Adam Savage’s Cave

July 19th, 2014

Adam Savage’s Cave is pretty wild:

Decadence Is Not Physical

July 19th, 2014

Decadence is not physical, Glubb argues:

The citizens of nations in decline are sometimes described as too physically emasculated to be able to bear hardship or make great efforts. This does not seem to be a true picture. Citizens of great nations in decadence are normally physically larger and stronger than those of their barbarian invaders.

Moreover, as was proved in Britain in the First World War, young men brought up in luxury and wealth found little difficulty in accustoming themselves to life in the front-line trenches. The history of exploration proves the same point. Men accustomed to comfortable living in homes in Europe or America were able to show as much endurance as the natives in riding camels across the desert or in hacking their way through tropical forests.

Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving.

Hipster Batgirl

July 18th, 2014

Batgirl is moving to Gotham’s trendiest borough to focus on grad school — and she has put together a new, hipper costume:

Batgirl 2014 Redesign

Batgirl Selfie

This new take on Batgirl tips its hat to Veronica Mars, Girls, and Sherlock — but I’m reminded of Buffy: The Animated Series.

Big Hero 6

July 18th, 2014

The trailer for Disney’s take on Marvel’s Big Hero 6 does look fun:

I’m not familiar with the original comic version, but it was apparently Marvel’s official Japanese state-sponsored superhero team, which appeared in Alpha Flight, about Marvel’s official Canadian state-sponsored superhero team.

Decadence of a System

July 18th, 2014

Decadence is the disintegration of a system, Glubb argues, not of its individual members:

The habits of the members of the community have been corrupted by the enjoyment of too much money and too much power for too long a period. The result has been, in the framework of their national life, to make them selfish and idle. A community of selfish and idle people declines, internal quarrels develop in the division of its dwindling wealth, and pessimism follows, which some of them endeavour to drown in sensuality or frivolity. In their own surroundings, they are unable to redirect their thoughts and their energies into new channels.

But when individual members of such a society emigrate into entirely new surroundings, they do not remain conspicuously decadent, pessimistic or immoral among the inhabitants of their new homeland. Once enabled to break away from their old channels of thought, and after a short period of readjustment, they become normal citizens of their adopted countries. Some of them, in the second and third generations, may attain pre-eminence and leadership in their new communities.

This seems to prove that the decline of any nation does not undermine the energies or the basic character of its members. Nor does the decadence of a number of such nations permanently impoverish the human race. Decadence is both mental and moral deterioration, produced by the slow decline of the community from which its members cannot escape, as long as they remain in their old surroundings. But, transported elsewhere, they soon discard their decadent ways of thought, and prove themselves equal to the other citizens of their adopted country.

Electric Knives

July 17th, 2014

Young men want to test their courage, but most good tests of physical courage are also great ways to get killed — or at least injured.

If you modify a dangerous sport to make it safe, it’s no longer a good test of courage.

Some hobbies successfully ride the edge between too-dangerous and not-scary — most forms of grappling are mildly dangerous and, in competition or when you’re new, fairly scary — but other martial arts have lost their edge — literally.

Fighting with foils or rubber knives isn’t scary. Fighting with more substantial weapons can lead to broken bones.

Burton “Lucky Dog” Richards has done his share of fighting with rubber knives and wooden sticks, and here he talks about the benefits of using a Shocknife in training:

The downside is that a Shocknife costs $500.

But you can make your own from a cheap electric fly-swatter:

  1. Make sure any residual charge is bled off by tapping the racket into something metal and grounded, making sure that both mesh sides touch. Remove batteries. Unscrew the housing.
  2. Pry apart the plastic “racket” portion and snip off the leads to the three attached wires, or simply cut them as long as possible. Discard racket.
  3. Since this is supposed to simulate a knife, the leads will need to attach to something of a similar shape. The template should also be non-conductive. I found a piece of wood to be the best option, since it was easy to adjust to the desired shape. Take the overall length of the weapon into mind- how long does the training weapon need to be? With the body at 8 inches, I cut the wood template to a little under 3 inches.
  4. [...]

“Please don’t be stupid with this thing.”

Brazil’s Southern Hospitality

July 17th, 2014

After the War of Northern Aggression, a few thousand southerners accepted Emperor Dom Pedro II’s invitation to come even further south, to Brazil.

A century later, Stephen G. Bloom took a job with an English-language newspaper in São Paulo and experienced the southern hospitality of the last Confederados in Americana:

As I sat down, Judith handed me a frosted mug garnished with a sprig of mint just picked, she pointed out, from her garden “ovah yonda.” She smiled so warmly and was so disarming in an innocent, almost naive sort of way, that I thought somehow Judith Jones must have known me. Or must have known my family. Or, at the very least, must have known of my family. Why else would she be so welcoming to a stranger — a Yankee stranger, no less — who just happened to show up unannounced at her doorstep minutes earlier?

For the next two hours, Judith and Jim talked in the same disjointed meter about their lives and the lives of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. She and Jim were mighty pleased that I had taken up to pay them a visitation. I got the distinct impression that they had been waiting for someone like me to come by for quite some time.

Judith told me that more than ninety Confederate descendants still lived in the area, and although none had been born in the United States and relatively few had ever visited, many spoke the same anachronistic variant of English among themselves. Their speech was a linguistic phenomenon, a language spoken nowhere else in the world but in and around Americana, a municipality of then 120,000 residents, mostly of Italian descent, within the Brazilian state of São Paulo.

Judith, a practiced storyteller, related the Confederate colony’s history as though I was the first to hear it. After the Civil War, Brazil had been as much a land of opportunity for American Southerners as the United States had been for Europeans. Instead of stomaching life under Yankee rule, as many as 7,000 Confederates opted to set sail for Brazil, a country twice the size of the U.S. at the time, and a nation where slavery was still legal. The Brazilian government, under the rule of Emperor Dom Pedro II, recruited the Confederates, taking out advertisements in U.S. newspapers and sending representatives to the American South to persuade proud Southerners to live out their dreams in Brazil.

The Brazilian government was eager to import the Confederates’ cotton-growing knowledge, and in return guaranteed them arable land at twenty-two cents an acre. Most went to areas surrounding São Paulo, but others set sail to Rio de Janeiro. At least one shipload of Southerners docked in the port of Belém, set sail down the Amazon River and survived on berries and monkey meat, but perished from malaria. The only community of Confederates that survived was the group that got to the place they called Americana, which they chose because it most closely paralleled their home in Georgia.

The Jones’ story seemed to make sense, but I knew a little about American history, and I’d never heard anything about southern migration to Brazil. No one left the United States; America was the place people came to.

My eyes must have betrayed me, because when I told Jim that I hadn’t read much about this Southern Shangri-La, he looked at me kind of pitifully, then put his hands out, palms up. The reason for my ig-nor-ance, as Jim put it, was plain and simple. “It’s becuse ya his-to-ry buks don’t whant ya Yan-keys ta know what hour brave Con-fed-a-rit ancestahs dahd. Dat’s dah reason. Doze ah Yan-keys who wroht doze buks—dint ya know dhat, Stephen? Ain’t dhat right, Ju-dith-a?”

Judith nodded in a keeper-of-the-secrets kind of way, which demonstratedbeyond any doubt that she knew everything there was to know about the Southern Migration to Brazil after the War of Northern Aggression — from family names, to birth and death dates, to who owned which plots of land, to who slept with whom and who wasn’t worth a doodly damn, as she put it. Judith and Jim and some four score more descendants scattered around these parts were keepers of a flickering flame — flick-er-in Jim said. “Whe’re dah ox-y-gin dat keeps dah flame fruhm goin’ out,” he said.

Judith pulled up her chair next to mine. I needed a lesson, by golly, and she was about to deliver one. Those who left the American South after the Civil War had the most to lose by staying. Among the Confederates who set sail for Brazilian shores were attorneys, architects, plantation owners, physicians and businessmen, all fine men from fine families, most of them landowners, educated at the best Southern institutes of higher learning. They owned slaves, and by God, they were good to those slaves — “Don’t go makin’ out hour ancestahs to be mean, not fer one secon’,” Jim warned. “Day treated dehm slaves as though day was fam’ly.”

The migration to Brazil, Judith said in a voice growing more emphatic, was one of the largest exoduses in “dah his-to-ry of dah U-ni-ted States.”

Jim wasn’t about to let his wife go on without putting in his two cents. After the War of Northern Aggression, leaving America for Brazil meant that thousands of Confederates could survive with honor, something in small supply to Southerners at the time. “It’s even in Gone Wit Dah Wind, by golly, dhat book dhat Margarit Mitchell writ about dah wahr. Didja even know dhat dah O’Hara fam’ly thought of leavin’ Tara fer Brasil? It’s right dhare in dhat buk o’ hers. She mentions it twhice. Ju-di-tha has it insihde,” Jim said, chin and forehead down, peering over the top of those black-frame glasses.

With Mrs. MacKnight on a swing now, Judith filled up my glass with more ice tea, which she proudly called “sun tea, brew’d rhight here on dis ver-an-dah.” Judith disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a plate of neatly cut triangles of white-bread toast with the crusts cut off and topped with whisked dabs of soft white goat cheese. As we munched on the canapés, I found myself alternatively charmed and baffled, thinking I had stumbled upon a long-lost battalion of Confederate soldiers who never quite figured out that Appomattox was more than just a town in Virginia.

New Combinations

July 17th, 2014

New combinations will rise to prominence, Glubb predicts:

We have traced the rise of an obscure race to fame, through the stages of conquest, commercialism, affluence, and intellectualism, to disintegration, decadence and despair. We suggested that the dominant race at any given time imparts its leading characteristics to the world around, being in due course succeeded by another empire. By this means, we speculated, many successive races succeeded one another as superpowers, and in turn bequeathed their peculiar qualities to mankind at large.

But the objection may here be raised that some day the time will come when all the races of the world will in turn have enjoyed their period of domination and have collapsed again in decadence. When the whole human race has reached the stage of decadence, where will new energetic conquering races be found?

The answer is at first partially obscured by our modern habit of dividing the human race into nations, which we seem to regard as water-tight compartments, an error responsible for innumerable misunderstandings.

In earlier times, warlike nomadic nations invaded the territories of decadent peoples and settled there. In due course, they intermarried with the local population and a new race resulted, though it sometimes retained an old name. The barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire probably provide the example best known today in the West. Others were the Arab conquests of Spain, North Africa and Persia, the Turkish conquests of the Ottoman Empire, or even the Norman Conquest of England.

In all such cases, the conquered countries were originally fully inhabited and the invaders were armies, which ultimately settled down and married, and produced new races.

In our times, there are few nomadic conquerors left in the world, who could invade more settled countries bringing their tents and flocks with them. But ease of travel has resulted in an equal, or probably an even greater, intermixture of populations. The extreme bitterness of modern internal political struggles produces a constant flow of migrants from their native countries to others, where the social institutions suit them better.

The vicissitudes of trade and business similarly result in many persons moving to other countries, at first intending to return, but ultimately settling down in their new countries.

The population of Britain has been constantly changing, particularly in the last sixty years, owing to the influx of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa, and the exit of British citizens to the Dominions and the United States. The latter is, of course, the most obvious example of the constant rise of new nations, and of the transformation of the ethnic content of old nations through this modern nomadism.

Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing

July 16th, 2014

I had to laugh at the title and subtitle of Meredith Broussard’s recent Atlantic piece:

Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing
The companies that create the most important state and national exams also publish textbooks that contain many of the answers. Unfortunately, low-income school districts can’t afford to buy them.

Imagine how badly kids would do with no textbooks at all! Why, those Montessori kids must underperform even the low-income public-school kids…

The article is interesting. It just doesn’t make the point it professes to make.

To Know Contractors, Know Government

July 16th, 2014

Military contractors do not set the tone, Tyler Cowen notes, but rather reflect the sins and virtues of their customers:

It is easy to rail against contractors for holding money above loyalty to country; Halliburton, for instance, has been a target of this criticism. But money isn’t the real issue. Few Americans would join the armed services without pay, and most American weapons are made by the private sector for profit.

Furthermore, privateers, private ships licensed to carry out warfare, helped win the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In World War II, the Flying Tigers, American fighter pilots hired by the government of Chiang Kai-shek, helped defeat the Japanese. Today, many of our allies receive payment, either implicitly or explicitly, to support American efforts. War is, among other things, an economic undertaking, so the profit motive in military affairs isn’t always bad or ignoble.

When it comes to supplying troops, or protecting high-ranking officials, private military contractors often offer greater flexibility and rapidity of response. The employees, many of whom are former soldiers or operatives, tend to have more experience than current, mostly younger soldiers.

The recent comeback of private contracting suggests that central governments have become weaker again, at least relative to the tasks they are undertaking. Alexander Tabarrok, my colleague (and sometimes co-author) at George Mason University, where he is also a professor of economics, traced the history of private contractors in a study, “The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Privateers” (The Independent Review, spring 2007). He showed that public navies and armies began to displace private contractors in the 19th century, as governments became more powerful and better funded.

Today, America no longer has a draft, its military bureaucracy can be inflexible and the public wishes to be insulated from the direct impact of war. Contractors are a symptom of government weakness, but are not the problem itself. The first Persian Gulf War, which enjoyed greater international support, was not reliant on contractors to nearly the same degree.

Among many Iraqis, Blackwater and other companies have a reputation for getting the job done without much caring about Iraqis who get in the way. But part of the problem may stem from economic incentives. If Blackwater is assigned to protect a top American official, who is later assassinated, Blackwater may lose future business. A private contractor doesn’t have a financial incentive to protect Iraqi citizens, who are not paying customers. Ultimately, this reflects the priorities of the United States military itself. American casualties are carefully recorded and memorialized, but there is no count of Iraqi civilian deaths.

It is harder to recognize when private contractors are being underemployed. During the Rwandan civil war in the 1990s, the United Nations debated using two private contractors, Executive Outcomes or Sandline International, to intervene. The U.N. rejected the notion and instead turned to a poorly trained Zairean police contingent. We’ll never know how private contractors would have fared, but the Zaireans were ineffective; some 800,000 Rwandans were murdered.

Decline in Religion

July 16th, 2014

Historians of periods of decadence often refer to a decline in religion, Glubb says, but, if we extend our investigation over a period covering the Assyrians (859-612 B.C.) to our own times, we have to interpret religion in a very broad sense:

Some such definition as ‘the human feeling that there is something, some invisible Power, apart from material objects, which controls human life and the natural world’.

We are probably too narrow and contemptuous in our interpretation of idol worship. The people of ancient civilisations were as sensible as we are, and would scarcely have been so foolish as to worship sticks and stones fashioned by their own hands. The idol was for them merely a symbol, and represented an unknown, spiritual reality, which controlled the lives of men and demanded human obedience to its moral precepts.

We all know only too well that minor differences in the human visualisation of this Spirit frequently became the ostensible reason for human wars, in which both sides claimed to be fighting for the true God, but the absurd narrowness of human conceptions should not blind us to the fact that, very often, both sides believed their campaigns to have a moral background. Genghis Khan, one of the most brutal of all conquerors, claimed that God had delegated him the duty to exterminate the decadent races of the civilised world. Thus the Age of Conquests often had some kind of religious atmosphere, which implied heroic self-sacrifice for the cause.

But this spirit of dedication was slowly eroded in the Age of Commerce by the action of money. People make money for themselves, not for their country. Thus periods of affluence gradually dissolved the spirit of service, which had caused the rise of the imperial races.

In due course, selfishness permeated the community, the coherence of which was weakened until disintegration was threatened. Then, as we have seen, came the period of pessimism with the accompanying spirit of frivolity and sensual indulgence, byproducts of despair. It was inevitable at such times that men should look back yearningly to the days of ‘religion’, when the spirit of self-sacrifice was still strong enough to make men ready to give and to serve, rather than to snatch.

But while despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realisation of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could nable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.

In this manner, at the height of vice and frivolity the seeds of religious revival are quietly sown. After, perhaps, several generations (or even centuries) of suffering, the impoverished nation has been purged of its selfishness and its love of money, religion regains its sway and a new era sets in. ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted,’ said the psalmist, ‘that I might learn Thy Statutes.’

The 1% of scientific publishing

July 15th, 2014

A new study finds that very few scientists — fewer than 1% — manage to publish a paper every year:

But these 150,608 scientists dominate the research journals, having their names on 41% of all papers. Among the most highly cited work, this elite group can be found among the co-authors of 87% of papers.

[...]

Many of these prolific scientists are likely the heads of laboratories or research groups; they bring in funding, supervise research, and add their names to the numerous papers that result.

The Flare Pan

July 15th, 2014

Oxford engineer Thomas Povey, who designs cooling systems for jet engines, was on a mountaineering trip, struggling to get a pot of water to boil at altitude, when the idea for the Flare pan came to him:

With a conventional pan, explains Povey, the flame from a stove rises up around the pan “and a lot of that heat is dissipated into the environment. With a Flare Pan, the fins capture a lot of heat that would otherwise be wasted.” According to Povey, the pans use about a third the gas and cooks roughly 30% faster than comparable, standard cookware. That means they’re cheaper and quicker to use than conventional pans, a fact that has garnered Povey’s pots a 2014 Hawley Award from the Worshipful Company of Engineers for “the most outstanding engineering innovation that delivers demonstrable benefit to the environment.”

Flare Pan

The Welfare State

July 15th, 2014

When the welfare state was first introduced in Britain, it was hailed as a new high-water mark in the history of human development, Glubb notes:

History, however, seems to suggest that the age of decline of a great nation is often a period which shows a tendency to philanthropy and to sympathy for other races. This phase may not be contradictory to the feeling described in the previous paragraph, that the dominant race has the right to rule the world. For the citizens of the great nation enjoy the role of Lady Bountiful. As long as it retains its status of leadership, the imperial people are glad to be generous, even if slightly condescending. The rights of citizenship are generously bestowed on every race, even those formerly subject, and the equality of mankind is proclaimed. The Roman Empire passed through this phase, when equal citizenship was thrown open to all peoples, such provincials even becoming senators and emperors.

The Arab Empire of Baghdad was equally, perhaps even more, generous. During the Age of Conquests, pure-bred Arabs had constituted a ruling class, but in the ninth century the empire was completely cosmopolitan.

State assistance to the young and the poor was equally generous. University students received government grants to cover their expenses while they were receiving higher education. The State likewise offered free medical treatment to the poor. The first free public hospital was opened in Baghdad in the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809), and under his son, Mamun, free public hospitals sprang up all over the Arab world from Spain to what is now Pakistan.

The impression that it will always be automatically rich causes the declining empire to spend lavishly on its own benevolence, until such time as the economy collapses, the universities are closed and the hospitals fall into ruin.

It may perhaps be incorrect to picture the welfare state as the high-water mark of human attainment. It may merely prove to be one more regular milestone in the life-story of an ageing and decrepit empire.

Cold Snap in Novosibirsk

July 14th, 2014

It was extremely hot in Novosibirsk a couple days ago — and then suddenly it wasn’t:

The temperature dropped from 41°C (106°F) to 21°C (70°F), and the rapid drop caused some extreme weather.