Norwegian Lemmings

December 14th, 2014

Norwegian LemmingNorwegian lemmings go through dramatic population cycles, with their density increasing and then decreasing by a factor of 3,000:

Accounts of lemming migrations go back hundreds of years. In 1823, for instance, one explorer wrote of seeing “such inconceivable numbers” in his Scandinavian travels “that the country is literally covered with them”.

An army of lemmings advanced with extraordinary purpose, “never suffering itself to be diverted from its course by any opposing obstacles,” not even when confronted by rivers, or even the branches of narrow fjords. “They are good at swimming,” says Stenseth. “They can easily go across small bodies of water, across small lakes,” he says.

Given such sudden and apparently reckless behaviour, it is perhaps inevitable that local people in bygone centuries came to see the lemming as a crazed creature, and a swarm as “the forerunner of war and disaster”. But we have Walt Disney to thank for really embedding this stereotype in the public consciousness.

On the back of the animated classic Bambi, Disney undertook a series of ground-breaking, feature-length nature documentaries known as The True-Life Adventures. In one of these, White Wilderness, he dramatised the lemming mass suicide.

Stenseth is generous about the movie. “It is a nice film actually,” he says. “But there are some bits and pieces that are wrong with it. That [the lemming segment] is one of them.”

For a start, White Wilderness – filmed in Canada rather than Scandinavia – depicts the wrong species. Although all lemmings experience population highs and lows, the accounts of mass movements were all based on observations of Norwegian lemmings, not the brown lemmings that Disney used. He paid Eskimos “$1 a live lemming,” says Stenseth.

But that’s just the start. In an infamous sequence, the lemmings reach the edge of a precipitous cliff, and the voiceover tells us that “this is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves bodily out into space.”

It certainly looks like suicide. “Only they didn’t march to the sea,” says Stenseth. “They were tipped into it from the truck.”

Once you know the sequence has been faked, it makes for rather awkward viewing.

That movie-fueled myth did lead to a delightful computer game though.

The World Goes Mad

December 13th, 2014

“My world is fire and blood. Here they come again.”

South African Burglaries

December 13th, 2014

American expat Patrick McGroarty was covering the Oscar Pistorius trial in Pretoria when his home in Johannesburg got burgled. They came back for more the next month. Around the same time, robbers killed the South African national team’s goalie — leading the nation to wonder “why South Africans take from each other, and why these desperate assailants are so quick to kill.”

In this discussion of “South Africans,” McGroarty brings up the touchy subject of race exactly once:

Though the murder rate has fallen by more than half since the end of white minority rule in 1994, the number of people killed in South Africa each year still ranks among the highest in the world.

McGroarty’s family moved into an apartment complex with 24-hour security.

Inside Out

December 12th, 2014

Pixar’s Inside Out comes out next year. This is apparently the second UK trailer:

Enemy Supplies

December 12th, 2014

In mountainous terrain, the resupply of light infantry forces penetrating deep into enemy territory is a significant problem, David Grossman (On Killing) notes, but, as Rommel relates in his Attacks, his troops’ momentum let them rely on enemy supplies:

He and his men made good use of captured enemy pack animals and bicycles during attacks. (Had he needed vehicular mobility it would have been readily available to him by using the vehicles captured in his ambushes, but his strength was in his ability to approach from unexpected directions over rough terrain.) In a later operation they were even able to use clean, dry underwear and sleeping gear from a captured Italian laundry depot, and on several occasions they came to rely “on the abundant weapons and stores of ammunition” captured from the Italians. The most common enemy asset, and that which seemed to have given him and his men the most joy, was the enemy’s food. “The contents of the [captured] vehicles offered us starved warriors unexpected delicacies. Chocolate, eggs, preserves, grapes, wine and white bread were unpacked and distributed. The worthy… troopers… were served first… morale two miles behind the enemy front was wonderful!”

Solar Stickers

December 12th, 2014

Xiaolin Zheng’s research team at Stanford is reimagining solar panels:

Because conventional thin-film solar cells are manufactured on glass or silicon wafers, they are rigid, heavy, and quite limited in how and where they can be used. Plastic or paper would be far more flexible, but it cannot withstand the high temperatures and chemicals required for fabrication.

“Our new technique lets us treat the solar cells like a pizza,” explains Zheng. “When you bake pizza, you use a metal pan that can tolerate high temperatures. But when it’s time to distribute the pizza economically, it’s placed in a paper box.”

Working with her students, Zheng set out to fabricate solar cells on a silicone or glass surface as usual, but she inserted a metallic layer between the cell and the surface. After some trial and error, the team was finally able to peel away the metallic layer from the surface after soaking the whole structure in water for just a few seconds.

The result was an active solar cell that is only a couple of microns thick—about one-tenth the thickness of plastic wrap, Zheng says. “It’s extremely flexible, so it can be attached to any surface—the back of a mobile phone, a skylight, a wall, a curved column.”

The skinny, bendable cells can produce the same amount of electricity as rigid ones, and they offer cost benefits as well, according to Zheng. “The silicon wafers come through the process clean and shiny,” she says. “So just like a pizza pan, they can be used again and again, which translates to savings.” And because the solar stickers are lighter than conventional panels, they will be easier and less expensive to install.

The stickers might be able to reduce manufacturing costs too, Zheng says. In traditional solar-cell production, the foundation materials account for 25 percent of the cost. The new method will enable that base layer to be removed or replaced with a cheaper material. For example, the windows of a building provide a ready-made base layer, so all that’s needed is the solar cell itself. A cell that could simply be peeled and applied enables that economical shortcut.

Outside Marksmen

December 11th, 2014

One of the prison assets Carl from Chicago went to audit turned out to be a sniper rifle:

These guns were kept in storage at the armory, and they brought out the sniper to show me the weapon himself because they didn’t let other people touch it after he had calibrated the scope. The sniper asked me a question:

Do you know why they pick snipers out of the staff in the prison?

No, I said.

Because in Attica there was an uprising and the prisoners took over the yard and then the prison brought in outside marksmen to ensure they could not escape. During the melee the marksmen shot many prisoners but it turns out that the prisoners had changed clothes with the civilian hostages, so some of the individuals gunned down were actual guards or workers. Thus the snipers were prison guards from that facility because they could pick out the inmates from the guards and workers.

I said that if he ever saw me in his scope wearing an orange outfit, please don’t shoot. It wasn’t a joke.

Follow the Wire

December 11th, 2014

In Attacks, Rommel describes how his light infantry made remarkable progress through mountainous terrain, sometimes in a helter-skelter fashion, with slower elements catching up, David Grossman (On Killing) notes, through wire communications:

Often this wire served as a navigation aid for follow-on elements and runners, who were able to use the wire as a guide during night movements in pouring rain. Today, bad radio communications, poor land navigation, and breaks in contact are some of the recurring problems in the conduct of mountain operations. Combined with this potential enemy emphasis on radio electronic combat, which can make radio communications an extremely risky business. The fact that Rommel was able to run extensive wire communications in this environment and then use it as a navigational aid is a useful lesson.

We Can’t Do Anything

December 11th, 2014

A friend of John Derbyshire’s couldn’t see why “we” — meaning the US government — wouldn’t make some simple policy change, when he lamented that, of course, we won’t, because we can’t do anything:

It was that closing phrase that stuck in my mind. We can’t do anything. It’s so damn true.

A few days later I was watching a video clip of looters trashing a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri following the November 24th grand jury decision in the Michael Brown shooting.

The looters were described as “protesters” by Sean Hannity’s voice-over, but that seems to me a bit unfair. There were genuine protesters out there in the streets that night, genuinely indignant about the decision. Personally I think they’re deluded; but they have a right to their stupid opinion, and a right to peacefully protest. Many of them, perhaps a majority, were not looting.

If we are to keep our civic freedoms, the public authorities should be able to perform one of their proper functions, permitting peaceful protest, without abandoning another one, the safeguarding of citizens’ property against mobs and those who incite them. Do we not know how to do this? We have a couple of centuries’ experience of law enforcement. It’s taught to postgraduate level in our colleges. How hard can it be? Yet we can’t do it. We can’t do anything.

Those images of looters were still in my mind on the 29th when my copy of The Economist arrived. It contained a melancholy article about the condition of Afghanistan as the NATO intervention ends.

With its promises of prosperity and gender equality, the reconstruction effort always appeared in pursuit of the unattainable … Output is expected to grow by 1.5 percent this year, less than the population … Even NATO analysts, who are considered optimistic, admit the Taliban have never been stronger … In the absence of a functioning state, illegal drugs, timber, and other rackets have flourished under a Jihadist-themed cover.

So the 13 years of Western intervention were all a waste of time, then. Also of money (“estimated at a trillion dollars, or $30,000 for every Afghan”) and lives (3,481 coalition fatalities). We passed over Afghanistan like a shadow, hardly leaving a footprint. When we are gone, all will be as it was before.

Why was defeating the Taliban not possible?

Their leadership is headquartered in Pakistan, which makes them unconquerable.

Because, I guess, Pakistan is such a formidable military and economic power, it would be foolish for the combined forces of the entire Western world to engage them.

It seems to me there was nothing there that couldn’t have been taken care of by a handful of well-placed thermonuclear bombs, but of course we can’t do that. We can’t do anything.

Randomly Selected Assets

December 10th, 2014

When Carl from Chicago was first auditing the assets of the famous prison in Joliet, Illinois — where The Blues Brothers was filmed — he decided to use his judgment about which assets to check:

Typically you “randomly select” assets from the asset listing, take a statistically significant sample (perhaps 20-50 items), and draw conclusions about the whole pool of assets based on whether you were able to find the selected assets in the location where they were said to reside. I did this at first and the results came up with many assets titled “XXX-780? and I asked the accountants working for the facility what they were. The accountants said that these were individual prisoner beds and that was the cell number and the way to audit those assets would be to go in and unlock the cells and I could flip up the bed and check the number. I thought about this for a few minutes and then said “f&ck this” and decided that I would use “judgement” to select my assets instead of the random method and I selected 30 assets myself for my project.

Gaps and Surfaces, Reconnaissance Pull, and Attack by Infiltration

December 10th, 2014

Before he became a psychologist and went on to write On Killing, David Grossman was a US Army Ranger, a snake-eater, and a fan of Rommel’s Attacks, his classic book about light infantry tactics, based on his experiences in the First World War. Grossman shares some lessons from Rommel’s wildly successful infiltration and penetration of the Italian position near Trieste — Gaps and Surfaces, Reconnaissance Pull, and Attack by Infiltration:

The first step in a maneuver warfare attack is generally to find or make a “gap” in enemy lines while avoiding or bypassing the “surfaces” (i.e., strengths) in the enemy lines. In rough terrain an infiltration operation (undetected movement through enemy lines), or a penetration operation (creating and exploiting a gap through enemy lines), and the extensive exploitation operations that should subsequently occur behind those lines, require a degree of stealth, crosscountry mobility, flexibility, independent operations, logistic austerity, and training that is characteristic of the light infantry. Infiltration operations in particular are “natural” light infantry techniques which play to the light infantry’s strengths.

At the operational level, good operations security and deception plans are essential to support penetration operations. Prior to the 12th Battle of Isonzo the Germans went to great effort to conceal the movement of their infantry divisions from enemy observations as they conducted the approach march to the front, moving their forces only at night and concealing them by day. In a modern operation of this nature such a deceptive movement would be much easier to accomplish with light infantry forces (vice armor or mechanized forces) since they can be so much more easily concealed from satellites, radar, and thermal imagery devices.

At the tactical level, light infantry penetration and infiltration operations such as Rommel conducted tend to blend into each other. Prior to any attack, a careful reconnaissance of enemy lines was always conducted to find gaps or areas where Rommel’s forces could closely approach enemy lines. During the execution of the attack, he always tried to take advantage of terrain, weather, and weaknesses in enemy deployment to move his forces through enemy lines with a minimal amount of contact. In other words, he always tried to infiltrate. If he could infiltrate without any contact or by quietly surprising and dispatching a small enemy position or section of the line, then he did so. If the infiltration option failed, he was always ready to execute a penetration by: (1) having a supporting element, usually consisting of massed machine guns, in position to suppress enemy forces while (2) a small penetration element created and widened a gap and (3) his exploitation element (which usually consisted of the bulk of his forces) passed through the gap and moved deep into enemy lines.

The infiltration or penetration was not the objective, it was simply a means to an end. The objective was to get through enemy front lines in order to get to logistic and command post areas and key terrain in the enemy rear. Rommel’s reconnaissances were usually made while the men rested, and were almost always conducted by officers and NCOs. These leaders were more lightly equipped and did not suffer the fatigue that the men did, making them available for scouting missions.

The leaders conducting these patrols were usually given the freedom to make and secure gaps in the enemy lines if possible. If these reconnaissance patrols came across enemy elements that were not sufficiently alert, the recon patrol would capture them and thus create their own gap. Often these recon elements, in the purest form of “recon pull,” made the gaps, sent back a runner, and “pulled” the rest of the unit through. Such gaps are a tenuous, ephemeral commodity, and Rommel always took immediate advantage of these opportunities, communicating back to his men a sense of urgency and the feeling that “a second’s delay might snatch away victory.”

In support of his recon pull, Rommel made extensive use of visual observation, using his binoculars more than any other single piece of equipment. In later operations he made excellent use of a powerful (captured) telescope and an ad hoc observation squad to conduct visual reconnaissance prior to attacking. In similar operations today’s light infantry leader must make creative use of all available visual observation assets — such as TOW and Dragon thermal night-vision sights.

During the passage of his forces through three enemy lines of mountain defensive positions, Rommel made repeated use of stealthy approaches to surprise the enemy and infiltrate into his positions. On several occasions he took advantage of adverse weather, the fog of war, and fluid front line situations to deceive the enemy into believing that his troops were Italians. In one situation he prepared careful fire support and disposed his troops for a penetration operation, but in hopes of taking it by surprise he ordered a select squad under a handpicked leader to “move up the path as if he and his men were Italians returning from the front, to penetrate into the hostile position and capture the garrison… They were to do this with a minimum of shooting and hand grenade throwing. In case a battle developed they were assured of fire protection and support by the entire detachment.” In this instance they succeeded in silently capturing a hostile dugout with 17 Italians and a machine gun. The gap was widened as dozens of additional Italians were captured by approaching their positions from the flank and rear, and the way was opened to move even deeper into the enemy positions — all without firing a shot.

The stealth of these attacks was maintained at all cost, and if some enemy soldiers chose to run rather than surrender, Rommel’s men “did not fire on this fleeing enemy for fear of alarming the garrisons of positions located still higher up.” Rommel found that “The farther we penetrated into the hostile zone of defense, the less prepared were the garrisons for our arrival, and the easier the fighting.”

Recent large-scale night infiltration/penetration operations into Kuwait by the U.S. Marine Corps during the 1991 Gulf War have proven again the value of this classic technique. In this operation the 1st Marine Division under Major General Myatt executed a classical light infantry penetration with two regimental task forces (TF Taro and TF Grizzly), with a third, mechanized, task force (TF Ripper) passing through their gap and acting as an exploitation element which didn’t stop until it reached Kuwait City. This operation and extensive operations in the 7th Infantry Division (Light), combining infiltration operations with imaginative use of passive night-vision devices and thermal imagery devices in rough terrain, demonstrate the tremendous potential for successful execution of light infantry infiltration operations on future battlefields.

I definitely recommend picking up Attacks, if only so you can confidently declare, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

The Divorce Surge Is Over

December 10th, 2014

It is no longer true that the divorce rate is rising, or that half of all marriages end in divorce:

The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist.

Cumulative Share of Marriages Ending in Divorce

Some of the decline in divorce clearly stems from the fact that fewer people are getting married — and some of the biggest declines in marriage have come among groups at risk of divorce. But it also seems to be the case that marriages have gotten more stable, as people are marrying later.

Ultimately, a long view is likely to show that the rapid rise in divorce during the 1970s and early 1980s was an anomaly. It occurred at the same time as a new feminist movement, which caused social and economic upheaval. Today, society has adapted, and the divorce rate has declined again.

Le Petit Prince

December 9th, 2014

Dessine-moi une bande annonce officielle:

(The official trailer for the new Little Prince movie is out.)

A Stranger in Africa

December 9th, 2014

As an African-American, Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn found herself a stranger in Africa:

Viscerally, I knew that someone related to me likely started his or her journey here centuries ago, that I had a kinship to “The Slave Coast,” where millions of Africans were sold into domestic bondage and transported to Europe and the Americas between 1665 and 1807. I had read Alex Haley’s Roots. But that was his story, and those, his people. The stories I had heard throughout my childhood were not of the kings and queens stolen from an African homeland, but of everyday warriors here who fought and died for my rights to vote; to go to school; to choose where I would live, and whom I would love. They were my father, who fought in the Vietnam War as a United States Marine (my brother, a second-generation jarhead who fought in the Persian Gulf conflict); they were my mother, the first in her family to graduate from college (me, the first in mine to earn a master’s degree). My people were architects and game-changers; innovators and writers; preachers, teachers, chefs, and hope-builders; they were black, proud, and American—like me.

Days earlier, stepping off the plane into the bustling city of Accra, never had I been surrounded by so many faces that looked like mine, and yet I felt as foreign among them as I had years earlier on a trip to Tokyo. Having African ancestry and black skin did not make me a sister but a stranger with my neat, fresh-from-the-salon, straw-curled ’fro now seeking to connect. This journey to Ghana became a rite of passage to a new consciousness of my own Americanness.


I was born “black” in the late 1960s to my mother who, in 1940, had been born “colored”; and to my father, born “Negro” in 1944. I was in high school when Jesse Jackson proclaimed us all “African-American.” My father’s people were servants who came to the U.S. from Scotland (and the surname, Littlejohn, from the Englishman for whom they would later work); my mother’s maternal family tree traces back several generations to an Irishman and a Native American woman from an unknown tribe.


In Africa, I am obruni, which, in the most literal terms, means “white man,” or “foreigner.” It was how I was referred to many times while in Africa. It was not meant as an insult, just an acknowledgement that I was not of that land, no matter how deeply my roots ran through it.

Someday I will to return to Ghana, for a journey that is my own, maybe on safari in the northern region, or with my parents on a holiday vacation in Accra. (Stories I’ve heard of Christmastime there sound not unlike summer break beach parties in Miami.) But not before I make that trip to Scotland and to England, where I am told I’ll also find a lot of my people.

Parenting and Verbal Intelligence

December 9th, 2014

Family and parenting characteristics are not significant contributors to variation in IQ scores, Beaver et al. find, suggesting that IQ is in the genes:

To find out, the team pored over information from a study of more than 15,000 U.S. middle- and high-school students. It’s called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Starting in the 1994-to-1995 school year, researchers had asked students a series of questions. For instance: How warm and loving are your parents? How much do you talk with them? How close do you feel to your parents? How much do you think they care about you?

Students also were given a list of 10 activities. Then the questionnaire asked how many of those activities students had done with their parents in the previous week. Did they play sports together? Go shopping? Talk with each other over dinner? Watch a movie together?

Students also answered questions about how permissive their parents were. For example, did their parents let them choose their own friends, choose what to watch on TV or choose for themselves when to go to bed?

The researchers then gave the students a test to gauge their IQ. Called a Picture Vocabulary Test, it asked the students to link words and images. Scores on this test have been linked repeatedly to IQ. Later in life, between the ages of 18 and 26, these people were tested again.

Beaver’s group was especially interested in results from a group of about 220 students who had been adopted. The parents who raised them had not passed on any genes to them. So if there was a link between the students’ IQs and the way their parents raised them, the researchers should see it most clearly in the adopted students’ scores.

But no such link emerged. Whether students reported their parents cared about them and did things with them — or reported that they did not — it had no impact on the their IQ.