Woman guilty over shopper death

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Many Americans have a vague image of England as the land of Jeeves and Wooster, but things have changed drastically over the past few decades.

In June of last year, Antonette Richardson, a 37-year-old grandmother, with convictions for deception and handling stolen goods, called her 38-year-old boyfriend, Tony Virasami, out on bail, tagged and under curfew for shoplifting, so he would come in from the car to the shopping center, where she had pushed her way to the front of the line (“queue”) as she went to buy a packet of cigarettes, and one Adam Prendergas had the temerity to yell at her.

Virasami prompty punched out one Kevin Tripp, 57, and killed him — he fell and hit his head, hard.

Richardson told the court she was shocked and disgusted when her boyfriend hit the wrong person. Mr. Tripp’s sisters and brother were shocked and disgusted by the criminals’ lack of remorse:

“That neither has shown signs of remorse in court, even smiling at us during a previous hearing, makes it even harder to deal with and means we can never forgive them.”

At least she was found guilty — if only by an 11-1 majority verdict.

Sunday Dinner

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Fixing Sunday dinner is a lot more work when you don’t just pick up the ingredients at the grocery store:

Don’t know if you are old enough to remember, but the world was supposed to end in the seventies. Maybe the eighties, but there was absolutely no chance that we would make it to 2000 before there was a nuclear attack and/or a complete economic collapse and/or a complete ecological disaster.

My parents believed this and in 1976 they moved us to eighty acres in the desert to raise our own food and live as self-sufficiently as possible.

We raised chickens, lots of chickens, and they were “free range”, which means the smart ones found out early that if they slept in the coop racoons would kill them all. The chickens ran wild and lived in trees.

When mom decided it was time to butcher some chickens, dad and I (or just me, if he was working) would get our .22 rifles and cull the herd. Mom would tell us which roosters were off limits and if there were any hens she wanted culled, and we went hunting. Only head shots allowed.

The head on a chicken is a little bigger than a quarter, and the suckers move. We got very, very good at fast accurate shots.

Which brings us to Sunday Dinner. Sunday Dinner was the scrawniest, fastest, luckiest rooster in the world. Mom wanted him dead, because we were getting a suspiciously large number of scrawny fast hatchlings. We tried every butchering day for almost two years. The first time I shot him and saw blood and he ran. I tracked him and didn’t find him for hours, when he came home, hiding behind my sister.

After that, if he saw rifles, he ran for the hills and didn’t come back for the rest of the day. One time, I left the rifle and tried a handgun, got real close and … missed. Damnit.

Sunday Dinner’s last day, he’d taken off as soon as the butchering started. We were almost done and I saw him running through a path between two cotton woods trees at 75 yards. I snapped off a shot and he started doing the dead chicken dance. Chickens with their heads cut off do run. They also jump and do backflips. Sunday Dinner was spinning end over end, jumping, running and dead.

I carried him to mom for the scalding and gutting part of the day. She said, “Rory, look at this.” There were two bullet holes in his comb, healed. One in the wattles at his neck. There was a chip out of his top and lower beak from two different bullets and healed graze at the back of his neck and a healed hole in the side of his neck in front of the spine. He lived a relatively long and healthy life with seven bullet hits to his head and neck. The eighth killed him.

The Obama administration will seek to reinstate the assault weapons ban

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

The Obama administration will seek to reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 during the Bush administration, Attorney General Eric Holder said today.

This should surprise no one — and judging by recent assault rifle sales, it most certainly did not surprise gun nuts.

Born believers: How your brain creates God

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Michael Brooks explains anthropologist Scott Atran’s belief that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works — not from a god module but from common-sense dualism and an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect:

He calls this innate assumption that mind and matter are distinct “common-sense dualism”. The body is for physical processes, like eating and moving, while the mind carries our consciousness in a separate — and separable — package. “We very naturally accept you can leave your body in a dream, or in astral projection or some sort of magic,” Bloom says. “These are universal views.”

There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability,” he says.

Useful as it is, common-sense dualism also appears to prime the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death. In 2004, Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast, UK, put on a puppet show for a group of pre-school children. During the show, an alligator ate a mouse. The researchers then asked the children questions about the physical existence of the mouse, such as: “Can the mouse still be sick? Does it need to eat or drink?” The children said no. But when asked more “spiritual” questions, such as “does the mouse think and know things?”, the children answered yes.

Based on these and other experiments, Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods’ minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people.

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” Bloom says.

This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don’t have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.

Again, experiments on young children reveal this default state of the mind. Children as young as three readily attribute design and purpose to inanimate objects. When Deborah Kelemen of the University of Arizona in Tucson asked 7 and 8-year-old children questions about inanimate objects and animals, she found that most believed they were created for a specific purpose. Pointy rocks are there for animals to scratch themselves on. Birds exist “to make nice music”, while rivers exist so boats have something to float on. “It was extraordinary to hear children saying that things like mountains and clouds were ‘for’ a purpose and appearing highly resistant to any counter-suggestion,” says Kelemen.

In similar experiments, Olivera Petrovich of the University of Oxford asked pre-school children about the origins of natural things such as plants and animals. She found they were seven times as likely to answer that they were made by god than made by people.

These cognitive biases are so strong, says Petrovich, that children tend to spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention: “They rely on their everyday experience of the physical world and construct the concept of god on the basis of this experience.” Because of this, when children hear the claims of religion they seem to make perfect sense.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

Kindling a Revolution

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Wade Roush of Xconomy interviews E Ink’s Russ Wilcox on e-paper, Amazon, and the future of publishing — starting with some history:

In 2004 Sony launched in Japan with the Librié. And it didn’t really work very well in Japan. Critics loved the hardware, but there were only 1,000 books available, and that does not make a successful publishing market. And it turns out that e-books are a tough sell in Japan because there is a thriving used bookstore market. People don’t have bookshelf space in their homes to store a lifetime of books, so they have this well-developed practice of returning books to used bookstores, so you can get any used book you want for a dollar. At the same time, people were getting used to standing on trains and reading on their little cell-phone displays. So between those two things, it was very hard to launch the Librié.

But Sony had the vision that if they added a bunch more content and brought it out in the U.S., they would have a product. And at the same time Amazon took note, and said, ‘Aha, the time might finally be right for e-books, if we were to tackle this as a service and sell the content.’ So the Sony PRS-500 launched in 2006 and Amazon came out with the wireless Kindle in 2007, and those guys have each progressively improved their products. From a business point of view, there were some tough times along the way. But since 2004, when we first saw the Librié come out in Japan, our revenues have doubled every year, because we have just been getting more and more devices out there.

He won’t disclose the cost of the Kindle’s 6-inch e-paper screen, but if you want to buy a development kit and design your own device, it’s $3,000.

10 reasons to buy a Kindle 2… and 10 reasons not to

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

John Biggs offers 10 reasons to buy a Kindle 2… and 10 reasons not to. I like his seventh reason not to:

Flight attendants will tell you to turn it off on take off and landing. You can’t explain that it’s epaper and uses no current. You just can’t. It’s like explaining heaven to bears.

Everything is so amazing and nobody is happy

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Everything is so amazing and nobody is happy, Louis C.K. says:

A level editor in Excel

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Darius, who is creating a game for a small game system called the Meggy Jr., has produced a level editor in Excel — which struck me as exactly the kind of thing I’ve done to generate code in a hurry:

This is the level editor I’m using for a roguelike game I’m building for my Meggy Jr. The level is just a 16×16 bitmap array. Each cell of the array is a different color, and each color is a different object. 6 is blue, and it’s a wall; 5 is purple, and it’s a door.

I built this level editor in Excel. I set the cells to be 20×20 pixels, big enough for me to work with conveniently, and I used conditional formatting to map the background fill colors to correspond to the Meggy Jr’s color mapping. If you look to the right, you’ll see that I’m using CONCATENATE statements to pull together the numbers into the bracketed statements that I literally just copy and paste into my array declaration in code. With this system I can make a level in a minute, and drop it into my code with a couple of mouse clicks. It only took me five minutes to build this level editor.

I’m always pulling crap like this: I love using Excel to abstract things out and then generate code for me. I would never do it for a big project, but for my own hacking it saves me a ton of time.

Brown Belt Syndrome

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

In describing Boyd’s OODA loop — combative decision making — Rory Miller (Meditations on Violence) describes brown belt syndrome:

There’s a thing called Hick’s Law which states that the more options you have, the longer it takes to choose one. Makes sense. I call this the Brown Belt syndrome. It’s what happens when you have too many cool ways to win and you get your ass kicked while you are weighing options.

How the Crash Will Reshape America

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

In looking at how the crash will reshape America, Richard Florida asks, how do we move past the bubble, the crash, and an aging, obsolescent model of economic life?

The solution begins with the removal of homeownership from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy. Substantial incentives for homeownership (from tax breaks to artificially low mortgage-interest rates) distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would. That means less spending on medical technology, or software, or alternative energy — the sectors and products that could drive U.S. growth and exports in the coming years. Artificial demand for bigger houses also skews residential patterns, leading to excessive low-density suburban growth. The measures that prop up this demand should be eliminated.

If anything, our government policies should encourage renting, not buying. Homeownership occupies a central place in the American Dream primarily because decades of policy have put it there. A recent study by Grace Wong, an economist at the Wharton School of Business, shows that, controlling for income and demographics, homeowners are no happier than renters, nor do they report lower levels of stress or higher levels of self-esteem.

And while homeownership has some social benefits — a higher level of civic engagement is one — it is costly to the economy. The economist Andrew Oswald has demonstrated that in both the United States and Europe, those places with higher homeownership rates also suffer from higher unemployment. Homeownership, Oswald found, is a more important predictor of unemployment than rates of unionization or the generosity of welfare benefits. Too often, it ties people to declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work — if they can find it — that is a poor match for their interests and abilities.

As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly.

We might also consider not subsidizing corporate debt…

The Unabomber Was Right

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Kevin Kelly argues that the Unabomber was right about some things. He starts by summarizing the Manifesto:

  • Personal freedoms are constrained by society, as they must be.
  • The stronger that technology makes society, the less freedoms.
  • Technology destroys nature, which strengthens technology further.
  • This ratchet of technological self-amplification is stronger than politics.
  • Any attempt to use technology or politics to tame the system only strengthens it.
  • Therefore technological civilization must be destroyed, rather than reformed.
  • Since it cannot be destroyed by tech or politics, humans must push industrial society towards its inevitable end of self-collapse.
  • Then pounce on it when it is down and kill it before it rises again.

Here’s where the Unabomber got it right and wrong:

The ultimate problem is that the paradise the Kaczynski is offering, the solution to civilization so to speak, is the tiny, smoky, dingy, smelly wooden prison cell that absolutely nobody else wants to dwell in. It is a paradise billions are fleeing from. Civilization has its problems but in almost every way it is better than the Unabomber’s shack.

The Unabomber is right that technology is a holistic, self-perpetuating machine. He is wrong to bomb it for many reasons, not the least is that the machine of civilization offers us more actual freedoms than the alternative. There is a cost to run this machine, a cost we are only beginning to reckon with, but so far the gains from this ever enlarging technium outweigh the alternative of no machine at all.

The Perfect Enemy

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Suppose you were a screenwriter, David Foster suggests, writing a movie for a progressive American and European audience, and you needed the perfect enemy for them to rally against:

Oh, and one other thing. The year in which you are given this assignment is 1999.

You will clearly want your enemy to share many of the characteristics of the Nazis — disrespect for human life, wanton cruelty, a love of apocalyptic violence. But to make the enemy particularly awful from the standpoint of your target demographic, you will want to emphasize certain aspects of its belief system.

Members of your demographic usually have strong beliefs about women’s rights. So, your enemy must have a particularly disrespectful belief set, and a violent behavior pattern, towards women. Similarly, your demographic is generally favorable toward gay rights… so the enemy must advocate and practice the suppression, torture, and killing of gays. Your demographic is generally nonreligious and often hostile toward religion… so, make sure the enemy includes a large element of religious fanaticism. Members of your demographic talk a lot about “the children” — so make sure your enemy uses children in particularly cruel ways.

Had you created such an enemy for your screenplay in 1999, you would have surely felt justified in assuming that it would achieve its intended reaction with your target demographic.

It didn’t work out that way, though.

The enemy I’ve described is, of course, the one that we currently face in the form of radical Islamic terrorists and their associated rogue states such as Iran. In real life, not in the movies.

But the members of the demographic I specified have been strangely reluctant to engage in wholehearted condemnation of this enemy (observe, for example, the endless excuse-making, for and even glamorization of, Palestinian terrorism), and even more reluctant to join with their fellow Americans for its defeat. Indeed, it seems that many journalists, entertainers, writers, and college professors have such strong feelings of fear and/or contempt for the majority of their fellow Americans that these greatly overshadow any concerns about terrorist fanatics and terrorist states with nuclear weapons.

I was not expecting him to then cite science-fiction grand-master Poul Anderson:

In Poul Anderson’s 1972 SF story “A Chapter of Revelation,” God stops the movement of the sun across the sky. (Technically, He does this by slowing earth’s rotation period to a value identical with Earth’s year.) The reason for the miracle is to demonstrate His existence to the world, thereby encouraging people to prevent the nuclear war which is about to occur.

Anderson describes the initial reaction to the miracle:

The pilgrimages by torch to the Ganges, by candlelight to the Western Wall and the Mosque of Omar, by furnace-like sunlight to Our Lady of Guadalupe, were not frantic in any true sense of that word. They were awesome: men, women, children by the millions flowing together and becoming a natural force.

A theology student, in conversation with a scientist, offers the view that “…today we’re so far gone into spiritual savagery that nothing except the most primitive, public sort of demonstration could touch us”… to which the scientist replies “As if we’d flunked quantum mechanics and been sent back to roll balls down inclined planes?”

Very soon, people begin to use the miracle to justify whatever belief systems they already hold. A Russian scientist (remember, this was written in 1972) suggests that “The requirement of minimum hypothesis practically forces us to assume that what happened resulted from the application of a technology centuries beyond ours. I find it easy to believe that an advanced civilization, capable of interstellar travel, sent a team to save mankind from the carnage threatened by an imperialism which that society outgrew long ago.”

The Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party suggests that it was all about the intersection of Marxism and ESP: “The mind of man may have tremendous abilities, once liberated from the blinkers of the past. More than a third of the contemporary human race is guided by Marxism; more than half this number has for more than a generation been under the tutelage of wholly correct principles. Thus, the massed concentration of the peace-loving peoples may well have triggered cosmic energies to produce those events which have halted the imperialists in their bloody track and thrown them wallowing back into the basest superstitions.”

In the U.S., extreme right-wing evangelists use the miracle to prove that their vision is the correct one. Radical Black Power advocates do the same: “‘What He really stopped was this rich man’s war that was getting started when the bombs of white Amerika’…he formed the K with his fingers, a gesture that had become his trademark — ’struck our Chinese brothers. The rich man’s war on the poor, the white man’s war on the black, the brown, the yellow, the red.’”

Moralists assert that the miracle was a warning about moral degeneration: “Satan’s agents continue to gnaw like rats at the heart of faith, morality, and society. These atheists, evolutionists, free-love swine, boozers, tobacco smokers, dope fiends still try to hide from us the plain truth of God’s word as revealed in the Holy Bible.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff propose a preemptive attack on China — ”I keep thinking of Jehovah the Thunderer,” says their spokesman, “ — the Crusades — Don John at Lepanto, saving Christendom with sword and cannon..”

Basically, just about everyone responds to the miracle by reinforcing whatever belief systems they already had, and the world slides into further chaos, with riots, coups d’etat, and cross-border military attacks. The story is a beautiful description of confirmation bias on a very large scale.

The attacks on 9/11 were a “primitive, public” demonstration like the stopping of sun in Anderson’s story, albeit a demonstration which was intentionally brutal rather than benign. But even with an enemy that seems custom-designed to be appalling to “progressives,” and with the most primitive and public demonstration imaginable, confirmation bias has, for many proved far stronger than evidence.

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Felix Salmon calls David Li‘s Gaussian copula function the formula that killed Wall Street:

In 2000, while working at JPMorgan Chase, Li published a paper in The Journal of Fixed Income titled “On Default Correlation: A Copula Function Approach.” (In statistics, a copula is used to couple the behavior of two or more variables.) Using some relatively simple math — by Wall Street standards, anyway — Li came up with an ingenious way to model default correlation without even looking at historical default data. Instead, he used market data about the prices of instruments known as credit default swaps.


When the price of a credit default swap goes up, that indicates that default risk has risen. Li’s breakthrough was that instead of waiting to assemble enough historical data about actual defaults, which are rare in the real world, he used historical prices from the CDS market.

All the ratings agencies needed was one variable, correlation, to rate a tranche:

As a result, just about anything could be bundled and turned into a triple-A bond — corporate bonds, bank loans, mortgage-backed securities, whatever you liked. The consequent pools were often known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. You could tranche that pool and create a triple-A security even if none of the components were themselves triple-A. You could even take lower-rated tranches of other CDOs, put them in a pool, and tranche them — an instrument known as a CDO-squared, which at that point was so far removed from any actual underlying bond or loan or mortgage that no one really had a clue what it included. But it didn’t matter. All you needed was Li’s copula function.

The CDS and CDO markets grew together, feeding on each other. At the end of 2001, there was $920 billion in credit default swaps outstanding. By the end of 2007, that number had skyrocketed to more than $62 trillion. The CDO market, which stood at $275 billion in 2000, grew to $4.7 trillion by 2006.

We know it all doesn’t end well:

In finance, you can never reduce risk outright; you can only try to set up a market in which people who don’t want risk sell it to those who do. But in the CDO market, people used the Gaussian copula model to convince themselves they didn’t have any risk at all, when in fact they just didn’t have any risk 99 percent of the time. The other 1 percent of the time they blew up. Those explosions may have been rare, but they could destroy all previous gains, and then some.

Li’s copula function was used to price hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of CDOs filled with mortgages. And because the copula function used CDS prices to calculate correlation, it was forced to confine itself to looking at the period of time when those credit default swaps had been in existence: less than a decade, a period when house prices soared. Naturally, default correlations were very low in those years. But when the mortgage boom ended abruptly and home values started falling across the country, correlations soared.

Managers didn’t understand how the black box worked:

Bankers should have noted that very small changes in their underlying assumptions could result in very large changes in the correlation number. They also should have noticed that the results they were seeing were much less volatile than they should have been — which implied that the risk was being moved elsewhere. Where had the risk gone?

They didn’t know, or didn’t ask. One reason was that the outputs came from “black box” computer models and were hard to subject to a commonsense smell test. Another was that the quants, who should have been more aware of the copula’s weaknesses, weren’t the ones making the big asset-allocation decisions. Their managers, who made the actual calls, lacked the math skills to understand what the models were doing or how they worked. They could, however, understand something as simple as a single correlation number. That was the problem.

Taleb of course proclaims, “Anything that relies on correlation is charlatanism.”

Amish Hackers

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Kevin Kelly says that the Amish have an undeserved reputation for being Luddites who refuse to employ new technology — although the myth is based on some facts:

The Amish, particular the Old Order Amish — the stereotypical Amish depicted on calendars — really are slow to adopt new things. In contemporary society our default is set to say “yes” to new things, and in Old Order Amish societies the default is set to “no.” When new things come around, the Amish automatically start by refusing them. Thus many Old Order Amish have never said yes to automobiles, a policy established when automobiles were new. Instead, they travel around in a buggy hauled by a horse. Some orders require the buggy to be an open carriage (so riders — teenagers, say — are not tempted with a private place to fool around); others will permit closed carriages. Some orders allow tractors on the farm, if the tractors have steel wheels; that way a tractor can’t be “cheated” to drive on the road like a car. Some groups allow farmers to power their combine or threshers with diesel engines, if the engine only drives the threshers but is not self-propelled, so the whole smoking, noisy contraption is pulled by horses. Some sects allow cars, if they are painted entirely black (no chrome) to ease the temptation to upgrade to the latest model.

The Amish make a distinction between using something and owning it:

The Old Order won’t own a pickup truck, but they will ride in one. They won’t get a license, purchase an automobile, pay insurance, and become dependent on the automobile and the industrial-car complex, but they will call a taxi. Since there are more Amish men than farms, many men work at small factories and these guys will hire vans driven by outsiders to take them to and from work. So even the horse and buggy folk will use cars — under their own terms. (Very thrifty, too.)

The Amish also make a distinction between technology at work and at home:

Everywhere I turned there were bearded men covered in saw dust pushing wood through screaming machines. This was not a circle of Renaissance craftsman hand tooling masterpieces. This was a small-time factory cranking out wooden furniture with machine power. But where was the power coming from? Not from windmills.

The boss, Amos (not his real name: the Amish prefer not to call attention to themselves), takes me around to the back where a huge dump-truck-sized diesel generator sits. It’s massive. In addition to a gas engine there is a very large tank, which I learn, stores compressed air. The diesel engine burns fuel to drive the compressor that fills the reservoir with pressure. From the tank a series of high-pressure pipes snake off toward every corner of the factory. A hard rubber flexible hose connects each tool to a pipe. The entire shop runs on compressed air. Every piece of machine is running on pneumatic power. Amos even shows me a pneumatic switch, which you can flick like a light switch, to turn on some paint-drying fans.

The Amish call this pneumatic system “Amish electricity.” At first pneumatics were devised for Amish workshops, but it was seen as so useful that air-power migrated to Amish households. In fact there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to Amish electricity. The retrofitters buy a heavy-duty blender, say, and yank out the electrical motor. They then substitute an air-powered motor of appropriate size, add pneumatic connectors, and bingo, your Amish mom now has a blender in her electrical-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine, and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo each other in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went beyond the 8th grade. They love to show off this air-punk geekiness. And every tinkerer I met claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors which burned out after a few years hard labor. I don’t know if this is true, or just justification, but it was a constant refrain.

I suspect the inferior electrical equipment is inferior because it’s cheap and more-or-less disposable. When it breaks, you buy a new one.

The Amish are full of surprises. For instance, they endorse genetically modified corn:

Why plant GMOs? Well, they reply, corn is susceptible to the corn borer which nibbles away at the bottom of the stem, and occasionally topples over the stalk. Modern 500 horsepower harvesters don’t notice this fall; they just suck up all the material, and spit out the corn into a bin. The Amish harvest their corn semi-manually. It’s cut by a chopper device and then pitched into a thresher. But if there are a lot of stalks that are broken, they have to be pitched by hand. That is a lot of very hard sweaty work. So they plant Bt corn. This genetic mutant carries the genes of the corn borer’s enemy, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin deadly to the corn borer. Fewer stalks are broken, the harvest can be semi-mechanized, and yields are up as well. One elder Amishman whose sons run his farm told me that he’d only help his sons harvest if they planted Bt corn. He said he told them he was too old to be pitching heavy broken corn stalks. The alternative was to purchase expensive, modern harvesting equipment. Which none of them want. So the technology of genetically modified crops allowed the Amish to continue using old, well-proven, debt-free equipment, which accomplished their main goal of keeping the family farm together.

The Amish allowed in telephones — with limits:

Previously, Amish would build a shanty at the end of their driveway that housed an answering machine and phone, to be shared by neighbors. The shanty sheltered the caller in rain and cold, and kept the grid away from the house, but the long walk outside reduced use to essential calls rather than gossip and chatting. Cell phones were a new twist. You got a phone without wires. You could take business calls without being wired to the world. As one Amish guy told me, “What is the difference if I stand in my phone booth with a wireless phone or stand outside with a cell phone. There’s no difference.” Further cell phones were embraced by women who could keep in touch with their far-flung family since they didn’t drive. But the bishops also noticed that the cell phone was so small it could be kept hidden, which was a concern for a people dedicated to discouraging individualism. Ten years ago when I was editing Wired I sent Howard Rheingold to investigate the Amish take on cell phones. His report published in January 1999 makes it clear that the Amish had not decided on cell phones yet. Ten years later they are still deciding, still trying it out. This is how the Amish determine whether technology works for them. Rather than employ the precautionary principle, which says, unless you can prove there is no harm, don’t use new technology, the Amish rely on the enthusiasm of Amish early adopters to try stuff out until they prove harm.

Kelly’s impression is that the Amish lag about 50 years behind the mainstream, with a manner of slow adoption that is instructive:

  • They are selective. They know how to say “no” and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt.
  • They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
  • They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
  • The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.

We don’t search for the smart ones

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Rory Miller was on a search for a missing trail runner:

I tried to encourage the younger members of the team: “It hasn’t been that cold and it’s only been two days. If the guy had the most basic survival gear or any common sense, we’ll find him alive.”

These 14-18 year old kids had more search experience than me. They gave me pitying looks and one said, “Sarge, if he had any common sense he wouldn’t have tried to go cross-country at twilight. We don’t search for the smart ones.”

Later, one of the searchers confided that he wanted to quit, “I’ve been looking at all the people we’ve saved in the last two years and I don’t want any of them breeding. I don’t think saving stupid people is good for society.” Harsh.