Friday, September 26, 2014

Compound ignorance

by Don Keith

Regular followers of this blog know that I occasionally deviate from its stated aim of considering rapid technological change and its effect on media, society and even my hobby of choice, amateur radio.  Sometimes that deviation veers to politics.

Regular followers also know my own political leanings are mondo-complicated.  I am a flaming human rights liberal, an almost-reactionary fiscal conservative, and one who believes a large central government may have all our best interests at heart but is structurally incapable of doing things well.  I favor reasonable regulation, more dispersed government that is closer to the people, a strong reliance on the profit motive in business, and the freedom of mankind to do what it wants so long as those actions don't interfere with the freedoms and rights of others.

Today, an article from the web site of the Mises Institute caught my attention.  I reproduce it below for your consideration:

by Gary Galles 

People are generally aware of the positive power of compound interest when deferring consumption in favor of productive investments. But more important when it comes to public policy is the destructive power of compound ignorance.

According to John Rector, “Compound ignorance is the type of ignorance in which we are not aware that we are not aware.” It arises when “we don’t realize what we don’t know.” In government, however, such “unknown unknowns” often lead to untrammeled confidence among politicians, despite the certainty of error. Compound ignorance is put on display every time a “progressive” wants to turn still more individual decisions over to political processes and government bureaucrats. Blithely unaware of the immense blind spots of what they don’t know for productive social cooperation, they believe they are taking decisions from the uninformed and giving them to experts. But they have it backwards. Such expansions of government dictation actually move choices from the relevant experts, with appropriate incentives to act on that expertise, to those far less informed and facing far worse incentives.

The social costs of compound ignorance grows with government’s reach. And its many recent expansions, along with the many failures (e.g., and crises (from the VA to the IRS) that have accompanied it, illustrate that it has been taken to a new level.

Such scandals reflect the compound ignorance that separates political promises from what it takes to actually deliver on them.

The current version of that shell game typically starts with a presidential commitment, delivered with solemnity to convey “I really mean it.” But all responsibility for backing the words up (from “you can keep your doctor” to promises of cost savings to assertions that they will be the most open administration ever) is immediately swept from his teleprompter into the lap of some cabinet secretary or administrator. Then, when the promises turn out to be empty or unattainable, his delegated expert starts taking heat. There is a period of expressing confidence in their competence (which amounts to confidence that by picking the right administrator, circles can be squared), combined with efforts to focus attention elsewhere. But then political heat picks up. When it becomes worrisome, the administration expresses anger at the failure (which implies surprise) and determination to fix it. That is then demonstrated by bringing in a new fixer to replace their predecessor, transformed into the scapegoat. The president is thereby kept from ever having to put forward how he would do what he promises, firewalled from political blame, even when the multiple scandals allegedly discovered by watching the news demonstrate a compound ignorance that guarantees failure to know enough to deliver.

Obamacare’s enactment offered a good example of unwarranted confidence in the face of massive unknown unknowns. While Nancy Pelosi’s assertion that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” was widely lampooned (including a poster of her with the caption, “Ignorance: It’s not just bliss anymore. It’s policy”), the fact that Congress was forced to vote on what was not even available for reading creates an even higher order of ignorance — they could not even know what they were “deliberating” on, much less the degree to which it would be hamstrung by compound ignorance.

Such compounded compound ignorance offers a warning to every American to consider more carefully how frequently government “expertise” can actually make them better off by taking their resources and substituting its determinations for theirs. That is the crucial issue, as every other government act requires harming some, which is an odd way to advance anything that, with a straight face, could be called the general welfare. Unfortunately, in every area in which our desires and willing tradeoffs differ substantially, by far the most common case, such shifts inherently take decisions away from the only ones who know the details about their goals, desires, skills, alternatives, and other circumstances to make them the relevant experts.

Voluntary market arrangements incorporate the highly varied, yet overlapping, knowledge of all participants, each expert in their array of circumstances of time and place, even when the vast majority knows virtually nothing at all about them. Such specialization in knowledge and tasks that most are ignorant of, coordinated by markets is, in fact, the primary source of advancing civilization. It allows effective social cooperation even in the face of compound ignorance and constant change.

In contrast, when government fiat overrides that process, compound stupidity replaces coordinated knowledge. Inherently insufficient experts who don’t know enough to say “I don’t know enough” then demonstrate that they have been raised to a level beyond their incompetence. Government does ever more of what it cannot do well, but can do very badly. And since, as Friedrich Hayek noted, “The more civilized we become, the more relatively ignorant must each individual be of the facts on which the working of civilization depends,” the price society pays is beyond comprehension. 

Your thoughts are welcomed.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Please help me understand YOUR Federal Communications Commission

by Don Keith

Article in today's broadcasting trade press:

FCC deals AMs a setback on translator moves.
Waivers won’t bring relief for AMs after FCC rejects Tell City plan. It may have been the most closely watched waiver request in a generation because of its potential impact on AM radio. But despite popular support among broadcasters, the FCC has rejected the so-called Tell City waiver request that would potentially have given AM operators more flexibility in buying FM translators and moving them into their markets.
So, can someone in the broadcasting biz--and especially operators of AM-band stations--please help me understand how giving AM licensees first dibs on FM translators will, in any way, help AM radio to survive?

Please.  Tell me how it helps to:

  • Put current programming that is already being ignored on AM in a simulcast on FM.  So much of what passes for programming down there is stations simply riding syndication from a satellite.
  • Put more translators on an FM band that is already becoming cluttered due to all those "digital 2" translators, low-power FMs, and a serious lack of FCC enforcement of first-, second-, and third-adjacent channel protection for existing signals.
  • Give AM operators something else they can't sell to advertisers because there are no listeners to respond to their ads.
Seems to me there are better ways to give some relief to AM, including forgetting protecting clear channels at night, being less severe on directional patterns, and finally getting serious about the atrocious amount of electrical noise that is polluting the spectrum.

But even with that, I believe it is already too little too late for the AM band.  That chunk of spectrum will be a nice addition to the 160-meter amateur radio band in less than a decade.  And we hams will assure there are more people listening to stations between 540 and 1700 at that time than there is now in most markets.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Are women better writers than men?

by Don Keith

OK, maybe you have not been pondering the point of whether one sex makes for better writers than the other, but the folks at a site called Grammerly decided to do some research on the subject.  Their "info-graph" is below.

You may have to enlarge the graphic to see the small print.

Just as interesting to me as the conclusions of the Grammerly folks is the fact that there is a website that specializes in checking and correcting your writing.  Is it better than Microsoft Word's fussy grammar correction?  A feature that literally drives me to distraction?

I don't know.  But in listening to folks talk and reading a great deal...especially on a particular local "newspaper" website...the need is there.  Oh, yes, the need is there!

Regardless the gender of the writer.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What? A newspaper that is actually INCREASING circulation?

by Don Keith

Regular followers of this rant know that I have criticized long and hard the silly moves being made by traditional newspapers (and other media, for that matter!) to attempt to overcome major technologically-driven changes in how people consume media.  My favorite target is The Birmingham News, which continues to shoot themselves in the foot as they attempt to cut their way to prosperity and rely on a clunky, cluttered web presence ( to meet the shift in users to a digital platform.

Well, in a recent blog post, media researcher and all-around bright guy Mark Ramsey takes a look at one newspaper that seems to be doing it right.  And it is an entity that many said was doomed, partly because it was a printed newspaper and partly because it was a hybrid local/"national? publication.  But mostly because a digital guy bought the dying paper and would surely run it the rest of the way into the ground.

Read on:

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been the owner of the Washington Post for a year, and while his experiment at the Post remains a work in progress, the brand is experiencing the highest digital traffic in its history and is even modestly increasing print circulation in a time when most newspaper brands are continuing to suffer steep declines.

1. Bezos is playing for the long term
Bezos is famous for putting long-term growth ahead of short-term financial pressures. Indeed, there would be no without this thinking style.  That doesn’t mean you should ignore the day-to-day financial demands of your balance sheet and your stockholders. But it does mean that you can’t create a long-term future in disruptive times one financial quarter and one round of layoffs at a time. It’s cliché, but true: You can’t shrink your way to success.

2. Bezos is investing in the brand
Bezos has added some 60 new editorial staff at a time when newspapers across the country are only cutting staff.  If you want someone to pay attention to your brand – to care about it – you had better give them more to pay attention to and care about, not less.

3. Bezos has launched a number of innovative initiatives
GigaOm writes:  [Editor-in-chief Marty] Baron gave credit to PostEverything and Storyline, as well as growth at other Post features and blogs such as Wonkblog (whose creator Ezra Klein left to start what eventually became Vox), along with new ventures such as The Morning Mix, and verticals devoted to health, science and sports.

4. Bezos has put great emphasis on digital, both strategically and in terms of hiring
Many of the new editorial hires were specifically for the brand’s digital platform.
Editor-in-chief Baron, from Capital New York:  In order to achieve those goals, we think we need to hire people who are fundamentally digital. They’ve sort of grown up in the digital world, they’ve written primarily for digital platforms, and that’s what we’ve been looking for. Our view is that the web is a different medium, and it calls for a different form of storytelling. These are all people who are experienced in that form of storytelling, and in many instances it’s second-nature for them, and that’s their primary form of expression. We need more of that, we want more of that.

So the Bezos recipe sums up to this: Focus on the long term, invest in the brand, take risks by experimenting with new initiatives, and see the world the way today’s digital consumer sees her world.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Books are old technology? Ask James Patterson if there is still gold in publishing

by Don Keith

I've posted multiple times about how rapidly changing technology has affected some media much more than others.  That is especially true of two media in which I have more than a passing interest: broadcast radio and book publishing.  I'm a former radio broadcaster and I have published more than two dozen books.

Well, I keep hearing that nobody reads anymore.  With all the audio and video choices, why bother turning the pages of a paper book or flipping the simulated pages of an e-book?  Apparently plenty of people still turn off Facebook or Netflix or Pandora and curl up with a good book, whether it's on ground-up trees or in an electronic device.

Forbes Magazine is out with their report on how much the best-paid authors make and, frankly, the haul is breathtaking.  And that correlates to plenty of copies of books being sold, whether in printed or electronic form.  No surprise to those who are aware that James Patterson leads the ranking with more than three times the income of number two.  Of course, he now has a small army of "co-authors" cranking out so many books it's hard to keep track of them all.  He averages releasing a book a month with his name on it.  But somebody obviously is.  Keeping track and buying them, whether they have time to read them all or not.

By the way, in case you are wondering, my income from writing books is similar to Mr. Patterson's...if you move that decimal point many, many places to the left!

(Another by the way:  I was actually under consideration to be a "co-author" with the late Tom Clancy.  I had always heard he paid his "co-authors" a flat $1,000,000 per book.  Here is another example of needing to move the decimal point many places to the left to be accurate.  Still, I was thinking about accepting the job if offered just to have the opportunity to work with Mr. Clancy.

Still, if Mr. Patterson is reading this, I could probably do a darn good "co-authoring" job on his genre of book, too!)