We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Mental illness ought not to end your career in many fields, not including airline pilot

In one of my many jobs I had to look over thousands upon thousands of staff records. I learnt many things. Among them was that plenty of those staff who had had significant time off for stress or other mental problems not only returned to their old jobs and performed satisfactorily but went on to success and promotion. Before this I had believed in my heart of hearts that a month off for stress was about the limit. Anything more than that and the person was a write-off in terms of doing any useful work ever again, although it might not be politic to admit it.

Perhaps not by coincidence a month off for stress was about the limit of what had befallen anyone I knew well enough to be told about it. Since I began to think more deeply about this issue I have twigged that other people I know have almost certainly had bouts of mental illness they did not make public. My impression is that the libertarian and intellectual types likely to be reading this are more likely than average to have experienced mental illness.

There is a lot to agree with in what the Mental Health Foundation says about mental illness – it is common, most people who experience it either get better or can manage it, it need not be a barrier to success in many fields, public fear of the mentally ill is out of all proportion to the risk they actually present.

I just wish they wouldn’t over-egg the pudding. These words from the Mental Health Foundation article I linked to above are typically evasive:

Many people believe that people with mental ill health are violent and dangerous, when in fact they are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than harming other people.

Pardon me, but the fact that the mentally ill are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves than of harming other people says nothing whatsoever about the absolute level of risk that they will harm other people.

Annoyingly, the Mental Health Foundation didn’t have to raise my hackles by indulging in this common evasion. The absolute risk that a mentally ill person will attack you is very low. It is higher than the risk that a non-mentally ill person will attack you, but only slightly. I don’t have the numbers to hand, but I have seen them and that is the position. Why the Mental Health Foundation cannot just show some confidence in their own position and give the numbers I do not know, unless it is that to acknowledge the obvious truth that, yes, a very small minority of mentally ill people really can be dangerous would mess up their nice simple victimhood and “anti-discrimination” agenda.

As a libertarian, I think all forms of discrimination should be legal, including those I find irrational or even morally abhorrent, but put that aside. The link correctly says,

The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate directly or indirectly against people with mental health problems in public services and functions, access to premises, work, education, associations and transport.

It is not illegal to discriminate against people with mental health problems when appointing someone to a job, promoting them, or firing them. There is a movement afoot that it ought to be. Many compassionate people, correctly perceiving that discrimination against those who are suffering or have suffered mental illness is often irrational and hard-hearted, are being edged towards supporting a move to make it a crime.

That movement had a setback the other day. A JetBlue pilot suffered a meltdown and had to be restrained by passengers at the request of the co-pilot, who had locked him out of the cabin. Scary. Also memorable and quotable in debate.

Wishing the pilot well for the future is not incompatible with a firm belief that it would be irresponsible to allow him back at the controls of an airliner. There are also a good many less dramatic situations in which an employee being mentally ill ought justly to be grounds for reassignment or dismissal. A pretence this is not so harms the interests of mentally ill people. There is little an organisation fears more than taking on an employee who turns out to be “trouble” and there are good reasons for this fear. That was another thing I learnt from my thousands upon thousands of personnel records. One came to dread the thick files; the ones trailing stapled-on appendices and confidential notes directing you to yet other files; files that bulged with long, messy, sad stories of warnings and final warnings and appeals and getting the union involved and even the union giving up and offloading the troublemaker onto some other department only for it all to start up again.

If ever discrimination on the grounds of mental illness does become illegal, or even publicly unacceptable, be sure it will continue to be practised in secret – and the secrecy will make it more unfair. Instead of basing their assessment of suitability on the plain answers to plain questions in application forms, they will go by code words, or a quiet (and often slanderous) word in confidence at the canteen.

The Polywell Fusion technology marches on

EMC2, the company founded to advance Dr. Bussard’s fusion technology to a practical state, has been flying so under the radar that you really have to hunt to find out what is going on. They are still moving ahead and the technology has not hit any major road blocks that I have been able to find out about. The US Navy ONR is still funding them and is the reason for keeping the profile low. This bit on Wikipedia is the only bit of really current news I have been able to find:

During 4Q of 2011, EMC2 modified the electron injectors to increase the plasma heating. The higher plasma density in WB-8 prompted the need for higher heating power. They plan to operate WB-8 in high beta regime with the modified electron injectors during 1Q of 2012.

This game is still afoot.

Samizdata quote of the day

This is the truth of the Wizengamot: Many are nobles, many are wealthy magnates of business, a few came by their status in other ways. Some of them are stupid. Most are shrewd in the realms of business and politics, but their shrewdness is circumscribed. Almost none have walked the path of a powerful wizard. They have not read through ancient books, scrutinized old scrolls, searching for truths too powerful to walk openly and disguised in conundrums, hunting for true magic among a hundred fantastic fairy tales. When they are not looking at a contract of debt, they abandon what shrewdness they possess and relax with some comfortable nonsense. […] They know […] that a powerful wizard must learn to distinguish the truth among a hundred plausible lies. But it has not occurred to them that they might do the same.

– Eliezer Yudkowsky, in chapter 81 of the brilliant fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, on how those who wield political power are too caught up in their power games to take the time to obtain real knowlege. (For “powerful wizard” I read engineer, hacker, scientist, mathematician, Austrian economist, Samizdatista, etc.)

Friedrich Hayek on why freedom does it better

Have any of us mentioned here that Friedrich Hayek died exactly twenty years plus one week ago, i.e. on Friday March 23rd 1992? I believe not.

Sam Bowman, in a posting on March 23rd 2012, ensured that the ASI Blog was responsible for no such omission. He marked the occasion with a couple of Hayek quotes, from The Constitution of Liberty.

I particularly liked the second one:

It is because freedom means the renunciation of direct control of individual efforts that a free society can make use of so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.

One of the contrasts in the contemporary world that I keep banging on about here is how different the designing and making of high tech gadgetry (which still benefits – and almost miraculously so – from exactly the sort of dispersed knowledge and dispersed intelligence that Hayek was talking about) is from the management of the world’s financial system (the higher reaches of which are notorious for depending on the good judgement of a tiny few supposedly wise but actually all too fallible political appointees).

As Sam Bowman said, a week ago:

Hayek died twenty years ago today. His profound insights into economics and social philosophy might be more important than ever.

Indeed they might.

Other journalists are openly accusing Robert Fisk of making things up

Damian Thompson at the Telegraph is circumspect, but he quotes Jamie Dettmer, former war correspondent for the Times, who is not:

It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it. I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.

Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”

It is noticeable that this collegiate solidarity only fractured when Fisk himself offended against it, by insulting fellow journalists.

(Via Tim Blair, also of the Telegraph, but a different one.)

How perceptions of presidents might have been different

Oh, the joys of counterfactual history:

“Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, inserted the United States into World War I. That was a war that the United States could easily have avoided. Moreover, had the U.S. government avoided World War I, the treaty that ended the war would not likely have been so lopsided. The Versailles Treaty’s punitive terms on Germany, as Keynes predicted in 1919, helped set the stage for World War II. So it is reasonable to think that had the United States not entered World War I, there might not have been a World War II. Yet, despite his major blunder and more likely, because of his major blunder, which caused over 100,000 Americans to die in World War I, Wilson is often thought of as a great president.”

“The danger is that modern presidents understand these incentives. Those who want peace should take historians’ ratings of presidents seriously. Beyond that, we should stop celebrating, and try to persuade historians to stop celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn’t happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted. If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.”

Thanks to EconLog for the link.

Of course – and this is going to get debate going – if the US had not entered WW1, how do we really know what would or would not have happened several years hence? What configuration of forces and political developments would have arisen? There is simply no way anyone can know for sure.

The right to be offensive and wrong

One of the things that any reasonably consistent defender of freedom realises is that freedom means the freedom to do or say stupid, offensive or silly things. (A key proviso, of course, being the freedom to do that so long as you are not imposing your views on others, such as by entering private property and spraying graffiti on the walls, or posting offensive comments on a privately run blog such as this in violation of the blog-owner’s house rules). The recent case of Liam Stacey, a young man jailed for up to 56 days for making offensive comments about the Bolton footballer, Fabrice Muamba, is a particularly bad case.

Mr Muamba is a black footballer who, over a week ago, suffered a heart attack during a football match. He had to be rushed to hospital and is in a critical condition, but it is hoped he will recover. His case has touched the hearts of even the most partisan supporters of the game; people from across the sport, not just in this country, have posted messages of support. Some might sneer that this is typical sentimental guff, but I disagree and it seems genuinely meant and rather a good reflection on a game that often gets its share of abuse.

Now this young student who used Twitter to make crass remarks is obviously an idiot. But it seems to me to be utterly nonsensical to suggest that he should be punished for it by the law. (We don’t have big enough jails to hold all the bigots in this country, let alone anywhere else). He has not, as far as I can tell, incited violence against Mr Muamba or his family and friends. If he had done that, then there might be more of a case.

And where exactly are we going to draw the line? Those internet users who post messages hoping for the death of Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher or other political figures – are they going to be prosecuted? (I can think of a few people who might be in quite serious trouble on that score). Should the odious Baroness Tonge, whom I denounced for her anti-semitic remarks the other day, be slung in jail? (No). Should those who preach that non-believers in some god or other will burn in hell be put away? Should people who send jokes to friends and inadvertently offend someone be sent to jail? (I offended someone once many years ago this way and got carpeted by my then boss, to my shame). What about stand-up comedians like Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr who say nasty things, such as about the Queen, Scotsmen or children with Down’s Syndrome? I personally think these “jokes” are bloody awful but I certainly don’t think people should be sent to the slammer. Instead, we just make sure we don’t pay to watch these characters again.

Of course, in making the case for freedom of speech for yobs, idiots and bigots, it is important to be crystal clear that tolerance for such behaviour is not the same as approval of it. We tolerate that which we do not ourselves approve. There is no doubt that this rather ignorant and unpleasant young man has learned a painful lesson, but it would have been far better had this student learned the perils of making unpleasant comments not by going to jail – places which should be occupied by genuine criminals such as robbers and rapists – but by incurring the ridicule and contempt of those who rightly regard racism and bigotry with scorn.

Defending liberty, if it means anything, means defending the freedoms of those you might personally regard as repulsive. Being a libertarian sometimes demands that we take such a stand, however uncomfortable.

Samizdata quote of the day

Two weeks before the next election, turn off all coal-fired power stations and give the American public a good hard look at their long bleak future.

– commenter “old44” (March 28 5.14am) on a posting at WUWT entitled New EPA rule will block all new coal-electric  generation

Fit and proper

Unlike terrestrial radio transmissions, satellite transmissions come from a point source in the sky. One must point their antenna in the right direction to receive such signals. Different people may launch satellites in different positions and broadcast without interference. The case for licensing radio spectrum is already weak. There can be no argument for the need for a third party to license satellite radio spectrum.

In satellite television, the satellites are privately owned and launched by private space vehicles.

And yet in the UK one needs a broadcasting license from Ofcom to squirt photons encoded with television signals towards the Earth from space.

In addition, Ofcom gets to decide who is “fit and proper” to hold such a license. There is no definition of “fit and proper”. This is the rule of the whim of bureaucrats.

John Carter

The movie was, as I had expected, a great deal of fun. It was also worlds better than the also admittedly fun comics based movies that have become so popular. It was Science Fiction of the Golden Age, swords and ray guns and a gorgeous and scantily clad Martian princess… what is there not to like?

There are two technical issues I had, which are perhaps more due to being true to Edgar Rice Burroughs than to being careless. The two moons of Mars are in very different orbits and do not appear that large and in any case Deimos is not quite round. Also, with 1/3 Earth gravity, you would indeed be able to do some rather amazing leaps, but not quite the altitudes and distances John made in his regular rescues of the Princess. Again, to be fair, even I could probably make a standing jump to a window on the second level of a building; an Olympic high jumper could probably make the roof of a 3 story building.

I loved their Dejah Thoris. She was everything you could imagine in a Burroughs Martian Princess. Drop dead gorgeous, athletic, a deadly swords-woman and a voice like Bettany Hughes. The more I think about it, Bettany would make a rather good Dejah in real life. I wonder what she is like with a sword?

I thought it appropriate that a true Southern man like John Carter quickly got himself a dawg. And not just any dawg, but the god damndest ugliest old houndog you ever did see.

So lets see: great CGI? check. Beautiful, scantily clad warrior Princess? check. Heroic and dashing hero who just wants to stay out of other people’s fights but can’t? check. Great action scenes? check. Swords, Ray guns and supertechnology? check. An ancient race of super-scientists trying to run worlds? check. Touching love story? check. Brilliant panoramas? check. An Edgar Rice Burroughs plot and adventure with interesting characters? check. Fascinating and alien aliens? Yep.

So why the hell do the reviewers hate it? Is it a statement about their lack of education beyond feminist studies, Foucaultian historical and Marxist Class Analysis? Do they actually teach anything useful in colleges these days?

Two London towers

Things seem to be a bit quiet here this weekend, so here’s a picture I took earlier this evening:


Click to get it bigger.

This is not Photoshopped. That’s exactly what came out of my camera when I got home.

What it is is a picture of the Shard, taken by me from the front seat of a D(ocklands) L(ight) R(ailway) automated train, as the train approached its central London terminus, which is near to the Tower of London.

Taking photos through train windows is, as all photographers know, fraught with peril, because of all those stupid reflections in the glass of the window that you inevitably get, of such things as lights inside the train. But this time, what was reflected in the window was a tower on the other side of the train, namely the Gherkin. And since the train was going very slowly at the time, I was able to line the two towers up with each other.

Well, I like it.

Samizdata quote of the day

Last year, physicists discovered that red wine can turn certain materials into superconductors. Now they’ve found that Beaujolais works best and think they know why.

The Physics arXiv Blog (with thanks to the ever alert Instapundit – how does he keep doing it?)