How Thick Is Your Bubble?

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

How thick is your bubble? Quite thick, I suspect, as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart quiz should demonstrate:

5. Have you ever walked on a factory floor?

6. Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day?

7. Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?

I actually have walked on a factory floor, although I haven’t truly worked on one, and I have held a job that caused physical pain by the end of the day, but only as a teenager, and I do have strongly Christian friends, at least since I started shooting regularly.

Readers of this blog almost certainly score points for having friends with whom they disagree politically.

But, really, laugh at the SWPLs all we like, we’re in the upper-middle-class bubble.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

SE Android

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

The US Army’s “Nett Warrior” program — supposedly named after Medal of Honor winner Robert Nett — is dropping it’s iconic wearable computer for a new NWEUD — that’s Nett Warrior End-User Device — based on commercial smart phones and tablets, so NSA has produced a “hardened” version of the Android OS, called SE Android, based on its Security-Enhanced version of Linux.

Armchair Pilots

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

A few armchair pilots have gone far beyond installing Microsoft Flight Simulator on their home PC:

Mr. Krohn’s cockpit is part of a homemade flight simulator that never leaves his home. Yet it has dials, switches and pedals almost exactly like those on a genuine jet plane. The 52-year-old banker has spent more than 15 years building his machine, at a cost of more than $20,000.
“Mine’s made out of beer cans and truck parts,” says Australian Matt Sheil, who built a 747 jumbo jet cockpit in the garage of his truck-equipment company in Sydney. His simulator runs off 14 computers using 45 programs, some of them custom written. It can bank and pitch, like a real plane. Yet the steering column is an exhaust pipe. “You’d be surprised how many parts a Kenworth truck and a Boeing 747 have in common.”

Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcus

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Some children get sick, get well, and go on with their lives. Others get sick, get well, and then come down with pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcus, or PANDAS:

PANDAS is thought to be caused by antibodies generated as a result of an infection, usually strep. Normally, an infection causes the body to generate antibodies that fight the infection and promote healing. But in PANDAS, the antibody response is thought to go awry, attacking brain cells and resulting in OCD symptoms.

What kind of OCD symptoms?

Brody Kennedy was a typical sixth-grader who loved to hang out with friends in Castaic and play video games. A strep-throat infection in October caused him to miss a couple of days of school, but he was eager to rejoin his classmates, recalls his mother, Tracy.

Then, a week after Brody became ill, he awoke one morning to find his world was no longer safe. Paranoid about germs and obsessed with cleanliness, he refused to touch things and showered several times a day. His fear prevented him from attending school, and he insisted on wearing nothing but a sheet or demanding that his mother microwave his clothes or heat them in the dryer before dressing.
“He washed his hands over and over and was using hand-sanitizer nonstop,” said Tracy Kennedy, who has home-schooled her 11-year-old son since early November. “He had never been like this before. Ever. He just woke up with it.”

Heavy Boots

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

William Newman just called our attention to the importance of heavy boots:

About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science and engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes.

He was trying to show how things don’t always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon. My jaw dropped a little. I blurted “What?!” Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA’s statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like “What’s your problem?” “But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly.” I protested.

“No it wouldn’t.” the TA explained calmly, “because you’re too far away from the Earth’s gravity.” Think. Think. Aha! “You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn’t you?”

I countered, “why didn’t they float away?”

“Because they were wearing heavy boots.” he responded, as if this made perfect sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who’s had plenty of logic classes). By then I realized that we were each living in totally different worlds, and did not speak each others language, so I gave up.

As we left the room, my friend Mark was raging. “My God! How can all those people be so stupid?” I tried to be understanding. “Mark, they knew this stuff at one time, but it’s not part of their basic view of the world, so they’ve forgotten it. Most people could probably make the same mistake.”

To prove my point, we went back to our dorm room and began randomly selecting names from the campus phone book. We called about 30 people and asked each this question: 1

1. If you’re standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it
a) float away,
b) float where it is,
or c) fall to the ground?

About 47 percent got this question correct. Of the ones who got it wrong, we asked the obvious follow-up question:

2. You’ve seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn’t they fall off?

About 20 percent of the people changed their answer to the first question when they heard this one! But the most amazing part was that about half of them confidently answered, “Because they were wearing heavy boots.”

More on the Burning Question of Heavy Boots

I decided to settle this question once and for all. Therefore, I put two multiple choice questions on my Physics 111 test, after the study of elementary mechanics and gravity.

13. If you are standing on the Moon, and holding a rock, and you let it go, it will:
(a) float away
(b) float where it is
(c) move sideways
(d) fall to the ground
(e) none of the above

25. When the Apollo astronauts wre on the Moon, they did not fall off because:
(a) the Earth’s gravity extends to the Moon
(b) the Moon has gravity
(c) they wore heavy boots
(d) they had safety ropes
(e) they had spiked shoes

The response showed some interesting patterns! The first question was generally of average difficulty, compared with the rest of the test: 57% got it right. The second question was easier: 73% got it right. So, we need more research to explain the people who got #25 right but did not get #13 right!

The second interesting point is that these questions proved to be excellent discriminators: that is, success on these two questions proved to be an extremely good predictor of overall success on the test. On the first question, 92% of those in the upper quarter of the test score got it right; only 20% of those in the bottom quarter did. They generally chose answers (a) or (b). On the second question, 97% in the upper quarter got it right and 33% in the lower quarter did. The big popular choice of this group was (c)…33% chose heavy boots, followed closely by safety ropes at 27%.

A telling comment on the issue of fairness in teaching elementary physics: Two students asked if I was going to continue asking them about things they had never studied in the class.

Hyper-Ambush Predators

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

The saber-toothed “tiger” (Smilodon) had long, saber-like teeth — as did a couple other saber-toothed species — and those saber-like teeth seem to come with massive arms:

Back in 2010, Meachen-Samuels placed Smilodon fossils in an X-ray machine, and showed that it has extra-thick, reinforced bone in its upper arms, with large attachment points for its large muscles. It was a particularly butch cat.

The study confirmed the idea that Smilodon used its huge teeth in a very different way to its modern relatives. Living cats use their jaws to close the throat or nose of their prey, choking them to death. Their conical canines are well-suited to the task, able to withstand forces in all directions. Sabre-teeth, while they look formidable, were actually quite fragile. They were long and flattened, rather than short and conical. If the cat’s prey struggled, its teeth would have shattered. If the teeth hit bone during a bite, they would have shattered.

So Smilodon used the sabres like an assassin’s dagger rather than a swordsman’s blade, dispatching victims with quick stabs. Its big arms helped it to restrain its prey for the killing blow. Meachen-Samuels wondered if other sabre-toothed predators shared the same adaptations.

She compared the skeletons of 15 species of living cats with fossils from 8 species of sabre-toothed ones, 5 nimravids and 1 barbourofelid. Across the groups, Meachen-Samuels found that the species with the most exaggerated canines also had the most robust front legs and the widest paws. Based on the dimensions of these limbs, you could predict whether one of these animals had sabre teeth with almost perfect accuracy.

The Word “Sustainable” Is Unsustainable

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

The word “sustainable” is unsustainable:

Physicists Lose The Lecture

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Leave it to physicists to test whether lectures teach anything or not:

When Eric Mazur began teaching physics at Harvard, he started out teaching the same way he had been taught. [...] But then in 1990, he came across articles written by David Hestenes, a physicist at Arizona State. Hestenes got the idea for the series when a colleague came to him with a problem. The students in his introductory physics courses were not doing well: Semester after semester, the class average never got above about 40 percent.

“I noted that the reason for that was that his examination questions were mostly qualitative, requiring understanding of the concepts rather than just calculational, using formulas, which is what most of the instructors did,” Hestenes says.

Hestenes had a suspicion students were just memorizing the formulas and never really getting the concepts. So he and a colleague developed a test to look at students’ conceptual understanding of physics. It’s a test Maryland’s Redish has given his students many times.

Here’s a question from the test: “Two balls are the same size but one weighs twice as much as the other. The balls are dropped from the top of a two-story building at the same instant of time. The time it takes the ball to reach the ground will be…”

The possible answers include about half as long for the heavier ball, about half as long for the lighter ball, or the same time for both. This is a fundamental concept but even some people who’ve taken physics get this question wrong.


While most physics students can recite Newton’s second law of motion, Harvard’s Mazur says, the conceptual test developed by Hestenes showed that after an entire semester they understood only about 14 percent more about the fundamental concepts of physics. When Mazur read the results, he shook his head in disbelief. The test covered such basic material.

“I gave it to my students only to discover that they didn’t do much better,” he says.

The test has now been given to tens of thousands of students around the world and the results are virtually the same everywhere. The traditional lecture-based physics course produces little or no change in most students’ fundamental understanding of how the physical world works.

“The classes only seem to be really working for about 10 percent of the students,” Arizona State’s Hestenes says. “And I maintain, I think all the evidence indicates, that these 10 percent are the students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own.”


Mazur’s physics class is now different. Rather than lecturing, he makes his students do most of the talking.

At a recent class, the students — nearly 100 of them — are in small groups discussing a question. Three possible answers to the question are projected on a screen. Before the students start talking with one another, they use a mobile device to vote for their answer. Only 29 percent got it right. After talking for a few minutes, Mazur tells them to answer the question again.

This time, 62 percent of the students get the question right. Next, Mazur leads a discussion about the reasoning behind the answer. The process then begins again with a new question. This is a method Mazur calls “peer Instruction.” He now teaches all of his classes this way.

“What we found over now close to 20 years of using this approach is that the learning gains at the end of the semester nearly triple,” he says.

One value of this approach is that it can be done with hundreds of students. You don’t need small classes to get students active and engaged. Mazur says the key is to get them to do the assigned reading — what he calls the “information-gathering” part of education — before they come to class.

Enhanced E-Books

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Customers haven’t been asking for enhanced e-books, but a few have become break-out hits:

A book about skulls by Simon Winchester features a gallery of more than 300 human and animal skulls that can be rotated 360 degrees, enlarged and viewed in three dimensions with 3-D glasses. “The Elements,” which has interactive images of each element, became a runaway best seller, selling 250,000 copies at $13.99, bringing in more than $2.5 million in revenue. A widely praised app for T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” includes a facsimile of the manuscript with edits by Ezra Pound, readings by Eliot recorded in 1933 and 1947 and a video performance of the poem by actress Fiona Shaw.

The highly produced apps — the digital equivalent of coffee-table books — are expensive to make, but so far they’ve been profitable, says Touch Press’s creative director Theodore Gray. Touch Press spent $120,000 on “The Wasteland” and recovered its investment in 4½ weeks. The app, priced at $13.99, hit No. 1 on Apple’s list of best-selling book apps, prompting hope among publishers that literature can hold its own in the app world.

Developing Talent in Young People

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

In a 1984 study, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that one-to-one tutoring was dramatically better than conventional classroom teaching. Students randomly chosen to receive one-to-one instruction performed at the 98th percentile (of the conventionally instructed control group). Because one-to-one instruction doesn’t come cheap, this finding became known as Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem.

His imperfect solution to the problem was mastery learning, where students perform corrective work until they master the material before moving on.

Now, where I would have concluded that conventional classroom teaching is largely a waste of time, Bloom and other educational psychologists concluded that we can close the achievement gap. Sure, I suppose, if you don’t let the sharper students move ahead.

Anyway, this led me to pick up a copy of Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People, which looks at 120 individuals who, before the age of 35, had demonstrated the highest level of accomplishment in piano, tennis, swimming, sculpture, math, or research neurology.

None of them got there through conventional classroom training. Across most of the fields studied, the young experts-to-be had parents with some interest, but not necessarily any exceptional skill, in the field. The piano players’ parents, for instance, generally had classical music playing on the record player at home, and some played piano as a hobby, but they weren’t themselves concert pianists. The tennis players had families who spent the weekend at the country club, playing tennis. The mathematicians and neurologists had families who discussed important ideas around the dinner table.

The athletes and musicians generally got put into lessons fairly early, and their parents made sure they practiced. Although basically all of the experts described themselves as fast learners who picked up their field faster than the other kids, Bloom places zero weight on this and more or less dismisses the notion. He (rightly) points out that none of these future experts showed up as a prodigy, able to perform like an adult expert overnight. They all put in long hours of practice over the course of years, moving from a friendly local teacher or coach, to a more serious instructor, to a world-class one, as they progressed.

The mathematicians and neurologists, by the way, considered their early schooling a waste of time, at least as far as math and science were concerned. The mathematicians in particular disliked most of their math classes, with the exception of those “classes” where the teacher left them alone with a good math book to work through independently. Outside of school, they tended to like science and engineering projects, and many had their own home laboratories. They didn’t really get any coaching in their field until college and grad school.

The sculptors, by the way, scoffed at art classes and did their own art projects as they grew up — but few had any access to working artists, for guidance, or real materials, for sculpting, until art school.

Again, conventional classroom teaching is largely a waste of time — but mentoring talented and motivated students is immensely valuable.

The New American Divide

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Charles Murray summarizes his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, for the Wall Street Journal and describes the new American divide between upper-middle-class Belmont and working-class Fishtown:

If you were an executive living in Belmont in 1960, income inequality would have separated you from the construction worker in Fishtown, but remarkably little cultural inequality. You lived a more expensive life, but not a much different life. Your kitchen was bigger, but you didn’t use it to prepare yogurt and muesli for breakfast. Your television screen was bigger, but you and the construction worker watched a lot of the same shows (you didn’t have much choice). Your house might have had a den that the construction worker’s lacked, but it had no StairMaster or lap pool, nor any gadget to monitor your percentage of body fat. You both drank Bud, Miller, Schlitz or Pabst, and the phrase “boutique beer” never crossed your lips. You probably both smoked. If you didn’t, you did not glare contemptuously at people who did.

When you went on vacation, you both probably took the family to the seashore or on a fishing trip, and neither involved hotels with five stars. If you had ever vacationed outside the U.S. (and you probably hadn’t), it was a one-time trip to Europe, where you saw eight cities in 14 days—not one of the two or three trips abroad you now take every year for business, conferences or eco-vacations in the cloud forests of Costa Rica.

You both lived in neighborhoods where the majority of people had only high-school diplomas—and that might well have included you. The people around you who did have college degrees had almost invariably gotten them at state universities or small religious colleges mostly peopled by students who were the first generation of their families to attend college. Except in academia, investment banking, a few foundations, the CIA and the State Department, you were unlikely to run into a graduate of Harvard, Princeton or Yale.

Even the income inequality that separated you from the construction worker was likely to be new to your adulthood. The odds are good that your parents had been in the working class or middle class, that their income had not been much different from the construction worker’s, that they had lived in communities much like his, and that the texture of the construction worker’s life was recognizable to you from your own childhood.

Taken separately, the differences in lifestyle that now separate Belmont from Fishtown are not sinister, but those quirks of the upper-middle class that I mentioned—the yogurt and muesli and the rest—are part of a mosaic of distinctive practices that have developed in Belmont. These have to do with the food Belmonters eat, their drinking habits, the ages at which they marry and have children, the books they read (and their number), the television shows and movies they watch (and the hours spent on them), the humor they enjoy, the way they take care of their bodies, the way they decorate their homes, their leisure activities, their work environments and their child-raising practices. Together, they have engendered cultural separation.
The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.


Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Daniel Horan reviews Paul M. Barrett’s oddly subtitled Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun:

In February 1980, the author tells us, Mr. Glock chanced to overhear a conversation between two Austrian colonels as they expressed the need for a new army sidearm. He asked them for a chance to bid on the contract. The colonels merely laughed, regarding him as little more than a garage tinkerer. Undaunted, he sought an audience with Austria’s defense minister and asked him for a chance to compete for the business. The minister agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“That I knew nothing [about guns] was my advantage,” Mr. Glock said in an interview. He bought a number of handguns and disassembled them in his workshop, examining each component for its function while weighing potential improvements. He made prototypes and test-fired them with his left hand; if he was maimed by an explosion, he could still draw blueprints with his right. The product of his efforts was a nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistol that he designated the Glock 17 because it was his 17th invention.

Most notably, the frame of the new Glock pistol was built of industrial plastic, making it lighter and more resistant to corrosion than the conventional all-steel guns in use up to that time. The handgun’s various parts were housed in separate subgroups, making them easy to remove and replace. There was no safety or decocking lever to confuse the user. (The safety was built right into the trigger.) All told, the Glock 17 was a revolutionary new version of a weapon that had remained largely unchanged for a century.

The Austrian army tested the Glock 17 against pistols from such established European arms makers as Heckler & Koch, Sig Sauer, Beretta and Steyr. On Nov. 5, 1982, Mr. Glock received the news that his pistol had bested all the others. “Glock started with a blank sheet of paper,” writes Mr. Barrett. “He listened to his military customers. He made adjustments they requested. As a result, he came up with something original—and, as it turned out, he did so at precisely the right moment.”

It was not the last of Mr. Glock’s right moments. In 1984, an Austrian expatriate in the United States named Karl Walter, who sold firearms out of his motor home as he traveled the country, returned to Austria for a visit. While there, he came across a Glock 17 in a gun shop. He found its squared-off, plastic appearance ugly, but he was curious about the upstart designer who had somehow won the approval of the Austrian military. Mr. Walter visited Mr. Glock and proposed marketing the handgun in America. “This pistol will sell,” he told Mr. Glock. “But it must be sold.”

And sold it was. Mr. Walter arranged for the Glock 17 to be featured in the October 1984 issue Soldier of Fortune magazine, and product placements in films and television shows soon had Glock pistols showing up in the hands of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Innovation had spawned fascination. Once Glock pistols were adopted by the FBI, the Secret Service and major American police departments, sales to the public began to eclipse those of even Smith & Wesson, the venerable American gun maker, which nearly went out of business as a result.

Glock is the world’s leading manufacturer of handguns, with annual revenues of more than $100 million.

Duct Tape

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

When you first heard of duct tape as a kid, you likely thought the term was duck tape — and you were likely right:

The origin of the name of the product, “duck tape” or “duct tape”, is the subject of some disagreement.

One view is that it was called “duck tape” by WWII soldiers either because it resembled strips of cotton duck (canvas) or because the waterproof quality of the tape contributed to the name, by analogy to the water-shedding quality of a duck’s plumage. Under this view, soldiers returning home from the war found uses for duck tape around the house where ductwork needed sealing. Other proponents of this view point to older references to non-adhesive cotton duck tape used in Venetian blinds, suggesting that the name was carried over to the adhesive product.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that perhaps “duct tape” was originally “duck tape”. This view is summarized most notably in a New York Times article by etymologist William Safire in March 2003. Safire cites use of the term “cotton duck tape” in a 1945 advertisement for surplus government property. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle uses the term “duck” in 1902 quotation for “100,000 yards of cotton duck tape” being used to protect the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Thus a fabric duck tape was available to which an adhesive could have been added.

It gets better. Duct tape is not good for duct work:

Late in 1998, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made a startling discovery — ever-popular duct tape was useful for hundreds and hundreds of tasks, but holding ducts together wasn’t one of them.

Over three months, researchers tested duct tape and 31 other sealants under accelerated laboratory conditions that mimicked long-term use in the home. They heated air to nearly 170 degrees and chilled it to below 55 degrees before blasting it through ducts. They baked ductwork at temperatures up to 187 degrees to simulate the oven-like conditions of a closed attic under a hot summer sun.

Of all the things they tested, only duct tape failed — and they reported it failed reliably and often quite catastrophically.

Instead of using duct tape, the researchers recommended sealing ducts with mastics, gooey sealants that are painted on and allowed to harden. Metal ducts should be held together with sheet metal screws; flexible duct connections should be secured with metal or plastic bands.

Where New Jobs Begin

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

In a recent speech promoting a jobs bill, President Obama told Congress, “Everyone here knows that small businesses are where most new jobs begin.” Close, but not quite, Michael Ellsberg says:

In a detailed analysis, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that nearly all net job creation in America comes from start-up businesses, not small businesses per se. (Since most start-ups start small, we tend to conflate two variables — the size of a business and its age — and incorrectly assume the former was the relevant one, when in fact the latter is.)

If start-up activity is the true engine of job creation in America, one thing is clear: our current educational system is acting as the brakes. Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business. Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure.

No business in America — and therefore no job creation — happens without someone buying something. But most students learn nothing about sales in college; they are more likely to take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil.

Moreover, very few start-ups get off the ground without a wide, vibrant network of advisers and mentors, potential customers and clients, quality vendors and valuable talent to employ. You don’t learn how to network crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams. You learn it outside the classroom, talking to fellow human beings face-to-face.

Start-ups are a creative endeavor by definition. Yet our current classrooms, geared toward tests on narrowly defined academic subjects, stifle creativity. If a young person happens to retain enough creative spirit to start a business upon graduation, she does so in spite of her schooling, not because of it.

Finally, entrepreneurs must embrace failure. I spent the last two years interviewing college dropouts who went on to become millionaires and billionaires. All spoke passionately about the importance of their business failures in leading them to success. Our education system encourages students to play it safe and retreat at the first sign of failure (assuming that any failure will look bad on their college applications and résumés).

There is not one job market in America, but two:

The formal market we always hear about — jobs that get filled through cold résumé submissions in reply to posted ads — accounts for only about 20 percent of jobs.

The other 80 percent get filled in the informal job market. Any employer knows how the informal job market works: you need a position filled, so you ask your friends, colleagues and current employees if they know anyone who would do a good job.

In this informal job market, the academic requirements listed in job ads tend to be highly negotiable, and far less important than real-world results and the enthusiasm of the personal referral.

Redrawing the United States of America

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Our American state borders are rather arbitrary, and in many cases redrawing the United States of America would make sense:

The New York metropolitan area has grown to encompass counties in four states. Kansas City is really two different municipalities divided by the Missouri-Kansas border. Chicago’s Metra commuter rail stretches into neighboring Wisconsin, just as Washington, D.C.’s Metro trains and busses collect riders from Maryland and Virginia.

Using bill tracking data from Where’s George, a web site where users enter tracking data for physical one-dollar bills, researchers found that the US breaks into 12 distinct regions:

The Midwest remained largely in tact, as does New England. But Pennsylvania was split in two by the Appalachian Mountains, while the southern half of Georgia was given over to Florida (which in turn lost part of its panhandle to a new Gulf shores region). And as far as Where’s George data is concerned, most of the western United States is indistinguishable.