Hobbit Holes

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

An Etsy seller has built a series of Bag End children’s playhouses:

This Hobbit Hole playhouse is 12′ wide, has a maximum interior height of 6’3″ and about 50 square feet of floor space. Comes painted as shown. Comes with a set of plexiglass and screen windows. Has a pressure treated floor system and all cedar framing. Floor is urethane-treated sanded plywood.

The real expense is likely excavation.

(Hat tip to io9.)

Why Scientists Love to Study Golf

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

There are many reasons why scientists love to study golf:

One is that golfers stand in one place when they do their thing, and initiate the action on cue rather than react to an object or person coming at them, as in most other sports. Thus they can be wired to the hilt and every little motion and brain wave pondered.

Among the most interesting studies presented in Phoenix, by a Canadian professor of kinesiology named Joan Vickers, explained why the “quiet eye” technique, which she first reported 15 years ago, works so effectively. Using a helmet fitted out with an external camera and other peripherals, she was able to precisely track the eye movements of golfers as they putted. In the seconds before a stroke, duffers’ eyes tend to dart around without purpose or function while elite players control their gaze. Vickers’s research revealed how the neural processes associated with the quiet eye help the brain organize itself to make a good stroke while simultaneously overriding competing neural processes responsible for distractions and anxiety.

Not all of the studies at the conference point to immediately practical benefits, but this one did. Vickers’s advice is that when you’ve adopted your stance and are ready to putt, gaze calmly and steadily at the hole (or target spot) for about three counts, bring your eyes back to the ball in one count and fix your eyes on the back (or top) of the ball for two counts. Then make the stroke and continue to gaze at the ground, where the ball was, for at least one more count.

If there’s a frontier in golf research, it’s neuroscience. With the increasing availability of machines that can peer into brains as they function, there has been rapid progress in understanding the biological mechanisms by which people transform information, such as from a golf lesson, first into actions and ultimately into automatic motor skills that don’t require conscious thought to enact.

Another reason golf appeals so deliciously to researchers is the availability of quality statistics, particularly the PGA Tour’s ShotLink database. Since 2003 the Tour has recorded detailed information about every shot hit by every player in every PGA Tour round. “It’s harder to tease data out of team sports, because the action is so diffuse,” said Mark Broadie, a finance professor at Columbia Business School. “In golf it’s one golfer, one ball, one shot. It’s very clean.” Since pro golfers are single-mindedly motivated toward one goal, winning tournaments by taking as few strokes as possible, studying such topics as their risk-reward strategies and competitive awareness have real-world implications in business and management, he said.

Broadie and his co-researcher, Dick Rendleman of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, are the ones who determined that the World Golf Rankings favor players who earn points primarily outside the PGA Tour. At their presentation in Phoenix, summarizing research for a paper to be finished soon, they compared the world ranking of the top 200 players to a ranking of those same players’ skill levels calculated using a statistical model they also devised, which simultaneously takes into account players’ adjusted tournament scores and the difficulty of the courses. In every two-year period going back to 2003, the bias was stark. “For every given skill ranking, the official world golf ranking for PGA Tour players averaged 36 positions worse than for non-PGA Tour players,” Rendleman said. At one point Pat Perez was ranked 95th in skill, according to their model, but 195th in the world rankings.

Why would a fanatical libertarian live in Singapore?

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Why would a fanatical libertarian live in Singapore?

First, it is a myth that democracies (read: dictatorship of the masses) by definition offer more benevolent living conditions. In my experience, democracies have seeds of self-destruction. Singapore, on the other hand, is more like a family-run corporation — a political system I prefer over democracy.

Here I don’t see any busybodies around. Bureaucratic interferences in your life are minimal. They focus on governance and they do it relatively well. They are nowhere close to an ideal government, but compared to what you get elsewhere, Singapore is a treat.

Second, while it is true that they do have tough drug and gun laws, they are effective. Singapore is one of the safest cities on the planet and a young girl here can feel comfortable walking by herself just about anywhere, even late at night. Since I have no reason to own a gun nor do I consume drugs, Singapore fits in my life design plan just fine.

Third, while this may sound quite shocking, to me, caning as a mode of punishment looks quite appropriate in many situations.

For example, I recently saw a video of three teenagers beating an old man for fun in the U.S. The teenagers likely went unpunished. I would prefer that they had to slog for several years to make monetary retribution to the old man. But lacking that, I certainly think caning is a better form of punishment than letting the culprits go.

Lastly, freedom of speech is limited only in the arena of politics. Quite honestly, if more freedom of speech were allowed in Singapore, it would likely also degenerate into a “dictatorship of the mobs”, in which Peter lobbies or protests to steal what is Paul’s. Personally, my only reason for participating in mass protests is war. But since Singapore does not participate in attacking other countries, there is no need for antiwar protests anyway. So again this is acceptable to me in my life design plan.

If it weren’t for the gun laws…

(Hat tip to Foseti.)

Unforeseen Twists

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Foseti refers to modern crime dramas as progressive porn:

A few weeks ago, I was watching some progressive porn. In this particular case, it was an episode of Criminal Minds (see #153). The show started with the murder of a nice white family in their home. A dead, black, apparent-gang-member was also found dead in the home. The gang member was apparently killed by the family during the attack. There were a couple killings in this same area with this same pattern.

Obviously, you’re supposed to think that the killings are gang-related — young blacks killing white families. However, if you notice patterns (i.e. if you’re a thought criminal), you know that you’re watching progressive porn (i.e. a crime show on network TV). The rules of progressive porn prohibit any minority from being a criminal — the real criminal must always be a relatively-well-off white guy. Sure enough, after some “unforeseen twists,” (which were obvious to any thought criminal after about 3 minutes) it’s revealed the real killer is a white guy running for political office. He’s just inciting some racial violence to stir up the electorate (who could have possibly seen that coming?!).

This has something to do with current events:

The scene opens with an apparent cold-blooded murder by a crazed, racist, white (sorry for the redundancy) neighborhood watchmen gunning down a defenseless black honor student. Even the President(!!!) makes a comment on the incident.

After a series of “unforeseen twists,” it’s revealed that the watchmen was Hispanic — or White Hispanic in the terminology of the New York Times (I’ve got money saying this particularly phrase doesn’t last long in the Times’ lexicon) — and he very likely may have been acting in self defense. The “victim” may have initiated the violence, may have been a drug dealer and/or a burglar, and now his supporters are looting stores to honor his memory.

Despite the fact that this process was entirely predictable, the editor of National Review and all sorts of others were somehow foolish enough to beclown themselves. Apparently they’re not very good at noticing patterns.

The Trophy Basement

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Wealthy home builders around the globe are digging deep, Candace Jackson reports, and building trophy basements:

In Los Angeles, builder Mauricio Oberfeld has buried about a third of his home underground: He built a contemporary 9,000-square-foot house for his family with a 3,000-square-foot basement. Glass stairwells lead to a lower level with an ornately tiled spa, large office, wine room and movie theater.

“What you see from the street looks pretty low-key,” Mr. Oberfeld says of the home, completed in 2010. “I don’t like to be ostentatious and showing the world.”

Low-key is not the first descriptor that leaped to mind.

The real reasons for the trend are largely economic  —  and regulatory:

In central London’s prime neighborhoods, high density, strict building codes and skyrocketing real-estate prices — up 43% since March 2009, according to real-estate firm Knight Frank — are resulting in some of the most elaborate subterranean living spaces in the world.


Southern California has become another hot spot for digging down. Rare until relatively recently, as land in the area is relatively plentiful, underground building activity grew in earnest after a 2008 Los Angeles ordinance limited the percentage of a lot a home could consume. “The relief valve to that was that if somebody put [square footage] underground and no one could see it,” it was allowable, says Los Angeles city planner Erick Lopez. In most city neighborhoods, the aboveground square footage of newly built homes or expansions typically can’t exceed 25% to 50% of the lot size, depending on neighborhood and topography. (Beverly Hills and other cities have a similar law on the books.)

Creativity Can Seem Like Magic

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Problems that seem impossible can sometimes be solved with a flash of insight:

Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where that flash probably came from. In the seconds before the insight appears, a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what’s needed when working on a hard creative problem.

Interestingly, Mr. Beeman and his colleagues have found that certain factors make people much more likely to have an insight, better able to detect the answers generated by the aSTG. For instance, exposing subjects to a short, humorous video — the scientists use a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up — boosts the average success rate by about 20%.

Alcohol also works. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and intoxicated students. [...] Drunk students solved nearly 30% more of these word problems than their sober peers.

What explains the creative benefits of relaxation and booze? The answer involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention.

When we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking, we’re often right:

If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.

Creativity can seem like magic, Jonah Lehrer says, but it’s not. I’m not sure how he can conclude that there’s no such thing as a creative type though.

Hex-Fluted Rifle Barrels

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Legion Firearms’ hex-fluted rifle barrels certainly look gimmicky, but they may serve a purpose:

Essentially, the Hex Fluting design is based on the study of vibration — how it works, when it stops.

Wehmeyer clarifies, “I’m talking about the dissipation of an instance of vibratory motion. Call it motion, tremor, an oscillation, whatever term you prefer. It’s the underlying physics of it that are significant to the Hex Fluted barrel.”

Vibrations travel for longer distance through a curve than they will through a straight line or an angle. The so-called ‘honeycomb’ barrel capitalizes upon that. Consider the difference between striking a steel drum vs. a steel box: a steel drum will continue to vibrate for as long as the shape can hold it, whereas a steel box will hold the vibration only to the closest corner.

Wehmeyer says, “The long term study of vibrations has yielded facts that the firearms industry has failed to acknowledge and capitalize upon for years. It’s not that the industry is dumb or naïve, it’s just that the different sciences frequently fail to cross-communicate enough to really affect each other in any productive manner.”

Legion guarantees their rifles will shoot sub MOA with cheap XM193 or PMC55 type ammunition. They’ve achieved one-hole groups with 3 rounds of 77 grain OTM (Mk262 Mod 1) 5.56mm at 100 yards, and every proficient shooter I’ve personally talked to has verified just how accurate they really are.

Another advantage to the Hex Fluted barrel is heat dissipation.

“Simple science fact,” Jamie says. “A greater surface area is going to yield greater heat dissipation given no disparity in material and relative mass. Also, strength and rigidity should not be measured by how much material an object contains but rather by its ability to retain its original form. Our barrels are built the way they are for strength, heat dissipation and accuracy. The aesthetics of it are purely a byproduct.”

California’s Greek Tragedy

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Michael Boskin and John Cogan call it California’s Greek Tragedy — the state’s predictable decline as its legislatures and governors built a welfare state on high tax rates, liberal entitlement benefits, and excessive regulation:

From the mid-1980s to 2005, California’s population grew by 10 million, while Medicaid recipients soared by seven million; tax filers paying income taxes rose by just 150,000; and the prison population swelled by 115,000.

California’s economy, which used to outperform the rest of the country, now substantially underperforms. The unemployment rate, at 10.9%, is higher than every other state except Nevada and Rhode Island. With 12% of America’s population, California has one third of the nation’s welfare recipients.

Police and the Quiet Eye

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

In a recent study, Bill Lewinski and Joan Vickers examined how elite and rookie police officers reacted — and where they were looking — during a simulated conflict:

The elite ERT officers strongly out-performed the rookies:

First of all, the ERT spent significantly less time assessing the situation before drawing their gun. On whole, they drew “well before the assailant began his pivot,” Vickers reports. Most drew early and “held [their gun] at chest level before aiming.” The rookies tended to delay drawing until about a second after his turn.

The ERT shot before the assailant got his round off 92.5% of the time, beating him by an average of nearly 180 milliseconds (ms). The rookies shot first only about 42% of the time and on average lagged behind the attacker by more than 13 ms. Responding “very poorly,” the study says, the rookies essentially “reacted to his attack, rather than being ahead of him as were the ERT during every phase of the encounter.”

The ERT hit the assailant nearly 75% of the time, compared to about 54% — “slightly more than chance” — for the recently trained rookies. ERT hits were in the upper torso (center mass) 62% of the time, versus about 48% for the rookies.

In more than 60% of their trials, rookies fired when the assailant brandished a cell phone instead of a gun, compared to only about 18% for the ERT.

The researchers tabulated fixations (when an officer’s gaze was stable on an object or location within a 3-degree visual angle for 100 ms or longer) and saccades (when the eyes moved rapidly from 1 fixed location to another for at least 66.66 ms) and made these discoveries:

The ERT officers tended to use fixations of only short duration early in the encounter, during their initial assessment and as the suspect began to pivot toward them. Then they used longer-duration fixations as they aimed and fired. “They needed less time to ‘read’ critical cues” and acquire external feedback information that “allowed them to prepare their shooting movements in advance and prevail over the assailant,” the researchers explain. Thus the ERT “were ahead of the assailant in terms of their motor phases and gaze control across all phases of the encounter.”

“The rookies used an opposite strategy and had long-duration fixations at the outset and shorter durations as they aimed and fired.” In effect, “the rookies were behind” the suspect’s actions and were “caught by surprise.” They “used a reactive strategy where they acquired information at the last moment, which was inadequate both in terms of its content and timing for the extreme demands of the encounter.”

“The ERT had a higher frequency of fixations than the rookies in all phases [of the scenario] except the aim/fire phase, when the ERT had fewer fixations to fewer locations than the rookies, indicative of greater focus and concentration as they aimed and fired.”

The ERT increasingly directed their attention to the suspect’s gun hand/arm as the scenario evolved. “They increased the percent of fixations to this location from 21% in the assessment and early pivot phases to 71% during the final 2 seconds. On hits, the ERT directed 86% of their final fixations to this one location, revealing a remarkable degree of focus and concentration under fire.” And, the study explains, they had time for a final, undisturbed period of super-concentration that Vicker’s calls “the quiet eye,” which has been linked with high performance across many different genres of athletics. In this, their eye remained settled on a defined target location through trigger pull.

“The rookies did not show the same funneling of their attention to the assailant’s gun hand/arm,” the study points out. Early on, similar to the ERT, they concentrated a minority of their fixations there. But at the time the suspect aimed and fired, only 33% of the rookies’ fixations were directed there, a modest and inadequate increase. And whatever quiet-eye time they exhibited was significantly lower.

Perhaps most startling, the officers’ last abrupt shift of gaze before firing was found to be radically different between the 2 groups.

The rookie’s final saccade, especially among those who missed when they fired, “occurred at the same time they tried to fixate the target and aim,” the study reveals. At that critical moment in the last 500 ms, the rookies in a staggering 82% of their tests took their eyes off the assailant and attempted to look at their own gun, trying to find or confirm sight alignment as they aimed. “This pulled them out of the gunfight for what turned out to be a significant period of time,” Lewinski says. Vickers adds: “On a high percentage of their shots, the rookies did not see the assailant as they fired,” contributing to inaccurate shooting and the misjudgment of the cell phone as a threat.

About 30% of the ERT also looked at their gun, but their timing was different. Most of those gaze-shifts occurred before the officers aimed, “followed by the onset of their aim and fixation on the target and firing.”

The researchers pose the possibility that the rookies’ training may have contributed to their poor performance. They were taught pistolcraft “similar to how most police officers first learn to shoot a handgun: to focus first on the rear sight, then on the front sight, and finally on the target, aligning all 3 before pulling the trigger.”

“This is a very time-consuming process and one that was not successful in this study,” Vickers says.

Somewhere across their training, practice, and experience, the successful ERT officers had learned what essentially is a reverse process: Their immediate and predominate focus is on the weapon carried by their attacker. With their gaze concentrated there, they bring their gun up to their line of sight and catch their sights only in their peripheral vision, a subtle “sight glimpse,” as Lewinski terms it. “They have an unconscious kinesthetic sense to know that their gun is up and positioned properly,” he says. “This is a focus strategy that Olympic shooters use,” says Vickers, “and it is simpler, faster, and more effective.”

As the assailant’s actual attack got underway, the elite officers were zeroed in on a “weapons focus.” That is, the ERT officers’ “fixations were not directed to the assailant’s centre of mass as he pivoted and fired, but to the weapon itself, which he held away from his body until the moment he fired. The ERT tracked the weapon as soon as it was visible, using a series of fixations. Because he was moving rapidly, it was only during the last few milliseconds that his centre mass presented a viable target.”

“This intense attentiveness to the weapon can have memory implications later on,” Lewinski explains. “Now we have an empirical study showing why an officer who survives a gunfight may be unable to identify a perpetrator’s face or recall other important details proximate to the shooting, such as the body position or turning action of the subject.”

The researchers do not endorse point-shooting, but that’s pretty clearly what the “elite” shooters were doing.

A competitive three-gun shooter who used to race cars has this to add:

When I was still racing (NHRA and NASCAR) I had my visual focus tested as part of a study, and I think it is relevant. The majority of the drivers in the upper ranks had what the researcher called “advanced edge focus”. In essence, it was the ability to shift the brain focus without shifting the eye focus. For instance, in drag racing, the ability to co-ordinate the foot/hands with three visual points (the finish line, christmas tree and tach) and consistently cut a light with a spread of no more than 0.1 seconds was associated with the drivers who had this edge focus ability. The same in NASCAR was the ability to focus on your line while also mentally collecting the information from the surrounding cars. This translated into fewer wrecks for the drivers with this ability.

The testing has advanced and if you go read the articles on “Quiet Eye” (most of it is related to golf and baseball) you will find some similarities. I have been playing with catching the edge of the target in the peripheral (mental focus) while maintaining visual front sight focus and it seems to be helping. Some people just seem to have these skills (don’t know if is natrral or taught), but the research is looking like it can be learned.

When I was deciding what to be when I grow up in my 20s, I took some military tests and one of the recruiters, after my eye test got very excited and tried to get me to sign. He told me that very few people could shift from left to right eye focus on command and even fewer still could focus on a point at distance and perceive basic shapes in the peripheral. I was stupid and thought he was jerking my chain to get me in, but in hind sight it probably would have been good for me.


Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

A small three-year-old company called Krossover is able to take basketball game film — digital video, really — and transform it into advanced metrics — for a couple thousand dollars a season, a price high-school teams can afford:

The company is the peculiar vision of Vasu Kulkarni, a 25-year-old computer whiz and basketball junkie from Bangalore, India, who developed a program that helps human analysts quickly break down game film. [...] His system works with a small army of 80 remote analysts scattered across the U.S., Europe and India.

He began showing up at coaching clinics and scholastic sports conventions in 2010 to pitch his product. After testing it with 50 teams during the 2010-11 season, he capped orders at 475 this season. “I swear I had people offering to bake me cookies if they could get on the system,” he said.

For the maximum rate of $2,000 per season, a sum that’s usually footed by parents and booster clubs through fund raising, Krossover sends back analyzed game film within 24 hours, plus breakdowns on a set number of films of their opponents. Other less-expensive packages are available.

When the report comes back, often the morning after a game, coaches can click on a player’s number and view video of every play he was involved in, as well as intimate measures of his performance that include a breakdown of where his assists were received: close to the rim, for instance, or in the paint or out near the three-point line.

For each unit of players, there is something called the pace of play, which is an estimate of how many possessions they’ll have per game. Another statistic Krossover compiles is effective field-goal percentage (or eFG%), a weighted formula that adjusts for the difficulty of the shots taken. “It’s just a massive time-saver,” said Patrick Geil, head coach of the boys basketball team at San Joaquin Memorial in Fresno, Calif.

A Quiet Eye

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

For years, Joan Vickers of the University of Calgary has been using a helmet outfitted with cameras and mirrors to track where athletes look as they play, and she has found that they have a surprisingly quiet eye that settles down on what’s important:

Vickers has found that almost all novice golfers follow the ball with their eyes after they hit it — and Alan’s no exception. By comparison, David Lindsay has been taught by Vickers to use his eyes the way the experts do. He looks steadily at the intended target for a second or two, looks back at the ball and lets his gaze rest there before and even after the stroke — what Vickers calls a “quiet eye.”

Will this technique help Alan? On his previous tries, Alan never hit better than three putts in six tries. Using the quiet eye gaze, he improves to four in six.

For several seasons, Vickers has used this technique to improve the free throwing of the University of Calgary’s women’s basketball team. First, she trains them to say “Nothing but net” to settle themselves down. Then, as they stare at the net, they say, “Sight, Focus,” ensuring their gaze remains steady on the target for at least one second.

The team was shooting 54 percent when Vickers started working with them. Within three years, they improved by an extraordinary 22 percent.

Basketball in hand, Alan once again tries the quiet-eye technique. The result: nothing but net.

Watch the video.

Accelerating Solar Power

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Twin Creeks’ Hyperion 3 ion accelerator bombards plates of silicon with hydrogen ions to produce very thin solar wafers for solar cells at half the cost:

The process begins in a vacuum chamber, where a high-energy beam of hydrogen ions bombards three-millimeter-thick disks of crystalline silicon. The ions accumulate at a precise depth of 20 micrometers, which is controlled by the voltage of the beam. Once enough ions accumulate, a robotic arm quickly removes the wafers, which are then placed inside a furnace, where the ions in the silicon form microscopic bubbles of hydrogen gas that expand, creating tiny fractures within the silicon wafer and causing a 20-micrometer-thick layer of silicon to flake off. The company then applies a metal backing to the thin silicon. (The proprietary process it uses sets it apart from another company, Astrowatt, which makes wafers that are similarly thin. But Astrowatt’s wafers are slightly curved, which could make them difficult to handle in conventional production equipment.)

The Twin Creeks wafers are compatible with conventional solar-cell production equipment, and with processes now being used to make advanced solar-cell designs, such as heterojunction cells. Sivaram says the hydrogen-ion process works with single-crystal materials other than silicon, including gallium arsenide, a semiconductor that has been used to produce world-record efficiency solar cells.

Using an ion beam to create thin wafers of crystalline silicon has been considered before, but it was far too expensive to be a practical manufacturing method. It required a particle accelerator that could produce ion beams that are both very high current and very high energy, and “such a beast did not exist,” Sivaram says. To make the technology viable, Twin Creeks developed an ion accelerator that is “10 times more powerful” than any commercially available accelerator, he says.

The Jewelry Polka

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The latest episode of South Park, Cash for Gold, is pretty darkly comical. The Jewelry Polka sequence sums it up:

Decision Training

Monday, March 26th, 2012

If you want to teach a skill quickly and effectively, you likely rely on the tried and true methods of behavioral training:

  • blocked practice where the same skills are practised over and over in order to create automaticity
  • high levels of direct feedback
  • instruction delivered and drilled through the use of simple to complex progressions

Such behavioral training yields results — in the short term. In the longer term decision training yields better results:

  • variable and random practice
  • delayed and reduced feedback
  • top-down, tactically oriented instruction

Tennis, without All the Tension

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

The pros are trying tennis, without all the tension — string tension, that is:

Racket strings have more punch when they’re strung loosely because the ball dwells on the string bed longer, creating a trampoline effect. Years ago, when players used natural gut strings, this kind of slingshot power came at the expense of control—so most players opted for tighter strings and pinpoint placement.

Today, with the new generation of synthetic strings, players are discovering they can control that added power with all the spin the new, slicker strings naturally give them. “Players can actually control the ball better at lower tensions when they use poly strings and have a heavy topspin game,” says Roman Prokes, a technician who strings for Andy Roddick and Caroline Wozniacki. “It’s exactly the opposite of what we are used to.”