The Yachts Strike Back

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Most yachts avoid the pirate-ridden Somali coast, but some don’t:

In one recent incident, a yacht was accompanied by a security vessel staffed with six armed men. Somali pirates attacked the yacht at night, and some got on board. The two people on the yacht locked themselves in a safe room, and the security vessel quickly reached the yacht, exchanged fire with the pirates, who promptly fled. There were no injuries, although the yacht suffered some damage from the gunfire.

The security vessel was supplied by Naval Guards, one of the several firms now supplying armed escort services for ships travelling through pirate infested waters. Naval Guards operates out of Djibouti (the northern neighbor of Somalia), and has five patrol boats, ranging in size from 21-42 meters (54-128 feet) in length. These boats carry from six to fifteen armed men. The sea going boats escort ships, and provide additional eyes to spot approaching pirates (who like to attack at night in speedboats.) The Yemeni Navy has also put some of its patrol boats into service providing escorts for ships passing through Yemeni waters. Daily fees for these escorts can be up to $10,000 or more (depending on the size of the escort and how far out at sea the escort has to meet up with the ship it will protect.) So far, no ship escorted by these escort services has been taken.

The next step, I assume, is for the security forces to collude with the pirates.

How Real Weapons Sound

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

John Reed entered West Point in 1964 and in his training was surprised by how real weapons sounds — that is, nothing like their Hollywood counterparts.

A real hand grenade, for instance, sounds like a cherry bomb, a golf-ball-sized firecracker:

Hollywood grenades, however, look and sound like 250-pound bombs when they go off. There is a huge cloud of dust, a ball of flame, and a devastating, very loud explosion. I saw a show on TV where they showed how they make the typical Hollywood explosion. They were putting buckets of kerosene or diesel fuel all over to create fireballs. As far as I know, there is no fireball when a frag grenade goes off unless you throw it into a tank of petroleum.

This overblown depiction may have cost soldiers and Marines their lives:

Take the case of former U.S. Senator and VA head Max Cleland. He is a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran.

In October, 2009, I was surprised to learn that former VA head and U.S. Senator Max Cleland had more or less the same job that I did. He was a communications officer in an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cav in Vietnam — same job I had in the 82nd Airborne and almost the same job I had in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam.

He got a silver star in the Battle of Khe Sanh but received his famous injury — losing his right arm and both legs — at the hands of a stupid U.S. enlisted man who got the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades. (So he could throw them quicker?) One fell on the ground when they were getting out of a helicopter at a cold LZ (no enemy fighting go on) where he was to set up a radio relay station four days after the Khe Sanh Battle. The pin came out and the handle popped off starting the 4-second fuse burning. Cleland assumed it still had its pin in and bent over to pick it up. When his right hand was five inches from the grenade, it blew up.

But that is not what you would think from watching grenades blow up in Hollywood movies. You would think he would be vaporized. He was not even killed or blinded. I am not aware of whether any of the other U.S. military personnel in the helicopter or near Cleland were injured. Apparently not because no mention of it is made is the descriptions of Cleland’s injuries.

But the incident shows that it would have been unwise for Cleland to have thrown himself on top of the grenade. Had he done so, he surely would have been eviscerated and killed. His failure to do so did not result in any deaths whatsoever, not even his own, and he was inches from the exploding grenade.

Exaggerated Hollywood handgun sounds have also cost people their lives:

The news media often reports when there is a shooting that witnesses were not aware that guns had been fired. Rather, they say they heard a “popping sound” or “firecrackers.” Why is that? Because the idiots in Hollywood have convinced the public that all gunshots have a loud, high pitched crack and echo. I do not know how Hollywood made their trademark gunshot sound, but I suspect they fired a shotgun in a granite box canyon and recorded it from about 75 yards away.

Real guns, especially pistols, make a popping or small firecracker sound. Probably, some people have been killed or injured as a result of having been trained by Hollywood not to recognize the sound of real small arms fire and failed to escape the area when they could have.

The 4/30/07 Newsweek Virginia Tech story contains this passage: “Someone in the class wondered aloud if the noises were gunshots, but somenone else said no; gunshots are a lot louder. Then a man… entered the room. He did not say anything or hesitate. He shot the teacher.”

Obviously, the person who said gunshots were a lot louder was wrong. I cannot imagine how they would have gotten such a notion other than from TV and movies.

Time and again during the Virginia Tech incident, students and teachers assumed that the gun shots were construction noises. One teacher heard the sounds and said, “Please tell me that’s not what I think it was.” Her students assured her it was construction noise. Unconvinced, she looked into the hallway where she saw Cho. She slammed the door and told students to call 911. Cho shot and killed the teacher and the student calling 911. The other students attacked the door to hold it closed as Cho tried to ram his way in then gave up. The remaining unshot students in that room survived as a result of their action to keep Cho out.

Full-power battle rifles, like the M-14, on the other hand, are even louder than people imagine:

We were given wax earplugs before we fired them, but no one said why or even recommended that we use the earplugs. I figured they were for super wimps. I had previously fired a .22 caliber rifle with no ear problems. I had never seen a Hollywood person wear any ear protection when firing a weapon. Remember, this was 1964. Nowadays, you sometimes see police and others in Hollywood films wearing acoustic earmuffs and such.

Then I fired the M-14 for the first time and my ears rang for a week. They rang so loud that I could not hear the bell outside our door. It was a loud bell like the fire bells in a high school. I later learned that I had suffered a high-frequency hearing loss. The ear plugs should have been mandatory and I’ll bet they are now. It was really, really loud. If they depicted it accurately in a movie theater, the patrons would all be holding their ears and yelling in pain.

As you might imagine, a tank gun is even louder:

When you are standing near it, a tank gun does not really make a noise. It’s more like an ear-splitting blow to your ear drums. “Acoustic trauma,” is what my doctors called it. It contributed to the high-frequency hearing loss I initially got from firing the M-14 without ear plugs.

During the summer before our sophomore year at West Point, we were flown to Fort Knox, KY to get an orientation to the armor branch. Armor is better known to the public as tanks. One night, we went to a line of tanks at a tank target range. I was an extra guy in my tank. No other tank had an extra guy. They told me to stand outside and that I would take turns with one of my classmates who stayed in the tank initially.

I got out and stood right next to the tank. Big mistake. It was dark and very quiet. I could hear virtually no sounds, just murmurs from inside the tanks around me. Suddenly, without warning, the tank I had gotten out of fired its main gun. The muzzle was about 12 feet from my ears.

I ran from the line of tanks to a spot 50 or more yards behind holding my ears. As I did so, the rest of the tanks on the line fired their main guns as well.

Technically, I am a disabled veteran. The disability is a high-frequency hearing loss caused, according to my doctors, by the M-14 firing and the tank gun going off near me. I get no disability payments because my disability is too minor, but the VA told me I would probably have a more serious hearing loss sooner than other people when I get older and that I would likely qualify for some payment then. I’d rather have good hearing.

As with the M-14, I should have been warned to protect my ears. With the tank, I should have been told to stand far away until it was my turn. Again, Hollywood is partly responsible for my hearing loss. I have seen a thousand tanks fire their guns in war movies. The movie theater or TV sound was nothing special. Nor did I see Hollywood soldiers covering their ears or experiencing any discomfort when the tank guns went off.
In other words, the sound you hear in a Hollywood movie when a tank gun goes off is not the real sound. It would be against the law to subject you to the real sound.

Incoming small-arms fire sounds like angry bees — but it’s also visually unusual, strangely pretty and fascinating:

It looks like twinkling lights — like modern, low-wattage Christmas lights that flash off and on. How so? The lights are the muzzle flashes of the enemy guns. You can see them on the wings of some enemy fighters in World War II actual dog fight footage. At first, it is dangerously mesmerizing. The first thought that goes through your mind is, “Why is someone using Christmas lights out here now?”

The same mesmerization effect is true of tracers only they look like relatively slow-moving, brightly-glowing balls.

(Hat tip to Ilkka.)

Memory Was Sacrosanct

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Memory training formed an important part of classical education — because memory was more important then:

Virtually all the details we have about classical memory training — indeed, nearly all the memory tricks in the competitive mnemonist’s arsenal — can be traced to a short Latin rhetoric textbook called “Rhetorica ad Herennium,” written sometime between 86 and 82 B.C. It is the only comprehensive discussion of the memory techniques attributed to Simonides to have survived into the Middle Ages. The techniques described in this book were widely practiced in the ancient and medieval worlds. Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember but how to remember it. In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct.

Living as we do amid a deluge of printed words — would you believe more than a million new books were published last year? — it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to read in the age before Gutenberg, when a book was a rare and costly handwritten object that could take a scribe months of labor to produce. Today we write things down precisely so we don’t have to remember them, but through the late Middle Ages, books were thought of not just as replacements for memory but also as aides-mémoire. Even as late as the 14th century, there might be just several dozen copies of any given text in existence, and those copies might well be chained to a desk or a lectern in some library, which, if it contained a hundred other books, would have been considered particularly well stocked. If you were a scholar, you knew that there was a reasonable likelihood you would never see a particular text again, so a high premium was placed on remembering what you read.

To our memorybound predecessors, the goal of training your memory was not to become a “living book” but rather a “living concordance,” writes the historian Mary Carruthers, a walking index of everything read or learned that was considered worthwhile. And this required building an organizational scheme for accessing that information. When the point of reading is remembering, you approach a text very differently from the way most of us do today. You can’t read as fast as you’re probably reading this article and expect to remember what you’ve read for any considerable length of time. If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.

In his essay “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as printed books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” Darnton says. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.” Today we read books “extensively,” often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. I always find looking up at my shelves, at the books that have drained so many of my waking hours, to be a dispiriting experience. There are books up there that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not.

Chiappa Rhino

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Handgun design involves trade-offs. For instance, the powerful .357 magnum kicks like a mule, so most .357 magnum revolvers are made heavy — but not the Chiappa Rhino, which Borepatch explains, has found an alternative solution:

This is a .357 Magnum revolver weighing 25 ounces (!) that is simply a pleasure to shoot. And therein lies the tale of the design.

The most important part of the design is the barrel placement, which is aligned with the bottom cylinder, not the top one.

The centerline of the bore is in line with the shooter’s arm, which reduces muzzle flip:

While the revolver is quite frankly butt-ugly, Chiappa’s description is entirely correct. There is no muzzle flip, even when shooting 195 grain .357 Magnum loads. Remember — the revolver only weighs a pound and a half.

You can see the barrel placement here. It puts the recoil force vector in line with your hand and arm, so the recoil is if anything like what you’d get from a 1911 — a soft push, rather than the snappy rotation that I’m used to with .357 revolvers.

Largest mall in the world is a Chinese ghost town

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

The largest mall in the world is a Chinese ghost town:

The New South China Mall is twice the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, but hovers at around a 1% occupancy. The rows of empty shops are piped with serene elevator music, and guards police the empty halls with echoing footsteps.

Announced in 2005, the mall is located in Dongguan in the Guangdong province of southern China. The location is between Guangzhou and Shenzen in an area that may one day be considered the world’s largest mega city, estimated to have a population near 50 million. Today, the mall has yet to live up to any distinction associated with mega cities, and is a sobering example of what happens when idea implementation precedes growth. Separated into seven districts modeled after international cities, the mall boasts an Arc de Triomphe, Venice canals, and even a mini Egypt. Of the 2,350 leasable store spaces, around 50 are actually in use.

Moonwalking with Einstein in the Memory Palace

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Joshua Foer’s new book, Moonwalking with Einstein, is about the art and science of remembering everything — or, rather, remembering those things you make a tremendous effort to remember:

In 2003, the journal Nature reported on eight people who finished near the top of the World Memory Championships. The study looked at whether the memorizers’ brains were structurally different from the rest of ours or whether they were just making better use of the memorizing abilities we all possess.

Researchers put the mental athletes and a group of control subjects into f.M.R.I. scanners and asked them to memorize three-digit numbers, black-and-white photographs of people’s faces and magnified images of snowflakes as their brains were being scanned. What they found was surprising: not only did the brains of the mental athletes appear anatomically indistinguishable from those of the control subjects, but on every test of general cognitive ability, the mental athletes’ scores came back well within the normal range. When Cooke told me he was an average guy with an average memory, it wasn’t just modesty speaking.

There was, however, one telling difference between the brains of the mental athletes and those of the control subjects. When the researchers looked at the parts of the brain that were engaged when the subjects memorized, they found that the mental athletes were relying more heavily on regions known to be involved in spatial memory. At first glance, this didn’t seem to make sense. Why would mental athletes be navigating spaces in their minds while trying to learn three-digit numbers?

They were creating memory palaces:

The answer lies in a discovery supposedly made by the poet Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris. When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.

Cool Under Fire

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Taylor Clark discusses what it takes to keep cool under fire:

The first people to perform useful studies specifically on composure in crisis were World War II combat researchers, who could examine soldiers under literal fire. In 1943, one of these men, a British officer named Lionel Wigram, noticed a pattern in his studies of infantry units on the Italian front. Whenever a 22-man platoon encountered enemy fire, Wigram realized, the troops always responded in the same proportions: A few soldiers would go to pieces and try to escape, a few more would react valiantly, and the vast majority would enter a sheeplike state of bewilderment, unsure of what to do.

Wigram wasn’t a scientist, but his insight about our instinctive reactions to crisis was remarkably accurate. According to modern research by survival psychologist John Leach, when a random group of people finds itself in a sudden emergency like a fire or a natural disaster, 10 to 15 percent will consistently freak out, 10 to 20 percent will stay cool, and the rest will become dazed and hesitant sheep.

Poise does have some biological underpinning:

Yale psychiatrist Andy Morgan, for example, has studied elite Special Forces recruits as they undergo “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” training, a three-week course designed to simulate the tortures of enemy capture. The program is brutally stressful, yet many recruits preserve an amazing amount of mental clarity in the midst of it.

When Morgan examined the poised trainees’ blood tests, he saw that they were producing significantly more of “a goofy little peptide called neuropeptide Y” than other, more rattled recruits. The extra NPY was like a layer of stress-deflecting mental Kevlar; its effects are so pronounced that Morgan can tell whether a soldier has made it into the Special Forces or not just by looking at a blood test.

Training makes a difference though:

Although the studies on WWII soldiers and disaster victims might seem grim, a vital caveat is in order: Virtually none of those people had been well-trained for the situations in which they found themselves. (These days, even recreational paintball players receive better live-fire preparation than WWII troops ever got.) Most of them reacted like dazed sheep not because they couldn’t show composure, but because they simply didn’t know what to do. Training changes this.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson has shown that whether we want to keep cool amid machine gun fire or just stay poised in a presentation at work, the most effective single thing we can do is to practice the task under realistic conditions until it becomes second nature. As Ericsson’s colleague David Eccles told me, even simple chores like fire drills can radically help to produce a better response when crisis strikes. Solid preparation “washes out” our natural dispositions, planting the seed for adaptive behavior in our brains well ahead of time.

Another, newer method for building coolness hinges on a different kind of training: teaching ourselves resilience-enhancing beliefs about stressors.
Study after study has shown that people who function well under stress share several core beliefs: They tend to see times of change and uncertainty not as dangerous but as exciting opportunities; they focus on what they can do to improve a stressful situation, rather than growing helpless; and they maintain a sense of commitment to the world around them, instead of withdrawing.

Some people are simply born with these attitudes, but psychologists have demonstrated that they can be learned as well. One of them, University of California-Irvine’s Salvatore Maddi, says kids who complete his “hardiness” course — in which students learn new coping behaviors and beliefs about stress — earn higher GPAs than those who don’t. The U.S. Army is such a believer in these classes that it now puts all of its 1.1 million soldiers through its own stress resilience course.

What really separates the poised from the pack is not a lower level of fear or anxiety but a positive attitude toward that fear and anxiety:

Studies of everyone from classical musicians to competitive swimmers have found no difference at all between elites and novices in the intensity of their pre-performance anxiety; the poised, top-flight performers, however, were far more likely to describe their fear as an aid to success than the nonelites. No matter what skill we’re trying to improve under pressure — working on deadline, public speaking, staying cool on a first date — learning to work with fear instead of against it is a transformative shift.

A Pretty Low Opinion of History

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Imagine that you had fallen asleep in 2005, Foseti suggests, and stayed asleep until 2150:

Further assume that when you woke up in 2150, everyone loved the Iraq War. Not just Rumsfeld-style liked it, but f—ing loved it. They loved it so much, that if you dared to question the righteousness of liberating the Iraqis from bondage, you’d be considered unfit for civil conversation. Intellectuals in 2150 prove their intellectual-ness by signaling to each other they support the Iraq War more than other people. In other words, by 2150, mainstream opinion on the Iraq War would be such that Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 would — by 2150 standards — be considered only moderately pro-war.

Regardless of what you think about the Iraq War in the present day, you’d have a pretty low opinion of history as practiced in 2150.

That’s how he sees our modern understanding of the American Civil War:

The easiest way to understand how retarded the modern view of the Civil War is, is to read two short speeches by Charles Francis Adams. These are easy because they’re short and well-written and Mr Adams is an impeccable source — he fought for the Union and he is a great historian. The cracks in the official story become clear because Adams position on the war would — by modern standards — make him a rabid defender of the South. Unfortunately, for the modern and official story, he fought for the North.

Adams defends Virginia’s decision to secede. He believes Virginia decided to secede in defense of its understanding of the Constitution (see Moldbug’s analysis of abolitionism above). He also comes to believe that his own understanding of slavery was severely lacking (I still think Genovese’s book, linked above, was the best on this particular issue). I think it would have been virtually impossible to live through reconstruction and not believe that it was a complete tragedy.

Listening to Bill Gates on Improving Education

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

For the last dozen years, Steve Sailer has been listening to Bill Gates on improving education:

First, it was small learning communities (which he now says the Gates Foundation wasted $2 billion upon), then it was making everybody pass Algebra II to graduate from high school, then it was something else, now it’s giving the best teachers bigger classes (see Gates’s latest op-ed: “How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools”).

The weird thing is that the Way to Fix the Schools has basically never been, according to Gates, about the main way the rest of economy gets more productive — and also the one thing Bill Gates definitely knows a lot about: information technology.

And yet, common sense says that information technology offers the main hope of us ever being able to afford on a mass scale the one educational tool that works more often than anything else, especially with math: individualized tutoring. It often doesn’t work, but over thousands of years it’s tended to work enough that that’s what rich people get for their kids. And it’s a lot more likely to work than the latest fad.

Unfortunately, assigning one human tutor with patience, insight, and communications skills per student is mind-bogglingly expensive.

So, the standard Ed School solution is “differentiated instruction:” i.e., the teacher should be every student’s personal tutor. The teacher is supposed to walk around the classroom instantly diagnosing why each individual student is screwing up and giving the exact help he or she needs. Thus, the need for Superman.

Yet, assigning one computer per student is getting cheaper all the time. And computers have all the patience in the world. It’s easy for a program like Aleks to generate math problems adapted on the fly to the exact level of the student — if you miss a question, the next one is easier, if you get it right, the next one is harder. That’s how big tests like the GRE and the ASVAB work today.

What’s harder is getting the computer to figure out why the student gets wrong a problem at his appropriate level. Yet, that’s not an impossible task in math, where there are a finite number of ways to screw up.

Folks, it’s 2011. Way back in 1998, my Palm Pilot could humiliate me in chess. We’re not talking about beating Gary Kasparov or Ken Jennings here, we’re talking about reminding a kid who thinks that -3 times -3 equals -9 that a negative number times a negative number is a positive number.

So, what would have happened if instead of investing billions naively chasing social theory fads, Bill Gates had invested billions over the last 12 years in something he knows about: software.

Closing the black box

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Matt Ridley notes that we close the black box pretty quickly:

When did you last read an account of how microchips actually work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and holes and “p-doping” and “n-doping” and the delights of gallium arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they work.

My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the technology becomes a black box.

It is the same with any technology. A few years ago people modified their computers in all sorts of clever ways, adding on hard drives or patching in programs. Now they tend to take them as they are: a sign of a maturing technology.

Once upon a time people built toy steam engines, or assembled home-made radios with crystals and cat’s whiskers (whatever those were), or tinkered with their own cars and talked about fuel injection and conical piston heads, or tried to teach children computer programming languages; or drew diagrams of different types of jet engines. Now you treat a radio or a car as a fully functioning off-the-shelf device with internal workings that you dare not touch; and nobody is terribly interested in the precise processes of internal combustion or amplitude modulation.

I am especially conscious of this, because when I first became a science reporter, part of my job was to write breathless dispatches on semiconductor breakthroughs, with carefully nuanced explanations of mechanisms. But as the semiconductor became ubiquitous, the details dropped out of sight. Take gallium arsenide. There was a lively debate about whether this semiconducting compound was going to replace silicon, because of its superior features. There probably still is, but it’s no longer considered newsworthy.

Likewise, there was once a good living to be made by people like me explaining genetics at the molecular level: all about hydrogen bonds, four-letter alphabets, three-letter code-words and A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s. Now you mostly take that for granted and cut straight to the medical chase.

Not as Old as You Think

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Many ancient secrets of the orient aren’t particularly ancient. It turns out that yoga is not as old as you might think — nor as Hindu:

The reality is that postural yoga, as we know it in the 21st century, is neither eternal nor synonymous with the Vedas or Yoga Sutras. On the contrary, modern yoga was born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a child of the Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism, in which Western ideas about science, evolution, eugenics, health and physical fitness played as crucial a role as the ‘mother tradition’. In the massive, multi-level hybridisation that took place during this period, the spiritual aspects of yoga and tantra were rationalised, largely along the theosophical ideas of ‘spiritual science,’ introduced to India by the US-origin, India-based Theosophical Society, and internalised by Swami Vivekananda, who led the yoga renaissance.

In turn, the physical aspects of yoga were hybridised with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England, the United States and other Western countries. These innovations were creatively grafted on the Yoga Sutras — which has been correctly described by Agehananda Bharati, the Austria-born Hindu monk-mystic, as ‘the yoga canon for people who have accepted Brahmin theology’ — to create an impression of 5,000 years worth of continuity where none really exists.

The Lie That Something Important Happens Every Day

Monday, March 7th, 2011

News is the lie that something important happens every day, Bryan Caplan likes to say. Rolf Dobelli agrees:

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that — because you consumed it — allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business — compared to what you would have known if you hadn’t swallowed that morsel of news.
Assume that, against all odds, you found one piece of news that substantially increased the quality of your life — compared to how your life would have unfolded if you hadn’t read or seen it. How much trivia did your brain have to digest to get to that one relevant nugget? Even that question is a hindsight analysis. Looking forward, we can’t possibly identify the value of a piece of news before we see it, so we are forced to digest everything on the news buffet line. Is that worthwhile? Probably not.

In 1914, the news story about the assassination in Sarajevo dwarfed all other reports in terms of its global significance. But, the murder in Sarajevo was just one of several thousand stories in circulation that day. No news organization treated this historically pivotal homicide as anything more than just another politically inspired assassination.

Americans Love Revolutions

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Americans love revolutions, Niall Ferguson notes, but they should stick to loving their own rather unusual revolution, and not every uprising that comes along. He asks us to remember these three things about non-American revolutions:

They take years to unfold. It may have seemed like glad confident morning in 1789, 1917, and 1949. Four years later it was darkness at noon.

They begin by challenging an existing political order, but the more violence is needed to achieve that end, the more the initiative passes to men of violence — Robespierre, Stalin, and the supremely callous Mao himself.

Because neighboring countries feel challenged by the revolution, internal violence is soon followed by external violence, either because the revolution is genuinely threatened by foreigners (as in the French and Russian cases) or because it suits the revolutionaries to blame an external threat for domestic problems (as when China intervened in the Korean War).

Galton’s Bayesian Inference Engine

Monday, March 7th, 2011

In 1877, Francis Galton built a Bayesian inference engine — although he thought of it as displaying the action of natural selection in a model for inheritance of quantitative characteristics:

The machine is reproduced in Figure 1 from the original publication. It depicts the fundamental calculation of Bayesian inference: the determination of a posterior distribution from a prior distribution and a likelihood function. Look carefully at the picture — notice it shows the upper portion as three-dimensional, with a glass front and a depth of about four inches. There are cardboard dividers to keep the beads from settling into a flat pattern, and the drawing exaggerates the smoothness of the heap from left to right, something like a normal curve. We could think of the top layer as showing the prior distribution p(x) as a population of beads representing, say, potential values for x, from low (left) to high (right).

The machine does the computation with gravity providing the motive force. There is a knob at the right-hand side of each of two levels. When the platform supporting the top level of beads is withdrawn by pulling the upper knob at the right, the beads fall to the next lower level. On that second level, you can see what is intended to be a vertical screen, or wall, that is close to the glass front at both the left and the right, but recedes to the rear in the middle. If viewed from above, that screen would look something like a normal curve. The vertical screen represents the likelihood function; in this position, it reflects high likelihood for xs in the middle, but if moved to the right, it would represent high likelihood for larger values of x. Similarly, if moved to the left, high likelihood for smaller x.

The way the machine works its magic is that those beads to the front of the screen are retained as shown; those falling behind are rejected and discarded. (You might think of this stage as doing rejection sampling from the upper stage.) The surviving beads are shown at this level as a sort of nonstandard histogram, nonstandard because the depths of the compartments vary, with those toward the middle being deeper than those in the extremes.

The final stage turns this into a standard histogram: The second support platform is removed by pulling to the right on its knob, and the beads fall to a slanted platform immediately below, rolling then to the lowest level, where the depth is again uniform — about one inch deep from the glass in front. This simply rescales the retained beads, resulting in a distribution that again looks somewhat like another normal curve, one a bit less disperse that the prior distribution at the top. The magic of the machine is that this lowest level is proportional to the posterior distribution!

(Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok.)

Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness starts filming in June

Monday, March 7th, 2011

At the Mountains of Madness is the movie Guillermo del Toro was born to direct, and now it looks like it should start filming in June. The truly sanity-blasting element of it is that Tom Cruise is set to star:

Ron Perlman told us that he’s in the movie, playing a newly invented character, a “dog-sled guy” who’s more no-nonsense than the academics and intellectuals on the mission.

Cameron raised our hopes a while back, when he called Mountains of Madness an “epically scaled horror film” and added that “we haven’t seen anything like this… since Aliens.” He added in a separate interview, “The design work is phenomenal, both the three-dimensional and two-dimensional design work, the physical maquettes, the CG test scenes; the artwork is phenomenal. The fans certainly won’t want for a visual feast with this film.”