The Push to Diversify Gifted-and-Talented Programs

December 3rd, 2016

The push to diversify gifted-and-talented programs is on:

The Department of Education has allowed the highly sought-after school [the Brooklyn School of Inquiry] to set aside 40 percent of its kindergarten seats specifically for low-income children.

[...]

Citywide, about 77 percent of students are poor and almost 70 percent are black or Hispanic. Last year, BSI’s poverty rate was 23 percent, and less than 10 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The disparity is not unique to BSI, or to gifted education. Citywide, about 73 percent of gifted students are white or Asian, and the poverty rate averages around 43 percent.

There are almost no students in the city’s gifted programs who are learning English, have special needs, or are in temporary housing. Put together, they make up less than 10 percent.

“What we have right now is something we should be ashamed of,” said James Borland, who directs gifted-education programs at Teachers College at Columbia University.

We should be ashamed of the fact that almost no students in the city’s gifted programs are learning English, have special needs, or are in temporary housing. Clearly.

There’s no getting off this policy treadmill:

Districts used to be able to set their own admissions criteria for gifted programs. That changed in 2007, when the city standardized entry based on test scores, in part to increase diversity. A non-verbal test, also intended to address inequities, was added in 2012. Yet today’s gifted programs remain segregated.

Gifted programs are often seen as a way to help integrate schools:

“It is a way to attract white, higher-income families to a school. But once you do that, it’s like gentrifying a school,” she said. “You walk down the hallway, and you can tell which classroom is gifted and talented and which classroom is general education.”

How Stable Are Democracies?

December 2nd, 2016

How stable are democracies? Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, and Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, have developed a three-factor formula to answer that question:

The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.

If support for democracy was falling while the other two measures were rising, the researchers marked that country “deconsolidating.” And they found that deconsolidation was the political equivalent of a low-grade fever that arrives the day before a full-blown case of the flu.

Venezuela, for instance, enjoyed the highest possible scores on Freedom House’s measures of political rights and democracy in the 1980s. But those democratic practices were not deeply rooted. During that apparent period of stability, Venezuela already scored as deconsolidating on the Mounk-Foa test.

Since then, Venezuelan democracy has declined significantly. In 1992, a faction of the Venezuelan military loyal to Hugo Chávez attempted a coup against the democratically elected government. Mr. Chávez was elected president in 1998 on a wave of populist support, and he immediately passed a new constitution that consolidated his power. His government cracked down on dissent, imprisoned political opponents and shredded the country’s economy with a series of ill-planned economic overhauls.

Likewise, when Poland joined the European Union in 2004, it was hailed as an especially strong example of a post-Communist country making the transition to consolidated democracy. But Mr. Mounk and Mr. Foa found strong signs of deconsolidation during that period: As early as 2005, nearly 16 percent of Poles said they believed democracy was a “bad” or “fairly bad” way of running the country. By 2012, 22 percent of respondents said that they supported army rule. And in the mid-2000s, a series of antisystem parties began to gain traction in Polish politics, including Law and Justice, Self-Defense of the Republic of Poland, and the League of Polish Families.

Today, that fever is starting to look a lot like the flu. Law and Justice, which won the presidency and a parliamentary majority in 2015, has systematically weakened democratic institutions.

Their key finding:

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

Finding the Real Rasputin

December 2nd, 2016

The myth-busting of Douglas Smith’s Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs begins in Siberia, where Rasputin was born:

He was a wild youth, but not — police reports unearthed by the author show — the hardened criminal portrayed by his adversaries in St. Petersburg 40 years later. He was self-educated, late in life, but not illiterate. He developed a penchant for pilgrimages: They offered a way out of Siberian obscurity. His religious belief deepened, as did his pastoral touch: He had a knack for connecting with people of all stations in life.

Unfortunately for Russia, the bored and credulous members of the aristocracy were ripe for distraction. Rasputin was not the first mystic to thrill the drawing rooms of St. Petersburg, but he was the one whose attraction proved the most enduring and far-reaching. He clearly had some remarkable gifts — “powers” would be putting it too strongly. His hypnotic stare is well-attested. He had a disconcerting but engaging (and, one suspects, well-practiced) conversational style.

Crucially, he also had a knack for seeming to treat the hemophilia that afflicted the czarevitch Alexei, an illness that drove his already neurotic mother to the brink of madness. Rasputin’s faith-healing abilities may, in truth, have consisted of sparing the poor child the attentions of meddling doctors, but they earned him the fierce loyalty and affection of both Nicholas and Alexandra.

And possibly more. The Russian public became convinced that the mad monk’s intimacy with the royal family included carnal knowledge of the czar’s wife and daughters. Though that claim is unproved, and some of the most lurid stories of his orgies are clearly false, Rasputin undoubtedly enjoyed unabashed, abundant and mostly consensual sexual relations with more than a few high-born women — not to mention prostitutes — in a way that scarcely befitted his trademark asceticism. The common accusation against Rasputin is thus that he corrupted Russian high society. It would be fairer, Mr. Smith argues, to say that it was the fleshpots of St. Petersburg that corrupted Rasputin, originally a humble and holy visitor.

Mr. Smith also refutes the theory that the blame for Russia’s downfall lies with Rasputin. He quotes a czarist deputy minister saying that Rasputin’s advice could be “simplistic and naïve” but that it was not “remotely harmful.” Rasputin was at worst a distracting influence, on some issues a positive one. He strongly opposed Russia’s entry into World War I. He decried prejudice against poor people — for example, a characteristically mean-minded ban on humble enlisted soldiers using public transportation in St. Petersburg. By the standards of the time he was remarkably tolerant towards gays, Jews and Muslims. He preferred plain food, was not notably unhygienic in his personal habits, did many unsung good deeds and genuinely loved his country.

[...]

The machinations against Rasputin would have done little to avert catastrophe, but his murder may have prompted it. The plotters believed that, without Rasputin, Alexandra would be so broken-hearted that she would go mad (or at least withdraw from politics), paving the way for a constitutional monarchy. Those hopes were as exaggerated as the story of the assassination itself. The poison, it turns out, was a plot detail invented later: Rasputin was simply lured to a dinner with a promise of an aristocrat’s wife, shot in the head and dumped in a canal. For many hard-pressed Russians, the murder of the only peasant ever to make it to the Romanovs’ court exemplified all that was rotten and unfair about the system. Within weeks, the Romanovs were toppled. The next year they were dead. When the Bolshevik murderers looted the bodies, they found sewn into the hems the topaz stones given to them by the family’s fascinating, wayward and beloved spiritual guide.

Waiting Is Torture

December 1st, 2016

Waiting is torture:

SOME years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

This story hints at a general principle: the experience of waiting, whether for luggage or groceries, is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait. “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” notes the M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines. Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). Research on queuing has shown that, on average, people overestimate how long they’ve waited in a line by about 36 percent.

This is also why one finds mirrors next to elevators. The idea was born during the post-World War II boom, when the spread of high-rises led to complaints about elevator delays. The rationale behind the mirrors was similar to the one used at the Houston airport: give people something to occupy their time, and the wait will feel shorter. With the mirrors, people could check their hair or slyly ogle other passengers. And it worked: almost overnight, the complaints ceased.

The drudgery of unoccupied time also accounts in large measure for the popularity of impulse-buy items, which earn supermarkets about $5.5 billion annually. The tabloids and packs of gum offer relief from the agony of waiting.

The biggest mystery of the American Revolution

December 1st, 2016

The biggest mystery of the American Revolution is, Why couldn’t both sides arrive at a peaceful compromise?

The prosperous American colonies were a jewel of the British Empire. If the Americans were so incensed at their lack of representation, there seemed to be an obvious solution — just bring the colonists into Parliament.

Economists Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens think they understand why that never happened. In a new working paper, they analyze the American Revolution through the lens of game theory, the mathematical study of strategy and conflict.

[...]

For the British, the main headache was that the colonies weren’t pulling their own weight. In the 1750s and 1760s, the British spent millions of pounds raising armies to defend the North American colonies against the French in the Seven Years’ War. Parliament subsequently demanded that the lightly-taxed Americans should contribute more to the costs of their own defense.

This was a reasonable idea, Smith argued. And the new taxes were still a pittance compared to what people paid in England. Parliament had never demanded of the colonists anything “which even approached to a just proportion to what was paid by their fellow subjects at home,” Smith noted in his book, which was published in 1776, not quite a year into the American Revolution.

Still, Smith was an advocate for harmony and economic efficiency. If the Americans would not pay taxes without political representation, he argued that the most practical solution was to acquiesce. He recommended that Britain should grant the colonies some number of seats in Parliament, depending on how much they contributed in taxes.

He wasn’t the only one to come up with this idea. In the run-up to the Revolution, several similar proposals had circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. The British politician Thomas Pownall dreamed of a merged Parliament, a “Grand Marine Dominion, consisting of our possessions in the Atlantic, and in America, united into a one Empire.” In 1754, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “such a union would be very acceptable to the colonies, provided they had a reasonable number of representatives allowed them.”

So why didn’t any of these plans come through?

Galiani and Torrens argue that political considerations in Britain wrecked any chance of Americans gaining seats in Parliament. “It was not that such a deal was impossible to reach, or that it was completely crazy,” Torrens said in an interview. “Part of the problem is that this would have consequences for the internal politics of the British empire.”

As they discuss in their paper, the British Parliament at the time was dominated by wealthy landowners, who feared that the nation’s growing democratic movement would diminish their power. The common folk, who made up most of the country, were agitating for more say and more representation in Parliament.

“The landed gentry, who controlled the incumbent government, feared that making concessions to the American colonies would intensify the pressure for democratic reforms, thus jeopardizing their economic and political position,” the economists argue.

“There was this slippery-slope argument,” Torrens said. “How could they give representation to the Americans, while many common people in London did not have proper representation?”

In fact, there were populist factions in the British government who welcomed the colonists — in part, it seems, because they thought the Americans would make good allies. It was a volatile period. According to Galiani and Torrens, the ruling class in Britain believed it was better to risk a war and the loss of some colonies than to risk losing control of the entire empire to a political coalition of the lowborn and landless. Their paper’s contribution is to illustrate the strategic logic behind this decision.

The Real War on Science

November 30th, 2016

John Tierney’s liberal friends sometimes ask him why he doesn’t devote more of his science journalism to the sins of the Right:

My friends don’t like my answer: because there isn’t much to write about. Conservatives just don’t have that much impact on science. I know that sounds strange to Democrats who decry Republican creationists and call themselves the “party of science.” But I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the Left’s indictments, including Chris Mooney’s bestseller, The Republican War on Science. I finished it with the same question about this war that I had at the outset: Where are the casualties?

Read the whole thing.

Suez, the RAF, and the Royal Navy

November 30th, 2016

The Suez conflict provided lessons for British strategy and defence policy — beyond the long list of things not to do:

Since the early 1950s, the role of the Royal Navy and even of sea power more broadly had come under concerted attack in Whitehall. The Air Ministry pushed hard for a narrow focus on the early, nuclear stage of a total war with the USSR – for which, as it happened, the RAF’s cherished medium bomber force was well suited. This approach left little room for naval power; why seek to defend sea communications when the war would be settled quickly, by nuclear weapons? Some senior politicians and civil servants were convinced of the strategic logic of this case, while others went along with an approach that appeared to offer significant savings in defence spending. The Admiralty put up a spirited counter-case arguing that defence policy could not plan only for total war, let alone for only one form that such a war might take. Conventional forces, it insisted, including naval power, were an indispensable part of the deterrent to war; they would be essential to fighting any war if Britain was to survive; and they were vital for waging the cold war, which was bound to continue and even intensify as total war became less likely. The strategic logic of the Admiralty case was compelling but the financial implications were unpalatable; the Navy held on but only just and the assaults kept coming. Suez provided a much needed reality check.

First, it was a reminder that while deterring or fighting total war with the Soviet Union was bound to be the main focus for policy, it was not the only game in town. Britain and the West more broadly had interests around the world that were important in their own right, as well as having a potential connection to the cold war. Indeed, with a deliberate resort to war by the USSR being viewed as unlikely, preventing the outbreak of minor conflicts that could escalate became an important element of avoiding war. The Suez crisis both demonstrated the need for military intervention overseas and also shed a harsh light on existing British capabilities for such operations.

The second question concerned how such intervention should be conducted. Britain had hitherto relied on garrisons stationed overseas and on the use of air bases. These were expensive to maintain and as pillars of a strategy for intervention, they were being increasingly shaken by nationalism and decolonisation, resulting in the loss of bases or tight restrictions on their use. A potential ‘air barrier’ across the Middle East further complicated the British response to any crisis in the Gulf, Indian Ocean or Far East, reducing the utility of any UK-based strategic reserve. In response to these developments, the Admiralty was beginning to propose that the Royal Navy could take the lead ‘east of Suez’ with maritime task forces, based around carrier air power and amphibious capabilities, which would provide a stabilizing influence and a capacity for intervention. This vision appealed to those wanting a cheaper strategy as well as accommodating the reality of reducing access to overseas bases. It suited the Air Ministry which, focused on nuclear-armed bombers, was entirely content to see conventional, expeditionary air power fall primarily to the Fleet Air Arm. It also gave the Royal Navy a clear and viable role which attracted wider political support – at the same time as preserving capabilities that the Admiralty continued to see as essential for total war; hot war was de-emphasised in favour of warm and cold war.

Uganda to shut down Zuckerberg-funded schools

November 29th, 2016

No good deed goes unpunished in Uganda:

Uganda’s High Court has described the Bridge International Academies (BIA) — which is funded by the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — as unsanitary and unqualified, and has ordered it to close its doors in December because it ignored Uganda’s national standards and put the “life and safety” of its 12,000 young students on the line.

The Director of Education Standards for the Ministry, Huzaifa Mutazindwa, told CNN that the nursery and primary schools were not licensed, the teachers weren’t qualified and that there was no record of its curriculum being approved.

“The Ministry does not know what is being taught in these schools which is a point of concern to (the) government,” Mutazindwa said.

Adam Curtis and the Secret History of Everything

November 29th, 2016

Jonathan Lethem looks at Adam Curtis and the Secret History of Everything:

He’s a cult figure in England, but he has access. The BBC is the greatest broadcasting organization in the world. In ‘Bitter Lake,’ he had all the material. He’s standing in the right place, inside that archive.” Even among those skeptical of Curtis’s narratives, his masterly use of the BBC archive — his uncanny capacity to excavate sequences from the dark side of journalism’s moon and the expressive power he finds in their juxtaposition — produces awe. Curtis possesses a “dazzlingly acute eye,” wrote Andrew Anthony in The Observer, even as he accused him of “superimposing his own creative theory as journalistic fact.”

Curtis is justly proud of his adeptness in the archives: “It’s all stored in a giant warehouse on the outskirts of West London, deliberately kept anonymous. It’s the biggest film archive in the world. The cataloging is good, although it’s been done at different stages. But, because the BBC is an organization that has a vast global news output, I discovered that, throughout the 1980s, there were these giant two-inch videotapes, called COMP tapes, onto which satellites would just dump stuff overnight. And they’re not well cataloged. You can go to a news item and see; if there was a COMP tape for that day, you can order it up. Those two-inch tapes start to degrade, but they’ve been transferred, and they’re amazing.”

[...]

Curtis grew up in Platt, North Kent, just outside Greater London. His father was a cinematographer who worked with the British documentarian Humphrey Jennings, with the “Death Wish” director Michael Winner and on “The Buccaneers,” a pirate-themed television program starring Robert Shaw. Curtis’s family was left-wing. “According to family talk,” he said, his great-uncle was a committed Trotskyite. His socialist grandfather, meanwhile, “would stand as a member of Parliament for seats he would never, ever win — and he did it every election.”

Curtis earned a degree in the human sciences at Oxford, then briefly taught there. Unsatisfied with academia, he took a job at the BBC, eventually going to work in the early ’80s as a segment producer on “That’s Life!” a kind of cross between “60 Minutes” and “Candid Camera.” There, Curtis learned his craft. “One week I was sent up to Edinburgh to film a singing dog,” he said. “His owner said that when he played the bagpipes, the dog would sing Scottish songs. We set the camera up. The owner dressed up in a kilt and started to play the bagpipes. The dog refused to sing. It just sat there looking at me just saying nothing. It just sat there, with a really smug look on its face. This went on for about two hours.” Curtis phoned his producer. “She said: ‘Darling, that is wonderful. Don’t you see that the dog refusing to sing for a man dressed up in a kilt is actually very funny? Go back and keep filming. Film the dog doing nothing. But film the man as well.’”

“So I did. We ran a long close-up shot of the dog’s face with the sound of out-of-tune bagpipes. It was quite avant-garde, but the audience loved it, especially when you cut it against the face of the man puffing at the bagpipes who genuinely believed that the dog was about to sing.

“That time with a dog taught me the fundamental basics of journalism. That what really happens is the key thing; you mustn’t try and force the reality in front of you into a predictable story. What you should do is notice what is happening in front of your eyes, and what instinctively your reaction is. And my reaction was that I hated the dog as it looked at me silently. So I made a short film about that.”

Despite his Oxford education, a hint of a provincial resentment defines Curtis’s attitudes toward London’s cultural intelligentsia. Americans might model this as the “John Lennon syndrome” (as opposed to the sense of ease and entitlement exhibited by, say, Mick Jagger). “The snooty people disagree with me,” he said. “The posh literary lot. They don’t like me because they think I’m not elegant and literary and I don’t make enough references. And what I do is I play fast and loose — not with the facts, they’re not interested in that — but with my aesthetic responses. I put pop music, David Bowie, in the middle of an Afghan film. It’s all a bit vulgar.”

Read the whole thing, if you’ve enjoyed Curtis’s works.

What has become of conservatism?

November 28th, 2016

What has become of conservatism?, Nick Cohen asks — in the not-so-conservative Guardian:

Conservatives once boasted that they were the grown-ups, even if they did say so themselves. They conserved the best of the past and believed in the sensible management of the world as it is, rather than in dangerous fantasies about the world as it might be. Hold out as their opponents might, eventually they would understand that conservatism was just common sense.

“Once again, the facts of life have turned out to be Tory,” declared Margaret Thatcher in 1976, as she prepared for one of the long periods of Conservative rule that have dominated British history since the 1880s. Dozens of respectable figures have agreed and played with variations on the theme of: “If you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart. If you are still a socialist at 40, you have no head.” Conservatives have condescended to allow that sensible people might have wild ideas about subjects they know nothing about. But as Robert Conquest, the great historian of the crimes of communism, said in the first of his three laws of politics: “Everyone is a conservative about what he knows best.”

English conservatives, who are by no means confined to supporters of the Conservative party, have the best reason to be smug. Conservatism supplied the dominant version of the English national story. It helped ensure that the Conservative party was, in a phrase that said it all, “the natural party of government”.

The English, a category they could expand to cover the Scots and the Welsh, but never the Irish, have not had a revolution since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution was glorious because it did not lead to civil war. (Ireland is always forgotten, as I said.) The country or, rather its ruling class, peacefully removed James II, a Catholic Stuart with pretensions to absolute rule, and assured the triumph of parliamentary government by replacing him with the Protestant William III.

In his speech to the (then all-male and all-wealthy) electors of Bristol in 1774, Edmund Burke explained the ideals of parliamentary government. An MP was their representative, not their delegate. He owed the voters only “his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

Burke’s denunciation of the French Revolution 16 years later, heralded a further strand to the story of England as a safe, sensible nation. When Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, his contemporaries thought him mad to predict that an apparently benign revolution would end in “despotism”. By the time Robespierre began the reign of terror of 1793, he looked like a prophet.

Ever since then, Anglo-Saxon conservatives have been able to believe, with a smidgen of justice, that continentals had the guillotines of the 1790s and the death camps and gulags of the 1930s and 1940s because of their utopian willingness to tear up society by the roots. The pragmatic, empirical and, above all, conservative British were spared because we favoured a respect for tradition and gradual change.

You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division

November 28th, 2016

Erin Simpson loves Mattis, but not as SecDef:

Among those in the Marine Corps I taught and deployed with, Gen. (ret.) Jim Mattis is a legend. The quotes, the foxholes, the knife hands. Everyone has their favorite story. I once handed Mattis a Diet Coke out of a cooler at Quantico. A mundane act? Yes. But I’ve remembered it fondly for 12 years.

He is Chaos, Mad Dog, and the warrior monk. But we should not add secretary of defense to that list.

I have long thought of Mattis as a “break glass in case of emergency” type of leader. He was uniquely suited to his roles in the early years of the War on Terror. He is a warrior and a leader of men in the application of violence. He is not, however, a man for all seasons. Many in defense circles have been so overjoyed as the prospect of a qualified secretary, that they seemed to have forgotten to stop and ask if Mattis would, in fact, be right for the job. He is not a politician, or a wonk, or a bureaucrat. To ask him to be any of those things would be like trying to keep a wave upon the sand.

As with all nominees, there are tradeoffs to Mattis running the Defense Department. He is a strategic thinker with a strong sense of history — his library is one of those aforementioned legends. He is a well-regarded leader who inspires fierce loyalty. But I fear Mattis may be wasted atop the vast expanse of the Pentagon. There are ultimately three primary reasons why we shouldn’t hope Chaos becomes secretary of defense.

1. Mattis is a recently retired general and is therefore statutorily prohibited from serving as secretary of defense. And while a legislative solution is possible, this law exists for good reasons and overriding it bodes poorly for long-term civil-military relations.

2. Warfighters rarely make good bureaucrats. The Pentagon is one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, and Mattis has shown little patience for management and administration.

3. His boss won’t listen.

[...]

The point is not that Mattis is unqualified. Rather, the point is that he hates this shit. Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary’s job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division.

How Two Trailblazing Psychologists Turned the World of Decision Science Upside Down

November 27th, 2016

Michael Lewis explains how two trailblazing psychologists turned the world of decision science upside down:

Danny was always sure he was wrong. Amos was always sure he was right. Amos was the life of every party; Danny didn’t go to the parties. Amos was loose and informal; even when Danny made a stab at informality, it felt as if he had descended from some formal place. With Amos you always just picked up where you left off, no matter how long it had been since you last saw him. With Danny there was always a sense you were starting over, even if you had been with him just yesterday. Amos was tone-deaf but would nevertheless sing Hebrew folk songs with great gusto. Danny was the sort of person who might be in possession of a lovely singing voice that he would never discover. Amos was a one-man wrecking ball for illogical arguments; when Danny heard an illogical argument, he asked, What might that be true of? Danny was a pessimist. Amos was not merely an optimist; Amos willed himself to be optimistic, because he had decided pessimism was stupid. When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice, Amos liked to say. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens. “They were very different people,” said a fellow Hebrew University professor. “Danny was always eager to please. He was irritable and short-tempered, but he wanted to please. Amos couldn’t understand why anyone would be eager to please. He understood courtesy, but eager to please—why?” Danny took everything so seriously; Amos turned much of life into a joke. When Hebrew University put Amos on its committee to evaluate all Ph.D. candidates, he was appalled at what passed for a dissertation in the humanities. Instead of raising a formal objection, he merely said, “If this dissertation is good enough for its field, it’s good enough for me. Provided the student can divide fractions!”

The piece is adapted from The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.

Too Much Radioactive Stuff in One Place

November 27th, 2016

The original radioactive boy scout piece from Harper’s goes into a fair amount of detail, if you keep reading:

Armed with information from his friends in government and industry, David typed up a list of sources for fourteen radioactive isotopes. Americium-241, he learned from the Boy Scout atomic-energy booklet, could be found in smoke detectors; radium-226, in antique luminous dial clocks; uranium-238 and minute quantities of uranium-235, in a black ore called pitchblende; and thorium-232, in Coleman-style gas lanterns.

To obtain americium-241, David contacted smoke-detector companies and claimed that he needed a large number of the devices for a school project. One company agreed to sell him about a hundred broken detectors for a dollar apiece. (He also tried to “collect” detectors while at scout camp.) David wasn’t sure where the americium-241 was located, so he wrote to BRK Electronics in Aurora, Illinois. A customer-service representative named Beth Weber wrote back to say she’d be happy to help out with “your report.” She explained that each detector contains only a tiny amount of americium-241, which is sealed in a gold matrix “to make sure that corrosion does not break it down and release it.” Thanks to Weber’s tip, David extracted the americium components and then welded them together with a blowtorch.

As it decays, americium-241 emits alpha rays composed of protons and neutrons. David put the lump of americium inside a hollow block of lead with a tiny hole pricked in one side so that alpha rays would stream out. In front of the lead block he placed a sheet of aluminum. Aluminum atoms absorb alpha rays and in the process kick out neutrons. Since neutrons have no charge, and thus cannot be measured by a Geiger counter, David had no way of knowing whether the gun was working until he recalled that paraffin throws off protons when hit by neutrons. David aimed the apparatus at some paraffin, and his Geiger counter registered what he assumed was a proton stream. His neutron gun, crude but effective, was ready.

With neutron gun in hand, David was ready to irradiate. He could have concentrated on transforming previously non-radioactive elements, but in a decision that was both indicative of his personality and instrumental to his later attempt to build a breeder reactor, he wanted to use the gun on radioisotopes to increase the chances of making them fissionable. He thought that uranium-235, which is used in atomic weapons, would provide the “biggest reaction.” He scoured hundreds of miles of upper Michigan in his Pontiac looking for “hot rocks” with his Geiger counter, but all he could find was a quarter trunkload of pitchblende on the shores of Lake Huron. Deciding to pursue a more bureaucratic approach, he wrote to a Czechoslovakian firm that sells uranium to commercial and university buyers, whose name was provided, he told me, by the NRC. Claiming to be a professor buying materials for a nuclear-research laboratory, he obtained a few samples of a black ore—either pitchblende or uranium dioxide, both of which contain small amounts of uranium-235 and uranium-238.

David pulverized the ores with a hammer, thinking that he could then use nitric acid to isolate uranium. Unable to find a commercial source for nitric acid—probably because it is used in the manufacture of explosives and thus is tightly controlled—David made his own by heating saltpeter and sodium bisulfate, then bubbling the gas that was released through a container of water, producing nitric acid. He then mixed the acid with the powdered ore and boiled it, ending up with something that “looked like a dirty milk shake.” Next he poured the “milk shake” through a coffee filter, hoping that the uranium would pass through the filter. But David miscalculated uranium’s solubility, and whatever amount was present was trapped in the filter, making it difficult to purify further.

Frustrated at his inability to isolate sufficient supplies of uranium, David turned his attention to thorium-232, which when bombarded with neutrons produces uranium-233, a man-made fissionable element (and, although he might not have known it then, one that can be substituted for plutonium in breeder reactors). Discovered in 1828 and named after the Norse god Thor, thorium has a very high melting point, and is thus used in the manufacture of airplane engine parts that reach extremely high temperatures. David knew from his merit-badge pamphlet that the “mantle” used in commercial gas lanterns—the part that looks like a doll’s stocking and conducts the flame—is coated with a compound containing thorium-232. He bought thousands of lantern mantles from surplus stores and, using the blowtorch, reduced them into a pile of ash.

David still had to isolate the thorium-232 from the ash. Fortunately, he remembered reading in one of his dad’s chemistry books that lithium is prone to binding with oxygen—meaning, in this context, that it would rob thorium dioxide of its oxygen content and leave a cleaner form of thorium. David purchased $1,000 worth of lithium batteries and extracted the element by cutting the batteries in half with a pair of wire cutters. He placed the lithium and thorium dioxide together in a ball of aluminum foil and heated the ball with a Bunsen burner. Eureka! David’s method purified thorium to at least 9,000 times the level found in nature and 170 times the level that requires NRC licensing.

At this point, David could have used his americium neutron gun to transform thorium-232 into fissionable uranium-233. But the americium he had was not capable of producing enough neutrons, so he began preparing radium for an improved irradiating gun.

Radium was used in paint that rendered luminescent the faces of clocks and automobile and airplane instrument panels until the late 1960s, when it was discovered that many clock painters, who routinely licked their brushes to make a fine point, died of cancer. David began visiting junkyards and antiques stores in search of radium-coated dashboard panels or clocks. Once he found such an item, he’d chip paint from the instruments and collect it in pill vials. It was slow going until one day, driving through Clinton Township to visit his girlfriend, Heather, he noticed that his Geiger counter went wild as he passed Gloria’s Resale Boutique/Antique. The proprietor, Gloria Genette, still recalls the day when she was called at home by a store employee who said that a polite young man was anxious to buy an old table clock with a tinted green dial but wondered if she’d come down in price. She would. David bought the clock for $10. Inside he discovered a vial of radium paint left behind by a worker either accidentally or as a courtesy so that the clock’s owner could touch up the dial when it began to fade. David was so overjoyed that he dropped by the boutique later that night to leave a note for Gloria, telling her that if she received another “luminus [sic] clock” to contact him immediately. “I will pay any some [sic] of money to obtain one.”

To concentrate the radium, David secured a sample of barium sulfate from the X-ray ward at a local hospital (staff there handed over the substance because they remembered him from his merit-badge project) and heated it until it liquefied. After mixing the barium sulfate with the radium paint chips, he strained the brew through a coffee filter into a beaker that began to glow. This time, David had judged the solubility of the two substances correctly; the radium solution passed through to the beaker. He then dehydrated the solution into crystalline salts, which he could pack into the cavity of another lead block to build a new gun.

Whether David fully realized it or not, by handling purified radium he was truly putting himself in danger. Nevertheless, he now proceeded to acquire another neutron emitter to replace the aluminum used in his previous neutron gun. Faithful to Erb’s instructions, he secured a strip of beryllium (which is a much richer source of neutrons than aluminum) from the chemistry department at Macomb Community College—a friend who attended the school swiped it for him—and placed it in front of the lead block that held the radium. His cute little americium gun was now a more powerful radium gun. David began to bombard his thorium and uranium powders in the hopes of producing at least some fissionable atoms. He measured the results with his Geiger counter, but while the thorium seemed to grow more radioactive, the uranium remained a disappointment.

Once again, “Professor Hahn” sprang into action, writing his old friend Erb at the NRC to discuss the problem. The NRC had the answer. David’s neutrons were too “fast” for the uranium).

He would have to slow them down using a filter of water, deuterium, or tritium. Water would have sufficed, but David likes a challenge. Consulting his list of commercially available radioactive sources, he discovered that tritium, a radioactive material used to boost the power of nuclear weapons, is found in glow-in-the-dark gun and bow sights, which David promptly bought from sporting-goods stores and mail-order catalogues. He removed the tritium contained in a waxy substance inside the sights, and then, using a variety of pseudonyms, returned the sights to the store or manufacturer for repair—each time collecting another tiny quantity of tritium. When he had enough, David smeared the waxy substance over the beryllium strip and targeted the gun at uranium powder. He carefully monitored the results with his Geiger counter over several weeks, and it appeared that the powder was growing more radioactive by the day.

Now seventeen, David hit on the idea of building a model breeder reactor. He knew that without a critical pile of at least thirty pounds of enriched uranium he had no chance of initiating a sustained chain reaction, but he was determined to get as far as he could by trying to get his various radioisotopes to interact with one another. That way, he now says, “no matter what happened there would be something changing into something—some kind of action going on there.” His blueprint was a schematic of a checkerboard breeder reactor he’d seen in one of his father’s college textbooks. Ignoring any thought of safety, David took the highly radioactive radium and americium out of their respective lead casings and, after another round of filing and pulverizing, mixed those isotopes with beryllium and aluminum shavings, all of which he wrapped in aluminum foil. What were once the neutron sources for his guns became a makeshift “core” for his reactor. He surrounded this radioactive ball with a “blanket” composed of tiny foil-wrapped cubes of thorium ash and uranium powder, which were stacked in an alternating pattern with carbon cubes and tenuously held together with duct tape.

David monitored his “breeder reactor” at the Golf Manor laboratory with his Geiger counter. “It was radioactive as heck,” he says. “The level of radiation after a few weeks was far greater than it was at the time of assembly. I know I transformed some radioactive materials. Even though there was no critical pile, I know that some of the reactions that go on in a breeder reactor went on to a minute extent.”

Finally, David, whose safety precautions had thus far consisted of wearing a makeshift lead poncho and throwing away his clothes and changing his shoes following a session in the potting shed, began to realize that, sustained reaction or not, he could be putting himself and others in danger. (One tip-off was when the radiation was detectable through concrete.) Jim Miller, a nuclear-savvy high-school friend in whom David had confided, warned him that real reactors use control rods to regulate nuclear reactions. Miller recommended cobalt, which absorbs neutrons but does not itself become fissionable. “Reactors get hot, it’s just a fact,” Miller, a nervous, skinny twenty-two-year-old, said during an interview at a Burger King in Clinton Township where he worked as a cook. David purchased a set of cobalt drill bits at a local hardware store and inserted them between the thorium and uranium cubes. But the cobalt wasn’t sufficient. When his Geiger counter began picking up radiation five doors down from his mom’s house, David decided that he had “too much radioactive stuff in one place” and began to disassemble the reactor. He placed the thorium pellets in a shoebox that he hid in his mother’s house, left the radium and americium in the shed, and packed most of the rest of his equipment into the trunk of the Pontiac 6000.

In light of recent news, this jumps out:

Back in 1995, the EPA arranged for David to undergo a full examination at the nearby Fermi nuclear power plant. David, fearful of what he might learn, refused. Now, though, he’s looking ahead. “I wanted to make a scratch in life,” he explains when I ask him about his early years of nuclear research. “I’ve still got time. I don’t believe I took more than five years off of my life.”

Cognitive Control As a Double-Edged Sword

November 26th, 2016

A recent study looks at cognitive control as a double-edged sword:

Cognitive control, the ability to limit attention to goal-relevant information, aids performance on a wide range of laboratory tasks. However, there are many day-to-day functions which require little to no control and others which even benefit from reduced control. We review behavioral and neuroimaging evidence demonstrating that reduced control can enhance the performance of both older and, under some circumstances, younger adults. Using healthy aging as a model, we demonstrate that decreased cognitive control benefits performance on tasks ranging from acquiring and using environmental information to generating creative solutions to problems. Cognitive control is thus a double-edged sword – aiding performance on some tasks when fully engaged, and many others when less engaged.

Why Saddam and Gaddafi Failed to get the Bomb

November 26th, 2016

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, author of Unclear Physics, explains why Saddam and Gaddafi failed to get the Bomb:

While dictators with weak states can easily decide that they want nuclear weapons, they will find it difficult to produce them. Why? Personalist dictators like Saddam and Gaddafi weaken formal state institutions in order to concentrate power in their own hands. This helps them remain in power for longer, but makes their states inefficient. Weak states have fewer instruments to set up and manage complex technical programs. They lack the basic institutional capability to plan, execute, and review complicated technical projects. As a result, their leaders can be led to believe that the nuclear weapons program is doing great while, in fact, nothing is working out. In Libya, for example, scientists worked throughout the 1980s to produce centrifuges, with zero results.

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As my book shows, these programs were afflicted with capacity problems at every stage, from initial planning to their final dismantlement. These problems were worse in Libya than in Iraq, because Gaddafi dismantled most state institutions as part of his Cultural Revolution during the 1970s. Saddam created a bloated state that was difficult to navigate for his officials, with competing agencies and programs blaming each other for various problems as these emerged. This made oversight difficult, from Saddam’s point of view, and caused endless infighting and backstabbing inside the Iraqi nuclear program. As a result, scientists spent days in endless meetings, blaming each other for delays, rather than working together as a team to solve problems they were facing.

Even when Saddam tried to put more pressure on his scientists to deliver results, he failed. After Israel destroyed a research reactor complex in Iraq in June 1981, Saddam became more determined to get nuclear weapons. But the program made little progress. In 1985, his leading scientists promised Saddam that they would achieve a major breakthrough by 1990 – without specifying what exactly they would achieve by that time. By 1987, it was clear that they would not be able to make a significant breakthrough by the deadline. This created plenty of shouting and conflict inside the program, and led to an in-house restructuring, but even at this stage no one was willing to tell Saddam the bad news. When the delays could no longer be denied, the scientists blamed another agency. This was a strategic blunder – because this agency was led by Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamil. Saddam put Kamil in charge of the nuclear weapons program. Even Kamil, who was notoriously brutal against his employees, became so frustrated with the nuclear program that he threatened to imprison anyone found to intentionally cause delays. Tellingly, this threat was never implemented.

In contrast, Libyan scientists often did not show up for work. The regime couldn’t just fire them, partly because there were too few scientists in Libya to begin with. The regime was unable to educate enough scientists and engineers, and had to hire foreigners (including many Egyptians). Some of the Egyptian scientists went on strike during a 1977 conflict between the two states – and, apparently, managed to negotiate better conditions. Not quite what we would expect from a brutal dictator, is it? But, as the history of Libya’s nuclear program demonstrates, the regime invested enormous sums in buying equipment without getting significantly closer to the nuclear weapons threshold. In fact, nothing worked – including phones, photo-copiers and expensive laboratory equipment. Some of the equipment broke, and no-one knew how to fix them, whereas other stuff was left unopened because the technical staff was concerned that fluctuating voltage in their electrical system could break the equipment. The Soviet research reactor also faced problems, because the Libyans were unable to filter the water cooling the reactor system, which meant the pipes became clogged with sand.

The Iraqi and Libyan programs failed for different reasons. The Iraqi program was beginning to make some progress after the internal restructuring. Kamil decided to ignore Saddam’s rule to not seek help from abroad, and bought equipment for the nuclear weapons program from Germany and other countries in the late 1980s. But then, Saddam miscalculated badly and decided to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990. After the invasion, the Iraqis launched a crash nuclear program. Kamil told Saddam that they were on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons in the fall of 1990, which wasn’t true. But, if Saddam hadn’t invaded Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War, he would most likely have acquired nuclear weapons. The Libyan program never even got close.