August 25th, 2014

A couple years ago Gregory Cochran mentioned The Wizard War, R. V. Jones’ account of his time leading scientific intelligence for Britain during the war, because it had some interesting examples of thick and thin problems — but mostly because it’s so damn much fun.

I bought a copy, under the original British title, Most Secret War — “most secret” is the British equivalent of “top secret” — and recently read and enjoyed it.

The classically thin problem that Cochran cites involves the German two-beam navigation system (Knickebein). From page 97 of my copy:

It may help here if I explain what a Lorenz beam is, for this is what we expected to find. If one arranges a number of aerial units (‘dipoles’, which look like the simplest type of television aerial) side by side, as in a fence and about the same distance apart as they are long, and feeds the radio energy to them in a suitable manner they will generate the beam which emerges broadside to the fence; and, paradoxically perhaps, the longer the ‘fence’ the sharper the beam. But without a fence of prohibitive length, the beam would not be nearly sharp enough to define a target one mile wide at two hundred miles range. The clever trick in the Lorenz system was to transmit two fairly blunt beams, pointing in slightly different directions but overlapping one another in a relatively narrow region which now in effect becomes the ‘beam’ along which the aircraft are intended to fly.

Knickebein Principle of the Lorenz Beam Diagram

The two overlapping beams are most simply generated by two aerial systems pointing in slightly different directions and mounted together on a single turntable. The actual radio transmitter is switched from one of these aerials to the other and back again in a repetitive sequence, so that one aerial transmits for a short time followed by a longer interval, giving a ‘dot’ to anyone who listens to it on a suitable radio receiver, while the other transmits for a long time followed by a short interval, giving a ‘dash’. Anyone so placed as to receive the two aerials at the same strength would hear the one transmit a dot immediately followed by the other transmitting a dash, so that he would think that he was listening to a single aerial transmitting continuously. As he moved sideways into the zone in which one beam, say the ‘dot’ beam, was stronger than the other, he would being to hear the dots coming up above the continuous note, and vice versa with the dashes. By listening for the predominance of dots or dashes he would know the direction in which he would have to steer to bring himself back into the narrow ‘equi-signal’ zone. This zone can be as narrow as one hundredth or even one thousandth of the width of the ‘dot’ or ‘dash’ beam alone.  The aerials are therefore set on the turntable in such a direction that the equi-signal zone passes over the target.  To warn the pilot that he is approaching the target, a similar beam system would be set up from one site well to the side of the director beam, and this second system would transmit a marker beam to cross the director a few kilometres before the target.

Virtue Cultures

August 24th, 2014

All cultures prior to modern European culture were virtue cultures, Michael Strong suggests:

Humans were raised understanding that they had a role and standing in society and that their entire life was a reflection of how well they fulfilled that role. Indeed, in many cultures, this reputational effect was multigenerational: if one violated a cultural norm, it damaged one’s children, and children’s children, and so forth.

Each culture had a vision of excellence in that society. This vision of excellence was transmitted by means of myth and heroic tales, it was transmitted by a multitude of comments, jokes, attitudes, manners, behavioral corrections, and so forth: the very texture of day-to-day life provided a consistent, coherent template that taught young people how they were to behave. From time to time, a member of the society was sanctioned or expelled in a manner that made it perfectly clear what types of behavior were not condoned by the community. And young people were brought up in a set of cultural practices that allowed them to practice the requisite virtues of that society so that they would naturally become respectable adult participants in such a society.

Of course, western civilization has been seeking liberation from these sorts of “intolerant” virtue cultures for some 500 years. The social rebellions known as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment in their resistances to traditional authorities unwittingly provided the foundation for the more radical liberations of the 20th century. In the 1920s and the 1960s it appeared as if radical individual freedom was the final goal.

What none of the liberators seems to have realized is the truth of Goethe’s insight, that “Whatever liberates our spirit without a corresponding increase in self-control is pernicious.” I continue to be committed to the liberation of the spirit; and I have gradually come to realize that as I liberate spirits, I have an absolute obligation to simultaneously provide training in self-control. Else I am responsible for disasters.

Traditional cultures did not seek to liberate the spirit: by and large, they sought to constrain the spirit within very well-defined cultural boundaries. As a consequence, they were often highly bigoted, shaming, and sometimes cruel: Zorba the Greek contrasts Zorba’s own liberated spirit with the cruel stoning of a young widow. Films continue to celebrate the liberation of the young from the constraints of traditional narrow-mindedness: See My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham for recent sweet comedies based on the same theme. Few people who are truly knowledgeable about traditional cultures would want to return to their brutal stasis, conformity, constraints, and judgementalism.

And yet many people long for community, tradition, ritual, structure, and meaning in their lives. We (including most emphatically Socratic intellectuals such as myself) have ripped traditional societies and norms to shreds. We had to do it. There were gross injustices and bigotries. We must now re-build more humane, tolerant, decent replacements for those earlier meaning systems.

He notes that we only see honor in fantasy and sci-fi characters:

In reading about the concept of honor in Japanese society at Bronze Doors last week I noticed, as is typically the case, that the students are fascinated. Adolescents, I find, crave a sense of honor. I asked them if characters in science fiction and fantasy had a sense of honor, and they all acknowledged that usually such characters did have honor, and that that was partly why they loved those genres.

And then I asked if the people in reality tv shows had honor, and those who were familiar with such shows agreed that those people did not.

How strange it is that young people in our society must look to fantasy novels to enter a world in which honor is a living reality, and yet “reality” television typically shows us a society made up of human beings motivated entirely by short-term vanities and pleasures.

It seems abundantly evident to me that we evolved in tribes in which a sense of honor was a key element of society.

Contemporary Wisdom Reflected Back

August 24th, 2014

In Dune, Tim O’Reilly notes, Frank Herbert puts contemporary wisdom in the mouths of his characters, so that the reader hears the insights of his own age reflected back at him out of the imagined future:

Kierkegaard’s “life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced” becomes a Bene Gesserit aphorism. Ecologist Paul B. Sears’s statement, “the highest function of science is to give us an understanding of consequences” is expressed by Kynes as a fundamental ecological principle; and his “respect for truth comes close to being the basis for all morality” is recalled as a lesson Paul had received from his father. Such statements are used without acknowledgment, reflecting the supposition that truly profound thoughts may, over time, lose their authors and become a part of the wisdom of the race. Such borrowings give the distant flights of science fiction a foundation on the solidity of contemporary fact. A feeling of familiarity is thus attached to situations that are overtly strange.

Creativity Hack

August 23rd, 2014

A popular creativity hack, Scott Adams (Dilbert) notes, is to use distractions that don’t distract — by working in a coffee shop, or taking a walk, a drive, or a shower:

My armchair guess about what is going on with the brain distractions is that we evolved to keep some important part of the brain on high alert for danger, food, and mating opportunities. If you distract that part of the brain with driving, walking, showering, and background noise it loosens its hold on the creative processing part of your brain.

This supports my hypothesis that creativity is something that happens naturally so long as your brain is not actively suppressing it for some sort of survival advantage. That makes sense because creative thinking usually isn’t helpful in immediately dangerous situations. If we were cave dwellers I would be the one that didn’t see the mastodon stampede heading my way because I was daydreaming and inventing new stone tools in my head. Sometimes you don’t need creative ideas so much as you just need to run.

Putting it in simpler terms, creativity is a mental luxury that your brain will not allow until it feels safe or until the watchdog part of your brain gets busy handling some routine task such as driving the car.

From Rags to Riches to Rags

August 23rd, 2014

It is clear that the image of a static 1 and 99 percent is largely incorrect, Mark S. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl have found:

It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.

Yet while many Americans will experience some level of affluence during their lives, a much smaller percentage of them will do so for an extended period of time. Although 12 percent of the population will experience a year in which they find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution, a mere 0.6 percent will do so in 10 consecutive years.

World Of PeaceCraft

August 22nd, 2014

“You’ve fought terrorists in Call of Duty and alien hordes in Gears of War. Well, now get ready for the opposite of that“:

(From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.)

Usagi Yojimbo Short

August 22nd, 2014

This is the proof of concept short film that Lintika Films created and presented to Stan Sakai to secure the feature-film rights to Usagi Yojimbo:

Usagi, by the way, is Japanese for rabbit, and yojimbo means bodyguard. Yojimbo is also, of course, the famous a 1961 jidaigeki (period drama) film directed by Akira Kurosawa. It was based, indirectly, on Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and inspired Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars.

Traditional Cultural Traits

August 22nd, 2014

It has become very difficult to pass on traditional cultural traits to children in contemporary circumstances, Michael Strong laments:

In the West there are plausible claims that characteristics such as character and integrity, courage and honor are not what they used to be. In Japan, which experienced a very rapid transition to modernity in the late 19th century, older Japanese observed the rapid decline in the Samurai Bushido ethos in a matter of decades. Alaska natives saw an even more rapid introduction to modernity in the mid-20th century, in which thousand-year old survival skills ranging from hunting knowledge to extraordinary physical toughness and prowess, vanished almost overnight.

A skeptic may suggest: Fine and good, but we don’t really need seal-hunting skills, arctic survival skills, Samurai self-discipline and shame, or perhaps even old-style honor and integrity. Regardless of what one thinks of these claims, my point is that if there were any human characteristics whatsoever that required long tutelage by trained masters in a supportive culture they would be invisible to us at present. There may be amazing capabilities that might allow human beings to adapt to the 21st century but which do not exist, which cannot exist, because our society has prevented the development of those institutions that would bring forth such human capabilities.

Traditional cultures, having evolved through centuries of interaction with a relatively stable environment, are models of such integrated, coherent cultures. “Education” in such cultures was a natural, unconscious experience in which young people gradually learned the practices of their culture. With the exception of the rapidly disappearing vestigial remains of such cultures, human beings today are raised in a more or less incoherent cultural universe. In the absence of a coherent culture, humans are more likely to find themselves prey to impulsive and compulsive behaviors, variously directed towards material goods, status, sex, food, vanity, emotional attachments, gambling, electronic stimulation (television, video games, etc.), or drugs. We are very complex organisms; in order to live as healthy adults, we need to be raised well.

How much does poverty drive crime?

August 22nd, 2014

How much does poverty drive crime? Not so much. Actually, not at all:

In Sweden the age of criminal responsibility is 15, so Mr Sariaslan tracked his subjects from the dates of their 15th birthdays onwards, for an average of three-and-a-half years. He found, to no one’s surprise, that teenagers who had grown up in families whose earnings were among the bottom fifth were seven times more likely to be convicted of violent crimes, and twice as likely to be convicted of drug offences, as those whose family incomes were in the top fifth.

What did surprise him was that when he looked at families which had started poor and got richer, the younger children — those born into relative affluence — were just as likely to misbehave when they were teenagers as their elder siblings had been. Family income was not, per se, the determining factor.

That suggests two, not mutually exclusive, possibilities. One is that a family’s culture, once established, is “sticky”—that you can, to put it crudely, take the kid out of the neighbourhood, but not the neighbourhood out of the kid. Given, for example, children’s propensity to emulate elder siblings whom they admire, that sounds perfectly plausible. The other possibility is that genes which predispose to criminal behaviour (several studies suggest such genes exist) are more common at the bottom of society than at the top, perhaps because the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.

Soldiers’ Kit from 1066 to 2014

August 22nd, 2014

The Telegraph has compiled photos of British soldiers’ kit from 1066 to 2014:

Soldier Kit 13

Soldier Kit 12

Soldier Kit 11

Soldier Kit 10

Soldier Kit 09

Soldier Kit 08

Soldier Kit 07

Soldier Kit 06

Soldier Kit 05

Soldier Kit 04

Soldier Kit 03

Soldier Kit 02

Soldier Kit 01

Modeling Combat Reserves As Liquidity

August 21st, 2014

Sebastial Marshall studies “a lot of history and a moderate amount of finance” and suggests modeling combat reserves as liquidity:

In the rare instance that a nation has well-trained soldiers, good unit cohesion, good morale, good cooperation among society, experienced officers, individual large-scale and individual advantages in combat — and a large logistics/supply advantage — it’s basically undefeatable in any one-off combat.

Rome was frequently in such a position in the early Imperial period. The technology, tradition, unit cohesion, officer corps, economy, and logistics were so vastly superior to anyone else nearby. Thus, they could enforce their agenda anywhere from Spain to Britannia to Germany to Africa to the Near East, or further…

…but not all at the same time.

Whenever an Emperor or Consul pulled legions off the Rhine or away from the Near East, they put themselves into a weakened position where there’d be opportunities for usurpation, unrest, killing and looting the local Romans, driving off cultural ambassadors and traders, and otherwise setting back the Roman agenda.

Thus, Rome had immense military power — but only when it was liquid.

As soon as the forces were committed to long engagements and tied down, their logistical and supply ability fell dramatically. They would have to abandon a campaign to re-deploy soldiers if a larger problem emerged, which would leave behind a rallied, inspired, battle-hardened enemy. Or, they leave their troops tied down as new problems emerge. Horns of the dilemma, etc.

We saw effectively the end of the British Empire when Europe was overrun by the Nazis simultaneously with their Asian colonies being overrun by the Japanese. While Britain might have been able to outlast, counter, and endure the Nazi threat — maybe — by relying on its overseas colonies for economy, Imperial Japan overrunning all of Britain’s Asian colonies in rapid succession from 1941-1942 is what most likely spelled the end of the British Empire.

From this perspective, it starts to make more sense why the British turned to appeasement at first with Hitler. They had basically two options that would not put them at serious risk: stay out of war with Hitler, or crush Hitler rapidly so that troops and economy are not tied down into a long and hard fight.

You can certainly argue that an Anglo-French-Czech resistance in 1938 might have been the right time to put Hitler to bed once and for all — the Czech had a modern and well-trained soldier’s corps, but not enough to stand up to the Nazis without backing. That was an option they perhaps should have taken and did not.

But once they didn’t, trying to engage in diplomacy to get Hitler to cease expansionism doesn’t look insane — when you realize that if British forces became tied down in a long and hard war, the nation was incredibly vulnerable.

And that’s precisely what happened. With a peaceful Europe, reinforcing and repelling the Japanese Empire would have been trivial for Britain. The British Navy and British naval tradition were stronger than the Imperial Japanese; British troops were better-equipped and more experienced.

But, they were illiquid in a sense — British troops were committed to protecting the British Isles and liberating Europe, due to previously failing to stop Hitler either diplomatically or militarily. Thus tied down, the Japanese easily overran British positions in Asia, destroying morale, confidence, and collaboration between Britain and its soon-to-be-lost colonies. The sight of British regulars fleeing across India, burning crops and machinery so the Japanese could not seize them, was particularly terrible for British-Indian relations, and a major contribution to the end of the Empire.

But if we take a step back, a difficult step to take back, we can perhaps start to understand the first moves to appeasement. Committing forces to a long-term engagement makes all other engagements precarious.

When Sulla left eastwards to fight Mithradates, the Marian faction re-started civil war, conquered Rome, and executed Sulla’s friends and allies. When British forces became tied down in Western Europe, the Japanese overran Asia.

And the flipside, when Abraham Lincoln was fighting to preserve the Union, he saw the European powers ready to intervene — and used diplomacy and moral authority to not allow a new aspect of the war to open, when the Union was stretched to the brink of breaking. Afterwards — reconciliation and consolidation, and a period of relative peace.

It’s not a new conclusion, but once a nation has committed to a protracted war, it becomes more vulnerable across the board, everywhere, to all threats. This is informative as to why history plays out the way it does.

Public Health Benefits of Culture

August 21st, 2014

The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) provide a dramatic case study of the “public health” benefits resulting from involvement in a particular culture:

The Mormons have created a distinctive culture with remarkable health and welfare benefits. Utah, where 70% of the population are Mormon, has the lowest, or near the lowest, rates of smoking, lung cancer, heart disease, alcohol consumption, abortions, out-of-wedlock births, work-days missed due to illness, and the lowest child poverty rate in the country. Utah ranks highest in the nation in number of AP tests taken, number of AP tests passed, scientists produced per capita, percentage of households with personal computers, and proportion of income given to charity.

Utah is often ranked among the best places to live and the best places to raise children. Provo, more than 90% Mormon, was ranked by Self magazine as the healthiest city for women in the country, because it had the lowest incidence of cancer, violence, depression, etc.

Within Utah, it is clear that Mormons are disproportionately represented within these positive statistics, and Mormon populations outside Utah share similar phenomenally positive statistics. Indeed, although no academic researcher would dare to propose such a thing, one could conclude that a mass conversion to Mormonism would reduce social problems more effectively than all welfare spending, academic research, and public health initiatives in the last fifty years.

Practical Guidance for Prudent Students

August 21st, 2014

Bryan Caplan offers practical guidance for prudent students deciding how much schooling to pursue:

  • Go to high school unless you’re a terrible student.
  • Go to college only if you’re a strong student or special case.
  • Don’t get a master degree unless the stars align.

Fort Hood 2014 Shooting Findings

August 21st, 2014

Weapons Man looks at the Fort Hood shooting of April, 2014:

An insane nut job, pumped full of God knows what drugs by the military medical community (some stories suggest that he was on at least three psychoactive medications, although early media reports on these shootings are usually crap) and unhappy with his unit’s application of the Army’s rigid personnel-management policies, began shooting people. Then he drove around shooting more people. This decison of his was fortuitous; most people can’t hit much from a moving car, and this jerk was no exception.

The Fort Hood victims were even more disarmed by a redoubled effort at victim disarmament by the post command and Provost Marshal’s office in response to the 2009 shooting. There appears to have been the same laggard, or at least too-late-to-save-lives, police response this time.

When the assailant was confronted by an armed MP, he killed himself.

While the press has suggested that he was suffering from combat trauma (they love that Ticking Time Bomb Vet Narrative™), this assclown never heard a shot fired during a brief Iraq tour. We’ve known a few guys who were so eager to get into fights that dull tours traumatized ‘em, but we don’t think this guy was like that.

Lessons learned:

  • An armed assailant in a pool of forcibly disarmed victims has been given an edge by the authorities.
  • In this case, the assailant exploited his edge poorly, unlike Hasan.
  • The incident ended, and we’re not tired of saying this yet, as soon as force was applied against the shooter.
  • This was a predictable consequence of the poor response of the Fort Hood command to the last (2009) shooting incident. Instead of empowering victims, they chose to empower the criminals, relying on wishful, magical thinking instead of the power of logic. If they double down again on their anti-gun policies, the consequences are again predictable.

Gun Free Victim Disarmament Zone body count: 3 Wound count: 16.

Terminating Interest in Leading a Riot

August 20th, 2014

Col. Jeff Cooper suggested a system that “would make sure, first, that a riot would stop; and second, that only the leaders would feel the weight of social disapproval.”

Of course, since this is Col. Jeff Cooper we’re talking about, his recommended system was a weapon system, a suppressed .22:

This weapon, properly sighted and equipped with a noise suppressor, may be used with surgical delicacy to neutralize mob leaders without risk to other members of the group, without noise and with scant danger of death to the subject. A low-velocity 22 bullet in the lung will not knock a man down, and in these days of modern antisepsis it will almost never kill him if he can get to a hospital in a reasonable time. It will, however, absolutely terminate his interest in leading a riot.

The Israelis took his advice.