Swedish conditions reach Norway

December 5th, 2019

This year, for the first time, Norway’s statistical agency reported on the relationship between crime and country of origin:

Immigrants from certain backgrounds—particularly Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghanis—were many times more likely to commit violent crimes than other Norwegians (including other immigrant groups). In 65 out of 80 crime categories, non-Norwegians were over-represented. The largest discrepancy was in regard to domestic violence: Immigrants from non-Western countries were found to be eight times more likely to be charged for such crimes. Rape and murder were also heavily skewed toward these immigrant groups. Worryingly, the figures showed that second-generation immigrants were more likely to be criminals than their parents.

These are svenske tilstander — Swedish conditions.

You’ll be accused of some form of heresy

December 4th, 2019

If you discover something new, Paul Graham says, there’s a significant chance you’ll be accused of some form of heresy:

To discover new things you have to work on ideas that are good but non-obvious. If an idea is obviously good, other people are probably already working on it.

One way for an idea to be non-obvious is for it to be hidden in the shadow of some mistaken assumption that people are very attached to. Anything you discover from working on such an idea will tend to contradict the mistaken assumption that was concealing it. And you will thus get a lot of heat from people attached to the mistaken assumption.

[...]

So it’s particularly dangerous for an organization or society to have a culture of pouncing on heresy. When you suppress heresies, you don’t just prevent people from contradicting the mistaken assumption you’re trying to protect. You also suppress any idea that implies indirectly that it’s false.

[...]

There is a positive side to this phenomenon though. If you’re looking for new ideas, one way to find them is by looking for heresies. When you look at the question this way, the depressingly large dead zones around mistaken assumptions become excitingly large mines of new ideas.

There’s a simple rule of simul-climbing

December 3rd, 2019

Rock-climber Emily Harrington was making a one-day free attempt on the 5.13 Golden Gate route up Yosemite’s El Capitan, when her foot slipped, and she fell:

Having Honnold on board as a belay partner was only one part of a strategy that would need to work perfectly in order for Harrington to become the first woman and fourth person to free climb Golden Gate in a day. She’d been working through the moves of the route for years. In 2015, she freeclimbed it in six days. And on November 7 of this year, she came heartbreakingly close, climbing all but the last 30 feet of the final 5.13 pitch before exhaustion overtook her. “It’s not about the hard pitches,” she explains. “It’s about the accumulation of fatigue. Even the 5.10 pitches are really physical, so it becomes this huge endurance challenge that a lot of climbers don’t quite grasp.”

[...]

To stack the deck in her favor, she and Honnold planned to use a technique called simul-climbing, a time-saving high-risk endeavor in which the leader and follower both advance at the same time. The leader places gear sparingly, “running it out,” as they say, while the follower cleans the gear. By leaving huge gaps between placements and climbing simultaneously, a team can cover four pitches with the amount of gear and time that it typically takes to finish one. The tradeoff is, of course, safety. If the follower slips, he pulls the leader off with him. If the leader falls, she takes an enormous fall that must be caught by a belayer who is focused on climbing.

“You have to conserve your gear,” says Harrington. “Instead of climbing the Freeblast in 12 pitches, we planned to climb it in four pitches.” The Freeblast, for people who remember the movie Free Solo, is the lower, less-than vertical-section of Freerider/Golden Gate where the climbing isn’t technically as difficult as the upper sections, but it’s slabby, slippery, and what Harrington generally characterizes as “insecure.”

“It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s easy for your fingers and feet to be numb and to slip unexpectedly,” says Honnold. When he made his abortive attempt on Freerider early in Free Solo, it was the Freeblast section that turned him around rather than the most difficult sections up high. Harrington is a 5.14 climber. When she slipped, she was making the last move of a 5.10c pitch while navigating a pair of twin cracks. Just a few feet above her was a fixed bolt she could have clipped for ultimate safety.

About 150 feet below, Honnold was belaying Harrington when he heard her scream. “I was sitting on the ground tying my shoes, getting ready to start simul-climbing,” says Honnold. “Tons of slack just pools on the ground, which is consistent with huge falls.” The phenomenon occurs when the leader is falling but still above her last piece of gear. “The rope is falling at the same speed as the climber,” says Honnold. “It’s just physics.”

Honnold was belaying with a gri-gri, a mechanical device that’s a little bit like the cams in a car seat belt. Its mechanism allows the rope to slide smoothly through it at low speeds but locks down tight if you try to pull the rope through it with any kind of jarring motion. But the energy of the fall never actually reached the gri-gri. In most circumstances, a belayer’s hand is never supposed to leave the rope. But at the highest echelons of simul-climbing, that’s just not an option. The follower has to climb and remove gear from the wall while also belaying the leader. That’s why there’s a simple rule of simul-climbing: don’t fall.

[...]

At the hospital, her injuries proved to be gruesome but largely superficial. Most shockingly, Harrington had somehow managed to get her neck caught in the rope during the fall and was left with a long bruise that made it look like she’d been strangled. Ultimately she was able to walk out of the hospital a day later.

[...]

Honnold, who is famously dry when it comes to assessing risk, doesn’t view it as a cautionary tale: “In a lot of ways, this shows that the techniques actually work,” says Honnold. “She took one of the worst possible falls on the whole route and still wound up basically fine.”

[...]

Ultimately, though, Harrington herself sees the accident as a validation, if a painful one: “The system worked. The rope caught me. My gear held,” she says. “I’ll try again in spring.”

But a household is just a house if it has no slaves

December 2nd, 2019

The Roman Guide to Slave Management presents itself as a treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx — with the help of a northern barbarian:

In order to write for a non-Roman audience I have been compelled to use the services of a certain Jerry Toner, a teacher in one of our miserable northern provinces, who knows something of our Roman ways but shares few of our virtues. Indeed a man so soft I have never encountered outside the servile class: he has not once fought in battle, can scarce drink a small amphora of watered wine, and even stoops so low that he himself will clean his baby’s backside rather than leave such foul tasks to the slaves and womenfolk. He is, however, most blessed to be married to a wife of great beauty and intellect (though she is perhaps more forward with her opinions than a woman ought to be), to whom I am most grateful for ensuring that the meaning of my text is clear for you barbarian readers.

Slavery had a competitive advantage over free labor:

And the beauty of it was that none of these slaves was liable for military service, since the army naturally cannot rely on slaves to serve in defence of the state.

[...]

As to the threat of slaves, the worry was not so much that they would revolt, but that they would eradicate the freeborn peasant, on whom the Roman elite relied to serve in the army and keep them in power.

[...]

So it was decreed that no citizen over twenty years of age and under forty should serve in the army outside of Italy for more than three years at a time in order to give them a chance to keep control of their smallholdings at home.

[...]

Thankfully, the slave owner today need not trouble himself with such concerns. The army is now professional and it is many, many years since there has been a great slave revolt.

“But a household is just a house if it has no slaves,” Falx reminds us.

It frequently bred confidence but not skill

December 1st, 2019

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein notes that many different kinds of specialists make high-stakes decisions under time pressure:

Psychologist Gary Klein is a pioneer of the “naturalistic decision making” (NDM) model of expertise; NDM researchers observe expert performers in their natural course of work to learn how they make high-stakes decisions under time pressure.

[...]

Kasparov said he would bet that grandmasters usually make the move that springs to mind in the first few seconds of thought.

Klein studied firefighting commanders and estimated that around 80 percent of their decisions are also made instinctively and in seconds.

[...]

When he studied nonwartime naval commanders who were trying to avoid disasters, like mistaking a commercial flight for an enemy and shooting it down, he saw that they very quickly discerned potential threats. Ninety-five percent of the time, the commanders recognized a common pattern and chose a common course of action that was the first to come to mind.

One of Klein’s colleagues, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, studied human decision making from the “heuristics and biases” model of human judgment. His findings could hardly have been more different from Klein’s. When Kahneman probed the judgments of highly trained experts, he often found that experience had not helped at all. Even worse, it frequently bred confidence but not skill.

Kahneman included himself in that critique. He first began to doubt the link between experience and expertise in 1955, as a young lieutenant in the psychology unit of the Israel Defense Forces. One of his duties was to assess officer candidates through tests adapted from the British army. In one exercise, teams of eight had to get themselves and a length of telephone pole over a six-foot wall without letting the pole touch the ground, and without any of the soldiers or the pole touching the wall.* The difference in individuals’ performances were so stark, with clear leaders, followers, braggarts, and wimps naturally emerging under the stress of the task, that Kahneman and his fellow evaluators grew confident they could analyze the candidates’ leadership qualities and identify how they would perform in officer training and in combat. They were completely mistaken. Every few months, they had a “statistics day” where they got feedback on how accurate their predictions had been. Every time, they learned they had done barely better than blind guessing. Every time, they gained experience and gave confident judgments. And every time, they did not improve. Kahneman marveled at the “complete lack of connection between the statistical information and the compelling experience of insight.”

[...]

In those domains, which involved human behavior and where patterns did not clearly repeat, repetition did not cause learning. Chess, golf, and firefighting are exceptions, not the rule.

[...]

Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.

The domains Klein studied, in which instinctive pattern recognition worked powerfully, are what psychologist Robin Hogarth termed “kind” learning environments. Patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid.

[...]

Kahneman was focused on the flip side of kind learning environments; Hogarth called them “wicked.”

In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.

In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.

Hogarth noted a famous New York City physician renowned for his skill as a diagnostician. The man’s particular specialty was typhoid fever, and he examined patients for it by feeling around their tongues with his hands. Again and again, his testing yielded a positive diagnosis before the patient displayed a single symptom. And over and over, his diagnosis turned out to be correct. As another physician later pointed out, “He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary.”

[...]

Expert firefighters, when faced with a new situation, like a fire in a skyscraper, can find themselves suddenly deprived of the intuition formed in years of house fires, and prone to poor decisions.

A concerned citizen is largely helpless

November 30th, 2019

In Loserthink Scott Adams cites a celebrity’s global warming climate change tweet as an example of a bright person talking about something without training in economics or business:

Now let’s say you had experience in economics and business, as I do. In those domains, anyone telling you they can predict the future in ten years with their complicated multivariate models is automatically considered a fraud.

[...]

You might be debating me in your mind right now and thinking that, unlike the field of finance, the scientific process drives out bias over time. Studies are peer reviewed, and experiments that can’t be reproduced are discarded.

Is that what is happening?

Here I draw upon my sixteen years working in corporate America. If my job involved reviewing a complicated paper from a peer, how much checking of the data and the math would I do when I am already overworked? Would I travel to the original measuring instruments all over the world and check their calibrations? Would I compare the raw data to the “adjusted” data that is used in the paper? Would I do a deep dive on the math and reasoning, or would I skim it for obvious mistakes? Unless scientists are a different kind of human being than the rest of us, they would intelligently cut corners whenever they think they could get away with it, just like everyone else. Assuming scientists are human, you would expect lots of peer-reviewed studies to be flawed. And that turns out to be the situation. As the New York Times reported in 2018, the peer review process is defective to the point of being laughable.

[...]

My point is that a concerned citizen is largely helpless in trying to understand how settled the science of climate change really is. But that doesn’t stop us from having firm opinions on the topic.

[...]

Whenever you have a lot of money in play, combined with the ability to hide misbehavior behind complexity, you should expect widespread fraud to happen. Take, for example, the 2019 Duke University settlement in which the university agreed to pay $112.5 million for repeatedly submitting research grant requests with falsified data. Duke had a lot of grant money at stake, and lots of complexity in which to hide bad behavior. Fraud was nearly guaranteed.

If you have been on this planet for a long time, as I have, and you pay attention to science, you know that the consensus of scientists on the topic of nutrition was wrong for decades.

[...]

Over time, it became painfully obvious to me that nutrition science wasn’t science at all. It was some unholy marriage of industry influence, junk science, and government. Any one of those things is bad, but when you put those three forces together, people die. That isn’t hyperbole. Bad nutrition science has probably killed a lot of people in the past few decades.

We carried nothing that made any noise

November 29th, 2019

In his SOG Chronicles John Stryker Meyer describes the stuff they carried and did not carry across the border into Laos:

“When we went out on patrol the enemy could hear us coming a mile away,” Black said. “The canteens were metal, with a metal chain that attached the black plastic cap to the body of the canteen. The metal canteen sat inside of a metal cup. As we walked that chain would bang on the canteen and the canteen sometimes rattled inside the metal cup. A squad of guys sounded like a Chinese drum line. Our weapon sling swivels would bang on the weapons providing even more noise. Dog tags would rattle as we walked.”

The paratroopers also wore metal helmets with the paratrooper chinstrap, with plastic helmet liners. Many paratroopers smoked and used Zippo lighters, which had a distinct, metallic clicking sound when opened and closed. They also wore jewelry such as silver or gold colored watches and rings, carried entrenching tools and L-shaped flashlights that attached to the upper web gear and often got caught in the brush.

At night, if available, they would drink beer or soda from old tin cans that had to be opened with a can opener, as there were no pull-tabs on drinks at that time.

The infantrymen also carried: sleeping bags, gas masks, bayonets, personal knives, and rubber ponchos that were rolled and folded onto the back of the pistol belt. It provided a cushioned seat for sitting, but also a hiding place for small snakes, leeches, spiders and other jungle insects and creatures

[...]

The early paratroopers also wore their jump boots that Black called “fungus factories.”

[...]

The early paratroopers also wore military issued underwear that caused rashes and infections and socks that caused a foot fungus, a fungus some are still fighting today. It wasn’t until a visit from the Secretary of State, who caught the fungus, that a cream was developed to fight it.

Nearly everyone smoked in those days. Five cigarettes were packed in neat little packs with each C-Ration meal. The smell of American cigarettes in Southeast Asia was unmistakable.

[...]

“We were noisy as hell in the 173rd,” he said. “We used to carry those metal ammo boxes that always banged against the metal canteens. Even taking a drink of water with the metal canteen made a metallic noise that could be heard off in the distance. A lot of us carried a poncho, but often didn’t use it in the field because they were so noisy when you unfolded them. And, once it started to rain, the rain hitting them gave off a different noise that the enemy could hear.

“SOG was just the total, complete opposite. We carried nothing that made any noise. Everything was taped down or tied down.”

[...]

To avoid rashes, infections and fungus, Black and I didn’t wear underwear or socks. All SOG recon men didn’t wear helmets, helmet liners or armored vests of any sort.

Most of us didn’t carry entrenching tools, bayonets, sleeping bags, hammocks, ponchos, ponchos liners or air mattresses because they added weight to our total load.

I weighed my gear on a small scale once at Phu Bai and it weighed approximately 90 pounds.

No one carried an M-16, an M-14 or a 9 mm weapon as his primary weapon.

For all missions we never carried any form of identification: no dog tags, no military ID cards, no letters from home — nothing with any personal information on it. Our uniforms were sterile: no rank, no unit designator, no jump wings, no CIB or South Vietnamese jump wings were displayed. Our green beret remained at FOB 1. We went to extreme measures to insure that our anonymity remained intact to provide deniability  to the U.S. government in the event we were killed or captured.

We cut out the section of a target map to carry to the field, thus only showing the grid in the target area, with no further information about the map or the cartographers who produced them.

Additionally, we never smoked or cooked in the field.

The most important piece of equipment we carried was the CAR-15. The sling for it would vary: sometimes I used a cravat or a canvas strap taped tightly to both ends of the weapon for soundless movements. That was the preferred weapon of choice by everyone on ST Idaho. The only exception was an AK-47 for Son when he ws our point man wearing an NVA uniform, and an M-79 carried by our grenadiers.

[...]

Every American on ST Idaho carried a sawed-off M-79 for additional firepower. We thought of it as our hand-held artillery. During patrol, the Americans would load a special M-79 round with fleshettes or double-ought (00) buckshot for close contact. The sawed-off M-79 would be secured either with a canvas or rope lanyard or a D-ring that was covered with black electrical tape to prevent any metallic banging. During the fall of 1968, I had a one-of-a-kind sawed-off M-79 holster, which I lost when I was unconscious after a rope extraction in Lao.

I would carry at least thirty-four 20-round magazines for the CAR-15 — we only placed 18 rounds in each magazine, which gave me 612 rounds for that weapon, and at least 12 rounds for the M-79. The CAR-15 magazines were placed in ammo pouches or cloth canteen pouches, with the bottoms facing up to prevent debris from getting into the magazine and all of the rounds pointing away from the body. We taped black electrical tape to the bottom of each magazine to make it easier to grab them out of the pouch during firefights.

I also carried 10 to 12 fragmentation grenades, a few of the older M-26, the newer M-33 “baseball” grenades and on or two V-22 minigrenades.

For headgear, I only wore a green cravat, a triangular bandage, on missions. It was light, didn’t get caught on jungle branches, or knocked off my head by prop wash and it broke up the color of my blond hair. As a practical matter, it kept the sweat out of my eyes — hats didn’t do that. I often more camouflage “paint” on my face.

I wore the traditional Army jungle fatigues because they dried quicker while on the ground than the camouflage fatigues available at the time. I had the Phu Bai tailor sew an extra zipped pocket on the upper right and left arm (see cover of book) where I carried pens, notebooks, pen flares, one plastic spoon and my signal mirror. The tailor also sewed zipped pockets between the front top and bottom buttoned pockets, where I’d place maps, morphine syrettes, an extra notebook with any mission specific notes and the URC-10 emergency rado.

On my right wrist I wore a black, self-winding, luminescent Seiko watch, which was so bright at night that I wore it face down on the bottom of my wrist, under my glove. Thus, even in the pitch-black jungle, I knew when to make communication checks with the airborne command aircraft, usually at midnight, or at 2 a.m. In the jungle I always wore black contact gloves for protection against jungle plants, thorns and insects. I cut the thumb, index finger and middle finger off of the right glove down to the first joint, for improved grip. I always wore an extra cravat around my neck.

On my left harness strap, I taped my K-Bar knife, with handle facing down, hand grenades, small smoke canisters and a sterile bandage. On my right harness strap was a strobe light, held in a cloth pouch, hand grenades, a rappelling D-ring, and a smoke grenade.

My preferred web gear was the WW II BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) ammo belt and shoulder straps because five CAR-15 magazines fit snugly into each individual pouch. One puch would be used for M-79 rounds.

A plastic water canteen in a cloth canteen holder would be fit onto the belt, as well as one white phosphorous grenade and my survival axe.

The amount of water available in the AO would determine how many plastic canteens of water I’d carry to the field. One canteen would have a small bottle of water purification pills taped to it. I used those pills for all water outside of camp. The water in our AO’s was often tainted with the defoliant Agent Orange —  we hoped the purification tablets would counteract it.

On the right side of my harness I always carried the Frank & Warren Survival Ax Type II, MIL-S-8642C. I preferred it to the machete because the backside had a nasty sharp hook that cut through jungle vines on the return swing.

I carried my folding compass around my neck, held by green parachute cord.

I used a cravat as a belt, because it was silent.

In my right pocket was the Swiss Army knife, secured by a green parachute cord to a belt loop on my pants.

Because I always wore the bulky gas mask bag on my left side, which held the black M-17 gas mask, I rarely put anything in my upper left pocket.

[...]

In my lower left pant pocket I carried a small and large colored panels to mark our position for Covey and tactical air strikes.

In my lower right pocket were extra pen flares, a dehydrated Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol ration (LRRP, pronounced LURP), bug repellant to squirt on leeches and an extra cravat and sterile bandage.

I always carried the Swiss rope. The 12-foot section of green-colored rope was used for a Swiss seat for extractions by helicopter. We would hook a D-ring through the seat’s rope and onto 150-foot-long pieces of rope that hung from the chopper.

On all missions, I carried the PRC-25, our primary radio contact with the outside world. It took up the most space in my indig rucksack. Most times I had the short, flexible antenna screwed into it, which was folded under my right arm and tucked into my jungle fatigue jacket because the NVA always searched for the radio operator, knowing he was the primary link to U.S. air power. I carried the long antenna, folded in sections, in my rucksack.

Other items included: one can of C-Ration fresh fruit, either peaches or apricots, extra hand grenades, the remainder of my CAR-15 magazines, extra M-79 rounds — including one tear-gas round, an Army long-sleeved sweater, a thin, hooded waist-length plastic rain jacket and toilet paper. Both the sweater and rain jacket would be folded under the PRC-25 to buffer where it hit my back. I also carried an extra PRC-25 battery, an extra URC-10 battery, extra smoke grenades, an extra canteen of water if needed, and extra LRRPs.

On a few occasions, especially when we ran targets in Cambodia, which was flatter and more wide open, I’d carry a claymore mine and a few pre-cut fuses: five-second, 10-second and longer-duration fuses, used to break contact with enemy troops chasing us.

On several occasions I carried .22-caliber High Standard semi-automatic pistol with a silencer for ambushes or to kill enemy tracker dogs.

I also carried cough syrup for Hiep or anyone who coughed at night, cans of black pepper and powdered mace for enemy tracker dogs and a compact toothbrush.

[...]

The emphasis was packing firepower for survival. I preferred to go hungry as to running out of ammo.

[...]

There were at least two missions when ST Idaho was extracted from the target, I was down to my last CAR-15 magazine, M-26 grenade and M-79 round.

Naming things can weaponize them

November 28th, 2019

Scott Adams has some fun introducing his latest book, Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America:

I know from experience that many of you will give this book as a gift to the unproductive thinkers in your lives, and I wanted to create a complete picture for them, if not for you, O wise book-giver.

[...]

We humans give greater weight to things that have names. And giving loserthink its name creates a shorthand way of mocking people who practice unproductive thinking. Mockery gets a bad rap, but I think we can agree it can be useful when intelligently applied. For example, mocking people for lying probably helps to reduce future lies and make the world a better place, whereas mocking people for things they can’t change is just being a jerk.

[...]

Naming things can weaponize them.

[...]

The risk of mockery changes behavior. I would go so far as to say it is one of history’s most powerful forces.

[...]

Before I introduced the term loserthink, what word would you have used to describe a smart person who has a mental blind spot caused by a lack of exposure across different fields?

[...]

You would probably default to the closest word in your vocabulary, which might be stupid, dumb, idiot, and the like. I don’t have to tell you it’s hard to change someone’s mind after you call him an idiot. And if you take the high road and the intellectual path, describing a person’s mental blind spots with terms such as confirmation bias or cognitive dissonance, your target will claim you are actually the one suffering from those cognitive errors, and the discussion goes nowhere.

(The audiobook seems to be on sale right now.)

Happy Turkey Day!

November 28th, 2019

I don’t discuss Thanksgiving nearly as much as Halloween:

It was so much darker than we imagine

November 27th, 2019

Ric Burns’ The Pilgrims might surprise audiences used to pleasant Thanksgiving myths:

It was so much darker than we imagine. The suffering and the violence were so much greater. The likelihood that they succeeded was so small. Death played a huge role in almost every aspect of the story: they came to a place of mass death, where Native Americans had been decimated by one of the worst plagues in history, and where the Pilgrims themselves would lose half of their number in the first three months. The Pilgrims’ relationship with Native Americans was at times more violent than we like to remember. We dwell on Thanksgiving, which didn’t really happen the way we think it did, but fail to register the decapitated head of the Massachusetts leader, Wituwamut, that was placed over the meeting house at Plymouth Plantation in 1623, to be a “Terror unto the countryside,” as William Bradford reported.

I think people will be surprised by almost everything: by the radical nature of the Pilgrims’ beliefs; by their almost complete lack of preparation for what lay ahead of them; by the fact that they were the least likely of task forces to attempt to found a permanent English presence in the New World; by the fact that, though we think of them as the “first comers” — a phrase they used for themselves — they weren’t even the first permanent English settlers in America, having been beaten to the punch in 1607 — 13 years before the Mayflower sailed — by the colonists at Jamestown.

They weren’t meant to have ended up on the site of present day New York, but decided to land off the shores of Massachusetts when they were caught in dangerous shoal water, well north of the legal patent they carried from the Virginia Company, thus making the Pilgrims, in that respect at least, the first illegal aliens. The place they settled on to build their plantation — what the Wampanoags called Patuxet and what the explorer John Smith called New Plymouth — was actually ground zero for the worst virgin soil epidemic in recorded history, a horrific plague, brought over in 1616 by European fishermen, that swept a twenty mile swath down the New England seaboard, killing anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the native populations in its path and totally annihilating the approximately 2,000 Wamanoag residents of Patuxet.

The Pilgrims’ first winter wasn’t just hard: it was nearly annihilating, and devastating and traumatic in ways we can hardly imagine. More than half of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower died in the first three months, wiping out five whole families, and leaving no family intact and not grieving. With the exception of their alliance with the Wampanoags, the Pilgrims’ relation with other Native American groups was marked by conflict, suspicion, competition and violence, culminating in a horrific spasm of bloodshed in March 1623 in the killing by Miles Standish and seven other colonists of seven Massachusetts Sachems and the decapitation of the leader, Wittawamut.

For nearly a decade, the colonists couldn’t find a way to make ends meet — they went bankrupt in 1626, only to find an eleventh hour economic salvation in 1628 in the form of beaver fur harvested from the Kennebeck River valley in Maine. Material success, in the end, was the one challenge the Pilgrims could not overcome, as William Bradford’s beloved religious experiment found itself fragmented and abandoned in the aftermath of the founding of Boston.

We would scarcely remember the Pilgrims at all, and certainly not as we do without William Bradford, an orphan boy from Yorkshire who became the most famous Pilgrim of them all, governor for more than thirty years and the chief guardian and caretaker of their memory, and without the extraordinary text he left behind: “Of Plymouth Plantation,” the first great work of American literature and history. There is literally no other account of early American settlement like it, and none that shows us what the inside of a radical Protestant conventicle was like, from the earliest days in the North Parts of England, through their escape to Holland in 1608, and then across the Atlantic in 1620 and on. The story of the book itself — why and how William Bradford wrote it, and how the text itself was almost lost forever to posterity — is a gripping, riveting tale, that sheds enormous light on how history and memory are shaped by a heart-stopping blend of accident, circumstance and the powerfully transforming lens of posterity.

The fact that we have the book at all is a more than minor miracle. It was looted from Boston in 1777 by the retreating British army, given up for lost for eighty years, and almost accidentally rediscovered just before the American Civil War, when a scholar in Boston was flabbergasted to read unmistakable quotations from the missing Bradford text in a new English history of the Anglican church in America, published in London in 1855. It took more than forty years to finally repatriate the manuscript itself, which is lovingly housed in the State House of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Boston. There is no more important text in American history. Seeing it, and turning its pages, and filming the actual manuscript Bradford wrote in his own hand was one of the most thrilling moments of my filmmaking career.

The paths that lead to new ideas tend to look unpromising

November 26th, 2019

Everyone knows that to do great work you need both natural ability and determination, Paul Graham notes, but there’s a third ingredient that’s not as well understood — an obsessive interest in a particular topic:

When you look at the lives of people who’ve done great work, you see a consistent pattern. They often begin with a bus ticket collector’s obsessive interest in something that would have seemed pointless to most of their contemporaries. One of the most striking features of Darwin’s book about his voyage on the Beagle is the sheer depth of his interest in natural history. His curiosity seems infinite. Ditto for Ramanujan, sitting by the hour working out on his slate what happens to series.

It’s a mistake to think they were “laying the groundwork” for the discoveries they made later. There’s too much intention in that metaphor. Like bus ticket collectors, they were doing it because they liked it.

But there is a difference between Ramanujan and a bus ticket collector. Series matter, and bus tickets don’t.

If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters.

[...]

The paths that lead to new ideas tend to look unpromising. If they looked promising, other people would already have explored them. How do the people who do great work discover these paths that others overlook? The popular story is that they simply have better vision: because they’re so talented, they see paths that others miss. But if you look at the way great discoveries are made, that’s not what happens. Darwin didn’t pay closer attention to individual species than other people because he saw that this would lead to great discoveries, and they didn’t. He was just really, really interested in such things.

[...]

But there are some heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters. For example, it’s more promising if you’re creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates. It’s more promising if something you’re interested in is difficult, especially if it’s more difficult for other people than it is for you. And the obsessions of talented people are more likely to be promising. When talented people become interested in random things, they’re not truly random.

I enjoyed this footnote:

[2] I worried a little about using the word “disinterested,” since some people mistakenly believe it means not interested. But anyone who expects to be a genius will have to know the meaning of such a basic word, so I figure they may as well start now.

What were these watermelons good for?

November 25th, 2019

Native to Africa, watermelons have been grown throughout the continent since ancient times — despite the fact that watermelons were not sweet until much, much later:

In southwest Libya, 5,000-year-old seeds were excavated, and watermelon remnants from 1500 B.C. have been discovered in the foundational deposits beneath walls of a Sudanese temple. Archeologists have also found seeds and paintings of various species of watermelon in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back from as long as 4,000 years ago. These species include wild watermelons, as well as the oblong predecessors of the “dessert” watermelon.

But if not a flavorful fruit, what were these watermelons good for? According to the work of Harry S. Paris, a horticulturalist at the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, ancient Egyptians likely harvested the round fruit for its water. Wild, or “spontaneous” plants, Paris writes, can be sources of clean water during the long, dry season, and can provide food for livestock and animals.

[...]

Living travelers, too, needed reliable water sources to sustain them. According to Paris, it’s likely that travelers took watermelons with them as a kind of nature-made canteen. Along with trade, he writes, the watermelon’s role as a portable fresh water supply helped the fruit find its way into new regions.

Once the Greeks got a hold of the pepo (as they called it) around 400 B.C., they, too, put it to use. While some varieties were eaten (and others had to be boiled, fried, or simply avoided), the watermelon made a splash in the medical world. Pliny the Elder found pepones to be incredibly refreshing, and, according to one translation, “also laxative.” The first-century physician Dioscorides also noted that the pepon was cooling, wet, and diuretic.

[...]

But by the first few centuries A.D., posits Paris, the watermelon had likely sweetened up. Writings in Hebrew from the end of the second century, as well as sixth-century Latin texts, group the watermelon with other sweet fruits, including pomegranates, figs, and grapes.

Marvin was never named in the original shorts

November 23rd, 2019

I didn’t realize that Marvin the Martian was never named in the original shorts:

He was referred to as the Commander of Flying Saucer X-2 in The Hasty Hare in 1952. However, in 1979, once the character attracted merchandising interest, the name “Marvin” was selected for The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Movie.

Isn’t that lovely?

I also failed to realize that his Roman armor was meant to evoke Mars, the god.

This makes me very angry, very angry indeed.

It didn’t go through

November 22nd, 2019

I was not expecting Tesla’s new “cybertruck” to look like this:

“As processing power grows,” Paul Graham quipped, “future versions of the cybertruck will have more curved lines.”

Crowther wanted to connect better with his daughters

November 21st, 2019

Fenton Wood recently mentioned that his latest novel includes a labyrinth chapter “incorporating classical myths, video game lore,” etc. I asked if it featured “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike” — one of the memorable bits from Colossal Cave Adventure:

Will Crowther was a programmer at Bolt, Beranek & Newman (BBN), and helped to develop the ARPANET (a forerunner of the Internet). Crowther and his wife Pat were experienced cavers, having previously helped to create vector map surveys of the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in the early 1970s for the Cave Research Foundation. In addition, Crowther enjoyed playing the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons with a regular group which included Eric S. Roberts and Dave Lebling, one of the future founders of Infocom.

Following his divorce from Pat in 1975, Crowther wanted to connect better with his daughters and decided a computerized simulation of his cave explorations with elements of his role-playing games would help. He created a means by which the game could be controlled through natural language input so that it would be “a thing that gave you the illusion anyway that you’d typed in English commands and it did what you said”. Crowther later commented that this approach allowed the game to appeal to both non-programmers and programmers alike, as in the latter case, it gave programmers a challenge of how to make “an obstinate system” perform in a manner they wanted it to.

Developed over 1975 and 1976, Crowther’s original game consisted of about 700 lines of FORTRAN code, with about another 700 lines of data, written for BBN’s PDP-10 timesharing computer. The data included text for 78 map locations (66 actual rooms and 12 navigation messages), 193 vocabulary words, travel tables, and miscellaneous messages.