Secrets of greatness

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

One of the most important secrets of greatness isn’t particularly secret — practice makes perfect:

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.

Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, “Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.”

Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It’s the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

Private Schools Now 33% Off!

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

In Private Schools Now 33% Off!, Andrew Coulson notes the surprising difference in funding between private and public schools:

There’s a common perception in this country that public schools are underfunded, and that if they could only spend as much as private schools do, they’d be in clover. When it is pointed out that the average private school tuition is around half of total public school spending per pupil, defenders of the status quo counter that tuition only covers a fraction of total costs.
Among the other fascinating findings is that public schools spend one-and-a-half times as much per pupil as do private schools. Or, looked at the other way, private schools spend a third less than public schools.

Here’s how:

Teachers make up 72 percent of on-site staff in Arizona’s independent education sector, but less than half of on-site staff in the public sector. In order to match the independent sector’s emphasis on teachers over non-teaching staff, Arizona public schools would have to hire roughly 25,000 more teachers and dismiss 21,210 non-teaching employees.

Arnold Kling adds his thoughts:

As I pointed out long ago, one of the miracles of public education is that the school system charges more than $10,000 per student, puts 25 students in the classroom, and still pays teachers (far) less than $100,000 per year. The secret for doing this is to pad the school system (and the teacher’s union) with non-teaching staff.

Fighting spirit saves retiree from attack

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

I always enjoy stories like this. Fighting spirit saves retiree from attack:

A 70-year-old British pensioner, trained in martial arts during his military service, dispatched a gang of four would-be muggers in a late-night attack in Germany.

“Looks like he had everything under control,” a police spokesman from the German town of Bielefeld said of the incident last Friday.

The man, a native of Birmingham who now lives in Germany, was challenged by three men, demanding money, while a fourth crept up behind him. Recalling his training, the Briton grabbed the first assailant and threw him over his shoulder.

When a second man tried to kick him, the pensioner grabbed his foot and tipped him to the ground. At this point, the three men, thought to be aged between 18 and 25, fled, carrying their injured accomplice with them.

The pensioner, whose name was not immediately available, suffered light abrasions.

Seriously, a 70-year-old man hip-tossed his attacker. How cool is that?

Robert Greene Interview

Monday, October 23rd, 2006, which describes itself as “the largest Sun Tzu website,” interviews Robert Greene (The 48 Laws of Power, The 33 Strategies of War): Flavius Vegetius Renatus said, “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” Do you think most people are too focused on trying to obtain peace without first learning to how deal with war?

Greene: Yes. That is a major concept in The 33 Strategies. There is too much conflict avoidance in our culture. Some of this comes from a lot of political correctness that has filtered its way through society. Some of it comes from the importance of always appearing to be on the side of peace, cooperation, fairness to one and all. But life involves constant competition and conflict and how you deal with this will determine your fate in life. Being steeped in the art of war does not make you aggressive, at least not under the banner of Sun–tzu. Rather it makes you smarter, more prudent, better able to handle life’s inevitable struggles with intelligence. I want my book to ground the reader in certain basic principles, so when conflict comes, he or she can take the proper stance, like a swordsman.

Besides, I hate the way war is seen as something inherently brutal and ugly. Yes, much of war nowadays brings out the worst part of our nature. But in war, all kinds of noble human traits have been developed, such as discipline, cohesion, pride. All of life involves a kind of warfare, and a lot of Hindu texts spiritualize warfare into a struggle from within, to gain control over your own beastly nature. People with bumperstickers that say “War is not the answer” are such idiots. Tell that to those countries that found themselves invaded by the Nazis. As Heraclitus wrote, “War is the father of everything. Some it makes slaves, others masters.”

James Meek joins British troops in Afghanistan

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

James Meek joins British troops in Afghanistan and shares a few stories:

In the same firefight, another private, 20-year-old Phil Briggs, was saved by his chest plate, a piece of armour slightly larger than a slice of bread. He fell over backwards into another para, shouting out, “I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot!” Later, when he opened up his flak jacket, he found the squashed bullet inside. I mentioned this to another group of paras who’d been at Sangin, and they told me about a soldier to whom the opposite had happened. “He was sure the bullet had hit his armour and he was all right. But it had hit him. It was just the adrenaline.”

Who Would Fall for the Old Trojan Horse Trick Today?

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

I’m not familiar with the Australian TV show Chasers, but they did an amusing bit on Who Would Fall for the Old Trojan Horse Trick Today? Watch the video.

Clever Crows

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

These Clever Crows are apparently very, very clever — but I suspect their cleverness is a product of lots and lots of trial and error. Watch the video.

Aliens Teach University Economics Class

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

Aliens Teach University Economics Class, or rather, a video game featuring aliens who crash-land on a post-apocalyptic earth is being used to teach ECON 201 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro:

The Sarbonian aliens are named after economics professor Jeff Sarbaum.

“This is a game in which the students are literally immersed in a story. And they take on the role of a character,” he explains. “So all of the reading material, all of the content, all of the examinations and homework, if you will, are built inside the engine of the game.”

The Sarbonians come from an alien world that knows no scarcity. After they crash-land on Earth, the students have to grapple with economic challenges like how to make and distribute goods, and how to trade with another group of aliens.

Sarbaum says that professors often use simple classroom games to teach economic concepts. But the Sarbonians take that to a new level.

“I believe we are the first ones to fully emerge students in a narrative story and treat the whole course as a game,” Sarbaum says.

Creating the course was a two-year effort that involved dozens of people, from drama students to computer programmers.

Many popular computer games like Civilization and SimCity contain challenges that are economic in nature. But Sarbaum says it’s hard to use these games to teach economics, because they don’t explicitly explain economic theories to the players.

“What we need to do is explain to them exactly what it is they are experiencing,” Sarbaum says. “You know, ‘This is what you are experiencing, and this is how an economist would describe the situation.’”

The Anglosphere Constitutional Tradition and War

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

I just finished reading James C. Bennett’s The Anglosphere Challenge, and I particularly enjoyed this passage on The Anglosphere Constitutional Tradition and War:

Anglo-American tradition had always held that the executive, whether Crown or White House, could not engage the country in war without presenting to the populace, as represented by the legislature, the reasons for the war and obtaining approval. These checks and balances came in several forms. One was the raising of funds earmarked for the conflict, in the form of appropriations and special levies approved by the legislature, and subscriptions and loans volunteered by the financial community and general public. A second was the response of the people to a call for military volunteers, in the form of voluntary enlistment and a willingness of the militias to respond to a call for mobilization. The third was the traditional sentiment in both England and America against maintaining a large standing army, or even a military establishment, in time of peace.

That last point is more interesting than I first realized.

Historically, there was no national army, and the Crown had to call on nobles and burghers to provide men and equipment to wage war — that’s what Parliament was in large part for — but Cromwell’s professional New Model Army changed all that. It also validated fears of a standing army by intervening in politics:

Much of the political effort of the Restoration was devoted to preventing the concentration of power that the New Model Army represented. Britain, the United States, and the British colonies followed the subsequent military model through 1914.

This model was based, fundamentally, on the militia system. The “general militia” was defined as the armed populace of the country, organized on a county-by-county basis. Those who trained regularly and were preorganized into units having a dedicated function in wartime were known as “select militia.” In time of war, this militia was to form the core of the army, along with the royal bodyguard regiments and any additional new regiments raised specifically for that war. Permanent peacetime military forces were viewed with such suspicion, constitutionally, that even select militia training was opposed by most Whigs throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

There were several important exceptions. It was recognized that specialized bodies of military experts could not be trained up quickly in emergencies, but would have to be maintained in time of peace. Artillerymen were the most obvious example; fortification engineers were another. To maintain this expertise, specialized bodies such as the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers were established and maintained.

Note the terminology. Contemporaries, ignorant of the constitutional purpose behind the Anglo-American military structure, idly wonder why the British Air Force and Navy are termed “Royal” while the Army is merely the “British Army.”

This terminology is not a piece of historical trivia: it reflects and illustrates a specific constitutional point. “Royal” forces are permanent forces of the state, maintained even in peacetime.
Therefore, while the British Army is not a “Royal” force, those parts of it that historically had to be maintained in peacetime are. Examples include the artillery or engineers: Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, and so on. The Royal patronage of various individual regiments comes originally from their origin as the personal bodyguard of the king — the Coldstream Guards, Horse Guards, and the like. Another force of troops maintained in peacetime was the category of “guards and garrisons” — troops manning forts at home and overseas. This category constituted most of the nonspecialist peacetime standing forces maintained by the British military from the Restoration until the post-1918 era.

Since it was recognized that maintenance of the freedom of international commerce and other necessary functions of government might require small-scale exercise of military force, one standing land force was earmarked for that purpose — the Royal Marines, maintained as an adjunct of the Royal Navy. The navy was ever landing small parties of marines to deal with pirates or piratical small tyrants, especially in areas such as North Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia (all of which, for that matter, remain troublesome nests of piracy to this day). An examination of the use of the Royal Marines, and subsequently the U.S. Marines, demonstrates how the structure of the armed forces under the Anglo-American civil constitution historically served to create an effective barrier to the abuse of the war-making power. Small-scale interventions have been, and will probably continue to be, an inevitable adjunct of the functions of a large country with worldwide trade and maritime activities. The need to deal with organized ideological-religious terrorist groups, larger than gangs but smaller than states, makes it all the more likely that small-scale armed expeditions will be an ongoing feature of contemporary affairs.

Traditionally, intervention using the navy and marines could be done on the initiative of the executive without the explicit sanction of Parliament. When the problem became too large and army troops had to be raised (since there were so few permanent troops, to send any overseas almost always implied raising them), the Crown was required to go to Parliament for an authorization for troops and funds. In the course of this process, the goals and objectives of the conflict could be thoroughly debated, and the costs and benefits to the country weighed. The subsequent call for volunteers and appeal for subscriptions and loans gave the country an additional opportunity to demonstrate its enthusiasm or lack thereof for the conflict in question. The bias against standing armies was so great that the term “British Army” was not used in official language, like acts of Parliament during peacetime, until 1745. (Appropriations for existing forces were earmarked for “guards and garrisons.”)

America followed this tradition, and for many years the US had a Department of the Navy and a Department of War:

Why was the army’s department the department of “War” while the navy’s was titled the “Navy”? Was not the navy also involved in war? The point, now lost, was that the navy was intended to function in peace as well as war, while the army was expected to exist (except for its few necessarily permanent functions) only in time of war.

The very small standing army compromised a few specialists who needed specialized training:

The old fort of West Point was turned into an engineering school (the first and, for decades, the only such in the country) to provide the specialists needed to maintain these functions. Unlike European military academies, which concentrate on teaching the methods and history of war, West Point was created as, and until recently remained, an engineering school. In fact, for much of its first century, West Point functioned more as a polytechnic school on the model of the French Grandes Écoles — a Republic-wide resource for technical talent. West Point graduates often found themselves loaned out to private railroad or other civil engineering projects, and in fact, many did not pursue a military career at all after graduation.

How to succeed or fail on a frontier

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Nick Szabo explains how to succeed or fail on a frontier:

In the early 15th century, two nations at opposite ends of the world — one vast and the other tiny, one an ancient and advanced civilization and the other recently emerged from a barbaric Dark Ages, one fielding large fleets with large ships, the other fielding small fleets with small ships — both set out on the sea. Told that one of these nations was destined to travel around Africa and conquer the main sea trade routes of the world by the early part of the 16th century, any rational observer would conclude that this prophecy must refer to the vast and ancient civilization with its giant fleets. That observer would have been wrong. But why?

The vast nation, the Chinese Empire, sent abroad vast naval flotillas — the Zheng He fleets. The main purpose of these fleets was not to develop trade, nor to protect trade, nor even to conquer. Instead, the main purpose was simply to display the glory of the Chinese Empire, which as everyone already knew was indeed the most glorious and powerful empire on the planet. A quite secondary purpose was to collect tribute, which came nowhere near the levels needed to fund the fleets.

These state fleets operated completely independently of the vibrant private Chinese merchant fleets that traded not only off China with Japan and Korea and the Philippines, but in Indonesia, Indochina, India, and as far as the east coast of Africa. Zheng He did not help to either protect, expand, or otherwise enable this trade. Instead Zheng He, a eunuch and master bureaucrat of the Emperor, sailed his vast fleet as far as Africa accomplishing little more than showing off the glory of the Emperor and collecting exotic animals for his amusement.

All it took was a political change for the bureaucracy to realize that these expeditions were far too expensive and ultimately pointless. But, as often occurs with politics, the Emperor overreacted and banned not only Zheng He’s “treasure fleets,” but also the productive trade of the Chinese merchants. The last “treasure fleet” returned in 1433 and China soon withdrew on itself.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, a tiny nation of fishing villages and small-time crusaders set out on a different path. Assisted by navigators and investors from other parts of Europe, the Portuguese embarked on a pay-as-you go path of conquest and trade. They focused on conquering strategic points that allowed them to control, tax, protect, and enable trade. They enforced the property rights of their allied merchants and otherwise enabled the commercial institutions by which that trade could flourish.

What does this have to do with us?

When it comes to the “final frontier” of space, it seems to be so far the West that has stepped into China’s old shoes. What did Apollo return but glory and a handful of rocks? We proved that our socialists, if funded by taxing capitalists, could beat their socialists funded by socialists. Did such proof of bureaucratic glory really require 1% of our GDP over several years?

Apollo has been followed by several more white elephants that have much more to do with showing off the power and glory of federal bureaucrats than with military advantage or practical business.

Colbert the Paladin

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Fans of Stephen Colbert, the Nerd King, should know that Colbert the Paladin, one of the entries in the green-screen challenge, is on line.

The neglected swing voters

Friday, October 20th, 2006

The Economist calls libertarians the neglected swing voters:

America may be the land of the free, but Americans who favour both economic and social freedom have no political home. The Republican Party espouses economic freedom — ie, low taxes and minimal regulation — but is less keen on sexual liberation. The Democratic Party champions the right of homosexuals to do their thing without government interference, but not businesspeople. Libertarian voters have an unhappy choice. Assuming they opt for one of the two main parties, they can vote to kick the state out of the bedroom, or the boardroom, but not both.

In a new study from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, David Boaz and David Kirby argue that libertarians form perhaps the largest block of swing voters. Counting them is hard, since few Americans are familiar with the term “libertarian”. Mr Boaz and Mr Kirby count those who agree that “government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses”, that government, rather than promoting traditional values, “should not favour any particular set of values”, and that “the federal government has too much power”. Using data from Gallup polls, they found that, in 2005, 13% of the voting-age population shared all three views, up from 9% in 2002.

That is easily enough libertarians to tip an election. And their votes are up for grabs. In 2000 George Bush won 72% of the libertarian vote, to Al Gore’s 20%, by repeating the mantra “My opponent trusts government. I trust you.” But in 2004, after Mr Bush increased the size of government and curtailed some civil liberties as part of the war on terror, his margin dropped to 59%-38%.

Why aren’t politicians courting libertarians?

Libertarians are ignored partly because they are hard to find, not least because they just want to be left alone. (There is a Libertarian Party, but it gets hardly any votes.) Politicians can reach social conservatives through churches or union members through their unions, but where do libertarians gather? Parties will always court the votes that are cheapest to court because, for once, they are spending their own money.

Gold mine holds life untouched by the Sun

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Gold mine holds life untouched by the Sun:

The first known organisms that live totally independently of the sun have been discovered deep in a South African gold mine.

The bacteria exist without the benefit of photosynthesis by harvesting the energy of natural radioactivity to create food for themselves. Similar life forms may exist on other planets, experts speculate.

The bacteria live in ancient water trapped in a crack in basalt rock, 3 to 4 kilometres down. Scientists from Princeton University in New Jersey, US, and colleagues analysed water from the fissure after it was penetrated by a narrow exploratory shaft in the Mponeng gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa. The shaft was then closed.

There were many species of bacteria present, but RNA sequencing showed most were a previously-unknown type of bacteria dubbed Desulfotomaculum.

How do the live without photosynthesis?

Uranium and other radioactive elements in the rock emit radiation that shatters water molecules, producing high-energy hydrogen gas that is able to cleave chemical bonds.

The bacteria exploit this hydrogen gas to turn sulphate (SO4) molecules from the rock into hydrogen sulphide (H2S). It is the energy-trapping equivalent of photosynthesis. The energy of radiation, which makes hydrogen gas energetic enough to form these bonds, replaces the energy of the Sun.

Which country is the best colonizer?

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Joel Waldfogel asks, Which country is the best colonizer?:

Feyrer and Sacedote’s key findings are that the longer one of the islands spent as a colony, the higher its present-day living standards and the lower its infant mortality rate. Each additional century of European colonization is associated with a 40 percent boost in income today and a reduction in infant mortality of 2.6 deaths per 1,000 births.
To be sure, Europeans have not always been benevolent masters. Before the Enlightenment, they tended to view natives as savages who were better off dead than not baptized. After about 1700, however, attitudes began to change. While 16th-century explorers like Magellan set out to spread Christianity as well as make money, later voyages, like those of English Capt. James Cook between 1768 and 1779, had more explicitly scientific aims. The experience of island colonies reflects the difference. When the authors divide the islands into those that were colonized in the centuries before 1700 and those that were colonized after, current island income is 64 percent higher per century for the post-Enlightenment group but only 11 percent higher per century for the pre-Enlightenment one. And, no, the effects don’t appear to stem from the replacement of decimated low-income native populations with higher-income Europeans.

The authors also compare the experiences of separate Pacific islands with eight different colonizers: the United States, Britain, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, Japan, Germany, and France. Their verdict is that the islands that are best off, in terms of income growth, are the ones that were colonized by the United States—as in Guam and Puerto Rico. Next best is time spent as a Dutch, British, or French colony. At the bottom are the countries colonized by the Spanish and especially the Portuguese.

There is no disputing that thousands died in the wake of European explorers’ discovery of the New World. That’s bad. But we can still give a small cheer for Columbus, because European colonization brought riches in its wake.

Colbert the Paladin

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Fans of Stephen Colbert, the Nerd King, should know that Colbert the Paladin, one of the entries in the green-screen challenge, is on line.