How Reddit Was Born

Friday, November 30th, 2012

I don’t spend time on Reddit these days — as it has followed the usual pattern and regressed quite a bit — but how Reddit was born still makes for a good story:

Class, Caste, and Genes

Friday, November 30th, 2012

If there is any substantial heritability of merit, Henry Harpending notes — where merit is whatever leads to class mobility — then mobility ought to turn classes into hereditary castes surprisingly rapidly:

This figure shows an initial population with normally distributed merit. A new merit based class system is imposed such that the two new classes are of equal size. In this free meritocracy everyone with merit exceeding the population mean moves into the upper class and everyone with merit less than the average moves into the lower class. The second panel of the figure shows the resulting merit distributions by class before reproduction and the bottom panel shows the distributions after endogamous reproduction. This model assumes that the reshuffling of genes during reproduction leads to normal distributions in the next generation within classes.

The process continues for several generations. By analogy with IQ the additive heritability of merit is set to 0.6 so there are substantial random environmental effects. The second figure shows the evolution of class differences over four generations or about 100 years in human terms.

Class mobility after the first generation is 30% while after four generations it has declined to 10% and continues to decline after that. The average merit in the two classes is about -1SD in the lower and +1SD in the upper on the original scale, corresponding to IQs of 85 and 115.

The Demented Pacifism of Irving Fisher

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

On July 15, 1915, the New York Times ran an interview with legendary economist Irving Fisher — parts of which are still music to Bryan Caplan’s ears:

After this war is over, of course, Europe will find herself prostrated economically, by the destruction of property and workers, and not only that – the survivors will lack the strength and vital power which the aggregate had before the war. So far as the strongest still survive, they will be crippled largely in body, mind, and estate. Europe will be a vast hospital full of invalids, a vast almshouse full of paupers, a vast cemetery full of graves.

This will leave the United States the one great nation, physically and otherwise fit to carry onward the torch of civilization. We, alone, of the world’s great peoples, will remain endowed with both the economic and vital power necessary for the prosecution of that mission. Therefore, it seems to me that it must be clear to every thinking man that Europe should serve to us as a warning and not as an example.

The tragedy there should stir us on to reduce, not to increase our militaristic ideas. While Europe is spending life we should set ourselves determinedly at the task of saving life.

Fisher was a crusading vegetarian, teetotaler, and eugenecist:

It is the quality rather than the quantity of human life that should be held precious…

If war would weed out only the criminal, the vicious, the feeble-minded, the insane, the habitual paupers, and others of the defective classes, it might lay claim, with some show of justice, to the beneficent virtues sometimes ascribed to it.

But the truth is that its effects are diametrically opposite. It eliminates the young men, who should be the fathers of the next generation — men medically selected as the largest, strongest, most alert, and best endowed in every way…

Their less endowed fellows, medically rejected from military service, because of defects in stature, eyesight, hearing, mentality, &c, are left at home to reproduce the race.

Caplan didn’t much like that part:

According to Fisher, war isn’t bad because it’s mass murder; it’s bad because it’s dysgenic mass murder!

Really, I don’t think that’s a fair paraphrase. Fisher would say that mass-murder is bad, but dysgenic mass murder is worse.

Cost-Imposing Strategies

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Near the end of the Cold War, talk turned to cost-imposing strategies — strategies that pushed the Russians to spend more than they could afford in order to keep up — but, Tom Ricks recently discovered, this isn’t a new idea:

Paul Kennedy, in his terrific study of The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, quotes the Duke of Newcastle as stating in 1742 that, “France will outdo us at sea when they have nothing to fear on land. I have always maintained that our marine should protect our alliances on the Continent, and so, by diverting the expense of France, enable us to maintain our superiority at sea.”

Kennedy says this was the key to British policy for centuries: Keep Europe in a balance of power so that no one nation dominated the continent, and all nations there would have to focus on land power at the expense of sea power. Hence Britain’s “perfidious” reputation — it didn’t care much about the nature of its alliances as long as it could balance European powers while it expanded its empire outside Europe. He writes that, “of the seven Anglo-French wars which took place between 1689 and 1815, the only one which Britain lost was that in which no fighting took place in Europe.” This pattern gave rise to the expression that France lost Canada in Germany.

This approach worked until 1914.

The British occupation of Gibraltar grew out of this strategy. By having a base at the mouth of the Mediterranean, the British could deter the French from moving their Mediterranean fleet out to join their Atlantic fleet.

Kennedy’s book reminds me a lot of Piers Mackesy’s The War for America in that it teaches not just history but strategy. I am surprised that no one told me to read it years ago.

If you fight the poor

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Zenpundit discusses strategy, power and diffusion:

A recent estimate for the cost of the war in Afghanistan by the Congressional Research Office is $443 billion dollars to occupy and fight a Pakistani-supported insurgency in a primitive country whose annual GDP is a mere $27 billion. A figure that itself inflated by $3-4 billion in remittances, $4 billion in NGO aid and $14 billion in direct US aid (2010 figure); when you then subtract opium smuggling ($4 billion), Afghanistan’s legitimate economic activity may only be a miniscule GDP of $2–3 billion.

This does not, of course, include the cost of ten years of lavish bribes for Pakistan, a portion of which was used by the ISI to support the Taliban killing American and ISAF soldiers and Afghan civilians.

This is not a cost-effective or strategic way to run a war. In fact, even for a nation as wealthy as the United States there is nothing in Afghanistan worth such an expenditure of blood and treasure, especially when the bulk of our enemies appear to be based in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.


William Lind and the 4GW school used to like to make the point, regarding your moral and political legitimacy, that “If you fight the weak, you become weak”. The corollary to that is economic: “If you fight the poor, you become poor”.

Grinding poverty itself is a tax upon the invading force. There are no resources for your army to commandeer or buy, no skilled manpower to requisition or hire, no infrastructure for them to use. All of that must be imported and built at great expense by the invader whose troops are accustomed to far less spartan environs. The local population is usually malnourished, illiterate, ignorant, suspicious of outsiders and rife with disease; their living habits and water sources unsanitary and endanger the troops. Caring for the locals, even minimal administration of humanitarian aid, becomes a bureaucratic and logistical burden consuming time and diverting resources away from urgent military needs.

The United States under George Bush the Elder, entered into Somalia, a land beset by violent anarchy and it’s people in the grip of a terrible famine and was driven out shortly thereafter under Bill Clinton. The last scenes there being the emaciated Somali followers of a two-bit warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, gleefully swarming over and looting our military’s former… garbage dump.

When the enemy has a land so poor that he treasures and makes use of the crap you throw away, the economic spillover of your logistical supply lines will fund his war against you. Used to surviving on bare subsistence, the invader’s presence becomes an economic bonanza for resistance and collaborator alike. Sort of a highly kinetic form of military Keynesianism. The war itself and the occupation become an irreplaceable cornerstone of their economy. They hate you being there, but can’t afford to defeat you and drive you out either — making a “quagmire” irregular conflict their ideal economic equilibrium to maintain.

If Iran Gets the Bomb

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Paul Bracken examines what might happen if Iran gets the bomb, as revealed through war-gaming:

The game might begin with a seemingly familiar train of events, not unlike what has unfolded this week in the Middle East: The Shiite militant group Hezbollah kidnaps Israeli soldiers. Israel hits back with airstrikes on villages in Lebanon believed to be Hezbollah ammunition dumps. The West Bank and Gaza flare up, and Hezbollah begins firing long-range missiles into Haifa and Tel Aviv. The weapons come from Iran, and there are even Iranian “advisers” with them.

But then the tempo of the game slows down. Everyone notices caution, even hesitation, in the Israel team. The Israelis refrain from airstrikes on Syria (Hezbollah’s other key patron), and the Israeli navy backs off from the Lebanon-Syria coast for fear of losing a ship. If a ship were lost, Israel would have to escalate, and that is the heart of the matter: Escalation in a nuclear context isn’t like escalation in earlier conflicts without the bomb.

Israel knows how to escalate in a conventional war or against an intifada or insurgency. But this is different. The conflict is no longer about how much pain to inflict before the other side gives up. It is about risk. An unwanted spiral of escalation might drive the game in a very bad direction.

The Israel team considers firing a demonstration nuclear shot, a missile warhead that would explode 100,000 feet over Tehran. Israeli plans since the 1970s have called for doing this as a last-ditch alternative to firing all-out atomic attacks. The blast would shatter windows in downtown Tehran, but it wouldn’t kill anyone, or hardly anyone. Surely it would shock Iran into a cease-fire.

But before that can happen, Iran ups the ante by declaring a full nuclear alert. Rockets on truck launchers are flushed from their peacetime storage bases, along with hundreds of conventionally armed rockets and shorter-range missiles that can hit U.S. bases throughout the Middle East.

The Iran side in this game has given a great deal of thought to the political uses of its primitive nuclear arsenal. A few of its nuclear missiles are in hardened, underground silos. These are for quick-reaction firing, ready to launch on short notice. Mobile missiles can take hours to move and set up. Iran also understands the psychology of its enemies. The West does not want to kill millions of innocent people, so the Iran team places some mobile missiles in city parks in Tehran, Esfahan and Mashhad. Camouflage nets are placed over many parts of these cities to conceal the missiles and to mislead American satellites.

To bring attention to their dire situation, the Israel team orders two Jericho missiles to go on alert. They are timed to move to their launch positions just as the U.S. satellites are passing overhead. The intent, obviously, is to shock the White House. “We hope it leaks to the media, too, maybe we should make sure it does,” one member of the Israel team says.

Israel’s move forces a U.S. decision.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Monday, November 26th, 2012

I recently watched Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, about the defeat of the Sioux and their transition to life on the reservations, where every man would be a chief, and each would farm his own plot of land.

This exchange caught my attention:

Sitting Bull: You must take them out of our lands.

Col. Nelson Miles: What precisely are your lands?

Sitting Bull: These are the where my people lived before you whites first came.

Col. Nelson Miles: I don’t understand. We whites were not your first enemies. Why don’t you demand back the land in Minnesota where the Chippewa and others forced you from years before?

Sitting Bull: The Black Hills are a sacred given to my people by Wakan Tanka.

Col. Nelson Miles: How very convenient to cloak your claims in spiritualism. And what would you say to the Mormons and others who believe that their God has given to them Indian lands in the West?

Sitting Bull: I would say they should listen to Wakan Tanka.

Col. Nelson Miles: No matter what your legends say, you didn’t sprout from the plains like the spring grasses. And you didn’t coalesce out of the ether. You came out of the Minnesota woodlands armed to the teeth and set upon your fellow man. You massacred the Kiowa, the Omaha, the Ponca, the Oto and the Pawnee without mercy. And yet you claim the Black Hills as a private preserve bequeathed to you by the Great Spirit.

Sitting Bull: And who gave us the guns and powder to kill our enemies? And who traded weapons to the Chippewa and others who drove us from our home?

Col. Nelson Miles: Chief Sitting Bull, the proposition that you were a peaceable people before the appearance of the white man is the most fanciful legend of all. You were killing each other for hundreds of moons before the first white stepped foot on this continent. You conquered those tribes, lusting for their game and their lands, just as we have now conquered you for no less noble a cause.

Sitting Bull: This is your story of my people!

Col. Nelson Miles: This is the truth, not legend. Crazy Horse has surrendered, with his entire band. And by his surrender, he says to you and your people that you are defeated. And by ceding the Black Hills to us, so say Red Cloud and the other chiefs, who demand that you end this war and take your place on the reservation.

Sitting Bull: Red Cloud is no longer a chief. He is a woman you have mounted and had your way with. Do not speak to me of Red Cloud!

The Inner Game of Tennis

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Practical-shooting legend Brian Enos has recommended reading The Inner Game of Tennis, because it isn’t really about tennis, but about learning how to play tennis.

Computer-science legend Alan Kay has also recommended Timothy Gallwey’s book as a guide to user-interface design:

Here’s a slightly longer version of the original television segment:

Future Games

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Nyrath has compiled a list of futuristic games from science fiction, and Eleusis caught my interest:

Eleusis is a card game that simulates the scientific method and teaches inductive logic. One player (“God” or “Nature”) secretly formulates a rule (a “law of nature”) that specifies what card can be played next. The rest of the players (“Scientists”) take turns playing a card (“performing an experiment”), and trying to deduce the rule (“create a hypothesis”) before the other scientists.

The game can be played with a standard deck of cards, or a special deck can be created.

Eleusis was invented in 1956 by Robert Abbott and appeared in Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Recreations column in the June 1959 issue of Scientific American.

In 2006, John Golden created a streamlined version.

Machine Gun Jetpack

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns? In theory, yes, Randall Munroe (xkcd) says — although he uses an assault rifle in his example:

In the engineering world, the ratio between a craft’s thrust and the weight is called, appropriately, thrust-to-weight ratio. If it’s less than 1, the vehicle can’t lift off. The Saturn V had a takeoff thrust-to-weight ratio of about 1.5.

As it turns out, the AK-47 has a thrust-to-weight ratio of around two. This means if you stood it on end and somehow taped down the trigger (Note: Please, PLEASE do not try this at home) it would rise into the air while firing.

This isn’t true of all machine guns. The M60, for example, probably can’t produce enough recoil to lift itself off the ground.

He notes that the thrust from shooting ten eight-gram bullets per second at 715 m/s — around 13 pounds — underestimates the total thrust by ignoring the hot gasses — but he doesn’t note that some of that energy is used to cycle the action.

Read the whole thing.

Can Mass Transit Save the Environment?

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Can mass transit save the environment? It’s not likely:

At any given time, the average auto has somewhere around 1.6 passengers, and the average (typically 40-seat) bus has only about 10. Rail vehicles typically have more passengers (on average about 25), but then again they are also typically much larger. Thus their average load factor (percentage of seats filled) is also not high, at about 46 percent for heavy rail systems (think subways in major cities) and about 24 percent for light rail (think systems that mostly run at street level).

It is not clear that moving around large and largely empty vehicles is much of an improvement over moving around smaller ones. In fact, it may be worse. According to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, in 2010 transporting each passenger one mile by car required 3447 BTUs of energy. Transporting each passenger a mile by bus required 4118 BTUs, surprisingly making bus transit less green by this metric. Rail transit admittedly fares better, at 2520 BTUs per passenger mile, but even this is not the kind of slam-dunk advantage over the auto that transit advocates might hope for.


For the most part, any new transit service has to go to relatively low-density cities and low-density areas within cities, meaning that new investment would drag transit’s overall efficiency down, not up.

To give an idea of how this phenomenon works, the heavily used New York subway system (58 percent of seats are typically filled) produces .171 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile, less than 1/3 the average for cars nationwide. However, the much more lightly used Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Memphis light rail systems actually produce considerably more CO2 per passenger mile than cars do.

The Conservative Future

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

David Brooks sees the conservative future in the following clusters:

  • Paleoconservatives
  • Lower-Middle Reformists
  • Soft Libertarians
  • Burkean Revivalists

He sees an epidemic of open-mindedness.

Max Boot’s Military History Gift Guide for 2012

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Max Boot’s gift guide of military history books for this year includes five titles:

  1. No Easy Day
  2. Into the Fire
  3. The Endgame
  4. Freedom’s Forge
  5. Lincoln’s Code


Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

The Assistant Village Idiot cites Gregory Cochrane (The 10,000 Year Explosion) on mutants:

History looks more and more like a science fiction novel in which mutants repeatedly arose and displaced normal humans — sometimes quietly, by surviving starvation and disease better, sometimes as a conquering horde. And we are those mutants.

Learning to Love Volatility

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Nassim Nicholas Taleb shares his five rules for anti-fragility:

  1. Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.
  2. Favor businesses that benefit from their own mistakes, not those whose mistakes percolate into the system.
  3. Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.
  4. Trial and error beats academic knowledge.
  5. Decision makers must have skin in the game.