge and capital is a great boon to the world at large. If a business is built to serve the needs of customers by creating products of the highest possible quality, greed is not a good; it is irrelevant. Also inescapable is the perhaps ironic conclusion that ongoing success requires continual vigilance, lest arrogance take hold. The fruition of critical self-examination can be seen in renewal of that same humility which was so essential in powering that first whiff of success.

Nonetheless, apart from arcane sections dealing with technical matters of computer hardware and programming (these, too, may be great for the cognoscenti; this writer simply knows too little), this book is a spellbinder. Readers may be surprised to be persuasively regaled with the fundamentals of various disciplines, including economics, finance, taxation, corporate law, engineering, computer science, thermodynamics, rocket science, quantum mechanics, cosmology and the nature of reality. That is, readers who don’t know John Walker. For those who do, none of this is surprising.

Have you ever had a million dollar idea? I have – lots of ‘em. Have I turned even one of those ideas into a product? Nope. Why not? Because I lacked the understanding, the talent, and the single-minded discipline to even get one idea off the ground. This book, edited by Ratburger’s own John Walker (himself author of most of the collected writings), is a chronicle of birth, growth, crises and maturation of Autodesk Inc., whose products helped unleash the creativity and productivity of millions of people. It did so beginning with a key insight: that the infant personal computer was a general tool and not a specific workstation. As a general tool, through the intelligent design of software, it would rapidly evolve in utility in virtually every field of endeavor, beginning with design. Design, in this line of thinking, is a logical first step down the path which aims, eventually, to capture all of reality in the box we call a computer. This stunning insight occurred while all the rest of us still went through our days typing on an IBM Selectric, without once even using the word “computer.” Way back then in 1980, virtually none of us thought about computers or any of the other words and things without which our lives today would be unimaginable. Historically speaking,1980 happened yesterday.

An additional insight guided Autodesk’s ethos: that personal computers would grow exponentially in processing power and become useful by ordinary people (with no computer or programming skills) to undertake virtually any task. Autodesk’s first product,  AutoCAD, moved design from a small number of dedicated, expensive CAD workstations operated by highly-trained people, to desks virtually everywhere where drawing might be needed. In the process of “squeezing too much code into too small a box,” Autodesk did not compete with previous generations of single-purpose CAD workstations which cost 10 – 50X as much. Instead, it created and increased a market for CAD by the same orders of magnitude, by bringing this tool to the 98% of designers and draftsmen who could not afford dedicated CAD workstations.

In less than one year, this new company had a hit product. Time to rest on one’s laurels? How about after the IPO? Time to coast? Not quite. Going into the CAD business – and that is the business, as opposed to the software business (read the book to learn why), is something like launching a rocket from Earth and hoping to land on a comet and send back data – all except that the precise trajectory of the comet cannot be known, and its surface material and contours are completely unknown. The difficulties were perhaps not unlike those encountered by the ESA’s $1.8 billion Rosetta/Philae spacecraft which did rendezvous and land on comet 67P. Philae’s tether harpoons failed to fire, so the probe bounced and wound up in a permanently-shaded spot (due to an unanticipated hard surface, they likely would not have worked anyway), preventing use of solar power. Batteries enabled an estimated 80% overall mission success. AutoCAD’s launch – with $59,000 in capital, mid-course hardware and software corrections and “landing” on users, by contrast, remains successful to this day.

“The Autodesk File” attributes success to the company’s understanding that it represented what it coined “The New Technological Corporation.” This is an an enterprise which does not conform to traditional capital-intensive business, as it can deploy intellectual, debt-free leverage. Such businesses embrace an unpredictable but essential element: “wild talent.” This talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success when it comes to creating software, which is unlike most all prior businesses. Rather than capital, such entities require a peculiar kind of talent – one which grasps the present desires of a market, knows what is possible with present hardware and the correctly plots the trajectories of both the market and evolving hardware. I believe it to be objectively true that the editor is faithfully and humbly describing the truly awe-inspiring talent he, himself, brought to Autodesk. Other such individuals, like Jobs or Gates, are known in the early computer and software businesses. Few, however, have operated as willing members of an extended team with humility, dedication to excellence and human decency. If nothing else, “The Autodesk File” shows how this can be accomplished. 

Attempts to find individuals with “wild talent” are most difficult, maybe impossible. “Wild talent” illustrates the essential difference between aggregate information, traditionally used by analysts to “value” companies which trade on public exchanges, and actual events which take place within any company. For instance, money spent on R&D is aggregate data which subsumes the activities of many employees of a given company. Whether it means the company will grow really depends on what individual employees accomplish. When it come to software, the outcome will be notably different for R&D teams which play it safe versus ones which continually push the envelope of what may be remotely possible. Intellectual leverage is such that the cost of failure of 8 out of 10 ideas is far outweighed by success in only 1 or 2 of them. The presence of such loyal individuals is also a bulwark against hostile takeovers. You can lead a programmer to the R&D department, but you can’t make him plink – at least not in the way which is essential to success.

Perhaps most revealing about this unusual book is the ongoing critical self-examination engaged in by the primary author. These analyses were distilled into the form of internal company communications as essays and information letters.  At many points in the journey, the author is able to adumbrate the – sometimes previously un-articulable – principles which guided his often momentous insights. These usually arose in chaotic circumstances with incomplete information. The essential humility of this approach is demonstrated at various points in the book. Repeatedly, the author makes clear the importance of open communication and understanding of the roles of all the other parts of the company. A programmer, for example, must understand management’s plan, what customers want, how a product will be marketed and shipped, what competitors are doing, etc. Only then can a “wild talent” be effective.

 “The Autodesk File” is a much-needed reminder that human beings are still capable of doing awe-inspiring, creative and even noble things; that they can voluntarily collaborate and, working in their own self-interest, set off endless waves of non-zero sum games in their wakes. This is also a success story, then, a chain of decisions, clearly rooted in the philosophy of Classical Liberalism – in some of its untidy and altogether messy human details. Without aiming to, this story affirms the primacy and value of the individual, both as producer and consumer; it convincingly shows that communication – positive and negative feedback – between individual, voluntary buyers and sellers – is the essence of what a market is. This is in contrast to statist dirigisme, where aggregate data and arrogance rule, in derogation of the value of the individual. 

Diametrically opposed to today’s received collectivist wisdom, “The Autodesk File” shows how individuals create markets where none previously existed, to the betterment of all. From those roots emerge timeless operating principles: 1. build the best products, period – with open architecture so as to invite developers to customize and find as yet undreamed uses (an essential form of feedback for software companies), thereby further expanding markets; 2. invite, quickly assess and respond to this feedback from customers in the form of improved new releases; 3. employ owners, not merely ‘investors’ – pay well for results – with ownership whenever possible. This is a story which demonstrates the huge difference between owners, whose time preference is long and investors focused only on the forecast for the next fiscal quarter. The tyranny of industry analysts, a form of economic lunacy where short time preference is brutally and pervasively enforced on behalf of “investors,” operates so as to threaten the short-term existence of sound public companies which actually attempt to pursue the best long-term business practices.

In a somewhat philosophic interview around the tenth anniversary of Autodesk, the author/editor describes the operation of a new “design cult” of engineering as a “form of creationism, which thinks its members are so omniscient that they have no need for market-driven evolution to perfect their efforts.” This view, coupled with the information letters, again displays an essential humility in the ethos of Autodesk. Management must lead toward explicit goals. Every part of the organization must understand and communicate with all others, particularly as it affects product development. This is not the typical hierarchical corporate ethos. Neither is it anarchy. Management must lead, but not without listening, understanding and explaining. 

It is difficult for this writer to refrain from drawing parallels to the author’s description of this “design cult” of engineering. Such an attitude is not surprising, given that we live in a society which increasingly and officially denies the existence of a supreme being, while at the same time acting – through a “cult” of increasingly centralized authoritarian government – as though it were omniscient and omnipotent; as though its policies have no unintended consequences; as though no cost is too high to accomplish its goals, whose only feedback is its own reverberating positive-feedback echo chamber. It is hard to know which cult is imitating which. In either case, the state-erected obstacles to starting and running a business, while not emphasized, are on display in this epic. This common ethos of the state and large corporations has inevitably given us today’s pernicious corporatism.

It may be that the most significant intellectual error of our time is the belief that society can be modeled and manipulated as well as physical reality now can be, thanks in large part to private companies like Autodesk. Unlike government, though, companies are forced to relearn their limits – i.e., lessons in humility are given, at least annually, and enforced as necessary by balance sheets and owners. The fear of going out of business would be a highly salutary fear for modern government to experience. Instead of a healthy humility, however, the state often displays antipathy toward private enterprise – ironically, the very source of its own financial power. The public relations nature of this attitude  likely represents either envy of private successes and/or virtue signaling in an effort to garner votes in the incessant lust for yet more power.

God is traditionally described as a jealous God. Do you suppose that our deity/government has its own version of the Ten Commandments, the first of which explains its animus toward private enterprise? “Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me…” …otherwise put, “Trust me. I’m from the government.” “I’m here to protect you from those big, bad, corporations.”

Thus, as you may see for this reader, the story of Autodesk led to much contemplation of human nature and the whole spectrum our interactions – both voluntary and coercive. It is an inspiring and epic tale of the utility and nobility of voluntary cooperation.

“The Autodesk File” is in the public domain. It is available in several downloadable versions. All formats are accessible here: http://www.fourmilab.ch/autofile/


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Nation of Laws?

How about leftist judicial tyranny? US District Court Judge John Bates has ruled that the Trump Administration must restart DACA in its entirety – immediately. To reach this decision, he has made from whole cloth a rule that, in order to rescind a prior Presidential order, it is insufficient to assert that the original order was un-Constitutional! The rule he fabricates applies to how courts decide Constitutionality of duly-enacted laws: the minimum level of scrutiny for judging laws is a “rational basis test.” He asserts the Trump Administration failed to state a rational basis beyond its judgment of un-Constitutionality! The truth is that one administration’s assessment of Constitutionality of its fiat orders is reversible at will by subsequent administrations, whose fiat determinations of Constitutionality are equally enforceable. How a judge can do this with a straight face is beyond me.

What this means is that, if a Presidential order – nothing more than a diktat by fiat – is handed down by a progressive President, it must stand. If, on the other hand it is rescinded by a conservative one, too bad! Leftists will merely forum shop until they find a leftist judge to get the result they – once again – could not get through majority rule via representative democracy. As if any more evidence is needed: we are no longer a nation of laws. The only rational response to this is torches and pitchforks. Revolutions are made of this.

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Rave Review: James Michener’s “Hawaii”

One of the few benefits of the (so far) gentle intellectual decline I am experiencing at age 74 is that I can re-read books seemingly de novo. I read “Hawaii” many years ago; I don’t remember in what period of my life that was and recalled virtually nothing of the story as it unfolded this time.

I just came to the end a few minutes ago and am awash with ambivalent feelings consisting of nostalgia, longing, sadness, wonder and more. Michener had an almost “God’s-eye” view of humanity and the ability to set it forth in clear, eminently-readable and inviting prose. I am grieving the end of the story.

Since I was a kid studying history, I have wanted to understand any historical moment through the eyes of those living at the time. This abiding innocent impulse, I believe, has stood me in good stead to withstand today’s  reflex historical revisionism, which insists on judging all peoples from all times by todays “elevated” standards. While “Hawaii” is a novel, Michener is known for his thorough research. I have the strongest sense that his fictional characters are accurate exemplars of people who actually lived, thought, felt and acted in the times portrayed.

In “Hawaii,” those times really do begin at the beginning: Michener describes the birth and death of volcanic islands in the Pacific. He describes the geography of this small chain of islands which become Hawaii and especially the absence of flora and fauna which are absolutely necessary for human existence. Then told is how some Polynesians living on Bora Bora decide to leave as a result of religious strife (to attain power, one group demands fealty by all to a new god – a god which is a 5 inch diameter red rock). Although not emphasized in the story, it does seem that some human traits as to power over others by any means at hand are enduring.

Although these Polynesian adventurers do not know whether their hoped-for destination even exists, they wisely anticipate its barrenness and bring with them the requisite animals and plants. They brought only women capable of bearing children; leader’s wife is left behind because she is thought to be barren. In this fictional tale of a long journey north, the navigator sees a new fixed star come into view on the horizon. By it, he can now judge latitude; such important discoveries – driven by necessity – punctuate much of Michener’s work. This imagined 8th century voyage of a few dozen individuals in a double-hulled sailing canoe with animals and carefully-stored plants succeeds (barely). These, then are the native Hawaiians, whose numbers achieve about 400,000 by the time New England missionaries arrive in the mid 1800’s. By the early 20th century, as a result of disease and hardship, the number of Hawaiians of Polynesian ancestry fell to only about 40,000.

The remainder of this long, complex, yet very readable book describes the lives of the descendants of the Bora Borans, the missionaries and various subsequent immigrants. Described as well is the intentional importation of first Chinese and later Japanese workers needed to work the sugar and later pineapple industries. The history of each of these groups is laid out in depth, also going back many generations, so as to provide profound insight into each culture. Tales of intermarriage, alliances, conflicts, politics and war pervade the complex story. In other words, it describes life on the Hawaiian Islands over a period of about 1200 years. An appendix sets forth – over multiple pages – the genealogy of every family described in the book. Its extent is remarkable.

While the setting is particular to Hawaii, its peoples and history, in my estimation, the lessons of this novel and its well-sculpted characters can be construed more generally. The psychological, interpersonal, cultural, social and political interactions which occur in this fictional parallax view of actual history paint an accurate landscape of human ontology, applicable to most any thread of history, anywhere. Universal human nature, from its basest, through mundane, to its most noble attributes, is on vivid display in this truly epic work.

Having also read Michener’s “The Source,” I find the power of Michener’s writing unparalleled. In examining my own life, I long to both live it rightly in the moment and at the same time to understand the context, meaning and moral import of my thoughts words and actions. Both of these books allowed me to do that for the characters, whose inner and outer lives were made artfully visible. Because the author gave me knowledge of the ethnic, cultural and family histories of the characters, I was able to briefly and intimately “live” their lives through their consciousness and soon afterward (in the course of the book) observe the consequences, meaning and moral calculus of their choices. Would I might be able to do that with my own life!

To see the entire import of having lived from roots to descendants. That is what I mean by a “God’s-eye” view of life – something I deeply long for yet know I can never achieve. Vicariously, then, Michener offers this awesome simulacrum: upon his characters I can conform elements of my own life, my own humanity and try-fit them to the playing out of entire lives portrayed over historic time in this marvelous book.

Setting “Hawaii” down at the end imparts mainly a sense of loss, sadness, at leaving “beloved (though not always admirable) friends” whose lives I feel as though I intimately observed (In real life, I find it a privilege to merely know someone who is willing to honestly reveal his/her true self; this is rare, I find). The sadness also derives from returning to the less clear realm of knowledge of my own life and letting go of any hope that I can know its import over time  – as I could so clearly do for many of the characters in “Hawaii.” Only the greatest authors – like Michener – allow us to briefly imagine we can escape the limited, Earthbound, time bound, knowledge of our own human existence.

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