Saturday, October 31st, 2015

I’ve written a surprising amount about Halloween over the years:

Hume and Buddhism

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Alison Gopnik tells an oddly personal tale, almost Lovecraftian, about fighting for her sanity while poring over dusty tomes from obscure archives:

In 1734, in scotland, a 23-year-old was falling apart.

As a teenager, he’d thought he had glimpsed a new way of thinking and living, and ever since, he’d been trying to work it out and convey it to others in a great book. The effort was literally driving him mad. His heart raced and his stomach churned. He couldn’t concentrate. Most of all, he just couldn’t get himself to write his book. His doctors diagnosed vapors, weak spirits, and “the Disease of the Learned.” Today, with different terminology but no more insight, we would say he was suffering from anxiety and depression. The doctors told him not to read so much and prescribed antihysteric pills, horseback riding, and claret—the Prozac, yoga, and meditation of their day.

The young man’s name was David Hume. Somehow, during the next three years, he managed not only to recover but also, remarkably, to write his book. Even more remarkably, it turned out to be one of the greatest books in the history of philosophy: A Treatise of Human Nature.

In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.” “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in the Treatise, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”


But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

In my shabby room, as I read Buddhist philosophy, I began to notice something that others had noticed before me. Some of the ideas in Buddhist philosophy sounded a lot like what I had read in Hume’s Treatise. But this was crazy. Surely in the 1730s, few people in Europe knew about Buddhist philosophy.

Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

“I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me — except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he have?

Read the whole thing.

Decline in Marine Officer Intelligence

Saturday, August 8th, 2015

Brookings’ Michael Klein and Tufts University’s Matthew Cancian — a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan — take a closer look at the steady and troubling decline in the average intelligence of Marine Corps officers:

After analyzing test scores of 46,000 officers who took the Marine Corps’ required General Classification Test (GCT), Klein and Cancian find that the quality of officers in the Marines, as measured by those test scores, has steadily and significantly declined over the last 34 years.

So what’s causing this steady decline in GCT scores? According to Klein and Cancian, the decline in officer quality might actually have to do with the fact that more people are receiving college degrees than ever before: The authors note that the decrease of GCT scores over time correlates to an increase in the college participation rate during that same period.

Average General Classification Test Scores of Incoming Marine Officers

Eric Crampton suggests some other plausible candidate explanations:

  • Higher opportunity costs for high IQ people since the 80s.
  • Greater cultural disparaging of the military in elite circles, so it is not aspired to by those of higher ability.
  • Decreasing trust in that military is a force for good or really much needed (see the decline as the Soviets turned friendlier under Gorbachev, the levelling off and rise around Gulf War I, and the resumed decline after that).
  • Fewer smart but lower income kids needing to use ROTC to afford college with expansions in student aid.

What Finland Can Teach America About Baseball

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Finland has its own, faster-paced version of baseball, called pesäpallo:

Tired of pitchers ambling around the mound? In Finland, there is no mound. Pitchers stand beside the hitter and toss the ball vertically over the plate.

Falling asleep waiting for the next batted ball? In Finland, hitters put nearly every pitch in play, sending fielders scampering in every direction. Players aren’t allowed to call for time between plays or pitches.


A few years ago, one player wore a pedometer during a game and was found to have run 10.5 kilometers from start to finish. By comparison, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo averaged 9.6 kilometers covered during Champions League matches this year.

Finnish Baseball Fielder

Finnish baseball is the brainchild of a former Olympic track and field star named Lauri Pihkala. According to historians, Pihkala was studying in the U.S. in 1907 when he attended an American baseball game in Boston and made an observation that was ahead of its time: Fascinating game. A bit slow, though.

He went on to develop the Finnish version in the 1920s, billing it as a military training exercise, but its popularity long outlasted wartime in Europe. It was a demonstration sport in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki.

Finnish Baseball

Instead of grass, fields are made of short-cropped artificial turf covered with a thin layer of sand. Instead of sitting in dugouts, players line the circle surrounding the home-plate area and heckle the opposing pitcher. Instead of trying to overpower hitters, pitchers must mix heights and locations to keep them off balance, with the only requirement being that they throw the ball at least one meter above their head. The manager gives signs to the hitter and base runners with a multicolored fan.

The ball has to land in fair territory to count for a hit, meaning the only home runs are of the inside-the-park variety. A triple counts as a home run. Teams use different strategies for where and how hard to hit the ball, depending on the situation, while fielders deploy a range of formations, depending on a hitter’s tendencies. The degree of movement from play to play evokes NFL defensive schemes more than Major League Baseball defensive shifts.

The game is also shorter. Last season, the average Superpesis game took 2 hours 18 minutes, 40 minutes shorter than the MLB average this season.

What Book has the Most Page-for-Page Wisdom?

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Shane Parrish (@farnamstreet) asked his Twitter followers, “What is page for page the book with the most wisdom you’ve ever read?”.

Tyler Cowen was not impressed with the resulting list, so he rattled off his own:

Cowen’s commenters love Pinker and both love and hate N.N. Taleb.

Happy Secession Day

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

Once again, I wish you a happy Secession Day! I’ve discussed the colonies’ secession from the motherland more than once over the years:

Are you going to stay here tonight?

Friday, May 8th, 2015

In Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass, Harold Gatty tells a story about the powers of observation:

About fifty years ago, Enose Mills, a mountain guide, became snow-blind and found himself lost when he was on the summit of the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, 12,000 feet above sea level with the nearest house many miles away across rough mountain ridges. His factual story of how he successfully found his way by the intelligent application and observation of natural things is recounted in his book, Adventures of a Nature Guide, written some thirty-six years ago.

It is an excellent illustration of how the practice of noticing nature’s signs can be developed by learning to interpret them. Mills was an unusually keen observer of nature and he managed to remain calm and confident of finding his way back when he found himself lost. He said of the incident: “My faculties were intensely awake. The possibility of a fatal ending never occurred to me.” His matter-of-fact attitude coupled with his ability to interpret the natural signs of that particular region — e.g., certain pine trees growing on a slope, the bark of trees, trail blaze marks on trees, echoes and aspen smoke — enabled him to survive.

Mills was confident of his ability to get out of the predicament in which he found himself. He could not use trails because of the extreme depth of snow, but in his mind he had a clear mental map of the slope down which he had to travel. It was made up of the impressions he had gathered before the darkness of snow-blindness settled over him.

Carrying a long staff, he set out on snowshoes to find the blaze marks on the trees which he had made on his forward journey. Making his way from tree to tree he thrust an arm into the snow, feeling the bark of the trees until he discovered the mark of the blaze. He resorted to the trees for the points of the compass. In his study of tree distribution he had learned that, in the locality, canyons running east and west carried limber pines on the wall that faced south and Engelmann spruce on the wall that faced north. With limber pines on his left and Engelmann spruces on his right he was now satisfied that he was traveling eastward and should be on the eastern side of the range. To check this, he examined the lichen growth of low-lying boulders and the moss which encircled the trunks of trees, concluding that the surrounding area must be such as to admit light freely from all quarters.

To get an idea of the topography of the canyon he shouted, noting from which direction the echoes came, their intensity and the cross replies — concluding from these that he was going into the head of a deep forest-walled canyon.

In the night a snowslide almost smothered him as he made his way and progress was made more difficult by the enormous rock masses and entanglements of fallen branches and leaves.

Suddenly he caught the scent of smoke, which he recognized as that of aspen, a wood burned in the cookstoves of the mountain people. Under favorable conditions a person with a keen sense of smell can detect aspen wood smoke for a distance of two or three miles. Going forward in the direction from which the wind was blowing, he emerged from the woods where the smoke was strongest and knew that human habitation was near. In fear of passing it, he stopped to use his ears. As he stood listening, a little girl gently, curiously asked: “Are you going to stay here tonight?”

(Hat tip to Wrath of Gnon.)

Everything Changes

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Ben Casnocha recommends Sam Harris’s hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:

Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses.


For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:

Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.

Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within.

Easter Bunny

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Why does the Easter Bunny bring eggs again? Bunnies and eggs are symbols of springtime and fertility, but there’s more to it than that:

In addition, Orthodox churches have a custom of abstaining from eggs during the fast of Lent. The only way to keep them from being wasted was to boil or roast them, and begin eating them to break the fast. As a special dish, they would probably have been decorated as part of the celebrations. Later, German Protestants retained the custom of eating colored eggs for Easter, though they did not continue the tradition of fasting.[11] Eggs boiled with some flowers change their color, bringing the spring into the homes, and some over time added the custom of decorating the eggs.[12] Many Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day typically dye their Easter eggs red,[13] the color of blood, in recognition of the blood of the sacrificed Christ (and, of the renewal of life in springtime). Some also use the color green, in honor of the new foliage emerging after the long dead time of winter. The Ukrainian art of decorating eggs for Easter, known as pysanky, dates to ancient, pre-Christian times. Similar variants of this form of artwork are seen amongst other eastern European cultures.[14]

The idea of an egg-giving hare came to the U.S. in the 18th century. Protestant German immigrants in the Pennsylvania Dutch area told their children about the “Osterhase” (sometimes spelled “Oschter Haws”[15]).[16] Hase means “hare”, not rabbit, and in Northwest European folklore the “Easter Bunny” indeed is a hare. According to the legend, only good children received gifts of colored eggs in the nests that they made in their caps and bonnets before Easter.[17]

Easter, by the way, is the name of the old Germanic spirit of spring.

Mot and Baal

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Passover was likely an agricultural holiday pre-dating Judaism:

Nearly all ancient Canaanites — Hebrews included — were farmers, and Passover takes place just at the most critical time of the year, at the end of the growing season, just before the harvest.

This was a time of great anxiety, since the rains that made their grains grow during the winter were no longer welcome. One particularly nasty storm could decimate wheat and barley fields, knocking down the ripe plants and rotting the grains, and the people would starve.

Somehow the ancients had to stop the rains, and this could be the original function of Passover.

The question is, how could eating a roast ruminant stop the rain? For that we have to learn something about the Canaanite religion, which the Hebrews practiced before a proto-Judaism took form.

The Canaanite rain god was Baal. He is mentioned in the Bible time and again, but no details are given about the myths associated with him. To learn about these, we must consult the library found in Ugarit, an ancient Canaanite city on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Syria.

There we find, written in a language very close to Hebrew, detailed accounts of the mythology and religion of Canaan. Among them is a story which explains why the rain stops each spring and returns every fall: the Canaanite god of death Mot kills Baal, each year anew. Baal spends his summers in the netherworld, Sheol, until being resurrected again in the fall.

“I it was who confronted mightiest Baal, I who made him a lamb like a kid in the breach of my windpipe,” Mot tells Baal’s sister Anath in the poem describing this myth.

Mot’s likening Baal’s killing to eating livestock may be key to understanding the original symbolism of Passover. Perhaps by eating a kid or lamb, the Canaanites were symbolically recreating Mot’s consumption of Baal, hoping that this would stop the rain on time.

This could explain the dictum that the bones of the Passover sacrifice must be kept intact, which the Bible does not explain. Maybe the ancient Hebrews thought that if the bones of the symbolic representation of the Baal were broken, this would adversely affect the resurrection of Baal in the fall, when rains are once again needed.

Distraction and Teen Crashes

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Most serious accidents with teen drivers are caused by distractions, like phones:

Researchers analyzed the six seconds leading up to a crash in nearly 1,700 videos of teen drivers taken from in-vehicle event recorders. The results showed that distraction was a factor in 58 percent of all crashes studied, including 89 percent of road-departure crashes and 76 percent of rear-end crashes. NHTSA previously has estimated that distraction is a factor in only 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.

Researchers found that drivers manipulating their cell phone (includes calling, texting or other uses), had their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 out of the final six seconds leading up to a crash. The researchers also measured reaction times in rear-end crashes and found that teen drivers using a cell phone failed to react more than half of the time before the impact, meaning they crashed without braking or steering.

Learning from Improv

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Scott Berkun took an improv class on a dare a decade ago and learned a lot. He also forgot a lot of what he learned, so he went back and took another class recently. First he disabuses us of some assumptions:

  • It’s not about being funny.
  • You don’t have to be a natural performer.
  • It’s not hard to learn.

Then he shares his lessons learned:

  • I’d forgotten how to play.
  • Life is less stressful.
  • Questions and No’s are deadly.
  • Improvisation is everywhere.
  • Metaphors for Life.
  • Doing trumps reading.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

The longtime editor of the American Alpine Club’s annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering report is stepping down:

Collectively, the stories in Accidents illuminate patterns and trends. “People will often say, ‘The majority of these accidents happen to inexperienced climbers,’ but that’s not the case. The majority of accidents happen to experienced climbers,” Williamson says.

After 40 years of reviewing accidents, Williamson knows the most common mistakes climbers make. He points to several mental traps, factors that might distract a climber from looking at a situation from a safety-first perspective.

Immediate Cause of Climbing Accidents in US (1951-2013)

One is trying to please people. Another is feeling tied to a self-imposed schedule. Both of these points might apply to a guided party that included several Iraq veterans on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. The group continued despite being warned by a ranger of the risk, and three of the climbers were swept away by an avalanche (they were later rescued).

The most climbing fatalities ever occurred in 1976 — the year of the U.S. bicentennial, when many inexperienced teams attempted ascents of Mounts Denali and Rainier in honor of the occasion.

Reported Climbing Accidents in US (1951-2013)

“A lot of accidents happen to experienced climbers simply because they are rushing to try to make it to the restaurant on time,” Williamson says. He’s considering writing a book that would condense his knowledge into easily digestible lessons.

As for the publication he has done so much for, Williamson hopes it won’t change too much. “I hope that the continuing focus is on case studies, and I hope it doesn’t fall in the trap many magazines have fallen into. Some publications have so much distraction going on each page,” Williamson says.

“There’s a curious similarity to climbing, because one of the causes of accidents that has increased is distractions,” he continues. “One of my favorite recent accidents was a kid who was texting while belaying. He thought his partner asked for tension, but really he called for slack—and he pulled his partner off!”

Popular Posts of All Time

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

When I compiled my list of Popular Posts of 2014, our Slovenian guest suggested I do the same “for the blog over-all” — so I compiled a list of the top posts from November, 2005, when I first installed Google Analytics, until now:

  1. Icelandic skipper kills shark with bare hands (2003)
  2. A One-Way Ticket to Mars (2009)
  3. Stalin’s half-man, half-ape super-warriors (2005)
  4. Rich, Black, Flunking (2009)
  5. The ‘Israelification’ of airports (2010)
  6. Foux Da Fa Fa (2007)
  7. Archetypal Stories (2004)
  8. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics (2008)
  9. Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees? (2010)
  10. Myostatin, Belgian Blue, and Flex Wheeler (2004)

A few years didn’t make the top 10 — the recent ones, mostly:

Popular Posts of 2014

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2014. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year, four of which are new, six of which are older:

  1. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics
  2. Longbow vs. Armor
  3. He-Man Opening Monologue
  4. Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?
  5. Richard Feynman’s Low IQ
  6. How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education — For Less Than $3,000 per Year (new)
  7. Power to the People (new)
  8. Observations from Actual Shootings
  9. A-10 Pilot’s Coloring Book (new)
  10. How to Train Your Voice to be More Charismatic (new)

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2014 and not from an earlier year:

  1. How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education — For Less Than $3,000 per Year
  2. Power to the People
  3. A-10 Pilot’s Coloring Book
  4. How to Train Your Voice to be More Charismatic
  5. Racist Remarks
  6. The Inadequacy of Intellect
  7. When Confidence Trumps Competence
  8. Alternative Scientific History
  9. Myths of European Gun Laws
  10. Bullying Followed by Laughter

Again, I’m not sure what to conclude.