Inattentional Blindness

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

A Boston police officer chasing a suspect ran past a brutal assault and was prosecuted for perjury when he claimed not to have seen it — so researchers ran their own test on such inattentional blindness:

We simulated the Boston incident by having subjects run after a confederate along a route near which three other confederates staged a fight. At night only 35% of subjects noticed the fight; during the day 56% noticed.

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.)

On using dice with a military audience

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

A war-gaming consultant speaks on using dice with a military audience — an audience that doesn’t generally like games:

I recently gave an ‘Introduction to Operational Analysis‘ presentation to the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College’s Advanced Command and Staff Course students and Directing Staff. At one point I left the security of the lectern, walked to front centre stage and, laying my professional credibility on the line, produced a large rubber 6-sided die and told a story.

Some years ago I was a Course of Action (COA) Wargaming Subject Matter Expert floorwalker at a corps level CPX. HQ 1 (UK) Div was a player HQ and were conducting a COA Wargame. The success of the plan being wargamed was predicated on breaking through an enemy blocking position, and the HQ staff had applied sufficient combat power so that the supporting operational analyst assured them that the force equivalency ratio was 3:1 in their favour. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and assumed the attack would, when the time came, succeed. We all ‘know’ that a 3:1 ratio ensures a brief fight then home for tea and medals. Or does it…?

I asked the analyst what 3:1 actually meant. He told me that it gave an approximately 70% chance of success, based on historical analysis of planned attacks versus a hasty defence. I translated ‘approximately 70%’ to 66% for obvious reasons explained below.

At this point (and knowing him quite well) I approached the General Officer Commanding (GOC). Armed with the analyst’s figures I gave the GOC the self same large rubber die and asked him if he would be happy rolling it in front of his peers and commanders when his plan was executed. If he rolled 1-4 his plan worked, but a 5-6 meant his plan failed; the enemy would remain firm and the entire corps plan stall. With almost no hesitation he called his COS and the plan was revised; more combat power was applied to increase the chances of success.

The folks at the Simulating War discussion group add their thoughts, including Sun Tzu’s admonition, used metaphorically: don’t besiege walled cities.

Conflict Termination

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

The real fantasy of the Lord of the Rings movies, Jon Jeckell reminds us, is how cleanly the war ends. Star Wars isn’t much better. Robotech, on the other hand, deals with the challenges of conflict termination, reconciliation and demobilization:

The first half of the first saga fits the typical American preference, featuring a technological wonder-weapon manned by a maverick crew, single-handedly protecting the Earth from the relentless onslaught of an implacable and overwhelmingly powerful enemy against impossible odds. The humans win a stunning victory in a cataclysmic battle. They win in part through their unique talent, innate human traits and a daring strike on the enemy flagship that throws the enemy into disarray.

But instead of this resulting in the typical, jubilant, decisive happy ending we’ve all come to expect… wait… it’s just the middle of the first saga, not the end. Earth is devastated, with severe food and resource constraints for the shell-shocked survivors, including huge numbers of surviving sixty foot tall former enemy combatants who caused the devastation. Worse, these former enemy soldiers are genetically modified sixty-foot tall lab grown clones assembled into a completely martial society through implanted false memories of a glorious history of conquest and lacking skills for anything other than combat. Their Masters kept them utterly dependent on them by limiting their skills and aptitude toward fighting. They cannot even build or repair their own equipment. Moreover, their Masters kept them strictly segregated from the opposite sex and programmed them to be repulsed by the sight of them to monopolize their ability to reproduce.

While these demobilized enemy soldiers lack useful skills for reconstruction, their massive size imposes commensurately enormous resource requirements to survive. Even the ones amenable to starting a peaceful new life face hostility and resentment from xenophobic, traumatized and hungry humans. Difficulties integrating with human society and ready access to weapons littering the landscape in the wreckage of the last war resulted in fertile ground for a rogue enemy leader to rally un-reconciled elements to regain their imagined glory in combat. Many surviving civilians also blamed the military for the devastation and staged protests that prevented routine peace enforcement by the only means available to the government–the military and the weapons used in the war. Estranged from people outside the military hierarchy, they have little choice but to wait until things flare up and employ deadly force, rather than work toward reconciliation and socio-political union.

Radical planes take shape

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Airliners have not changed much outwardly in 60 years, but that may soon change:

Earlier improvements went mostly unnoticed because they focused on building better and quieter turbine engines with higher performance and improved fuel consumption. There have also been huge strides in computer controls and fly-by-wire systems, which make a big difference to the pilot, but not to the passengers. And in recent years, the biggest development has been the use of strong, but lightweight plastics and composite materials rather than metals, reducing the weight of planes and the amount of fuel they need to burn. This has also allowed the development of “radical” new planes like the giant Airbus A380 and the Boeing Dreamliner.


A team from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, put forward the D8 for consideration by Nasa. This “double-bubble” aircraft design, features a double-wide fuselage composed of two standard body cylinders melded together side-by-side, as well as low-swept wings that cut drag and weight. The idea of the wider body shape is to increase lift generated by the fuselage, rather than it being mostly dead weight slung between two wings. The extra lift and reduced drag cuts back on the quantity of fuel that the engines must burn. If the jet were built today from standard aluminum alloys it could provide a 50% reduction in fuel use, according to the MIT designers; a low-mass polymer-composite version could give 70% efficiency gains. In addition, because the D8’s turbine engines sit on top of the fuselage in a box-shaped tail, they would cut the amount of engine noise broadcast to the ground.

The D8’s idea for generating greater lift is taken to an extreme in another design called the N3-X hybrid wing-body airplane, which Nasa developed in-house. At first glance, the N3-X looks a lot like a so-called flying wing design, used by planes such as the US Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber. These comprise a single, thick triangular wing that enclose all of the plane’s contents – cockpit, stores, engines, fuel tanks and flight surfaces. But, unlike the B-2 flying wing, the N3-X hybrid wing-body also features two thin, rather conventional wings attached to the sides of its ultra-wide fuselage.

The primary advantage of the hybrid, or blended, wing-body design is better fuel efficiency, Del Rosario says. Like a flying wing, the hybrid aircraft produces lift with its entire aerodynamic airframe, thus ridding itself of the drag associated with the cylindrical fuselage and the tail surfaces of a conventional plane. As with the D8, the more lift that can be produced overall, the less effort is needed from the engines, which in turn means less fuel must be burned. Fuel efficiency could be raised further by building the airframe from lightweight polymer composite materials instead of metals, Del Rosario says.


Nasa’s N3-X is also designed around a completely new engine concept, called turboelectric distributed propulsion. It splits the main functions of a standard turbine engine in two — generating power by burning fuel and creating thrust by blowing air rearward with a large fan.

The idea is to use two large turbine engines to drive electric generators that would produce electricity to power 15 electric motor-driven, thrust-producing fans that would be embedded across the top rear of the broad fuselage. Such a configuration could be very efficient, Del Rosario says. The array of small electric propulsion fans at the stern of N3-X enables the designers to cut drag significantly by accelerating the flow of drag-causing air moving over the upper surface of the fuselage, keeping efficiency-sapping air friction at a minimum. Like the D8, the top-mounted propulsor fans would also effectively lower noise emissions because the body would come between them and the ground below.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Jeckell.)

Up Goer Five

Monday, November 12th, 2012

How do you describe the Saturn V using only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language?  First, you call it the Up Goer Five:

Cancer Comes in More Shades Than Pink

Monday, November 12th, 2012

All the pink associated with breast-cancer awareness reinforces a common fallacy that drives Virginia Postrel crazy — the notion that breast cancer is one disease:

Five years ago, oncologists had already long understood breast cancer as several different diseases that, based on their underlying molecular behavior, react differently to different treatments. (My own cancer was HER2-positive, an aggressive form found in about a quarter of breast-cancer patients and responsive to Genentech Inc.’s (ROG) biologic Herceptin.)

Now we have even more reason to understand breast cancer as multiple diseases.

An enormous study published last month in the journal Nature analyzed samples from 825 breast-cancer tumors, using five different tests to find mutations in different aspects of their genetics. Researchers crunched the resulting data to classify the cancers into four general types: Luminal A, Luminal B, HER2-enriched, and basal-like. (They also identified a fifth type, dubbed normal-like, but didn’t have enough samples to adequately study it.) Given its underlying genetics, each type might be susceptible to a specific treatment approach.

The study refines the way oncologists understand the different versions of the disease. The biggest news was that the basal-like cancers had more in common with the most common ovarian cancer, called serous, than with other types of breast cancer.

Breast cancer isn’t just more than one disease, it turns out. Some “breast cancer” doesn’t seem unique to breasts.

Cristiano Ronaldo Tested To The Limit

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

Cristiano Ronaldo had his mental and visual soccer skills tested to the limit by sports scientists:

(Hat tip to Daniel Coyle.)

Pakistan’s “Sovereignty” Canard

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

A drunken Predator drone discusses Pakistan’s “sovereignty” canard:

Every time I cross the border, every time an American missile hits Pakistani soil, Pakistan’s government exercises their sovereignty by choosing not to blow me out of the sky. I operate openly, and Pakistan’s doing so would be a huge bummer, butwell within their technical capacity. Yes, the sole act of not starting a war doesn’t equate to government permission. But sovereignty implies a range of options and authorities beyond war, and Pakistan has visibly exercised that sovereign authority in the recent past.

After the May 2011 bin Laden raid (which, as a side note, constituted a real sovereignty violation, with no warning whatsoever and American boots on the ground deep inside Pakistan) bilateral relations were already sour. But on November 17th of that year, a nighttime gun battle between NATO and Pakistani forces (the latter of whom were suspiciously close to fleeing Taliban) resulted in an air strike that killed 26 Pakistani border police near a village called Salala. Pakistan halted trucks resupplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, kicked American drone operations out of the Shamsi air base, and demanded an unprecedented cessation of drone strikes.

And we listened. Drone strikes that had been commonplace ground to a total halt. It took six weeks before U.S.-Pakistani ties had mended to the point where the strikes could resume. In contrast, it took six months of diplomacy and a public apology before Pakistan reopened the “Ground Lines of Communication.” This incident made it clear that, behind closed doors, Pakistani authorities could grant authority for American air strikes in the tribal areas- but they could also take it away. That’s sovereignty.

(Hat tip to zenpundit.)

Coffee-Can Radar

Friday, November 9th, 2012

David Schneider describes his experience building a coffee-can radar based on a design by Greg Charvat of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory:

A detailed description of the radar and how to build it is available at MIT’s open courseware website.
Having little experience with radio frequency circuitry, I worried that this project might be too challenging. Ironically, the RF section was the easiest part to construct. It merely required screwing together a few microwave components. And as long as you follow the prescription in the lecture notes exactly, you won’t need a network analyzer to match the antennas to the radar circuitry.

Most people’s mental picture of how radar operates is that the apparatus gives off a radio pulse and then waits to receive an echo, timing how long it takes to return. Dividing by the speed of light gives the round-trip distance to a target. Some radar sets do just that, but this one uses a different strategy: One antenna emits a continuous stream of waves while the other receives a continuous stream of echoes. The circuitry for this isn’t complicated, but interpreting the received signals requires some computational horsepower.

The key to this design is that the frequency of the outgoing radio waves increases linearly over time (for a short period, after which the cycle repeats), so the frequency of the reflected waves also increases linearly. But the reflected waves return to the receiving antenna after a short delay, by which time the waves being emitted are at a slightly higher frequency. The farther away the target, the greater the difference between these two frequencies.

To measure this difference, you use what radio engineers call a mixer, which here generates an output signal containing two new frequencies that are the sum and difference of the transmitted and received frequencies. Only the difference matters for this application, so the radar circuitry filters out the high frequencies, including the sum, and amplifies what’s left. This final signal is in the audio frequency range and can easily be recorded using a computer’s sound card—much more practical than trying to build a system that works directly with microwave frequency signals throughout.

I first set up the radar next to my garage and recorded about a half minute of data as I ran up and down the driveway. I captured that data with Audacity, a free audio editor, running on an old desktop PC that had a sound card with a line-in port. I analyzed the recording using a Matlab script provided by the instructors at MIT. Running the script proved a challenge, though, because Matlab was too pricey for my shoestring budget. But I found a free open-source alternative that served as a reasonable stand-in: Octave.

It took about 4 minutes to process the data, but it was worth the wait: The script transformed subtle changes in the audio signal into a zigzag plot that matched my back-and-forth movements. Wow!

Healing Concrete

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Concrete could soon heal its own cracks, using bacterial spores:

Bacterial spores and the nutrients they will need to feed on are added as granules into the concrete mix. But water is the missing ingredient required for the microbes to grow.

So the spores remain dormant until rainwater works its way into the cracks and activates them. The harmless bacteria — belonging to the Bacillus genus — then feed on the nutrients to produce limestone.

The bacterial food incorporated into the healing agent is calcium lactate — a component of milk. The microbes used in the granules are able to tolerate the highly alkaline environment of the concrete.

Democracies and Collateral Damage

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

In discussing D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, Antony Beevor argues that democracies push their generals to inflict more collateral damage — “as the Americans call it”:

Gordon Tullock makes the case for not voting

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Gordon Tullock makes the case for not voting:

Participatory Fascism

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Robert Higgs prefers to call modern democracy participatory fascism:

This is a descriptively precise term in that it recognizes the fascistic organization of resource ownership and control in our system, despite the preservation of nominal private ownership, and the variety of ways in which the state employs political ceremonies, proceedings, and engagements—most important, voting—in which the general public participates. Such participation engenders the sense that somehow the people control the government. Even though this sense of control is for the most part an illusion, rather than a perception well founded in reality, it is important because it causes people to accept government regulations, taxes, and other insults against which they might rebel if they believed that such impositions had simply been forced on them by dictators or other leaders wholly beyond their influence.

For the rulers, participatory fascism is the perfect solution toward which they have been groping for generations, and virtually all of the world’s politico-economic orders are now gravitating toward this system. Outright socialism is a recipe for widespread poverty and for the ultimate dissolution of the economy and the disavowal of its political leadership. Socialism is the wave of the past; everywhere it has been tried seriously, it has failed miserably. Participatory fascism, in contrast, has two decisive advantages over socialism.

The first is that it allows the nominal private owners of resources and firms enough room for maneuver that they can still innovate, prosper, and hence propel the system toward higher levels of living for the masses. If the government’s intervention is pushed too far, this progress slows, and it may eventually cease or even turn into economic regress. However, when such untoward conditions occur, the rulers tend to rein in their plunder and intervention enough to allow a revitalization of the economy. Of course, such fettered economies cannot grow as fast as completely free economies can grow, but the latter system would preclude the plunder and control that the political leaders now enjoy in the fettered system, and hence they greatly prefer the slower-growing, great-plunder system to the faster-growing, no-plunder one.

Meanwhile, most people are placated by the economic progress that does occur and by their participation in political and legal proceedings that give them the illusion of control and fair treatment. Although the political system is rigged in countless ways to favor incumbent rulers and their key supporters, it is far from dictatorial in the way that Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany was dictatorial. People therefore continue to believe that they are free, notwithstanding the death of their liberties by a thousand cuts that continues day by day.

Participatory fascism’s second great advantage over socialism is that when serious economic problems do arise, as they have during the past five years, the rulers and their key supporters in the “private” sector can blame residual elements of the market system, and especially the richest people who operate in that system, for the perceived ills. No matter how much the problems arise from government intervention, it is always possible to lay the blame on actors and institutions in the remaining “free enterprises,” especially the biggest bankers and other apparent top dogs. Thus, fascistic rulers have build-in protection against popular reaction that the rulers in a socialist system lack. (Rulers under socialism tend to designate foreign governments and capitalists and domestic “wreckers” as the scapegoats for their mismanagement and inability to conduct economic affairs productively and fairly.)

(Hat tip to Aretae.)

The Right Wolfe

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Tom Wolfe’s point of view proved unique among magazine writers, Andrew Ferguson says, because Wolfe wasn’t a man of the left:

Like most writers with a wide range and a fine eye, Wolfe had no interest in cultivating an ideology. Instead he actually fit the image that so many other journalists maintain of themselves, in fantasy if not in fact: an unrutted, unconventional speaker of truth to power. Immune to liberal piety, Wolfe could see the cultural imbecilities that were hiding in plain sight; he could hear the background noise that his colleagues took for granted. Not many of them would have seen material in the party that Leonard Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers in his Upper East Side duplex: a celebrity raising money for a good cause — happens all the time! Wolfe saw that the moment encapsulated a particular corruption in American liberalism, which was substituting moral self-congratulation for an unblinkered view of the world. Wolfe got the story that others missed and wrote it up as the great Radical Chic, as funny and germane today as it was in 1970.

He followed it with still more inconvenient revelations: long essays on the self-hypnosis that leads culture mavens to ignore the absurdity of the contemporary art world (The Painted Word) or the ugliness of modernist architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House). He wrote a primer for college students, “The Intelligent Co-ed’s Guide to America,” imploring them to withstand academic ideology and believe “the heresy of your own eyes” — a nice phrase for Wolfe’s own approach. The mavens roared.

“All I ever did was write about the world we inhabit, the world of culture, arts, and journalism and so on, with exactly the same tone that I wrote about everything else,” he once told an interviewer. “With exactly the same reverence that the people who screamed the most would have written about life in a small American town or in the business world or in professional sports, which is to say with no reverence at all.”

It resulted in a catalogue of books and essays unrivaled in journalism for its prescience, humor, and fearlessness — an achievement that earned Wolfe a place in the pantheon before he wrote a word of novel.

Foseti’s Vibrant Halloween

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Foseti enjoys inviting unsuspecting bourgeois friends to experience a vibrant Halloween at his DC home, which is right along the border between two very different communities:

My favorite moment is the look on the visitor’s face the first time a middle-aged lady without a costume on comes to the door demanding (there’s never a please or a thank you) candy. The look always conveys a sense of horror followed quickly by a sense of concern since what they’ve just witnessed can never be discussed.