Bravery (and How to Master It)

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

On his way to learn what the Navy SEALs know about Bravery (and How to Master It), reporter Bob Drury finds himself in a concrete bunker with a bunch of Marines:

“Grab that light, will ya?” I say to the marine next to me.

He is a broad, blond sergeant named Bill Cullen from the First Battalion of the Fourth Marines. He is 26, from Walton, Kentucky, and wears a tan, fire-resistant, U.S. Marine-issue flight suit. He grabs the flashlight.

“Shine it in my face,” I say. He hesitates. I take off my wire frames. “It’s an experiment. Just do it, please.”

In the dark of the shelter my face illuminates; a score of eyes turn toward me.

“What do you see?” I ask. “What’s it look like? The color.”

“Pale,” someone says.

There’s a snicker. “Yeah, real white.” More laughter.

Sergeant Cullen agrees. “Pretty ashen, I would say.”

I take the flashlight and shine it in Cullen’s face. It’s nearly crimson, a much darker shade than the desert tan he’s acquired during his unit’s nearly completed 6-month tour. “What’s this supposed to mean?” he asks.

Over the sound of the air-raid siren, I explain: I’m a reporter for Men’s Health, traveling from Baghdad to Fallujah to embed with the Navy SEALs camped outside that central Iraqi city. One of the purposes of my assignment, I say, is to acquire some knowledge of the physiology of fear and stress — in this extreme case, the behavior of men struggling to overcome their innate instinct for self-preservation when other men are trying to kill them. Science stuff in a war zone.

Blank stares.

“Fight over flight. Running toward the sound of gunfire.”


I point to my face and explain: This is an example of what’s called vasoconstriction, and I have no control over it. The blood pumps from my heart through my arteries, but as my fear-induced heart rate rises, nonessential blood vessels automatically constrict. The capillaries drain. My brain is signaling my body, “Alert!” and stopping the superfluous blood vessels in my face from dilating. My brain needs to ration the oxygen in my blood to send elsewhere — to protect vital organs or into the muscles of my legs so I can run away.

“Then how come I’m not white?” Cullen shines the penlight on the face of a fellow marine.

“Or him?”

Training, I say. Habituation, the military calls it. It’s the difference between my heart rate rising after a workout — something I’m used to, when my vessels dilate and my face reddens — and being terrified during a rocket attack. The more you train, the more tricks you employ, the more you can program your body to adjust.

Essentially, you’re bending the body’s software to control its hardware. It works standing over a putt on the 18th green. It works shooting a final-second free throw. It works banging down a door with a bad guy on the other side.

There are a few seconds of silence. Someone says, “And you’re headed down to embed with the SEALs?”

I nod.

Cullen laughs. “You’re going to have plenty of opportunities to compare your white face with their red ones.”

Here’s the meat of the article:

Recent experiments at Harvard, Columbia, the University of California at Irvine, and other labs around the world have begun to unlock the mystery of both primal fear and remembered fear. Once an animal has “learned” to be afraid of something, that memory never vanishes from the animal’s amygdala. But Gregory Quirk, Ph.D., and researcher Kevin Corcoran, experimenting on lab rats at the University of Puerto Rico school of medicine, have uncovered a very interesting phenomenon. We can overlay those bad memories — and the emotions they evoke — by forming new memories in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that supersede those stored in the amygdala.

The catch? Humans have to be intelligent enough to repeat an action, any action, over and over, with the knowledge that they are “unlearning” the bad memory. Lieutenant Commander Eric Potterat, Ph.D., a Naval Special Warfare Command psychologist, quotes Hamlet on the subject: “‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ That’s my favorite Shakespeare quote.”

I visited the slim, bespectacled, and well-pressed Potterat at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, before leaving for Iraq. A 12-year Navy man, the 39-year-old operation-psychology expert and former SERE (survival/evasion/resistance/escape) trainer was selected by the SEAL command 2 years ago to work with incoming candidates. “Intelligence-wise, we’re getting some absolutely amazing people at the door,” he says. “And those who complete the training go from amazing to elite from the neck up.”

To hone this SEAL initiation, Potterat reached out to the sports psychologists at a nearby U.S. Olympic training center to glean insights on the making of a world-class athlete. “It really opened my eyes,” he says. “Physically, there’s very little difference between athletes who win Olympic gold and the rest of the field. It’s like the SEAL candidates we see here. Terrific hardware. Situps, pushups, running, swimming — off the charts, superhuman. But over at the Olympic center, the sports psychologists found that the difference between a medal and no medal is determined by an athlete’s mental ability. The elite athletes, the Tiger Woodses, the Kobe Bryants, the Michael Jordans — this is what separates them from the competition. Knowing how to use information.”

Thinking makes it so.

During my research, many SEALs shared the mental tricks they use to instill what we might call bravery. A SEAL in Fallujah told me that a single 16-man platoon of SEAL candidates fires as many small-arms rounds in 2 weeks of training as an entire marine regiment fires in a year. “We push ourselves so far that we reach that level of fear where we think we’re going to die,” he said. “You’ve done it a thousand times, so when you do it for real, there’s less fear. You go and do it just like you trained for it.”

Another SEAL in Fallujah, a weapons instructor, pointed out that the same “adrenaline bombs” that involuntarily whiten your face and loosen your bowels (the brain deems the sphincter and bladder nonessential muscles, so SEALs always hit the john before a mission for what’s called a combat dump) also shut down the capillaries in your fingertips, causing a loss of fine motor control. (Try signing your name right after a rigorous workout.) To counteract these involuntary reactions, he teaches his charges to never pull back the slides of their automatic weapons with their fingers, but rather to use the edges of their hands, as if karate chopping.

This is, he added, the same muscle memory he teaches his family to utilize when dialing 911. “Unplug the phone and have everyone in the house, yourself included, do it a couple of hundred times,” he told me. “This may come in handy. You won’t be fumbling with the phone during a real emergency.”

A SEAL “breacher” named Brian A. emphasized that, before he blew open any door in Iraq or Afghanistan, he steadied his hands and the explosives he was handling “with four of the biggest, deepest, gut-filling diaphragmatic breaths a human being can possibly take, to flood my body with as much oxygen as possible.”

Says Potterat, “I don’t for a minute doubt that Tiger Woods does the same thing, over and over, when he’s practicing on the putting green.” Woods’s father, you might recall, was a Green Beret — the U.S. Army equivalent of a Navy SEAL.

Pros vs. Joes Finale

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

One of my guilty pleasures is Pros vs. Joes, in which “ordinary Joes” compete against retired professional athletes. Actually, I often fast-forward through whole chunks of it — the basketball portions, in particular — but I enjoy the football portions, and I love the combat-sport portions.

And I’ve been waiting all season for the episode with Bob Sapp. In case you’re not familiar, Bob Sapp is a ludicrously huge man — 6’5″ and 375 lbs., lean — who used to play in the NFL before fighting in Japan.

The Joes were terrified. Imagine their surprise when they found out that he was blocking for Jamal Anderson too, before it even came to the kickboxing portion of the show.

One odd element of the show is that the Proes clearly are not giving it 100 percent; they’re toying with the Joes. On some plays, Jamal Anderson slips a tackle, turns around, stops, waits for the Joe to chase after him, run backwards toward the end zone, then stops, drops his head, and knocks down his tackler, before stepping back into the end zone for a touchdown.

Other times, he gets caught.

Anyway, watching ordinary Joes, even really athletic Joes, try to stay in the ring with Bob Sapp is just plain scary.

Baby Got Stats

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

I guess it’s nerdcoreBaby Got Stats.

If you’re not familiar with nerdcore — and the geeks who take it far, far too seriously — watch the Nerdcore For Life trailer:

Amish Paradise

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Robert X. Cringely grew up in Wayne County, Ohio, in the 1950s, which was an Amish Paradise of sorts:

Back then at least the majority of the population of Wayne County was Amish, which is to say they didn’t go to public school (or school at all after age 14), didn’t drive cars or use electricity except to keep the dairy milk cool, didn’t vote, bought as little as possible, sold as much as possible, and barely paid taxes. Wayne County was NOT the middle of nowhere, however, since Rubbermaid was headquartered there as was the Wooster Brush Company (world’s largest maker of paint brushes), and Smucker’s jams and jellies were just across the Holmes County line where there, too, the Amish were the silent majority.

Very little has changed since I was a kid. As my friend Henry from down the road in Mansfield, Ohio, points out, the Amish have been on this same “new” educational path forever. Their ability to produce nearly 100 percent productive citizens (and very nice furniture) for about fifty bucks per student per year is especially galling to those government schools that spend $16K and turn out a lot of slackers.

Most people would see the Amish as an anomaly, but I don’t. I see the Amish as a particularly successful minority that picks and chooses how it will participate in modern life. We see a lot of this, especially internationally. Yes, the Amish have no army, but then neither do, in practical terms, many countries including some of our old enemies. The Amish do not suffer from avoiding public schools OR McDonalds. They live the life they have chosen to create.

Here’s the amusing anecdote:

A doctor in my town back in Ohio had built for himself a grand house, a real mansion, with a huge entrance hall and a sweeping staircase that floated down from the second floor to the first like some set from Gone With the Wind. The house was all built to the highest level of quality by the best craftsmen, only nobody in town (or even out of town) could build the sweeping banister for that grand staircase. It had to be laminated in a single piece of mahogany that somehow matched the curve of the staircase, a curve that had been drawn more by art than science. Nobody could build it.

So they called in the local Amish furniture maker. He came with his son and they spent a couple hours measuring with a ruler and a yardstick then went away and two weeks later returned with the completed banister on the back of their horse-drawn wagon. It slipped into place as if built on some CAD/CAM system, perfect in every way. How did they do it?

They took their measurements back to the farm and spent two days building in the barn a rough-hewn replica of the entire staircase, then laminated the rail in place. Of course it fit and without an algorithm in sight.

Countdown to iPhone 2.0

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

We’ve begun the Countdown to iPhone 2.0, according to Fortune:

Apple is gearing up for a big bump in sales of the next generation iPhone, if new production plans are any guide.

The plans show the faster iPhone will be rolling off the assembly line this summer. The initial order calls for 11 million iPhones to be built this year, with that total split between the existing 2.5G phone and the upgraded 3G phone, according to people familiar with the plan.

Apple appears to be targetting a June introduction of the 3G version of the phone, roughly a year after the original iPhone’s debut. And similar to last year, Apple seems to be scheduling a limited initial supply to be followed by more phones in the fall quarter.

Dancing a Song With the Full-Body Wiimote Music Controller Suit

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Tom Tlalim is now Dancing a Song With the Full-Body Wiimote Music Controller Suit:

Soon after the Nintendo Wii’s release, hackers immediately began uncovering ways to use its unique motion-sensing controller to interface with other things — PCs, musical instruments, you name it. But Tom Tlalim, an Israeli-born composer who now lives in the Netherlands, may have outdone them all: His full-body, eight-piece “suit” of Wiimotes interfaces fully with custom software to turn his entire body into an electronic instrument that responds to his every motion. In his suit, Tlalim doesn’t play songs. He dances them.

“W_space,” as his suit has been christened, uses up to eight Wiimotes attached to the wearer’s arms and legs to form what is effectively a DIY motion-capture suit. The accelerometers on the Wii send tilt and acceleration readings to an open-source music synthesis software package called SuperCollider, for which Tlalim wrote a custom module that translates the data from W_space’s Wiimotes and allows them to manipulate and create sounds of various timbres in real time.

For Tlalim, the Wiimotes mean that he no longer needs to be hunched in front of a computer screen when he plays.

It all started with a single Wiimote, and some code to let it emulate a Theramin. (I’ve discussed the Theremin before.) Here’s where it led:

I can’t say I share his taste in music — or dance — but it’s an interesting use of technology. Of course, I’d be inclined to use a full Wiimote suit for a fighting game…

DNA seen through the eyes of a coder

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Bert Hubert describes DNA seen through the eyes of a coder — and, frankly, I would expect coders to have a better grasp of DNA than most biologists:

DNA is not like C source but more like byte-compiled code for a virtual machine called the nucleus. It is very doubtful that there is a source to this byte compilation — what you see is all you get.

The language of DNA is digital, but not binary. Where binary encoding has 0 and 1 to work with (2 — hence the binary), DNA has 4 positions, T, C, G and A.

Whereas a digital byte is mostly 8 binary digits, a DNA byte (called a codon) has three digits. Because each digit can have 4 values instead of 2, an DNA codon has 64 possible values, compared to a binary byte which has 256.

A typical example of a DNA codon is GCC, which encodes the amino acid Alanine. A larger number of these amino acids combined are called a polypeptide or protein, and these are chemically active in making a living being.

That’s all pretty basic. Let’s move along to position independent code and conditional compilation:

Dynamically linked libraries (.so under Unix, .dll on Microsoft) code cannot use static addresses internally because the code may appear in different places in memory in different situations. DNA has this too, where it is called transposing code:
Nearly half of the human genome is composed of transposable elements or jumping DNA. First recognized in the 1940s by Dr. Barbara McClintock in studies of peculiar inheritance patterns found in the colors of Indian corn, jumping DNA refers to the idea that some stretches of DNA are unstable and “transposable,” ie., they can move around — on and between chromosomes.

Of the 20,000 to 30,000 genes now thought to be in the human genome, most cells express only a very small part — which makes sense; a liver cell has little need for the DNA code that makes neurons.

But as almost all cells carry around a full copy (distribution) of the genome, a system is needed to #ifdef out stuff not needed. And that is just how it works. The genetic code is full of #if/#endif statements.

This is why stem cells are so hot right now — these cells have the ability to differentiate into everything. The code hasn’t been #ifdeffed out yet, so to speak.

Stated more exactly, stem cells do not have everything turned on — they are not at once liver cells and neurons. Cells can be likened to state machines, starting out as a stem cell. Over the lifetime of the cell, during which time it may clone (fork()) many times, it specializes. Each specialization can be regarded as choosing a branch in a tree.

Each cell can make (or be induced to make) decisions about its future, which each make it more specialized. These decisions are persistent over cloning using transcription factors and by modifying the way DNA is stored spatially (steric effects).

A liver cell, although it carries the genes to do so, will generally not be able to function as a skin cell. There are some indications out there that it is possible to breed cells upwards into the hierarchy, making them pluripotent.

From a coder’s perspective, so-called junk DNA is just dead code, bloat, and comments:

The genome is littered with old copies of genes and experiments that went wrong somewhere in the recent past — say, the last half a million years. This code is there but inactive. These are called the pseudo genes.

Furthermore, 97% of your DNA is commented out. DNA is linear and read from start to end. The parts that should not be decoded are marked very clearly, much like C comments. The 3% that is used directly form the so called exons. The comments, that come inbetween are called introns.

These comments are fascinating in their own right. Like C comments they have a start marker, like /*, and a stop marker, like */. But they have some more structure. Remember that DNA is like a tape — the comments need to be snipped out physically! The start of a comment is almost always indicated by the letters GT, which thus corresponds to /*, the end is signalled by AG, which is then like */.

However because of the snipping, some glue is needed to connect the code before the comment to the code after, which makes the comments more like html comments, which are longer: <!– signifies the start, –> the end.

If code and DNA interest you, definitely read the whole thing.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil Pulls Out All the Stops (and Pills) to Live to Witness the Singularity

Friday, March 28th, 2008

Futurist Ray Kurzweil Pulls Out All the Stops (and Pills) to Live to Witness the Singularity:

Kurzweil does not believe in half measures. He takes 180 to 210 vitamin and mineral supplements a day, so many that he doesn’t have time to organize them all himself. So he’s hired a pill wrangler, who takes them out of their bottles and sorts them into daily doses, which he carries everywhere in plastic bags. Kurzweil also spends one day a week at a medical clinic, receiving intravenous longevity treatments. The reason for his focus on optimal health should be obvious: If the singularity is going to render humans immortal by the middle of this century, it would be a shame to die in the interim. To perish of a heart attack just before the singularity occurred would not only be sad for all the ordinary reasons, it would also be tragically bad luck, like being the last soldier shot down on the Western Front moments before the armistice was proclaimed.
In a small medical office on the outskirts of Denver, with windows overlooking the dirty snow and the golden arches of a fast-food mini-mall, one of the world’s leading longevity physicians, Terry Grossman, works on keeping Ray Kurzweil alive. Kurzweil is not Grossman’s only client. The doctor charges $6,000 per appointment, and wealthy singularitarians from all over the world visit him to plan their leap into the future.

Grossman’s patient today is Matt Philips, 32, who became independently wealthy when Yahoo bought the Internet advertising company where he worked for four years. A young medical technician is snipping locks of his hair, and another is extracting small vials of blood. Philips is in good shape at the moment, but he is aware that time marches on. “I’m dying slowly. I can’t feel it, but I know its happening, little by little, cell by cell,” he wrote on his intake questionnaire. Philips has read Kurzweil’s books. He is a smart, skeptical person and accepts that the future is not entirely predictable, but he also knows the meaning of upside. At worst, his money buys him new information about his health. At best, it makes him immortal.

“The normal human lifespan is about 125 years,” Grossman tells him. But Philips wasn’t born until 1975, so he starts with an advantage. “I think somebody your age, and in your condition, has a reasonable chance of making it across the first bridge,” Grossman says.

According to Grossman and other singularitarians, immortality will arrive in stages. First, lifestyle and aggressive antiaging therapies will allow more people to approach the 125-year limit of the natural human lifespan. This is bridge one. Meanwhile, advanced medical technology will begin to fix some of the underlying biological causes of aging, allowing this natural limit to be surpassed. This is bridge two. Finally, computers become so powerful that they can model human consciousness. This will permit us to download our personalities into nonbiological substrates. When we cross this third bridge, we become information. And then, as long as we maintain multiple copies of ourselves to protect against a system crash, we won’t die.

Kurzweil himself started across the first bridge in 1988. That year, he confronted the risk that had been haunting him and began to treat his body as a machine. He read up on the latest nutritional research, adopted the Pritikin diet, cut his fat intake to 10 percent of his calories, lost 40 pounds, and cured both his high cholesterol and his incipient diabetes. Kurzweil wrote a book about his experience, The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life. But this was only the beginning.

Kurzweil met Grossman at a Foresight Nanotech Institute meeting in 1999, and they became research partners. Their object of investigation was Kurzweil’s body. Having cured himself of his most pressing health problems, Kurzweil was interested in adopting the most advanced medical and nutritional technologies, but it wasn’t easy to find a doctor willing to tolerate his persistent questions. Grossman was building a new type of practice, focused not on illness but on the pursuit of optimal health and extreme longevity. The two men exchanged thousands of emails, sharing speculations about which cutting-edge discoveries could be safely tried.

Though both Grossman and Kurzweil respect science, their approach is necessarily improvisational. If a therapy has some scientific promise and little risk, they’ll try it. Kurzweil gets phosphatidylcholine intravenously, on the theory that this will rejuvenate all his body’s tissues. He takes DHEA and testosterone. Both men use special filters to produce alkaline water, which they drink between meals in the hope that negatively charged ions in the water will scavenge free radicals and produce a variety of health benefits. This kind of thing may seem like quackery, especially when promoted by various New Age outfits touting the “pH miracle of living.” Kurzweil and Grossman justify it not so much with scientific citations — though they have a few — but with a tinkerer’s shrug. “Life is not a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study,” Grossman explains. “We don’t have that luxury. We are operating with incomplete information. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves.”

"Forty Second" Boyd and the Big Picture

Friday, March 28th, 2008

William A. Whittle opens his piece on “Forty Second” Boyd and the Big Picture by summarizing what he learned about John Boyd from reading Robert Coram’s book:

About a hundred miles north of Las Vegas there is a clump of wild grass and cottonwood trees called “The Green Spot.” Not much to look at from the ground, but from thirty thousand feet above the brown Nevada desert it stands out for a hundred miles.

In the mid to late fifties, a fighter pilot could earn himself a quick forty bucks and perhaps a nice steak dinner in Vegas — not to mention everlasting renown, which is to fighter pilots what oxygen is to us lesser beings — by meeting over the Green Spot at thirty thousand feet and taking position just 500 feet behind an arrogant and unpleasant man with precisely zero air-to-air victories to his credit. From that perfect kill position, you would yell “Fight’s on!” and if that sitting duck in front of you was not on your tail with you in his gunsight in forty seconds flat then you would win the money, the dinner and best of all, the fame.

Tank commanders may be charging cavalrymen at heart; sub skippers may be deer hunters using patience and stealth. But fighter pilots are Musketeers. They are swordsmen whose survival depends on remaining on the offensive… that is to say, they are men who survive because they can (and have) initiated 16-to-1 fights because they possess the confidence — actually, the untrammeled ego — to know they will win.

To be challenged in such a manner is an irresistible red flag to men like this, and certainly no less of one because the challenger was a rude, loud, irreverent braggart who had never been victorious in actual air-to-air combat. And yet that forty dollars went uncollected, uncollected for many years against scores of the best fighter pilots in the world.

That is more than luck. That is more than skill. That is more than tactics. That level of supremacy is the result of the ability to see things in an entirely new way. It is the difference between escaping from a maze you are embedded in, versus finding the way out from one that you look down upon from above.

Having your ass handed to you in such a spectacular and repeated fashion causes some men to curse and mutter about ‘one trick ponies’ and so on. But for others, for those who are more invested in victory than in ego, it reveals a level of skill that instantly removes all swagger and competition and puts one in the place of a willing supplicant, eager for knowledge.

Taking a few moments to understand what this odd man learned about airplanes and aerial combat will pay rich dividends later. Because John Boyd — Pope John, The High Priest of the Fighter Mafia, the Mad Major, the Ghetto ColonelForty Second Boyd not only wrote the revolutionary tactics manuals that gave American pilots the keys to air-to-air victory… and with it the essential and undisputed control of the battlespace. Nor was his achievement limited to the design of the phenomenally successful F-15 and F-16 fighters. Nor was it merely the codifying of physics and thermodynamics to make a science out of an art form. That John Boyd saw all of these things for the first time would have made him a legend. But this was quite the lesser of his two great achievements. For Boyd not only saw how to perfect the sword. He saw too how to perfect the swordsman.

And for that, Forty Second Boyd may turn out to be one of the most important men of the Twenty-First Century. And he has lain at rest in Arlington National Cemetery since 1997.

Let’s look at perfecting the “sword”:

And so Boyd went back to college, and bootstrapped himself from Fighter Jock to Aeronautical Engineer to try and find a theory that would show exactly at which airspeeds and altitudes enemy planes were superior.

The result was a series of briefing slides that showed, on an aircraft-by-aircraft basis, where the Soviet fighters were superior (in red) and conversely, at which airspeeds and altitudes the American designs (in blue) had the advantage.

Practically every slide was almost pure red. It was only in very narrow speed ranges, at specific altitudes, that American fighters had the advantage.

Boyd called these Energy-Maneuverability graphs, and in the process of producing them, Boyd developed the first of his two Earth-shattering breakthroughs: E-M Theory.

Boyd realized — through years of intense and lonely study on his own time and often in direct contravention of orders — that the key to the Perfect Sword lay not in speed, or service ceiling, or rate of climb, or even turning ability. All of these were red herrings that had been chased for decades.

Boyd’s first breakthrough was that the perfect fighter plane’s key characteristic was agility.

Agility. The ability to change its energy state rapidly. To turn, or climb, or accelerate faster than its opponent. And most importantly, to keep up that high energy state in the grueling, high-G turns that rapidly bled out speed and options.

Let’s say two aircraft are in a turning fight, each trying to get behind the other for a gun or missile shot. Due to many design differences between the two adversaries (but primarily due to wing loading) one aircraft may have its best rate of turn at 250 kts, while its opponent’s best turn is at 400 kts. Boyd realized that the ideal fighter was one that could accelerate, climb or turn the quickest, to move the fight into the airspeed (and altitude) where it has the advantage.

Quickness in the roll was one element. Lots of thrust to get up to best speed and stay there in a high-drag turn was another. Low weight meant that it could accelerate and decelerate faster, and above all, because a banked aircraft is essentially ‘climbing’ into its turn, the perfect fighter needed a big wing with lots of reserve lift. This big wing area meant that it would own the turning fight in just about every regime.

Believe it or not, Boyd’s Energy-Maneuverability Theory was the first to give aircraft designers a real victory target: an aircraft that would own the skies; the light, swift and deadly rapier that would be unbeatable in air-to-air combat. And remember: he who wins in air-to-air owns the skies. He who owns the skies owns the battlefield. Air Supremacy is the one great, single, essential requirement for victory on the modern battlefield. You can still lose if you have it, but you have no chance to win if you do not.

The Pentagon Brass — with precious few exceptions — fought him tooth and nail. The only reason Boyd was able to gain the credibility to force his ideas upon the next generation of fighters was because he was getting results. Boyd’s E-M Theory showed American pilots how to move the fight into those narrow and rare regimens where E-M numbers showed an American advantage, and to avoid like the plague those vast red swatches where dogfights were likely to be fatal. And it gave him that above-the-maze perspective to produce a fighter design the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Boyd’s E-M theory — this being the lesser of his two breakthrough ideas — would eventually lead, through many pitched bureaucratic battles, to the design of the F-15 Eagle — which, depending on your source, has exceeded the Vietnam era fighters 1:1 kill ratio somewhat spectacularly, it’s current record being in the vicinity of 105 wins against zero air-to-air losses. Boyd demanded a big wing on the F-15, a wing big enough to provide the lift it needed to win in the turning fight at any airspeed or altitude. In this he succeeded rather more than he could have imagined. He gave the F-15 Eagle so much reserve lift that after a mid-air collision an Israeli pilot flew an Eagle home and landed it with one entire wing torn off!

But Boyd found even the F-15 compromised. His fondest achievement was the F-16 Falcon, a nimble little beauty bearing more than a passing resemblance to the P-51 Mustang, and like it, fast, agile and lethal. It had the additional advantage of being relatively cheap, which means you can buy a lot of them. The Soviets listened to Stalin when he said “quantity has a quality all its own.”

Boyd listened too.

Pope John and his Fighter Mafia saw that the ultimate weapon was not a bludgeon or an iron mace, not the Lead Sled at all, but in fact just the opposite: light, fast, precise, agile and deadly.

Read the whole thing. Then read the whole book.

The Steve Sailer Rule of Conspiracies

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

The Man Who is Thursday has uncovered The Steve Sailer Rule of Conspiracies:

The more closely related the alleged conspirators are, the more likely that there is an actual conspiracy.

Let’s take a step back:

What [the Mafia, the 90s Russian oligarchs, the Donmeh, the diamond business, not to mention conspiratorial groups like the Druze or the Assasins] all have in common is that they all involve small, closely knit ethnic groups or people with close family ties. To be precise, actual conspiracies tend to be found only among family members or, what amounts to the same thing, closely knit endogamous ethnic groups.

Not hard to believe, but the indirect consequences are more interesting:

We in the West, with our loosely knit families and anti-nepotistic traditions (the Catholic Church ruthlessly suppressed cousin marriage), don’t think much of conspiracies, and for good reason. Without family ties, there are just too many incentives to defect and therefore somebody almost always does.
So, if we in the West have little time for conspiracy theories, why are they so popular in the rest of the world? The reason is that family is that much more important there. Therefore, in places where this is so, conspiracy is entirely plausible fact of daily life. Is it any co-incidence that the current hotbed of conspiracy theories is the Middle East, with its high incidence of cousin marriage? In most places in the world, a good and decent person, as a matter of course tries to benefit his family first, at the expense of everyone eles, so, by the lights of their experience, why wouldn’t America and the West work the same way. Therefore, it is that much easier, and happily much more self-flattering, to think that the West’s technological and economic superiority must be a result of devilish scheming, not of any deficiencies on your own part. (The U.S. tendency to elect people named Bush and Clinton does nothing to relieve this suspicion, I’m afraid.)

Sweet to my friends and sour to my foes

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Michael Gilleland notes that the Greeks of the time would have viewed the Sermon on the Mount as utterly preposterous, because their moral goal was to be sweet to friends and sour to foes:

  • Hesiod, Works and Days, 353-354 (tr. Hugh G. Evelyn White): Be friends with the friendly, and visit him who visits you. Give to one who gives, but do not give to one who does not give.
  • Theognis 869-872 (tr. J.M. Edmonds): May the great wide brazen sky fall upon me — that dread of earthborn men — if I aid not such as love me, and become not a pain and great grief unto such as hate.
  • Archilochus, fragment 23 West, lines 14-15: I know how to love the one who loves me and hate the enemy.
  • Archilochus, fragment 126 West: One important thing I know, how to repay with terrible evils the one who mistreats me.
  • Solon, fragment 13 West (a prayer to the Muses, lines 5-6, tr. J.M. Edmonds): Make me, I pray you, sweet to my friends and sour to my foes, to these a man reverend to behold, to those a man terrible.
  • Pindar, Pythian Odes 2.83-85 (tr. William H. Race): Let me befriend a friend, but against an enemy, I shall, as his enemy, run him down as a wolf does, stalking now here, now there, on twisting paths.
  • Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 122-123 (tr. Herbert Weir Smyth): ELECTRA. And is this a righteous thing for me to ask of Heaven? CHORUS. Righteous? How not? To requite an enemy evil for evil!
  • Sophocles, Antigone 641-644 (tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones): This is why men pray that they may beget and keep in their houses obedient offspring, so that they may requite the enemy with evil and honour the friend as they honour their father.
  • Euripides, Medea 807-810 (tr. David Kovacs): Let no one think me weak, contemptible, untroublesome. No, quite the opposite, hurtful to foes, to friends kindly. Such persons live a life of greatest glory.
  • Euripides, Heracles 585-586 (tr. David Kovacs): It is in your nature, my son, to be loving to your friends and to hate your enemies.
  • Euripides, Ion 1046-1047 (tr. David Kovacs): But when a man wants to harm an enemy, no law stands in the way.
  • Lysias 9.20 (tr. W.R.M. Lamb): I considered it ordained that one should harm one’s enemies and serve one’s friends.
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.6.35 (tr. E.C. Marchant): A man’s virtue consists in outdoing his friends in kindness and his enemies in mischief.
  • Xenophon, Anabasis 1.9.11 (tr. Carelton L. Brownson): It was manifest also that whenever a man conferred any benefit upon Cyrus or did him any harm, he always strove to outdo him; in fact, some people used to report it as a prayer of his that he might live long enough to outdo both those who benefited and those who injured him, returning like for like.
  • Xenophon, Hiero 2.2 (tr. E.C. Marchant): You are rich in power to harm enemies and reward friends.
  • Plato, Republic 1.7.332d (tr. B. Jowett): Justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies.

Terrible American education costs us $900 billion a year

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

The Wall Street Journal headline is entirely too upbeat for the actual content of the article. Study Finds Sharp Math, Science Skills Help Expand Economy:

Increased years of education boost economic growth — but only if students’ cognitive skills, as measured by math and science tests, are improved as a result, a new study says.

Mangus takes a different tack — Terrible American education costs us $900 billion a year — emphasizing the next few paragraphs of the original article:

The study, released in this spring’s issue of Education Next, an education-policy journal, concluded that if the U.S. performed on par with the world’s leaders in science and math, it would add about two-thirds of a percentage point to the gross domestic product, or the total value of goods and services produced in a nation, every year.

Those findings diverge from other research that links economic growth to the number of years of students’ education. The problem with that research, say study authors Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University professor, and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, is that it assumes that a year of schooling in a country like Ghana, for example, is equivalent to a year in the U.S. Instead, it is more important to emphasize “what people know, not how long people have sat in the classroom,” Mr. Hanushek said. [...]

Nearly two decades ago, the National Governors Association called for U.S. students to sharply improve in math and science by 2000. If the U.S. had managed to achieve the goal, and joined world leaders like Finland, Hong Kong and South Korea, GDP would be two percentage points higher today and 4.5 points higher in 2015, the study calculated. “Had we figured out some way to improve our schools, or do what we could to improve the learning of our students, we would be a lot better off today,” said Mr. Hanushek.

Low-Information Diet

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Dennis Mangan cites a piece by Lee Gomes that explains how we’re powerless before the web:

In other words, coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom.

It is something we seem hard-wired to do, says Dr. Biederman. When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores.’ “

For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives.

Just like the laser and the cat, technology is playing a trick on us. We are programmed for scarcity and can’t dial back when something is abundant.

Mangan adds that Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Workweek) strongly advocates a low-information diet, but it’s almost as difficult to follow as a low-fat or low-carb diet.

Observations at the Gym

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

In his Observations at the Gym, Michael Gilleland notes that the gym crowd is “voluntarily adopting practices that used to be visited on prisoners as punishments,” such as running on a treadmill — originally invented by William Cubitt as a punishment for prisoners (and a way to grind grain) — and wearing tattoos — which used to be the province of barbarians, slaves, and prisoners.

(Hat tip to Mangan.)

Food Fight

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Food Fight is darkly fascinating, “an abridged history of American-centric warfare, from WWII to present day, told through the foods of the countries in conflict”:

The creator answer some FAQs:

  • The food in this film was consumed either by myself or my dog after shooting. None of the cast went to waste.
  • The software used was photoshop and after effects.
  • The film took me 3 months to do.
  • Although it seems like stop motion, most of it was stop motion created within After effects, using keyframe animation. I am basically moving the food around within the the program, frame by frame, which is the same as traditional stop motion, only it’s digital.

He also provides a breakdown of the battles portrayed and a cheat sheet of the foodstuffs used.