Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Orwell and Writing

You would be writers out there, of both fiction and nonfiction! Have a look at George Orwell's wonderful advice to writers of English prose -- Politics and the English Language. It is 95% spot on — valuable for those who want to communicate, instead of being pompous!

Still, as you read this excellent (if somewhat elderly) article, note that I have a few slight disagreements.  He begins by offering  five examples of bad prose, then follows with this:

“Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.”

Huh.  What I found objectionable in all five was something else entirely — a clear lack of empathy with the hurried reader.  

In each example, the writer seemed to demand that the reader scan his words slowly, carefully and several times, in order to parse a sentence-meaning!  When, in fact, that multiple re-read and care is the duty of the writer, not the reader. In each of the five examples, long sentences could have been broken into several, allowing the reader to build comprehension in digestible bites, instead of pedantic lumps.

Yes, Orwell does much better. His subsequent paragraph is well-crafted and easy to read/understand.  His points are well-taken and persuasive… and he appears to miss the very trait that his paragraph displays! The trait that marks this article as different from his benighted examples.

Distilling it: Orwell (or any good writer) views the reader as a collaborator in the goal and process of comprehensible communication.  You can even skim Orwell and get a gist of his intent, something a bad writer hates and makes deliberately difficult, but that a good writer like Orwell doesn't mind… much.

The writers of those five examples appear to view the reader as an adversary, to be pummeled into submission.

I agree with Orwell's comment about metaphors… though only as a general warning.  In fact, most of the “old” metaphors he mentions are still fine for use in 2015! Just with some care.

The rest is vivid and persuasive. Indeed, I would add several more categories! I used to demand that my students write a story with No Adjectives or Adverbs!  To see if they could still create a vivid scene.  Then to know that you can add adjectival description like frosting, but you never use it as a crutch.

So here’s the trick.  Go minimize all the faults Orwell describes - as a habit of spare and direct writing…

… then choose to break any rule on a case-by-case basis, for some color here.  For a little appropriately pretentious prose there!  You learn from his rules good habits.  Then - when you have used them to become skilled -- break 'em whenever you see fit!

Follow-up: Various authors offer... Advice for Writers


Alex Tolley said...

It might be useful to have tools to help the writer avoid these sorts of mistakes. A tool which highlights old metaphors could help the writer replace them. Perhaps an AI tool could even help suggest new metaphors?

How long before an AI writer can produce works based on a few key ideas? They are already writing sports stories (limited domain) as well as financial ones too (IIRC). Fiction soon too?

occam's comic said...

If anyone here is interested, there is a Science Fiction short story contest going on now. The winners get their stories published in an anthology.

Here are the basic rules:

Stories should be between 2500 and 7500 words in length;
They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
They should take place in settings subject to thermodynamic, ecological, and economic limits to growth; and as before,
They must not rely on “alien space bats”—that is, dei ex machina inserted to allow humanity to dodge the consequences of the limits to growth. (Aspiring authors might want to read the whole “Alien Space Bats” post for a more detailed explanation of what I mean here; reading the stories from one or both of the published After Oil volumes might also be a good plan.)

This time, though, I’m adding an additional rule:

Stories submitted for this contest must be set at least one thousand years in the future—that is, after March 25, 3015 in our calendar.

The person running the contest is John Michael Greer (the archdruid). You can find all the details here:

Alfred Differ said...

The first time I saw this cartoon, I figured someone had written the script for the sports article writing bots.

Alfred Differ said...

Empathy for the hurried reader? Why would we expect that from a communist pamphlet?

I was taught that style varies with purpose. Scholarly writing isn't pamphleteering. Pomposity is expected among scholars. Meaningless tugs at a reader's heart are expected in politics. Purpose matters.

I think empathy for the hurried reader is one style. Since I want that in the book I'm writing now, I'd better go back and check my pomposity meter and a few others like it. 8)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin, in the year I have been trying to follow your blog, this is the one post that is rather different from the rest. I find it refreshing, though in my case futile. As a writer I am probably a basket case. I started young - when my 3rd grade teacher read five of the Narnia books to class, then had us write our own Narnia story for homework. of course, that was in the Late Pleistocene, when I was a wee lad. I remember the Würm Glaciation well! Those were hard times, walking four miles through the ice fields to school every morning, and climbing the 400 ft. frozen waterfall to the bus stop. Meanwhile the rich kids rode mastodon-back in the lap of luxury. And children being what they are, I stood out as the poor kid of the tribe. My mother could only afford used skins from GoodCave, but in school anything less than Kalvin Klug invited icicles shoved up the nose and heads buried in the glacier. Ah, but I digress...

Orwell's five examples mostly struck me as pretentious ivory tower emulation. Those people will always declare that their faults are proof of their fine breeding, or for those who pretend to that status, evidence of their ability to play on the same field as their "betters." (Yes, even the Communist pamphleteer had pretentions - they had to sound sophisticated to lure the intellectuals of the Free West.) I suspect, however, that the "hurried reader" of today reads tweets, not books. Some of us actually enjoy prose that demonstrates some erudition and clever use of language on the author's part - which is not what Orwell shows us in these examples. This disposition is likely a result of thousands of years of sexual selection for cleverness among hominids. I didn't know you taught creative writing. Perhaps under your tutelage even this cave scribbler could have prospered.

David Brin said...

Paul and Alfred. Both true and very untrue . I had to learn to write clearly so that a majority of intelligent readers could understand. It's the biggest and most difficult apprenticeship for writers, especially of fiction.

Edan Krolewicz said...

Huge Orwell fan, but I find this limiting. What would reading Nabokov be like without adjectives? This is akin to telling Ella Fitzgerald not to use melisma because modern r&b singers overuse it.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Writing well is a skill that has a very long learning curve. I learned mostly from an excellent history teacher who had a double-barreled MA in both history and English. As an academic writer I do pretty well, but the experience threw an epigenetic marker for a verbosity gene that gets in the way of writing good fiction (a somewhat different animal than writing animal than writing reports, with different habits and needs). Maybe one day, when I am retired and my kids are grown, I'll try to learn that skill, and see if I can't deactivate that verbosity gene - memories of reading Thomas Hobbes still scar my dreams!)

Edan, this discussion reminds of an exchange between ill-fated lovers in "The English Patient." It has been years, but as I recall the male character was being chided for writing the most dull reports with the least number of adjectives, a criticism he dismissed. The female character, in response to his dismissal of adjective listed brotherly love, filial love, romantic love. I get Dr. Brin's point, though. Don't forgo the use of adjectives entirely, but sparing use can often be much more effective.

Tony Fisk said...

Oh dear. What would Orwell say if he ever learned that those dead and mixed metaphors, not to mention the weasel words, are thriving? What would he have said about Sir Humphrey?

"Empathy for the hurried reader".

It may just be me, but I can't help noticing that Orwell's style is also leisurely and long winded. This brings to mind something Tolkien said in a lesser known work of his:

"There was more time for talk in those days, and people did a lot of it.

Tolkien uses that opening as an excuse to ramble on about the way people (and their dogs!) spoke and how long their names were. He then introduces the protagonist by his full name, before reverting to the vernacular 'Farmer Giles of Ham'*. Then again, Tolkien was a master wordsmith who knew how to get away with rambles.

Orwell said it himself:

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

*Well worth getting the audio version narrated by Derek Jacobi.

Bland Allison said...

Edan Krolewicz - off topic but apropos melisma, I worked for Whitney Houston for a summer in Euorpe. The crew had a saying that never ceased to amuse: "If you get anywhere near the melody, why don't you sing it?"

mk045 said...

While I can appreciate "clear and concise" writing as a reader, sometimes I want a bit more; something to really chew on. Sometimes I want to have to think about what I've written, or enjoy teasing out the double or triple meaning of a sentence.

I tend to choose my fiction accordingly - a big fan of both William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. Sorry Dr. Brin - I've not started into your works yet. But I suspect that, if an AI applied these rules to a Neal Stephenson book (e.g. Quicksilver), what little remained might be identified as a cellulose residue in a lab. There are audiences for many different styles, particularly for writing intended to entertain. After being immersed in clarity all day in the office, the occasional erudite pomposity can be refreshing.

Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jumper said...

Orwell was right about clichés, although he didn't say it that way, naming them "dying metaphors." I notice a lot of clichés in political speech. I probably have mentioned this here before. They kill writing.
He uses a lot of unnecessary words himself. Or barely useful, perhaps.

Other comments here are pretty good. I learned a new word, "melisma" which I hope I can remember.

True that there are different writing styles. I was impressed and amused at Mandelbrot's extraordinarily dense style in The Fractal Geometry of Nature. Perhaps too impressed. I wrote for my boss a report on strength tests I had run on some Kraft paper used in our transformers, and it became clear it was too full of factual meaning undiluted with conversational bits: he kept asking me to include some data, and I had to point out several different times the unmistakeable and completely clear text stating exactly the things he wanted, set in their own paragraphs. Just dense.

Alfred Differ said...

@David: I've taken the time to read both your fiction, non-fiction, and even a journal paper (Fermi paradox stuff). From what I see, your style shifts exactly as it should for your audience. Authoring a journal paper comes with different expectations of both the audience and the customs to which they have grown.... accustomed. Writing of short fiction seems to be different from long fiction too.

I appreciate the Orwell link, but my take away lesson is an author should actually try to communicate. Writing pompous, unreadable, nonsensical content is akin to whacking the reader in the head with a bat. It might work for masochistic readers, but most of us aren't so willing to suffer. This makes me wonder about the relationship between art critics and their readers. 8)

Alex Tolley said...

One advantage of simple, clear, unambiguous language free of metaphors is that the text becomes much more tractable for language translation. This should suit business and technical writing, and advertizing, but not fiction.

I still think that the best writing for clarity was Asimov's science oevre. He was a fantastic wordsmith, writing texts that read easily without any ambiguity that I have noticed. He made Sagan's popular science writing turgid by comparison.

Laurent Weppe said...

From a couple of posts ago:

Part 1:

*"Also, the reverse colonization on Europe from the Muslim countries is inevitably having effects."*

Don't you feel dirty unironically repeating the self-serving shorthand far-rightists use to summarize their self-righteous masturbatory fantasies? Was your russian grandfather an hostile settler who came to "colonize" the US? No? Then refrain from using this kind of duplicitous rhetoric toward your granddad's successors.

Laurent Weppe said...

Of for FUCK's Sake: another post eaten by the commenting system.

All right Internet, you want to play hard to get? I can be as muleheaded as any non-sentient machine:

Part 2:

*"Laurent you leave out the fact that the Fait Accompli baseline of social contract in most of europe is still very socialistic, whatever the current political distribution. Indeed, that current distribution is probably a reaction to paternalistic excesses."*

All right: That is utter bullshit: right-wing parties have been the dominant political faction through all the EU history: From the Treaty of Rome till 1981, France, then the dominant member state (it took the reunification for Germany to become the Union dominant state) was ruled by right-wing parties and Presidents; when Mitterrand was elected in 1981, Helmut Kohl was one year away from conquering Germany's chancellery (an office he kept for 16 years) and Tatcher was already UK's Prime Minister: more than enough to counter french socialists influence. The only time period when socialists where the dominant political force in Europe, was the short window between 1998 and 2002: four years our of fifty-seven. The same thing can be said about the european parliament: since the establishment of a directly elected parliament in 1979, the left has never had a majority in the European Parliament (the closer they got was in 1989 when they won 252 seats: they needed 260 to have the majority): to be blunt, leftist Europe is and has always been a fiction (but if you know someone who can build a Stargate to this bizarro universe, tell me: I'd love to visit)

Laurent Weppe said...

Part 3

The social policies you dislike so much were more often than not established under rightwing governments, which before Tatcher brought the supply-side voodoo on this part of the pond, were always strongly pro-welfare state.

Wanna know why?
Because unlike the US, Western Europe's local right-wingers could not afford treat the Soviet Empire like a faraway boogeyman: it was literally on Europe's doorsteps and wasn't merely a military threat: it was a genuine socio-political rival:
When the Berlin Wall fell, East Germany's per capita GDP was equal to 70% of West Germany's: not as large sure, but the GDR was most certainly not Europe's North Korea: had Western Europe's wealth distribution been identical to what it had been during the gilded age, the average east-german/hungarian/czechoslovakian/yugoslavian worker would have been wealthier than his/her west-german/french/italian/british counterpart, and had this been the case this case, do you really believe that Central Europe would have been the first soviet domino to fall?

Western Europe's regulatory rules and heavy social welfare states are not the product of socialist governments dogmatically enforcing their doxa: they're the result of compromises supported, voted and often instituted by pragmatic right-wing politicians who knew that their long-term political survival required their countries' working class to remain wealthier than their counterparts living in the USSR's satellites: one thing you tend to systematically ignore is that the very pragmatic compromises you praise so much do not necessarily produce the kind of policies you favor.

Laurent Weppe said...

Part 4

And besides, do you know what is the biggest reproach made by former left-wing voters toward socialist parties?
Not being sufficiently interventionist: Like the US' democrats, Western Europe socialists have deregulated the economy more than right-wing parties: they are not losing voters as a result of past paternalists excesses: they're losing voters because they are not paternalistic enough. And for whom are these former left-wing voters, often from the working class, voting nowadays? The (nominally) pro-free-market traditional conservative parties? Nope: they're voting for far-right parties: and if there's something more paternalistic than the fascistic "Thy Lord shalt taketh wealth away from filthy mongrels and granteth it to ye white purebred" creed, I don't know what it is.

David Brin said...

Read my stuff and you see a range, from very spare to kinda flowery. But the key point is that embellishments like adjectives etc should be my professional choice, and not the result of amateur floundering around, pomposity or trying to sound grand... and thus hiding from my self the fact that I didn't communicate well.

Almost all beginners engage in such excesses - as a crutch. Breaking such habits and learning to write sparely and efficiently, this is absolutely essential, even if you intend to write mostly in a flowery manner later! Because then the flowers will each be hand picked.

locumranch said...

In addition to some good 'rules of thumb', Orwell makes an important point about language use that our good host seems to gloss over, "the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes".

Orwell argues (in so many words) that good writers use the English language as an instrument (a tool) with which to communicate with (or create a desired effect upon) the reader, whereas bad writers are (forgive the pun) 'tools' who allow themselves to be manipulated by the programming aspects of language, foreshadowing (perhaps) his 'newspeak' idea from '1984' (published 3 years after this article), a topic that was explored in brilliant detail by Delany's 'Babel-17' and Bear's 'Queen of Angels' many years later.

This is the intent of Orwell's article, then (imo): The Soul of Wit is Semantics rather than Brevity.

PS: Will Munny summarized Ecclesiastes 9:11 much better than Orwell ever could.

Alfred Differ said...

@David: Ok. That makes sense. I remember rejecting a lesson my teacher showed me about the value of outlining my thoughts before trying to write an essay. I was a kid who thought he knew better, of course. That probably explains why my Eng 102 instructor had such a dim opinion of my work and vocabulary. 8)

I'm still guilty of adding unnecessary articles. The Russians leave them out, but I go find them all and insert them in my work. They are my written equivalent to a verbal 'uhh'.

Alfred Differ said...

The more I learn about spoken languages the more I see us as both tool and tool wielder. A person fluent in US English can be potent during election season as a writer of campaign material, but they are also the tool being wielded by others since they shape meanings. Our language isn’t just a tool. It is an encoding of what the community knows. Is ‘coffee’ a bean, a drink, a color, or a collection of possible after dinner drinks? Dictionaries only display the tips of large structures behind each word and say little about the idioms, phrases, and new material we invent.

The more I learn about languages, the more I see a group mind composed of fluent speakers in the middle and less fluent speakers using the core people.

David Brin said...

Laurent you articulate your position very well, and of course we find it informative and illuminating over here. Though do note that I lived in London and in Paris for two years each. I had enough conversations with locals to derive my own range of views...

... and I think you are insufficiently detached from the anger of your own position of the lobotomizing and insufferable "Left -Right Axis." (Indeed, we should never forgive the French, for inflicting that horrible metaphor upon the world! ;-)

Certainly much of the Western European right is to the left of our "lefty" party, the democrats, at least when it comes to the social contract of the welfare state. This is less about politics than personality. American liberals want to spend on human POTENTIAL... on children and education... in order to prepare the maximum number for starting-equality, but very few Americans want to equalize OUTCOMES.

Many features of the Euro social compact strike us - even many liberals -- as paternalistic, aimed at outcomes rather than starting conditions.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin

I do not apologize for aiming at "outcomes" as well as starting conditions

The current "winner takes all"(or very nearly) system is not "fair"
But even worse it does not work as well as a "more equitable" system

Nobody sensible is aiming at "equality" of outcomes,
Just "Less Inequality"

As far as that goes most of Europe has "Less Inequality" of outcomes than the USA
Modern Europe still has "More Inequality" of outcomes than Europe and the USA had back in the 50's
(ignoring the sexual and racial issues as a separate topic)

We were closer to the optimum condition back when CEO's "earned" 10 times as much as the workers than we are now

And I think most people would agree with that

As an unregenerate socialist I think 10 times is still too much so the optimum is less than that

Most people would not take it that far but they would say optimum is less than the current (about 400:1) and much much closer to the 10:1

TCB said...

I've read a fair number of these advice-for-writers columns here and there. No complaints, except: I have one comment to make about modern editorial style.

I get the impression that editors of recent decades have grown miserly with commas. Now, take David Brin's prose as seen here: it seems to have about as many commas as it needs, no more and no less. As David notes, clear communication is his pole star.

But elsewhere I have gained the impression that commas are to be shunned wherever possible. No sir, I don't like it. It creates ambiguities of the "Eats shoots and leaves" or "Let's eat Grandma" variety, and I have to read the sentence again to parse it.

If I ever find myself at risk of being published, this will probably be the only point of contention between me and my editor: if I put a comma somewhere, kindly leave it there!

Alfred Differ said...

Anyone who has an issue with the 'winner takes all (mostly)' thing is thinking of market participants as family members who can mostly agree upon shared goals. That's quite a thing to believe, but many people manage it every day. I don't understand how they do.

'Winner takes all' isn't immoral until it someone is harmed. Being unable to compete with the winner isn't harm. Being unable to eat is.

Also, regarding the employee pay ratio, I've met software engineers that were worth far more than 10 times what another software engineer is in terms of the value they bring to a company. They don't 'deserve' 10 times more in wages, but they sure could earn it. I've no doubt a good CEO could be more than 10 times more valuable to a company than I am and have no issue with a company paying them according to the value they bring.

David Brin said...

Alfred I disagree. Any huge asymmetry of power will lend itself to the winners rationalizing reasons why the asymmetry is both inherent and inherently good, and worth cheating to maintain. And failure to recognize this is the insanity of both communism and right wing oligarchism... as well as theocracy and Randianism.

Are asymmetries necessary? Yes! The insanity of the US far left is failure to recognize that competition engenders all the creativity and wealth that lets us be more inclusive.

Moreover, competition is exactly to TOOL to let us keep the asymmetries small enough to bear.

And we MUST bear some! Because competition fails in either of two ways... from cheating (by those who take advantage of too-large asymmetries)...

... or else by the asymmetries being too small to serve as incentives for vigorous competition!

This means we need care, regulation and a dynamic balance. This system is not based on an "invisible hand" but human inventiveness and ingenuity and hard-headed pragmatism, knowing that the positive sum games of markets, democracy, science, courts and sports need care and loving attention and perpetual tuning.

Alas, as Charles Stross shows at
the failure modes are numerous.

Double alack... smart guys like Charlie simply ignore the other side that does not feed into cynicism. The side that says... hey... our ancestors managed this trick, maybe, just maybe, we can too.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
Because of the way biology works
I have my doubts about somebody 10 times the median
(not many 60ft tall men)
I would have no difficulty in finding somebody who was less than 1/10th of the median in usefulness
But IMHO that would either be due to an inherent mental problem or to total management incompetence

Even if somebody can be 10 times as useful as a "normal" person
There is no way that they can be hundreds of times as good

Mike G in Corvallis said...

Regarding the pretentiousness and unreadability of certain types of academic writing, I'm reminded of Bunthorne's soliloquy in Patience:

If you're anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line
as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms,
and plant them ev'rywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases
of your complicated state of mind,
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter
of a transcendental kind.

And ev'ry one will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man
this deep young man must be!"

Tim H. said...

I'd say the .01% has done such an excellent job of self promotion, there's not a lot of need for even-handedness. These days, some fairly pathetic CEOs have received enormous compensation for marginal performance. If some moderation can't be worked into the economy, there might even be bottle-necking of the human gene pool, again.

Laurent Weppe said...

*"If some moderation can't be worked into the economy, there might even be bottle-necking of the human gene pool, again."*

Given our massive population, an extinction-event-level social and demographic breakdown caused by the pampered ruling class crossing the final threshold of incompetence is much more likely.

Alex Tolley said...

There is evidence that the best programmers are 10x better than the average ones. Even more important, IMO, are coders who can do things that others cannot.

For the exceptionally inventive coders, new, valuable, marketable ideas can be created adding value.

In reality, "winner takes all" only requires marginal performance differences. Thus a marginally better performance can acquire all the value in a market. Olympic athletes demonstrate that with fractionally better performances, winning medals and capitalizing on the rewards that go with it.

Even in such activities as sales I've seen "star" performers out sell the weaker salespeople by 10x. How that is rewarded will depend on the culture.

As regards CEO vs average pay levels, Piketty examined this in his opus. AFAICS, it was primarily a regime of high taxes after WWII in both the US and EU. Lowered taxes, capital mobility (to tax havens) and a lack of social restraint has returned the levels of executive pay to gilded age levels. Interestingly, Piketty shows that France has one of the highest levels of wealth inequality today, returning to "belle epoque" levels. Clearly a more socialistic society doesn't stop extreme wealth inequality from happening.

locumranch said...

As a call back to today's topic, Orwell's article quotes Ecclesiastes 9:11 and then supplies a badly written modern version written in impenetrable English, yet it is Clint Eastwood's character from 'Unforgiven' (Will Munny) who sums up this biblical sentiment most succinctly:

"Deserve's got nothin' to do with it".

And, so it is, and so it will ever be, despite infinite progressive protestation, for victory of any sort, especially evolution, is inherently unfair.


Alex Tolley said...

And, so it is, and so it will ever be, despite infinite progressive protestation, for victory of any sort, especially evolution, is inherently unfair

Would you like to rephrase that in simpler English?

David Brin said...

Anyone who thinks that France has gone "right wing" should see this:

Alfred Differ said...

@David: I get your argument about asymmetry leading to rationalization and then cheating. It’s just that I don’t see the asymmetry as the immoral thing. I see the cheating as the dirty deed. Since the rationalization is rather predictable, we have to regulate our markets. Do we regulate against the asymmetry or against the cheating, though?

1: If we choose the former, we are regulating against a fact of biology. We aren’t actually equals even when given a chance to start at the same starting line in the race. In the right setting, some bring considerably more value to a collaboration than others. You recognize the need for asymmetry through the value it brings, so I won’t belabor that point. Instead I’ll point out that regulating against asymmetry sends a message that competition is bad. Do we really want that?
2: If we choose to regulate cheating instead, we are fighting another fact of biology. The reproductive benefit to successful cheating is clear. In the right setting, one guy gets to have more babies and dominate more women than other men. If this goes unchecked, we get another Y-chromosome bottleneck like the one from 8000 years ago and that’s obviously bad for both the men who don’t get to reproduce and the women who get to have more babies if they submit to domineering men. Those aren’t traits we want to pass to our children. On this I’ll point out that we found a solution about 4000 years ago and an even better one about 200 years ago. The bottleneck vanished in our pre-history and the hurdle many middle sons face to acquire property and wealth vanished with the industrial age.

We’ve been trying to regulate against cheating since the dawn of liberalism. We fight the cheaters by taking away the asymmetry they accumulate. Sometimes we shoot or behead them. Lately, we’ve found flaws in their competitive model and displaced them. I’m convinced the socialists made a terrible mistake when they directed their ire against asymmetry itself. It’s the cheating that matters.

Regarding invisible hands, don’t worry much. I understand your earlier argument about faith in ‘blind’ markets. That invisible hand isn’t something magical or mystical. It is us doing what humans do when they act in their best interests. It’s too bad more people don’t understand what Adam Smith meant by that phrase. It is very instructive. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

Not to worry. The fashion industry will move to animation soon. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: I've met some of those coders and seen what they do. I feel a bit like a fish who has to learn how to become a medical doctor. It doesn't really matter how much time you give me to learn what they do, I'm not sure I'll ever finish.

I'm not pessimistic, though. When I run into them in my niche, I try to join or lead a collaboration containing them. There are plenty of things they don't have the time to do. I can go that way.

Laurent Weppe said...

*"Anyone who thinks that France has gone "right wing" should see this:"*

Actually, said law is merely an update of an older and more severe law, voted by the conservative UMP in 2008 (back then, the planned penalty was two years, not six month). More importantly, the main problem in today's french model agencies are that their bosses often force their employees to starve themselves in order to maintain the androgynous, long-limbed-child look that pervade the current aesthetic canons: the law's goal is not to forbid model agencies from hiring slim models, but to stop them from starving their employees to death.

Now, if you want a good reason for being outraged at french politics, take a look at the french senate who recently refused to abolish the law that criminalizes "passive soliciting" (a law which pretty much allows cops to arrest prostitutes on a whim and whose untold goal is to keep low-standing prostitutes away from posh neighborhoods).

Jumper said...

Smullyan writes clearly.

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

Anyone who has an issue with the 'winner takes all (mostly)' thing is thinking of market participants as family members who can mostly agree upon shared goals. That's quite a thing to believe, but many people manage it every day. I don't understand how they do.

'Winner takes all' isn't immoral until it someone is harmed. Being unable to compete with the winner isn't harm. Being unable to eat is.

It's what Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in "God Bless You, Mr Rosewater" again. I won't quote the entire passage as I've done many times, but he laments the fact observation that a more accurate motto on the dollar would be "Grab much too much, or you'll get nothing at all."

A fair and equitable system doesn't mean that everyone will have exactly the same amount of wealth. But it should allow for more middle ground. I should be able to choose how much work is worth doing for subsistence, for mere comfort, for comfort and a few luxuries, for an extravagant retirement, or for conspicuous consumption. I should not be forced to choose between sucking up all the money or having none at all.

Paul451 said...

"Anyone who thinks that France has gone "right wing" should see this:"

After berating Laurent for being stuck behind the limited one-dimensional Left-Right Axis, you can't seem to see around it when you look at France (or Europe in general).

There's nothing inconsistent with "right-wing" and "top-down authoritarian moralising". Especially in Europe.

David Brin said...

Hm. Well.

Alfred Differ said...

@LarryHart: Hmm. I smell a false dichotomy. I look around me and think most people have not grabbed too much of failed to grab anything at all. In fact, I think I smell the perception of a zero-sum game.

Wealth has a way of being inflationary in the sense that space and time were in the early universe. My distant ancestors would have placed no value on the computer I have at home leaving anyone who thought they could make such a device poor. At some time over the elapsed years, though, a phase change occurred and they became valuable making tycoons of the people who saw it coming. No one forced anyone when trades were absent or when they occurred. There is something almost hyperbolic to the region of trade options near such a phase change. It’s too bad people use the term ‘singularity’ for what they think is coming. Phase change makes more sense to me and we’ve already been through at least two.

The problem with individuals deciding what is fair and equitable is it leaves little room for what the community already knows about the space of possibilities. As David pointed out in his Singularities and Nightmares essay, I think it is worth considering Locke’s wager and holding out for it a little longer. I should resist the temptation to guide a market. Instead, I should stomp cheaters into the dirt.

LarryHart said...

@Alfred Differ

In theory, I think I'm more in agreement with you than in disagreement. Of course, that also brings up a favorite Yogi Berra line: In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.

The "either all or nothing" thing is something I'm concerned about not falling into, not something I'm asserting as the way things are yet. Still, in America, anyway, it does seem more and more that there is a stark choice between working 80+ hours a week and smiling about it (Be grateful you have a job at all) or else being unemployed, with little room in between.

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

I think it is worth considering Locke’s wager and holding out for it a little longer. I should resist the temptation to guide a market. Instead, I should stomp cheaters into the dirt.

Again, I'm in agreement there.

It simply doesn't help when so many of the politicians in power seem to have gone over to the Dark Side--to consider cheating to be part of the way the game is played. A few months back, a prominent Republican politician (I want to say Ron Paul, but I can't prove it now) came out and said that if someone wants to use his money to bribe politicians, he should be free to do so.

So the problem is that the ones charged with "stomping the cheaters" have become the cheaters. Who watches the watchmen? (Which, by the way, does not negate anything you said)

Alfred Differ said...

Regarding the stark choice... could be. It's hard to tell the difference between what we hear is going on through our new, inexpensive communication tools (this here internet whiz bang) and what's actually happening. It takes a while for the economists to dig through the avalanche and then a while longer for them to argue with each other before I feel I have a chance to know something objective.

My own experience tells me there are people who go way beyond 40 hours in a week, but they choose to do so. If that's how they want to add value and earn twice as much as I make, I have no qualms stepping aside and letting them do it. Personally, I'd rather see my son grow up.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. If that was Ron Paul, I would have to admit to a lack of surprise. He says what he means often enough to produce a chest full of gems like this. I'd have to agree. Let people use their money that way. Once we find out who they all are, we will know who to lynch... or not vote for. 8)

The error lies with charging anyone else to stomp the cheaters. Don't surrender that obligation to our civilization. Ever. Get some dangerous cleats and strap them on your own feet instead of someone else.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"Stomp the Cheaters"

In this modern world we have the workers and the employers
There is an instant mismatch in their power in "The Game"

The employer is risking very little
The employee is risking a lot more
- Not as much as in the old days of starvation - but still a lot more -

This mismatch leads to inequality

We used to have a partial equalizer in the Trade Unions

But the rich have used the power of their money to kill the unions

That was CHEATING - and needs to be stomped
More to the point the rich are continuing to benefit from that cheat
And will continue until something else is put into place that does the same

Alex Tolley said...

We used to have a partial equalizer in the Trade Unions

But the unions got seriously out of control in 1970's Britain. The Labour government couldn't wrest back control and it ushered in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979.

Small business employers do risk a lot, especially sole proprietorships. But large corporations - senior managers risk almost nothing, shifting risk and losses to shareholders and employees.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alex

I was working in the 70's - for every hour we lost to "Union Power" we lost 100 days to management incompetence

The Unions didn't "get out of control"
But the media moguls managed to persuade almost everybody that they had

Bit like the Nazi's managed to convince most of the German people that their problems were caused by the Jews
With about the same level of justification

Small business employers do risk a lot - almost as much as employees do
They are risking more wealth - but they have more and they are normally only risking part of that
Very few small business employers are risking all of their wealth - most have ring fenced their core wealth from the business so at worse they won't lose their house

Duncan Cairncross said...

I'm going to talk about this idea that "The Unions were out of control"

I was brought up in a working class family in Scotland

Despite that as a teenager growing up I "knew" that the Unions had too much power and were "out of control"
At university (Glasgow) we all knew that the unions had too much power and abused that power to disrupt industry for no good reason

Then I was out in industry as an engineer
And I found out what was actually happening

A union went on strike for some trivial reason
The "trivial reason" in the newspaper was always just one of a series of reasons - some very non trivial
But those reasons didn't get into the papers!

The unions were nearly powerless to actually defend their members especially against the press

But the "Unions are out of control" was enough to get Mad Maggie into power
And skillful mishandling of the Argentinians was enough to keep her there

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: My father's side of the family left Scotland for the US in 1928. My mother left London in 1961. Her opinion of Thatcher sounds a bit like yours, so I won't doubt your perspective.

That doesn't mean I'll stomp people who used their money to fight trade unions. You'd have to convince me that they actually cheated. From what I've seen, the unions established themselves as competitors in the labor market. Getting beaten means they couldn't compete and/or someone twisted the rules of that market to make them non-competitive. The former is allowed. The latter is cheating.

I'm still unwilling to focus on the asymmetry symptom as the technique for dealing with the underlying disease. Reliance upon government for equalizing an asymmetry is dangerous. Civil servants can be suborned much the same way as trade union leadership. I'm much more willing to empower government to address the cheating, but not in a way where I abdicate my duty to detect and stomp too. Anyone with power can choose to cheat. That's why I like David's reciprocal accountability argument so much.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
"Used their money"

This is the issue - exactly what Adam Smith warned about

They were buying an advantage in the market,
They already had a huge advantage in the negotiations that the unions only partially balanced
Then they bought the regulation

I'm sorry that is cheating - simple anti competitive cheating

I agree there is a potential for all power centers (including unions) to cheat
But at the moment the main cheaters are the aristocrats of capital

At some future time I could rail against the bureaucrats or the unions
But at the moment they ARE NOT the ones doing the cheating

Jumper said...

I recall Heinlein getting his drawers in a knot over wages. He'd tried to hire someone for some yard work, and couldn't find anyone. He griped about people unwilling to work, and made a most interesting comment: that some jobs are only worth so much.
At that point I thought he'd missed the point of his own experience: that he hadn't offered enough on the free market. And that his idea that some jobs are only worth so much was his view, not a universality. So he was being a cheapskate and blaming others for it.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Larry, Alfred, Alex & Duncan,

This conversation is making me think back to a time when the two political parties in the US essentially agreed on most thing, but disagreed on the extent to which each item on the agenda should be pursued. Republicans conceded to a certain level of social safety net but saw the government's role in defense as paramount, while Democrats placed much more emphasis on the social safety net but conceded the necessity of paying for a formidable military.

Larry pointed out that he and Alfred were more in agreement than disagreement, and it looks to me like the same is true of Alex and Duncan. Likewise myself - I distrust all sources of power, and think it is vital that we stomp on the cheaters. I also agree that power has shifted dramatically in favor of enormous businesses, and that much of the government institutions are in cahoots with them. And yes, the press is comprised of big businesses for which telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not in their financial interest. Thus we are all on the clueless side with regard to what is really happening in the world.

But looking at this long term (I was trained to think about the long term - its kind of the nature of archaeology) what we are seeing with this lobotomized Left/Right axis since the Reagan era is an intensification of propaganda, which seems to be accompanying an intensification of the economy, growing wealth disparity, increased factionalism, etc. The whole social system seems to be intensifying, and both history and prehistory have shown that this level of intensification tends to precipitate civilizational collapse.

Now I am not saying this is inevitable. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (thus I think watchdogs may be better than waiting for cheaters to do damage, stomp them for it, and still have to fix the damage they did). Civilizations can rejuvenate themselves, but they can't do it by doing the same things they have always done but harder. We are going to have to get more creative than that (with or without adjectives).

Alex Tolley said...

@Duncan re:"The Unions were out of control"

I haven't forgotten the 1970's. Some unions, however reasonable their complaints, effectively shut down the country in 1973 and caused the collapse of the Conservative Heath government. The Republicans have threatened to do this in the US over fiscal issues, but the UK unions actually did it. The 3 day week due to the miner's strike over pay was egregious. However much we (when I was a student) sympathized with their grievances, the fact was that Australian coal was vastly cheaper than British coal. As the joke went" Australian coal individually wrapped in gold leaf would be cheaper. It was that action that Thatcher's government so brutally put down on an attempted repeat. North Sea oil effectively ended the power of coal miners.

After the Heath government collapse, the Labor govt proved that they could not run the country, the unions collectively under the TUC, were doing so. People were sick and tired of the unions disrupting the country, and this ushered in the authoritarian Thatcher govt.

A few years ago I was going through issues of the Daily Express (for our US readers, this is a conservative broadsheet newspaper aimed at the middle classes in England). What was so clear was that almost every front page was a headline about a strike or threatened strike. Now we know that inflation was raging, and that public sector workers like teachers and nur4ses were grossly underpaid, but the main disruption was from mining and transport workers, who could disrupt the country and did so in an organized manner.

Meanwhile the rest of us, not in unions, were not only losing out to inflation, but having our lives disrupted too. Successful bargaining by unions only helped union workers, not the rest of the country.

In the UK at least, businesses became very anti-union when Thatcher came to power, and I recall quite well how management intended to ensure non-union workplaces. Some of it was concessionary, some not so much.

I do agree with you over the Falklands. Without that "war", Thatcher would have been out, but the press supported jingoistic warmongering. I have been sorely annoyed that the public release of information has been delayed. That war was almost certainly started deliberately, and the controversial sinking of the Argentine troop ship, "Belgrano" needs to be publicly exposed. I suspect it will turn out to be Britain's "Tonkin Incident".

So bottom line, I think the unions were out of control in the 1970's, because I think they were vying for control of the country by dictating policy to the government. I find that no less obnoxious than bankers doing the same today.

Alex Tolley said...

As regards cheating.

As game theorist Robert Axelrod has shown. if cheating isn't controlled, then it spreads. We know that graft in some countries has become endemic, because cheating wasn't controlled. Some institutions in the US have gone the same way, e.g. some local police department graft.

However, the rules and conditions also need to be set. Increasing incentives to cheat, e.g. unrestrained remuneration, lower taxes, lack of punishment, also need to be set. We've just seen a number Atlanta teachers being jailed for cheating, yet not a single banker has been tried, let alone jailed, for the proven cheating and lying over the instruments leading to the 2008 financial collapse. Banks are still cheating yet never receive more than fines. Why should bankers worry when they profit if their cheating works, but the shareholders lose if they get caught?

While the presses and other large media companies are biased (mostly to the establishment), the rise of blogging has helped to mitigate that, as well as easy access to foreign media as counterbalance. This may not add up to much against Faux News, but it is a start, and will gain influence over the next generations as long as the internet remains free.

locumranch said...

When Heinlein griped about people being unwilling to work and (purportedly) said that 'some jobs are only worth so much', he was making a subjective value judgment that was as correct and true as any of Brin's moral statements, the problem being that these sorts of value-judgments need not be (are not) universal.

Could it be then that Civilisation and all things blue, progressive & sacrosanct are 'only worth so much' ??

And, so it is with cheating, fairness, liberty and justice. Some value it highly and are willing to die & kill for it; some barter it away in pieces & bits for '3 hots & a cot'; and still others (appeasers; optimists) are quick to trade it for a promise, a prayer or a lie.

As for me, I say let it die. Like the vomit of a greedy dog, this cobbled mess is composed of false compromise, rotten dreams, stale desire, bits of string and well-chewed lies, and it has both over-stayed its welcome and over-lived its usefulness.

This is our Sacred Task: To let it die so we can replace it with something young, vital & built from scratch, keeping only the very best of the old while discarding the rest; to let the old dreams go so the future may flourish; and, for the present to embrace the US Declaration as its Advanced Directive.

Let it go, let it go
Can't hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door!

(And so on & so forth)


David Brin said...

Alex, thanks for the reminder that the left is perfectly capable of being destructive-cheating-silly. It was bloody awful in Britain… and it led to bloody awful Maggie.
“This is our Sacred Task: To let it die so we can replace it with something young, vital & built from scratch…”

Oooooh… can it be? Could he actually be about to offer … proposals? Suggested better ways that are young and vital…

Ooops. False alarm. Zero substance or courage. Just snark snark snark snark snark snark snark snark snark snark … sounds like Mork laughing at such silliness.

David Brin said...


LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

Regarding the stark choice...

My own experience tells me there are people who go way beyond 40 hours in a week, but they choose to do so. If that's how they want to add value and earn twice as much as I make, I have no qualms stepping aside and letting them do it. Personally, I'd rather see my son grow up.

The people I know who work long hours are not getting paid overtime for it, or even getting paid anything extra for it. It's not a question of working harder for more money--it's working harder because the company fires the rest of your team, and if you won't do the work of three or four people, they'll replace you with someone who will.

That's where the whole "freedom and liberty" thing gets muddied for me. How "free" are you if you must compete with slave labor for your livelihood?

David Brin said...


Duncan Cairncross said...

Alex, Alfred
The 70's
The reasons for the strikes were never the reasons that were in the papers
You are mixing cause and effect
The "cause" was the employers trying to kill the unions,
This was done by making massive changes in working conditions and refusing to negotiate
The only way the unions had to respond was by strike action.

And they lost!

But it was never the unions getting out of control it was the employers deliberately breaking the power of the working man

Mike G in Corvallis said...

Locumranch wrote:

This is our Sacred Task: To let it die so we can replace it with something young, vital & built from scratch, keeping only the very best of the old while discarding the rest ...

Systems engineers have long noted that there are very, very few successful large systems that were "built from scratch" -- every successful large system has evolved from a successful small system. "Start from zero" political and economic systems tend to turn into disasters and tyrannies. The American Revolution kept a large proportion of the previous system, including most of English Common Law. The French Revolution tried to start from zero, and the results were markedly less benign. And then there's Cambodia and Jonestown ...

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