A chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day

September 16th, 2019

Chess is physically demanding:

The 1984 World Chess Championship was called off after five months and 48 games because defending champion Anatoly Karpov had lost 22 pounds. “He looked like death,” grandmaster and commentator Maurice Ashley recalls.

In 2004, winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov walked away from the six-game world championship having lost 17 pounds. In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess — or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.

Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters’ stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience.

“Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners,” Sapolsky says.

It all combines to produce an average weight loss of 2 pounds a day, or about 10-12 pounds over the course of a 10-day tournament in which each grandmaster might play five or six times.

Her creepy imaginary friend is called Captain Howdy

September 15th, 2019

In Primal Screams Mary Eberstadt cites former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, social scientist James Q. Wilson, and Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, to document how the Sexual Revolution created Identity Politics:

A writer she doesn’t mention, however, is William Peter Blatty, author of the blockbuster 1971 horror novel The Exorcist. Those who have never read the novel, or are familiar only with its 1973 cinematic incarnation, probably believe the book to be a potboiler about demonic possession. But it is also an allegorical warning about the importance of the traditional family unit and the devastation wrought when it breaks down. Curiously, this aspect of the novel went largely unnoticed by the book’s earliest reviewers.

Back in 1971, the advent of no-fault divorce laws in the United States was seen in liberal circles as an unalloyed benefit for society. Thus, the book critics for most of the mainstream publications that bothered to review The ExorcistTime, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, etc. — treated the book as either a modern day pastiche of Poe and Mary Shelley, or else as a traditional story of the battle between Good and Evil. What’s odd about this is that Blatty made no effort to hide his social conservatism. You don’t have to be a postmodern literary detective to find it in the subtext. Blatty was not a subtle writer, and he set his message out on the page for all to see, although very few have ever remarked upon it.

The Exorcist tells the story of Chris MacNeil, a recently divorced American movie star, and her 12-year-old daughter Regan Teresa MacNeil, whom Chris calls “Rags.” The story takes place in Washington, D.C., where Chris has rented a home a few blocks from the campus of Georgetown University. She is the star of a movie about unrest on campus that is being filmed at Georgetown. Neither Chris nor her daughter have yet recovered from the divorce. And Regan has begun to demonstrate troubling behavior (using obscenities, operating a Ouija board with a creepy imaginary friend, lashing out at the adults around her) that leads Chris to seek help and advice, first from psychiatric professionals.

Every few pages, the reader is reminded about the absence of Regan’s father. Early in the book, as Chris is hanging up a dress in Regan’s closet, she thinks: Nice clothes. Yeah, Rags, look here, not there at the daddy who never writes. Regan appears to be in search of a substitute for the father she has lost, and television seems to be one of the places she has been looking. Her creepy imaginary friend is called Captain Howdy, clearly a reference to two TV characters popular with children of the Baby Boom, Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody.

I was shocked years ago, when I learned from watching the DVD extras, that The Exorcist was written as a piece of pro-Catholic propaganda.

Dour observations fall on deaf ears

September 14th, 2019

Dictators suppress speech, because the truth hurts, right?

If you want to bring an incumbent dictator down, do you really want to be hamstrung by the truth? It’s far easier — and more crowd-pleasing — to respond to a pack of official lies with your own pack of lies. When the dictator claims, “I’ve made this the greatest country on earth,” you could modestly respond, “Face facts: we’re only 87th.” Yet if it’s power you seek, you might as well lie back, “The dictator has destroyed our country — but this will be the greatest country on earth if we gain power.” Even more obviously, if the current dictator claims the sanction of God, the opposition doesn’t want to shrug, “Highly improbable. How do you even know God exists?” Instead, the opposition wants to roar, “No, God is on our side. Our side!”

What then is the primary purpose of censorship? It’s not to suppress the truth — which has little mass appeal anyway. The primary purpose of censorship is to monopolize the pretty lies. Only the powers-that-be can freely make absurdly self-aggrandizing claims. Depending on the severity of the despotism, you may not have to echo the official lies. But if you publicly defend alternative absurdly self-aggrandizing claims, the powers-that-be will crush you.

Why, though, do dictators so eagerly seek to monopolize the pretty lies? In order to take full advantage of their subjects’ Social Desirability Bias. Human beings like to say — and think — whatever superficially sounds good. Strict censorship allows rulers to exploit this deep mental flaw. If no one else can make absurd lies, a trite slogan like, “Let’s unite to fight for a fantastic future!” carries great force. Truthful critics would have to make crowd-displeasing objections like, “Maybe competition will bring us a brighter future than unity,” “Who exactly are we fighting?,” or “Precisely how fantastic of a future are we talking about?” A rather flaccid bid for power! Existing rulers tremble far more when rebels bellow, “Join us to fight for a fantastic future!”

George Orwell has been a huge influence on me. When you read his political novels, you often get the feeling that dictators fear the truth above all. If only Winston Smith could take over the Ministry of Truth and tell all Oceania that it needlessly lives in poverty and fear. In the broad scheme of things, however, unvarnished truth is only a minor threat to tyranny. After all, rulers could respond to ironclad fact with a pile of demagoguery: “Smith is slandering our great country!” “He’s a willing tool of Eurasia!” Or even, “We’re not rich because the greatest country in the world is too proud to sell itself.” The real threat to the regime would be a rival set of demagogues offering Utopia after a brief bloodbath sends a few wicked, treasonous leaders straight to the hell that they so richly deserve.

Doesn’t this imply that free speech is overrated? Yes; I’ve said so before. While I’d like to believe that free speech leads naturally to the triumph of truth, I see little sign of this. Instead, politics looks to me like a Great Liars’ War. Viable politicians defy literal truth in virtually every sentence. They defy it with hyperbole. They defy it with overconfidence. They defy it with wishful thinking. Dictators try to make One Big Political Lie mandatory. Free speech lets a Thousand Political Lies Bloom.

Yes, freedom of speech lets me make these dour observations without fear. I’m grateful for that. Yet outside my Bubble, dour observations fall on deaf ears. Psychologically normal humans crave pretty lies, so the Great Liars’ War never ends.

Blue gets its ass handed to it

September 13th, 2019

“In our games, when we fight Russia and China,” RAND analyst David Ochmanek explains, “blue gets its ass handed to it.”

How could this happen, when we spend over $700 billion a year on everything from thousand-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to supersonic stealth fighters?

[...]

“In every case I know of,” said Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense with decades of wargaming experience, “the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

Even the hottest jet has to land somewhere. But big airbases on land and big aircraft carriers on the water turn out to be big targets for long-range precision-guided missiles. Once an American monopoly, such smart weapons are now a rapidly growing part of Russian and Chinese arsenals — as are the long-range sensors, communications networks, and command systems required to aim them.

So, as potential adversaries improve their technology, “things that rely on sophisticated base infrastructure like runways and fuel tanks are going to have a hard time,” Ochmanek said. “Things that sail on the surface of the sea are going to have a hard time.”

(That’s why the 2020 budget coming out next week retires the carrier USS Truman decades early and cuts two amphibious landing ships, as we’ve reported. It’s also why the Marine Corps is buying the jump-jet version of the F-35, which can take off and land from tiny, ad hoc airstrips, but how well they can maintain a high-tech aircraft in low-tech surroundings is an open question).

While the Air Force and Navy took most of the flak today at this afternoon’s Center for a New American Security panel on the need for “A New American Way of War.” the Army doesn’t look too great, either. Its huge supply bases go up in smoke as well, Work and Ochmanek said. Its tank brigades get shot up by cruise missiles, drones, and helicopters because the Army largely got rid of its mobile anti-aircraft troops, a shortfall it’s now hastening to correct. And its missile defense units get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming fire.

The video gets going about 13 minutes in.

Growth hormone, DHEA, and metformin reversed aging

September 12th, 2019

A small clinical study suggests that it might be possible to reverse the body’s epigenetic clock, which measures a person’s biological age:

For one year, nine healthy volunteers took a cocktail of three common drugs — growth hormone and two diabetes medications — and on average shed 2.5 years of their biological ages, measured by analysing marks on a person’s genomes. The participants’ immune systems also showed signs of rejuvenation.

[…]

The latest trial was designed mainly to test whether growth hormone could be used safely in humans to restore tissue in the thymus gland. The gland, which is in the chest between the lungs and the breastbone, is crucial for efficient immune function. White blood cells are produced in bone marrow and then mature inside the thymus, where they become specialized T cells that help the body to fight infections and cancers. But the gland starts to shrink after puberty and increasingly becomes clogged with fat.

Evidence from animal and some human studies shows that growth hormone stimulates regeneration of the thymus. But this hormone can also promote diabetes, so the trial included two widely used anti-diabetic drugs, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and metformin, in the treatment cocktail.

Human speech may have a universal transmission rate

September 11th, 2019

Human speech may have a universal transmission rate: 39 bits per second:

Scientists started with written texts from 17 languages, including English, Italian, Japanese, and Vietnamese. They calculated the information density of each language in bits—the same unit that describes how quickly your cellphone, laptop, or computer modem transmits information. They found that Japanese, which has only 643 syllables, had an information density of about 5 bits per syllable, whereas English, with its 6949 syllables, had a density of just over 7 bits per syllable. Vietnamese, with its complex system of six tones (each of which can further differentiate a syllable), topped the charts at 8 bits per syllable.

Next, the researchers spent 3 years recruiting and recording 10 speakers—five men and five women—from 14 of their 17 languages. (They used previous recordings for the other three languages.) Each participant read aloud 15 identical passages that had been translated into their mother tongue. After noting how long the speakers took to get through their readings, the researchers calculated an average speech rate per language, measured in syllables/second.

Some languages were clearly faster than others: no surprise there. But when the researchers took their final step—multiplying this rate by the bit rate to find out how much information moved per second—they were shocked by the consistency of their results. No matter how fast or slow, how simple or complex, each language gravitated toward an average rate of 39.15 bits per second, they report today in Science Advances.

[…]

Research in neuroscience supports that idea, with one recent paper suggesting an upper bound to auditory processing of 9 syllables per second in U.S. English.

De Boer agrees that our brains are the bottleneck. But, he says, instead of being limited by how quickly we can process information by listening, we’re likely limited by how quickly we can gather our thoughts. That’s because, he says, the average person can listen to audio recordings sped up to about 120%—and still have no problems with comprehension. “It really seems that the bottleneck is in putting the ideas together.”

I suppose it depends on the content, but podcasts now sound normal to me at 1.5x, and audiobooks at 1.25x.

This naturally reminds me of the language of clear thinking.

One scary adverse event could cripple the whole enterprise

September 10th, 2019

Tim Ferriss has put aside many of his other projects to advance psychedelic medicine:

“It’s important to me for macro reasons but also deeply personal ones,” Mr. Ferriss, 42, said. “I grew up on Long Island, and I lost my best friend to a fentanyl overdose. I have treatment-resistant depression and bipolar disorder in my family. And addiction. It became clear to me that you can do a lot in this field with very little money.”

Mr. Ferriss provided funds for a similar center at Imperial College London, which was introduced in April, and for individual research projects at the University of San Francisco, California, testing psilocybin as an aide to therapy for distress in long-term AIDS patients.

[...]

Experiments using ecstasy and LSD, for end-of-life care, were underway by the mid-2000s. Soon, therapists began conducting trials of ecstasy for post-traumatic stress, with promising results. One of the most influential scientific reports appeared in 2006: a test of the effects of a strong dose of psilocybin on healthy adults. In that study, a team led by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins found that the volunteers “rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior.”

At least as important as the findings, which were exploratory, was the source, Johns Hopkins, with all its reputational weight, and no history of institutional bias toward alternative treatments. “I got interested through meditation in altered states of consciousness, and I came into this field with no ax to grind,” said Dr. Griffiths, the director of the new center.

By late 2018, the Hopkins group had reported promising results using psilocybin for depression, nicotine addiction and cancer-related distress. Others around the world, including Dr. David Nutt at Imperial College London, were producing similar results.

Mr. Ferriss, who organized half the $17 million in commitments and contributed more than $2 million of his own for the new Hopkins center, said he approached wealthy friends who he knew had an interest in mental health. The new venture, he said he told them, “truly has the chance to bend the arc of history, and I’ve spent nearly five years looking at and testing options in this space to find the right bet. Would you have any interest in discussing?”

Mr. Ferriss said he met Dr. Griffiths in 2015, became intrigued with the research, and began thinking about the Hopkins group as he might an investment bet. He launched a crowdfunding campaign for a small depression study, to see how efficiently the Hopkins team used the money. “Essentially it was a seed investment,” Mr. Ferriss said. “I ran a beta test, and they really delivered.”

Craig Nerenberg, one of those friends and the founder of the hedge fund Brenner West Capital Partners, quickly agreed to contribute. “I have lost a family member to addiction and have felt the pain of loved ones who struggled through depression,” Mr. Nerenberg said by email. “It’s hard for me to imagine a contribution that I can make which — if the research data continues to bear out — will have a greater impact over the next decade.”

The remaining half of the commitments for the center came from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation and is earmarked for treatment of Lyme disease. Mr. Cohen is a billionaire investor; the foundation focuses on eduction, veterans issues, Lyme disease and children’s health, among other things. In an email, Ms. Cohen wrote, “I strongly believe that we must dare to change the minds of those who think this drug is for recreational purposes only and acknowledge that it is a miracle for many who are desperate for relief from their symptoms or for the ability to cope with their illnesses. It may even save lives.”

Investigators at the Hopkins center, its counterpart at Imperial College London and elsewhere still have an enormous amount of work to do to learn which mind-altering substances are beneficial for whom, at what doses, and when such treatment is dangerous. The same concerns that shut down similar research in the 1970s are audible in the caution expressed by many psychiatrists today: These are powerfully mind-altering substances, and administering them to people who are already unstable is uncertain work, to put it mildly. One scary adverse event could cripple the whole enterprise.

The supercomputer from WarGames has started reading Jung

September 9th, 2019

Jesse Walker of Reason has dug up a 1956 episode of the NBC radio series X Minus One, which adapts Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Defenders” — which I’ve covered here before. Here is Walker’s description:

It’s as though the false world in The Matrix is being run by the supercomputer from WarGames, which has started reading Jung and lecturing everyone about shadow projection.

The Agency is on the Cloud

September 8th, 2019

Has Silicon Valley seduced the Pentagon?

A veteran Marine general, Mattis was initially perceived as skeptical of what Silicon Valley was selling. He knew the flesh-and-blood realities of war and believed in giving autonomy to commanders on the ground. In his mind, anything that reinforced Pentagon leaders’ desire to micromanage events halfway across the globe was problematic. Technology, he believed, could make matters worse.

But Schmidt was an effective advocate for the power of big data, which he argued had become as important a strategic resource as oil. And he emphasized that the need for technological improvement was urgent: China was rapidly improving. In June 2017, at a private lunch in a Pentagon conference room, Schmidt told him Google’s lead over China in artificial intelligence technology had shrunk from five years to six months. “Mr. Secretary, they’re at your heels,” Schmidt said, according to three people familiar with the lunch. “You need to take decisive action now.”

Schmidt wanted the department to adopt a Silicon Valley philosophy that emphasized innovation, taking risks and moving fast. Among his recommendations: embrace cloud computing. In the summer of 2017, Mattis decided to investigate firsthand. He departed on a tour that would include visits to Amazon and Google headquarters and a one-on-one with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

At Amazon, despite the tempest about Bezos joining the innovation board, Mattis and the CEO hit it off. The two talked together for about an hour. Mattis gave a pithy sweep of lessons from military history and expressed his view on the perils of overreliance on technology. He noted how the British Navy, once famous for its derring-do, nearly lost the World War I battle of Jutland when ship captains hesitated, waiting for flag signals from their fleet commander.

After the meeting, Bezos and Mattis walked to another conference room, where AWS executives made their case that the company’s cloud products offer better security than traditional data centers, according to three people who attended. As evidence, they noted that the Central Intelligence Agency had embarked on a $600 million, 10-year cloud contract with Amazon in 2013 and, they said, it was working.

His slaves were legally shipped to Cuba and Brazil

September 7th, 2019

Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani looks back at her great-grandfather, the slave-trader:

Down the hill, near the river, in an area now overrun by bush, is the grave of my most celebrated ancestor: my great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Nwaubani Ogogo was a slave trader who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic. “He was a renowned trader,” my father told me proudly. “He dealt in palm produce and human beings.”

Long before Europeans arrived, Igbos enslaved other Igbos as punishment for crimes, for the payment of debts, and as prisoners of war. The practice differed from slavery in the Americas: slaves were permitted to move freely in their communities and to own property, but they were also sometimes sacrificed in religious ceremonies or buried alive with their masters to serve them in the next life. When the transatlantic trade began, in the fifteenth century, the demand for slaves spiked. Igbo traders began kidnapping people from distant villages. Sometimes a family would sell off a disgraced relative, a practice that Ijoma Okoro, a professor of Igbo history at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, likens to the shipping of British convicts to the penal colonies in Australia: “People would say, ‘Let them go. I don’t want to see them again.’ ” Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, nearly one and a half million Igbo slaves were sent across the Middle Passage.

My great-grandfather was given the nickname Nwaubani, which means “from the Bonny port region,” because he had the bright skin and healthy appearance associated at the time with people who lived near the coast and had access to rich foreign foods. (This became our family name.) In the late nineteenth century, he carried a slave-trading license from the Royal Niger Company, an English corporation that ruled southern Nigeria. His agents captured slaves across the region and passed them to middlemen, who brought them to the ports of Bonny and Calabar and sold them to white merchants. Slavery had already been abolished in the United States and the United Kingdom, but his slaves were legally shipped to Cuba and Brazil. To win his favor, local leaders gave him their daughters in marriage. (By his death, he had dozens of wives.) His influence drew the attention of colonial officials, who appointed him chief of Umujieze and several other towns. He presided over court cases and set up churches and schools. He built a guesthouse on the land where my parents’ home now stands, and hosted British dignitaries. To inform him of their impending arrival and verify their identities, guests sent him envelopes containing locks of their Caucasian hair.

Funeral rites for a distinguished Igbo man traditionally include the slaying of livestock — usually as many cows as his family can afford. Nwaubani Ogogo was so esteemed that, when he died, a leopard was killed, and six slaves were buried alive with him. My family inherited his canvas shoes, which he wore at a time when few Nigerians owned footwear, and the chains of his slaves, which were so heavy that, as a child, my father could hardly lift them. Throughout my upbringing, my relatives gleefully recounted Nwaubani Ogogo’s exploits. When I was about eight, my father took me to see the row of ugba trees where Nwaubani Ogogo kept his slaves chained up. In the nineteen-sixties, a family friend who taught history at a university in the U.K. saw Nwaubani Ogogo’s name mentioned in a textbook about the slave trade. Even my cousins who lived abroad learned that we had made it into the history books.

At what point is defending Japan no longer worth it?

September 6th, 2019

At what point is defending Japan no longer worth it?, T. Greer asks:

We are in a very grim situation in the West Pacific. If a war started tomorrow there is no guarantee the United States would win it. In fact, unless China started this war already a bit spent in other engagements (say, with Taiwan) it is quite certain we would lose the initial battles.

His new piece out in Foreign Policy explains:

Ten years ago the PLA had fewer than 100 cruise or ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. air bases in Japan; according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent report on the PLA, they now have around 1,000 ballistic or land-attack cruise missiles with this capability.

Missiles like these fly at extreme speeds. In a potential conflict, the first wave would arrive in Japan 6 to 9 minutes after being launched from mobile missile launchers scattered across China. This wave’s target list would include anti-missile and air defense systems, command centers, and communication systems. A review of PLA documents by Ian Easton and Oriana Skylar Mastro reveal a special focus on targeting runways of American bases in Japan. With runways cratered, American aircraft would be stranded, sitting ducks for the next wave of inbound missiles.

Simulations of these attacks are nauseating. In a 2017 report for the Center for a New American Security, Tom Shugart and Javier Gonzales conclude that the missile defense systems of every single American air and naval base in Japan would be overwhelmed by the PLA Rocket Force’s very first volley. They estimate that more than 200 aircraft, almost all fixed American command centers, every U.S. runway, and most of the American fleet at berth would be destroyed—tens of billions of dollars in military equipment gone in less than 30 minutes of fighting. Recent Rand Corp. war games found similar results. In response to the games, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work offered a caustic assessment: “In every case I know of, the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

There is a very real chance that America’s front-line forces would be crippled in the first moments of a conflict with China.

Were ROK troops scary in the Vietnam war?

September 5th, 2019

Someone asked the rather leading question, Were ROK troops scary in the Vietnam war?

The Republic of Korea joined the Vietnam war in 1964 as part of the coalition forces. At its height, there were 48,000 ROK personnel. 320,000 ROK soldiers eventually saw combat in Vietnam with a total of around 16,000 casualties. Only around 4,000 ROK soldiers died in the entire war.

Discovered Vietcong documents warned NVA troops to never engage the South Koreans until full victory was certain. In fact, it was often the South Koreans ambushing the NVA and Vietcong, not vice versa.

ROK counter-insurgency operations were so good that even American commanders felt that South Korean Tactical Areas of Responsibility were the safest bases in Vietnam.

ROK soldiers learned pidgin Vietnamese while on tour due to their distrust of most Vietnamese translators, who they feared were Vietcong spies.

ROK Marines were noted for their more careful planning, greater fire discipline, more effective fire support, and better small unit tactics than their allies.

Village searches by the ROK were terrifying. While Americans would simple do a single sweep with a removal of all civilians for screening at a secure American base, ROK soldiers would conduct several detailed search sweeps and interrogated subjects on the spot. Any hidden weapons in the villages were quickly discovered by ROK troops.

“The Koreans were thorough in their planning and deliberate in their execution of a plan. They usually surrounded an area by stealth and quick movement… The enemy feared the Koreans both for their tactical innovations and for the soldiers’ tenacity… The Koreans might not suffer many casualties, might not get too many of the enemy on an operation, but when they brought in seventy-five or a hundred weapons, the Americans wondered where in the world they got them. They appeared to have a natural nose for picking up enemy weapons that were, as far as the enemy thought, securely cached away. Considered opinion was that it was good the Koreans were ‘friendlies.’”…

—Official U.S. Report on South Korean Participation in Vietnam, 1973

If ordered to take any captives back to base, “airborne interrogation” was frequent, and the number of prisoners when getting off the helicopter was somehow lower than when they got on.

Another answer:

In a word, yes. South Korea (Republic of Korea, a.k.a. ROK) was the US’ largest coalition partner in Vietnam. Most ROK officers and NCOs had ample combat experience from their own war 15 years previous.

My father who was in the Korean War noted that American vets often told him they liked working with ROK troops, observed that ROK sectors were unusually quiet and that ROK units were really good at finding VC and weapons caches.

How and why? My father said, and was rather dismayed to hear from his friends who went to Vietnam that they’d do things like line up a village that had sniped ROK troops, and simply ask “who is VC and where are the weapons?”

If no answer was forthcoming, they’d shoot the first person in line, and the next, and the next, until someone cracked. Yes, brutal, awful, but same tactics as the VC, and probably better than massacres, not that ROK units didn’t do a bit of that as well, same as NVA, VC, and US troops.

In quieter times, ROKs would relate better to the locals than US troops, eating rice together as fellow Asians who’d themselves grew up in war. Ratios of civilians to military killed were similarly high in both wars.

My US MP buddy, ’72, confirms this anecdotally. He said they were patrolling with ROK MPs when a Vietnamese guy started mouthing off to them. The ROK MP drew his .45 and blew the guy away on the spot, no questions asked.

I met a US Navy Corpsman who’d served in Vietnam in a bar few years back. When I told him about my dad, he shook my hand, recalled, “Yeah, the ROKs, I liked those guys, but they were crazy. Really good, absolutely crazy…”

For the record, I don’t think any of this is cute, tough or funny. When you consider the predicament of civilians, or young soldiers fighting a savage counter insurgency it’s all just the tragedy of war, terrible.

I’m glad the US and Vietnam are reconciling these days. Had we supported former OSS operative Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese independence in 1945 rather than handing them back to the French (???) we should have avoided the whole mess.

Contrary to domino theory paranoia the Vietnamese are no big fans of China,

There’s more.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

Do the work, and push pretty hard

September 4th, 2019

Lifting to failure is generally better, but not always:

Amid the confusing torrent of advice about the best ways to build strength, I’ve taken comfort from a series of reassuringly simple studies from McMaster University over the past decade. Researcher Stuart Phillips and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that if you do a series of lifts to failure — that is, until you can’t do another rep — then it doesn’t much matter how heavy the weight is or how many reps you do. As long as you’re maxing out, you’ll gain similar amounts of strength with light or heavy weights.

But there’s an interesting caveat to this advice, according to a new study from a team at East Tennessee State University led by Kevin Carroll, published in Sports: just because you can lift to failure doesn’t mean you always should.

Researchers have previously pointed out that it takes longer to recover from a strength training session when you go to failure than when you stop a few reps short, with negative neuromuscular effects lasting 24 to 48 hours. You also recover more quickly even if you do the exact same number of reps but take a little extra rest halfway so that you don’t quite hit failure. On the surface, this is a trivially obvious point: of course it takes longer to recover if you work harder! The question, though, is whether there’s something particularly damaging or exhausting about going all the way to failure that outweighs the positive training effect you get from working harder.

[...]

So, in summary, two groups doing almost the same training, except one group was hitting failure on the last set of each exercise in every workout. The initial results from this study were published last year, showing that the relative intensity group had greater improvements in maximum strength and vertical jump. The new paper adds a bunch of information based on muscle biopsies and ultrasound, showing a greater increase for the relative intensity group in overall muscle size, the size of individual muscle fibers, and the presence of several key molecular signals of muscle growth.

Before we conclude that failure is bad, there’s one other detail of the training program that’s worth mentioning. While the failure group was hammering away three times a week, the relative intensity group was doing two harder (though not to failure) workouts and one easier workout each week. For example, a max strength workout of three sets of five reps might start at 85 percent for the two hard workouts, but then drop to 70 percent for the easier one.

This seems like a whole different variable thrown into the mix, and it reminds me of a study from Marcas Bamman’s group at the University of Alabama at Birmingham a couple of years ago. In a big study of older adults, he found that doing two harder workouts and one easier workout each week produced better strength gains that just two hard workouts or just three hard workouts a week. He suggested that lingering inflammation in the muscles made the subjects unable to fully benefit from three hard workouts a week. Instead, doing a third easier workout added some fitness gains compared to just two weekly workouts, but still allowed the muscles to recover.

So to me, the message from the new study isn’t necessarily that lifting to failure is bad. It’s that lifting to failure all the time might be counterproductive (and especially so as you get older, Bamman’s results suggest). The point Phillips has been trying to make is that, for the vast majority of us, all the variables that make your head spin — sets, reps, one-rep max percentages, and so on — are utterly minor details compared to the main goal of simply doing the work, and sometimes pushing pretty hard.

Fiction was the most effective way to communicate the essence of totalitarianism

September 3rd, 2019

Duncan White’s Cold Warriors looks at the writers who waged the literary Cold War:

He captures something essential about [novelist Mary] McCarthy, who during the Moscow Trials of the 1930s had defied New York’s Stalinist literary establishment and whose clarity about communism suffered a period of credulity during her fierce protest of American involvement in Vietnam. But a lapse is different from a lifetime of mendacity, and McCarthy’s late-career comment about the Soviet apologist Lillian Hellman — “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’” — remains the most famous line she ever spoke or wrote.

Mr. White’s massive volume begins with the Spanish Civil War, that savage proxy fight between fascism and the U.S.S.R. in the years before the brief, unholy nuptials of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The English poet Stephen Spender, handsome and well-intentioned, went to Spain out of sympathy with the Loyalists and to extract his boyfriend from an imprudent enlistment with the anti-Franco British Battalion. Harry Pollitt, head of England’s Communist Party, thought a dead Spender might make an attractive martyr, and when that didn’t work out converted his disgust over the boyfriend business into leverage for blackmail. Before long Spender “began shuffling backward to liberalism,” eventually contributing an essay to “The God That Failed” (1949), the famous volume of regretful ex-Communist essays edited by Richard Crossman.

Pollitt also distrusted George Orwell ’s motives for going to Spain. As Mr. White explains, “ Orwell said he wanted to see what was going on himself before committing to anything” in what had become “a civil war within the civil war.” When he threw in with Spain’s homegrown Trotskyist POUM instead of the Stalinist International Brigades, Orwell became anathema to Britain’s leftist editors and had a hard time finding a publisher for “Homage to Catalonia” (1938), the memoir of his Spanish experiences.

Throughout this period the Soviets were collectivizing poets and novelists into a Writers’ Union; enforcing the principles of “socialist realism”; denouncing European modernists like Joyce for apolitical experiments in form; and killing off their own new undesirables: The revered short-story writer Isaac Babel met his death after exhibiting “low productivity” of work that conformed to ideological standards. Mr. White unfolds the sordid tale of Soviet literary history through all its later decades of crackdowns, thaws and renewed panics; the shunnings and imprisonments and “internal exile” that claimed Akhmatova, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Andrei Sinyavsky, who pseudonymously published fiction in Western Europe and in 1960 issued a manifesto against socialist realism, was put on trial in 1966 and sentenced to seven years in a labor camp. The New York Times, with its always keen sense of moral proportion when it came to the U.S.S.R., decried Sinyavsky’s treatment as “Soviet McCarthyism.”

The United States, Mr. White makes clear, came late but more subtly to the business of “weaponized” words. In 1950, a year after the Waldorf Conference, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), with financing from the CIA, convened a rival artistic assembly in West Berlin. “Freedom has seized the initiative!” Arthur Koestler cried from the rostrum. Over the next two decades, while the U.S. State Department sent writers behind the Iron Curtain on speaking tours, the CIA secretly funded liberal magazines such as Encounter and helped conduct operations like the one that got “Doctor Zhivago” into the hands of Soviet readers. Russian visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair could quietly obtain a smuggle-ready copy from the Vatican pavilion.

The writers sent abroad by State (Mary McCarthy among them) were hardly middlebrow boosters of Dwight Eisenhower, and a sophisticated irony resided in how “the dynamics of the Cold War made the [U.S.] government the champion of difficult elitist art — that of James Joyce, Jackson Pollock and William Faulkner — in large part because it was banned in Moscow.” Frank Wisner, who directed the CIA’s covert cultural ops, knew that liberal essays published in Encounter would have more credibility and democratic impact than right-wing huzzahs for America. Indeed, Peter Coleman ’s history of the CCF, “The Liberal Conspiracy” (1989), points out how the organization “kept its distance from political conservatism . . . magazines like the American National Review were considered outside the pale.”

The most mournful realization generated by “Cold Warriors” involves the since-diminished potency of literature itself, particularly the novel. Mr. White argues that Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” (1940) revealed to Orwell “that fiction, rather than journalism or memoir, however scrupulous, was the most effective way to communicate the essence of totalitarianism.” Before long Koestler would be pronouncing “Animal Farm” a “glorious and heart-breaking allegory.” Even the Queen Mother read it. A few years later, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) became “not just a novel about the emergent Cold War” but “a part of it.” Orwell may have disliked attempts to turn him into a mascot for capitalism — something that Solzhenitsyn, too, would have to resist — but it was the wide appeal of serious-minded fiction that made him such an attractive ally. Mr. White’s book opens with the CIA, in 1955, making “copies of… Animal Farm rain down from the Communist sky”; they’d been launched toward Poland, in “ten-foot balloons” from West Germany — a genuinely strategic act, not just a gesture.

You have your parents’ tendons

September 2nd, 2019

You have your parents’ tendons:

A study from Ritsumeikan University, home to one of the top collegiate running programs in Japan, looked at injury risk in 24 elite long-distance runners. The researchers weren’t concerned with mileage levels, shoe type, stretching routines, or any of the usual factors we associate with running injuries. Instead, they were focused on spit.

Over the past decade or so, a series of studies have suggested that certain gene variants can affect the structure of your collagen fibrils, the basic building blocks of tendons and ligaments. Some versions of these genes make you less likely to develop problems like Achilles tendinopathy; others make you more likely. Researchers have found, for example, that rugby players who make it to the elite level are more likely to have the tendon-protective gene variants, presumably because those who don’t are more likely to have their careers derailed by injury.

In the new Japanese study, the athletes were asked about their history of tendon and ligaments inflammations and injuries during their university career, then gave a spit sample for DNA analysis. The injury data was compared to five specific variants in four different genes that have previously been associated with tendon and ligament structure. For three of the five variants, those with the “bad” version were indeed significantly more likely to have suffered tendon and ligament injuries. (The fourth variant didn’t have any predictive value in this group, and the fifth didn’t yield any information because all the runners in the study had the same version of the gene.)

Given previous research, these results aren’t particular surprising. The question is what you do with this information. There are companies that offer personal genetic testing that includes some of these gene variants (COL5A1 was the best predictor in this study), so you can find out your status and…do what, exactly?

In a review of the field a few years ago, some of the leading researchers suggested  that, rather than getting a DNA test, you should simply be aware of whether you have a personal or family history of tendon and ligament injuries. Either way, it’s worth thinking about what you would change in your training if you suddenly discovered that your tendons were, say, 10 or 20 percent more likely to get inflamed compared to the average person. If you think you would start doing more stretching or strengthening or icing or “listening to your body” or whatever, then my question is simple: why aren’t you doing that already?