Popular Posts of 2012

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2012. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year:

  1. Rich Black Flunking
  2. Foux Da Fa Fa
  3. Archetypal Stories
  4. Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?
  5. Thermal Runaway
  6. CCI Quiet 22
  7. Lessons from a Fatal Shootout in a Crowded McDonalds
  8. Write Your Name in Elvish in Ten Minutes
  9. He-Man Opening Monologue
  10. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2012 and not from an earlier year:

  1. CCI Quiet 22
  2. Lessons from a Fatal Shootout in a Crowded McDonalds
  3. Americas Retreat from Victory
  4. Our Totalitarian Democracy
  5. Democracies and Collateral Damage
  6. The Steampunk Era
  7. Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted
  8. Richard Feynman’s Low IQ
  9. Running for Combat Effectiveness
  10. Rapid Reticle

I’m not sure what to conclude.

The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Mr. Money Mustache explores the shockingly simple math behind early retirement — which relies on some shocking simplifications to arrive at it shocking simplicity:

If are spending 100% (or more) of your income, you will never be prepared to retire, unless someone else is doing the saving for you (wealthy parents, social security, pension fund, etc.). So your work career will be Infinite.

If you are spending 0% of your income (you live for free somehow), and can maintain this after retirement, you can retire right now. So your working career can be Zero.

In between, there are some very interesting considerations. As soon as you start saving and investing your money, it starts earning money all by itself. Then the earnings on those earnings start earning their own money. It can quickly become a runaway exponential snowball of income.

As soon as this income is enough to pay for your living expenses, while leaving enough of the gains invested each year to keep up with inflation, you are ready to retire.

If you drew this on a graph, it would not be a straight line, it would be nice curved exponential graph, like this one from the Early Retirement Extreme book:

Savings Rate and Working Years

Car accidents and U.S. presidents

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Dr. Cynthia Wachtell notes that a hundred people die each day on our roads, and many US presidents have connections to deadly car accidents:

For example Bill Clinton’s father, William Jefferson Blythe Jr., died in a car accident in May 1946. He was headed to Hope, Arkansas to see his pregnant wife. The future president, Bill Clinton, was born three months after the car crash. As a result Bill Clinton was raised not by his biological father but by a stepfather who was abusive.

If you look at George Bush, his wife, whose maiden name is Laura Welsh, was in a car accident two days after she turned seventeen. This was in November of 1963. She ran a stop sign near Midland, Texas and the car that she struck was being driven by her high school classmate and close friend Michael Dutton Douglas. He died at the scene. Laura Bush herself was thrown from her car. She was driving a Chevy. The friend was driving a Corvair. (The Corvair is the car that Ralph Nader singled out as being not safe at any speed.)

Barack Obama’s father was in three car accidents in Kenya. After the first accident he spent nearly a year in the hospital. In the second accident, he lost both of his legs. In the third accident, which occurred in November 1982, he died. Barrack Obama was twenty-one.

And Obama’s famous book Dreams From My Father — well the title tells so much about his quest to connect with this absent father.

And there is also Al Gore — his son Albert Gore III ran into a busy street in 1989 and was hit by a car. He was thrown thirty feet and nearly died. And Al Gore in his book An Inconvenient Truth writes, “Some events stay with you always and change the way you look at everything no matter how many years go by. My son’s serious accident was that kind of event for me. It turned my life upside down and shook it until everything fell out.”

Even more horrific was the accident which touched Joe Biden in December of 1972. His wife, one-year-old daughter, and two sons were in a car accident while they were out Christmas shopping in Delaware. His wife’s car was hit by a tractor-trailer and she and his year-old daughter were killed and his two sons were critically injured. This is something that he actually mentioned during the vice presidential debate where he said, “My wife was in an accident that killed my daughter and my wife and my two sons survived.” He’s talked about the anger and the pain he felt afterwards. And I believe that even now years later on the anniversary of that accident, which is December 18th, he doesn’t work in remembrance of the loss of his wife and his daughter.

The list continues.

Mitt Romney was in a deadly accident when he was twenty-one years old. He was serving as a Mormon missionary in France and he was the driver of a car in a head-on collision. He was driving a Citroen VS which at that point may or may not have had seat belts in the front seat. They weren’t mandatory until that year. There were six people riding in a five-passenger car, which meant that the person in the middle of the front passenger seat definitely couldn’t have been wearing a seat belt, and that’s who died in the accident. Her name was Liona Anderson. And she was the wife of the head of the missionary, the mission’s president. The mission’s president was injured. Mitt Romney himself was injured. He suffered a broken arm, and broken ribs, and a concussion and some facial injuries.

John McCain who was the presidential nominee before Romney, his first wife was in a horrible car accident. When he was held prisoner in North Vietnam, she was home visiting her family and was in a car accident in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve of 1969. She skidded on an icy road, hit a telephone pole and was thrown from her car. I think she was hospitalized for six months and had something like twenty-three operations over the course of two years. McCain didn’t know about this until he returned from Vietnam. She didn’t want to cause him further distress while he was there.

Another fatal car accident involving one of our presidential candidates, John Edwards, who ran for the democratic nominee in 2008 — his son Wade Edwards died at the age of sixteen when a gust of wind blew his jeep off the highway and flipped it in North Carolina in 1996.

It’s just haunting how many accidents there were.

Eye Protection and Shooting Glasses Review

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Andrew of LuckyGunner Labs reviews “eye pro” and summarizes his findings in this chart:


The Wisdom of Ritual

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

In our modern scientific world, the human need for ritual is typically denied and scoffed at, Al Fin notes, but a ritualistic inclination is built into our species:

Imagine you are a five-year-old being led into a small office. A woman with a warm smile shows you an assortment of strange objects. Some of them are shiny. You feel like playing with them. That’s OK, that’s allowed. Soon the friendly lady takes the objects away and says she wants to show you a video. On the screen is another woman. She has an identical set of objects lined up neatly in a row and she’s doing odd things with them — she lifts one and taps it on another, then puts it back and takes something else, twirling it in a peculiar fashion before replacing it. This goes on for some time. Then the strange objects are pushed back towards you and the lady says: ‘It’s your turn.’ What would you do?

If you were a five-year-old, you would imitate at least some of the actions you observed in the video. No instruction would be necessary. And yet, the behaviour doesn’t appear to achieve anything. The psychologist Cristine Legare and I have been working together for several years trying to understand why young test subjects bother to copy it. Our starting point is that they treat it as a convention of some kind. That is to say, they adopt what we call ‘the ritual stance’, imitating without questioning the purpose of the actions.

In our experiment, however, the behaviour of the woman in the video is ambiguous. Children can’t be sure it if is oriented to a goal or not. A surprisingly simple shift helps them to decide: we just alter the last move in the sequence. If the woman puts the last object into a box, it looks like the whole procedure was just a ‘funny’ way of putting an object away. We call this the ‘instrumental condition’. On the other hand, if the objects all end up back where they were originally placed, the whole action sequence appears not to have any tangible purpose. We call this the ‘ritual condition’. When the start and end states are identical, children are more confident that the demonstration on the video should be interpreted as a kind of ritual. And guess what? They copy it much more faithfully, and are less inclined to try out variations on their own initiative.


Saturday, January 26th, 2013

Armadillo could be considered a Danish Restrepo — a rather depressing documentary about Danish soldiers not exactly winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Maybe sending white guys covered in crosses (the Danish flag) and armor isn’t the way to win Muslim friends?

Anyway, it ends up demonstrating the usual tactical points, too. When dismounted, the overburdened Danish soldiers can barely cross irrigation ditches. They rarely see the enemy.

The big action scene of the movie has a Danish soldier telling his mates that there’s no way Taliban fighters are three meters away in the brush. They insist, he unloads a magazine in that direction — to no effect — and finally he tosses a grenade — which does take out most of the five Taliban hiding in the ditch. The Danes then close in and finish them off with automatic fire. (The Taliban had an RPG, a couple machine-guns, and an assault rifle.)

The rest of the movie conveys how boring deployment can be.

Please Don’t Help My Kids

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Kate Bassford Baker of Alameda, California wrote this letter to the other parents at the park:

Dear Other Parents At The Park:

Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you’ve just heard me tell them I wasn’t going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves.

I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.

They’re not here to be at the top of the ladder; they are here to learn to climb. If they can’t do it on their own, they will survive the disappointment. What’s more, they will have a goal and the incentive to work to achieve it.

It goes on.

(Hat tip to Daniel Coyle.)

Sturmgewehr 45 at an IPSC 3-Gun Match

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The host of the Forgotten Weapons blog decided to show up to a 3-Gun Match — with a Sturmgewehr 45:

Fitness Crackdown

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Reason.tv’s latest piece, Fitness Crackdown: Santa Monica Gets Tough On Trainers, points out that the city wants to start regulating personal trainers who use the public park to hold their classes:

This is exactly the kind of regulation you can make fun of on YouTube, because it seems so silly and counterproductive — but what is the proper libertarian answer to a group of people using public property to their own ends in a way that crowds out other people or makes that public property less valuable?

Should the 90 percent of the town that celebrates Christmas be allowed to put up their Christmas displays on public property?

Should you be allowed to walk around naked on a public beach? On public roads?

Should we all be allowed to graze our sheep on public lands?

The left-libertarian position seems to be that once you declare something public, putting any limits on behavior involving it — besides the usual no force or fraud laws — is tyranny, with some weird edge cases, of course.

The right-libertarian position seems to be that you shouldn’t declare anything truly public. Someone, or some entity, should own any asset worth fighting over, so they can set the ground rules — and we need to package property rights up cleverly enough that the people who benefit from something are the ones who pay the costs, etc.

If this park existed within a corporate park, a condo complex, or a shopping mall, it wouldn’t appear on the libertarian radar.

The Boy Who Played With Fusion

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Shortly after his 14th birthday, Taylor Wilson — with technician Bill Brinsmead — loaded deuterium fuel into their machine, brought it up to power, and confirmed the presence of neutrons:

With that, Taylor became the 32nd individual on the planet to achieve a nuclear-fusion reaction. Yet what would set Taylor apart from the others was not the machine itself but what he decided to do with it.

While still developing his medical isotope application, Taylor came across a report about how the thousands of shipping containers entering the country daily had become the nation’s most vulnerable “soft belly,” the easiest entry point for weapons of mass destruction. Lying in bed one night, he hit on an idea: Why not use a fusion reactor to produce weapons-sniffing neutrons that could scan the contents of containers as they passed through ports? Over the next few weeks, he devised a concept for a drive-through device that would use a small reactor to bombard passing containers with neutrons. If weapons were inside, the neutrons would force the atoms into fission, emitting gamma radiation (in the case of nuclear material) or nitrogen (in the case of conventional explosives). A detector, mounted opposite, would pick up the signature and alert the operator.

He entered the reactor, and the design for his bomb-sniffing application, into the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The Super Bowl of pre-college science events, the fair attracts 1,500 of the world’s most switched-on kids from some 50 countries. When Intel CEO Paul Otellini heard the buzz that a 14-year-old had built a working nuclear-fusion reactor, he went straight for Taylor’s exhibit. After a 20-minute conversation, Otellini was seen walking away, smiling and shaking his head in what looked like disbelief. Later, I would ask him what he was thinking. “All I could think was, ‘I am so glad that kid is on our side.’ ”

For the past three years, Taylor has dominated the international science fair, walking away with nine awards (including first place overall), overseas trips and more than $100,000 in prizes. After the Department of Homeland Security learned of Taylor’s design, he traveled to Washington for a meeting with the DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which invited Taylor to submit a grant proposal to develop the detector. Taylor also met with then–Under Secretary of Energy Kristina Johnson, who says the encounter left her “stunned.”

“I would say someone like him comes along maybe once in a generation,” Johnson says. “He’s not just smart; he’s cool and articulate. I think he may be the most amazing kid I’ve ever met.”

And yet Taylor’s story began much like David Hahn’s, with a brilliant, high-flying child hatching a crazy plan to build a nuclear reactor. Why did one journey end with hazmat teams and an eventual arrest, while the other continues to produce an array of prizes, patents, television appearances, and offers from college recruiters?

The answer is, mostly, support. Hahn, determined to achieve something extraordinary but discouraged by the adults in his life, pressed on without guidance or oversight — and with nearly catastrophic results. Taylor, just as determined but socially gifted, managed to gather into his orbit people who could help him achieve his dreams: the physics professor; the older nuclear prodigy; the eccentric technician; the entrepreneur couple who, instead of retiring, founded a school to nurture genius kids.

I say he’s one lab accident away from becoming a super-villain.

(Hat tip to Al Fin, who emphasizes that the Davidson Academy is a kind of Hogwarts for Brainiacs.)

Hobbit budgets

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Eric Crampton discusses hobbit budgets:

I do not know how much NZ central and local governments spent on Lord of the Rings and on The Hobbit. There are conflicting reports, and nobody seems particularly clear on how much was subsidy in the sense of “they paid less in tax than they would have if they were some other business, but they might not have come here without it, so we don’t know if the net effect on total taxes paid was positive or negative, but we’re going to assume a counterfactual of that it would have been done here and assess on that basis” and how much was a straight-up grant. Gordon Campbell reports that, for LOTR, it was done as tax rebate and that it’s now a grant. I’ve seen other sources counting a GST concession as a Hobbit tax break, but all products and services produced for export are GST exempt so inputs for that export product would always get a GST rebate. I’d love to see an authoritative figure.

But it can be useful to put the figure purported for The Hobbit into a bit of context. The most commonly cited figure for government support for The Hobbit is $67 million. I do not know whether this was a cash grant based on a proportion of their domestic expenditures, a tax concession, or something else. But I do know that for the 2012/2013 budget year, Vote.Tourism allocated $83.9 million for marketing New Zealand as an international tourist destination.

Imagine that the only benefit we get from the whole LOTR/Hobbit franchise is as tourism marketing campaign.

For 2012/2013, which did more to market NZ as an international tourist destination: The Hobbit, or everything else the government might have done in tourism promotion? Which seems more likely to inspire travel to New Zealand: 100% Pure, or Middle Earth?

Read the whole thing for the marginalia, including his idea for a film.

How Do We Know an “Assault Weapon” Ban Would Not Have Stopped the Sandy Hook Massacre

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

How do we know an “assault weapon” ban would not have stopped the Sandy Hook massacre? Because it didn’t:

The rifle he used, a .223-caliber Bushmaster M4 carbine, was legal under Connecticut’s “assault weapon” ban, which is similar to the federal law that expired in 2004. Both laws, in addition to listing specifically prohibited models, cover semiautomatic rifles that accept detachable magazines and have at least two out of five features:

  1. a folding or telescoping stock,
  2. a pistol grip,
  3. a bayonet mount,
  4. a grenade launcher, and
  5. a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor.

The configuration of the rifle used by [the killer], which his mother legally purchased and possessed in Connecticut, evidently was not covered by that definition.


But the term assault weapon was invented by the anti-gun lobby as a way of blurring the distinction between military-style semiautomatics, which fire once per trigger pull, and selective-fire assault rifles, which can be set to fire continuously (a distinction that President Obama, who wants to bring back the “assault weapon” ban, either does not grasp or deliberately obscures). Since that neologism has no meaning independent of the laws that define it, there is little sense in saying the laws should be changed to cover more “assault weapons.” Guns are not “assault weapons” until legislators arbitrarily decide they are.

The term assault rifle, on the other hand, has some history. It’s a literal translation of Sturmgewehr, which can also be translated into English as storm rifle — as in, “Have fun storming the castle!” That kind of assault, not criminal assault.

The defining features of a Sturmgewehr were that it was capable of fully automatic fire, like a submachine-gun — the then-standard weapon for storming a position — but that it used an intermediate-power cartridge — more powerful than the pistol cartridges used in submachine-guns, but less powerful than the rifle cartridges used in “real” rifles and machine-guns.

American analysts weren’t impressed with this early machine-carbine, and later analysts considered the AK-47 just another submachine-gun, lacking the accuracy and power of American rifles.

How The Huang Brothers Bootstrapped Guitar Hero To A Billion Dollar Business

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

In 1999 Charles Huang and his brother Kai founded Red Octane, which went on to becomes a billion dollar business without any VC funding:

Launching six months before Netflix, the goal was to be the Netflix of videogames. But six months after they launched the dot com bubble burst and so did their business. As funding completely dried up, the capital intensive rental business became unfundable. Of that time Charles said, “It looked like the whole valley was just going to die and go away. So that’s when we scrambled and looked at video game hardware, and eventually videogame software. That was the beginning of what was many lives of Red Octane.”

They were gamers and were playing a lot of Playstation 1 games, especially the pirated stuff out of Japan. Dance Dance Revolution was just making it’s way to the States so they stated selling dance pads. “We realized the dance pads that we were buying and reselling were garbage, because they were breaking down and we thought we could make better dance pads than this,” Charles said. “I literally packed my bags, went to China, visited a few of these factories that made dance pads, figured out how they made them and took a bunch of suggestions that users had given us and incorporated them into new designs and so we started coming out with our own dance pads and believe it or not, that kept the company afloat (from 2001 to 2003).”

Everything was sold online due to lack of cash. “We had to start that way because we couldn’t afford to sell to stores due to cash flow. The way it works is you sell to Gamestop and they don’t pay you for 60 to 90 days. We didn’t have the money to do that, so we had to sell everything online because when somebody orders with a credit card, you get paid in two days.”

The company’s number one rule to survive was simple. Don’t die. “As long as your company doesn’t die, smart people will find a way to make things happen, but if you let your company die, that’s it, you’ll never have another shot.”

For two years the company ran with less than 2-weeks of cash in the bank. Seriously. Every week they hoped to make enough money to make the next payroll. One time Charles had drafted the email to lay the employees off because they didn’t have enough money to pay. They decided to wait until after Thanksgiving and when Black Friday hit, orders poured in. “It was like a gift, like money falling from the heavens,” Charles said. “Like ‘where are all of these orders coming from?’ Then that actually gave us enough money to make payroll and we made enough money over the next month to continue.”

Once they realized that Konami could ruin their dance pad business if they decided to stop selling it in the US, they needed to be more in charge of their own destiny. They took a popular arcade game called “The Groove” and partnered with the developer to bring it to the console. This took their company from $1MM in revenue to $9MM and the profits allowed them to work on their second game, Guitar Hero.

They knew the music genre was working in Asia, but it hadn’t translated to the US or Europe. They took a look at music games and found Guitar Freaks. “We said, man this thing is fun, but if we could just make a few changes, we think that would be a `partnership was perfect. Red Octane made the hardware and Harmonix made the software.

“Guitar Hero was an incredible experience in that in the first day that we talked about it in February, to the day we released it in November, everything about it just seemed like this magical experience. You know, you hear musicians say how sometimes the right songs just flow from your head? It was like that, every idea just came so smoothly.” They demoed the game at E3 in true underdog fashion they weren’t even on the main show floor. They were down in the basement with the other indie games. They won Best of Show awards going up against Madden, Need for Speed, Tony Hawk, and others. The budget for the original game was $1.7MM.

But they were still fighting. Retailers didn’t want to carry the game because the large box didn’t fit on the shelves and there was no precedence for that type of game selling well despite the positive consumer buzz. GameStop was the only retailer to carry the game. “They were almost obligated to take every videogame product because GameStop was where hardcore gamers shopped, so you have to have everything.”

To pay for the inventory, Red Octane tried to raise money again. And while they had done $9MM in revenue the year before, they were unable to raise $3MM. “It wasn’t like we were a startup that was burning cash, we were already profitable. At the time, videogames were just considered an uninvestable category by VCs. So, in order to get the game out, my brother and I took out second mortgages and took on credit card debt and to buy inventory for the launch of Guitar Hero.”

The game launched in November 2005. Best Buy forecast the game would sell 30K units between November and the end of January. The day it launched they sold 3,000 units in the first two hours. Best Buy called that day and wanted 80K more units the next week. Because of the hardware the games were built and shipped from China. That shipping delay turned Guitar Hero into the hardest game to find that Christmas season. They sold $45MM worth of Guitar Hero in the first 11-months and then they were acquired by Activision for north of $100MM.

3D Printing and the Future of Shopping

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen discusses 3D printing and the future of shopping with Reason‘s Nick Gillespie:

Contradictions and Overstimulation

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

The state hospital where the Assistant Village Idiot works has had contradictory attitudes over time to the idea of “blowing off steam” versus more strenuously containing behavior:

In the 1980’s there were heavy punching bags on the units which patients could use. We found over time that some patients got even more worked up using them, and had to be pulled back, screaming, threatening, and hands now bleeding. There seemed no balance on the other side of anyone actually benefiting. We have a gym, and for those who can already contain themselves, it seems helpful to jog on the machines, play basketball, or lift weights. But we don’t actually have measures to show that these things do help. They just seem like normalised behaviors, so we encourage them. Others rapidly get overstimulated with even minor activity.

Or, they can get overstimulated and get assaultive when members of the opposite sex heave into view. By the way, it was always considered so ignorant and old-fashioned to declare how sexualised dancing is since the 60’s, but it becomes startlingly clear in an environment where people are locked up in a small space and impulsive behaviors can get out of control quickly. “Maria was dancing provocatively, so of course all the males had to come down to the day area” is said at morning report. But Maria’s dancing is sometimes a pretty mild version of what you’d see at any wedding, so at one level it’s not provocative. Except it is, and everyone can tell instantly.

Playing the TV or music too loud can be overstimulating. I don’t know that particular styles are worse. Some styles are more likely to be played loudly, but we’ve got folks who will crank up anything and get worked up.

Young males hanging around and woofing together is overstimulating, and we put a lid on that quickly. For females with a trauma history even hearing about other trauma is overstimulating. Personality disorders activate when they see someone else getting attention, as it threatens to them that they will be cast out of the family into the darkness.

We have been less encouraging of sexual behavior or the use of pornography, though even here there has been controversy. Psychology especially used to teach that these were normal expressions which we shouldn’t stand in the way of, however much church ladies objected. Then women with feminist leanings objected on other grounds, of exploitation and advantage-taking, muddying the waters further. Gay rights advocates became adamant that sexual expression was part of their humanity, and that started to bleed into mental health because most practitioners were liberals who wanted to keep up. So the issue of whether to give out condoms became a complicated medical, moral, clinical, legal risk-set of issues that is still unresolved. If people really press for it, their right to have pornography is upheld, but we make it so difficult that only the determined find it worth pursuing. I don’t think we notice anything other than whether someone is getting — you guessed it — overstimulated.

We don’t show horror movies or very violent or sexual ones, but we don’t have any data to support that. We just figure it’s probably a bad idea, and why take the risk? There are video games as well, some of which are a bit violent, but never the highest category of that. Some of the line staff play those games or watch those movies, but they are considered declasse. Not that we egalitarians would ever say that.

We let people cross-dress, even flamboyantly if they choose, because we are very modern and it’s their right. We only mention in whispers that this seems to occur more often when the patient is sicker, because then people might think that we think that… oh dear. Couldn’t people just get better and go home where we didn’t have to see them and do whatever they like? Because when they’re right here in front of us, and our professional judgment that they are much sicker on other grounds, but our politics tells us that we can’t say that, not even in front of our own staff, it creates a conflict we don’t like.

Oh, and by the way, the cross-dressers get overstimulated as well.