The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Pirates

Friday, July 31st, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Pirates is a popular, but fictional, compilation of far more than seven rules, many of dubious value, featured in the web comic Schlock Mercenary — which I don’t (yet) read.

I enjoyed Rule 21:

Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Take his fish away and tell him he’s lucky just to be alive, and he’ll figure out how to catch another one for you to take tomorrow.

(Hat tip to ERC Rodson, commenting on Somali piracy.)

Learn how attacks happen

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Rory Miller’s advice to martial artists — at least those interested in actual self-defense — is to learn how attacks happen:

Too many people train like they are collecting tools. Mechanics don’t study tools, they study cars and what can go wrong with them. Doctors don’t take classes on Scalpel 101, they study diagnostics and anatomy. If you want to defend yourself, learn about violence. It is useless to have a thousand answers if you don’t know the question. Also, be prepared that your idea of who you are probably won’t survive a violent encounter.

DNA Not The Same In Every Cell Of Body

Friday, July 31st, 2009

New research demonstrates that DNA is not the same in every cell of body — there are major genetic differences between blood cells and tissue cells:

Except for cancer, samples of diseased tissue are difficult or even impossible to take from living patients. Thus, the vast majority of genetic samples used in large-scale studies come in the form of blood. However, if it turns out that blood and tissue cells do not match genetically, these ambitious and expensive genome-wide association studies may prove to have been essentially flawed from the outset.

This discovery sprang from an investigation into the underlying genetic causes of abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA) led by Dr. Morris Schweitzer, Dr. Bruce Gottlieb, Dr. Lorraine Chalifour and colleagues at McGill University and the affiliated Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. The researchers focused on BAK, a gene that controls cell death.

What they found surprised them.

AAA is one of the rare vascular diseases where tissue samples are removed as part of patient therapy. When they compared them, the researchers discovered major differences between BAK genes in blood cells and tissue cells coming from the same individuals, with the suspected disease “trigger” residing only in the tissue. Moreover, the same differences were later evident in samples derived from healthy individuals.

“In multi-factorial diseases other than cancer, usually we can only look at the blood,” explained Gottlieb, a geneticist with McGill’s Centre for Translational Research in Cancer. “Traditionally when we have looked for genetic risk factors for, say, heart disease, we have assumed that the blood will tell us what’s happening in the tissue. It now seems this is simply not the case.”

Conspiracy Theories

Friday, July 31st, 2009

I don’t love every xkcd comic, but I loved this one on conspiracy theories.

Monkey Herds Goats

Friday, July 31st, 2009

On a farm in India, Mani the monkey herds goats. (Watch the video.)

All Essays are Equal but Some Essays are More Equal than Others

Friday, July 31st, 2009

In All Essays are Equal but Some Essays are More Equal than Others, Joseph Fouche cites George Orwell’s critique of James Burnham’s The Machiavellians. This passage caught my attention:

If one examines the people who, having some idea of what the Russian régime is like, are strongly russophile, one finds that, on the whole, they belong to the ‘managerial’ class of which Burnham writes. That is, they are not managers in the narrow sense, but scientists, technicians, teachers, journalists, broadcasters, bureaucrats, professional politicians: in general, middling people who feel themselves cramped by a system that is still partly aristocratic, and are hungry for more power and more prestige.

These people look towards the USSR and see in it, or think they see, a system which eliminates the upper class, keeps the working class in its place, and hands unlimited power to people very similar to themselves. It was only after the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it.

Two Kinds of Democracy

Friday, July 31st, 2009

A. McGuinn draws a distinction between two kinds of democracy:

What we have in Western Europe and America I call “Old Democracy”. It has parties and regular elections, which are carried out fairly, and it also has powerful non-party institutions of civil service, law and media which stabilise the whole edifice. These powerful institutions get their power mostly from tradition — from the fact that they have had power for a long time and are widely respected as such.

These systems of government are very different from those created by a pro-democratic revolution or a pro-democratic invasion. Those normally produce “Young Democracy”, in which power is concentrated in elected institutions.

One cannot argue for or against democracy without distinguishing these two forms. Their merits and faults are quite different.

Old Democracy is the system of which it is tiresomely said, that it is the worst form of government ever tried, except for all the others. The claim is irritating but more than plausible — the most successful governments of the last hundred years, leaving aside a few city-state tax havens, have been of this kind.

Young Democracy, on the other hand, is what Old Democracy purports to be. The voters can vote for what they want, and they get it. Any theoretical, rather than empirical, defence of democracy applies to Young Democracy, not Old Democracy.

Young Democracy, however, is highly unstable. If the people can vote for what they want, then before long they will vote for “Strong Government” which will put an end to free, fair elections. The best case for a Young Democracy is that the unelected institutions solidify power and it becomes an Old Democracy before that happens.

The faults of Old Democracy are more subtle. It is not controlled by the electorate, but neither is it independent of the electorate. The effect of the electorate’s limited power of choice is not catastrophe, but the slow expansion of the bureaucracy into every area of life, along with a slow decline of effectiveness in everything it does.

The endpoint of Old Democracy is the utter bankruptcy of the state and its collapse under the weight of its ineffective functions. I don’t think that has ever happened in the West — economic growth has kept up with the growing cost of government — but I would expect it to look something like the end of the Soviet Union. which I do not classify as an “Old Democracy”, but which in its late stages shared many of the characteristics of a very old Democracy.

Alternatively, it might not be coincidence that economic growth and the expansion of the state keep pace with each other. It may be that Old Democracy exercises just as much waste as the economy can afford. The growth of the state is not an inevitable process of Old Democracy per se, it is its inevitable response to economic growth. Old Democracy would therefore be stable in the long run.

Supporters of Democracy switch between the two as it suits them:

Thus a commenter at [Mencius Moldbug's Unqualified Reservations] was able to say
You like to offer up weak, fledgling democracies that collapse into dictatorships as arguments against democracies, but really they’re just arguments for creating democracies that can stand up to the overly ambitious sociopath and his cronies.

But a democracy that can stand up to its new leader is one that can stand up to the voters — i.e. an Old Democracy. The implication that it is voter power which protects democracy from tipping into totalitarianism is the opposite of the truth.

Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

For whatever reason, Glenn Reynolds’s Instapundit site has never made its way into my regular reading — maybe I’m just too contrarian — but this Reason.tv interview makes two unusual references — to Heinleinian libertarianism and to Luftwaffe, the old pre-computer hex-grid wargame — that made me reconsider.

(I would embed the video, but their embed code isn’t editable for height and width.)

When to Negotiate

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Wired contributing editor Scott Carney claims to have interviewed a Somali Pirate on when to negotiate and when to kill hostages:

How do you pirates decide on what ransom to ask for? What makes them negotiate downwards?

Once you have a ship, it’s a win-win situation. We attack many ships everyday, but only a few are ever profitable. No one will come to the rescue of a third-world ship with an Indian or African crew, so we release them immediately. But if the ship is from Western country or with valuable cargo like oil, weapons or then its like winning a lottery jackpot. We begin asking a high price and then go down until we agree on a price.

How do you know a ship in far away coast in the first place and its flagship?

Often we know about a ship’s cargo, owners and port of origin before we even board it. That way we can price our demands based on its load. For those with very valuable cargo on board then we contact the media and publicize the capture and put pressure on the companies to negotiate for its release.

From what I’ve seen, initial demands tend to be about 10 times the previous publicized ransom, is this a rule of thumb?

We know that we won’t get our initial demands, but we use it as a starting point and negotiate downwards to our eventual target. But as a rule, yes, that’s about right.

Does the length of a hijacking change the ransom that pirates are willing to accept?

Yes. Armed men are expensive as are the laborers, accountants, cooks and khat suppliers on land. During long negotiations our men get tired and we need to rotate them out three times a week. Add to that the risk from navies attacking us and we can be convinced to lower our demands.

Under what conditions would you kill the hostages?

Hostages — especially Westerners — are our only assets, so we try our best to avoid killing them. It only comes to that if they refuse to contact the ship’s owners or agencies. Or if they attack us and we need to defend ourselves.

What are the key factors to making a successful attack on a ship?

The key to our success is that we are willing to die, and the crews are not. Beyond that, in my case deploy a boat with six men to get close to the ship and leave another in reserve near the coast just in case we need backup. We use sophisticated equipment that allows us to spot our targets from a distance. We always have to be close to the main sea lane and keep in touch with each other using talkie phones.

Centerline Theory

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Centerline theory is not one of Rory Miller’s core fighting principles:

Several people have explained it to me, “All your vital targets are on the centerline, so you must be able to attack his and defend yours.” That’s horse shit. The ears, the brachial plexus, the liver, the elbow, the knees, the fragile bones in the back of the hand, the quadriceps insertion are all good targets and all are off the centerline.

That doesn’t mean the theory is crap, the understanding of the theory is crap. You strike towards the center of the body to use the weight as tamping, like in demolition — the bodyweight keeps damage from bleeding off into space.

From that perspective the centreline isn’t the middle front of the body, it is inside, and when you are hitting lateral targets you are still striking towards the centerline. Some people use centerline as a quick ranging tool by measuring centerline to centerline, but when you keep the off-line targets in mind you can do disabling kicks in a tight clinch and sometimes damaging handstrikes at long kicking range.

Nisbett, Intelligence and How to Get It

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

James McCormick reviews Richard Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It, which itself is largely a summary of the existing research on IQ, academic achievement, and economic success.

Read the whole review — including part 2.

Organic has no health benefits

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Organic has no health benefits, according to researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:

Among the 55 of 162 studies that were included in the final analysis, there were a small number of differences in nutrition between organic and conventionally produced food but not large enough to be of any public health relevance, said study leader Dr Alan Dangour.
Overall the report, which is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found no differences in most nutrients in organically or conventionally grown crops, including in vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

The same was true for studies looking at meat, dairy and eggs.

Differences that were detected, for example in levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, were most likely to be due to differences in fertilizer use and ripeness at harvest and are unlikely to provide any health benefit, the report concluded.

The study ignored what I would consider the primary reason for going organic: avoiding pesticides.

Food allergies get curiouser and curiouser

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Food allergies get curiouser and curiouser:

At the Vienna meeting, researchers discussed the patterns emerging from their research. For adults and children over 3 years old, hazelnuts and apples turn out to be the most common triggers of food allergies in Europeans reporting to clinics — not peanut allergy, as many people might expect.

These reports from clinics have also thrown up a surprising new player: sunflower-seed allergy. Although something of a rarity, it may become more common as sunflower seeds are increasingly appearing in food. To make matters worse, the allergen involved seems to be particularly potent. “The proportion of severe reactions is higher than for peanut,” says Montserrat Fernández Rivas, an allergologist from the San Carlos Clinical Hospital in Madrid, Spain.

Perhaps most striking are the regional differences. “Peach and melon allergy is particularly common in the Mediterranean — in Spain and Greece,” says Fernández Rivas. Reports from clinics suggest that Iceland is a hotspot for fish allergy and Switzerland has a higher rate of celeriac allergy than elsewhere.

These regional variations are likely to be due in part to differences in eating habits, causing people to be exposed to different allergens. But that alone cannot explain a pronounced north-south divide in the type of apple allergy people experience. In northern Europe, people react to the uncooked flesh of apples, whereas in the south it’s the skin that sets them off, whether it’s cooked or not. What could be the cause of this strange invisible dividing line that skims across south-west France, cuts through Italy close to Florence, and continues eastwards through the middle of the Black Sea?

Significantly, this line marks the southern limit of the birch tree, a plant whose pollen is one of the causes of hay fever in northern Europe. Clues for this link lie in the different proteins found in various parts of the fruit: the flesh harbours an allergenic protein called Mal d 1, while the skin is relatively rich in Mal d 3. The structure and composition of the Mal d 1 protein strongly resembles the allergenic protein Bet v 1 found in birch pollen. This means that people who suffer from birch pollen allergy may be primed to overreact to Mal d 1 — explaining the prevalence of the allergy to apple flesh in this region.

A similar cross-reaction explains the allergy to apple skin found in southern Europe. In this case, a prior sensitisation to the Pru p 3 protein in peaches, which bears a strong similarity to Mal d 3, seems to be the culprit. What’s more, Mal d 1 breaks down when heated while Mal d 3 is heat resistant, which neatly explains why northern Europeans are fine with cooked apples and pasteurised apple juice but apple-allergic people in the south cannot cope with these fruit in any form.

Other reported cross-reactions include a link between house-dust-mite faeces and shrimp allergy, and another between mugwort pollen and an allergy to carrots, celery and sunflower seeds. There are likely to be many others, since many allergens seem to share similarities in their amino acid sequences that might confuse the immune system.

In fact, between 2005 and 2008 Mills and Heimo Breiteneder, a molecular allergist at the Medical University of Vienna, and their colleagues completed a series of studies showing the majority of allergens originating in fruit and vegetables belong to just four of the 10,000 or so recognised families of proteins, and most of the animal-food allergens to just three families (The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol 115, p 163 and vol 121, p 847). Bet v 1, for example, causes cross-reactions with several other members of its protein family, and as a result people who have birch pollen allergy stand a good chance of being allergic to apple, celery, plums and several other common foods.

This also explains why some migrants from east Asia to northern Europe suddenly develop an allergic reaction to jackfruit once they have come into contact with birch pollen. The allergen in jackfruit does not on its own sensitize the immune system, but once birch pollen has done the job, the immune system may react to jackfruit too.

These numerous examples of cross-reactions raise another question: why does Bet v 1 cause an allergy to the Mal d 1 protein but not the other way around? Researchers believe it’s because Bet v 1 enters the body via the lungs, so it is not broken down by digestion and can reach the bloodstream intact, where it activates the immune system. Mal d 1, on the other hand, is broken down during digestion, so it loses its capacity to prime the immune system. Once the immune system has been stimulated by the Bet v 1, it may then become sensitive to similar looking proteins like Mal d 1 — sensitive enough to trigger a reaction when it comes into contact with the mouth.

The Philosopher’s Stone of Democracy

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

The progressive does not actually believe in the philosopher’s stone of democracy, Mencius Moldbug argues:

The power flow of democracy is simply reversed. Rather than the sovereign People leading and directing their “public servants,” it is the servants who lead and the People who follow. The function of elections and elected officials in a progressive democracy is to educate the electorate, to speak from the “bully pulpit,” to help it become the progressive and enlightened People that it deserves to be. In classic astroturf style.

Thus, elections become simply another propaganda mechanism. If this mechanism fails every now and then, the progressive establishment has more than enough institutional inertia to wait out and defeat any temporary attack of the primitives. No permanent imprint on Washington can be or ever has been left by the post-progressive Right, from McCarthy through Bush. Indeed, in Europe, there is nothing at all like the Republicans, and daily life in Europe seems more or less the same for it.

So there is a sham here. To be fair, this sham is hardly a socialist invention: it is a staple of democracy in all eras. Robert Michels described it well as the Iron Law of Oligarchy, almost a century ago. It seems easy to excuse progressives for merely finding this natural tactical feature of politics, and taking advantage of it.

Edmund S. Morgan explores the idea further, in Inventing the People (1988).

Thomas Bouchard against group think and political correctness

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Stephen Hsu cites Thomas Bouchard against group think and political correctness:

Q: What got you into twin studies?

TB: I was teaching the psychology of individual differences, and in 1979, two different people put a copy in my mailbox of a story about twins reared apart and their similarities when they met. [These were the "Jim twins," Jim Springer and Jim Lewis, who had been separated at birth and reunited at age 39. Both married women named Linda, divorced, and remarried women named Betty. They named their sons James Allan and James Alan, respectively, and both had dogs named Toy.] They sounded interesting, so I asked a few of my colleagues to help me study them. We ended up studying twins reared apart — 126 pairs including 74 pairs of identical twins — for 20 years. [The twin study wound down in 2000.] I found that I loved working with twins. They’re still amazing and a major mystery to me.

Q: What were attitudes toward behavioral genetics in the early years of your career?

TB: In graduate school at UC [the University of California] Berkeley, I was reading a book edited by psychiatrist D. D. Jackson on the etiology of schizophrenia. The first chapter, by a geneticist, was on twin studies. Then Jackson refuted it all with just the kind of crap you hear now against twin studies. He said families are the cause of schizophrenia. I remember saying in a graduate seminar, “Most of this stuff [in Jackson's argument] is junk” — I crawled out of the seminar room a bloody pulp. The reaction [from seminar members] was my first absolutely clear-cut demonstration that psychologists believed correlation is causation, … and many still do.

In the ’70s, when I was teaching research by [IQ researcher Arthur] Jensen and [twin researcher Francis] Galton, people picketed me, called me a racist, tried to get me fired. The progressive student association sent members in to ask hostile questions. … So I put a tape recorder on the podium and said: “I’m going to tape my lectures.” I never heard from them again. They knew what they were saying was nonsense and I would be able to prove it.

Q: Do you think perceptions have changed dramatically since the ’70s now that twin research has revealed genetic bases for many disorders, such as autism (which had been blamed on cold mothers) and ADHD (for which many blamed food dyes)?

TB: Within the university — at least at U. Minnesota — the cumulative impact of behavioral genetics findings has had a lot of effect. There’s a lot more tolerance for the idea of genetic influences in individual differences.

But we still have whole domains we can’t talk about. One of the great dangers in the psychology of individual differences is self-censorship. For example, when I was a student, it was widely accepted that black self-esteem was much lower than white self-esteem, and that was a cause of differences in achievement between the two groups. Now that’s been completely overturned — there is virtually no racial difference in self-esteem. But people had enormous amounts of data [showing this] that they didn’t publish because it did not fit the prevailing belief system. How much wasted effort was generated by the flawed self-esteem work as an explanation of the black-white IQ difference? Now a days, I’m sure there are people who are not publishing stuff on sex differences. Look what happened to Larry Summers [who resigned as president of Harvard University after suggesting that discrimina tion alone doesn't account for women's lower representation in math-based disciplines]. I talk about those things in my class all the time — that males and females have different interests; … in a sense, females have a broader and richer view of life. There are a lot of people who simply won’t talk about those things. Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists.