Lessons of Classical Leadership and Discipline for a Post-modern Military

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Evan Munsing shares some lessons of Classical leadership and discipline for our post-modern military:

Hans Delbruck said of the eventual Roman triumph over the Greeks, “All the differences between the Greek and Roman military systems can be traced back to the difference in discipline.” It was this discipline that allowed the Romans with first a citizen army, and then a professional army, to secure the borders of a new nation and to expand them to the farthest reaches of the known world. And it was the decline of that discipline that marked the fall of the Empire, being both a symptom and a cause of it. The wealth, the infrastructure and the technology of Rome meant nothing in the face of foreign invaders when the organization and composition of their military was beyond repair. Roman discipline was built upon a belief in the virtues of austerity and frugality, the dignity of labor and an acceptance of hardship — but tempered by a willingness to acknowledge the basic humanity of soldiers and not to castigate them for sins they committed away from the battlefield. These beliefs would have been familiar to Americans of two or three generations ago, but that is no longer the case. Our ability to remain an effective fighting force may depend upon on our willingness to accept those virtues once again and America’s willingness to allow us to act in accordance with those beliefs.

Tasers For Teachers

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Taser has decided to open up sales of its law-enforcement-only models to school districts but requires that the school staff be trained by a certified Taser instructor before the units are issued.

Wizard War

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Gregory Cochran discusses The Wizard War, by R. V. Jones — partly because it provides some good examples of thin and thick problem-solving:

Reginald Jones (Ph.D. Oxford, 1934) was one of the first scientists to work for an intelligence service. He investigated German radio navigational systems and developed various methods of interfering with them, which often involved projecting the German’s next move in the electronic war. He was one of the developers of chaff, and also served as an expert consultant on the development of German rocketry — mainly the V-2.

Some of his successes were classically thin, as when he correctly analyzed the German two-beam navigation system (Knickebein). He realized that the area of overlap of two beams could be narrow, far narrower than suggested by the Rayleigh criterion.

During the early struggle with the Germans, the Battle of the Beams, he personally read all the relevant Enigma messages. They piled up on his desk, but he could almost always pull out the relevant message, since he remembered the date, which typewriter it had been typed on, and the kind of typewriter ribbon or carbon. When asked, he could usually pick out the message in question in seconds. This system was deliberate: Jones believed that the larger the field any one man could cover, the greater the chance of one brain connecting two facts — the classic approach to a thick problem, not that anyone seems to know that anymore.

All that information churning in his head produced results, enough so that his bureaucratic rivals concluded that he had some special unshared source of information. They made at least three attempts to infiltrate his Section to locate this great undisclosed source. An officer from Bletchley Park was offered on a part-time basis with that secret objective. After a month or so he was called back, and assured his superiors that there was no trace of anything other than what they already knew. When someone asked “Then how does Jones do it?” he replied “Well, I suppose, Sir, he thinks!”

Farewell to America’s Only Passenger Dirigible

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

As we bid farewell to America’s only passenger dirigible, a Zeppelin NT named Eureka and run by Airship Ventures, we welcome the Aeroscraft prototype named Pelican:

The Aeroscraft controls its buoyancy by pumping helium between lifting-gas cells and pressurized tanks inside the composite aeroshell. Compressing the helium makes the vehicle heavier than air for easier ground handling and cargo unloading. Releasing the helium displaces air inside the vehicle and makes it neutrally buoyant.

The buoyancy control system can vary the Pelican’s “static heaviness” by 3,000-4,000lb, says Pasternak, enough to allow the prototype to take off vertically, yet be heavier than air for landing and unloading. All of the tests are taking place inside Aeros’ airship hangar in Tustin, California, with the vehicle expected to reach a height of 10-15ft.

Aeroscraft Aft

Pasternak is hopeful of additional funding for follow-on testing that would take the prototype outside the hangar. The Pelican is configured for outdoor tests, he says, but might need some modifications to comply with FAA rules for flight testing. Ultimately, Aeros wants to build a 450ft-long vehicle able to carry a 66-ton payload over a 3,000nm unrefueled range.

Thick and thin

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Gregory Cochran contrasts thick and thin problem-solving styles:

Just the other day, when I was conferring, conversing and otherwise hobnobbing with my fellow physicists, I mentioned high-altitude lighting, sprites and elves and blue jets. I said that you could think of a thundercloud as a vertical dipole, with an electric field that decreased as the cube of altitude, while the breakdown voltage varied with air pressure, which declines exponentially with altitude. At which point the prof I was talking to said “and so the curves must cross!” That’s how physicists think, and it can be very effective. The amount of information required to solve the problem is not very large. I call this a thin problem.

At the other extreme, consider Darwin gathering and pondering on a vast amount of natural-history information, eventually coming up with natural selection as the explanation. Some of the information in the literature wasn’t correct, and much key information that would have greatly aided his quest, such as basic genetics, was still unknown. That didn’t stop him, anymore than not knowing the cause of continental drift stopped Wegener.

And now a fun example:

In another example at the messy end of the spectrum, Joe Rochefort, running Hypo in the spring of 1942, needed to figure out Japanese plans. He had an an ever-growing mass of Japanese radio intercepts, some of which were partially decrypted — say, one word of five, with luck. He had data from radio direction-finding; his people were beginning to be able to recognize particular Japanese radio operators by their ‘fist’. He’d studied in Japan, knew the Japanese well. He had plenty of Navy experience — knew what was possible. I would call this a classic thick problem, one in which an analyst needs to deal with an enormous amount of data of varying quality. Being smart is necessary but not sufficient: you also need to know lots of stuff.

At this point he was utterly saturated with information about the Japanese Navy. He’d been living and breathing JN-25 for months. The Japanese were aimed somewhere, that somewhere designated by an untranslated codegroup — “AF”. Rochefort thought it meant Midway, based on many clues, plausibility, etc. OP-20-G, back in Washington, thought otherwise. They thought the main attack might be against Alaska, or Port Moresby, or even the West Coast.

Nimitz believed Rochefort — who was correct. Because of that, we managed to prevail at Midway, losing one carrier and one destroyer while the the Japanese lost four carriers and a heavy cruiser. As so often happens, OP-20-G won the bureaucratic war: Rochefort embarrassed them by proving them wrong, and they kicked him out of Hawaii, assigning him to a floating drydock.

The usual explanation of Joe Rochefort’s fall argues that John Redman’s (head of OP-20-G, the Navy’s main signals intelligence and cryptanalysis group) geographical proximity to Navy headquarters was a key factor in winning the bureaucratic struggle, along with his brother’s influence (Rear Admiral Joseph Redman). That and being a shameless liar.

Personally, I wonder if part of the problem is the great difficulty of explaining the analysis of a thick problem to someone without a similar depth of knowledge. At best, they believe you because you’ve been right in the past. Or, sometimes, once you have developed the answer, there is a thin way of confirming your answer — as when Rochefort took Jasper Holmes’s suggestion and had Midway broadcast an uncoded complaint about the failure of their distillation system — soon followed by a Japanese report that “AF” was short of water.

New Shade of Green

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Back in 2001, Mark Lynas threw a pie in the face of Bjorn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist), yelling “pies for lies!”

Now Lynas recants and casts his support behind genetically modified crops:

When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get — here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.

These fears spread like wildfire, and within a few years GM was essentially banned in Europe, and our worries were exported by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia, where GM is still banned today. This was the most successful campaign I have ever been involved with.

This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag — this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it.

For me this anti-science environmentalism became increasingly inconsistent with my pro-science environmentalism with regard to climate change. I published my first book on global warming in 2004, and I was determined to make it scientifically credible rather than just a collection of anecdotes.

So I had to back up the story of my trip to Alaska with satellite data on sea ice, and I had to justify my pictures of disappearing glaciers in the Andes with long-term records of mass balance of mountain glaciers. That meant I had to learn how to read scientific papers, understand basic statistics and become literate in very different fields from oceanography to paleoclimate, none of which my degree in politics and modern history helped me with a great deal.

I found myself arguing constantly with people who I considered to be incorrigibly anti-science, because they wouldn’t listen to the climatologists and denied the scientific reality of climate change. So I lectured them about the value of peer-review, about the importance of scientific consensus and how the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals.

My second climate book, Six Degrees, was so sciency that it even won the Royal Society science books prize, and climate scientists I had become friendly with would joke that I knew more about the subject than them. And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM — even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.

Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us — it’s called gene flow.

You have to love the NY Times‘ commenters:

There is a long tradition in the English speaking world of sudden middle age veers to the right. Lynas has plenty of company among tarnished intellectuals like Horowitz and Pound, and you see it every day in stolid and sold out administrators of green NGO’s.

Conventional wisdom has always been that they’ve decided “What the hell, I can’t make any difference, I’m going after the money”, but I suspect a different cause. The ability to perform hard intellectual tasks atrophies after about age 40, and those such as Lynas who were on the edge in the first place experience inner panic. This is expressed as a quiet rage, and they rediscover the ability to attract attention by flipping to “contrarian” but in reality quite conventional corporate perspectives.

Indeed, that’s clearly the only reasonable explanation…

Educational Reform

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Many people talk about the dire state of American education, Gregory Cochran notes:

Naturally, almost all of what they say is nonsense.  You would expect that, since they were educated in that awful system…

One common theme is that education has gone to the dogs.  Kids aren’t learning the way they used to.  College graduates aren’t as smart as they once were.   Blah blah blah.

All false. Average academic achievement has not changed much over the  years.  We have good, representative national results for the last 40 years (NAEP); not much change.  We have some regional results (Iowa, mainly) that go back further: not much change.

Within every ethnic group, there has been some improvement, but nationally,  that has been canceled out by increases in the fraction of students from low-scoring groups. This is unevenly distributed.  For example, in California: scores are a lot lower than they were in 1965 because the kids are demographically quite different – i.e. dumber.

Now and then I have had someone say to me that schools in Brooklyn have gone to the dogs: somehow Puerto Rican kids today score far lower than the Jewish kids of yesteryear.  Do tell.

As it happens, kids from low-scoring groups do poorly (on average) wherever they go to school, and kids from high-scoring groups do well wherever they go to school. For example, my kids are going to a low-scoring, mostly-minority high school, but do fine.

Jerry Pournelle used to tell me that the school system somehow went to hell in the middle of WWII, since hardly any draftees were excluded for low scores in 1942 while 10% were in 1952.  Of course,  in practice, nobody could figure out what to do with such low-scoring guys in WWII, so Congress passed a law excluding the bottom 10%. Jerry has also told me that when he was a kid, everyone in his county could read. The census says otherwise.

That reminds me of my upper-caste Indian-American colleagues explaining that everyone in India speaks English.


Since within-group scores have gone up, you might think that education is more effective than it used to be. Another point in support of the US educational system is that members of a given ethnic group almost always score higher in the US than they do in other countries: not enormously higher, but some higher (PISA results).

But the fact that kids are learning a bit more does not necessarily have anything to do with the educational system. It might, but there could be other reasons. Way more high school kids are taking calculus than did in 1970, and math scores are up. I’d guess that the school systems are responsible in that case. But other factors may predominate. Kids today, on average, have parents with more education than kids in 1970. Maybe that helps. For example, when my daughter asked for help with her combinatorics homework, I could help, sometimes — not without feeling the mental rust flaking off the hinges. On the other hand, my father was a high-school graduate and hadn’t taken any higher math. In the other direction, some studies seem to show a higher fraction of people with high verbal scores before the late 1960s, and I wonder if watching lots more hours of TV each day somehow cut into reading time. Between 1950 and 1970, TV changed far more than schools did. Another point: teachers are, on average, a good deal dumber than they used to be. Education majors score about a standard deviation lower than typical college graduates, which I don’t think was the case in the more distant past. It’s hard to see how this is compatible with better results, yet there they are.

We spend a lot more money on education than we used to, but I would guess that increased spending has had no effect at all. Higher salaries, for dumber teachers, combined with vast increases in administrative personnel ? nothing .

It is true that the average high school graduate is dumber than in 1940, but then we graduate a much higher percentage today than we did then. Most of that increase has been among weaker students. It may be that the average 18-year-old high school graduate knew more then than now: but that does not mean that average 18-year-old today knows any less. If I were king, which should happen any day now, and suddenly conferred a B.A. on everyone, the average degree-holder would know less, even though everyone knew just as much as they did the day before. Or, what if baseball expanded to three major leagues? The quality of professional ball would decline without any player forgetting how to hit a curve ball.

Often people quote some study showing that the average 17- or 21-year-old doesn’t know jack shit as evidence of educational decline: of course it would only show this if they also included evidence that some earlier generation knew more, which is generally not the case. At some future time I may discuss what people know: average people, college-educated people, and the Fools at the Top.

I also often hear about the awfulness of public education, compared to private schools. In general, that’s bullshit. As far as I can tell, adjusting for student quality, results are no different. Private schools get to kick out troublesome kids: as far as I can tell, that is their only advantage.

I find it odd that almost all private schools have settled on the exact same methodology as public schools — a few dozen kids in a room with a teacher for an hour at a time, etc. — with ever so slightly higher standards. Where’s the innovation?


Sunday, January 6th, 2013

After Havard Rugland’s club soccer team in Algard, Norway disbanded a year and a half ago, he found himself watching a late-night showing of the Superbowl and wondering what he could do with an American football. He ordered one, watched some online videos, and then produced his own video — which earned him a tryout with the New York Jets:

Eunuchs of the Universe

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Tom Wolfe headlines Newsweek’s first digital-only issue with a return to Wall Street 25 years after Bonfire of the Vanities:

Up until 2006 a spirit of manly daring had pervaded Wall Street’s investment bankers. Trading stocks and bonds was the next thing to armed combat. The warriors, i.e., traders and salesmen, told of how fighting in combat — confronting not an armed enemy but a fan-shaped array of computer screens — created a euphoria more exhilarating than any other conceivable state of mind. It was the highest of all highs — and thanks not only to the earth-orbiting ecstasy of the battle. There was also the not inconspicuous fact that these Boomtime Boys—many of them in their 20s, still young enough to blush—were knocking back a million dollars or more a year in bonuses, year after year…

Victory as recorded on those screens made them feel like Masters of the Universe.

Definitely read the whole thing.

(Hat tip to Pax Dickinson.)

Behind the Hit iPhone Game “The Walking Dead”

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has been declared “game of the year” by a number of sites and has sold many “episodes“:

Telltale sells the game in “episodes” — five in all — for three gaming platforms: the Xbox 360, PC and the iPhone/iPad, where it’s especially resonating with swipe- and touch-based mechanics.

Since launching the first episode in April, players have purchased more than 8.5 million episodes, said Telltale CEO Dan Connors. At about $5 per episode, that’s roughly more than $40 million in sales, not including any promotions. Each episode ends on cliffhangers, enticing the player to buy the next one, Connors said.

About a quarter of those sales are happening on the iPhone and iPad, Connors said. That’s the fastest growth for “The Walking Dead” among platforms, underscoring how important mobile devices are becoming in the eyes of game publishers.

First one’s free…


Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Neanderthal hunters were redlining near the maximum sustainable risk per calorie, Gregory Cochran suggests:

If the average member of the species incurs too much risk, more than that sustainable maximum, the species goes extinct. The Neanderthals must have come closer to that red line than anatomically modern humans in Africa, judging from their beat-up skeletons, which resemble those of rodeo riders. They were almost entirely carnivorous, judging from isotopic studies, and that helps us understand all those fractures: they apparently had limited access to edible plants, which entail far lower risks. Tubers and berries seldom break your ribs.

In Africa, most calories probably came from plant foods back in the Middle Stone Age, as they do in African hunter-gatherers today, and that fits too: early African hunters seem to have mainly gone after relatively safe prey like eland, avoiding really dangerous animals like cape buffalo. This is not to say that they did not hunt, or that hunting was unimportant, but they had alternatives.

Risk per calorie was particularly high among the Neanderthals because they seem to have had no way of storing meat – they had no drying racks or storage pits in frozen ground like those used by their successors. Think of it this way: storage allow more complete usage of a large carcass such as a bison, that might weigh over a thousand pounds – it wouldn’t be easy to eat all of that before it went bad. Higher utilization – using all of the buffalo – drops the risk per calorie.

You might think that they could have chased rabbits or whatever, but that is relatively unrewarding. It works a lot better if you can use nets or snares, but no evidence of such devices has been found among the Neanderthals.

It looks as if the Neanderthals had health insurance: surely someone else fed them while they were recovering from being hurt. You see the same pattern, to a degree, in lions, and it probably existed in sabertooths as well, since they often exhibit significant healed injuries.

By the way, why were mammoths rapidly wiped out in the Americas while elephants survived in Africa and south Asia?

First, North American mammoths had no evolved behavioral defenses against man, while Old World elephants had had time to acquire such adaptations. That may have made hunting old world elephants far more dangerous, and therefore less attractive.

Second, there are areas in Africa that are almost uninhabitable, due to the tsetse fly. They may have acted as natural game preserves, and there are no equivalents in the Americas.

Third, the Babel effect: in the early days, paleoIndians likely had not yet split into different ethnic groups with different languages: with less fighting among the early Indians, animals would not have had relatively border regions acting as refugia. Also, with fewer human-caused casualties, paleoindians could have taken more risks in hunting.

Dave Chamberlain adds a story about elephant-hunting:

I read a story of a herd of african elephants that were such a nuisance to the local farmers that hunters were employed to kill them. The elephants quickly changed their habits before all of them could be shot. They hid in the dense jungle during the day and came out to feed at night. The hunters became the hunted, several of them going into the jungle where the elephants were hiding were trampled. The hunters quit and the diminished elephant herd still exists, and — wouldn’t you know it? — they haven’t forgotten; they still have a reputation as some of the meanest and most dangerous elephants in Africa. African animals had a million years to adapt to the slowly increasing hunting skills of man.

Formal Friday

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Hipsters are now practicing formal Fridays at work.

Tarantino Explained

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Steve Sailer explains Quentin Tarantino:

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is, among much else during its leisurely 165-minute running time, an adolescent male revenge fantasy about an omnipotent mass shooter wreaking carnage upon dozens of victims. I suspect the film would have appealed profoundly to the late Adam Lanza.

You might think that this wouldn’t be the best time for a quasi-comic daydream/bloodbath about a deadeye gunman who always fires first and is immune to the thousands of bullets shot at him. But the recent unpleasantness in Sandy Hook has gone almost unmentioned in the critical hosannas greeting Django… because, you see, the invulnerable hero is a black gunman shooting bad (i.e., Southern white) people.

It’s not much more complicated than that.

Megafaunal Extinctions

Friday, January 4th, 2013

When competent human hunters encountered naive fauna, the biggest animals,  things like mammoths and toxodons and diprotodons, all went extinct — which leads Gregory Cochran to make some larger points:

It is not hard to see why this occurred. Large animals are more worth hunting than rabbits, and easier to catch, while having a far lower reproductive rate. Moreover, humans are not naturally narrow specialists on any one species, so are not limited by the abundance of that species in the way that the lynx population depends on the hare population. Being omnivores, they could manage even when the megafauna as a whole were becoming rare.

There were subtle factors at work as well: the first human colonists in a new land probably didn’t develop ethnic/language splits for some time, which meant that the no-mans-land zones between tribes that can act as natural game preserves didn’t exist in that crucial early period. Such game preserves might have allowed the megafauna to evolve better defenses against humans – but they never got the chance.

It happened in the Americas, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Madagascar, and in sundry islands. There is no reason to think that climate had much to do with it, except in the sense that climatic change may sometimes have helped open up a path to those virgin lands in which the hand of man had never set foot, via melting glaciers or low sea level.

I don’t know the numbers, but certainly a large fraction of archeologists and paleontologists, perhaps a majority, don’t believe that human hunters were responsible, or believe that hunting was only one of several factors. Donald Grayson and David Meltzer, for example. Why do they think this? In part I think it is an aversion to simple explanations, a reversal of Ockham’s razor, which is common in these fields. Of course then I have to explain why they would do such a silly thing, and I can’t. Probably some with these opinions are specialists in a particular geographic area, and do not appreciate the power of looking at multiple extinction events: it’s pretty hard to argue that the climate just happened to change whenever people showed when it happens five or six times.

It might be that belief in specialization is even more of a problem than specialization itself. Lots of time you have to gather insights and information from several fields to make progress on a puzzle. It seems to me that many researchers aren’t willing to learn much outside their field, even when it’s the only route to the answer. But then, maybe they can’t. I remember an anthropologist who could believe in humans rapidly filling up New Zealand, which is about the size of Colorado, but just couldn’t see how they could have managed to fill up a whole continent in a couple of thousand years. Evidently she didn’t understand geometric growth. She is not alone.

Should you ever be desperate and in need of game, Jehu adds, take a copy of the hunting regulations for your state:

Look up all the hunting methods and tactics that are banned. Those are the ones that your lower-tech ancestors would have used. They’re banned precisely because of their effectiveness and efficiency.

Dave Chamberlin continues in that vein:

Fish are damned tasty and also damned stupid; they have never learned that swimming up to a bright light during night time frequently gets them caught on the end of a spear. Fisherman are pissed off that American Indians are still allowed to go fishing this way because it is so easy and so effective.

Sharpening a stick with a knife (or a piece of flint if you want to be historically accurate) it is really easy to incomplete a cut that leaves a perfect barb near the point that would keep a fish from sliding off the spear.

Fire made food far more digestable, but it also kept us warm, protected us at night, and made fish so easy to catch it’s now considered cheating. No wonder Homo erectus spread out far beyond Africa.

More Colorful Than Reality

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Campus brochures lack truth in advertising:

Pippert and his researchers looked at more than 10,000 images from college brochures, comparing the racial breakdown of students in the pictures to the colleges’ actual demographics. They found that, overall, the whiter the school, the more diversity depicted in the brochures, especially for certain groups.

“When we looked at African-Americans in those schools that were predominantly white, the actual percentage in those campuses was only about 5 percent of the student body,” he says. “They were photographed at 14.5 percent.”