The Great Preparation

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Budweiser presents The Great Preparation:

Lessons from a Fatal Shootout in a Crowded McDonald’s

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

An off-duty law-enforcement officer shares his lessons learned from a fatal shootout in a crowded McDonald’s:

I had taken my family to a McDonald’s Restaurant on our way to a pool party. I was off-duty, in civilian clothes, and armed.

I was standing in line and oblivious (like all the other patrons) to the fact that an armed suspect had taken the manager hostage and was forcing her to open the safe in the restaurant’s office. One of the cashiers had seen this and I overheard her telling another employee that the business was being robbed.

At that time, I had approximately 15 years of experience and was a SWAT team member and use-of-force/firearms instructor. I had talked to my wife about such an occurrence and we had a preplanned response. When I told her to take the children and leave the building, she did not hesitate. I began quietly telling employees and patrons to leave. My thinking was to remove as many innocent bystanders as possible and then leave myself.

I thought that because I did not see the suspect enter he must have come in from a side door or employee entrance and I assumed (wrongly) that he would go out the same way. As I was standing near the front counter trying to get some of the kitchen help to get out, the suspect came from the office area and began running in my direction.

I immediately noted the large semi-automatic pistol in his hand. The distance was about 15 to 20 yards. I drew my weapon, announced myself and took a kneeling position behind the counter. Unfortunately, the suspect raised his weapon at me and the gunfight erupted. The suspect fired a total of 2 rounds in my direction. I fired 11, striking him 10 times.

At this point, two things come to mind: (1) The distance was 15 to 20 yards? Inside a McDonald’s? (2) He’s probably carrying a Baby Glock with one in the chamber (10+1 capacity).

My weapon was now empty and I ran from the line of fire to reload my spare magazine. I then approached the downed suspect and could tell that he was seriously wounded. It was right then that I considered that there might be more than one “bad guy” (the thought had not crossed my mind before this) and I began to scan the 360 to check.

I immediately noticed a small child lying behind me. I saw blood pooling under her head and knew at a glance she was dead. One of the bullets fired at me had struck this child. Unbeknownst to me, my family had tried to exit out the fire door, which was locked. My wife was still trying to get out when the shooting started and she pushed my kids under a table where they all witnessed the gunfight.

The end result was that the suspect died, I survived, but a 9-year-old girl did not.

I tell you this story because I think that this topic is of utmost importance. It is largely ignored in mainstream police training. I want to tell you some of the lessons I learned from this incident.

1. If you are going to carry a firearm off-duty, you should carry extra ammo. Security camera video of this incident revealed that I fired all 11 rounds from my Glock 26 in about 2 seconds. My extra mag held 17 rounds. Words cannot describe the emotion I felt when I slammed that mag into my weapon and was able to still be in the fight.

Mostly because of circumstances (distance) and my training, my rounds were on target. It could have happened differently and the reality is that most of us miss more than we hit when involved in a gun battle.

2. You cannot have the typical police mind-set in an off-duty situation. I ended up in this incident without a radio, without backup, without body armor, handcuffs, other force options and without taking the time to think it through. I was truly most frightened when the gunfight was over and I was standing there covering the suspect with my weapon in my T-shirt and shorts. I was really worried that one of my own guys might not recognize me. I was worried too that there might be some other off-duty copper around who would think I was the bad guy.

The smartest, most responsible thing I could have done would have been to take care of my family first. I should have seen personally to their safety. If I had grabbed them and gone outside, I would have spared them this entire experience and that little girl would probably still be alive today.

Again, words cannot describe the emotions that we all went through after this incident. I recognized afterward that it could have been one of my children lying dead because of my actions. When you are off-duty your first responsibility is to your family. You should never forget this.

3. I survived this incident. Partly due to my training and tactics. Partly due to God’s grace and blind luck. But the other side of the coin is that I got into this incident because of my training. I switched immediately into “cop” mode without stopping to consider that I was at a great tactical disadvantage. Most of us are driven and dedicated to the point of self destruction and I think good cops die because we are taught to place our personal safety second when others are in danger.

Because I had never trained realistically for a situation like this, I was unprepared. Most of the guys I worked with then and now carry off-duty weapons. But few of them, if any, have really taken the time to engage in realistic training and preparation for how to handle an off-duty incident.

Training can be as simple as discussing these types of situations with your coworkers. Since this shooting, I have devoted at least one quarterly range session with my students to off-duty encounters and the associated considerations.

4. The responsibility of carrying a firearm is huge. I had devoted countless hours to training for the fight, but was not fully prepared for the aftermath. None of the training scenarios, books, films, etc. that I learned from touched upon the fact that when you take that gun out and decide to take action, 9-year-old kids can get killed. Even if you do everything by the book, use good tactics, and are within policy and the law, the outcome can still be negative.

You have to remember that the suspect does not go to the range and he does not practice rules of weapons safety. He does not care about what’s in his line of fire. If it’s you or him, you gotta do what you gotta do, but whether you’re on-duty or off-duty we need to train to look at the totality of the incident. Letting the bad guy go because doing otherwise would place innocent people in grave danger needs to be more “socially acceptable” amongst our ranks. I think we’re starting to see more of this in the pursuit policies of most agencies and I have tried to carry this message over into my training and teaching.

I guess the bottom line here is that it’s good to be on “auto pilot” when it comes to tactics in these situations, but we can’t go on auto pilot in our assessment and examination of the environment and circumstances leading up to and during the event. On-duty mind-set and off-duty mind-set need to be strongly separated and the boundaries clear.

The Weight of the Nation

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

I recently watched the first episode of HBO’s The Weight of the Nation documentary, and what stood out to me was how expert after expertthin expert after thin expert — would repeat that we have to do something about the obesity epidemic afflicting us and our children, without even suggesting how this might be a collective-action problem for our nation.

Wriggling out of the Plunge

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Apparently Laverne always wanted to skydive and finally made the plunge for her 80th birthday — but she tried to wriggle out of it half-way through:

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Studio Ghibli movie posters as vintage Penguin paperback covers

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Jason K. of 84/5 Studio has reimagined a series of Studio Ghibli movie posters as vintage Penguin paperback covers:

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Planet of the Vampires

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Planet of the Vampires is a low-budget, Italian, sci-fi movie, from 1965 — that may have influenced a high-budget, American, sci-fi movie, from 1979:

Several critics have suggested that Bava’s film was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), both in terms of narrative details and visual design. Derek Hill, in a review of the MGM Midnite Movies DVD release of Vampires written for Images Journal, noted, “Bava’s film (along with It! The Terror from Beyond Space, 1958) was a direct influence on Ridley Scott’s 1979 big budget B-movie Alien. But where Scott’s film tried to mask its humble drive-in origins, Planet of the Vampires revels in its origins. The film literally feels like a pulp magazine cover come to garish life…”[15] Robert Monell, on the DVD Maniacs website, observed, “[M]uch of the conceptual design and some specific imagery in the Ridley Scott screamer undoubtedly owes a great debt to Mario Bava’s no budget accomplishments.”[16]

One of Vampires‘ most celebrated sequences involves the astronauts performing an exploration of an alien, derelict ship discovered in a huge ruin on the surface of the planet. The crewmembers climb up into the depths of the eerie ship and discover the gigantic remains of long dead monstrous creatures. In 1979, Cinefantastique noted the remarkable similarities between this atmospheric sequence and a lengthy scene in the then-new Alien. The magazine also pointed out other minor parallels between the two films.[17] However, both Alien’s director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon claimed at the time that they had never seen Planet of the Vampires.[18]

No More Harvard Debt

Friday, May 25th, 2012

I’m not quite sure what to say about Joe Mihalic’s No More Harvard Debt project:

I’m guessing he didn’t major in finance at HBS. Half of his decisions seems perfectly sensible…

Can you call a child a psychopath?

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Can you call a child a psychopath? Yes, but the preferred term is callous-unemotional child:

According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits. (Narcissism and impulsivity, which are part of the adult diagnostic criteria, are difficult to apply to children, who are narcissistic and impulsive by nature.)

In some children, C.U. traits manifest in obvious ways. Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who has studied risk factors for psychopathy in children for two decades, described one boy who used a knife to cut off the tail of the family cat bit by bit, over a period of weeks. The boy was proud of the serial amputations, which his parents initially failed to notice. “When we talked about it, he was very straightforward,” Frick recalls. “He said: ‘I want to be a scientist, and I was experimenting. I wanted to see how the cat would react.’ ”

In another famous case, a 9-year-old boy named Jeffrey Bailey pushed a toddler into the deep end of a motel swimming pool in Florida. As the boy struggled and sank to the bottom, Bailey pulled up a chair to watch. Questioned by the police afterward, Bailey explained that he was curious to see someone drown. When he was taken into custody, he seemed untroubled by the prospect of jail but was pleased to be the center of attention.

In many children, though, the signs are subtler. Callous-unemotional children tend to be highly manipulative, Frick notes. They also lie frequently — not just to avoid punishment, as all children will, but for any reason, or none. “Most kids, if you catch them stealing a cookie from the jar before dinner, they’ll look guilty,” Frick says. “They want the cookie, but they also feel bad. Even kids with severe A.D.H.D.: they may have poor impulse control, but they still feel bad when they realize that their mom is mad at them.” Callous-unemotional children are unrepentant. “They don’t care if someone is mad at them,” Frick says. “They don’t care if they hurt someone’s feelings.” Like adult psychopaths, they can seem to lack humanity. “If they can get what they want without being cruel, that’s often easier,” Frick observes. “But at the end of the day, they’ll do whatever works best.”


Recent studies have revealed what appear to be significant anatomical differences in the brains of adolescent children who scored high on the youth version of the Psychopathy Checklist — an indication that the trait may be innate. Another study, which tracked the psychological development of 3,000 children over a period of 25 years, found that signs of psychopathy could be detected in children as young as 3.


Researchers have linked coldblooded behaviors to low levels of cortisol and below-normal function in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes fear and other aversive social emotions, like shame. The desire to avoid those unpleasant feelings, Waschbusch notes, is part of what motivates young children to behave. “Normally, when a 2-year-old pushes his baby sister, and his sister cries, and his parents scold him, those reactions make the kid feel uncomfortable,” Waschbusch continued. “And that discomfort keeps him from doing it again. The difference with the callous-unemotional kids is that they don’t feel uncomfortable. So they don’t develop the same aversion to punishment or to the experience of hurting someone.”

Waschbusch cited one study that compared the criminal records of 23-year-olds with their sensitivity to unpleasant stimuli at age 3. In that study, the 3-year-olds were played a simple tone, then exposed to a brief blast of unpleasant white noise. Though all the children developed the ability to anticipate the burst of noise, most of the toddlers who went on to become criminals as adults didn’t show the same signs of aversion — tensing or sweating — when the advance tone was played.


In one oft-cited study, an inmate therapy group that halved the recidivism rate in violent prisoners famously increased the rate of “successful” crimes in psychopaths, by improving their ability to mimic regret and self-reflection. A related article recently speculated that treating antisocial children with Ritalin could be dangerous, because the drug suppresses their impulsive behavior and might enable them to plan crueller and more surreptitious reprisals.

In another study, the researcher Mark Dadds found that as C.U. children matured, they developed the ability to simulate interest in people’s feelings. “We called the paper ‘Learning to Talk the Talk,’ ” Dadds said. “They have no emotional empathy, but they have cognitive empathy; they can say what other people feel, they just don’t care or feel it.” When Anne worried that Michael might have begun manipulating his therapists — faking certain feelings to score points — she might have been more right than she knew.

Teenage Brains

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

As I’ve noted before, teenage brains may be almost fully grown, but they aren’t done maturing:

The first full series of scans of the developing adolescent brain — a National Institutes of Health (NIH) project that studied over a hundred young people as they grew up during the 1990s — showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years. The brain doesn’t actually grow very much during this period. It has already reached 90 percent of its full size by the time a person is six, and a thickening skull accounts for most head growth afterward. But as we move through adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.


Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry who uses neuroimaging to study the teen brain, used a simple test that illustrates this learning curve. Luna scanned the brains of children, teens, and twentysomethings while they performed an antisaccade task, a sort of eyes-only video game where you have to stop yourself from looking at a suddenly appearing light. You view a screen on which the red crosshairs at the center occasionally disappear just as a light flickers elsewhere on the screen. Your instructions are to not look at the light and instead to look in the opposite direction. A sensor detects any eye movement. It’s a tough assignment, since flickering lights naturally draw our attention. To succeed, you must override both a normal impulse to attend to new information and curiosity about something forbidden. Brain geeks call this response inhibition.

Ten-year-olds stink at it, failing about 45 percent of the time. Teens do much better. In fact, by age 15 they can score as well as adults if they’re motivated, resisting temptation about 70 to 80 percent of the time. What Luna found most interesting, however, was not those scores. It was the brain scans she took while people took the test. Compared with adults, teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focused — areas the adults seemed to bring online automatically. This let the adults use a variety of brain resources and better resist temptation, while the teens used those areas less often and more readily gave in to the impulse to look at the flickering light — just as they’re more likely to look away from the road to read a text message.

If offered an extra reward, however, teens showed they could push those executive regions to work harder, improving their scores. And by age 20, their brains respond to this task much as the adults’ do. Luna suspects the improvement comes as richer networks and faster connections make the executive region more effective.


Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.

A video game Steinberg uses draws this out nicely. In the game, you try to drive across town in as little time as possible. Along the way you encounter several traffic lights. As in real life, the traffic lights sometimes turn from green to yellow as you approach them, forcing a quick go-or-stop decision. You save time — and score more points — if you drive through before the light turns red. But if you try to drive through the red and don’t beat it, you lose even more time than you would have if you had stopped for it. Thus the game rewards you for taking a certain amount of risk but punishes you for taking too much.

When teens drive the course alone, in what Steinberg calls the emotionally “cool” situation of an empty room, they take risks at about the same rates that adults do. Add stakes that the teen cares about, however, and the situation changes. In this case Steinberg added friends: When he brought a teen’s friends into the room to watch, the teen would take twice as many risks, trying to gun it through lights he’d stopped for before. The adults, meanwhile, drove no differently with a friend watching.

To Steinberg, this shows clearly that risk-taking rises not from puny thinking but from a higher regard for reward.

“They didn’t take more chances because they suddenly downgraded the risk,” says Steinberg. “They did so because they gave more weight to the payoff.”


We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers. Knowing, understanding, and building relationships with them bears critically on success. Socially savvy rats or monkeys, for instance, generally get the best nesting areas or territories, the most food and water, more allies, and more sex with better and fitter mates. And no species is more intricately and deeply social than humans are.

EADS Airbike

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Engineers from the Bristol wing of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) have developed their Airbike to demonstrate what Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) can do:

The manufacturing process involves “growing” the components from a fine nylon powder, similar in concept to 3D printing. Said to be as strong as steel, the end product is claimed to contain only a fraction of the source material used by traditional machining, and the process results in much less waste. It also has the potential to take manufacture to precisely where the component or product is needed, instead of being confined to factories often located a great distance away.

The Airbike has an integrated truss structure to keep weight down while maintaining strength and rigidity, although the ALM process is said to result in components that are 65 percent lighter than those produced by traditional machining anyway, and it uses about one tenth the material. The structure of the two-wheeler was perfected using computer design software and then constructed using a powerful laser-sintering process which builds up thin layers of a fine powder of metal (such as titanium, stainless steel or aluminum), carbon-reinforced plastics or — in this case — nylon, until the solid form is created.

Ashima Shiraishi

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

The New York Times has a piece on climbing prodigy Ashima Shiraishi, who just turned 11:

One Thousand Years of Magical Realism

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

More than one thousand years of magical realism preceded One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ted Gioia reminds us:

My choice for the first magical realism novel dates back to the second century AD, and came from the hand of a North African author. Around the year 125, Lucius Apuleius was born in Madaurus (now M’Daourouch in present-day Algeria), a Roman colony famous as a center of learning. St. Augustine studied there, and later complained about the pagan tendencies of the local populace, as did the Roman grammarian Nonius Marcellus.

Apuleius, however, was much more than a product of local influences. He was widely traveled and well educated: he first studied at Carthage, before immersing himself in Platonist philosophy in Athens, and later learned Latin during a stay in Rome. He adopted a colorful style of that language for his most famous work, The Golden Ass, which is the only ancient Latin novel to have survived in a complete form.

Apuleius was well equipped to incorporate elements of magic into his storytelling — he was once accused of practicing magic, and his courtroom defense has survived. This document, known as A Discourse on Magic, is more admired for its wit than as a source of information on wizardry; but it does give Apuleius an edge over Kafka or Márquez and the other illustrious modernists who could never convince anyone they were actual sorcerers! Apuleius also brought other valuable first-hand experiences to bear on his writing, not just his extensive travels and broad-based education, but also his participation in the ancient mystery cults. The latter appear in the plot of The Golden Ass, when the hero Lucius is initiated into the cult of Isis.

Failure is all around us

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Failure is all around us, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson say:

According to the latest World Bank data, income per-capita in the US, at $47,360 is about 50 times that of Sierra Leone, of 40 times that of Nepal, or about 15 times that of El Salvador or Uzbekistan. These countries have not experienced the sort of state collapse that Somalia or Afghanistan did. They have nonetheless failed in reaching anything close to the sort of prosperity that countries like the US, Switzerland or Germany have.

Take Uzbekistan — please:

Why does it have 1/15 of the US income per capita? Perhaps it is because of “human capital” — Uzbekis having less education and education and skills? Well there’s a surprise, Uzbekistan has close to complete primary and secondary school enrollment, and close to 100% literacy. But look a bit deeper, and you’ll see something a little unusual going on in Uzbeki schools.

The basis of Uzbekistan’s economy is cotton, which makes up 45% of exports. The cotton bolls start to ripen and are ready to be picked in early September, at about the same time that children return to school. But as soon as the children arrive the schools are emptied of 2.7 million children (2006 figures) who are sent by the government to pick the cotton. Teachers, instead of being instructors, became labor recruiters.

That doesn’t sound too terribly different from dynamic 1800s America, really — except that the cotton farms are state-run:

Uzbekistan gained its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Ismail Karimov, previously first secretary for Uzbekistan of the Soviet Communist Party, declared himself an Uzbek nationalist and became, and since then has remained, president through fraudulent elections and repression.

After independence, farmland that was previously under the control of state-owned firms was distributed to farmers. But they weren’t suddenly free to plant and sell what they wished. The government introduced regulations that determined what they should plant and how much they should sell it for. For cotton, that meant they would receive a tiny fraction of the world market price. For many, it wouldn’t make sense to grow cotton at these prices. But the government dictated that they had to. Before independence, much of the cotton was picked by combine harvesters. Yet given these rewards, farmers stopped investing in or maintaining farm machinery. So coerced child labor was Karimov’s cost-effective method of picking cotton.

Part of Uzbekistan is also ideal for growing tea. Interspan, a US company, invested heavily. But by 2006, Karimov’s daughter, Harvard graduate and international jet setter, Gulnara Karimova, had taken an interest in this market. Gulnara is a woman of many talents as you can see from her web page. For example she hangs out with rock stars like Sting and even duets with Julio Iglesias.

Gulnara’s interest meant taking over Interspan’s assets and business. And this was not going to be by making an attractive offer. The company reports that men with machine guns, allegedly working for the Uzbek intelligence services, entered its offices and warehouses, and seized its assets and inventory. Its personnel were arrested and tortured. By August 2006, the company pulled out of Uzbekistan, and tea was now a Karimov family monopoly. The tea market is not the only one which Gulnara Karimova is said to have used coercion and expropriation to have taken control of. She has allegedly acquired shares in the Coca-Cola bottling franchise and in the oil sector through similar means, and controls the largest mobile phone operator, and has major interests in several other sectors, including cement and nightclubs. (Ironically, one of Karimov’s other daughters, Lola, is a “campaigner for the rights of children”!).

Yeah, those do sound like extractive economic institutions.

Why Kenyans Make Such Great Runners

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Max Fisher examines why Kenyans make such great runners and declares it a story of genes and cultures — which really should go without saying:

The statistics are hard to ignore. This medium-size country of 41 million dominates the world in competitive running. Pick any long-distance race. You’ll often find that up to about 70 or 80 percent of its winners since the late 1980s, when East African nutrition and technology started catching up with the West, have been from Kenya. Since 1988, for example, 20 of the 25 first-place men in the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan. Kenyan women appear to have had a later start, winning none of marathons before 2000 (possibly due to discriminatory laws and a tradition of forcing girls into marriages, both of which were partially rolled back by 1990s reforms) and 9 of 13 since then. Of the top 25 male record holders for the 3000-meter steeplechase, 18 are Kenyan. Seven of the last 8 London marathons were won by Kenyans, and the sole outlier was from neighboring Ethiopia*. Their record in the Olympic men’s marathon is more uneven, having placed in the top three in only four of the last six races. Still, not bad for one country. And even more amazing is that three-fourths of the Kenyan champions come from an ethnic minority of 4.4. million, or 0.06% of global population.

It turns out that Kenyans’ success may be innate. Two separate, European-led studies in a small region in western Kenya, which produces most of the race-winners, found that young men there could, with only a few months training, reliably outperform some of the West’s best professional runners. In other words, they appeared to have a physical advantage that is common to their community, making it probably genetic. The studies found significant differences in body mass index and bone structure between the Western pros and the Kenyan amateurs who had bested them. The studied Kenyans had less mass for their height, longer legs, shorter torsos, and more slender limbs. One of the researchers described the Kenyan physical differences as “bird-like,” noting that these traits would make them more efficient runners, especially over long distances.

Surprisingly, Western popular writing about Kenyans’ running success seems to focus less on these genetic distinctions and more on cultural differences. For years, the cultural argument has been that Kenyans become great runners because they often run several miles to and from school every day. But, about a decade ago, someone started asking actual Kenyans if this was true, and it turned out to be a merely a product of Western imaginations: 14 of 20 surveyed Kenyan race-winners said they’d walked or ridden the bus to school, like normal children do. Another cultural argument says they run barefoot, which develops good habits, but if this were true then surely the far more populated countries of South Asia, where living without shoes is also common, would dominate over Kenyans. Another ascribes it to the “simple food” of Kenya, but this again is true of many parts of the world, and Kenya’s not-so-great health record suggests the country has not discovered the secret to great nutrition. And there is a cringe-inducing theory, still prevalent, that Kenyans’ history as herders means they get practice running as they chase their sheep across the countryside.

I’m not sure why that last hypothesis is cringe-inducing.

Here’s where things get interesting:

In 1990, the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center compared post-pubescent schoolboys there to Sweden’s famed national track team (before Kenya and a few other African countries began dominating international racing events in the late 1980s, Scandinavians were the most reliable winners). The study found that boys on the high school track team in Iten, Kenya, consistently outperformed the professional Swedish runners. The researchers estimated that the average Kalenjin could outrun 90% of the global population, and that at least 500 amateur high school students in Iten alone could defeat Sweden’s greatest professional runner at the 2,000-meter.

A 2000 Danish Sports Science Institute investigation reproduced the earlier study, giving a large group of Kalenjin boys three months of training and then comparing them to Thomas Nolan, a Danish track superstar. When the Kalenjin boys trounced him, the researchers — who had also conducted a number of physical tests and compared them against established human averages — concluded that Kalenjins must have an inborn, physical, genetic advantage. They observed a higher number of red blood cells (which lent new credence to the theory that elevation makes their bodies more effective oxygen-users) but, in their conclusions, emphasized the “bird-like legs” that make running less energy-intensive and give their stride exceptional efficiency.

As Alex Hutchinson points out, the Scandinavians definitely were not the “most reliable winners” before the late 1980s, and there’s no Danish “track superstar” named Thomas Nolan:

This is the problem with Internet research. The source linked in the passage above is an AFP newswire write-up from 2000, which itself was cribbed from a Guardian article that described a TV documentary on Kenyan runners. Talk about broken telephone! The “track superstar” Thomas Nolan is a total fiction — no one by that name has ever ranked in the top few hundred in the world. I suspect it refers to Thomas Nolan Hansen, who at the time was a middle-aged Danish coach and whose lifetime best performance over 5,000 meters was apparently 14:56, which would class him as a very good high-school runner in the United States.

As for the study itself, I suspect he’s referring to this one (on which, you’ll notice, “T Nolan” is listed as an author). The average 5K times were 20.25 minutes for Kenyan kids from “towns,” and 18.42 minutes for Kenyan kids from “villages.” (Hang on, does this mean that village kids have better genetics?) The fastest time recorded in the whole study was 16:16. That’s still a decent time for a high-schooler — but it’s not what you expect would be required to beat a “Danish track superstar.” (The Danish national record, for what it’s worth, is 13:25.)

The Wall Street Journal happens to have a piece on Somali-born distance-runner Abdi Abdirhahman, who will be competing in his fourth Olympics, despite not really training that hard:

A four-time national champion at the 10,000 meters, Abdirahman never ran track in high school, starting only as a freshman at Tucson’s Pima Community College. Showing up for his first practice in jeans and boots, he nearly beat the team’s top runner in a five-mile race.

By all accounts, success never tempted him to take himself too seriously. His college friend, Duncan, recalls a New Year’s Eve party during which Abdirahman ran sprints through a restaurant without a shirt. “We got into a lot of trouble,” Duncan said.

After exhausting his eligibility at Arizona, Abdirahman was living on $200 a month until a Nike endorsement provided him with $30,000. That was supposed to help him train, but he also used it to buy his first truck, a Ford Explorer, and to finance his social life. “All I did was hang out with my friends and take them out to dinner all the time,” he said. “It was the best.”

“Abdi is 35 going on 18,” said Dave Murray, his longtime coach.

Yet Murray adds that Abdirahman’s relatively modest training regimen has limited injuries while preserving the athlete’s passion for running. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing. If it’s drudgery to get out of bed to go for a 13-mile run, that’s not going to help you in the long run,” Murray said.

In recent years, Abdirahman said he’s actually matured, in part thanks to a close relationship with Bernard Lagat, a two-time Olympic medalist in the 1,500 meters. “He’s a serious guy in training, but sometimes you need to give him a little motivation,” said Lagat, who also lives in Tucson. “‘Hey, Abdi! You’re goofing off too much! No more parties on Friday night!’”

Lagat paused. “My son loves Abdi so much because Abdi is like another child.”

Jon Entine’s Taboo (2001) discusses East-African dominance of long-distance running — and (genetically) West-African dominance of sprinting.

(Hat tip to HBD Chick for the first article.)

The Blimps Have Eyes

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

It looks like 24/7 overhead surveillance is coming home from Afghanistan:

The latest state-of-the-art surveillance system, called Kestrel, was tested this year during operations on the U.S.–Mexico border. The video system uses a single, continuously swirling camera to monitor about 70 square miles. The electro-optical day imager (Kestrel sees in wide-area infrared at night) produces more than 200 megapixels per second. Every second the system geotags and reconciles the images for a seamless, medium-resolution image of the terrain below. Not only does Kestrel give operators real-time images, it also records every event that happens below for later recall.

“The idea behind persistent surveillance is to make a movie of a city-size area with the goal of tracking all the moving vehicles and people,” says John Marion, director of Persistent Surveillance at Logos Technologies, the company that developed Kestrel. “Our engineers will tell you that it’s easier to build the cameras than it is to program the software that tags and stitches the images together.”

In field tests, Logos mounted Kestrel on a blimp that also carried six other cameras with narrower fields of vision but higher resolutions. If Kestrel sees something of interest, the other cameras get a tight, detailed picture. That’s not all—other sensors can be married onboard to work together. For example, aerial cameras have been meshed with signals intelligence eavesdropping equipment to immediately record people using certain radios and cellular phones. Marion says Logos demonstrated such a system in Iraq in 2008. “We can correlate for any data that has a time and place attached to it,” he says.

Wide-area surveillance data is only as good as the system’s ability to screen items of real importance from the morass of noise. Right now, the best systems can only filter so much: Kestrel helps its operators watching the screens in real-time by giving them the ability to designate boxes; the software then alerts operators when anything moves inside the area, Marion says.