The Moses of Nerds

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Steve Sailer calls Robert Heinlein the Moses of Nerds:

A central figure in the evolution of obsessive geeks into a self-aware, self-confident community was science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). For many of the mid-20th century’s lonely youths, discovering Heinlein stories in pulp sci-fi magazines or at the public library was a you-are-not-alone moment.


A touching scene in Patterson’s biography illustrates why Golden Age science-fiction writers and readers so loyally regarded Heinlein as their dean. At a 1941 science-fiction convention where Heinlein was the guest of honor, he took great pains to be a suave host for his awkward fans:

[Heinlein] was probably the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan person the fans had ever come into contact with, and he seemed to them like something out of a movie.…Science-fiction readers in 1941 were social outcasts. To be told — seriously — that they were personally an important element in human progress was apparently…intoxicating for them.

With fans this desperate for leadership, Heinlein likely could have set up a personal cult in the manner of his contemporaries, the lesser novelists Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. (Although unconfirmed, it has been widely reported that Heinlein gave Hubbard the idea of turning Dianetics, originally a low-cost competitor for Freudianism, into the tax-free religion of Scientology.)

Fortunately, Heinlein resisted the temptation to found a cult. He had too much generosity of spirit and too little monomania for the Rand-Hubbard path. Three of his books became cult novels anyway. Tellingly, they each found their way to a different cult. Starship Troopers appeals to militarists, Stranger in a Strange Land to hippies, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to libertarians.

Heinlein was not an ideologue, Sailer emphasizes, but rather an artist whose medium was ideas, an intellectual provocateur.

Trainer-killing whale returns to SeaWorld show

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Tilikum, the orca that lived up to the killer whale name last year, returns to work.

With just two more confirmed kills the whale can make ace.

Raising an Accidental Prodigy

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Sue Shellenbarger discusses the challenges of raising an accidental prodigy — and shares some definitions:

Fewer than 1% of children in the world are considered profoundly gifted, and even fewer are regarded as prodigies — defined as children under 10 who perform better than most highly skilled adults.

It’s school admissions season in New York

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

It’s school admissions season in New York. Katie Roiphe describes the scene:

It is interesting that the parents at these schools will be the first to tell you that other private schools are very materialistic, and that the culture of these other schools is truly offputting, that they would never dream of sending their Finn or Ava to the other schools because they would imbibe the wrong values, and they will very happily recount stories of moneyed excess about these other schools, but their school, and by implication, of course, they are not like that.

(I won’t rehash these stories here, but I have recently heard about a fashionable, progressive Brooklyn private school, in which a birthday party of 11-year-old girls was taken to Victoria’s Secret to buy bras and underwear and then they went back to the Soho Grand Hotel to take pictures of themselves and sleep over. This is the kind of story that we are talking about, and they are too numerous and florid to fit here.)

These parents decrying the materialistic culture of this other school, saying, “It’s disgusting, it really is,” might be sitting in their beach house, over a dinner of grilled shrimp and fresh corn, with the live-in, uniformed baby nurse upstairs with the colicky baby. If you, from the outside, are having trouble seeing how their life — with its long summers at the beach, winters in the Caribbean, the sprawling apartment on the Upper East Side, the helpful doorman, the ubiquitous housekeeper, the $1,000 boots from Barneys — is so different in its values and messages from these other, materialistic parents at the other school, we will assume that is a problem with your clarity and understanding.

These same parents will also very quickly point out that their school is “diverse”. The reality is that their school, like all the other schools, is a tiny bit diverse. There are a few kids who will come a very long way every morning, from another neighbourhood, on a scholarship, but the large bulk of the class very much resembles in background the other kids in the class. This is a puzzling word, “diverse”, thrown around all the school promotions, into pamphlets and brochures and websites, because if you were truly committed to sending your children somewhere “diverse”, would you not be selecting a different school, one that doesn’t require almost all of its students to pay tuition that could support several villages in Africa? Or do these parents, to be totally honest, just want a little bit of diversity? If the catalogues were being totally honest about what parents are looking for, would they advertise, say, a soupçon of diversity?

The interesting element of this obsession is that each of these unique and excellent schools seems to be conferring some ineffable quality, not just on its students, but on the parents of these students. In the 10 minutes they spend dropping their children off in its hallowed hallways, they are seeing some flattering image of themselves reflected back: progressive, enlightened, intellectually engaged.

A Freak of Procurement Infighting

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) calls the Harrier Jump Jet a freak of procurement infighting:

The V/STOL technology involved shaping airframes and aiming engine nozzles so that planes could take off on rough, unimproved airbases, or if necessary just take off vertically — though that’s always been more of a gimmick than a fact. The idea was that these V/STOL planes could use any German road for a runway (assuming they weren’t jammed with civilian cars fleeing) and be refueled by mobile tankers and maintenance crews. The 80s saw a lot of new defensive ideas for stopping a massed Warsaw Pact tank attack, most of them pretty silly but very profitable for contractors.

The simple way to stop that attack was too obvious and unprofitable to interest anybody: nuke’em. And that’s probably what would have happened if the Russians had sent the tanks through the Fulda Gap; we’d have used nukes, small battlefield nukes like Lance at first, then Pershings, then the Say-Goodbye-to-the-Northern-Hemisphere kind, until somebody in the Kremlin saw the light and called it off. They knew that, we knew that, and that’s why we never had to play it out for reals.

For its stated purpose, a Harrier would be better replaced by a “real” fighter, based further from the front lines, relying on in-flight refueling — but that doesn’t concern the Marines, who really took to the Harrier:

Think about the whole USMC/Navy relationship. It would drive any two services crazy. The Corps has its own air wing — and its own armor, own everything; that’s one war the Corps will never lose, the fight to keep its turf and expand it if possible. The Marine Corps saw the Harrier as a plane it could own from go to whoa. A plane like that could fly off modified assault ships, Corps territory, and slide out from under the Navy’s carriers.

And that’s why the AV8B is still in service after 30 years, still killing pilots, still doing its circus moves (to this day, no AV8B has used its vertical launch on a single combat mission) and flying off the USS Kearsage as part of the MEU in Libya. MEU, that’s “Marine Expeditionary Unit” and it tells you what you need to know about the Harrier: It’s Corps all the way, puts them on a longer leash from the Navy, and they’re keeping it, letting it drop a bomb or two on Qaddafi’s tanks. In fact this is the Harrier’s kind of war. The enemy can’t shoot, the desert makes pickup easy when the damn thing conks out on you, and there are plenty of glamor shots for the international press.

V/STOL tech did pay off well in another area, Brecher notes — transport:

The C-17 was designed with reinforced shocks, extra wheels, and the whole bunched-up airframe you need for short landings. And it’s worked, turned out useful, since a lot of the places you need to transport materiel to don’t have airports with first-class lounges.

A fighter has no reason to land on bad ground, Brecher emphasizes — if a fighter or fighter pilot touches the ground at all before it gets home, something has likely gone seriously wrong — but touching the ground in rough places is a big part of a transport plane’s job.

A 1911 isn’t a 1911

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

The second season of Top Shot started with a challenge that involved shooting billiard balls that were partially blocked by other billiard balls, using a standard 1911 pistol — which bears little resemblance to what pistol champions like Athena Lee or Chris Tilley shoot in the “open” division of IPSC:

With the 1911 they didn’t let us practice. I shoot with optics for the most part. For the last 20 years I’ve been shooting my Open division gun with about a pound and half trigger pull, red dot, everything. I’m not trying to make excuses. When we saw the first challenge I saw the billiard balls and the 1911 and thought “OK, I got this,” but as soon as I picked up that 1911 I knew I was in trouble.

I was like “Wow, this gun sucks.” Then, as soon as I lined up my sights I saw that my front sight was bigger than the pool ball. I’m not used to shooting iron sights. I know the concept, I’ve shot them and trained with them before, but I don’t shoot iron sights anywhere near as much as I shoot my Open gun. But I figured that all the same principles apply, I’d just line up the sights and make sure the front sight was in focus and press, “Bang!” and I missed.


Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

I haven’t read any of John Norman’s Gor novels, but I’m aware of them because of their notoriety for what they evolved into over the course of the 29-book series.

The first few books start off as planetary romance adventure novels, in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars stories: British professor Tarl Cabot finds himself transported to the lower-gravity world of Gor, where he becomes a superheroic swordsman.

Over time though, the series grew more philosophical — which makes sense when you realize that author John Norman is actually Queens College CUNY philosophy professor John Lange — and more sexual, with an emphasis on the natural hierarchy that places men above women — which, I suppose, makes “sense” when you realize that Lange is also a classical scholar.

Charlie Jane Anders of io9 interviews Lange about his influences:

I think, pretty clearly, the three major influences on my work are Homer, Freud, and Nietzsche. Interestingly, however obvious this influence might be, few, if any, critics, commentators, or such, have called attention to it. Perhaps it is so obvious that it is simply taken for granted. In Homer you have the primitive, hardy, aristocratic warrior ethos; in Nietzsche you have the rank, distance, and hierarchy, concern with the etiology of belief, the trenchant culture criticism, and such; and, in Freud, of course, you have the depth psychology, and a sense of the radical centrality of sex to the human condition.

Apparently the parody, Houseplants of Gor, matches the tone of the later stories:

The spider plant cringed as its owner brought forth the watering can. “I am a spider plant!” it cried indignantly. “How dare you water me before my time! Guards!” it called. “Guards!”

Borin, its owner, placed the watering can on the table and looked at it. “You will be watered,” he said.

“You do not dare to water me!” laughed the plant.

“You will be watered,” said Borin.

“Do not water me!” wept the plant.

“You will be watered,” said Borin.

I watched this exchange. Truly, I believed the plant would be watered. It was plant, and on Gor it had no rights. Perhaps on Earth, in its permissive society, which distorts the true roles of all beings, which forces both plant and waterer to go unh appy and constrained, which forbids the fulfillment of owner and houseplant, such might not happen. Perhaps there, it would not be watered. But it was on Gor now, and would undoubtedly feel its true place, that of houseplant. It was plant. It would be watered at will. Such is the way with plants.

Borin picked up the watering can, and muchly watered the plant. The plant cried out. “No, Master! Do not water me!” The master continued to water the plant. “Please, Master,” begged the plant, “do not water me!” The master continued to water the plant. It was plant. It could be watered at will.

The plant sobbed muchly as Borin laid down the watering can. It was not pleased. Too, it was wet. But this did not matter. It was plant.

“You have been well watered,” said Borin.

“Yes,” said the plant, “I have been well watered.” Of course, it could be watered by its master at will.

“I have watered you well,” said Borin.

“Yes, master,” said the plant. “You have watered your plant well. I am plant, and as such I should be watered by my master.”

Moving to Shoot

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

While the Philippines has relaxed gun laws compared to much of the world, compared to the United States it has fairly restrictive laws. So Athena Lee moved to the US — more specially, to Texas, rather than, say, California:

Back in the Philippines, every time there is an election, which is about every year, they enact gun bans. That means that 45 days prior to and 45 days after the election, you can’t go out and shoot at a shooting range or carry your gun outside the house. The screwy thing about that is that over there, all guns are licensed. That is partially how the police get their revenue. Every time you renew your gun license, which is every year or two, or to get a permit to carry which is a separate permit, you have pay licensing fees. It’s kinda messed up.

I like to shoot when I want to, not only six months out of the year. I decided to move to greener pastures, and I had the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. One of the ways you can become a Permanent Resident here in the US is to be what they refer to as an “Athlete of Extraordinary Ability” and at that time in 1999 I won my first World Championship in IPSC. They counted that as qualifying for an O-1 Visa, so I took that opportunity to move here.

At first it was difficult, because in the Philippines I didn’t work and my parents paid for everything. Once I got here it was a real wakeup call. The sad thing about it was that as soon as I moved here I had to work, and that meant I couldn’t shoot as much. Somehow I still managed to weave my shooting into my schedule.

I had to grow up really fast when I moved here.

The Real Sound of Shakespeare

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

London’s Globe theatre plans to present Troilus and Cressida in authentic Elizabethan English, the real sound of Shakespeare:

By opening night, they will have rehearsed using phonetic scripts for two months and, hopefully, will render the play just as its author intended. They say their accents are somewhere between Australian, Cornish, Irish and Scottish, with a dash of Yorkshire — yet bizarrely, completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina.

For example, the word “voice” is pronounced the same as “vice”, “reason” as “raisin”, “room” as “Rome”, “one” as “own” — breathing new life into Shakespeare’s rhyming and punning.
The actors have been coached by David Crystal, one of the world’s most prominent language experts. He prepared the phonetic script by meticulously researching the rhymes, meter and spellings within Shakespeare’s plays and believes the dialect to be “about 80% accurate”.

“There are three important sources of evidence for this,” he says. “The first is the sound of the puns and jokes, the second is the spellings in the original texts. The third and most important piece of evidence is that, at the time there was a group of phoneticians who actually wrote in great detail about how the sounds of English were pronounced.”

The 17th century writer and dramatist Ben Johnson, for example, says the letter “r” was pronounced with a growl. “He tells us there’s a doggy sound — think ‘grrrr’,” Mr Crystal says.

The Venerable 1911

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

One hundred years ago, the US Army adopted John Browning’s self-loading (semiautomatic) .45 pistol and dubbed it the M1911. Today, the gun is hardly associated with its original manufacturer, Colt, and its many variants, made by many different firms, are simply known as 1911s.

The 1911 is extremely popular in competitive shooting — IPSC, IDPA, and bullseye — and chambered in the original .45 caliber it has a reputation as a real man’s gun — that skilled women can nonetheless handle because of its slim design.

Shooting legend and 1911 gunsmith Larry Vickers answers the question, How do I know if a 1911 is the right choice for me?

That is a tough question as I feel most people are best served not using a 1911 as a primary sidearm. Two criteria come to mind a) a passion for the 1911 platform and b) you are willing to be your own armorer and can fix relatively minor problems or fit certain parts yourself.

If you are the kind of guy that doesn’t mind tinkering with your Harley Davidson motorcycle to keep it running then you are a candidate. If however you treat your pistols like we all treat our lawnmowers then don’t get a 1911 — use a Glock.

How Athena Lee Got Started Shooting

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Athena Lee explains how she got started shooting, hoping for a chance to eat at McDonald’s:

My dad started shooting IPSC style shooting, he was the shooter in the family. In the Philippines, shooting is a little bit expensive. It’s not like here where guns are readily available. My dad had been shooting at the time for about 4 or 5 years, and this was back in December of 1991, he went to the shooting range to practice for a Steel Challenge tournament. I went with him because I figured that he and his friends would go out and get something to eat at McDonalds, which had just opened in the Philippines.

That was a big deal, because while here in the US there is a McDonalds on just about every block, over there they just didn’t exist. This one was the first, so I went with him and helped him pick up brass and whatnot after he shot. Of course, being 13, I got bored really fast. He noticed and said “Hey, try shooting this single stack 1911 in .38 Super.” Those may not have been his exact words, but he told me to “Try the gun, shoot at these targets.”

So, the first stage I ever shot was the Steel Challenge stage “Smoke ‘em and Hope,” for those of you who are familiar with that setup. The targets were gigantic and really close so it was pretty easy.

Being new, I didn’t care about times. I just kept hitting and hitting and I kept asking my Dad for more magazines. He figured that I was holding the gun pretty safely, which was remarkable because I was less than five feet tall at the time, and my hands were tiny. Still, I was gripping the gun well so he decided to let me shoot.

He had me dry fire for about two weeks, and then I joined the upcoming Steel Challenge match.

White Elephant

Monday, March 28th, 2011

The elephant is the official national symbol of Thailand, and the most prized and venerated of all elephants is the legendary white elephant:

In fact, such albino animals are rarely pure white in colour, but they’re regarded as being of especial merit and value, there’s a set procedure for granting official “white elephant” status to them, and the Thai king’s greatness is customarily measured by the number of white elephants he owns. (In case you’re wondering, the present king has 12 of them, which is the largest royal accumulation to date.)

In some ways, then, the expression “white elephant” carries with it in Thailand a very different meaning from that which we associate with it in the West. For it’s a term of esteem and appreciation, and this helps explain why in 1861, an earlier Thai monarch established the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, consisting of six separate grades, which soon became the most frequently-awarded honour in the country, as it remains to this day.

In earlier centuries, it was the custom for kings of Thailand to present those rivals whom they wished to overawe with one of their own white elephants. This was allegedly as a token of royal favour and regard, but it was also in practice a way of inflicting lasting damage on them. For as the highest status animal in the Thai kingdom, white elephants required extensive attention; but, since they were also sacred creatures, they couldn’t be put to work to pay for their upkeep, and nor could they be given away or killed.

The recipient of this vengeful act of royal generosity was thus confronted with the high costs of looking after the white elephant, and as often as not went broke as a result. Hence, in turn, our own notion that a white elephant is a valuable possession which cannot be disposed of, even though the expense of maintaining it is out of all proportion to its usefulness or worth.


Saturday, March 26th, 2011

Developing expertise requires a high quantity of high-quality training — deliberate practice — but generally this deliberate practice is not simply doing what you’re trying to get good at.

Playing golf may be pleasant, but it’s an extremely time-inefficient way to practice your golf game.

Sparring may be as close to the real thing as a boxer can get, but taking a lot of hits doesn’t build you up.

Shooters have their own problems. Getting to the range can be time-expensive, and shooting live rounds can be money-expensive. So, shooters have long relied on dry-firing, or going through the motions of shooting without live ammo — which means “calling” your own shots and manually racking the slide of your normally semi-auto gun between shots.

Patent lawyer and “practical” shooter Mike Hughes decided to develop an alternative, the SIRT training pistol, a replica Glock with an auto-resetting trigger and a pair of lasers, a red one activated by taking up slack and “prepping” the trigger and a bright green one activated by breaking the shot:

I suppose a number of people will be turned off by the fact that it costs as much as a real Glock — but that’s really only the cost of a few thousand rounds of training ammo.

A Herd Makes Money on Wall Street

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Jonah Lehrer discusses a new study showing how traders who “sync up” via instant-messaging make better trades — and draws a tenuous connection to fish forming schools to deal with predators:

After getting access to the internal files of the hedge fund, they analyzed every IM sent by 66 day traders over an 18-month period. They discovered that these traders sent out an astonishing number of messages, more than two million exchanges over the course of the study, the average trader engaging in 16 IM conversations at a time. [...] After a burst of messages in response to a news event, the traders often acted in sync, converging on the same conclusion and executing a large number of trades at the exact same time. (These IMs typically featured short bits of analysis and did not involve the spread of insider information.) Although they weren’t trying to coordinate their buying and selling, they ended up acting together, just like a school of fish moving as one. This synchronous behavior proved to be an immense advantage. Though typical traders barely beat random chance, those acting at peak moments of sync made money on more than 70% of their stock trades. They also made nearly twice as much money per trade, which explains why traders who frequently “sync up” were the best performers at the firm. (The worst traders, by contrast, were the ones who instant-messaged the least.) “These plugged-in traders have an edge that puts them in a superclass,” Mr. Uzzi says. “What’s interesting is that their edge comes from the crowd, from everyone else around them.” At the moment, it’s unclear how individual investors or financial firms can take advantage of synchronous behavior. One possibility that Mr. Uzzi suggests is to “double-down” on investments that occur when traders are synced, since those are so much more likely to be profitable. “When you see a lot of IM traffic, and then traders within the firm start acting in unison, the odds are that’s going to be a good decision,” he says. “Those are the trades that I’d bet on.”

Or they could simply be moving the market together.

Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Alison Gopnik explains, based on recent research, why preschool shouldn’t be like school — but she doesn’t explain why school should be like school either:

In the first study, MIT professor Laura Schulz, her graduate student Elizabeth Bonawitz, and their colleagues looked at how 4-year-olds learned about a new toy with four tubes. Each tube could do something interesting: If you pulled on one tube it squeaked, if you looked inside another tube you found a hidden mirror, and so on. For one group of children, the experimenter said: “I just found this toy!” As she brought out the toy, she pulled the first tube, as if by accident, and it squeaked. She acted surprised (“Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that!”) and pulled the tube again to make it squeak a second time. With the other children, the experimenter acted more like a teacher. She said, “I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” and deliberately made the tube squeak. Then she left both groups of children alone to play with the toy.

All of the children pulled the first tube to make it squeak. The question was whether they would also learn about the other things the toy could do. The children from the first group played with the toy longer and discovered more of its “hidden” features than those in the second group. In other words, direct instruction made the children less curious and less likely to discover new information.

Does direct teaching also make children less likely to draw new conclusions — or, put another way, does it make them less creative? To answer this question, Daphna Buchsbaum, Tom Griffiths, Patrick Shafto, and I gave another group of 4-year-old children a new toy.* This time, though, we demonstrated sequences of three actions on the toy, some of which caused the toy to play music, some of which did not. For example, Daphna might start by squishing the toy, then pressing a pad on its top, then pulling a ring on its side, at which point the toy would play music. Then she might try a different series of three actions, and it would play music again. Not every sequence she demonstrated worked, however: Only the ones that ended with the same two actions made the music play. After showing the children five successful sequences interspersed with four unsuccessful ones, she gave them the toy and told them to “make it go.”

Daphna ran through the same nine sequences with all the children, but with one group, she acted as if she were clueless about the toy. (“Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let’s try this,” she said.) With the other group, she acted like a teacher. (“Here’s how my toy works.”) When she acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something Daphna had not demonstrated). But when Daphna acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.

As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific — this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.