Schizophrenic Attackers

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Dr. Jeroen Ensink, 41, a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was stabbed to death by Nigerian-born student Femi Nandap, who was a cannabis-abusing psychotic (in the strict, clinical sense):

Despite attacking a police officer in May last year and then being caught in possession of two kitchen knives, Nandap was twice given bail, before prosecutors decided to drop the charges against him.

Six days later he attacked and killed Dr Ensink, telling police who tried to intervene that he was the “black messiah”.

The current academic wisdom is that it would be impossible to prevent such murders without restricting large numbers of patients — say 35,000 of them:

Taking the very paper which provides the “35,000” figure for stranger murder, the figures for assault are shown below, and put things into a more manageable context. The annual rates for assault and violent crime are extraordinarily high, almost unbelievably so. Given the very high base rate, screening and monitoring are worth while.

Positive Predictive Value for the Detection of Adverse Events in Schizophrenia

As the event becomes more rare, the positive predictive value of the risk-categorization becomes lower, and the error rate higher, with progressively more people needing to be monitored to prevent one rare event. However, to prevent an assault would require that 3 schizophrenic patients be monitored, calling them in to check they are taking their medication, and presumably (hardest part) searching for them if they failed to show up. Easier would be to link up with the Police, so that if a patient is brought in for violent behaviour of any sort there can be coordinated management of the offender. Devoutly to be wished, often denied, but in the manageable range given the will and the resources. It would provide a good service for the patients, reducing suicide attempts, improving the quality of their lives, and reducing threats to others. It would certainly be worth testing it out in a London Borough, and checking that the above figures, derived from the best sources, hold up on further examination.

None of the media coverage goes into the question which arises out of normal curiosity: is psychotic behaviour more common among Africans in the UK? The picture above shows murderer and victim, and is an all too common pairing. The answer to the African question is: 6 to 9 times higher.

How Israel Catches Lone Wolves

Monday, January 30th, 2017

The recent Palestinian haba, or eruption, has involved “lone wolf” attackers:

In closed-door debates, proponents of a new and less muscular approach emphasized that most of the attackers came from the fringes of West Bank society: young people struggling with social marginalization, who had experienced repeated setbacks in their private lives or faced insurmountable personal or financial hardship. The collective profile of the assailants identified most as frustrated individuals who felt that their lives had reached a dead end, to the point that many sought salvation through martyrdom. Many of those captured during assaults told interrogators that they believed that death for the sake of jihad would reward them with the recognition they failed to obtain in life. It eventually dawned on Israeli analysts that many of the attackers who had maintained their own Facebook pages tended to replace their old pictures with new self-portraits just weeks, and sometimes only days, before setting out on an attack, so that mourning ceremonies could display photos of the “martyrs” that were appropriately current and flattering. In numerous cases, would-be assailants also wrote about their wish to sacrifice their lives in the form of short poems, Quranic verses, or tributes to other shahidis (martyrs).

Another important conclusion was that roughly half of the attackers came from only six localities in the West Bank: the suburb of Jebel Mukabar on the southern outskirts of East Jerusalem; Kalandiya refugee camp; the villages of Qabatya, Sair, and Yata; and a few neighborhoods in Hebron. Most other towns and villages did not join in. Each of these localities had, of course, its own unique economic conditions, social tensions, and complaints concerning nearby Israeli settlements and army presence. In general, Mount Hebron was the main springboard for attacks partly because pro-Hamas clans dominate the region at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.

On top of that, about half of all attempts occurred in and around the same six road junctions, from Jalameh border crossing in the north through Beit El, Tapuach, and Etzion in the center down to two intersections in Hebron. Young Palestinians repeatedly targeted Israeli soldiers at these junctions, many of them to avenge friends or family members who had been killed there in previous attempted attacks. This trend continued despite the IDF’s fortification of its positions around these junctions. Attackers knew that their chances of murdering an Israeli soldier in these well-defended places were slim, and the chances they would be killed or captured very high. Hence, choosing to carry out an attack in any of these junctions amounted to a suicide mission.

Although there were few attacks involving firearms during the Haba, these were often most serious. Israeli investigators discovered that some of these attacks were sophisticated operations by small “sacrifice squads” formed ad hoc. Members spent time on reconnaissance and planning. In most cases they were equipped with improvised Swedish Karl Gustav or old Port Said submachine guns manufactured in local metal workshops. A few of these squads might have been influenced by ISIS attacks in Europe, although none of the fifty or so people who participated in these attacks had any affiliation or contact with the terror group.

The Haba also brought about a sharp increase in what the Palestinians describe as “Popular Resistance”—riots and violent demonstrations in which Israeli soldiers and civilian passengers in cars or buses were attacked with stones, Molotov cocktails, and, less frequently, improvised explosive charges and pipe bombs. There were 4,656 such incidents in one year—from about September 2015 to August of 2016. This mode of unrest became routine after the Fatah movement’s Sixth Conference, held in Bethlehem in 2009, approved a program of unarmed confrontation. The number of such disturbances reached its peak in October 2015, yet unlike during the previous intifadas, public participation was limited. At most there would be few hundred demonstrators, but more often several dozen teenagers. The general public consistently stayed away. Gradually, the number of incidents declined, although a rate of around 100-150 incidents a month has been maintained through the winter of 2016.

There are six main components of Israel’s counter-Haba strategy that have emerged over time:

The first and arguably most important has been to reduce tension over the Temple Mount.

The second component of Israeli policy in dealing with the Haba concerned social media.

The third component has been selective retaliation.

The fourth component of the strategy focused on better cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.

The fifth component of the strategy involved specifically going after the weapons.

Disrupting Hamas operations constitutes the sixth element of the strategy.

If there’s a rumble, I’m sticking with him

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

I don’t know that I’d call Stewart Brand the last prankster, but he is an interesting character:

Brand served in the Army as an officer from 1960 to 1963. I’m initially puzzled by how early and often in our conversations Brand praises his time in the military, but I come to see how much this period in his life defines him. He credits the Army with teaching him how to judge character, how to accomplish goals. “I learned how to back the fuck off and let the ‘sergeants’ do their work,” he says. Although in some respects a flower child, Brand never grew a beard or long hair, last dropped acid in 1969, calls Zen boring, and dismisses the New Left activists of his youth as all talk and no action – a failing Brand clearly cannot abide. In ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’ Tom Wolfe’s book on the psychedelic peregrinations of Kesey and his hippie companions, Brand is identified as the “restrained, reflective wing of the Merry Pranksters.” (Krassner describes his time rooming with Brand as “a New Age Odd Couple,” with Brand as Felix.) It was Brand who organized the Merry Pranksters’ famous Trips Festival, a music-and-light show attended by 10,000 people, many of whom saw their first (of many) Grateful Dead shows there.

Maybe most famously, during an LSD-induced vision in 1966, Brand wrote in his journal, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” The first space launch was more than a decade old, and Brand believed the image would transform how humans conceived of the planet. He began distributing buttons displaying his question – they quickly became popular in the Haight, in Oakland, and eventually at NASA. Photographs from space were released in 1968 and soon appeared on the covers of both the first Whole Earth Catalog and ‘Life’ magazine (and later on your Mac screen), providing just the jolt to environmental consciousness that Brand had envisioned. Two years later, more than 20 million Americans attended rallies for the inaugural Earth Day.


He is not cool in any conventional sense, nor is he slick in presentation or attire, like some Timothy Ferriss type. Nor does he possess the laid-back vibe of, say, Steve Jobs, with his faded Levi’s and mock turtles. Brand has dressed that evening in a moisture-wicking, triple-stitched 5.11 tactical shirt with a half-dozen pockets, including ones hidden along the chest that are specifically marketed as just right for a small backup piece. Brand informs me that he has 10 of these shirts, presumably all in tan, gray, or pea green, the only colors I see him wearing. Two knives hang conspicuously from Brand’s belt – not just a practical Swiss Army but also his “dress knife,” an ornate specimen reserved for formal occasions. “If there’s a rumble,” a guy seated behind me remarks, “I’m sticking with him.”

They need to learn about the world

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

I haven’t seen Captain Fantastic, but Bryan Caplan’s favorite scene from the movie amused me:

Subtle it’s not, but for me, awesome always beats subtle. The stage: Homeschooling dad Captain Fantastic and his six kids are visiting his mundane sister and her two kids (Justin and Jackson). The sister lets her brother know she’s not too happy with his child-rearing…

Sister: They’re children! They need to go to school. They need to learn about the world.

Captain: [shouting] Justin. Jackson? Would you please come down here for a second?

Jackson: What?

Captain: How old are you now, Jackson?

Jackson: Thirteen.

Captain: Can you tell me what the Bill of Rights is?

Jackson: Um, what something costs, I guess.

Captain: That’s a good guess. Justin, you’re in high school?

Justin: Yeah.

Captain: Do you like your school?

Justin: It’s whatever.

Captain: Do you know what the Bill of Rights is?

Justin: It’s a government thing, right? Like, rights that people have in America and stuff.

Captain: Yep. [shouting] Hey, Zaja?

Zaja: [Captain's 2nd-youngest kid] Yes?

Captain: Would you please come down here a moment, sweetie? I wanted to ask you a quick question. Zaja’s just turned eight, by the way. The Bill of Rights.

Zaja: Amendment one: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; Or abridging the freedom of…

Captain: Stop. Regurgitating memorized amendments isn’t what I’m asking for. Just tell me something about it in your own words.

Zaja: Without the Bill of Rights we’d be more like China. Here, at least, we don’t have warrantless searches. We have free speech. Citizens are protected from cruel and unusual punishments…

Sister: That’s enough.

The very bottom 14% have very simple skills

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

If someone you know doubts intelligence differences, James Thompson says, show them the functional literacy data that Linda Gottfredson references:

That is right. Only 4% of the white population can do all the tasks in the list.

NALS Levels

21% get to the 4th level but cannot do carpet cost type problems, and at the very bottom 14% have very simple skills, which do not include locating an intersection on a street map. For many of you reading this, the finding will seem incredible. It is incredible. Human differences are hard to believe, but they are matters to be demonstrated, beliefs notwithstanding.

The Social Carrying Capacity for Hipsters and Bears

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

The mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina has attracted countless hipsters — and black bears:

New developments [in the 1990s] meant more room for people — but, as residents and scientists soon learned, they were also perfect safe spaces for bears, full of food and birdseed and free from hunters. As Asheville grew into a thriving metropolis, the bears stuck around and thrived, too, lumbering between the sprawling Smokey Mountains and the cramped yet trash-rich developments. In 1993, the Wildlife Resources Commission got 33 calls about human-bear encounters. In 2013, they got 569.

The scientists behind the Urban-Suburban Bear Study are looking at this influx from a number of angles, investigating the bear’s lifestyles, travel routes, and family relationships. But they’re also interested in figuring out this new habitat’s “social carrying capacity” — in other words, exactly how many of these new neighbors the human residents of the city are willing to tolerate. “If the habitat can support a lot, but the public doesn’t want them, we run into issues,” says Dr. Chris DePerno, the study’s principal investigator.

The very design of the study requires a certain amount of public support. Residents throughout the city have volunteered to host humane traps on their property. Scientists check the traps every morning and evening, or more often if a resident alerts them to activity. If a bear has wandered in, they come by, attach a GPS collar to track the bear’s movements, and then let it go. If they couldn’t use people’s backyards as bait, the whole study would be doomed. “Everything we do is on private land,” says DePerno. “If we didn’t have public support, we could not have done this project — but we’ve had a tremendous amount of support.”

Of course, the reverse is also true — involving the public in the study has allowed the researchers to teach ordinary civilians about bear management, answering their questions, assuaging their fears, and making sure that they do not, under any circumstances, feed them. This makes DePerno hopeful — if city people can accept bears, maybe there’s a chance that other animals driven into civilization will get a fair shake. “It goes beyond just bears in Asheville,” he says. “We’re hoping to educate other scientists and the public on the potential for managing other urban species.”

Having bears next door does require shouldering some unique responsibilities. In bear-heavy areas, Ashevillians are asked to put their trash out the morning of pickup rather than the night before. When that’s not enough, a kind of arms race can ensue, with some residents chaining their cans to trees and bolting the lids. (Boll freezes any food trash and puts her bag of used cat litter on top of it on trash day, and says it works like a charm.)

Birdfeeders are pretty much a no-go — bears will crush the whole feeder like it’s one big seed, and gobble up the contents. They like to claw the covers off of hot tubs. And in Boll’s neighborhood, walking at night requires a small gear kit: “You carry a light and a whistle, and you’re constantly on the lookout,” she says. “Not because anything that has happened that I know of — but because hello, there are bears!”

But most human residents seem to think it’s worth it. “Every single bear sighting I’ve had has impressed me a lot, because I’m in awe of them,” says Boll. She says she doesn’t know anyone anti-bear, and that new residents who are confused or frightened are quickly educated by their neighbors, if the scientists don’t get to them first. Researchers have extremely detailed bear whereabouts data, but they haven’t released it — not because they fear vengeance against the bears, but because they’ve realized that people love the bears too much, and might go looking for them.

Bruce Charlton reviews the animated Hobbit from 1977

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Bruce Charlton reviews the animated Hobbit from 1977:

Although my first view about a decade ago did not leave much of an impression; I recently rewatched this cartoon Hobbit, and enjoyed it considerably — being very impressed by the seriousness of intent that went into making it.

(Especially by contrast with the unskilled, self-indulgent and irresponsible Peter Jackson Hobbit movies which I find excruciatingly awful — except for the occasional scene such as Bilbo and Gollum.)

Aspiring screenwriter-adaptors could study Romeo Muller’s truly masterful reduction of the approx 250 pages of the book into just about 80 minutes of movie; without any rushing or haste, with full value given to the key scenes — and focusing on the most psychologically important moments (e.g. Bilbo’s interactions with Gandalf and Gollum, the sunlight on the keyhole, Bilbo’s courage in creeping down the tunnel to Smaug, the conversation with Smaug, his scene at Thorin’s death bed). This little cartoon gives the heart of the Hobbit.

Why isn’t it better known then? The problem is the cartooning — or rather some of it. The backgrounds are very well done, indeed rather beautiful in a Japanese precursor-to-Ghibli kind of way; but the characterisation of some characters is frankly hideous. To be fair, Gandalf is fine, Gollum is fine… but Bilbo himself is horrible, the dwarves pretty silly, the elves absurd, and Smaug is more like a long-necked fat pussy-cat than a dragon. The ‘battle’ of the Five Armies is just embarrassing.

Furthermore that actual animation, the movement of the cartoon, is very poor — jerky, insufficient frames, and indeed extremely crude — for instance in the movement of Smaug’s jaw which looks like a piece of cut-out card being slid back and forth (rather like Captain Pugwash, which was done by real time filming of actual cut-outs). This was probably not the fault of Rankin/Bass because animation was at a very low ebb in 1977 (the tide began to turn in 1978 with Watership Down — which is beautifully painted, but — again — jerkily animated).

On the plus side; the voice acting is excellent; for example Thorin is done by the great Hans Conreid, who was the Disney’s Captain Hook — perhaps the best ever vocal characterisation?

The songs are good — and even have a touch of magic about them.

The mistake isn’t not guessing right

Friday, January 27th, 2017

I don’t follow association football (soccer), but a (fairly) recent Guardian piece noted that Shrewsbury’s Mat Sadler was about to face his old under-17 teammate Wayne Rooney, of Manchester United, until Rooney got injured, and this was especially interesting because so few players from that young men’s team made it in the big leagues:

Only five of the 18 members of an England squad who finished third in that tournament in Denmark are still playing professional football, with several slipping into the non-league scene, such as the former Nottingham Forest midfielder Ross Gardner, who now turns out for West Auckland Town and works for British Gas, while others have walked away from the game altogether.


Sadler’s story started at Birmingham City, where the left-back made his Premier League debut at the age of 17 and was extremely well-regarded, so much so that when the Football Association’s technical department organised a “Player Audit” in 2003, his name was one of 25 considered as “certainties” for full England honours.

Fascinated by a list he was never aware of until now, Sadler scans through the names of which only seven — Jermaine Jenas, Michael Carrick, Aaron Lennon, Glen Johnson, Michael Dawson, David Bentley and James Milner — vindicated the FA’s judgment. “There are a few that did get there but more that didn’t. It’s nice company to keep, though,” Sadler says, smiling. “I might frame that.”

Doug Lemov points out that present skill is easier to spot than future skill — or talent:

We think we see the future but we don’t. Learning curves, physiological growth curves, attitudes, health, commitment, psychology — they are all too unpredictable. The mistake isn’t not guessing right. It’s betting too heavily on the guess.

Grouping athletes or students by achievement level only works if the grouping is fluid, if it’s constantly changing and responding to progress.

Allocating dwellings, schools, and health facilities without regard to social class had no effect

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

The city of Warsaw was razed at the end of World War II and rebuilt under a socialist government. As this 1978 Science paper notes, the socialist government’s policy of allocating dwellings, schools, and health facilities without regard to social class had no effect on the association of social and family factors with cognitive development:

Of the 14,238 children born in 1963 and living in Warsaw, 96 percent were given the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test and an arithmetic and a vocabulary test in March to June of 1974. Information was collected on the families of the children, and on characteristics of schools and city districts. Parental occupation and education were used to form a family factor, and the district data were collapsed into two factors, one relating to social marginality, and the other to distance from city center. Analysis showed that the initial assumption of even distribution of family, school, and district attributes was reasonable. Mental performance was unrelated either to school or district factors; it was related to parental occupation and education in a strong and regular gradient. It is concluded that an egalitarian social policy executed over a generation failed to override the association of social and family factors with cognitive development that is characteristic of more traditional industrial societies.

The Overton Bubble

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

Warg Franklin describes the Overton Bubble:

The Overton Window is a concept in political sociology referring to the range of acceptable opinions that can be held by respectable people.

“Respectable” of course means that the subject can be integrated with polite society. Respectability is a strong precondition on ability to have open influence in the mainstream.

Thus the Overton window becomes a mechanism of political control. If you can define the coordinating ideologies of all enemy political coalitions as outside the Overton window, then respectable society, which is your own power base, will be free of their influence, and they will be fatally marginalized. It is difficult to get your people to play along just by fiat, but it can be done. This is the basic insight behind official ideologies and religions, inquisitions, political repression of speech, and so on. It is an indispensable system of power for any ruling coalition, and is thus present in all societies.

The trouble with the Overton window as a mechanism of political control, and with politicization of speech and thought in general, is that it causes significant collateral damage on the ability of your society to think clearly. If some thoughts are unthinkable and unspeakable, and the truth happens in some case to fall outside of polite consensus, then your ruling elite and their society will run into situations they simply can’t handle.

Thus a wise elite uses the politicization of speech very sparingly, only in situations where immediate political security is threatened, and they use it in concert with other destructive but effective mechanisms like martial law, state seizure of assets, and such, to quickly and decisively return to a state of political security. Once political security is restored, the lawful freedom which is necessary for clear thought and prosperity can be reinstated.


Despite an increase in the power and availability of “right wing” and other unorthodox ideas, folks within the Overton window are less willing to hear and understand ideas outside the mainstream than ever before in Western history. Even at the height of religious persecution of heretics, top theologians were engaging more honestly and openly with the best heresies than Harvard does today. The Overton window has become an Overton bubble, with most respectable people trapped inside of it, unable to hear or think thoughts outside it.


When media and universities had hegemonic control over the intellectual space, an effective, if destructive, tactic was to radicalize the thing a bit to flush out the insufficiently loyal, and then purge everyone who doesn’t step in line. The heretics, thus exiled, would be doomed to wander the intellectual wasteland outside of the universities, and would not be able to organize any kind of counter-thought. Thus the Overton window occasionally shifting and expelling the “bigots” was an effective means of political control.

Today, it is no longer effective; the expelled intellectuals go on thinking and publishing and working together, they just do it over the internet in an uncontrolled fashion. It’s still weaker out here for the most part than inside the bubble, but that has been rapidly changing over the past few years, and we can expect the trend to continue. It is no longer effective because exclusion from the bubble, no matter how vigorous, is no longer intellectually fatal, and is even becoming liberating.

A Remote Event, but One with a Very Severe Downside

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

The “prepper” movement includes the super-rich, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone:

I asked [Justin Kan, co-founder of Twitch, a gaming network that was sold to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars] what his prepping friends had in common. “Lots of money and resources,” he said. “What are the other things I can worry about and prepare for? It’s like insurance.”

Yishan Wong, an early Facebook employee, was the C.E.O. of Reddit from 2012 to 2014. He, too, had eye surgery for survival purposes, eliminating his dependence, as he put it, “on a nonsustainable external aid for perfect vision.” In an e-mail, Wong told me, “Most people just assume improbable events don’t happen, but technical people tend to view risk very mathematically.” He continued, “The tech preppers do not necessarily think a collapse is likely. They consider it a remote event, but one with a very severe downside, so, given how much money they have, spending a fraction of their net worth to hedge against this… is a logical thing to do.”

How many wealthy Americans are really making preparations for a catastrophe? It’s hard to know exactly; a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. (“Anonymity is priceless,” one hedge-fund manager told me, declining an interview.) Sometimes the topic emerges in unexpected ways. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”

I asked Hoffman to estimate what share of fellow Silicon Valley billionaires have acquired some level of “apocalypse insurance,” in the form of a hideaway in the U.S. or abroad. “I would guess fifty-plus per cent,” he said, “but that’s parallel with the decision to buy a vacation home. Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘I now have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’ ” The fears vary, but many worry that, as artificial intelligence takes away a growing share of jobs, there will be a backlash against Silicon Valley, America’s second-highest concentration of wealth. (Southwestern Connecticut is first.) “I’ve heard this theme from a bunch of people,” Hoffman said. “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”

The C.E.O. of another large tech company told me, “It’s still not at the point where industry insiders would turn to each other with a straight face and ask what their plans are for some apocalyptic event.” He went on, “But, having said that, I actually think it’s logically rational and appropriately conservative.” He noted the vulnerabilities exposed by the Russian cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee, and also by a large-scale hack on October 21st, which disrupted the Internet in North America and Western Europe. “Our food supply is dependent on G.P.S., logistics, and weather forecasting,” he said, “and those systems are generally dependent on the Internet, and the Internet is dependent on D.N.S.”—the system that manages domain names. “Go risk factor by risk factor by risk factor, acknowledging that there are many you don’t even know about, and you ask, ‘What’s the chance of this breaking in the next decade?’ Or invert it: ‘What’s the chance that nothing breaks in fifty years?’ ”

It’s especially unsurprising that Peter Thiel has New Zealand citizenship:

Perhaps Mr. Thiel’s interest in New Zealand is a way of hedging his bets on the future. But there is another possibility. Mr. Thiel is a huge fan of “The Lord of the Rings,” and has named investments after elements of the J. R. R. Tolkien epic — Mithril, Palantir and, in New Zealand itself, Valar.

New Zealand, of course, was where the director Peter Jackson made his acclaimed films of the series. Becoming a citizen might be the next best thing to living in Middle-earth itself.

I suppose he’ll sail west one day.

The futility of gender-neutral parenting

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Debra W. Soh discusses the futility of gender-neutral parenting:

In steadfast pursuit of gender equality and to promote nonconformity, it’s become popular in some social circles to start early, very early, by raising young children in a gender-neutral way: not revealing the baby’s sex at birth, dressing them and their bedroom in various shades of oatmeal, encouraging them to play with gender-neutral toys. There’s also pressure on corporations to help; parental complaints led Target to stop sex-segregating its toys, for instance.

Offering kids the opportunity to pursue what they’d like, freed from societal expectations, is an undeniably positive thing — whether it has to do with toys, clothing, or their future aspirations. But the scientific reality is that it’s futile to treat children as blank slates with no predetermined characteristics. Biology matters.

A large and long-standing body of research literature shows that toy preferences, for example, are innate, not socially constructed or shaped by parental feedback.

Most girls will gravitate toward socially interesting toys, like dolls, that help social and verbal abilities develop. Most boys will gravitate toward toys that are mechanically interesting, like cars and trucks, fostering visuo-spatial skills.

One recent study, published in Infant and Child Development, showed that these preferences emerge as early as nine months of age — before children are developmentally aware that gender differences exist, at around 18 months.

Another piece of evidence comes from studying girls who were exposed to high levels of testosterone prenatally, in the case of a genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or CAH. Girls with CAH tend to be gender nonconforming, and will prefer toys that are typical to boys, even when their parents offer more praise for playing with female-typical ones. This speaks to the vital role of hormones in developing gender preferences and sex differences in behavior, more broadly.

We also see the same trend in our primate cousins, including rhesus and vervet monkeys. Young female monkeys gravitate toward dolls while male monkeys prefer wheeled toys, despite the fact they aren’t encouraged by other monkeys or their caregivers in their choices.

The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

NPR calls Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring the writing assignment that changes lives:

Experiments going back to the 1980s have shown that “therapeutic” or “expressive” writing can reduce depression, increase productivity and even cut down on visits to the doctor.

“The act of writing is more powerful than people think,” Peterson says.


Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as “grit” or “growth mindset” or “executive functioning.”

Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.

Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts “past authoring” and “future authoring.”

“It completely turned my life around,” says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson’s course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson’s main research assistants.

In an early study at McGill University in Montreal, the course showed a powerful positive effect with at-risk students, reducing the dropout rate and increasing academic achievement.

Peterson is seeking a larger audience for what he has dubbed “self-authoring.” He started a for-profit company and is selling a version of the curriculum online. Brophy and Peterson have found a receptive audience in the Netherlands.

At the Rotterdam School of Management, a shortened version of self-authoring has been mandatory for all first-year students since 2011. (These are undergraduates — they choose majors early in Europe).

The latest paper, published in June, compares the performance of the first complete class of freshmen to use self-authoring with that of the three previous classes.

Overall, the “self-authoring” students greatly improved the number of credits earned and their likelihood of staying in school. And after two years, ethnic and gender-group differences in performance among the students had all but disappeared.

The ethnic minorities in question made up about one-fifth of the students. They are first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western backgrounds — Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Hunter-Gatherer Fitness

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

Anthropologist Herman Pontzer distributed GPS units with heart rate monitors to Hadza hunter-gatherers in Northern Tanzania:

The 46 subjects — 19 male and 27 female with a mean age of 32.7 — had their heart rates tracked over four two-week periods, covering both rainy and dry seasons. This data was matched up with what the researchers have learned about the Hadza’s cardiovascular health by testing 198 subjects (including 30 also in the heart-rate study). Their findings: An examination of blood pressure, cholesterol and other biomarkers shows no evidence of risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The typical Hadza day begins at sunrise. The Hadza wake up in grass huts in the middle of the savanna and mill about while figuring out plans and eating breakfast.

Then the men set out with a bow and poison-tipped arrows, covering miles and miles to track prey, such as giraffes, impalas and zebras. “They don’t run,” Pontzer notes, unless, of course, “someone jumps out of the bushes at them.” But they walk pretty much continuously, with just a single break at midday to avoid the worst heat. If they’re striking out with hunting, Pontzer says, they might chop into trees to get wild honey.

Women go out in groups, along with children under the age of 2, who are usually wrapped up snug on mom’s back. They pick berries at such a rapid clip that Pontzer admits he couldn’t keep up with the pace. The tougher task is digging into the hard and rocky ground with a sharpened stick to collect tubers, which are a staple of their diet. The upper body workout can take hours, Pontzer says.

It all adds up to about 135 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Contrast that to the current recommendations from the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of at least 150 minutes per week.

And only about 10 percent of Americans achieve that guideline, Pontzer says.

How the Toilet Got Its Name

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The fine folks at Merriam-Webster explain how the toilet got its name:

You may be surprised to learn that toilet and the noun toil, meaning “snare” or “trap” (as in “caught in the toils of love”), have a common ancestor: the Middle French word toile, meaning “cloth” or “hunting net.” How toil developed from the French word needs no explanation; on the other hand, how toilet as a name for a modern bathroom fixture developed from a word for “cloth” is a head-scratcher.

In Middle French, the diminutive form of toile was toilette, which means “small piece of cloth” but which also came to be used for more specific senses (many of which are reflected in the semantic development of the English word). English speakers borrowed the word in the 16th century, and eventually settled on the spelling toilet while still making use of toilette in the “grooming” sense. The word was originally used for a wrapper or covering for clothes and later for a cloth put over the shoulders while dressing the hair or shaving.

From the “shoulder cloth” sense, toilet came to refer first to a cloth covering a dressing table (or vanity) then to the articles on the table, then to the table itself. Next, a more abstract meaning developed, as the word was applied to the whole process of washing, grooming, and dressing, especially at the beginning of the day or for a special occasion. This use of the word is often found in the constructions “at one’s toilet” or “to make one’s toilet.”

She hurried at her toilet, which was soon made….
— Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, 1900

Miss Chauncey proceeded to make her toilet for the night.
— Walter De la Mare, Broomsticks, 1925

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the “washing” sense of toilet was extended to the nonhuman (e.g., animals, places, tools, and such).

Before breakfast they made the toilet of the six chosen kittens.
— Edgar Jepson, Terrible Twins, 1913

The toilet of London … cannot be satisfactory unless the streets are flushed with water every night.
The Daily Telegraph, 1855

… the workman performed ‘the toilet’ of these saws and other dreadful implements.
The Eclectic Magazine, October 1888

The word’s “grooming” sense also developed new meaning in prisons and hospitals. It was used for the preparation of execution by guillotine, as described by Lord Ronald Gower in 1903:

The ghastly ceremony of his toilette, as they call the pinioning and cutting off the hair at the back of his head.

19th-century surgeons applied the word to the cleansing done after an operation—for example, “the toilet of the peritoneum” would be made after surgery. Toilet is still used in the medical field in this way.

At this point, our discussion of toilet has been clogged with descriptions of grooming and washing, and you’re probably wondering when we’ll get to how and when the word came to refer to the bathroom toilet we are familiar with today. We’ll plunge into that now.

In the late 18th century, toilet was transferred to the room where the grooming and washing occurred. In America, the room was most often one that included facilities for bathing, and when the water closet—which in the 1700s referred to a room with a fixture for defecation and urination capable of being flushed, or to the fixture itself—was introduced into houses that could afford one, it was typically placed in the bathroom or toilet room. In the late 19th century, toilet was transferred from the room to the fixture itself.