Gentle, humane, pacific, and keenly money-making

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

William Lecky, writing in the 1890s, describes the prevailing spirit of Colonial Pennsylvania — which was largely Quaker:

There was perfect liberty, and the prevailing spirit was gentle, humane, pacific, and keenly money-making. The Quakers, though their distinctive character was very clearly imprinted on the colony, had found that some departure from their original principles was indispensable. A section of them, in flagrant opposition to the original tenet of their sect, contended that war was not criminal when it was strictly defensive. A long line of cannon defended the old Quaker capital against the French and Spanish privateers ; and the Pennsylvanian Assembly, in which the Quakers predominated, repeatedly voted military aids to the Crown during the French wars, disguising their act by voting the money only ‘ for the King’s use,’ and on one occasion ‘ for the purchase of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain,’ the latter being understood to be gunpowder.

The Gut Response To What We Eat

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Jeffrey Gordon of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis studies the gut response to what we eat, which involves trillions of microbes:

Gordon has been working with colleagues to take gut microbes from human feces and transplant them into the intestinal tracts of previously germ-free mice.

Using powerful DNA sequencing tools that allow them to take a “census” of the gut bugs without having to culture them, Gordon’s team then showed that this kind of microbe transplant is successful. The mice end up with a collection of gut microbes that mimic the populations found in the original human sample.

Then the team explored what would happen to these microbes if mice were switched from their standard low-fat, plant-rich mouse chow to a diet that was high in fat and sugar.

They found that in less than 24 hours the gut’s microbial populations changed abruptly, according to a study in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

“We were quite amazed that the community really restructured itself in terms of the proportional representation of different bacterial species, the proportional representation of genes with different functions, in a very short period of time,” says Gordon. “Certain members of that society of microbes became very dominant, and certain members became more diminutive.”

And when this new collection of human microbes was transplanted into germ-free mice, the mice gained an increased amount of fat tissue even when fed low-fat diets, compared to mice that got human microbes from mice fed low-fat diets.

Why Wine Ratings Are Badly Flawed

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Acting on an informant’s tip, in June 1973, French tax inspectors barged into the offices of the 155-year-old Cruse et Fils Frères wine shippers. Eighteen men were eventually prosecuted by the French government, accused, among other things, of passing off humble wines from the Languedoc region as the noble and five-times-as-costly wine of Bordeaux. During the trial it came out that the Bordeaux wine merchants regularly defrauded foreigners. One vat of wine considered extremely inferior, for example, was labeled “Salable as Beaujolais to Americans.”

In this climate, lawyer-turned-wine-critic Robert M. Parker Jr. created his 100-point scale — which went on to become very, very influential:

According to a 2001 study of Bordeaux wines, a one-point bump in Robert Parker’s wine ratings averages equates to a 7% increase in price, and the price difference can be much greater at the high end.

But these wine ratings are flawed, according to two studies published in the Journal of Wine Economics:

In his first study, each year, for four years, Mr. Hodgson served actual panels of California State Fair Wine Competition judges — some 70 judges each year — about 100 wines over a two-day period. He employed the same blind tasting process as the actual competition. In Mr. Hodgson’s study, however, every wine was presented to each judge three different times, each time drawn from the same bottle.

The results astonished Mr. Hodgson. The judges’ wine ratings typically varied by ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.

Mr. Hodgson also found that the judges whose ratings were most consistent in any given year landed in the middle of the pack in other years, suggesting that their consistent performance that year had simply been due to chance.

Mr. Hodgson said he wrote up his findings each year and asked the board for permission to publish the results; each year, they said no. Finally, the board relented — according to Mr. Hodgson, on a close vote — and the study appeared in January in the Journal of Wine Economics.

“I’m happy we did the study,” said Mr. Pucilowski, “though I’m not exactly happy with the results. We have the best judges, but maybe we humans are not as good as we say we are.”

This September, Mr. Hodgson dropped his other bombshell. This time, from a private newsletter called The California Grapevine, he obtained the complete records of wine competitions, listing not only which wines won medals, but which did not. Mr. Hodgson told me that when he started playing with the data he “noticed that the probability that a wine which won a gold medal in one competition would win nothing in others was high.” The medals seemed to be spread around at random, with each wine having about a 9% chance of winning a gold medal in any given competition.

To test that idea, Mr. Hodgson restricted his attention to wines entering a certain number of competitions, say five. Then he made a bar graph of the number of wines winning 0, 1, 2, etc. gold medals in those competitions. The graph was nearly identical to the one you’d get if you simply made five flips of a coin weighted to land on heads with a probability of 9%. The distribution of medals, he wrote, “mirrors what might be expected should a gold medal be awarded by chance alone.”

Potential Tax Revenue from Marijuana

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

I don’t know where they got their numbers or how they did their analysis, but the folks at Slosh Spot have produced an infographic of the potential tax revenue from marijuana — which is (allegedly) dwarfed by the money saved by no longer enforcing hard-to-enforce drug laws:

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Character Sheet Resume

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

I must admit, I got a kick out of this D&D-esque character sheet resume:

Lessons from the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

I was a bit surprised that the NYPD sent its own people to India to learn lessons from the Mumbai terrorist attacks — not that it doesn’t make sense.

There is a clear line between untrained shooters — who tend to “spray and pray” — and professionals, and the NYPD found the terrorists to be surprisingly sophisticated:

They fired in controlled, disciplined bursts. When our liaisons toured the hotels and railways stations, they saw from bullet holes that shots were fired in groups of three aimed at head level. With less experienced shooters, you’d see bullet holes in the ceiling and floor. This group had extensive practice. And the number of casualties shows it. Ten terrorists managed to kill or injure over 500 people. They were experienced in working together as a unit. For example, they used hand signals to communicate across loud and crowded spaces. And they were sufficiently disciplined to continue their attack over many hours. This had the effect of increasing the public’s fear and keeping the incident in the news cycle for a longer period of time.

In Mumbai, the NYPD notes, the attackers appeared to know their targets better than responding commandos:

With this in mind, since the beginning of December, the New York City Police Department has toured several major hotels. Supervisors in our Emergency Service Unit are documenting the walkthroughs on video camera, filming entrances and exits, lobbies, unoccupied guest rooms, and banquet halls. We plan to use the videos as training tools.

Mumbai also revealed the complications of real-time media coverage:

In the past, police were able to defeat any advantage it might give hostage takers by cutting off power to the location they were in. However, the proliferation of handheld devices would appear to trump that solution. When lives are at stake, law enforcement needs to find ways to disrupt cell phones and other communications in a pin-pointed way against terrorists using them.

Are patriotic Americans allowed to learn from the Nazis?

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Are patriotic Americans allowed to learn from the Nazis?, Mencius Moldbug asks:

I think that question was more or less answered when NASA shipped the German ICBM program to Alabama. When SS-Sturmbannführer von Braun‘s spaceship landed on the moon, did patriotic Americans applaud? Or did they shout: “Boo! Hiss! Nazis!” Apollo 11, of course, was not made in underground caves by starving slave laborers. Therefore, it seems that one can copy the things the Nazis did right, and discard the things they did wrong. One can fail in this; one can fail in anything.

The Qualities of a Ruling Race

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

This description of pre-Revolution New England from a Victorian English historian reminds us how much ordinary Americans and educated English historians have changed in a century or two:

Still with every drawback the bulk of the New Englanders were a people of strong fibre and high morals. Strictly Sabbatarian, rigidly orthodox, averse to extravagance, to gambling, and to effeminate amusements, capable of great efforts of self-sacrifice, hard, stubborn, and indomitably intractable, they had most of the qualities of a ruling race.

Our First Electric Cars May Be Trucks

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Our first electric cars may be trucks, John Voelcker reminds us:

It turns out that urban delivery trucks offer very good ”duty cycles” for electrification. They cover a fairly predictable area — usually about 160 kilometers (100 miles) or less each day — and they return to the same base every night, meaning that the costs of high-voltage charging stations can be concentrated into a central location.

Britons of a certain age still remember the three-wheeled electric milk floats that delivered their morning pints throughout London. The company that made them, Smith Electric Vehicles, still survives today, and it’s preparing to launch mid- and large-size electric delivery trucks into the U.S. market. Smith will be closely followed by a new company, Modec Ltd. While Smith now modifies Ford trucks, Modec has designed its own from the ground up. Each company plans to set up a U.S. assembly plant to avoid the notorious ”chicken tax,” an import duty of 25 percent that has been levied for 45 years on light- and medium-duty commercial vehicles imported into the United States. (The notorious tax stems from a trade dispute over U.S. exports of frozen chickens, then a brand-new concept, to Europe.)

Modec’s William Doelle shares some hard lessons learned from pilot programs:

  • Plan for much longer and much costlier infrastructure installations than you could possibly imagine;
  • Do not let fleet mechanics work on any of the high-voltage components;
  • Do not expect fleet mechanics to have any understanding of safe electrical practices;
  • Similarly, do not trust the fleet’s in-house electricians! Modec was forced to replace a $6000 high-voltage charger, which had to be air-freighted from the UK, when a man he called ”Sparky” hung it on an outdoor chain-link fence, exposed to the elements, without considering that tropical rainstorms might pose a problem to a 300-volt indoor device;
  • It is crucial to create very clear, explicit, well-illustrated manuals that cover every possible contingency.

The American Revolution, 1763-1783

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

In The American Revolution, 1763-1783, William Lecky notes that the Revolution wasn’t completely unpredictable:

Several acute observers had already predicted that the triumph of England [over France] would be soon followed by the revolt of her colonies. I have quoted in a former chapter the remarkable passage in which the Swedish traveller, Kalm, contended in 1748 that the presence of the French in Canada, by making the English colonists depend for their security on the support of the mother country, was the main cause of the submission of the colonies.

In his ‘Notes upon England,’ which were probably written about 1730, Montesquieu had dilated upon the restrictive character of the English commercial code, and had expressed his belief that England would be the first nation abandoned by her colonies.

A few years later, Argenson, who has left some of the most striking political predictions upon record, foretold in his Memoirs that the English colonies in America would one day rise against the mother country, that they would form themselves into a republic, and that they would astonish the world by their prosperity.

In a discourse delivered before the Sorbonne in 1750 Turgot compared colonies to fruits which only remain on the stem till they have reached the period of maturity, and he prophesied that America would some day detach herself from the parent tree.

The French ministers consoled themselves for the Peace of Paris by the reflection that the loss of Canada was a sure prelude to the independence of the colonies; and Vergennes, the sagacious’ French ambassador at Constantinople, predicted to an English traveller, with striking accuracy, the events that Would occur. ‘ England,’ he said, ‘will soon repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They stand no longer in need of her protection. She will call on them to contribute towards supporting the burdens they have helped to bring on her, and they will answer by striking off all dependence.’

Can’t We Be Just a Tiny Bit Hardheaded About What It Takes To Succeed in College?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Can’t we be just a tiny bit hardheaded about what it takes to succeed in college?, Charles Murray asks, as he shares some empirical points about “academic ability” — IQ — and success in college:

  1. By adolescence, what you see is what you get in academic ability. There is still a lively empirical controversy about how much IQ can be changed by outside interventions in preschoolers, but not in high-schoolers. Among the best programs, you’re looking at improvements in the region of 0.2 standard deviations on an exit test, and those fade to triviality when retested two or three years later.
  2. A common operational definition of “college readiness” in the literature is a 65 percent probability that a youngster will get a 2.7 grade point average in his freshman year — not a demanding standard in an age of grade inflation and soft courses. In a study based on 165,781 students at 41 major colleges, the combined SAT score that predicts a 65 percent chance of a 2.7 freshman GPA is 1180. It is a score that only about 9–12 percent of American 18-year-olds could get if all of them took the SAT.
  3. Both the 1979 and 1997 cohorts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), consistent with a half-century of collateral data, show that the mean IQ of whites who get a BA is 114–115, a range that demarcates the top 16–17 percent of the distribution. (The story about IQ and college experience among blacks raises a host of ancillary issues that I won’t try to deal with here.)
  4. Both the 1979 and 1997 NLSY cohorts indicate that the 50-50 break point for successfully completing a BA among those who are self-selected to try to attend a four-year college is an IQ of 105, which cuts off the top 37 percent of the distribution.
  5. We’re currently giving out BAs to about 35 percent of all 23-year-olds.

He adds one last thought:

If we really have the best interests of young people at heart, when do we start counting the costs — emotional, financial, and in opportunities — of a dropout rate from colleges that is in excess of 40 percent?

Meddling in the military’s sandbox

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Some of America’s greatest war presidents — like Polk, Lincoln, FDR, and Truman — were constantly meddling in the military’s sandbox, Joseph Fouché notes:

America’s worst president, Thomas Woodrow Wilson (may he burn in hell), despite being a control freak and a sanctimonious prig, exercised little control over military strategy. Before Black Jack Pershing went off to France, he met with Wilson only once. When he tried to tell Woody something about the war, Wilson cut him off with the remark that Pershing came to him highly recommended and that he, Wilson, was sure he’d do a bang up job. That was the effective end of the interview and, true to his word, Wilson paid little attention to the military effort, leaving the running of the war to Secretary of War Newton Baker, avowed pacifist and former mayor of Cleveland, OH, Peyton C. March, Army Chief of Staff, and Pershing.

If the otherworldly Wilson had employed something like strategy such as engaging in a build up of the U.S. Army before entry into World War I as a way of persuading the Germans and the Entente to be more reasonable (reasonable being do what we say) instead of counting on his shining personal righteousness acting as a beacon of peace from across the Atlantic, maybe some of the destruction of a disastrous war and a disastrous peace might have been avoided.

Why Isn’t He Better at Being President?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

If he’s so smart and so eloquent, why isn’t he better at being president? John Steele Gordon answers:

Everyone who gets elected president is smart, for anyone who wasn’t could never make it through the world’s longest and most difficult political obstacle course. George Romney — no dummy by a long shot — came a cropper with a single ill-considered remark about having been brainwashed regarding Vietnam.

But being “supersmart” is not only no help; it is, I think, often a hindrance. Six future presidents were elected to Phi Beta Kappa as college undergraduates: John Quincy Adams, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Of those six, only Roosevelt could be considered a great president. Three of them, Adams, Taft, and Bush, were defeated for re-election, and Arthur couldn’t even get nominated for a second term. (His presidential reputation has been improving of late, however.)

And intellectuals, of course, are all too capable of thinking themselves into disaster. Remember George Orwell’s famous crack about “an idea so stupid only an intellectual could have conceived it.”

One might think that engineers, trained to deal with real-world forces, might make better presidents. But the only two engineers to reach the White House were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, both terrible presidents.

So what makes for successful presidencies? It might be fruitful to compare what the two greatest presidents of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, had in common. Neither were intellectuals (Roosevelt hardly ever read a book as an adult), but both were very “savvy,” not the same thing as smart. Both were master politicians, able to assemble and maintain coalitions. Both had immense charm. Both were first-class orators. Both had a great sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. Both were comfortable in their own skins and not given to introspection. Both had an abundance of self-confidence but no trace of arrogance. In both, the inner man was inaccessible, and no one felt he really knew what made either man tick. And both had that indispensable handmaiden of greatness — luck.

Donald Pittenger adds that smart kids often grow up with their intelligence treated as an accomplishment rather than an attribute.

America is not the creature it once was

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

America is not the creature it once was, Mencius Moldbug reminds us:

The 19th-century American was an incredibly politicized, democratically engaged, and — not least — macho and violent creature. It is not surprising that in 1861, when a bunch of states tried to secede, the rest broke out in a paroxysm of enthusiasm for a war to save the Union. (It was certainly not a war to free the slaves — not in 1861, anyway.) If you were teleported into that mania, you would speak the language, but you would feel no other cultural connection to the people. You’d feel more or less as if you’d been sent to an insane asylum.

In 2009, or at any later date, what will happen if a state government tries to secede? So long as it has strong internal public support and the support of the state security forces, it will — secede. Nothing at all will happen. The state will simply become an independent country. Washington simply does not have anything like the political energy to coerce a seceding state. It barely has the political energy to coerce a seceding city. Americans simply are not going to shoot at other Americans for this reason. If this assertion is true, as I believe it is, state police with shotguns can easily thwart the entire US military in a secession situation. The latter simply won’t attack. They will not be ordered to. The hate just isn’t there.

The idea that any national force could prevent a state from seceding strikes me as rather like the idea that the US will guarantee Israel against Iran’s nuclear weapons, by promising nuclear retaliation against Iran if Iran nukes Tel Aviv. Frankly, I don’t think the America of today — the America that prohibits its own soldiers from shooting back at the Taliban, if the Taliban are shooting from a house — has the stones to nuke Russia if Russia nukes America (not that it will). The proposition that Washington could or would incinerate millions of Iranians, whatever the Iranian government did to Israel, is ridiculous. It is simply reverse presentism — anachronistic translation of past assumptions to the present. Washington once had an ideology that allowed it to nuke cities for reasons of state, but not now.

Similarly, Washington once had an ideology that allowed it to coerce states, or combinations of states, or even cities, that wanted to be independent. But not now. I would not say the thing is trivial, but any state, or even major coastal city, can almost certainly succeed if it plays its cards right.

I do have to wonder how the federal government would react to a state seceding, because it’s hard to remain apathetic with that much tax revenue on the table.

Ammo-Counting Aliens Gun Is Real

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

FN Herstal gained some extra notoriety recently when it came out that the Ft. Hood shooter used a Five-SeveN pistol to gun down his fellow soldiers.

Now the arms-maker is displaying a real-life, ammo-counting Aliens-style assault rifle at the Paris Military Police Expo — a SCAR with an Armatronics Black Box built into the grip:

The FN Black Box detects, discriminates, counts shots, measures burst rates and burst lengths, records firing sequences and detects stoppages due to failures to cycle. Storing such information allows preventive maintenance and facilitates corrective maintenance, which greatly increases weapon reliability and availability.

The FN Black Box can also communicate useful information to the chain of command during a mission. It contains the identification number of the weapon and, thus, can indirectly identify the soldier. When coupled to a GPS, it can transmit its identification and localization data to the upper level of the command through the communication equipment of the soldier.

The FN Black Box is a molded module that fits in any weapon type. It features a non-replaceable battery that has a service life of 10 years and a recording capacity of 100,000 rounds.

The other half of the package is the Moving Red Dot Fire Control Unit:

Successful target engagement with tube-launched grenades requires precise range estimation to the target and launch at the exact elevation angle, while keeping correct azimuth aiming.

With FN Herstal’s Moving Red Dot Fire Control Unit (FCU), the shooter can now rely on a light, compact and device to significantly increase the effectiveness of grenade launchers.

The FN FCU consists of:

  • A laser range finder (LRF), which calculates the distance between the shooter and the target
  • A clinometer, which measures the difference in elevation between the shooter and the target
  • A ballistic computer, which calculates the angle of launch required
  • A moving red dot sight (MRD), which gives the correct aiming point