Atomic Robo

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

Atomic Robo gives off an Amazing Screw-On Head-meets-Interstella 5555 vibe:

Space Stallions

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Space Stallions is not a 1980s cartoon that you missed — it’s a modern homage out of the Animation Workshop:

(Hat tip to GeekDad.)

Rankin-Bass on Acid, Written by Borges

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Animator Adrian Dexter describes Væsen, his final project at the Animation Workshop, in Denmark, as Rankin-Bass on acid, written by Borges.

Replacing the Retina

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Sheila Nirenberg researches how networks of neurons process information — like the neurons that encode what the retina “sees”:

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

Blue Devil Block 2

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

After spending more than $140 million, the Air Force is poised to pull the plug on its giant spy blimp:

Schedules slipped, as the airship’s tail fins came in overweight and subcontractor Rockwell Collins realized that the avionics of an airship were more complex than they had originally thought. The Argus network of spy cameras, which could oversee 64 square kilometers at once, couldn’t be integrated in with the rest of the sensor; the blimp-builders had to settle for an Angel Fire camera pack, which could only look at a mere four square kilometers at a time. Then a giant laser, meant to beam all that surveillance data to the ground, had to be put aside. It couldn’t be custom-built fast enough.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration insisted on certifying the blimp — a process no drone airplane had undergone — since the blimp was optionally-manned, and since it was going to have to fly over the United States, at least in tests. Trying to handle it all was Mav 6, a smallish start-up with major connections — its CEO is the former chief of Air Force intelligence — but no experience in handling a project with so many moving parts. “They were in over their heads,” says a senior Pentagon official. A scheduled October 15, 2011 first flight was pushed back and back again, and is now slated for April 15.

But the real body-blow for the program came when the Air Force’s special intelligence program office, known as “Big Safari,” issued its estimate of how much it was going to cost to fly the blimp in Afghanistan. Mav 6 CEO and retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who until in 2010 served as the head of Air Force intel, insisted all along that Blue Devil would be dirt-cheap to operate and maintain. Because of all its on-board processing and its lengthy stints in the air, it would cost a fraction of what it would cost to keep an equivalent number of spy drones in the sky, maybe $45 million. But Big Safari had questions about how durable this experimental aircraft would really be, and how vulnerable it might be to insurgent attack during refueling or repair. Their estimated operating costs: $188 million.

Big Safari, which only recently became comfortable with outfitting drones instead of manned planes, was always skeptical of the Blue Devil blimp. The whole project was basically rammed down the Air Force’s collective throat in 2010 by a task force that reported directly to the Secretary of Defense. And as soon as Big Safari got the project, it “promptly proposed wholesale changes to the program — an entirely different platform, continued use of legacy [c]ameras, and different SIGINT [signals intelligence] sensors,” a Senate Armed Services Committee report noted last year. The cost estimate only reinforced that skepticism.

If you’re having trouble visualizing the 370-foot-long “Blue Devil Block 2” airship, here’s a photo of it on the tarmac next to an 18-wheeler:

Safe Parasites

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

The hygiene hypothesis has led scientists to search for safe parasites, like whipworms, to prime the immune system without actually harming the host:

In many autoimmune diseases, immune cells known as T1 cell cytokines proliferate and fight against the body’s cells, the way they do when the body detects foreign invaders.

The introduction of the whipworm appears to spur the body to produce more of a different type of helpful immune cell — T2 helper cytokines — as a defense against the worms. This separate immune response appears to help counter the inflammatory response from diseases, say researchers.

This approach differs from many available treatments on the market for inflammatory diseases. If these drugs, which tend to suppress the immune system, are given in doses that are too high, the immune system can be compromised, says Robert Summers, a professor in gastroenterology and hepatology at the University of Iowa who helped run the trials.


Whipworm from pigs appeared to be a good candidate because they don’t naturally infect humans and can’t reproduce in them. Once the eggs are ingested, they pass through the stomach to the intestine. There, the worms hatch and latch on, and apparently prompt the modulating effect in the immune system. After about two weeks, they die and are absorbed or excreted.

Dr. Summers and his colleagues demonstrated encouraging findings in two studies published in 2005. One examined 29 patients with Crohn’s disease and found that after six months, 21 were considered remitted. (There wasn’t a control group for comparison.) The other was study of 54 patients with ulcerative colitis. Patients who received TSO treatment improved significantly more than those who got placebo.

Another area of interest for TSO researchers is in multiple sclerosis, with two small studies published last year. One of these, published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal, showed brain lesions decreased in four of five patients three months into treatment, and rebounded two months after it ended.

Some researchers say the therapy could hold promise for autism as well.

Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Program at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y., expects to begin recruiting for a human trial in adults with autism by the end of March.

“People are just beginning to think about modifying the immune inflammatory response to see if it has some sort of effect on behavioral symptoms,” says Dr. Hollander.

In 2005, Stewart Johnson, a portfolio manager at an insurance company in New York, and his wife were at their “absolute limit” with their then 14-year-old autistic son. Mr. Johnson says he exhibited extremely disruptive behaviors, and agitation. The Johnsons were close to putting their son in a residential facility.

Around this time their son made his yearly trip to summer camp — always a difficult time.

But one day, says Mr. Johnson, a camp counselor called, saying his son was calm and behaving better than he had ever seen. The night after Mr. Johnson picked up his son — finding he was indeed well-behaved — he saw his son’s legs were covered with many bites from chiggers, the larvae of mites. After about 10 days, the disruptive behaviors returned. “I said, ‘this can’t be coincidence,’” says Mr. Johnson.

He started doing research, heard theories that the immune system may play a role in autism, and came across the work on whipworm eggs and Crohn’s disease. He was able to obtain a supply to test on his son, though first he took the ova himself to make sure they were safe. The eggs, which aren’t yet available in the U.S., cost €300 ($396) for a two-week vial, Mr. Johnson says.

After a reduced dosage of the invisible, tasteless eggs failed to help, Mr. Johnson consulted with the supplier, OvaMed GmbH, of Barsbüttel, Germany, and bumped up the dosage. In about 10 weeks, the disruptive behaviors ceased.

Tuning In to Dropping Out

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Over the past 25 years, the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent, Alex Tabarrok notes, but the number of students graduating with degrees in STEM subjects has remained more or less constant:

Only 35 percent of students starting a four-year degree program will graduate within four years, and less than 60 percent will graduate within six years. Students who haven’t graduated within six years probably never will. The U.S. college dropout rate is about 40 percent, the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world. That’s a lot of wasted resources. Students with two years of college education may get something for those two years, but it’s less than half of the wage gains from completing a four-year degree. No degree, few skills, and a lot of debt is not an ideal way to begin a career.

College dropouts are telling us that college is not for everyone. Neither is high school. In the 21st century, an astounding 25 percent of American men do not graduate from high school. A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. “Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years,” we tell the students, “and all will be well.” Lots of students, however, crash before they reach the end of the road. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to an education.

Consider those offered in Europe. In Germany, 97 percent of students graduate from high school, but only a third of these students go on to college. In the United States, we graduate fewer students from high school, but nearly two-thirds of those we graduate go to college. So are German students poorly educated? Not at all.

Instead of college, German students enter training and apprenticeship programs—many of which begin during high school. By the time they finish, they have had a far better practical education than most American students—equivalent to an American technical degree—and, as a result, they have an easier time entering the work force. Similarly, in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, between 40 to 70 percent of students opt for an educational program that combines classroom and workplace learning.

In the United States, “vocational” programs are often thought of as programs for at-risk students, but that’s because they are taught in high schools with little connection to real workplaces. European programs are typically rigorous because the training is paid for by employers who consider apprentices an important part of their current and future work force. Apprentices are therefore given high-skill technical training that combines theory with practice—and the students are paid! Moreover, instead of isolating teenagers in their own counterculture, apprentice programs introduce teenagers to the adult world and the skills, attitudes, and practices that make for a successful career.

Elites frown upon apprenticeship programs because they think college is the way to create a “well-rounded citizenry.” So take a look at the students in Finland, Sweden, or Germany. Are they not “well rounded”? The argument that college creates a well-rounded citizen can be sustained only by defining well rounded in a narrow way. Is someone who can quote from the school of Zen well rounded? Only if they can also maintain a motorcycle. Well-roundedness comes not from sitting in a classroom but from experiencing the larger world.

The focus on college education has distracted government and students from apprenticeship opportunities. Why should a major in English literature be subsidized with room and board on a beautiful campus with Olympic-size swimming pools and state-of-the-art athletic facilities when apprentices in nursing, electrical work, and new high-tech fields like mechatronics are typically unsubsidized (or less subsidized)? College students even get discounts at the movie theater; when was the last time you saw a discount for an electrical apprentice?

How Physicians Face the End

Monday, March 5th, 2012

What’s unusual about doctors is not how much treatment they get compared with most Americans, but how little:

They want to make sure that, when the time comes, no heroic measures are taken. During their last moments, they know, for instance, that they don’t want someone breaking their ribs by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (which is what happens when CPR is done right). [...] A study by Susan Diem and others of how CPR is portrayed on TV found that it was successful in 75% of the cases and that 67% of the TV patients went home. In reality, a 2010 study of more than 95,000 cases of CPR found that only 8% of patients survived for more than one month. Of these, only about 3% could lead a mostly normal life.

Zap your brain into the zone

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) may induce a state of flow and put you “in the zone”:

In one groundbreaking study, [Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi] interviewed a few hundred talented people, including athletes, artists, chess players, rock climbers and surgeons, enabling him to pin down four key features that characterise flow.

The first is an intense and focused absorption that makes you lose all sense of time. The second is what is known as autotelicity, the sense that the activity you are engaged in is rewarding for its own sake. The third is finding the “sweet spot”, a feeling that your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand, leaving you neither frustrated nor bored. And finally, flow is characterised by automaticity, the sense that “the piano is playing itself”, for example.

Exactly what happens in the brain during flow has been of particular interest, but it has been tricky to measure. Csikszentmihalyi took an early stab at it, using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain waves of expert chess players during a game. He found that the most skilled players showed less activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is typically associated with higher cognitive processes such as working memory and verbalisation. That may seem counter-intuitive, but silencing self-critical thoughts might allow more automatic processes to take hold, which would in turn produce that effortless feeling of flow.

Later studies have confirmed these findings and revealed other neural signatures of flow. Chris Berka and her colleagues at Advanced Brain Monitoring in Carlsbad, California, for example, looked at the brain waves of Olympic archers and professional golfers. A few seconds before the archers fired off an arrow or the golfers hit the ball, the team spotted a small increase in what’s known as the alpha band, one of the frequencies that arises from the electrical noise of all the brain’s neurons (The International Journal of Sport and Society, vol 1, p 87). This surge in alpha waves, Berka says, is associated with reduced activation of the cortex, and is always more obvious in experts than in novices. “We think this represents focused attention on the target, while other sensory inputs are suppressed,” says Berka. She found that these mental changes are accompanied by slower breathing and a lower pulse rate — as you might expect from relaxed concentration.

Defining and characterising the flow state is all very well, but could a novice learn to turn off their critical faculties and focus their attention in this way, at will? If so, would it boost performance? Gabriele Wulf, a kinesiologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, helped to answer this question in 1998, when she and her colleagues examined the way certain athletes move (Journal of Motor Behavior, vol 30, p 169).

At the time, she had no particular interest in the flow state. But Wulf and her colleagues found that they could quickly improve a person’s abilities by asking them to focus their attention on an external point away from their body. Aspiring skiers who were asked to do slalom-type movements on a simulator, for example, learned faster if they focused on a marked spot ahead of them. Golfers who focused on the swing of the club were about 20 per cent more accurate than those who focused on their own arms.

Wulf and her colleagues later found that an expert’s physical actions require fewer muscle movements than those of a beginner — as seen in the tight, spare motions of top-flight athletes. They also experience less mental strain, a lower heart rate and shallower breathing — all characteristics of the flow state (Human Movement Science, vol 29, p 440).

These findings were borne out in later studies of expert and novice swimmers. Novices who concentrated on an external focus — the water’s movement around their limbs — showed the same effortless grace as those with more experience, swimming faster and with a more efficient technique. Conversely, when the expert swimmers focused on their limbs, their performance declined (International Journal of Sport Science & Coaching, vol 6, p 99).

Wulf’s findings fit well with the idea that flow — and better learning — comes when you turn off conscious thought. “When you have an external focus, you achieve a more automatic type of control,” she says. “You don’t think about what you are doing, you just focus on the outcome.”

Berka has been taking a different approach to evoke the flow state — her group is training novice marksmen to use neurofeedback. Each person is hooked up to electrodes that tease out and display specific brain waves, along with a monitor that measures their heartbeat. By controlling their breathing and learning to deliberately manipulate the waveforms on the screen in front of them, the novices managed to produce the alpha waves characteristic of the flow state. This, in turn, helped them improve their accuracy at hitting the targets. In fact, the time it took to shoot like a pro fell by more than half (The International Journal of Sport and Society, vol 1, p 87).

But as I found when I tried the method, even neurofeedback has a catch. It takes time and effort to produce really thrumming alpha waves. Just when I thought I had achieved them, they evaporated and I lost my concentration. Might there be a faster way to force my brain into flow? The good news is that there, too, the answer appears to be yes.

That is why I’m now allowing Michael Weisend, who works at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to hook my brain up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery. He sticks the anode — the positive pole of the battery — to my temple, and the cathode to my left arm. “You’re going to feel a slight tingle,” he says, and warns me that if I remove an electrode and break the connection, the voltage passing through my brain will blind me for a good few seconds.

Weisend, who is working on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme to accelerate learning, has been using this form of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers. From the electrodes, a 2-milliamp current will run through the part of my brain associated with object recognition — an important skill when visually combing a scene for assailants.

The mild electrical shock is meant to depolarise the neuronal membranes in the region, making the cells more excitable and responsive to inputs. Like many other neuroscientists working with tDCS, Weisend thinks this accelerates formation of new neural pathways during the time that someone practises a skill. The method he is using on me boosted the speed with which wannabe snipers could detect a threat by a factor of 2.3 (Experimental Brain Research, vol 213, p 9).

Mysteriously, however, these long-term changes also seem to be preceded by a feeling that emerges as soon as the current is switched on and is markedly similar to the flow state. “The number one thing I hear people say after tDCS is that time passed unduly fast,” says Weisend. Their movements also seem to become more automatic; they report calm, focused concentration — and their performance improves immediately.

It’s not yet clear why some forms of tDCS should bring about the flow state. After all, if tDCS were solely about writing new memories, it would be hard to explain the improvement that manifests itself as soon as the current begins to flow.

One possibility is that the electrodes somehow reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex — the area used in critical thought, which Csikszentmihalyi had found to be muted during flow. Roy Hamilton, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, thinks this may happen as a side effect of some forms of tDCS. “tDCS might have much more broad effects than we think it does,” he says. He points out that some neurons can mute the signals of other brain cells in their network, so it is possible that stimulating one area of the brain might reduce activity in another.

Trinity and Beyond

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

After watching Atomic Cafe, I took mon ami Todd’s advice and watched Trinity and Beyond, which traces the development of nuclear weapons from the Trinity test in 1945 through 1963:

I knew that the famous two-piece bathing suit got its name from the Bikini Atoll weapon tests, but I didn’t realize just how early those tests were — July 1946:

The two-piece swimsuit was introduced within days of the first nuclear test on the atoll, when the name of the island was in the news. Introduced just weeks after the one-piece “Atome” was widely advertised as the “smallest bathing suit in the world”, it was said that the bikini “split the atom”.

As Todd mentioned, there’s something fascinating about an atomic cannon, like the one demonstrated in the Upshot-Knothole Grable test:

Grable was the second of only two gun-type warheads ever detonated (the first was Little Boy, the weapon used against Hiroshima; all other atomic weapons were implosion-type weapons).

The shell, designated a Mark 9 nuclear weapon, had a diameter of 280 mm (11.02 in), was 138 cm (54.4 in) long and weighed 364 kg (803 lb). The M65 Atomic Cannon from which it was fired had a muzzle velocity of 625 m/s (2,060 ft/s), for a nominal range of 32 km (20 mi), and weighed 77 metric tons (85 t).

The detonation of Grable occurred 19 seconds after its firing.[1] It detonated over 11,000 yards (over 10 km, 6.25 mi) away from the gun it was fired from, over a part of the Nevada Test Site known as Frenchman Flat. The explosion was an air burst of 160 m (524 ft) above the ground (7 m (24 ft) above its designated burst altitude), 26 m (87 ft) west and 41 m (136 ft) south of its target (slightly uprange). Its yield was estimated at 15 kilotons, around the same level as Little Boy.

An anomalous feature of the blast was the formation of a precursor, a second shock front ahead of the incident wave. This precursor was formed when the shock wave reflected off the ground and surpassed the incident wave and Mach stem due to a heated ground air layer and the low burst height. It resulted in a lower overpressure, but higher overall dynamic pressure, which inflicted much more damage on drag sensitive targets such as jeeps and personnel carriers. This led strategists to rethink the importance of low air bursts in tactical nuclear warfare.

I’m sure an atomic cannon sounds preposterous now, like a nuclear hand grenade, but I suspect the real problem with the cannon’s limited range was that it limited the threat to a very narrow portion of the battlefront, when the same atomic weapon could instead be dropped just about anywhere via bomber.

I was surprised by the brevity of the discussion of the Hardtack Teak test, which launched a 3.8-Megaton warhead into the upper atmosphere by way of glorified V-2 rocket — in 1958, one year after Sputnik. This is the test that brought EMP to our attention:

The Apia Observatory in Western Samoa approximately 2,000 miles to the south described the “. . . violent magnetic disturbance,” which heralded “. . . the most brilliant manifestation of the Aurora Australis [Southern Lights] ever seen in Samoa.” The resulting persistent ionization of the low-density atmosphere cut high frequency radio communications with New Zealand for six hours.

In Hawaii, where there had been no announcement of the test, the TEAK fireball turned from light yellow to dark yellow to orange to red. “The red spread in a semi-circular manner until it seemed to engulf a large part of the horizon,” one resident told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The red glow remained clearly visible in the southwestern sky for half an hour. In Honolulu, military and civilian air traffic communications were interrupted for several hours. At the AFSWP’s Armed Forces Special Weapons Project offices in the Pentagon, Admiral Parker grew concerned for the personnel on Johnston Island as hour after hour passed with no word regarding the test. Finally, some eight hours after TEAK had occurred, the word that all was well came from Luedecke, the commander of Joint Task Force 7 and soon to be General Manager of the AEC. The communications blackout worried others as well. Later AFSWP learned that one of the first radio messages received at Johnston Island once communications was restored was: “Are you still there?”

It’s the footage of the multi-Megaton hydrogen bombs, by the way, that’s truly terrifying. The multi-kiloton atomic bomb blasts seem “reasonable” by comparison.

Anyway, the movie ends with a rather disturbing Chinese propaganda piece you simply must see for yourself, complete with saber-swinging cavalry and hip-shooting infantry charging into the breech made by an atom bomb.

Western analysts believe China has deployed 18 to 36 Dongfeng 5 (“East Wind”) ICBMs since the 1980s.

Stopping Power

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

American military surgeon Louis A. LaGarde’s Gunshot Injuries was the standard on ballistics and war surgery for many years:

La Garde’s involvement in assessing weapons effectiveness dated hack to the Spanish-American War and the ensuing Philippine insurrection. Then as now, some ballisticians believed that a bullet striking almost anywhere on the body could cause immediate incapacitation due to shock. The shock itself was thought to make the victim fall down and stop fighting. The pathophysiology of this mysterious phenomenon was believed to be related to an indirect effect of the bullet on the nervous system, and this attribute was referred to as the bullet’s stopping power or its knockdown power. Military handguns then in use were found to have inadequate stopping power, since the enemy did not fall down unless the bullet fractured a leg bone or hit a vital organ such as the heart.

LaGarde and members of the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps were assigned the task of testing existing pistol ammunition and finding a pistol round with the desired stopping power. Working in the Chicago stockyards in 1904, they shot unanesthetized cattle with various weapons, assessing incapacitation by recording the number of bullets required to knock the animal down. Recognizing that a shot into the heart would have similar stopping power regardless of the ammunition they used, they tried to hit only body parts that would not cause immediate death. In a typical experiment, they shot one animal for each type of ammunition tested and reported:

.45 Colt 220-grain lead bullet with small flat on point
720 fps, 288 foot-pounds
7th animal Bull, 10 years old, 1,300 lbs

Shot through lungs. At 1 minute, shot again through lungs. At 2 minutes 35 seconds, shut through abdomen and fell. At 2 minutes 45 seconds, shot again through abdomen, got up, then fell again — tried to regain his feet for 70 seconds — and was killed by hammer blows to the head.

The sad truth about wound-ballistics research is that much information that could be relevant and important is gathered under conditions that are barbarous as well as scientifically unsound, and information that is more aesthetically pleasing and scientifically elegant often consists of esoterica that are meaningful in a laboratory but irrelevant to battlefield conditions. While LaGarde’s Chicago-stockyard experiments fall into the relevant-but-barbarous category, they showed that no shock, stopping, or knockdown power was observable beyond that directly attributable to the effect of the bullet at the site of wound. His official report stated the only reasonable conclusion regarding handguns: “[They] offer no hope of stopping an adversary by shock. Inexplicably, not only did La Garde not restate this firm conclusion in Gunshot Injuries, he also misquoted his own official report, and suggested that he had actually observed shock. Because of this misinformation, for the past 70 years ballisticians have continued to search for a mathematical explanation of the shock that La Garde said he observed in bullet wounds made by handguns.

Wounds made by military rifles and machine guns are frequently incapacitating, however. One of the specific goals of the WDMET study was to collect information on the behavior of soldiers after they were wounded. The database also includes the soldiers’ (and their buddies’) recollections of their behavior just before they were wounded. Almost every casualty who was shot — whether in the head, trunk, legs, or arms — immediately stopped his pre-wounding behavior. In fact, most casualties fell to the ground and lay there, suggesting that assault rifles and machine guns do indeed have stopping power.

(From Conventional Warfare: Ballistic, Blast and Burn Injuries.)

When Infantry Weapons Dominated

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

During most of the nineteenth century, infantry weapons dominated the battlefield — first smooth-bore muskets and then rifles — as these casualty numbers from the Civil War suggest:

Source Union Combat Deaths
Rifle or smooth-bore musket 124,000
Fragments from shells 12,500
Cannonball or grapeshot 359
Cutting weapons 7,002

As Conventional Warfare: Ballistic, Blast and Burn Injuries notes, the casualties in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 were similarly distributed:

Rifles were responsible for 92% of German wounded and 91% of German killed.

By World War I, this had changed, and more than half of all combat casualties came from artillery.