Combat is primarily a psychological phenomenon

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Combat is primarily a psychological phenomenon, Dr. Jim Storr says — it is resolved when one side believes it is beaten:

Tactical success can be obtained when the enemy commander believes he has lost: that is, when he has lost the will to continue. Violence, in the form of troop movement and weapons effect, is applied to make that happen. Using those terms, the key issue is that we have no good, simple, clear idea of how applying violence breaks the enemy’s will on the battle?eld.

A recent US Marine Corps after-action report from Afghanistan indicated that:

  • the enemy is not intimidated by crew-served machine guns, but is unnerved by HE [high explosives];
  • an attack from an unforeseen direction will often create panic and confusion among the enemy, and make it much easier to destroy them;
  • experienced Marines use very little small-arms ammunition, sometimes no more than four magazines in eight hours of fighting; and
  • the enemy will repel attacks that are not properly co-ordinated.

Only movement brings victory:

  • Manoeuvre: to find; to fix; to strike; and to exploit.
  • Manoeuvre: to isolate; to envelope; and to encircle. That allows you to surprise and to shock.
  • Apply HE [high explosives] to neutralise; but note that neutralisation does not mean defeat. It is transient and must be exploited.
  • Only engage with small arms: at medium- or long-range, when necessary (and only when necessary) to suppress in order to enable movement; at short range, in the assault. This will not require much ammunition.
  • Exploit all of the above. That normally means movement; it also means supporting subordinates and reinforcing their success. Above all, exploit surprise and shock action.
  • Do not expect this to be anything other than confusing and chaotic. But, if you do it well, it should be highly effective.

The Bell Curve’s Toll

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

I’ve read enough about Murray’s Coming Apart that I’m not sure what I’d get from reading it. That said, I still enjoyed Steve Sailer’s The Bell Curve’s Toll:

In 1950 my wife’s uncle, the son of a West Side of Chicago ditch digger, won a scholarship to MIT. Back then it was unusual enough for anybody from Chicago to go all the way to Massachusetts for college that the local newspaper printed a picture of him boarding the train for Cambridge. By the 1960s, however, the spread of standardized testing had helped make it customary for elite universities to vacuum up larger and larger fractions of the country’s cognitive talent. The long-term implications of this momentous change are quantified in Charles Murray’s new book on the evolving American class system, Coming Apart.

The book pulls together strands of his thought going back three decades, a period during which Murray has been the model of a public intellectual. Striving to reconcile contrasting virtues, Murray has displayed a dazzling gift for sophisticated data analysis while remaining devoted to making his books as broadly comprehensible as possible. He’s a social-scientific elitist and a civic egalitarian; a libertarian and a communitarian; a truth-teller and a thinker of the utmost judiciousness.

Not surprisingly, none of these strengths have made the co-author of The Bell Curve terribly popular, especially because in the 18 years since the publication of that infinitely denounced book about the growing stratification of America by intelligence not much has happened to prove it in error. In 2012, it looks like it’s Charles Murray’s world and we’re just living in it.

Murray isn’t hated for being wrong but instead for authoritatively documenting the kinds of things that everybody uncomfortably senses are true.

Why French Parents Are Superior

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Pamela Druckerman’s new book, Bringing Up Bébé, catalogs her observations about why French children seem so much better behaved than their American counterparts:

The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked. “Discipline,” I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)

One Saturday I visited Delphine Porcher, a pretty labor lawyer in her mid-30s who lives with her family in the suburbs east of Paris. When I arrived, her husband was working on his laptop in the living room, while 1-year-old Aubane napped nearby. Pauline, their 3-year-old, was sitting at the kitchen table, completely absorbed in the task of plopping cupcake batter into little wrappers. She somehow resisted the temptation to eat the batter.

Delphine said that she never set out specifically to teach her kids patience. But her family’s daily rituals are an ongoing apprenticeship in how to delay gratification. Delphine said that she sometimes bought Pauline candy. (Bonbons are on display in most bakeries.) But Pauline wasn’t allowed to eat the candy until that day’s snack, even if it meant waiting many hours.

When Pauline tried to interrupt our conversation, Delphine said, “Just wait two minutes, my little one. I’m in the middle of talking.” It was both very polite and very firm. I was struck both by how sweetly Delphine said it and by how certain she seemed that Pauline would obey her. Delphine was also teaching her kids a related skill: learning to play by themselves. “The most important thing is that he learns to be happy by himself,” she said of her son, Aubane.

It’s a skill that French mothers explicitly try to cultivate in their kids more than American mothers do. In a 2004 study on the parenting beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one’s child to play alone was of average importance. But the French moms said it was very important.

Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, authors of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, react to this — and to Tiger Mom-style parenting — with their recommendations for building self-control, the American way — which sounds borderline oxymoronic:

Traditionally, Asian students succeed in part because they show good self-control from an early age. In one study, Chinese preschoolers were six months ahead of American children in developing mental control, like the ability to look to the left when shown a face pointing to the right. Another study found that Korean 3-year-olds did as well on such tasks as British children who were 17 months older.

Like many brain capacities, self-control can be built through practice. Chinese parenting emphasizes child training, which combines close supervision of performance with substantial support and motivation for the child’s efforts. This approach comes at a great cost to parents and children. East Asian students study long and hard — in South Korea, 14 hours a day. Parental pressure there is so intense that the government has hired inspectors to enforce a 10 p.m. curfew on private tutoring.

In “Bringing Up Bébé,” Ms. Druckerman, a journalist, is envious of Parisian parents whose children don’t throw tantrums in public or fight on playgrounds. She ascribes this good behavior to stern French methods like forcing children to follow schedules and wait for attention. But in the school system, this strict approach translates to a rigid curriculum with an emphasis on memorization. French children also are tracked into different academic paths by age 12, a practice that reinforces the influence of parental socioeconomic status on educational and career outcomes, reducing social mobility.

Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure. Behavior is powerfully shaped not only by parents or teachers but also by children themselves. The key is to harness the child’s own drives for play, social interaction and other rewards. Enjoyable activities elicit dopamine release to enhance learning, while reducing the secretion of stress hormones, which can impede learning and increase anxiety, sometimes for years.

Effective approaches for building self-control combine fun with progressively increasing challenges. Rather than force activities onto an unwilling child, take advantage of his or her individual tendencies. When children develop self-control through their own pursuit of happiness, no parental hovering is required. Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort. Whether it’s compiling baseball statistics or making (but not passively watching) YouTube videos, passionate hobbies build mental staying power that can also be used for math homework.

I’m not sure what Asian students’ 14-hour days and French students’ rigid tracking have to do with instilling discipline in young children.

Does Foot Form Explain Running Injuries?

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Harvard University’s men’s and women’s distance running squads track their injuries. A recent study examined four years’ data and found that foot form explains running injuries rather well:

No one is always a forefoot striker or a heel striker. Your form depends on many factors, including your speed, the terrain, whether you’re tired and so on. But most of us have a predominant strike pattern, and so it was with the 52 Harvard runners. Thirty-six, or 69 percent of them, were heel strikers, while 16, or 31 percent, were forefoot strikers. The proportions were similar regardless of gender.

More interesting was the distribution of injuries. About two-thirds of the group wound up hurt seriously enough each year to miss two or more training days. But the heel strikers were much more prone to injury, with a twofold greater risk than the forefoot strikers.

This finding, the first to associate heel striking with injury, is likely to fuel the continuing and not-always civil debate about whether barefoot running is better. (It hurts to hit the ground with your heel if you’re not wearing shoes.)

The Real Role of Small Arms in Combat

Monday, February 27th, 2012

The real role of small arms in combat, Dr. Jim Storr reminds us, is not to kill the enemy so much as to do something else:

Since the Boer War, if not before, infantrymen have been unable to advance in the open against tolerably well-organised defences equipped with rifles. The attackers’ casualties are simply too great. The minimum requirement for a successful defence is quite modest: high-velocity, conoidal bullets fired from half-decent breech-loading rifles. Anything more, such as automatic weapons, simply makes the attackers’ job even harder. In the early part of the 20th Century different armies came up with different ways of overcoming that problem. Many involved artillery or tanks. Some involved infantry heavy weapons, such as mortars. Most included a form of organisation and tactics by which the attacker used small arms fire to suppress the enemy. That enabled the attackers to move forward to the point where they could use bayonets, grenades and very-short-range small arms fire (at ranges of perhaps a few feet) to incapacitate any defenders who continued to resist. Critically, however, there was never much rational, explicit analysis as to how that took place.

A few studies are quite insightful. It appears that a soldier’s ability to hit a given target is typically reduced by a factor of ten or so when he is moved from a static rifle range to a field firing area where he has to select cover, move, shoot and so on. It is reduced by a further factor of ten or so if there is an enemy firing back at him. It is reduced by another factor of ten if the enemy has machine guns, or if he has tanks; and by a hundred if he has both. We begin to see why many thousands of rounds can be fired, but very few actually hit.

Another study reveals entirely different phenomena. It highlights that achieving surprise, or inflicting shock on the enemy are hugely effective. These are more effective than any likely force ratio, or the use of other weapon systems, and so on. Put very simply, if the attacker can find the enemy’s flanks and rear and attack him from there, or apply sudden concentrated violence to him and then exploit it, the enemy will typically give up quite quickly. He will then either withdraw, if he can, or surrender. A number of issues interact here. One is that using covert routes to find the enemy’s flanks and rear is clearly a good thing. Another is that the use of tanks or indirect fire to stun the enemy is very helpful. But within all of those tactics there is another critical factor: the attacking infantry’s ability to suppress the defender. That enables the attacker to move forward: either to close quarters to use bayonets and grenades, or around and past the defender’s positions to attack him from unexpected directions.

Although relatively few of the enemy are typically incapacitated by small arms fire, their location and identity is often critical. For example, the clearance of one trench may allow the attacker to get behind several more, and start to roll up the position.

Suppression is the effect of small arms and other weapons systems which temporarily prevent the enemy firing its weapons or moving in the open. In simple terms, it makes them keep their heads down. It is critically important. In the offence it allows the attacker to move forward, to find gaps and weak points, and exploit them. In the defence it prevents the enemy moving forward and firing, and thereby sets him up for counterattacks. In both cases it pins the enemy down for incapacitation (or destruction) by other weapons.

For the last century or so, Dr.Storr reminds us, most rifles have been more accurate than their riflemen:

A typical rifle — be it bolt-action or semi-automatic — will form a group of perhaps 40mm or better at 100m, if fired from a vice or clamp. A reasonably well-trained soldier firing the same weapon on a range can group at perhaps 100mm at the same distance. Very few armies train their soldiers to consistently beat that sort of accuracy. This has a huge consequence, which very few armies acknowledge: the weapon is in many ways irrelevant. As most modern small arms are more accurate than their firer, it makes very little difference which weapon is selected. There are many other parameters. Reliability, weight and ergonomics are all important. But accuracy is almost irrelevant, because many weapons are ‘good enough’ in that regard.

What is far more important is to train the soldier to get the required effect from his small arms. In most armies he is trained to hit targets out to 300m or perhaps 600m. Yet in battle he rarely does that. He is rarely, if ever, trained to do what he really needs to do: suppress the enemy. Field research carried out in the Second World War provided a useful metric for small arms suppression, as did some more recent analysis. We can consider three cases: the need to suppress an enemy; the need to keep him suppressed; and the need to re-establish suppression once lost. In general, small arms fire has to pass within roughly a metre from the outline of the target to be effective. A small number of rounds passing through that area in a few seconds (perhaps 3 to 5 rounds in as many seconds) will suppress the target, or re-suppress him if required; whilst just one round every three seconds will keep him suppressed. That seems quite achievable.

With a little coaching and feedback, a section of riflemen was able to suppress a (simulated) target more than twenty times as long with the same amount of ammunition.

Now, if riflemen can hit within a meter of their target, but not within centimeters, perhaps they should be shooting shells with a one-meter kill radius.

Practice beyond Perfection

Monday, February 27th, 2012

A recent study demonstrates that even after we “master” a physical skill, continuing to practice beyond perfection improves efficiency:

The study involved 15 right-handed test subjects who used a handle on a robotic arm, similar to a joystick, to control a cursor on a computer screen.  The tasks involved starting from a set position to reach for a target on the screen and involved both inward and outward arm movements, Ahmed said.

As part of the study, test subjects had to exert more energy in some reaching movements when the robotic arm created a force field, making subjects “push back” as they steered the cursor toward the target.  With repeated practice of moving the robotic arm against the force fields, the subjects learned the task by not only cutting down on errors, but effort as well, according to Ahmed.

The test subjects first performed a series of 200 reaching trials with no force field to push against, then two sets of 250 trials each when pushing back against the force field.  The experiment ended with another 200 trials with no force field, said Ahmed. A metronome was used to signal the test subjects to move the robotic arm every two seconds toward the target during the trials.

Each of the test subjects wore a nose clip and breathed through a mouthpiece to chart the rates of oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production, a measure of metabolism. The research team also collected surface electromyographic data by placing electrodes on the six upper limb muscles used during reaching tasks: the pectoralis major, the posterior deltoid, the biceps brachii, the triceps long head, the triceps lateral head and the brachioradialis.

“What is unique about our study is that we are the first group to measure metabolic cost in addition to muscle activity while performing a physical reaching task,” said Huang, who performed most of the research and was first author on the Journal of Neuroscience paper. “The results are very surprising and challenge the widely held assumption that muscle activity entirely explains changes in metabolic cost.”

The study suggests that efficient movements ultimately involve both efficient biomechanics and efficient neural processing, or thinking. “We suspect that the decrease in metabolic cost may involve more efficient brain activity,” Ahmed said.  “The brain could be modulating subtle features of arm muscle activity, recruiting other muscles or reducing its own activity to make the movements more efficiently.”

Top Guns

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

The History Channel, home of Top Shot, has spun off Top Guns, for its H2 sister channel. It features “more mechanics, more history, and a whole lot more shooting”:

The Atomic Cafe

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

I hadn’t ever watched The Atomic Cafe all the way through until recently, but I’d seen enough to know the tone and the basic message — look at those naive fools, thinking they could survive a nuclear war!

Watching it confirmed that it makes a splendid Rorschach test. If you want to see civil defense and nuclear deterrence as absurd, you will see that in the film. Otherwise, not so much…

In fact, what stands out to me now is how easy it is to compile footage of profoundly unfashionable people — fat farmers’ wives, Leave it to Beaver suburbanites, Richard Nixon — supporting certain ideas — in this case, civil defense, deterrence, anti-Communism, etc. — and to let that alone speak volumes to your hip audience.

The other rhetorical tool that stands out is the constant conflation of surviving a direct hit from an ICBM-delivered nuclear warhead with surviving fallout from a nearby bomber-delivered atomic weapon.

The people preparing for an atomic-bomb attack in the 1950s were preparing to survive another Hiroshima-style attack on the nearest city center, not a 20-megaton blast over their house. In Hiroshima, people survived just two or three hundred yards from ground zero, in solid structures that weren’t even formal bomb shelters.

If you read the credits, you’ll come across this list of groups who provided  Foundation Support:

  • Arca Foundation
  • Bydale Foundation
  • Cricket Foundation
  • CS Fund
  • Evergreen Fund
  • Film Fund
  • Funding Exchange
  • Fund for Tomorrow
  • Institute for World Order
  • Pacific Alliance
  • Pioneer Fund
  • Vanguard Public Foundation

Some of those names are great. I decided to look up the Institute for World Order, which is now the World Policy Institute:

Founded in New York City in 1961 as the Fund for Education Concerning World Peace through World Law, the World Policy Institute has its origins in the post-World War II movement of moderate internationalists. Its founders — the banker Harry B. Hollins, and the banker and public servant C. Douglas Dillon inspired by the World Federalist thinker Grenville Clark — sought to develop international policies to prevent future carnage and devastation like what the world had just experienced. In 1963, the Institute’s name was shortened to World Law Fund. In 1972, it merged with the Institute for International Order, founded in 1948 and run by Earl D. Osborn. The combined organization adopted a new name, the Institute for World Order. In 1982, the World Policy Institute adopted its current name to reflect a shift from a primarily educational focus to incorporating a strong policy element, and founded World Policy Journal. From 1991-2007, the Institute was part of The New School, a university in Greenwich Village, New York City. In 2007, the World Policy Institute was re-incorporated as a free-standing institution, which works in active collaboration with like-minded organizations around the world.

You can watch the movie via Amazon Prime or YouTube:

Religion for Everyone

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Alain de Botton’s recent piece on religion for everyone starts off with a reasonable discussion of what we’ve lost — namely, a sense of community — as society has moved away from religion and then proposes a not-so-credible secular substitute:

Everyone stands to learn something from the ways in which religion delivers sermons, promotes morality, engenders a spirit of community, inspires travel, trains minds and encourages gratitude at the beauty of life. In a world beset by fundamentalists of both the believing and the secular variety, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.

Religions are a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts for trying to assuage some of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life. They merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition and for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests whose scope puts to shame the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and innovators.

It feels especially relevant to talk of meals, because our modern lack of a proper sense of community is importantly reflected in the way we eat. The contemporary world is not, of course, lacking in places where we can dine well in company—cities typically pride themselves on the sheer number and quality of their restaurants—but what’s significant is that there are almost no venues that can help us to transform strangers into friends.

The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which they segregate themselves or to get them to open up their hearts and share their vulnerabilities with others. At a modern restaurant, the focus is on the food and the décor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.

Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Though there wouldn’t be religious imagery on the walls, some kind of art that displayed examples of human vulnerability, whether in relation to physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord, would bring more of who we actually are into the public realm, lending to our connections with others a new and candid tenor.

Milkor USA M32A1 MSGL

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Rifles are precision instruments. In the hands of a sniper, one bullet often yields one kill — the actual number is closer to 1.5 shots per casualty. In the hands of ordinary soldiers shooting in the general direction of the enemy though, it takes roughly ten thousand bullets to inflict one casualty.

This got me thinking about fairly precise grenade-launchers, and — lo and behold! — the latest episode of Top Shot featured, first, the BAR, and then, in the elimination challenge, the Milkor USA M32A1 MSGL — firing orange-chalk practice rounds:

In Vietnam, troops carried the M79 grenade launcher — effectively a 40-mm break-action shotgun.

In the 1980s, this evolved into the M203 under-barrel grenade-launcher — same idea, but attached to an assault rifle.

The M32 holds six rounds in a spring-powered revolver cylinder and has its own reflex sight that adjusts for the low-velocity rounds’ trajectory.

SOCOM took delivery of their first batch of M32s in 2008. Now the Marines have a contract for 5,000 of these “game-changers” at $8,500 a piece:

But it couldn’t have happened without Richard J. Solberg Jr., a modest businessman from Alaska with a specific interest in introducing new weaponry to the U.S. military.

Throughout the past 30 years, many large-bore semi-automatic high-capacity weapons manufactured in South Africa had seen great success worldwide with little footprint with in the U.S. military. This inspired Solberg to start Milkor USA, Inc., which became the first American company to manufacture an American-made version of the internationally popular South African 40mm MSGL, in the summer of 2004.

The Tuscon, Arizona-based Milkor USA, Inc. opened its initial American manufacturing facility in Perry, Florida, in 2005 with the help of Erik Solberg and Bryan Newberry. Soon after, they were able to bring a 100 percent American-made version of the MSGL to the American market and immediately won their first contract with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Sunrise: Solar powered Thermal Airship

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Designer Metin Kaplan presents his Sunrise solar-powered thermal airship as if it could really work:

Fresnel Lens, located inside the balloon, concentrates the sunlight into a focal point to produce hot air. A 2-axis sun tracking system allows for the lens to constantly face the sun. Motion is generated through the Stirling Engines, fueled by this hot air. Then the system mixes hot and colder air in the lower section of the balloon to create a homogeneous lifting gas. Beyond being a buoyant device, the well insulated balloon also acts as heat energy storage.This enables extra flight time for moments without sunlight. Any extra energy is then transformed into motion and stored in a flywheel as rotational motion.

(Hat tip to the Alternative History Weekly Update.)

Power Trip

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Power Trip is a darkly amusing documentary that looks at what happened when a bunch of dopey foreigners working for Dennis Bakke‘s AES tried to bring their “responsible” and “fun” corporate values to the former Soviet republic of Georgia after buying the nation’s nominally privatized power company.

The Americans and Brits make sure to open up their office space and delegate as much authority as possible. Meanwhile, the power they’re buying from the national supplier is going to politically connected players and not to them.  And their customers feel no duty to pay them.

(It’s free for subscribers to stream from Amazon Prime. Addendum: Apparently it was available until very, very recently.)

Hybrid Air Vehicles

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Bedfordshire-based Hybrid Air Vehicles is trying to sell the Royal Navy on its airships to provide surveillance and transport supplies:

The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle is set to revolutionise air transport by being able to carry very heavy loads or intelligence kit long distances with the ability to land anywhere, including on the water.

The Navy is looking to buy an LEMV to base above the fleet with sophisticated surveillance cameras to spot threats and spy on enemy movements. With a 50 ton payload it can also be used to carry urgent equipment parts such as engines for Joint Strike Fighters out to ships.

Commanders are also considering using it as a counter piracy vessel as the LEMV can lower up to 150 commandos along with their fast inflatable boats.

Travelling at over 80 knots the airship is almost three times faster than ships and the Navy’s version can travel for several days without refuelling its four gas turbine engines.

With a mixture of 60 per cent helium and 40 per cent air it is far less vulnerable to enemy fire than the hydrogen filled Zeppelins that fell prey to the Fleet Air Arm’s incendiary bullets during the Great War.

Tests by the Bedfordshire-based company Hybrid Air Vehicles have shown that bullets and even missiles can pass through the balloon without igniting the gas mixture which has a very low pressure.

“This could be the ideal solution for logistical support for aircraft carriers and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) for the Fleet,” said a Navy source.

“Carrying 50 tons of stores and supplies it is more than double the capacity of a Hercules.”

The airships will cost £60 million each and can be flown remotely as an unmanned drone.

(Hat tip to the Alternative History Weekly Update.)

Tough Targets

Friday, February 24th, 2012

In Tough Targets, Clayton E. Cramer and David Burnett examine news reports of defensive gun uses in America.

Many people support gun control regulations because they are convinced that the average citizen is either incapable of using a gun in self-defense or will use the gun in a fit of anger over some petty matter. Those assumptions are false. The evidence on this point has grown so strong that even President Obama has had to chide gun safety advocates to accept the proposition that “almost all gun owners in America are highly responsible.” And, as the scores of incidents described in this study show, gun owners stop a lot of criminal mayhem — attempted murders, rapes, assaults, robberies — every year.

The myth of the eight-hour sleep

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Speaking of never getting enough sleep, it appears that sleeping for eight hours straight may be unnatural:

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Though sleep scientists were impressed by the study, among the general public the idea that we must sleep for eight consecutive hours persists.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern — in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.

“It’s not just the number of references — it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.

With urban street lighting, staying up late became fashionable, and spending that time in bed seemed like a waste of time. By the 1920s, the idea of a first and second sleep had disappeared.