Octopodial Chrome

Stuff that Made Sense at the Time

The Personal Weblog of Bob Uhl


Thursday, 21 July 2011

Freedom's end

A.J.P. Taylor wrote this in 1970:

Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913–14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. … broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

Is there anywhere in the world today so free?

Hat-tip to Daniel Pipes.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Why mobile phones can't cause cancer

Babbage, over at The Economist, explains why mobile phones can’t cause cancer. It’s a basic principle, really: they simply don’t emit enough energy to produce free radicals.

Granted, it could be that wearing them causes shifts in how one moves, and that might conceivably cause certain health issues like osteoporosis. But that would apply equally to other things one wears (like pistols or purses). And of course it’s not cancer.

Monday, 30 May 2011

How to replace interviews

It’s an open secret that the position-filling business is badly broken. The employer doesn’t have any real confidence that the selected candidate is a good fit; the employee doesn’t have any real confidence that the selected employer is a good fit; instead the employee assuages the employer with a thesaurus-generated resumé and the employer assuages the employee with money. This is just dumb.

Jason Freedman suggests an alternative that just could work: being on potential hires as short-term contractors. Both parties can then get some experience working with one another and see if the position is a good fit. And if it’s not, the psychological cost of severing the relationship is much lower than even with probationary periods.

It’s probable that HR departments would have to refashion themselves to do this, especially in larger corporations, but that’s their job.

I wonder if anyone can think of downsides of this idea. The only one which comes to my mind is that current law assumes too much about people being long-term employees (e.g. with the way health insurance is taxed). But that can be changed, and probably should anyway.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Chemical-free chemistry sets: the world is doomed

As part of my ongoing series covering the imminent death of Western civilisation, I bring you the chemical-free chemistry set. I think this is the inevitable result of a few of the trends in our society, partly the War on Some Drugs but also the infantilisation of childhood.

Guess what, parents—your kids won’t grow up if you don’t let them! When I was a boy Mom & Dad bought us these great chemistry sets with all sorts of poisonous and caustic chemicals, and yet we didn’t kill ourselves or anyone else (no, not even with the cobalt or the cyanide). And I was playing with that stuff at the age of 8 or maybe even younger. By the time one is 10, one is definitely old enough to use real, potentially nasty chemicals—or suffer the consequences. But this set is absurd. Growing crystals is for kindergarteners; slime and gook and bubbles are for toddlers.

Worried about your kids hurting themselves? Here’s a radical idea: supervise them! Or here’s another radical idea: tell them what not to do, and why not to do it, and expect to be obeyed. If they’ve not learnt obedience by the age of ten, their lives are in for some pain anyway.

We are doomed, all of us: doomed.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Why Max Barry fled from cubicle life

Max Barry speaketh truth:

The difference between people and human resources is that people have brains. People don’t need a company policy on how to ascend stairs (stay left, hold the handrail at all times, look straight ahead). People can figure that out for themselves. Human resources, on the other hand, are dumb as a box of hammers. They need everything spelled out.

Human resources are basically office equipment with legs. They’re talking furniture.

No company which treats its employees as human resources can innovate: innovation is the product of men, not of resources.

I am a free man, not a human resource!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

On loving our neighbour

Every one of us is created and fashioned in the image of God, and every one of us in like a damaged icon.

But consider this: if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it was damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty.

And this is what we must learn to do with regard to each person as an individual, but also—and this is not always easy—with regard to groups of people, whether it be a parish, or a denomination, or a nation. We must learn to look, and to look until we have seen the underlying beauty of the person or of a group of people. Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there.

Listen to other people, and whenever you discern something, which sounds true, which is a revelation of harmony and beauty, emphasize it and help it to flower. Strengthen it and encourage it to live.

—Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), of blessed memory

Monday, 04 April 2011

Tax the rich…then what?

I found this illuminating graphic of how long the net worth of various people could power the federal government’s borrowing. If we confiscated every last penny of Bill Gates’s fortune (not his income—his fortune), it would only finance 12 days and 8 hours of borrowing. If we were to confiscate the fortunes of the 400 richest people in the country, it wouldn’t even cover a year of what we’re borrowing.

That’s…concerning.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Leader, manager, clerk

I recently read an amazingly insightful comment on Slashdot regarding leadership:

Everyone wants to be called a leader. Even when the situation requires a competent clerk.

  1. Leaders will lead you into new fields.
  2. Managers will make manage the people, equipment and time to achieve the goals of the leader (or the manager above them).
  3. Clerks process the paperwork needed to acquire the people and equipment requested by the managers.
  4. And then you have the individuals (aka the talent).

A task that requires a competent clerk will be a complete mess when handled by a competent leader with a deficiency in clerk skills.

On the other hand, an extremely capable clerk can perform almost as well as a competent manager.

Too often, corporations claim leadership by trying to manage through emphasizing paperwork (clerk skills) and records.

This is so, so true. And among the sad things about it is that a good manager or leader may be a competent clerk, but selecting for that skillset excludes potentially great managers and leaders. Likewise for management: a good leader may be a good manager, but he doesn’t have to be.

When we select for clerks, what we get…are clerks. Which is fine for a clerical position. It’s not so good when one wants a manager or a leader.

Sunday, 09 January 2011

Modern Ugliness

This may ruin your day, or even week: ærial photographs of Floridan housing developments. What was beautiful rolling land, shaped by the hand of God, is now rolled flat and constrained by straight strets; where once the paths might have followed the natural curve of the land, now the developer cuts a road along a line. Instead of homes laid out in a reasonable fashion, it’s row after row of identical buildings. Instead of walkable neighbourhoods in which one can live, all there are, are residences connecting to the street. It’s a monument to the car.

I remember that great moment in Prince Caspian when the river cast off the bridge which had enslaved it. Florida could use Aslan and Silenus…

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Do we have too many federal crimes?

Former United States Attorney General Ed Meese argues that we have too many federal crimes and that more oversight is needed. I think it says something when someone who dedicated his life to enforcing the laws calls for fewer of them.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The great college-degree scam

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education Richard Vedder notes that 60 percent of the increase in college grads from 1992 to 2008 work in low-skilled jobs that only really require a high-school diploma or less. Fascinating stuff.

We need to ask ourselves why jobs that don’t require much more than an eighth-grade education are being filled by folks who have studied. What’s awry with our employment economy?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Is high self-esteem harmful?

Dennis Prager notes some recent results in criminology and psychology to ask if high self-esteem might not be detrimental to good character. It wouldn’t be suprising if true: it would explain why those who really are that good at what they do (e.g. Tiger Woods or Frank Sinatra) are so unpleasant in the rest of their lives.

And of course it accords with traditional religion, which notes that pride is the chief of the sins. Gosh, it’s almost as though religion knows what it’s talking about!

Weak beer illegal for Colorado restaurants to sell

It turns out that Colorado restaurants and bars are allowed to sell high-alchohol beer, not the weak stuff. The law had never really been enforced, but due to some political manoeuvering (grocery and convenience stores are only permitted to sell the weak stuff; they want to be able to sell it all; so they got the law enforced in order to annoy people) it is now.

So right now in Colorado one can buy weak beer at a grocery or convenience store to take home, or can sit in a restaurant or bar and drink a strong beer. How is one supposed to get home safely—levitation?

Monday, 29 November 2010

Public healthcare is really a giveaway to proprietary software

Back in September 2009 Washington Monthly, a centre-left publication, had an article about how state healthcare is a giveaway to proprietary software vendors. This isn’t really a surprise: Big Business loves Big Government, and vice versa. It’s much easier to deal with a single customer spending other people’s money than many customers spending their own; it’s much simpler to deal with a few suppliers than with many.

That it leads to poorer outcomes really doesn’t matter. The goal of business is not quality but money; the goal of government is not quality but survival.

Why the lady basketball player is no gentleman

Stephen J. Heaney has an intelligent article about that women’s basketball player who claims to be a man. He opens with a bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

In one scene, we encounter the People’s Front of Judea, one of many tiny radical groups bent on the overthrow of the oppressor Romans. As the four conspirators struggle to articulate their group beliefs, one fellow named Stan admits that he wants to be a woman, and that it his right as a man to be called Loretta. He wants this because he wants to have babies. When Reg points out that he can’t have babies, Stan cries, Don’t you oppress me! Reg protests, I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb. Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box? The other three agree that it is Stan’s right to have babies, if he could, and that they will fight for this right. Says Francis, It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression! Retorts Reg, Symbolic of his struggle against reality.

It’s an apt comparison. We are not what we wish to be but what we in fact are. And that poor woman (who clearly could benefit from counselling) is not, no matter how much she or other might wish it, a man, any more than another lunatic is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Things hoplophobes believe

One of my brothers recently linked to this hilarious list of things one must believe to believe in gun control, written by Michæl Z. Williamson. Some of these are a bit hit-or-miss, but others are just brilliant. Among the better ones:

  • That a mugger will kill you in the half-second it takes to draw from the holster, but won’t harm you while you dial 911 on your cell phone, talk to the dispatcher and wait half an hour for the cops to arrive.
  • That the Second Amendment only applies to flintlocks, just as the First Amendment only applies to quills and lead type.
  • That 1 firearm owner in 10,000 will commit an act of violence in his or her lifetime, and this is far more frightening than the 25% of drivers who will cause a serious or fatal accident.
  • That families with children should not be allowed to own guns for safety reasons, just as they aren’t allowed to own dogs, power tools, or toxic chemicals.
  • That one can sue a store for having a slick floor, falling ceilings, and sharp corners, but if they refuse to let you bring a gun in and you get shot by a criminal, they aren’t liable for enforcing that rule with others.
  • That Charlton Heston as president of the NRA is a shill who should be ignored, but Michæl Douglas as a representative of Handgun Control, Inc. is an ambassador for peace who is entitled to an audience at the UN arms control summit.
  • That the New England Journal of Medicine is filled with expert advice about guns, just as Guns and Ammo has some excellent treatises on heart surgery.
  • That the right of the people peaceably to assemble, the right of the people to be secure in their homes, the enumeration herein of certain rights shall not be construed to disparage others retained by the people, The powers not delegated herein are reserved to the states respectively, and to the people, refer to individuals, but the right of the people to keep and bear arms refers to the states.
  • That women are just as intelligent and capable as men, but gunmaker’s advertisements aimed at women are preying on their fears.
  • That a handgun, with up to 4 switches and controls, is far too complex for the typical adult to learn to use, as opposed to an automobile which only has 20.
  • That rifles with pistol grips are assault weapons, just like vehicles with racing stripes are sports cars.
  • That people who own guns out of a fear of crime are paranoid, but people who don’t want other people to own guns in case it causes them to commit crimes are rational.
  • That we should ban Saturday Night Specials and other inexpensive guns because it’s not fair that poor people have access to guns too.
  • That teaching abstinence exclusively rather than use of condoms is doomed to fail, but encouraging absolute bans on guns rather than education in safe use is the only acceptable method of reducing crime.
  • That it is outrageous that civilians have rifles that were designed for the military for their own self defense, but perfectly okay to have polluting, potentially unstable, heavy vehicles that were designed for the military simply as status symbols.
  • That people are too stupid to handle guns, but are intelligent enough to vote.
  • That the NRA, with over 4 million members, is out of touch with America, and HCI, with 50 thousand members, has a mandate from the people.
  • That private citizens making private sales of private property is a loophole.
  • That the existence of weapons not banned by previous laws is a loophole.
  • That it’s safer to do nothing than resist with a gun, which is why the military wins so many wars by not fighting.
  • That we must close shooting ranges because of the noise, but ban silencers because they are quiet.
  • That owning a gun for self-defense indicates an intent to kill, just like owning a first aid kit indicates an intent to impersonate a physician.
  • That suggesting teachers be armed is an outrageous suggestion for a civilized society, which is why the Swiss and Isrælis do it.
  • That making it harder and harder for even cops to have guns on school property will somehow make it harder for lunatics to kill the utterly helpless students.
  • That the 14th Amendment requires states to accept each other’s drivers licenses, even with age or vision requirement differences, marriage licenses even with age or relationship differences or if it’s a gay marriage, but somehow doesn’t apply to licenses to carry weapons.
  • That banning rifles with bayonet lugs will cut down on all the drive-by bayonetings.
  • That shooting at an intruder who smashes your door and enters with knife in hand will somehow escalate the violence.
  • That it’s safer with less guns, which is why lunatics shoot up schools instead of gun shows or police stations.
  • That it’s outrageous to count 18 and 19 year-old parents as children for statistical purposes, but perfectly acceptable to count them as children for purposes of exaggerating gun deaths among children.
  • That the few people who can’t use martial arts or other non-lethal means of self-defense–the young, the old, the infirm, the disabled, the weak, the small, and the pregnant–are simply the necessary sacrifice we must make to criminals to avoid the risks of letting people be armed.
  • That the dangers of guns outweigh their recreational uses, unlike alcohol and motorcycles.
  • That getting rid of guns reduces violence, so the military should be armed with bouquets of flowers.
  • That only people over 21 are allowed to defend themselves.
  • That if a group of anti-gun protesters feels threatened, they should ask police with guns to protect them while they tell everyone how worthless guns are for protection.
  • That the 1939 US vs Miller case, is established law that endorses gun control and the matter is closed, just like Plessy vs Ferguson endorsed separate but equal schools and the matter is closed.
  • That when the government promises that they won’t confiscate our weapons after we register them, we can believe them, just like the Commanche, the Sioux, the Apache, the Kaw, the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Italians in NYC, the Jews in Germany, the Zulu in South Africa…and the Americans at Lexington and Concord.
  • That Charlton Heston, as president of the NRA, must be a racist, despite his marches with Dr. King in the 1960s. After all, all gun owners are racist, and that theory isn’t bigoted.
  • That allowing the poor and minorities to defend themselves is Fascist.
  • That small arms can’t win wars, as all the Viet Cong bombing, air superiority, and naval missions prove.
  • That hate is not a family value, but all gun owners are tobacco-chawin’, beer-swillin’, racist, redneck bubbas.
  • That there’s no contradiction in the same liberals who said in the 60s that 18 year olds who could fight should be able to vote, now saying that 18 year olds can vote but shouldn’t own guns.

Read the whole list—it’s quite funny. Completely unpersuasive to the unconvinced, of course (I imagine by hoplophobic friends are sputtering right now), but funny nonetheless.

Monday, 01 November 2010

Woman caged in the desert, no-one punished

This story is disgusting: an inmate in an Arizonan prison was caged in the desert until she died of dehydration—and no-one will be punished for it. When she died her body temperature was 108°; her body was thoroughly burned and blistered.

I’m sure she was a rotten person in many ways; I’m sure she was a discipline problem; I’m sure she well-deserved punishment. None of that excuses treating a human being that way, none of it. I’m sure she made life very difficult for her guards; some people are simply not great people. But that doesn’t matter. If a father treated his wayward child that way, he’d be executed. And none of those responsible for this is even going to jail.

It’s very sad. For all her faults, Marcia Powell was a human being. God loved her just as much as He does any of us; she had exactly as much inherent worth as any of us. And she didn’t deserve have her life baked out of her in the desert sun.

Why Orthodox men love the Church

A lot of Orthodox women I know have been passing this article on Facebook recently. While imperfect (and a few years old), it’s a good read.

I think that it’s better to ask why Orthodox men and women love the Church; many of the answers are the same. Sheer physicality, for example: our worship involves sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. And while an Orthodox man is free to be a man, so too is an Orthodox woman free to be a woman.

And, of course, beards. You just can’t respect a man with a boy’s chin…

Friday, 01 October 2010

Responses to '84,999,987 Firearm Owners Killed No One Yesterday'

I recently shared an image on Facebook which stated 84,999,987 firearm owners killed no one yesterday; this caused a huge storm of comments from my left-leaning friends (and a few from the right-leaners; curiously, I appear to have more of the former than the latter). I figured that rather than munge something in the comments, I’d post in my blog.

First off, I don’t know where the image gets its statistics, and frankly they sound a bit fishy. It sounds a bit like whoever made it figured that there are 85 million gun owners and 13 of them commit murder (or suicide?) daily. I can’t easily find the number of gun owners in the US, although one person suggested 80 million—with no backup. For another thing, there are more than 13 gun deaths per day; the CDC estimated about 207 in 2000. Of course, roughly half (some sources indicate more; others less) of those are suicides, which can’t really count (although highly regrettable, suicidal folks would still kill themselves by strangulation, suffocation, poisoning, drowning or leaping from heights). So let’s say 100 murders or accidental gun deaths per day (by comparison, there were 115 automobile deaths per day in the same year, runs roughly as many cars as guns in the country). That’s still an order of magnitude larger than 13. Maybe the author was only counting legally-owned guns or something. Still: fishy.

And of course statistics and significant digits don’t work that way. All you can really say given 85 million gun owners and 207, 100 or 13 deaths per day is that zero percent of gun owners kill anyone on a daily basis (well, a statistically insignificant number, which is indistinguishable from zero).

Anyway, enough with the problematic original statement—on to the comments. One asked, So exactly how many gun-related deaths would it take to no longer be okay? Of course, no death is okay: every human life is worth saving. Unfortunately, any measure taken to prevent death has its own costs, and my general stance is that I’d prefer to pay the costs associated with too much liberty than the costs associated with too much authority.

The same commentor (hey Leah!) notes that we license automobile drivers. That’s true. Of course, driving isn’t a civil right; it’s a privilege. There is a civil right to free movement throughout the country, and we don’t demand travel permits (as they did in the Soviet bloc). Nor do we demand any sort of education or require a test before voting. In principle, assuming a government that would never ever infringe on the right to bear arms, I’d support mandatory training—in much the same way that assuming a government that would never ever infringe on the right to vote, I’d support mandatory education and a test before voting.

As a side note, semi-automatic just means a gun that shoots one bullet every time the trigger is pulled. I think people are scared of the word because of its syncopation: SEH-mee-OT-oh-MA-tic. It’s 19th century technology, and it’s boring. I think folks think it means what automatic means. An automatic weapon shoots bullets as long as the trigger is held down and it has bullets to shoot.

Another asked about unregistered vice registered firearms. Beats me—I live in a state without gun registration. Again in principle, assuming a government that would never ever infringe on the right to bear arms, I’d support gun registration: it doesn’t keep anyone from exercising his right, and it might help in solving cases. However, given any realistic government one simply can’t assume that it could restrain itself.

Another voiced concerns about folks who stockpile weapons. I actually kinda agree there, or at least understand. One does wonder about the motivations of the sort of person with more firearms than cookpans. OTOH, the folks I do personally know who do have large collections really have more in common with any other type of collector—stamp, doll, velvet-oil-painting—than with the sort of lunatic gun nut one sees on TV shows and movies. And of course in a free country we don’t care too much when someone exercises his rights in a silly way; we just care if he infringes upon our rights.Another commentor hoped for world peace. This is, of course, a noble wish, and one I share. The problem though is that good people being peaceful doesn’t lead to peace; it leads to evil people waging war and good people losing it. Back during the Vietnam War there was a slogan What if you threw a war and nobody came? The problem is that with war and violence it doesn’t take two to tango; it takes one. We could get rid of all firearms and all weapons, and there would still be violent people—but having gotten rid of weapons, the only thing to stop those violent people would be brute force. That doesn’t seem like it’s very equal or progressive to me: might makes right is no way to run a society.

I think the root of the issue is that some folks honestly enjoy guns and shooting, and honestly don’t understand why anyone would fear guns, while others are honestly afraid of guns and honestly don’t understand how anyone could enjoy them. What’s remarkable is how hot emotions get. I understand why the pro-gun side gets hot under the collar: no-one likes to be told what to do. I guess the anti-gun side get so angry because they blame guns and gun owners for violence.

Anyway, I’ll make this offer: I will gladly take any of my anti-gun friends or acquaintances shooting; I’ll provide the guns, the ammunition and pay the range fees. We can shoot pistol, rifle or shotgun. If you’re going to dislike something, you ought to at least understand it, no? This way you can educate yourself and find out exactly what a firearm is and how it operates, know what all those words mean, and see what sort of people own guns.

And I’ll be more careful with posting badly-sourced images on Facebook in the future…

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Tax Rates on Various Items

I found this great table of taxes on common items. I don’t mind taxes—we need them for a functioning state, and we need a functioning state—but 37.6% (soda) to 86.71% (cigarettes) is extortionate.

Saturday, 04 September 2010

Not All Health Care Is Life-or-Death

Avik Roy makes an excellent point: most health care is not life-or-death—and thus it can be dealt with in a market manner. He also argues for consumer-driven health plans, which I think would be a great idea: let the market efficiently allocate resources to routine health issues, and insure against catastrophic medical events.

I think we all agree that something’s wrong when a single disease or accident can lead to financial ruin, and that the situation should be fixed. But does society as a whole need to pay for Brooke Shields’s eyelash medicine or Bob Dole’s Viagra?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Ship by Ship

Phillip Longman argues quite persuasively that we should increase our use of water transport. It looks like where water travel is possible that it uses less than 20% of the fuel that trucking does; it has less than .7% the fatality rate of trucking. And it can be faster—the Boston to Orlando can legally be made by truck in 54 hours, while it’s only 33 hours by ship.

Why don’t we ship more goods by water? Well, it comes down to perverse incentives: we subsidise high-polluting, road-damaging trucking (e.g. a truck causes 41¢ per mile in damage but only pays 9¢ in tolls & taxes). Another issue is that while trucks are taxed by weight, ships are taxed by cargo value; this means that shipping companies must track the value of all goods they ship, unlike trucking companies. Worse, the tax is extremely high: the example given was of identical loads where the ship pays $625 while the truck pays $3.25.

This is a good example of how the free market is subverted by the state. It’s also an example of how policy can be uncoordinated: on the one hand we’re concerned about congestion and road-building; on the other, we’re encouraging congestion and road damage.

Wednesday, 09 June 2010

Passive Annual Heat Storage

I recently came across a really brilliat idea: passiv annual heat store. The gist of it is that you dump all the excess heat your home receives in the summer into the ground, then retrieve it to remedy the heat deficiency in the winter. By so doing, apparently, one can manage a more-or-less constant 70° home temperature. In other words, it could feel like San Diego inside in the middle of a snowstorm outside. More details here.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Nifty Trigonometric Identity

Here’s a trig identity visualised nicely. Requires a browser which understands the canvas tag—it works in Firefox, and that’s all I care about.


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