Sandia’s Self-Guided Bullet

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Sandia researchers Red Jones and Brian Kast and their colleagues have invented a dart-like, self-guided bullet for small-caliber, smooth-bore firearms that could hit laser-designated targets at distances of more than a mile (about 2,000 meters):

Sandia’s design for the four-inch-long bullet includes an optical sensor in the nose to detect a laser beam on a target. The sensor sends information to guidance and control electronics that use an algorithm in an eight-bit central processing unit to command electromagnetic actuators. These actuators steer tiny fins that guide the bullet to the target.

Most bullets shot from rifles, which have grooves, or rifling, that cause them to spin so they fly straight, like a long football pass. To enable a bullet to turn in flight toward a target and to simplify the design, the spin had to go, Jones said.

The bullet flies straight due to its aerodynamically stable design, which consists of a center of gravity that sits forward in the projectile and tiny fins that enable it to fly without spin, just as a dart does, he said.

Computer aerodynamic modeling shows the design would result in dramatic improvements in accuracy, Jones said. Computer simulations showed an unguided bullet under real-world conditions could miss a target more than a half mile away (1,000 meters away) by 9.8 yards (9 meters), but a guided bullet would get within 8 inches (0.2 meters), according to the patent.

Plastic sabots provide a gas seal in the cartridge and protect the delicate fins until they drop off after the bullet emerges from the firearm’s barrel.

The prototype does not require a device found in guided missiles called an inertial measuring unit, which would have added substantially to its cost. Instead, the researchers found that the bullet’s relatively small size when compared to guided missiles “is helping us all around. It’s kind of a fortuitous thing that none of us saw when we started,” Jones said.

As the bullet flies through the air, it pitches and yaws at a set rate based on its mass and size. In larger guided missiles, the rate of flight-path corrections is relatively slow, so each correction needs to be very precise because fewer corrections are possible during flight. But “the natural body frequency of this bullet is about 30 hertz, so we can make corrections 30 times per second. That means we can overcorrect, so we don’t have to be as precise each time,” Jones said.

Testing has shown the electromagnetic actuator performs well and the bullet can reach speeds of 2,400 feet per second, or Mach 2.1, using commercially available gunpowder. The researchers are confident it could reach standard military speeds using customized gunpowder.

And a nighttime field test, in which a tiny light-emitting diode, or LED, was attached to the bullet showed the battery and electronics can survive flight, Jones said.

Researchers also filmed high-speed video of the bullet radically pitching as it exited the barrel. The bullet pitches less as it flies down range, a phenomenon known to long-range firearms experts as “going to sleep.” Because the bullet’s motions settle the longer it is in flight, accuracy improves at longer ranges, Jones said.

“Nobody had ever seen that, but we’ve got high-speed video photography that shows that it’s true,” he said.

Gangs and Politicians in Chicago

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

It should come as no surprise that the gangs and politicians in Chicago have formed an unholy alliance:

A few months before last February’s citywide elections, Hal Baskin’s phone started ringing. And ringing. Most of the callers were candidates for Chicago City Council, seeking the kind of help Baskin was uniquely qualified to provide.

Baskin isn’t a slick campaign strategist. He’s a former gang leader and, for several decades, a community activist who now operates a neighborhood center that aims to keep kids off the streets. Baskin has deep contacts inside the South Side’s complex network of politicians, community organizations, and street gangs. as he recalls, the inquiring candidates wanted to know: “Who do I need to be talking to so I can get the gangs on board?”

Baskin—who was himself a candidate in the 16th Ward aldermanic race, which he would lose—was happy to oblige. In all, he says, he helped broker meetings between roughly 30 politicians (ten sitting aldermen and 20 candidates for City Council) and at least six gang representatives. That claim is backed up by two other community activists, Harold Davis Jr. and Kublai K. M. Toure, who worked with Baskin to arrange the meetings, and a third participant, also a community activist, who requested anonymity. The gang representatives were former chiefs who had walked away from day-to-day thug life, but they were still respected on the streets and wielded enough influence to mobilize active gang members.

The first meeting, according to Baskin, occurred in early November 2010, right before the statewide general election; more gatherings followed in the run-up to the February 2011 municipal elections. The venues included office buildings, restaurants, and law offices. (By all accounts, similar meetings took place across the city before last year’s elections and in elections past, including after hours at the Garfield Center, a taxpayer-financed facility on the West Side that is used by the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.)

At some of the meetings, the politicians arrived with campaign materials and occasionally with aides. The sessions were organized much like corporate-style job fairs. The gang representatives conducted hourlong interviews, one after the other, talking to as many as five candidates in a single evening. Like supplicants, the politicians came into the room alone and sat before the gang representatives, who sat behind a long table. “One candidate said, ‘I feel like I’m in the hot seat,’” recalls Baskin. “And they were.”

The former chieftains, several of them ex-convicts, represented some of the most notorious gangs on the South and West Sides, including the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Black Disciples, Cobras, Black P Stones, and Black Gangsters. Before the election, the gangs agreed to set aside decades-old rivalries and bloody vendettas to operate as a unified political force, which they called Black United Voters of Chicago. “They realized that if they came together, they could get the politicians to come to them,” explains Baskin.

The gang representatives were interested in electing aldermen sympathetic to their interests and those of their impoverished wards. As for the politicians, says Baskin, their interests essentially boiled down to getting elected or reelected. “All of [the political hopefuls] were aware of who they were meeting with,” he says. “They didn’t care. All they wanted to do was get the support.”

The Rise of Developeronomics

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Venkatesh Rao describes his notion of developeronomics:

It is interesting to note that “investing in people” is so much the default mental model in the software industry that outliers such as Sequoia Capital, who consciously buck the trend, have to take pains to point out that they invest in markets and trends, not people or teams. In any other industry, this would go without saying. It is fairly clear, for instance, that the energy industry invests in promising energy markets and alternative-energy technology trends, not in energy experts. In other industries, investing in people is the exceptional strategy (such as Zappos in the shoe industry or Southwest in the airline industry).

One reason this is the case is that software development talent is incredibly hard to assess upfront, and its value can be highly situation-dependent, which means intake volumes and intra-industry churn have to be high (since a potential star may not flourish in your environment). People risks are high enough that developing capabilities to deal with it becomes central to success. Traditional front-end mechanisms, such as universities, are not particularly good at creating or even spotting and nurturing star developer talent.  To the point that industry luminaries like Peter Thiel are, rather mischievously, offering to pay truly talented developers to drop out of college and go the startup route instead.

Another reason is that software skills are the most portable high-end skills on the planet. Spotting and temporarily attracting talent doesn’t mean you get to keep it.  Stock option-slavery and golden handcuffs for talent from acquired companies aside, there’s not much you can do to combat social and economic mobility. Not only can software developers switch industries easily, they can even survive on their own much more easily. A nuclear engineer really cannot do much without nuclear reactors or bombs to work with. A biochemist needs a lab and a phalanx of lawyers who know how to deal with the FDA.

A software developer on the other hand, can float free on the Internet, making money in mercenary ways, with no deep loyalties, if he/she so desires. Until the Internet shuts down, no other profession comes close in terms of the mobility it grants to those skilled in it.

But the most important reason is the 10x phenomenon.

The thing is, software talent is extraordinarily nonlinear. It even has a name: the 10x engineer (the colloquial idea, originally due to Frederick Brooks, that a good programmer isn’t just marginally more productive than an average one, but an order of magnitude more productive). In software, leverage increases exponentially with expertise due to the very nature of the technology.

While other domains exhibit 10x dynamics, nowhere is it as dominant as in software. What’s more, while other industries have come up with systems to (say) systematically use mediocre chemists or accountants in highly leveraged ways, the software industry hasn’t. It’s still a kind of black magic.

One big reason is that other industries turn x’ers into 10xers primarily using software tools (a mechanical engineer equipped with CAD software suddenly becomes a 10x mechanical engineer). While the world is full of tools that software engineers have built for themselves, the 10x phenomenon, and the industry’s reliance on it, doesn’t seem to get engineered or managed away. Because the 10xers keep inventing new tools for themselves to stay 10xers.

CCI Quiet-22

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

When I read about CCI’s new Quiet-22 ammo, I was reminded of a discussion we had around Ian Fleming and Geoffrey Boothroyd and “silenced” guns.

CCI’s Quiet-22 ammo sacrifices both speed and energy to earn its moniker. By shooting a 40-grain bullet at just 710 feet per second — rather than 1,000+ fps — it produces a “quiet” 68-Decibel report:

CCI’S 710 fps Quiet-22 Ammo only produces 68 Decibels (dB) of sound at the shooter’s ear (compared to 132-139 dB for a standard .22LR). How do we put that in perspective? Consider this: 68-70 dB is the noise level inside a typical family sedan cruising at 70 mph. For additional comparisons, a typical alarm clock ringer produces 80 dB of noise, while a hair dryer can deliver 90 dB. The sound levels at rock concerts can top 115 dB, and a chain saw can hit 125 dB.

OSHA requires hearing protection in the workplace at 85 dB.

Pentagon Seeks Mightier Bomb vs. Iran

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Pentagon war planners worry that their 30,000-pound “bunker-buster” bomb, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, might not destroy some of Iran’s deepest facilities, so they want a better bomb:

The Defense Department has spent about $330 million so far to develop about 20 of the bombs, which are built by Boeing Co. The Pentagon is seeking about $82 million more to make the bomb more effective, according to government officials briefed on the plan.


According to Air Force officials, the 20.5 foot-long MOP carries over 5,300 pounds of explosive material. It is designed to penetrate up to 200 feet underground before exploding. The mountain above the Iranian enrichment site at Fordow is estimated to be at least 200 feet tall.

A small, “tactical” nuclear bomb would likely have a yield measured in kilotons, although we have made artillery shells with yields in the dozens of tons.

A tactical nuclear missile would probably work better than a bomb, because it could avoid almost all air defenses, but we’re deathly afraid of sending nuclear missiles up and scaring other nuclear powers into reacting.

Our other option is to use small conventional weapons on all known entrances and exits to a well-fortified bunker.

Using Accelerometers to Plot Bullet Hits

Monday, January 30th, 2012

The geeks at Waterloo Labs in Austin have come up with a very Texan project — using accelerometers to plot bullet hits:

The Research Bust

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Professor Mark Bauerlein decided to study the impact of literary research — and he found next to none:

Of 13 research articles published by current SUNY-Buffalo professors in 2004, 11 of them received zero to two citations, one had five, one 12. Of 23 articles by Georgia professors in 2004, 16 received zero to two citations, four of them three to six, one eight, one 11, and one 16.

Books performed better, but not enough when we consider how much more labor goes into a monograph. A 2000 book on Gerard Manley Hopkins collected four citations in eight relevant books on the poet published from 2007 to 2010. A 2003 book on Thomas Hardy garnered one citation in 16 relevant books published from 2007 to 2010. Of eight books published by Vermont professors from 2002 to 2005, four of them received zero to 10 citations in subsequent essays, and four received 11 to 20 (four of the top five were studies in film).

There are, of course, some breakout items. One book by an Illinois professor collected 82 citations in essays, another one 57. But in assessing the system, calculating its full costs and impact, we shouldn’t let the few instances of abundant notice eclipse the others. If a department produces six books in one year, each one the product of four years of labor by each author, and only one of them attracts significant attention, we should set that one book on the benefit side and 24 years of labor on the cost side. The unfortunate conclusion is that the overall impact of literary research doesn’t come close to justifying the money and effort that goes into it.
If a professor who makes $75,000 a year spends five years on a book on Charles Dickens (which sold 43 copies to individuals and 250 copies to libraries, the library copies averaging only two checkouts in the six years after its publication), the university paid $125,000 for its production. Certainly that money could have gone toward a more effective appreciation of that professor’s expertise and talent. We can no longer pretend, too, that studies of Emily Dickinson are as needed today, after three decades have produced 2,007 items on the poet, as they were in 1965, when the previous three decades had produced only 233.

This leads Walter Russell Mead to conclude that our universities today look a lot like the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII: vulnerable targets for a hungry state.

What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?

Monday, January 30th, 2012

For most of our history, Alison Gopnik notes, children started their internships at seven, not 27, which avoided a lot of teenage weirdness:

In the distant (and even the not-so-distant) historical past, these systems of motivation and control were largely in sync. In gatherer-hunter and farming societies, childhood education involves formal and informal apprenticeship. Children have lots of chances to practice the skills that they need to accomplish their goals as adults, and so to become expert planners and actors. The cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff studied this kind of informal education in a Guatemalan Indian society, where she found that apprenticeship allowed even young children to become adept at difficult and dangerous tasks like using a machete.

In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence — tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you’d need as an adult. But you’d do all that under expert adult supervision and in the protected world of childhood, where the impact of your inevitable failures would be blunted. When the motivational juice of puberty arrived, you’d be ready to go after the real rewards, in the world outside, with new intensity and exuberance, but you’d also have the skill and control to do it effectively and reasonably safely.

In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.

At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.

The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today’s adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.

Space Balloons

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

A pair of Canadian teens, Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad, recently sent another weather balloon up into “space” — the stratosphere actually — and received a lot of press coverage, because they sent their camera up with a little Lego minifig holding a Canadian flag in the foreground:

The engineering behind Lego Man’s balloon voyage is interesting:

It soared 24 kilometres into the stratosphere via balloon then landed 97 minutes later in dense bush near Rice Lake, south of Peterborough — a remarkably close return considering January’s winter winds were howling.

“We actually had a lot of control on that factor,” says Ho of Lego Man’s capsule touching down 122 kilometres away from the soccer pitch.

“The thing is, the more you fill your balloon, the faster it will go and the sooner it will pop.”

A helium-filled balloon pops at what’s called the burst altitude, says Barth Netterfield, a professor in the departments of physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto. The higher the altitude, the lower the air pressure and the greater the gassy force within the balloon pushing out on the latex.

“You’ve got a balloon and you’ve got a fixed amount of helium in it. So as the balloon goes up, the pressure outside is going down so the balloon is going to stretch,” explains Netterfield.

“The higher you go, the more the balloon expands until, eventually, the rubber isn’t strong enough and it bursts.”

Lego Man’s cream-coloured latex balloon was 2.6 metres in diameter at launch. Netterfield estimates it could have expanded about 10 times that size just prior to bursting.

The students didn’t want their tiny, stiff-limbed captain to be blown too far away — or into water — because they wanted to retrieve him. So Ho and Muhammad planned for Lego Man to hit burst altitude quickly.

The boys emptied a 931-cubic-foot tank of helium into the professional quality weather balloon they bought online, filling it to capacity.

“If you fill your balloon, say, halfway, it will reach a higher max altitude but then obviously it’s got a lot more time in the air so it has a lot more time that it could be affected by wind,” explains Ho.

“A perfect flight plan would be just up and down, on the same spot. The less we had to drive (to retrieve Lego Man) that was our goal, especially since we’re surrounded by so many lakes. There were so many problems that could go wrong.

They found a second method to estimate their project’s likely landing by typing “weather balloon trajectory forecast” into Google.

“It’s almost a bare page, it’s extremely cool,” Ho says of the University of Wyoming’s weather balloon website. It calculates trajectory based on conditions like prevailing winds, launch coordinates and balloon engineering.

“You can enter the coordinates of your launch site, your predicted altitude and it will actually map it on Google Earth.”

Is there some reason why everyone uses expensive helium, rather than hydrogen, for disposable balloons headed for the stratosphere?

Anyway, these weather balloon projects remind me of the silly-sounding rockoon concept. Gas-filled balloons can provide tremendous lift, and rockets face tremendous drag in dense air, so why not use a balloon to lift a rocket into the upper atmosphere before igniting it?

The original concept was developed by Cmdr. Lee Lewis, Cmdr. G. Halvorson, S. F. Singer, and James A. Van Allen during the Aerobee rocket firing cruise of the U.S.S. Norton Sound on March 1, 1949.

A serious disadvantage is that balloons cannot be steered and consequently neither the direction the launched rocket moves in nor the region where it will fall is easily adjustable. Therefore, a large area for the fall of the rocket is required for safety reasons.

That seems easy enough to overcome — you just need to send up a dirigible balloon, or airship.

It looks like some modern teams are taking another look at the idea:

More recently, the JP Aerospace company has developed and used rockoons as part of its space access plans. Additionally, Iowa State University has started a program to develop rockoons. And significant work has been recently done by the Romanian space company ARCASPACE.

JP Aerospace’s Airship To Orbit has more “moving parts” than I would have imagined:

A conventional airship (“Ascender”) lifts payloads up to 30 to 43 kilometers above the ground — roughly the maximum altitude a conventional airship can achieve. At this altitude the second component, a docking station (“Dark Sky Station”), acts as a resupply station for the third stage. The third stage is an orbital airship (“Orbital Ascender”), which takes payloads to low earth orbit (i.e., it accelerates itself horizontally to orbital velocity and gains an altitude in excess of 100 km) over several days.

The Gut Brain

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Shirley Wang summarizes our understanding of the enteric nervous system, the so-called gut brain:

It controls organs including the pancreas and gall bladder via nerve connections. Hormones and neurotransmitters generated in the gut interact with organs such as the lungs and heart.

Like the brain and spinal cord, the gut is filled with nerve cells. The small intestine alone has 100 million neurons, roughly equal to the amount found in the spinal cord, says Michael Gershon, a professor at Columbia University.

The vagus nerve, which stretches down from the brainstem, is the main conduit between the brain and gut. But the gut doesn’t just take orders from the brain.

“The brain is a CEO that doesn’t like to micromanage,” says Dr. Gershon. The brain receives much more information from the gut than it sends down, he adds.

Many people with psychiatric and brain conditions also report gastrointestinal issues. New research indicates problems in the gut may cause problems in the brain, just as a mental ailment, such as anxiety, can upset the stomach.

Stanford’s Dr. Pasricha and colleagues examined this question in the lab by irritating the stomachs of newborn rats. By the time the animals were eight to 10 weeks old, the physical disturbance had healed, but these animals displayed more depressed and anxious behaviors, such as giving up more quickly in a swimming task, than rats whose stomachs weren’t irritated.

Compared to controls, the rats also showed increased sensitivity to stress and produced more of a stress hormone, in a study published in May in a Public Library of Science journal, PLoS One.

Other work, such as that of researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, demonstrated that bacteria in the gut—known as gut flora—play a role in how the body responds to stress. The exact mechanism is unknown, but certain bacteria are thought to facilitate important interactions between the gut and the brain.

Electrically stimulating the vagus nerve has been shown to reduce the symptoms of epilepsy and depression. (One treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration, made by Cyberonics Inc., is already on the market.)

Exactly why such stimulation works isn’t known, experts say, but a similar procedure has been shown in animal studies to help improve learning and memory.

Earlier this month, researchers made a small step toward understanding a gastrointestinal ailment that typically affects children with autism.

In a study of 23 autistic children and nine typically developing kids, a bacterium unique to the intestines of those with autism called Sutterella was discovered.

The results, published online in the journal mBio by researchers at Columbia’s school of public health, need to be studied further, but suggest Sutterella may be important in understanding the link between autism and digestive ailments, the authors wrote.

Dr. Gershon, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia, has been studying how the gut controls its behavior and that of other organs by investigating the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Low serotonin levels in the brain are known to affect mood and sleep. Several common antidepressants work by raising levels of serotonin in the brain.

Yet about 95% of the serotonin in the body is made in the gut, not in the brain, says Dr. Gershon. Serotonin and other neurotransmitters produced by gut neurons help the digestive track push food through the gut.

Work by Dr. Gershon and others has shown that serotonin is necessary for the repair of cells in the liver and lungs, and plays a role in normal heart development and bone-mass accumulation.

Studying the neurons in the gut also may also help shed light on Parkinson’s disease. Some of the damage the disease causes to brain neurons that make the neurotransmitter dopamine also occur in the gut neurons, researchers say.

Researchers are now studying whether gut neurons, which can be sampled through a routine colonoscopy, may help clinicians diagnose and track the disease without invasive brain biopsies, says Pascal Derkinderen, a professor of neurology at Inserm, France’s national institute of health.

To Arrive, Survive, and Thrive

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

The Mars Foundation hopes to see humans arrive, survive, and thrive on the red planet someday soon.

According to their overview presentation, a Mars settlement will open up the solar system to humanity and life by, first, providing water, carbon, and nitrogen for food. In fact, a hillside base could be built largely from local material, with 90 percent self-sufficiency by mass — and mass is an important metric when we’re discussing interplanetary travel.

If you compare Earth to Mars, they have their similarities. They’re the third and fourth planets from the Sun, Earth’s about twice as big around, they’re tilted at almost the same angle, a Mars year is roughly two Earth years, a Mars day is just over 24 hours, etc.

Mars gravity is just three-eighths Earth gravity, which may or may not be a problem. Similarly, its temperature ranges from –127°C to 17°C. Close enough?

The big difference is that Mars has next to no atmosphere, and what it does have is CO2.

The Mars Foundation’s plan involves four phases. The first phase is totally robotic and takes two years to establish a nuclear reactor, a water well, and a gas plant.

Then, four people arrive to set up the mining, refining, and manufacturing equipment to produce the materials needed for a real settlement.

And so on.

The Atavist’s Futurist

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Ray Bradbury is the atavist’s futurist, Daniel J. Flynn says:

The obvious reading of Fahrenheit 451 reveals a story about censorship. This view lends itself to competing left-right interpretations, making Fahrenheit 451 the unique politically charged book that transcends the controversies of its day and finds welcome in conflicting political camps. Is it about McCarthyism or political correctness? The flexibility of political readings helps explain the 5 million copies in print. But the more subtle and important theme involves passive entertainment displacing the life of the mind. It is less about right-left than about smart-stupid.

Before Fahrenheit 451’s firemen came to burn books, the public deserted books. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” the story’s Professor Faber remarks. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” In attempting to please the masses, publishers took care not to offend the market and produced books “leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm.” Attention spans waned in the wake of competing technology. “Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth-century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”

In the novel, people stopped reading before the state stopped them from reading. The predictable result was an ill-educated society fit for neither leisure nor the ballot. Women discuss voting for a candidate because of his handsome looks and abdicate the responsibilities of motherhood by dumping their children in front of television sets. The over-medicated, air-conditioned culture is awash in suicide, abortion, child neglect, and glassy-eyed passivity. Sound familiar?

Bradbury wrote from Los Angeles, the capital of mindless distraction. But he did so inside a citadel of the book: the library. Plugging away at coin-operated typewriters in the basement of UCLA’s library, the cash-strapped father finished the initial draft of Fahrenheit 451 in nine days for $9.80. One version was serialized in early numbers of Playboy, an ironic venue for both its constant attention from would-be firemen and its place among magazines as a favorite of readers with something other than literature on their minds. But that was Ray Bradbury, bashing the vacuity of television on “The Ray Bradbury Theater” cable show, highlighting the sins of science through science fiction, lambasting shrinking attention spans through the shortest of short stories.

The Pleistocene Yeti

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Did bigfoot really exist? Well, Gigantopithecus, the Pleistocene Yeti, did, in India, until 300,000 years ago:

Scientists first learned of Gigantopithecus in 1935, when Ralph von Koenigswald, a German paleoanthropologist, walked into a pharmacy in Hong Kong and found an unusually large primate molar for sale. Since then, researchers have collected hundreds of Gigantopithecus teeth and several jaws in China, Vietnam and India. Based on these fossils, it appears Gigantopithecus was closely related to modern orangutans and Sivapithecus, an ape that lived in Asia about 12 to 8 million years ago. With only dentition to go on, it’s hard to piece together what this animal was like. But based on comparisons with gorillas and other modern apes, researchers estimate Gigantopithecus stood more than 10 feet tall and weighed 1,200 pounds (at most, gorillas only weigh 400 pounds). Given their size, they probably lived on the ground, walking on their fists like modern orangutans.

Fortunately, fossil teeth do have a lot to say about an animal’s diet. And the teeth of Gigantopithecus also provide clues to why the ape disappeared.

The features of the dentition — large, flat molars, thick dental enamel, a deep, massive jaw — indicate Gigantopithecus probably ate tough, fibrous plants (similar to Paranthropus). More evidence came in 1990, when Russell Ciochon, a biological anthropologist at the University of Iowa, and colleagues placed samples of the ape’s teeth under a scanning electron microscope to look for opal phytoliths, microscopic silica structures that form in plant cells. Based on the types of phyoliths the researchers found stuck to the teeth, they concluded Gigantopithecus had a mixed diet of fruits and seeds from the fig family Moraceae and some kind of grasses, probably bamboo. The combination of tough and sugary foods helps explain why so many of the giant ape’s teeth were riddled with cavities. And numerous pits on Gigantopithecus‘s teeth — a sign of incomplete dental development caused by malnuntrition or food shortages — corroborate the bamboo diet. Ciochon’s team noted bamboo species today periodically experience mass die-offs, which affect the health of pandas. The same thing could have happened to Gigantopithecus.

Further evidence of Gigantopithecus‘ food preferences and habitat was published last November. Zhao LingXia of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues analyzed carbon isotopes in a sample of Gigantopithecus teeth. Plants have different forms of carbon based on their type of photosynthesis; this carbon footprint is then recorded in the teeth of animals that eat plants. The team determined Gigantopithecus — and the animals living alongside it, such as deer, horses and bears — ate only C3 plants, evidence the ape lived in a forested environment. This work also supports the proposed bamboo diet, as bamboo is a C3 plant.

So what happened to this Pleistocene Yeti? Zhang’s team suggested the rise of the Tibetan plateau 1.6 million to 800,000 years ago altered the climate of South Asia, ushering in a colder, drier period when forests shrank.

The Caging of America

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Adam Gopnik addresses the caging of America:

Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

It should be obvious why there weren’t too many prisoners in the gulags at any one time — they tended to die. Keeping prisoners fed and housed is expensive; only advanced economies can afford it — advanced economies like ours:

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

Comparing the rate of increase of spending on prisons versus universities is rather pointless.

Anyway, how did we get here?

How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction?

If you reject hanging and flogging and disembowelling, what choice do you have? You either let crime go unpunished — the 1960s “solution” — or you resort to less overtly cruel punishments.

Gopnik asserts that “prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime,” and this leads him to suggest a bit of “radical common sense”: very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime:

Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily. For that matter, no social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years.

I wouldn’t equate all nonviolent crime with marijuana possession, which many Americans consider a non-crime, or white-collar fraud. And while I’m in favor of forcing white-collar criminals to pay restitution, I have no trouble imagining the media reaction to rich white criminals “paying their way out of prison.”

Lego Is for Girls

Friday, January 27th, 2012

The Lego store might as well have a “No Girls Allowed” sign, Peggy Orenstein quips, because, as Brad Wieners explains, their boy-focused turnaround has been so successful:

Revenue has increased 105 percent since 2006, according to the privately held company’s 2010 annual report, and Lego topped $1 billion in U.S. sales for the first time last year. It’s on track to do that again in 2011. “They’re killing it now,” says Gerrick Johnson, equities analyst at BMO Capital Markets, who has followed the company’s impact on listed toymakers such as Mattel (MAT) and Hasbro (HAS) for a decade. Lego, he says, “is the hottest toy company in the boy segment, and maybe the hottest in toys overall.”

Now, after four years of research, design, and exhaustive testing, Lego believes it has a breakthrough, and Lego is for girls, too:

On Dec. 26 in the U.K. and Jan. 1 in the U.S., Lego will roll out Lego Friends, aimed at girls 5 and up. (French Lego retailers are going rogue and plan to bring out Lego Friends on Dec. 15.) In Lego’s larger markets, like the U.S., Lego determined it was better to introduce the new line after the holidays, when Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), for example, would give the line dedicated shelf space it wouldn’t during the holiday sales rush. The company’s confidence is evident in the launch — a full line of 23 different products backed by a $40 million global marketing push. “This is the most significant strategic launch we’ve done in a decade,” says Lego Group Chief Executive Officer Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. “We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children.”

If you found yourself desperately hunting for gifts for a little girl for Christmas, you may be thinking, “Lego, are you messing with me on purpose?”

Anyway, how did they appeal to girls?

To develop Lego Friends, Knudstorp relaunched the same extensive field research — more cultural anthropology than focus groups — that the company conducted in 2005 and 2006 to restore its brand. It recruited top product designers and sales strategists from within the company, had them join forces with outside consultants, and dispatched them in small teams to shadow girls and interview their families over a period of months in Germany, Korea, the U.K., and the U.S.

The research techniques and findings have been controversial at Lego from the moment it became clear that if the company were serious about appealing to girls, it would have to do something about its boxy minifigure, its 4-centimeter plastic man with swiveling legs, a yellow jug-head, and a painted-on face. “Let’s be honest: Girls hate him,” says Mads Nipper, the executive vice-president for products and markets, Lego’s equivalent of a chief marketing officer. In terms of Lego iconography, the minifigure is second only to the original studded brick. It’s as hallowed as a 1 5/8th-inch piece of plastic can ever be.
During ’05 and ’06, the Lego “anthros,” as the research teams have been called, discovered some underappreciated cultural gaps. The idea of creative play as conducive to learning, or even formal education, is an article of faith at Lego that goes back to its founder, who defended his decision to become a toymaker during the Great Depression by pointing out that all animals use play to develop their brains. In Japan, however, Lego found that study and play were more clearly delineated. Few Japanese parents bought Lego, as they do in Germany or the U.S., because they were “toys with vitamins in them,” as Lego senior director Søren Holm only half-jokingly puts it.

American boys, meanwhile, turned out to be the least free of any group Lego tracked. British and German boys are far more likely to play unsupervised in yards and wooded areas and even have greater latitude in decorating their bedroom walls. Among slightly older American boys, 9 to 12, building with Lego represented a rare chance to be left alone. (On one subject, boys of all ages and nationalities agreed: A castle without a dragon is worse than no castle at all.)

Lego won’t say how much it spent on its anthropology, but research went on for months and shattered many of the assumptions that had led the company astray. You could say a worn-out sneaker saved Lego. “We asked an 11-year-old German boy, ‘what is your favorite possession?’ And he pointed to his shoes. But it wasn’t the brand of shoe that made them special,” says Holm, who heads up the Lego Concept Lab, its internal skunkworks. “When we asked him why these were so important to him, he showed us how they were worn on the side and bottom, and explained that his friends could tell from how they were worn down that he had mastered a certain style of riding, even a specific trick.”

The skate maneuvers had taken hours and hours to perfect, defying the consensus that modern kids don’t have the attention span to stick with painstaking challenges, especially during playtime. To compete with the plug-and-play quality of computer games, Lego had been dumbing down its building sets, aiming for faster “builds” and instant gratification. From the German skateboarder onward, Lego saw it had drawn the wrong lessons from computer games. Instead of focusing on their immediacy, the company now noticed how kids responded to the scoring, ranking, and levels of play — opportunities to demonstrate mastery. So while it didn’t take a genius or months of research to realize it might be a good idea to bring back the police station or fire engine that are at the heart of Lego’s most popular product line (Lego City), the “anthros” informed how the hook-and-ladder or motorcycle cop should be designed, packaged, and rolled out.

Encouraged by what it had learned about boys, Lego sent its team back out to scrutinize girls, starting in 2007. The company was surprised to learn that in their eyes, Lego suffered from an aesthetic deficit. “The greatest concern for girls really was beauty,” says Hanne Groth, Lego’s market research manager. Beauty, on the face of it, is an unsurprising virtue for a girl-friendly toy, but based on the ways girls played, Groth says, it came, as “mastery” had for boys, to stand for fairly specific needs: harmony (a pleasing, everything-in-its-right-place sense of order); friendlier colors; and a high level of detail.

“It was an education,” recalls Fenella Blaize Holden, an under-30 British designer, on the process of getting Lego Friends made. “No one could understand, why do we need more than one handbag? So I’d have to say, well, is one sword enough for the knights, or is it better to have a dagger, too? And then they’d come around.”

Lego confirmed that girls favor role-play, but they also love to build — just not the same way as boys. Whereas boys tend to be “linear” — building rapidly, even against the clock, to finish a kit so it looks just like what’s on the box — girls prefer “stops along the way,” and to begin storytelling and rearranging. Lego has bagged the pieces in Lego Friends boxes so that girls can begin playing various scenarios without finishing the whole model. Lego Friends also introduces six new Lego colors — including Easter-egg-like shades of azure and lavender. (Bright pink was already in the Lego palette.)

Then there are the lady figures. Twenty-nine mini-doll figures will be introduced in 2012, all 5 millimeters taller and curvier than the standard dwarf minifig. There are five main characters. Like American Girl Dolls, which are sold with their own book-length biographies, these five come with names and backstories. Their adventures have a backdrop: Heartlake City, which has a salon, a horse academy, a veterinary clinic, and a café. “We had nine nationalities on the team to make certain the underlying experience would work in many cultures,” says Nanna Ulrich Gudum, senior creative director.

The key difference between girls and the ladyfig and boys and the minifig was that many more girls projected themselves onto the ladyfig — she became an avatar. Boys tend to play with minifigs in the third person. “The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them,” says Rosario Costa, a Lego design director. The Lego team knew they were on to something when girls told them, “I want to shrink down and be there.”

The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains,” says Lise Eliot. A neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Eliot is the author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a 2009 survey of hundreds of scientific papers on gender differences in children. “Especially on television, the advertising explicitly shows who should be playing with a toy, and kids pick up on those cues,” Eliot says. “There is no reason to think Lego is more intrinsically appealing to boys.”

Maybe not, but even Knudstorp acknowledges that Lego’s girl problem will be hard to conquer.