It is the safest force option available

July 19th, 2019

Rick Smith, CEO of Taser (now Axon Enterprises), does an ask-me-anything on Reddit and surprises the crowd by answering their questions:

Can you please explain why Taser sues medical examiners who cite tasers as a cause of death? And why they push junk science “excited delirium” (a once-obscure medically-unsupported cause of death that, though it predates Taser, has been heavily pushed by the company) explanations rather than the obvious (being electrocuted to death)?

Great question.

First, there is a misperception that TASER sued medical examiners personally—that somehow we’d get monetary damages from them. This could not be further from the truth. The case you are referring to happened in Ohio, where a medical examiner listed the TASER as a cause of death in two different cases. As a result of that ruling, several officers were charged criminally, and many were sued in civil court.

Here’s the problem: there was no supporting evidence that the TASER caused these deaths, and there was ample evidence of other causes of death. In Ohio, the procedure for challenging a medical opinion is to file a challenge in the court—which is exactly what we did. Far from being a spurious claim, we prevailed in court. The judge ruled that the medical examiner had no scientific evidence to support their findings, and the court ordered the TASER be stricken from the cause of death.

I want to be crystal clear: there was never any risk of that medical examiner, or any other, having to pay us a dime. What we wanted was a court to assess the truth of their findings—and that’s what happened. Medical examiners are public officials, and as with any public official, medical examiners have to be able to support their findings with scientific evidence, not personal or political beliefs. We stood up to help defend the officers involved in those incidents and to ensure that medical findings are accurate and supported by science.

Regarding your assertion that electrocution via a TASER is “obvious,” this is not accurate. Electrocution refers to when an electric current passes across the heart and causes it to go into ventricular fibrillation. This is an immediate phenomenon, and the person will lose consciousness within a few seconds. In most cases where there is a death in custody, electrocution can be ruled out by two facts: first, the electrical pathway would need to have the darts in the chest with a current pathway across the heart, and second, the collapse would be immediate. In the vast majority of cases, electrocution can be ruled out because these factors are not present.

We then need to look at other factors involved in these cases. Each year, over 325,000 people die of sudden cardiac death in the U.S. (the #1 cause of death), and another 70,000 people die of drug overdoses. A top trigger for sudden cardiac death is physical exertion and stress (one reason why you see cardiac defibrillators in health clubs). It is hard to imagine a more extreme physical stress and exertion than fighting with the police—and in many cases, people are also under the stress of toxic doses of stimulants like methamphetamines, PCP, or cocaine.

Of course, we continue to do extensive research into how to maximize both the safety and effectiveness of TASER devices. But we also will challenge unsupported claims to ensure the public record is based upon solid science.

Is it really reasonable to suggest that in all 33 wrongful death cases, the person still would have died if they hadn’t been tased?

Yes, there have been cases where the effects of the TASER directly caused a death. There have been a number of fatal injuries related to falls (approximately 15-20) and a number of cases where the energy from a TASER discharge caused combustion of a flammable fluid (approximately 5 cases). So, I do not dispute that TASER weapons have caused deaths.

That said, much of the speculation about direct cardiac risks are not accurate. Our intuitions tend to make us believe that electricity is dangerous. So it’s very difficult to believe that a TASER weapon didn’t cause a death when it happens in an incident where one was used.

However, if you look at the timeline and fact patterns in cases where a subject dies in police custody and there was no TASER used, they tend to follow a similar pattern to the ones in which TASERs are used. In most cases, the fact patterns can rule out a direct cardiac stimulation of VF (see my other answer for details). We then need to look at how much the stress of the TASER contributed to the overall physiologic stress on the individual. We have done several studies in this space, measuring stress either by cortisol levels or by measuring the generation of lactic acid in the bloodstream.

In both cases, the level of physiologic stress caused by a TASER exposure was similar to or less than the pain and stress from pepper spray or physical exertion (such as running or wrestling). It is simply not possible to say that the TASER weapon had no impact, or that the situation would have ended differently if the TASER had not been used. But we can say that, based upon every measure of stress or injury I have seen to date, the risks associated with TASER weapon use are lower than just about every other use-of-force option available today.

I have been hit with a TASER seven times myself, and millions of police officers have been exposed to TASER hits in training with only limited reports of injuries, mostly related to falls. So, while I cannot assure that the TASER weapon is 100 percent safe, I can say I believe it is the safest force option available. And, if the police are ever called to an incident involving one of my family members who becomes violent, I hope they would use the TASER rather than any other force option (once force becomes necessary).

Have you tested the effects of Tasers on people with cardiac abnormalities or other health issues, which may magnify the effects of being hit by a Taser?

Not in people… but in various animal models.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16904553
http://www.aele.org/uk_taser_eval_2006.pdf

It was great, except it neatly sidestepped being shocked as a contributor to cardiovascular stress. Fighting with police and pcp will contribute but I’d imagine every muscle in your body seizing uncontrollably isn’t exactly a non factor.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236947.pdf
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19019594

“Conducted electrical weapons were not more activating of the human stress response than other uses of force.”

Net: they do cause stress, but the studies so far suggest the level of stress is similar or lower than other force options such as physical force

Any comment on a recent NPR study that says the police find the taser less effective than the company claims?

https://www.npr.org/2019/06/27/729922975/despite-widespread-use-police-rate-tasers-as-less-effective-than-believed

Thanks for the question. I think the point of my book “The End of Killing” is, in some ways, this exact point: TASER weapons are not yet as reliable as firearms. That’s the moonshot for the next 10 years. However, today they are already the most effective and reliable non/less-lethal weapons available.

I believe we are very transparent about their effectiveness and limitations. We have entire segments of our training focused on what can go wrong and how to reduce ineffective uses. That said, I want to address your question specifically, and for simplicity and speed, I am going to do something we never get to do: publish exactly what we sent to NPR in our response to their questions. Unfortunately, I don’t think most of this made it into the final story, but without further ado:

The “effectiveness” of TASER® Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs) cannot be discussed without first defining relative parameters. When reviewing the “effectiveness” of TASER CEWs at a particular agency, one must ask how the agency is defining effectiveness, how the agency is tracking CEW use, whether the agency is including subject compliance with no deployment (display, LASER or arc only), and in probe deployments, whether the agency is documenting the reason why the deployment is classified as ineffective (missed probe, no completed circuit, etc.). Unfortunately, the answers to these questions vary from agency to agency, as does tracking of CEW deployments, resulting in varying and inaccurate “effectiveness” rates.

At the very least, effectiveness should be defined in a manner that encompasses all possible uses of a TASER CEW: probe deployments, drive stuns and display only (to include LASER and arc display). For example, full neuro-muscular incapacitation (NMI) would not apply if a CEW is only displayed and not deployed. A broader definition which accounts for the intended purpose of CEWs in any mode – to gain the subject’s compliance or control – is more appropriate.

The use of CEWs must also be consistently reported to produce reliable results. For example, very few U.S. agencies consider the mere display of a CEW to be a “use of force” even though that display may result in the subject’s compliance. As a result, those display only CEW uses are not reported and are not included in an agency’s CEW effectiveness numbers. Agencies in other countries, on the other hand, often do include “display only” CEW uses in their use of force reports and report very high compliance rates for those uses. As one example, England and Wales reported that between April 2017 and March 2018, 85% of CEWs uses were “display only” and did not require probe deployment or drive stun.

CEW reporting should also take into account the conditions that must be met for probe deployments to have the potential to cause NMI. These required conditions include a completed circuit and sufficient muscle mass (probe spread). If there is no completed circuit (one or two missed probes), there is no potential for NMI without taking additional steps. All users are trained on these required conditions as well as potential causes of not achieving NMI. By including the reasons a deployment did not achieve NMI, an agency can determine if it was caused by environmental or situational factors versus a weapon error, which can guide what action is needed to increase the chance of obtaining NMI (additional officer training or weapon service).

TASER 7, X2 and X26P CEWs

TASER CEWs are the most studied less lethal tool on an officer’s belt with more than 800 reports, abstracts and studies on the safety and effectiveness of TASER weapons. These studies, along with nearly 4 million field deployments over 25 years, establish they are the most safe and effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement. In fact, it is estimated that TASER CEWs have saved more than 200,000 lives. This figure is derived from Dr. Alexander Eastman’s 2008 research wherein he concluded that 5.4% of the CEW deployments included in his study clearly prevented the use of lethal force, as well as the known number of TASER deployments over the course of the company’s history.

Notwithstanding this wealth of research confirming the safety and effectiveness of TASER CEWs, Axon remains committed to continuous product development that keeps the needs of our customers and the communities they serve top-of-mind. Through extensive voice-of-customer sessions, including police ride-alongs to experience the realities of their jobs firsthand, Axon employees gain insight into customer needs, as well as opportunities for improvement and pain points. Axon engineers are also constantly striving to improve our products with new inventions and developments that may not have been possible just a few years ago. As technology improves, so do our products.

The TASER 7 is the result of Axon’s commitment to develop new, innovative products and improve its existing products. Some of those developments sought to address common reasons why a CEW may not cause NMI, including missed probes, clothing disconnects and insufficient probe spreads. The TASER 7 provides significant changes to range deployments by offering two re-designed cartridge options: the Close Quarters Cartridge with a 12-degree probe spread is optimized to be deployed at a distance of 4 to 12 feet, and the Standoff Cartridge with an 3.5-degree probe spread is optimized to be deployed between 11.5 and 22 feet. The redesigned cartridge also has an improved probe design and increased kinetic energy to provide better connection to the target at angles and through thick clothing.

Assuming all conditions are met, a TASER CEW’s ability to cause NMI in probe mode is determined by its waveform, which is described using three main parameters: pulses per second, pulse duration and charge. All three parameters contribute to a CEW’s ability to cause NMI, and must be considered together. Generally speaking, increasing the pulses per second and charge, and decreasing pulse duration, increases the ability to cause NMI.

When testing its CEWs for effectiveness, Axon uses the human motivation protocol which is published and peer-reviewed. That testing includes a panel of law enforcement and medical experts evaluating whether and to what extent the volunteer experiences NMI, which helps the company determine the effectiveness of a particular CEW model or waveform. All testing completed by Axon indicates the X2 and X26P reliably produce NMI when all conditions are met and, in fact, provide increased effectiveness through charge metering. The X2 also increases the potential for achieving NMI by providing a second shot in the event the first deployment is unsuccessful.

Have you ever felt that police over-use their Taser specifically because it is non-lethal?

This is certainly a concern. It’s one of the reasons we built a recording device called the “dataport” into the original TASER M26 in 1999 and every model since then. The dataport records every trigger pull, so we can determine how many times an officer used a TASER weapon and allow agencies to monitor for overuse. It’s also why we developed the TASERCam (a camera mounted on the TASER), and ultimately why we developed body cameras.

Because a TASER weapon causes far less injury than a firearm, it is certainly more likely to be used. In most cases, this is a good thing, because the risk of injury from a TASER is about 3 injuries per 1,000 uses—which is far less than for other force options such as batons (about 780 injuries per 1,000 uses). So, generally speaking, if officers are using a TASER instead of a firearm, baton, punch, or other physical force, it’s a move in the right direction because it reduces risk of injuries.

The risk is that officers use the TASER instead of patience and verbal skills. This is a phenomenon some call “TASER dependence,” where officers over-rely on the TASER weapon and escalate to use force when they shouldn’t. I believe this is where body cameras can play a huge role in ensuring that agencies can review the specifics of every TASER weapon use and deter overuse. It’s also why we’re using VR technology to build trainings specifically designed to help officers de-escalate tough situations.

Nothing is truly “non-lethal”. At best it’s “less-lethal”.

This one’s worth diving into, and again, forgive the length. Usually I bore my family with these discussions, so it’s actually a treat to nerd out about it at length on Reddit.

Here’s what I think: the terms “non-lethal,” “less-lethal,” and “less-than-lethal” are all terms for the exact same thing—weapons that are designed to deter or stop a threat without killing the target. Sometimes people think these terms describe varying levels of danger, when they don’t—as if a less-lethal weapon was a more dangerous category than a non-lethal weapon. This is a false dichotomy.

These terms are fundamentally synonyms used to describe one concept: weapons that are designed to achieve their effects without causing fatalities as an intended effect. Less-lethal is the term used in policing. I often use non-lethal in writing and in public, since it is the simplest, most widespread label. It remains the term of choice in both academia and the military. The term “non-lethal” describes the intent of weapons that are designed to achieve their effects with a low probability of death or serious damage. However, given the very nature of weaponry and the context in which it’s being used, this risk can never become zero.

As non-lethal weapons became widely adopted by law enforcement, the language used to describe them came under much more intensive legal scrutiny, especially in cases in which police departments were sued for the alleged misuse of those weapons. While the phrase “non-lethal” might get the point across in plain English, it can be a troubling term in a court of law. If one interprets “non-lethal weapon” to mean a weapon that will never cause death, it sets a very high bar. That led to the adoption of different terminology, such as “less-lethal” or “less-than-lethal.”

But as I just noted at the beginning, these terms don’t correspond to any meaningful differences between weapons. In this case, I believe that the clearest distinction is also the most meaningful: the one between lethal weapons (those specifically designed to kill as an intended effect) and non-lethal weapons (those designed to avoid killing, which nevertheless carry some level of risk). That’s the distinction I use, and I find it’s the simplest one.

What’s your opinion about police using tasers as compliance weapons? I’m not talking about drive stun — I’m talking about repeated discharging of the weapon on someone who was already tasered once. I’ve seen quite a few videos where police say, “Roll over (or do X) or else you’re gonna get it again!” after the suspect has been shot once and is already on the ground.

I understand that for a rural officer dealing with an armed man, this is probably warranted and preferable to shooting him. But so many times, I see people who are unarmed and are merely non-compliant (for example, they’re already on the ground but just not rolling over). Taser is meant to incapacitate, and the suspects are already incapacitated — and yet the officer applies it again and again as a compliance tool. Is this how taser should be used? Is this how officers are trained?

This one is, indeed, complicated, as it depends a lot on the circumstances and level of threat perceived. In general, we train that officers should move quickly to rapidly disarm and restrain the subject and to minimize the number of TASER applications. Each subsequent application of a TASER discharge is its own use of force and needs to be justifiable based on the facts and circumstances of each case at the moment the decision was made to apply another discharge. There certainly have been cases where the first TASER discharge was found justifiable, but continued discharges were found unjustifiable.

I’m a current LEO and our department is the only one in the county (on top of being the largest in the county) who dont carry and use tasers. We usually hear the same talk of them being too expensive, too aggressive looking, and them possibly being abused if we got them. I think the town manager is currently for them, but our chief seems to be very much against them. I think we might get body cameras before we actually get tasers.

What are some things we could say to change their minds?

Here are some stats that might help you make your case: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/232215.pdf. But sometimes stories are more powerful than statistics. Here’s a true story, which, full disclosure, I’m cribbing from my book (hence the italics), but which I think could help:

A highway patrolman is cruising on the interstate when an urgent call comes over his car radio: there’s a disturbance at a residence involving a woman who’s belligerent, possibly intoxicated, and armed. The address is a five-minute drive away, so the officer radios back that he’s en route. He puts on his sirens and speeds to the destination.

When he arrives, two other officers are already at the scene, a darkened, one-story house. The other officers are posted at either side of the screen door, their handguns drawn at their sides. The highway patrolman draws his handgun, edges up to a safe distance, and tries to communicate with the woman through the screen. From the radio dispatcher, the two officers already on the scene, and his communication with the woman, he’s able to piece together the story: she’s recently had two children removed from her care by the Florida Department of Children and Families, she’s deeply distraught, and she’s talking about hurting herself.

In the moment, the cop makes a judgment. He looks at the house, hears the grief in the woman’s voice, and realizes that she isn’t homicidal—she’s suicidal. She is attempting what is known as suicide by cop. She would leave the police no choice but to shoot her. Sensing this, the patrolman holsters his handgun and reaches for his TASER instead.

Seconds later, the woman kicks open the screen door, brandishing butcher knives in each hand. The patrolman fires his TASER device, hitting the woman in the chest and rendering her immobile on the ground. He and the two other officers are able to remove the knives from her clenched hands and to handcuff her without resistance. As they walked her to a waiting police car, one of the officers hears her mumble, “I’m sorry.”

Soon after, the woman’s family members arrive on the scene. Seeing the police cars with their lights flashing and an ambulance that has been called to perform a medical evaluation, they think that the woman has been shot dead. In statements given to the police, they confirm that the woman had discussed her plans to provoke a police officer into shooting her. They aren’t surprised that she has gone through with it; they are surprised that she is still alive.

The story has a postscript, and it takes place several years later. The patrolman who fired the TASER weapon is eating at a local restaurant, when he recognizes one of the servers: it is the woman whose attempt at suicide by cop had failed on that April night, because one of the responding officers was equipped with a non-lethal weapon. The woman recognizes the patrolman, too. She points him out to another employee and says, “See that guy? He saved my life.”

The story of a patrolman who avoided suicide by cop is real. It happened and the police officer shared it with me. Suicide by cop (SBC) is a real phenomenon—and it illustrates just how perverse incentives and behaviors can become when police officers have the ability to take a life. The term goes back to the 1950s, and by one estimate, almost 10 percent of the police shootings that happen every year are attempts at suicide by cop. Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical and police psychologist, notes that while some incidents evolve in the moment into suicide by cop shootings, many are planned: “While some SBC incidents arise spontaneously out of the anger and panic of these situations, a good number of them appear to be planned, as shown by the fact that in nearly a third of SBC cases investigators find a suicide note that apologizes to the police for deliberately drawing their fire.”

I’ve read some opinions/studies that claim less than lethal weapons increase escalation and police use it instead of de-escalating with words or physical force and not instead of using their gun. Since a taser, or most less lethal weapons, can kill this is obviously not a good thing.

I for one am quite glad the police here don’t carry tasers and most if not all less lethal weapons are illegal for the general public. But on the other hand we don’t have the same issue with gun violence that the US has.

What’s your view of this?

While there is some risk that having less dangerous weapons might lead to more frequent usage, this argument taken to the extreme would conclude that we should only give police officers guns and nothing else. But we give police pepper spray and batons, because even if they are more likely to be used, we believe that they are preferable to firing a gun. We want police to have options—not just to depend on the firearm as their instrument of first and only resort.

Even compared to traditional force tactics like punches, baton strikes, etc., the TASER weapon has a far lower injury rate. (See this study from the Department of Justice. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/232215.pdf.) If your local police do not have the TASER weapon as an option, the risk of them injuring someone is significantly higher. That’s one reason that every constabulary in the United Kingdom now uses TASER weapons—and the UK is probably at the far end of the spectrum in terms of gun violence compared to the U.S.

Didn’t Axon Enterprises created facial recognition software for use by the police? Did the project really stop, or is it on pause for the moment? Would greater transparency around the process help the public understand the dangers to law enforcement’s use of such technology, particularly given its various constraints and its racist applications? Could you speak to the use of FRT (facial rec technology) by police and why Axon started created the software to be deployed in things like body-worn cameras in the first place? Did no one at Axon notice that they were potentially creating a mass surveillance system?

I really appreciate the question. We specifically have not developed facial recognition software to run on a body camera.

Simply put, the accuracy of the technology—particularly disparities in accuracy across different ethnicities—is highly questionable today. Ultimately, I think the bias problems will be solved, at which point in time we will need to think hard about the appropriateness and constitutionality of using facial recognition on body cameras. We’ll need to decide as a society whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Today, my view is that the benefits do not outweigh the costs.

That said, we are continuing to monitor developments in the facial recognition space, because there’s real potential there to help improve public safety. We’re also working together with an AI ethics advisory board we created before deploying any solutions in this space. Happy to say more if have follow-up questions, but if you want to learn more about all that, you can go here: https://www.axon.com/company/news/responsible-ai. And for something more recent, here: https://www.axon.com/company/news/ai-ethics-board-report.

I appreciate tasers in principle as less-lethal options but I worry about head injuries when I see tasered subjects fall. Has there been any research done in that area?

That’s a meaningful question as injuries from falls are likely the greatest risk. I currently estimate the risk on the order of about 1 fatal fall injury per 200,000 uses (i.e., 20 cases in 4 million field uses). The primary way to reduce the risk is through training—to avoid using a TASER weapon on people at elevated risk from falls. This includes people running, people who are at elevated heights, or who are operating a vehicle of some type. Unfortunately, the act of incapacitation itself does carry the risk of an uncontrolled fall, and while we try to mitigate that risk as best we can, it’s something we can reduce but not eliminate entirely.

Rick, I have read that tasers made for Police use have a setting called drive stun, which is designed to inflict pain in order to Force compliance. this sounds an awful lot like a torture device to me, what sorts of precautions are you considering to keep this from being abused?

From Wikipedia: A Las Vegas police document says “The Drive Stun causes significant localized pain in the area touched by the Taser, but does not have a significant effect on the central nervous system. The Drive Stun does not incapacitate a subject but may assist in taking a subject into custody.”[22] The UCLA Taser incident[23] and the University of Florida Taser incident[24] involved university police officers using their Taser’s “Drive Stun” capability (referred to as a “contact tase” in the University of Florida Offense Report).

Great question. One of the key limitations of today’s TASER weapons is that they only have 1 or 2 shots. So, if the officer deploys the weapon and misses the target and the subject attacks the officer, the officer can press the front of the weapon directly against the body of the subject and it will deliver an electric jolt from the front of the device. This is called a “Drive Stun” as the user must physically push the front of the weapon against the subject.

When we originally designed the device, this was a fall-back defensive measure. However, some agencies had policies where they would remove the cartridge from the front of the weapon and only use the front of the device to deliver a “drive stun.” Because it did not involve firing the darts, some agencies felt this was a lower use-of-force than firing the darts.

What we have seen in the field is that the use of the weapon in drive stun does not cause incapacitation, but rather only pain. So, most agencies have moved away from using the drive stun as a stand-alone capability. In our training guidelines, we recommend against using the drive stun as a primary use case because it is less effective than using the darts.

One powerful positive aspect of the drive stun: our newer weapons (X2 and TASER 7) allow the operator to display a warning arc across the front of the weapon without unloading the cartridges. In the UK, agencies have seen over 80% of situations resolved only by showing the arc display—which means they avoided the need to fire the darts or use any force other than the display of the electric arc.

Much of our training now focuses on how to de-escalate any situation, either through verbal skills or through the display of the arc in attempts to attain cooperation without deploying force. We have also recently deployed VR based training to teach officers better empathy for persons suffering from mental health issues such as autism or schizophrenia. (To see more about this, check out: https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/virtual-reality-training-tech-takes-cops-directly-minds/story?id=63125741)

On the topic of avoiding abuse, this was the primary driver for us to create body cameras—to record how police officers were using TASER weapons precisely to deter abuse, and hold officers accountable for their use. I’ll say more about that shortly!

What’s your view on Tranq darts as they seem to be your prime competitor?

Okay, I have to go long on this, because it’s a subject I’ve spent a lot of time on. So my TLDR response, for those who don’t want all the shop talk: I haven’t seen tranquilizer darts deployed by police or military anywhere in the world to date. They get a lot of play in Hollywood movies, but in the real world, I have only seen them used on animals.

The longer answer: If you want to stop someone without requiring physical injury, the best way to do it is to interfere with their command and control system—their nervous system. For all its complexity, the motor nervous system functions via two general mechanisms: electrical and chemical.

On the chemical front, we can think of nerve cells a bit like biological transistors. They switch on and off, passing information around the body. Where two nerve cells meet, the junction is called a synapse. At the synapse, chemicals are released from one nerve cell, and those chemicals stimulate the nerve cell on the other side. We can influence the nervous system through various chemicals, such as anesthetics or paralytic agents. If you have ever had surgery, you have experienced a chemical influence that shut down consciousness across your central nervous system.

There are a wide number of chemical agents we could use to impair someone’s nervous system, but there are only a few ways you could deploy them: primarily through injection or inhalation (or perhaps through skin contact or ingestion). For injection, we have tranquilizer darts, as you asked about, and they are used frequently for subduing wild animals, or large animals in zoos. Darts can inject a tranquilizing drug into the subject, usually using an intra-muscular pathway. But injecting a drug into the muscles is a slower pathway to effectiveness than injecting it directly into the veins — because it takes some time to absorb, which is why if you’ve seen lions on a nature documentary get hit with a dart, they can keep running around for a while before they collapsed. Of course, it’s essentially impossible to hit a moving target in their vein, meaning that instant incapacitation is out. It’s also difficult to control the dosage relative to body size and to predict allergic and other reactions. In fact, in conversations with animal control specialists, we have heard anecdotally that tranquilizer darts have a reasonably high fatality rate, on the order of 10%-20%.

For inhalation, there are nerve agents like nerve gases. Some can be combined with chemical formulations that may allow them to transmit transdermally (through the skin). Most nerve agents that have been created as weapons have been intended for lethal use. Nerve agents typically disrupt the motor nerves at the synapses by preventing the nerve cells from functioning properly. In theory, inhalants could be developed for the intended use of delivering a non-lethal effect. In 2002, Russian special forces tried this. They actually attempted to rescue 850 hostages from 40-50 armed Chechen rebels who had seized control of a Moscow theater in 2002. On the fourth day of the siege, Russian special forces pumped an aerosol anesthetic into the theater. The effects were neither immediate nor entirely safe. It killed a number of hostages and failed to incapacitate many terrorist fighters (apparently some had gas masks). In all, about 200 people died in the raid. (https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/29/world/hostage-drama-in-moscow-the-toxic-agent-us-suspects-opiate-in-gas-in-russia-raid.html)

So where does that leave us? Well, it brings us back to electricity. As I said, nerve cells are like transistors. While chemistry rules the day at the connections between nerve cells, it is electricity that transmits the signals along nerve fibers. We can impair the command and control systems of the human body by electrical means that stimulate motor nerves using the same mechanism of their normal function. And electricity has some real advantages. Its effects are immediate—there is no waiting for it to take effect. Dosing can be controlled electronically, allowing precise measurement and adjustment. Electricity also has a very large safety margin. The difference between the effective dose and a potentially lethal dose is more than 10-fold, meaning that we should be able to design a weapon that has enough electrical charge to be highly effective while maintaining a significant margin of safety to avoid dangerous unintended effects.

So for those reasons, I’m not particularly worried about tranquilizer darts, and I’m much more sanguine on electricity as the backbone of nonlethal weapons. Forgive the length, but this is something I’ve thought about a lot!

How would you go about transitioning away from lethal weapons for domestic law enforcement when criminals have access to similar weapons but don’t adhere to any principles?

The only way this will happen is if the non-lethal weapons reach a point where they are more effective at stopping the threat than a police pistol. At first, this might sound crazy: “What could be more effective than making somebody dead?” But the truth is that pistols don’t stop people immediately, every time. A bullet from a handgun causes traumatic tissue damage, and 30-50% of the time eventual death. However, an FBI analysis found that a lethal shot directly to the heart may not even stop someone from firing back for up to 14 seconds (the period of time it takes for the brain to shut down from lack of blood flow). During the adrenaline surge of a life-and-death fight, many people don’t even realize they have been shot until it’s over. The only way a bullet from a pistol causes and immediate incapacitation is a hit to the brain or upper spinal cord, which is pretty hard to do under stress.

An upside of electrical weapons is that they can provide a higher degree of incapacitation even if the hit is to a remote portion of the body. The downside is that, today, the ability to put two electrified darts onto the target and through the clothing is less reliable than using a traditional bullet from a police pistol that gives you 17 shots. But these are engineering problems—and I believe we can engineer solutions. Electric effects are more profound and immediate than bullet wounds outside of the central nervous system. We just need to meet or exceed the reliability levels of getting the effect delivered to the target.

Let me say one more thing about this: police officers don’t sign up to become police officers in order to take lives, and you’d be surprised at the negative after-effects of a shooting death on a police officer. There’s an assumption that just because they’re trained to use a firearm professionally that somehow the pain and trauma of taking a life disappears. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Most officers involved in a lethal force incident eventually leave policing, citing the lethal force incident as one of the key reasons–if not the key reason–why they left.

We need better nonlethal weapons, period. Even police were skeptical of our weapons in the early days—based, at least in part, on the principle behind your question–but now they tell us they want the best non-lethal options they can get. If they can deal with a situation without taking someone’s life, that’s the best-case scenario for everyone involved.

As an entrepreneur in the weapons industry, how hard did you have to search to get funding for your ideas? Or did you just fund it entirely yourself?

I’m running into this challenge myself, it seems there’s no clear path to find funding for a product when it involves weapons or firearms. Crowdfunding seems like the obvious answer in my mind but firearms and weapons products are banned on every major crowdfunding platform. I’ve dumped a lot of my own money into my own R&D but taking the product to market is the big leap I can’t afford.

We had to fund TASER entirely via friends and family. Venture capital was allergic to this space, partially because it didn’t easily fit into existing focus areas (such as the internet or health care), and partially because it is inherently controversial.

I believe this is a real problem, and why I challenge the tech industry to rethink their ban on supporting work or even advertising in this space. If we are going to solve the hardest problems facing our society, we need our brightest minds working on these problems, and investors supporting that work. It was a brutal process in creating TASER, and we drove my parents to the brink of financial ruin before turning the corner in 1999. The first outside capital we ever raised was in an IPO in 2001 – after we had already proven the business a success. I wish I had a better answer for you, but raising money in this space is insanely hard. Your best bet is to find angels who believe in your mission.

What are the plans for extending distance and accuracy for future models?

One of the ideas for long-range is to use drones to carry a TASER payload. See https://www.flipsnack.com/endofkillingcomic/the-end-of-killing/full-view.html for an online graphic novel depicting some of those scenarios. To be clear, the drone idea is still a concept, not a product. I put it in the book to get feedback about the idea, the risks, and the possible use cases. Would love your thoughts!

It’s a pretty well-known fact that the taser is named after the book Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, which featured — at least, according to Wikipedia — Jack Cover’s ‘childhood hero’ Tom Swift.

Be honest: were you and the other early developers all on board with that as a name? Or did you think it was a bit of a strange choice to name it after a children’s book? How did that pitch go?

The name TASER was selected in the late 1960s. I was born in 1970, so the name was set well before I had any input. I would say, though, that when I first started to research the non-lethal weapons space, I thought the name TASER was an amazing brand name. It is powerful in connoting what the device is and does, and honestly, I was surprised when I learned it was an acronym.

Let me also add: Tom Swift was a huge inspiration for a lot of innovators and futurists, including, among others, Ray Kurzweil.

As much as I love it, what concerns me about the product is its high rate of failure. From memory I believe my force cites a 43% success rate upon firing.

43% sounds really low to me. I just saw statics out of the UK showing the success rate of the X2 is 96% when both darts make skin contact with a spread of 30 cm or greater. That number drops to 50% if one dart is in clothing only and the spread is less than 23 cm. So, it’s all about penetrating the clothing and getting good spread conditions. The new TASER 7 is in review for approval in the UK, and we believe it will significantly improve both accuracy and clothing penetration.

Has anyone ever tried to calculate how many lives have been spared already because tasers were used instead of bullets? What’s the next big leap in non-lethal alternatives to guns?

Our estimates put it at over 218,000 instances where TASER weapon was used when police were legally justified to use lethal force. This is based on a study out of Dallas that found in about 5.4% of TASER deployments, police were legally justified to use lethal force. We then multiply that rate by the estimated number of TASER uses in the field (now over 4 million) to get to an estimate.

O course, there is no way of knowing how many of those people would have been shot and either killed or seriously injured, but it’s a pretty good rough-order-of-magnitude estimate of the number of very high-risk situations resolved with a TASER weapon. (For more details on the estimates and the studies: https://www.axon.com/how-safe-are-taser-weapons)

Our Chief recently made the statement in a training that “if it’s not on camera, it didn’t happen.” Cameras can be very helpful in some cases but I feel that they also contribute to an erosion of public trust. No video can show the full picture of an incident and it allows for “armchair quarterbacking.” Graham v Conor specifically states that “a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” How do you feel about body cameras being used in direct conflict of that principle?

From my perspective, I think body cameras are really helping rebuild the public trust in police. Without them, all we would have are videos from third-party observers, who only tend to record the end of a confrontation without all of the context leading up to it.

Consider, for instance, the anger and emotion around the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri. People formed very strong opinions very quickly, and many people assumed the cop executed an innocent man. The subsequent investigation largely supported the officers’ testimony that he was in the midst of a violent assault. (See this story for the details: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/03/16/lesson-learned-from-the-shooting-of-michael-brown/?utm_term=.8df35a2aaffd)

If Officer Wilson had been wearing a body camera, I think the facts of the case would have come to light much more quickly, and perhaps we would have seen less anger and distrust toward police. While a body camera cannot capture the exact perceptions happening in the mind of a police officer under stress, the impartial events captured on the camera can help us all get to the truth of the situation faster.

As an aside, I have experienced that most officers don’t want to wear a body camera when it is first proposed. After about 90 days in the field, most refuse to go on patrol without it—because they have already captured an incident that will protect them from a potential complaint.

Is there some level of electricity that would even bring a really strong/big crazy person on a ton of drugs down? Or would it have to be so high it would most likely kill most other people that are smaller or not on such drugs?

Thanks for the question! One advantage of electricity is that it has a large margin between the level we need for an effective dose and a potentially lethal dose. I believe that the output of the TASER 7 is optimized for maximum effect with maximum safety. Namely, we have looked at whether it would make sense to have multiple settings for the electrical output, and the answer is “no.” It would add one more level of confusion for the operator, and I don’t believe it would improve safety.

When TASER weapons fail to subdue a subject, it is almost always due to some circumstance such as a missed probe, a clothing disconnect that breaks the circuit, or a close spread of the darts that does not stimulate enough body mass. We are focusing on improving performance against these areas to ensure an even higher degree of effectiveness in the field.

I have seen many videos where a good TASER weapon connection incapacitates even the most violent offenders, whether they are on drugs or not. Here’s one example of a violent subject on meth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVKLulFG5hg

So, the real challenge is solving for effective reliable connection to the target more so than giving the user the ability to adjust electrical output.

Taser does offer a few civilian models: the tiny Pulse, the not-so-gun-like Bolt, and the much larger X26P Professional Series. This is the key point:

All other stun guns only induce pain and do not incapacitate muscle or knock down an attacker. Only a TASER weapon is equipped with neuromuscular incapacitation which will immobilize an attacker.

In the great majority of wrecks, all souls were lost

July 18th, 2019

During the great Age of Exploration — from the 16th century through the advent of modern navigation and communications — there were more than 9,000 shipwrecks:

In the great majority of wrecks, all souls were lost to a watery grave. Occasionally, survivors endured at sea in small vessels; for example, the Essex went down in 1820, and its crew drifted in narrow whaleboats for weeks, eventually resorting to cannibalism. (Their story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.) But for our present purposes, we need cases in which survivors made landfall and set up camp, and those are rare.

Nicholas A. Christakis studied shipwrecks for data about the micro-societies that form and then succeed or fail:

We must acknowledge that, even in these twenty examples that fit our criteria, the survivors are not strictly representative of humanity. The people who traveled on ships were not randomly drawn from the human population; they were often serving in the navy or the marines or were enslaved persons, convicts or traders. Shipboard life involved exacting status divisions and command structures to which these people were accustomed. Survivor groups were therefore made up of people who not only frequently came from a single distinctive cultural background (Dutch, Portuguese, English and so on), but who were also part of the various subcultures associated with long ocean voyages during the epoch of exploration. These shipwreck societies were, consequently, mostly male. Furthermore, the majority of our research subjects had narrowly escaped death and were psychologically traumatized, arriving at their islands nearly drowned and sometimes naked and wounded.

We have already discussed some shipwrecks that went badly, devolving into murder and cannibalism. But what factors were shared by shipwreck societies that were most successful? In our sample, the groups that typically fared best were those that had good leadership in the form of mild hierarchy (without any brutality), friendships among the survivors, and evidence of co-operation and altruism.

Shipwrecks make good stories:

One shipwreck in which altruism involving resource sharing and risky volunteerism was particularly evident was the case of the Julia Ann. The ship wrecked in the Isles of Scilly, a reef in the Pacific, on September 7, 1855, stranding fifty-one people for two months. The misadventure was brought to a close when the captain and a crew of nine volunteered to row three days into the horizon to reach Bora Bora, 217 miles to the east, in order to get help. Five lives were lost when the Julia Ann struck a reef, but all of the fifty-one survivors were eventually rescued. A newspaper later reported:

Capt. Pond’s chief desire throughout the whole sad affair seemed to be to save the lives of the passengers and crew, as the following noble act illustrates: While the crew were engaged in getting the passengers ashore [using a lifeline from the wreck offshore], Mr. Owens, the second mate, was going to carry a bag containing eight thousand dollars belonging to the Captain, ashore. The captain ordered him to leave the money and carry a girl ashore…The child was saved, but the money lost.

This visible act of altruism at the outset powerfully established an example for the group to cooperate and work together. Half the Julia Ann castaways were of the Mormon faith, and this may have helped the group cohere. The captain noted that they were “so easy to be governed” and “always ready to hear and obey my counsel.”

This detail from the Blenden Hall account caught my eye:

The eighteen-year-old son of the captain, who himself showed great leadership during the ordeal, kept a diary in penguin blood written in the margins of salvaged newspapers

Christakis directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale.

America is losing its grip

July 18th, 2019

America is losing its grip — literally:

When she was a practicing occupational therapist, Elizabeth Fain started noticing something odd in her clinic: Her patients were weak. More specifically, their grip strengths, recorded via a hand-held dynamometer, were “not anywhere close to the norms” that had been established back in the 1980s.

[...]

In a study published in 2015 in The Lancet, the health outcomes of nearly 140,000 people across 17 countries were tracked over four years, via a variety of measures—including grip strength. Grip strength was not only “inversely associated with all-cause mortality”—every 5 kilogram (kg) decrement in grip strength was associated with a 17 percent risk increase—but as the team, led by McMaster University professor of medicine Darryl Leong, noted: “Grip strength was a stronger predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality than systolic blood pressure.”

Grip strength has even been found to be correlated more robustly with “ageing markers” than chronological aging itself. It has become a key method of diagnosing sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass associated with aging. Low grip strength has been linked to longer hospital stays, and in a study of hospitalized cancer patients, it was linked to a “an approximate 3-fold decrease in probability of discharge alive.” In older subjects, lower grip strength has even been linked with declines in cognitive performance.

“I’ve seen people refer to it as a ‘will-to-live’ meter,” says Richard Bohannon, a professor of health studies at North Carolina’s Campbell University. Grip strength, he suggests, is not necessarily an overall indicator of health, nor is it causative—if you start building your grip strength now it does not ensure you will live longer—“but it is related to important things.” What’s more, it’s non-invasive, and inexpensive to measure. Bohannon notes that in his home-care practice, a grip strength test is now de rigueur. “I use it in basically all of my patients,” he says. “It gives you an overall sense of their status, and high grip strength is better than low grip strength.”

Grip Strength vs. Age

Curious about what that all of that means for my own grip strength, I went out and bought a Jamar Hydraulic Hand Dynamometer, which is favored by clinicians. My strength rang in at nearly 62 kgs which, according to a chart of normative grip strengths in the Jamar’s manual, was above the mean for males 45-49, but not hugely outside the standard deviation. In that data, my age group did worse than the 20-24 age group, like you’d expect.

What was surprising was that my grip strength came in at 40 percent above a group of contemporary male college students that Fain measured last year. She found that a group of males aged 20-24—ages that had produced some of the peak mean grip strength scores in the 1980s tests—had a mean grip strength of just 44.7 kgs, well below my own and far below the same cohort in the 1980s, whose mean was in the low 50s. There were also significant declines in female grip strength.

I just dug out my dynamometer, and I may need to dig out my Captains of Crush grip trainers, too.

What did I learn today?

July 17th, 2019

Tyler Cowen shares a partial list of his intellectual practice strategies:

1. I write every day. I also write to relax.

2. Much of my writing time is devoted to laying out points of view which are not my own. I recommend this for most of you.

3. I do serious reading every day.

4. After a talk, Q&A session, podcast — whatever — I review what I thought were my weaker answers or interventions and think about how I could improve them. I rehearse in my mind what I should have said. Larry Summers does something similar.

5. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to crack cultural codes. I view this as a comparative advantage, and one which few other people in my fields are trying to replicate. For one thing, it makes me useful in a wide variety of situations where I have little background knowledge. This also helps me invest in skills which will age relatively well, as I age. For me, this is perhaps the most importantly novel item on this list.

6. I listen often to highly complex music, partly because I enjoy it but also in the (silly?) hope that it will forestall mental laziness.

7. I have regular interactions with very smart people who will challenge me and be very willing to disagree, including “GMU lunch.”

8. Every day I ask myself “what did I learn today?”, a question I picked up from Amihai Glazer. I feel bad if I don’t have a clear answer, while recognizing the days without a clear answer are often the days where I am learning the most (at least in the equilibrium where I am asking myself this question).

9. One factor behind my choice of friends is what kind of approbational sway they will exercise over me. You should want to hang around people who are good influences, including on your mental abilities. Peer effects really are quite strong.

10. I watch very little television. And no drugs and no alcohol should go without saying.

11. In addition to being a “product” in its own right, I also consider doing Conversations with Tyler — with many of the very smartest people out there — to be a form of practice. It is a practice for speed, accuracy in understanding written writings, and the ability to crack the cultural codes of my guests.

12. I teach — a big one.

Physical exercise is a realm all of its own, and that is good for your mind too. For me it is basketball, tennis, exercise bike, sometimes light weights, swimming if I am at a decent hotel with a pool. My plan is to do more of this.

Here are a few things I don’t do:

Taking notes is a favorite with some people I know, though my penmanship and coordination and also typing are too problematic for that.

I also don’t review video or recordings of myself, for fear that will make me too self-conscious. For many people that is probably a good idea, however.

I don’t spend time trying to improve my memory, which is either very bad or very good, depending on the kind of problem facing me. (If I need to remember to do something, I require a visual cue, sometimes a pile on the floor, and that creates a bit of a mess. But it works — spatial organization is information!)

I’ve never practiced trying to type on a small screen, though probably I should.

Hospitals are sonic hellscapes

July 17th, 2019

Hospitals are some of the least restful places imaginable:

Hospitals today can be sonic hellscapes, which studies have shown regularly exceed levels set by the World Health Organization: droning IV pumps, ding-donging nurse call buttons, voices crackling on loudspeakers, ringing telephones, beeping elevators, buzzing ID scanners, clattering carts, coughing, screaming, vomiting.

Then there are the alarms. A single patient might trigger hundreds each day, challenging caregivers to figure out which machine is beeping, and what is wrong with the patient, if anything. (Studies have shown that as many as 99 percent of alarms are false.)

The proliferation of pinging and bleeping can contribute to patient delirium and staff burnout. And because caregivers know that many devices are crying wolf, they might be less responsive or apathetic, a potentially fatal safety issue known as alarm fatigue.

From 2005 to 2008, more than 500 patients in the United States had adverse outcomes, mostly death, because an alarm was ignored, or a device was silenced or mismanaged in some way, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which tracks adverse events involving medical devices.

[...]

Dr. Ozcan, who has had practice translating vast quantities of data into audio cues for the European Space Agency’s mission control dashboards, said her group at the lab was developing devices to hush the intensive care unit, which can be louder than a vacuum cleaner, and challenging conventional device design, possibly even making alarms “beautiful,” she said.

One of her group’s projects, called CareTunes, is a speculative, even quixotic, melodic design.

The device transcribes a patient’s physiological condition into songs that sound a bit like chill electronic dance music. (Ms. Sen was an artistic adviser to the project.)

The melody is derived from a patient’s vital signs: drums for the heartbeat, guitar for oxygen saturation and piano for blood pressure. When a patient is stable, the tune is harmonious, but it becomes dissonant when a patient’s status changes for the worse, ideally grabbing a caregiver’s attention.

Implicit learning ability is distinct from IQ or working memory

July 16th, 2019

Our implicit learning ability seems to be distinct from IQ or working memory:

Priya Kalra at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her colleagues gave 64 healthy young adults four types of tasks that required implicit learning. One involved detecting an artificial grammar (after studying a series of letter strings that all adhered to undisclosed grammatical rules, the participants had to judge which strings among a new set were “grammatical” and which were not.) The second task required them to learn whether a particular group of images was going to trigger one outcome, or another (and they were given feedback to help them to learn). For the third task, they had to predict where a circle was going to appear on a screen, based on prior experience, during which the circle sometimes appeared in a predictable sequence of positions and sometimes did not. Finally, they had to learn visual categories implicitly: with the help of feedback, they had to classify abstract visual stimuli into one of two categories. (Explicit learning could have fed into some of these tasks, but the researchers made efforts to investigate, and take into account, its contribution for each individual.)

One week later, the participants returned to complete different versions of all these tasks, as well as tests of working memory, explicit learning (they had to deliberately learn a list of words) and IQ.

For three of the four implicit learning tasks, the researchers found a “medium” level relationship between a participant’s initial performance and how well they did a week later. This suggests stability in implicit learning ability. The exception was the artificial grammar task; the researchers think it’s possible that explicit learning “contaminated” implicit learning in this task at the second time-point.

The team also found that how good a participant was at implicit learning bore no relation to their IQ or working memory results. It seems, then, to be driven by independent neural processes to those that underpin explicit learning, which is linked to IQ.

This finding fits with earlier work that has tied explicit and implicit learning to different brain regions and networks. (The hippocampus is important for explicit but not implicit earning, for example, whereas damage to the basal ganglia and cerebellum impair implicit, but not explicit, learning.)

The new results have implications for theories that intelligence depends upon a single fundamental factor, such as processing speed, the researchers write. “These data … provide evidence for the existence of a completely uncorrelated cognitive ability,” they added.

The findings also imply that someone might feasibly be smart, as measured by an IQ test, but poorer at implicit learning than someone else with a significantly lower IQ score.

This might explain all kinds of things, from book-smart nerds with no common sense, to Jared Diamond’s acquaintances in Papua New Guinea.

There are people who could afford any of the private schools in LA but want that school in particular

July 16th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Elon Musk’s Ad Astra school before, and now word is slowly spreading:

Ad Astra has a lower profile than most start-ups in stealth mode. Its website is just a logo and an email address, and the school does not market itself to parents. Musk himself has said virtually nothing about Ad Astra, and both SpaceX and Ad Astra declined our requests for comment. Currently, the only glimpses of Ad Astra available to outsiders come from a 2017 webinar interview with the school’s principal (captured in an unlisted YouTube video) and recent public filings like the IRS document referenced above.

Despite this mystique, demand among families in Los Angeles is astronomical, says Christina Simon, author of Beyond the Brochure, a guide to private elementary schools in the city. “There are people who could afford any of the private schools in LA but want that school in particular,” she says. “It’s very much about Elon Musk and who he is.”

The last admissions cycle in 2017 saw up to 400 families visit in the hope of securing one of just a dozen open spots.

In December, an online application form purportedly for Ad Astra starting popping up in Los Angeles parenting forums and Facebook groups. The form asked for details of grades, test scores, and personal information about families, but it had no affiliation or contact listed.

“I talked to several parents who were going to take a chance and apply, even though it was impossible to verify that it was an Ad Astra application,” says Simon. “That’s the level of interest in this school. I cannot imagine that happening with any other school, public or private.”

The school is even mysterious within SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company that houses Ad Astra on its campus in the industrial neighborhood of Hawthorne. About half Ad Astra’s students are children of SpaceX employees, and the school is touted during recruiting, says Simon. “I’ve heard from various SpaceX families that they have tried and failed to get information about the school, even though they were told it was a benefit during the interview,” she says.

The lucky few who succeed in applying, pass a reasoning test, and are admitted ultimately enter a school quite unlike any other. For a start, Ad Astra’s location inside a working company is unconventional to say the least. “We started with eight kids in a really small conference room with transparent walls,” says Joshua Dahn, head of the school, speaking in conversation with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis last year. “Engineers [would] always come drop by and peek on it.”

That first year, Musk’s children accounted for nearly two thirds of the student body. “It was really small,” remembers Dahn. “Especially when five [students] from the same family… go on vacation and you have three kids [left].”

It is not unusual for parents to have a grassroots effort to build their own school, according to Nancy Hertzog, an educational psychology professor at University of Washington and an expert in gifted education. “But money talks in terms of how that school is directed and supported,” she says. “The worry would be, are these schools preventing kids from other populations getting in? Are there strict test scores, and can they support kids with disabilities?”

A non-discrimination policy quietly published in the Los Angeles Times in 2016 stated that Ad Astra does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin, but the document made no mention of disabilities.

Although Ad Astra now has dedicated classrooms and a chemistry lab at SpaceX, its start-up chic still includes whiteboard walls, a Mac laptop for every student, and food trucks for after-school sessions. These, like everything else at school including tuition, are paid for by Elon Musk. He gave Ad Astra $475,000 in both 2014 and 2015, according to the IRS document, and likely more in recent years as the school grew to 31 students.

“[Elon] is extraordinarily generous,” says Dahn. “And it allows us to take any kid that sort of fits… We don’t have unlimited resources but we have more resources than a traditional school.”

Kiwis are keeping their guns

July 15th, 2019

New Zealand has an estimated 1.5 million firearms. It’s not clear how many of those are semi-automatic, but it’s probably far, far more than the 700 that have been turned in under the new gun control scheme:

That gun owners would, in large numbers, defy restrictions should have been anticipated by anybody who knows the history of government attempts to disarm their subjects — or who just glanced across the Tasman Sea to Australia.

“In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities,” wrote Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, after Australia’s 1996 compensated confiscation of firearms following a mass murder in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Csaszar put the number of illegally retained arms in Australia at between two and five million.

“Many members of the community still possess grey-market firearms because they did not surrender these during the 1996–97 gun buyback,” the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission conceded in a 2016 report. “The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission continues to conservatively estimate that there are more than 260,000 firearms in the illicit firearms market.”

You won’t be at the table

July 15th, 2019

Saleforce.com has announced a ban on its customers selling “military-style rifles,” and this leads Eric S. Raymond to discuss the dangerous folly of “Software as a Service”:

It’s 2019 and I feel like I shouldn’t have to restate the obvious, but if you want to keep control of your business the software you rely on needs to be open-source. All of it. All of it. And you can’t afford it to be tethered to a service provider even if the software itself is nominally open source.

Otherwise, how do you know some political fanatic isn’t going to decide your product is unclean and chop you off at the knees? It’s rifles today, it’ll be anything that can be tagged “hateful” tomorrow — and you won’t be at the table when the victim-studies majors are defining “hate”. Even if you think you’re their ally, you can’t count on escaping the next turn of the purity spiral.

And that’s disregarding all the more mundane risks that come from the fact that your vendor’s business objectives aren’t the same as yours.

Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent

July 14th, 2019

The Soviet Union, Aaron Lake Smith reminds us, was a regime founded by freelance writers and editors:

In other words, a nightmare. Pamphleteers, autodidactic theoreticians, critics, publishers of small journals, hot-­take artists, takedown artists, and failed poets who’d reinvented themselves as labor organizers — fractious and at constant war with one another, literary people through and through.

If we imagine the early Soviet Union as a hierarchical publishing company, a magazine or new media outfit like The New Republic or BuzzFeed, Lenin was the founder and publisher, Trotsky was the deputy editor, and Stalin was the seemingly humble managing editor. As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, the managing editor is the hardest worker. They make sure the deadlines are met and the trains run on time. They are, above all, reliable. This particular managing editor takes no vacations, never leaves town. He lives for the work, strives to appear to be the mere executor of the will of the publisher and the company.

When the publisher becomes very sick, it is the managing editor who visits him at home to cheer him up with jokes and receive his instructions. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the office from on high, he leverages this personal relationship and increases his authority within the organization. It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik hierarchy happened. We’ve all seen this person before. When the publisher dies, no one suspects the managing editor of harboring ambitions to take over. But really, who better understands the day-­to-­day functioning of the organization, who better to be in charge?

Stalin was a consummate editor. He seemed to understand that the role was to sublimate ego in order to shape the world quietly in the background. Good editors know how to render themselves invisible. Stalin’s blue pencil, unlike that of other editors, glided across not just poetry chapbooks and literary journals but life itself. “Fool,” “bastard,” “scoundrel,” he wrote in the margins of Andrei Platonov’s 1931 novella, Profit, destroying Platonov’s career. “Radek, you ginger bastard, if you hadn’t pissed into the wind, if you hadn’t been so bad, you’d still be alive,” he scrawled on a male nude drawing that reminded him of Karl Radek, an editor and strategist of the October Revolution whose death he had ordered years earlier. “You need to work, not masturbate,” he wrote on another. The combination of editorial influence with the power of life and death itself resulted in absurd, nearly un­believable situations — such as when Stalin’s old friend and comrade Nikolai Bukharin wrote him from the prison cell Stalin had put him in, begging his inquisitor for a preface to what would be his last book. “I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear… this is completely apart from my personal fateHave pity! Not on me, on the work!

Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent. “Stalin has a very particular attitude toward me,” the great Soviet writer Vasily Grossman told his daughter. “He does not send me to the camps, but he never awards me prizes.” Several times anticipated to win the prestigious Stalin Prize for his celebrated novels — in one instance, having planned the victory party, à la ­Hillary at the Javits Center — at the last minute Grossman found his name mysteriously removed from the list each time.

Today Grossman is best known as the author of Life and Fate, a novel often called the War and Peace of the twentieth century. The kaleidoscopic thousand-­page book, which follows the middle-­class Shaposhnikov family through the Second World War, is an indictment of ideological zealotry and a stark account of the horrors of Stalinism. The narrative ranges from the Great Terror to the gulag, the German camps, and Stalin’s late anti-­Semitic campaigns of the 1950s, slowly building the sense that, in their lack of humanity, the Soviet and Nazi regimes became mirror images of each other. “Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom?” Grossman asks at a pivotal moment. “The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depend on the answer to this question.” The book was considered so dangerous that all known copies of the text were “arrested” and suppressed by the KGB in 1961, an experience that broke Grossman physically and spiritually. “They strangled me in a dark corner,” he said. After his death, a copy he had hidden with an old friend was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm and published in the West in 1980, only appearing in Russia during the glasnost.

Front-seat belts have pretensioners and load limiters

July 13th, 2019

Seat belt technology has improved over the years — but only in the front seats, which are now safer than the back seats:

For the sake of comfort, modern seat belts give a little as occupants move. But if a passenger suddenly pitches forward, a mechanism called an inertia-lock retractor will prevent the belt from completely unspooling. This device is used in both front- and rear-seat belts.

“It doesn’t get any tighter,” Mr. Zuby said. “It just stops where it is.”

Front seat belts, though, have two safety features that typically aren’t found in back: a pretensioner and a load limiter.

The pretensioner reels in a seat belt when a vehicle rapidly decelerates, pulling occupants firmly against the seat to prevent them from smashing into the steering wheel or glove compartment. The load limiter causes the belt to loosen slightly if the tension of a passenger launching forward against an unyielding belt reaches a dangerous threshold.

“The idea of a seat belt is twofold,” Mr. Zuby said. “Pretensioners take out slack before the occupant pushes into the belt. Load limiters allow the belt to pay out to make sure the forces that keep you with the car don’t get high enough to injure you, in particular your chest.”

To see what happens in frontal crashes—when seat belts offer the most protection—the Insurance Institute examined injuries to 117 belted rear-seat passengers in collisions that occurred from 2004 through 2015. The occupants in the study, which was published in April, were age 6 or older. The vehicles were model year 2000 or later and were no more than 10 years old at the time of the crash.

Thirty-six of the rear-seat passengers were seriously injured and 81 were killed. More than half were more seriously injured than front-seat passengers in the same crash.

[...]

Since then, a 2013 study by NHTSA has found that front-seat occupants of passenger vehicles wearing seat belts with pretensioners and load limiters had a 12.8% lower fatality risk than occupants restrained by front-seat belts without these technologies.

The numbers used to assess health are not helpful

July 12th, 2019

The numbers used to assess health are, for the most part, not helpful, but other, simpler metrics are:

The speed at which you walk, for example, can be eerily predictive of health status. In a study of nearly 35,000 people aged 65 years or older in the Journal of the American Medical Association, those who walked at about 2.6 feet per second over a short distance — which would amount to a mile in about 33 minutes — were likely to hit their average life expectancy. With every speed increase of around 4 inches per second, the chance of dying in the next decade fell by about 12 percent. (Whenever I think about this study, I start walking faster.)

Walking speed isn’t unique. Studies of simple predictors of longevity like these come out every couple of years, building up a cadre of what could be called alternative vital signs. In 2018, a study of half a million middle-aged people found that lung cancer, heart disease, and all-cause mortality were well predicted by the strength of a person’s grip.

Yes, how hard you can squeeze a grip meter. This was a better predictor of mortality than blood pressure or overall physical activity. A prior study found that grip strength among people in their 80s predicted the likelihood of making it past 100. Even more impressive, grip strength had good predictive ability in a study among 18-year-olds in the Swedish military on cardiovascular death 25 years later.

Another study made headlines earlier this year for declaring that push-up abilities could predict heart disease. Stefanos Kales, a professor at Harvard Medical School, noticed that the leading cause of death of firefighters on duty was not smoke inhalation, burns, or trauma, but sudden cardiac death. This is usually caused by coronary-artery disease. Even in this high-risk profession, people are most likely to die of the same thing as everyone else.

Still, the profession needed effective screening tests to define fitness for duty. Since firefighters are generally physically fit people, Kales’s lab looked at push-ups. He found that they were an even better predictor of cardiovascular disease than a submaximal treadmill test. “The results show a strong association between push-up capacity and decreased risk of subsequent cardiovascular disease,” Kales says.

You would think the drive to move to these new metrics would come from their effectiveness and efficiency:

This is driven in part by the Americans With Disabilities Act, which mandates that people not be discriminated against in occupational settings based on BMI or age.

This estimate caught my eye:

Granted, Joyner and other experts I heard from estimated that the number of Americans who can do a single push-up is likely only about 20 or 30 percent.

How to fight a war in space (and get away with it)

July 11th, 2019

We depend on satellites, so knocking them out is becoming a military priority:

Today, much more civilian infrastructure relies on GPS and satellite communications, so attacks on them could lead to chaos. The military leans more heavily on satellites too: data and video feeds for armed UAVs, such as the Reaper drones that the US military has flying over Afghanistan and Iraq, are sent via satellite to their human operators. Intelligence and images are also collected by satellites and beamed to operations centers around the world. In the assessment of Chinese analysts, space is used for up to 90% of the US military’s intelligence.

[...]

Non-state actors, as well as more minor powers like North Korea and Iran, are also gaining access to weapons that can bloody the noses of much larger nations in space.

That doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations. Some hackers are thought to have done this already.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands.

[...]

There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground. Again, it’s surprisingly easy. In the summer of 2013, some students at the University of Texas used a briefcase-sized device to spoof a GPS signal and cause an $80 million private yacht to veer hundreds of meters off course in the Mediterranean. Their exploit wasn’t detected (they later announced it themselves).

[...]

There’s no evidence that anyone has yet used lasers to destroy targets in space, though aircraft-borne lasers have been tested against missiles within the atmosphere. The DIA report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent.

Lasers need to be aimed very precisely, and to work well they require complex adaptive optics to make up for atmospheric disturbances, much as some large ground-based telescopes do. Yet there is some evidence, all unconfirmed and eminently deniable, that they are already being used. In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.

[...]

In November 2016, the Commercial Spaceflight Center at AGI, an aerospace firm, noticed something strange. Shortly after it was launched, a Chinese satellite, supposedly designed to test high-performance solar cells and new propellants, began approaching a number of other Chinese communications satellites, staying in orbit near them before moving on. It got within a few miles of one—dangerously close in space terms. It paid visits to others in 2017 and 2018. Another Chinese satellite, launched last December, released a second object once it reached geostationary orbit that seemed to be under independent control.

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically.

Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.

Fortnite’s dominance is ebbing

July 10th, 2019

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the man behind Fortnite:

By age 30, Epic Games Inc. founder and CEO Tim Sweeney had a couple of successful videogames under his belt and was starting to make real money.

“I had a Ferrari and a Lamborghini in the parking lot of my apartment,” he recalled. “People who hadn’t met me thought I must be a drug dealer.”

Today, Mr. Sweeney, at 48, is worth more than $7 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. Epic was last valued at $15 billion, counting Walt Disney Co. and China’s Tencent Holdings PLC among its investors. And “Fortnite,” its blockbuster game, has racked up 250 million players and $3.9 billion in estimated revenue.

[...]

While the biggest U.S. videogame companies are clustered in Los Angeles, New York and the Bay Area, Epic is based in Cary, N.C., down the road from Raleigh. Mr. Sweeney said the location prevents Epic from being swayed by Silicon Valley groupthink.

[...]

Epic tried something different. It made “Fortnite” free and put it on every major device people use to play games — consoles, computers, smartphones and tablets. It put its own spin on a trendy new genre called Battle Royale, where a large group of players fight until only one person or squad is left standing. It constantly tweaked the game’s virtual world to give players something new to discover. And it took the popular shooter format and made it less violent and more playful, with colorful characters who compete with dance moves as well as firearms.

[...]

By erasing the barriers between players with different devices, Epic effectively turned “Fortnite” into a massive social network. Wearing headsets to talk to one another, groups of friends trade jokes and gossip while battling to survive.

[...]

Mr. Sweeney founded Epic in 1991 from his parents’ basement, at age 20, funding it with $4,000 in personal savings. He later dropped out of the University of Maryland a few credits shy of a mechanical-engineering degree. “I went from mowing lawns to being CEO of Epic,” said Mr. Sweeney, who got his diploma in 2018.

In its early years, the company had some success with a handful of games, including “Unreal Tournament” and “Gears of War,” that followed more traditional shoot-’em-up formats.

[...]

Today, “Fortnite’s” dominance is ebbing. Monthly revenue from sales of virtual perks such as costumes and dance moves for players’ avatars has fallen 56% since peaking at a record $372.2 million in December, according to Nielsen’s SuperData.

All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time

July 10th, 2019

Scott Alexander looks at increasingly competitive college admissions and ends with this summary:

  1. There is strong evidence for more competition for places at top colleges now than 10, 50, or 100 years ago. There is medium evidence that this is also true for upper-to-medium-tier colleges. It is still easy to get into medium-to-lower-tier colleges.
  2. Until 1900, there was no competition for top colleges, medical schools, or law schools. A secular trend towards increasing admissions (increasing wealth + demand for skills?) plus two shocks from the GI Bill and the Vietnam draft led to a glut of applicants that overwhelmed schools and forced them to begin selecting applicants.
  3. Changes up until ten years ago were because of a growing applicant pool, after which the applicant pool (both domestic and international) stopped growing and started shrinking. Increased competition since ten years ago does not involve applicant pool size.
  4. Changes after ten years ago are less clear, but the most important factor is probably the ease of applying to more colleges. This causes an increase in applications-per-admission which is mostly illusory. However, part of it may be real if it means students are stratifying themselves by ability more effectively. There might also be increased competition just because students got themselves stuck in a high-competition equilibrium (ie an arms race), but in the absence of data this is just speculation.
  5. Medical schools are getting harder to get into, but law schools are getting easier to get into. There is no good data for graduate schools.
  6. All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time, unless you are from a disadvantaged background. For most people, admission to a more selective college does not translate into a more lucrative career or a higher chance of admission to postgraduate education. There may be isolated exceptions at the very top, like for Supreme Court justices.