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A Different “Art of War”

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I recently took the time to read Machiavelli’s “The Art of War,” not to be confused with the much earlier Sun Tzu work. The two have no relation, save the subject. Machiavelli was, if I dare say so, long-winded, but he was a fountain of useful information concerning what was in his time, merely a vision of the future, but which would become the modern army in times to come, based on the old Roman army; and because the old Roman army featured so prominently in his conception, he was very detailed concerning Roman arms as well.

One very small thing which I learned from a different source: the reason the Macedonian phalanx was able to employ both a long spear and a shield was due to the use of counterweights on the butts of the spears. While the force of a single person’s thrust was thus virtually non-existent, the thicket of points facing an enemy in a united advance was very difficult to penetrate effectively. However, the counterweight made the mere act of holding the spear steady relatively easy. The Romans did employ a spear, but, if I recall correctly, only on their rearmost line; Machiavelli explains that there were less men in the second and third lines of a cohort, consecutively diminishing, so that should the first, densely packed line fall, they have somewhere to form up that can (more or less) accommodate their entire number and be immediately stiffened against all attack. Thus, a Roman cohort is like a video game character with three “lives” until it is Game Over.

Machiavelli relates how Julius Caesar and others have destroyed armies allowed to move half their number across a river before attacking, as advised by Sun Tzu, and how deception in war is vital in attack, retreat, and maneuver to the success of the brilliant general. Also, acts of personal generosity and honor by individual leaders did just as much as the force of arms to win over provinces (or “new principalities” in The Prince parlance), even if we can say that such acts were not more important than force of arms, without which such leaders would be merely loved, but not feared as well.

I hope I’ve summarized some of the best parts, because reading that book is a slog, even with a translation into modern English. Still, it’s refreshing to read a work written by someone with such a sharp mind for detail and such zeal for classical warfare.

The Government Americans Deserve

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When Obama speaks of giving Americans the government they deserve…

…it sounds like one of those ancient Chinese curses.

My Beef With Ludwig von Mises

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In the interest of greater knowledge, I spent some time in my “youth” – my time after high school – trying to crunch down economics in my head. I wanted to understand, on a more fundamental level, how the world really works. The result is a great deal of knowledge and a great deal of cynicism.

Today, I was inspired by a piece of unimportant stimulus to take another look at the “Austrian School” of economics, championed by Ludwig von Mises, author of Human Action. Years later, I can identify with great speed and vigor my main beef with his whole reasoning process. Mind you, I have concluded that people follow Mises mainly for his conclusions – that government sucks and shouldn’t intervene in the marketplace – rather than his logic.

In fact, logic is precisely where his theory breaks down: his whole thing about praexology is predicated on the notion that man is a fundamentally rational being who makes fundamentally logical decisions as to how to satisfy his wants and needs.

Look, let me be really blunt here.

Human beings do a lot of really stupid things.

Mises dismissed the notion of humans acting without logic because that would make us, let’s see… animals that merely react to stimuli out of instinct. Let me elucidate further:

Many human actions fall in the vast gray area between the perfectly logical and the perfectly illogical.

You’d think this is so obvious that it doesn’t have to be said, but it’s not.

Now, like I wrote above, I understand the motive of this: it’s laying out a framework whereby the collective wisdom of the market is far greater than any government bureaucrat, lacking complete information (since no individual can possess complete information) on how the market operates, and why, at any particular moment, thereby making the entire notion of state intervention seem like literal insanity. However, there really is no collective wisdom of the market, any more than there is collective wisdom in anything else.

Distilling a large number of opinions gets you the lowest common denominator of all these opinions, reducing everything to what all can agree on. The only wisdom that comes from a crowd is “conventional wisdom,” which is often not very wise. While I believe it is very important in strategy to know what the conventional wisdom is, this is mostly for the purposes of defying it; as Sun Tzu would say, seeing the sun and the moon is no proof of sharp vision. The examples of an unregulated market being filled with conventional wisdom that proved wildly mistaken are quite numerous, making the information that the logical, “acting man” is supposedly relying on, rather poor in quality.

Consequently, I do not think that markets are “smarter” than government. Instead, the real issue is that government is more stubborn. When markets make mistakes, they correct themselves; often, an “over-correction” takes place, but in the great scheme of things, markets do right themselves and allocate money to things that add to the productive capacity of society instead of things that do not. The mistakes of the market may be great, but they are finite; the mistakes of government can be great, but the damage of these latter mistakes can linger for a long period of time, deepening the resulting economic wound.

At any rate, any assessment of human behavior that views man as either wholly rational or wholly irrational is bound to fail. Sun Tzu would never have won a single battle if he relied on his opponents behaving in a perfectly logical manner; rather, he banked on the understandable and deeply ingrained tendency of the human eye to see what it wants to see, and to fixate on the obvious rather than on the hidden.

That’s why the book is “The Art of War” and not “The Science of War.” The planet is not populated by Spocks; there’s a lot of Kirk-like human emotion and irrationality to account for.

My Japanese Teaching Method

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Cool stuff and vocabulary & trivia on both ends of the spectrum, alternating between the two, but regularly crossing and re-crossing the fundamentals, including grammar, thus placing the grammar in context.

Does it make sense to you, presented in this way?

Tales of the Japanese Language: Uso

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The scene: A young man named Akira is on a couch, being spoken to by Mina, a small blond with hair in some sort of pigtails. Akira only recently recovered from some significant amnesia.

She asks him, “So, you remember our promise, right?” He replies, “Mm? What promise?” Though the details are not exchanged at this juncture, in many Asian dramas, such a promise would be, for instance, I will always protect you, I’ll marry you when we’re older, that sort of thing.

Mina, deeply embarrassed, concedes that his lack of recall cannot be surprising, as he only just regained his memory about other things. and shifts away from the subject and prepares to leave. At this point, Akira sticks out his tongue to her.

“Uso.” (Over-pronounced, it sounds like us-so.)

A miffed Mina promptly begins beating on Akira’s head, drawing ows and yelps from the latter.

“Uso” is a word that, like many, has different possible readings in practice. The plainest reading from a dictionary will be, “lie.” In other words, a lie. The next reading, “a falsehood,” is simply a different version of a lie, but said in a slightly more diplomatic way.

For “uso” to be a complete sentence, there are two hidden, unstated components: the subject (Akira’s memory loss) and an existence verb (to be or not to be, that is the question). A complete, ridiculously elaborate version (with alternates) would read: “(What I said/ how I acted just now) (was) a lie/ false/ untrue.”

However, language is not about the equivalent coughed up by a dictionary; it is not even about what we might call the literal meaning. While “uso” certainly not true, an untruth, it is spoken here like an interjection. As such, we must look at not just what it says, but what it means.

In this context, what Akira could come off more like, “Just kidding.” However, typically “joudan da” would be used in that role.

Akira’s words could come off more like, “Fooled ya’.”

Perhaps we might even read it as, “Sucker.”

Thus, Mina immediately – and correctly – begins whacking Akira’s head, looking quite annoyed in the process.

(Source: “Dance in the Vampire Bund, episode 3)

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Yes, this blog is mine 🙂 JQP3VBMQ4NTE

Incidentally, I wrote this on the Jay Leno flap:

Conan O’Brien Takes Care Of His Own

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