January 2013 Archives

A family that lived isolated for 40 years in the Siberian taiga.

Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors' downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation--a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.

It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.

Great story, and yet a horrible thing at the same time. Intentionally raising children in the manner described is hard to fathom or justify.

It seems like people are prone to discounting others based on their age groups.

  • Zeroes through twenties: You're safe to ignore because you're inexperienced and don't have a network of powerful friends.
  • Thirties through fifties: You're getting more powerful every day and are treated with wariness and respect.
  • Sixties through death: You're powerful so people are quick to placate you, but many people think they can outlast you.

Glenn Reynolds expands on his idea to reduce corruption by taxing it.

In short, I propose putting a 50% surtax -- or maybe it should be 75%, I'm open to discussion -- on the post-government earnings of government officials. So if you work at a cabinet level job and make $196,700 a year, and you leave for a job that pays a million a year, you'll pay 50% of the difference -- just over $400,000 -- to the Treasury right off the top. So as not to be greedy, we'll limit it to your first five years of post-government earnings; after that, you'll just pay whatever standard income tax applies.

This seems fair. After all, when it comes to your value as an ex-government official, it really is a case of "you didn't build that." Your value to a future employer comes from having held a taxpayer-funded position and from having wielded taxpayer-conferred power. Why shouldn't the taxpayers get a cut?

Sounds like a fine idea to me. While we're at it, maybe we should pay high-level government officials a lot more.

President Obama has decided to put women into primary combat roles in the US military. He says:

Today, every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love.

Some of the most daring interior spaces I've seen on Houzz. I'd love to own almost any of these, but I wonder if they make your house harder to sell?


This moat in a Colorado ski house leads to the wine cellar. The waterfall door stops when you step on the stone so you don't get wet grabbing that bottle of cab. If you ever wanted to feel like Indiana Jones, this is your chance.

I seriously need a foggy waterfall in my house.

(HT: My wife.)

The hacking group known as Anonymous is upset over the abuse of prosecutorial discretion and rightly point out that when the law makes us all criminals then it's the prosecutors who rule the world by deciding which charges to bring against whom. The group recently posted this statement on the hacked website for the US Sentencing Commission:

Anonymous has observed for some time now the trajectory of justice in the United States with growing concern. We have marked the departure of this system from the noble ideals in which it was born and enshrined. We have seen the erosion of due process, the dilution of constitutional rights, the usurpation of the rightful authority of courts by the "discretion" of prosecutors. We have seen how the law is wielded less and less to uphold justice, and more and more to exercise control, authority and power in the interests of oppression or personal gain.

Fortunately for Anonymous (and contra their actions to date) they don't need to perform any illegal activities to hold prosecutors accountable for their decisions! It is pretty easy to obtain court records via legal means and then publicize the names and activities of prosecutors who abuse their power, position and discretion. This monitoring would be a valuable public service, and it's a shame that the traditional media has been unable to perform it due to their pre-occupation with covering pop culture and cheerleading for Obama.

President Obama wants gun control so badly that he is resorting to one of the dumbest arguments ever made, one that is usually trotted out when you know you're losing: "if there's even one life that can be saved":

President Obama on Wednesday formally proposed the most expansive gun-control policies in generations and initiated 23 separate executive actions aimed at curbing what he called "the epidemic of gun violence in this country."

While no legislation can prevent every tragedy, he said in announcing the proposals, "if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try."

The argument is absurd on many levels.

1. Assume he's talking about saving lives in the gross, not net. There are innumerable things we could ban that would save at least one life gross, such as: cars, airplanes, knives, shoveling snow, boxing, cell phones, swimming pools, coal mining, and drone attacks on suspected terrorists. Why doesn't the President offer to ban any of these? If it would save even one life then doesn't he have an obligation to try?

2. Would banning guns save lives, net? Well, that would be a tough argument to make and the President doesn't really try. Estimates vary, but the Easy Bake Gun Club counts news stories about defensive gun use and here are their entries for December, 2012. The Cato Institute has a defensive gun use map. Both of these resources are based on news reports, but the vast majority of times that a gun is used in self-defense it isn't actually fired and the use isn't reported to the police or media. No one can know for sure, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that guns save more lives than they cost.

3. What's the value of a human life? It's obviously not "infinite" because we make trade-offs all the time between money and lives. Would you borrow money to buy a $500,000 car that was 10% safer than your $25,000 car? Of course not. Do you even have working smoke detectors in your house? It's sad when someone dies in a fire or is shot by a gun, but those deaths don't necessarily mean that we have to change the system. All factors need to be weighed.

4. How about low-probability catastrophic events such as invasion, tyranny, or nuclear holocaust? Sure, these aren't likely to happen, but if they did then having guns in the hands of trained and loyal citizens would be very valuable. The authorities are always trying to get us to be prepared for disasters, and there are many circumstances in which a gun would be a useful tool for survival.


It has more than two weeks since journalist David Gregory brandished an illegal high-capacity magazine on television and he has yet to face arrest or criminal charges.

It's been more than a week since police in Washington, D.C., opened an investigation into NBC's David Gregory's possession of a "high-capacity magazine" that's prohibited in the District on on national TV. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's spokesman refused Monday to respond to whether Mr. Gregory had even been interviewed yet. This is a rather curious departure for a city that has been ruthless in enforcing this particular firearms statute against law-abiding citizens who made an honest mistake. ...

NBC asked the police in advance for permission to bring the contraband into Washington for the interview with National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre, but it was not granted.

David Gregory knowingly broke the (stupid, bad) law and he should be punished just as harshly as any other offender. Yes, of course Gregory had no intention to commit a violent act, but neither do other upright citizens who frequently have their Second Amendment rights infringed by our government. Gregory created a spectacle in order to advocate for harsher restrictions on civil rights, and there's no reason he shouldn't be made to suffer the consequences that he advocates for others.

If the authorities continue to refuse to arrest and prosecute Gregory it will be a horrible miscarriage of justice. I look forward to the resolution of this situation because every other citizen will have the right to whatever remedy Gregory and his well-heeled lawyers achieve for the television star.

So the ongoing hypocrisy of Al Gore adds a new chapter: Current TV has been sold to Al-Jazeera and Al Gore makes $100 million. James Taranto nails Gore for profiting from global warming:

Oh, and Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, which means Al Gore, the scourge of global warming, is almost certainly lining his pockets with fossil-fuel profits.

And what's more, it appears that Glenn Beck tried to buy Current TV but was refused for ideological reasons.

The Wall Street Journal caught the detail in its coverage: "Glenn Beck's The Blaze approached Current about buying the channel last year, but was told that 'the legacy of who the network goes to is important to us and we are sensitive to networks not aligned with our point of view,' according to a person familiar with the negotiations."

So I guess we can conclude that Al Gore's point of view is aligned with that of Al-Jazeera.

When I think back on the things I did and the way I acted as a teenager I'm shocked and amused... but certainly my future-self won't feel that way when he looks back to now... right?

They called this phenomenon the "end of history illusion," in which people tend to "underestimate how much they will change in the future." According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.

"Middle-aged people -- like me -- often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin," said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. "What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we're having the last laugh, and at every age we're wrong."

When I look back I tend to see that I've improved in almost every way over the years. I hope I'll still feel that way when I'm older! (I guess I also hope that the feeling is accurate.)

I've posted numerous articles about robots taking all our jobs, but this one points out something new: robots that can safely work alongside humans.

Consider Baxter, a revolutionary new workbot from Rethink Robotics. Designed by Rodney Brooks, the former MIT professor who invented the best-selling Roomba vacuum cleaner and its descendants, Baxter is an early example of a new class of industrial robots created to work alongside humans. Baxter does not look impressive. It's got big strong arms and a flatscreen display like many industrial bots. And Baxter's hands perform repetitive manual tasks, just as factory robots do. But it's different in three significant ways.

First, it can look around and indicate where it is looking by shifting the cartoon eyes on its head. It can perceive humans working near it and avoid injuring them. And workers can see whether it sees them. Previous industrial robots couldn't do this, which means that working robots have to be physically segregated from humans. The typical factory robot is imprisoned within a chain-link fence or caged in a glass case. They are simply too dangerous to be around, because they are oblivious to others. This isolation prevents such robots from working in a small shop, where isolation is not practical. Optimally, workers should be able to get materials to and from the robot or to tweak its controls by hand throughout the workday; isolation makes that difficult. Baxter, however, is aware. Using force-feedback technology to feel if it is colliding with a person or another bot, it is courteous. You can plug it into a wall socket in your garage and easily work right next to it.

Maybe socialism is the wave of the future if there just aren't enough low-capability jobs to keep humans busy. Maybe economic freedom will be meaningless when 95% of humans are unemployable due to advanced robotics.

However, I disagree with the "seven stages of robot replacement":

1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do. 2. OK, it can do a lot of them, but it can't do everything I do. 3. OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often. 4. OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks. 5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it's obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do. 6. Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more! 7. I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.

First, many people will get lost between steps two and five. Most people don't make their living creatively and won't be excited to find a new job based on symbiosis with ever-improving robotics.

Secondly, let's talk about step six. There's no reason to believe that the new job will "pay more", even if it results in a greater quality of life. I expect that robot-provided things and services will trend towards "free" and actual cash income (used to pay humans) will decline dramatically. Most workers will end up "poorer" but with a higher quality of life.

In the modern world the concept of "slavery" is generally used in one of two ways: to reference slavery in the past, or as a metaphor for bad treatment in the present. However, literal slavery still exists in the world even if it hides under different names.

In which case, assuming even the rough accuracy of 27 million, there are likely more slaves in the world today than there have been at any other time in human history. For some quick perspective on that point: Over the entire 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade, 13.5 million people were taken out of Africa, meaning there are twice as many enslaved right now as there had been in that whole 350-year span.

It's a sobering read. Slavery isn't just a thing of the past or a euphemism for exploitative conditions. Literal slavery still exists.

So the Republicans got rolled by Obama (again) and America is sliding down an unrecoverable slope to poverty and despotism? Well maybe! But here are a few more optimistic views:

Ah, that was a nice break, but now we're back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

2012 was an amazing year... definitely one of the best of my life. It's hard to see how 2013 can possibly be as good, but I've got a new baby due in just a few months so things are looking good!

I hope you all had a great holiday season.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2013 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2012 is the previous archive.

February 2013 is the next archive.

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