Olympic Wrestling Dropped

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

I thought it was bad enough that the modern Olympics lacked pankration, but now wrestling has been dropped by the International Olympic Committee:

Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling will be contested at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but they will be excluded from the 2020 Summer Games, for which a host city has not yet been named, the I.O.C. said Tuesday.

The decision to drop wrestling was made by secret ballot by the Olympic committee’s 15-member executive board at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. The exact vote and reasons for the decision were not given in detail.


Sports like snowboarding have been added to the Winter Games to broaden the audience. Golf and rugby will be added to the 2016 Rio Games. Among the sports that wrestling must compete with for future inclusion are climbing, rollerblading and wakeboarding.

The I.O.C. may have also grown frustrated that Greco-Roman wrestling did not include women, experts said. Women began participating in freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Athens Games.

Politics also play an inevitable role in the workings of the I.O.C. Among the sports surviving Tuesday’s vote was modern pentathlon, also threatened and less popular internationally than wrestling. But modern pentathlon, a five-event sport that includes shooting, horseback riding and running, was invented by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games. And it is supported by Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son of the former Olympic Committee president and a member of its board.

Wrestling was the final event of the ancient pentathlon, which comprised the long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, stadion (~200-meter) sprint, and wrestling.

How Ronald D. Moore Got BSG So Right

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Ronald D. Moore answers veterans’ questions about how he got Battlestar Galactica so right:

Erich Simmers: You mentioned your study of history and your time in the Navy ROTC. Many of the questions I got were focused on your eye for military culture — specifically the people, not just the technology or battles and dates, but that very specific culture that the U. S. military has. They asked, “How did you get it so right?” Can you elaborate more on your experiences and your study of history that enabled you to tap into that culture?

Ronald D. Moore: My personal experiences were fairly limited, but I had an ear for picking up on dialogue and culture and tradition in the environments I was in. My first midshipman’s cruise was aboard the USS W. S. Sims out of Mayport, Florida freshman year. I spent about a month aboard the frigate. There were just a lot of things about living aboard a Navy ship for a month that I picked up on — the way people talked to one another, the style, the cultures going around me. When I was writing the episodes, I tapped into a lot of that.

Colonel Tigh on Battlestar — the XO on the Sims was sort of a hardass, and the crew knew he was a hardass. It was part of his job to protect the image of the captain as the kindly old man. The XO’s job was to be a tougher man than him and take all the flack, and I always remembered that. It was an interesting, deliberate choice that the man had made to run the ship that way.

Then there were little things like the announcements going over the PA. In the Battlestar miniseries, there’s an announcement that I wrote in in the background where you hear somebody say, “Attention aboard the Galactica, EVA in progress. Do not rotate or irradiate any electronic equipment while men are working outside the ship.” I remember those announcements going through the Sims everyday: “Do not rotate or irradiate any electronic equipment while men are working aloft.” Little things like that stuck in my head, and I would reach back and put into the show periodically.

Then, I just loved military history and read a lot of books through the years on World War II — in particular, carrier operations and the way the fat carriers worked in the Pacific, how the squadrons were organized, the culture of the ready room and the pilots, the ways they talked to one another, and how they planned operations. I was always fascinated with that world, so I brought my knowledge of that over.

ES: Did any part of you ever wonder what would have happened if you would have followed a Naval career rather than the path you took?

RM: Oh yeah, all the time. It’s one of those things in my past that I look back on with regret and relief at the same time, because I made the realization that while I was fascinated with it, I wasn’t really part of it. I didn’t fit well into the military. It wasn’t natural to me; I was a much better observer and journalist of it, as it were, to talk about it, study it, and fictionalize it. I didn’t function that well in it. I didn’t particularly like taking orders; I didn’t particularly like getting up early in the morning. I hated learning to write the reports — even the most basic stuff we did in ROTC of filling out reports and typing in those forms and readiness reports. Just mindless paperwork and the bureaucratic nature of the military drove me kinda batshit. [laughs] I was like, “Really?” So there were aspects of it that I just didn’t mesh completely well with. I was always somewhat apart from the rest of my unit, and I never really felt part of it. But there was a part of me that wanted to. That really wanted to be a naval officer. That really wanted to do that.

I’ll never forget, many years later, when I was on Star Trek, I was invited to go aboard the USS Constellation for a long weekend, so I flew out with a bunch of people going for a weekend cruise. We flew out off the coast of San Diego and went up to the flag bridge to watch air operations that night. When we went up to the flag bridge and looked down onto the deck, there were F/A-18s coming in and landing in this amber glow of the lights on the deck and there was just utter blackness out beyond. The planes would come out of nowhere and land on the deck and others were being catapulted off, and I had this enormous wave of emotion and feeling. There was a part of me that just so desperately wished that I was part of this — that I was doing this and I was down on that deck or I was in that aircraft or this was my job. It was the first time that it really grabbed me since I left ROTC that there was this part of me that really wanted to belong to this.

The Crash of Empires

Monday, February 11th, 2013

The fall of an empire may be agonizingly long, Jerry Pournelle writes (in 1989), or mercifully short:

Winston Churchill could protest that he had not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over liquidation of the British Empire, but in fact that is what he did; for better or worse, in less than a generation the British experiment in world order was history. During the same period the French Empire ceased to exist. Italy and Germany had already lost whatever imperial pretensions they may have had.

Of course the age of empire is hardly over: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is imperial in all but name. Perhaps it, too, will fall.

Paul Kennedy argues in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that great powers fall because of the economic strain of their military burdens. The United States in particular faces the dilemma of hoarding resources for investment, or spending to keep present military power in order to meet immediate threats.

The dilemma is real, but there is another problem. The United States may not really have any choice, because any resources not spent on military power will not be saved and invested for the future, but immediately consumed. We all know this, and assume that it’s “just politics.” We also assume that politics is and will remain predominant.

Meanwhile, the United States is transforming itself into an odd form of oligarchy. The nation is, after all, ruled by a small elite elected in effect for life: 98% of all members of Congress were reelected in 1986, and there is no reason to suppose that figure will ever be different. As one observer put it, the two houses of Congress have become in effect the House of Lords twice over, with the only real national contest being for the Presidency.

Of course the President controls the military.

We are brought up on the view that economics and politics control human affairs. Perhaps so; but it is well to remember what is primary. John Keegan, one-time military historian at Sandhurst, says in his Mask of Command:

“Marx was able to argue for the primacy of ownership of the means of production as a determinant of social relationships largely because, at the time when he wrote, finance and investment overshadowed all other forces in society, and the military class — exhausted by the Napoleonic wars and dispirited by the defeat of its interests in Russia in 1825 and France in 1830 — was at an unnaturally low ebb of self-confidence. Yet military power, represented in its crudest form by the robber-baron principle, can, of course, at any time it chooses, make fools of the financier and investor, as the history of investment in unstable areas of the world makes unarguably evident. It can equally make fools of ‘historical’ laws. Marx, in his heart, recognized both truths, feared more than any other the temperament — and the military class is ultimately self-choosing by temperament rather than by material interest — that will seize arms simply for the pleasure that blood-letting gives, and constantly urged the politically conscious to learn the habits and discipline of the military class as the merest means of defending and furthering the revolution.”

It is self-evident that the nomenklatura, the real rulers of modern Russia, have forgotten Marx’s warnings. So have the politicians and economists in the United States.

The Adventurer, by C. M. Kornbluth

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Certain men make history, men born to be mould-breakers. C. M. Kornbluth’s science-fiction story, The Adventurer explores this idea:

They are the Phillips of Macedon, the Napoleons, Stalins and Hitlers, the Suleimans — the adventurers. Again and again they flash across history, bringing down an ancient empire, turning ordinary soldiers of the line into unkillable demons of battle, uprooting cultures, breathing new life into moribund peoples.

There are common denominators among all the adventurers. Intelligence, of course. Other things are more mysterious but are always present. They are foreigners. Napoleon the Corsican. Hitler the Austrian. Stalin the Georgian. Phillip the Macedonian. Always there is an Oedipus complex. Always there is physical deficiency.

Those last couple elements date the story, I suppose.

The Only Thing We Learn

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

The only thing we learn from history, George Bernard Shaw quipped, is that we learn nothing from history.

Cyril Kornbluth, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, wrote his science-fiction tale, The Only Thing We Learn, soon after that war ended and not long before he died.

Here Wing Commander Arris realizes his forces — defending Earth — are doomed, as the ramshackle rebel fleet attacking them doesn’t crumble on contact with a “proper” fleet:

Lunar relay flickered out as overloaded fuses flashed into vapor. Arris distractedly paced back to the dark corner and sank into a chair.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice of Glen next to him, sounding quite sincere. “No doubt it was quite a shock to you.”

“Not to you?” asked Arris bitterly.

“Not to me.”

“Then how did they do it?” the wing commander asked the civilian in a low, desperate whisper. “They don’t even wear .45′s. Intelligence says their enlisted men have hit their officers and got away with it. They elect ship captains! Glen, what does it all mean?”

“It means,” said the fat little man with a timbre of doom in his voice, “that they’ve returned. They always have. They always will. You see, commander, there is always somewhere a wealthy, powerful city, or nation, or world. In it are those whose blood is not right for a wealthy, powerful place. They must seek danger and overcome it. So they go out — on the marshes, in the desert, on the tundra, the planets, or the stars. Being strong, they grow stronger by fighting the tundra, the planets, or the stars. They — they change. They sing new songs. They know new heroes. And then, one day, they return to their old home.

“They return to the wealthy, powerful city, or nation or world. They fight its guardians as they fought the tundra, the planets, or the stars — a way that strikes terror to the heart. Then they sack the city, nation, or world and sing great, ringing sagas of their deeds. They always have. Doubtless they always will.”

“But what shall we do?”

“We shall cower, I suppose, beneath the bombs they drop on us, and we shall die, some bravely, some not, defending the palace within a very few hours. But you will have your revenge.”

“How?” asked the wing commander, with haunted eyes.

The fat little man giggled and whispered in the officer’s ear. Arris irritably shrugged it off as a bad joke. He didn’t believe it. As he died, drilled through the chest a few hours later by one of Algan’s gunfighters, he believed it even less.

Tolkien and World War I

Friday, February 8th, 2013

World War I represented everything Tolkien hated, Nancy Marie Ott notes — the destruction of nature, the deadly application of technology, the abuse and corruption of authority, and the triumph of industrialization — and this colored his own image of the War of the Rings:

The parallels between the landscapes of No-Man’s Land and Tolkien’s landscapes of nightmare are striking. Mordor is a dry, gasping land pocked by pits that are very much like shell craters. Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins even hide in one of these pits when escaping from an Orc band, much as a soldier might have hidden in a shell hole while trying to evade an enemy patrol. Like No-Man’s Land, Mordor is empty of all life except the soldiers of the Enemy. Almost nothing grows there or lives there. The natural world has been almost annihilated by Sauron’s power, much as modern weaponry almost annihilated the natural world on the Western Front.

The desolation before the gates of Mordor is another savage landscape inspired by the Western Front. It is full of pits and heaps of torn earth and ash, some with an oily sump at the bottom. It is the product of centuries of destructive activity by Sauron’s slaves, a destruction that Tolkien stated would endure long after Sauron was vanquished.

Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome by far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes.… Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails on the lands about.

The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 2: “The Passage of the Marshes”

The sickly white and grey mud mentioned in this passage is very like the terrain of No-Man’s Land on the Somme, where the underlying chalk bedrock was churned up by artillery bombardment and turned the ground grey and white.


The landscape of the Dead Marshes is also inspired by the Western Front. As Frodo, Sam, and their guide Gollum cross the Marshes, they see the ghostly, rotting forms of the dead soldiers of a war that had swept across the region thousands of years before. As Frodo tells Sam and Gollum,

“They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, with weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.”

— “The Passage of the Marshes”, The Two Towers

The dead lying in pools of mud is a powerful image of trench warfare on the Western Front, and is something that Tolkien would have undoubtably seen during his wartime service. As the autumn rains fell, the battlefield of the Somme turned into a stinking mire seeded with the rotting corpses of men and animals. The dead men that Frodo and Sam see are not physically present — only their ghostly shapes have been preserved —  but their forms inspire horror and pity.

The landscape of Ithilien is in some ways like the landscape of rural France in the area behind the front lines. Although there is evidence of the nearby conflict — a few damaged buildings, some shell craters, and the general debris of war — the landscape is otherwise natural and unspoiled. It has not fallen fully under the dominion of war. So too is Ithilien, the deserted province of Gondor that had recently fallen under the dominion of Sauron. Although Sauron’s Orcs have been at work, Ithilien retains some of its natural beauty. Sam and Frodo’s feelings rise when they reach Ithilien, much as the spirits of soldiers rose when they were relieved of their tours in the trenches and could return to the comforts of the rear areas.

Another similarity between Ithilien and the rear areas in France is their close proximity to areas of deadly danger — either to the front or to the frontiers of Mordor. Behind the lines, the sounds of the bombardment were never far off. On the horizon the flashes of gunfire and the smoke and dust thrown up by the explosions might appear like a mountainous wall — similar to how Sam and Frodo see Mount Doom erupting in the lands beyond the Mountains of Shadow.

Sam and Frodo’s relationship harks back to Tolkien’s war-time experience, too:

Tolkien had a great deal of respect for the privates and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) with whom he served in France. Officers did not make friends among the enlisted men, of course; the system did not allow it and there was a wide gulf of class differences between them. Officers generally came from the upper and middle classes; enlisted men usually came from the lower classes. However, each officer was assigned a batman — a servant who looked after his belongings and took care of him.

Tolkien got to know several of his batmen very well. These men and other men in Tolkien’s battalion served as inspiration for the character Sam Gamgee. As Tolkien later wrote, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.” Sam represents the courage, endurance and steadfastness of the British soldier, as well as his limited imagination and parochial viewpoint. Sam is stubbornly optimistic and refuses to give up, even when things seem hopeless. Indeed, the resiliency of Hobbits in general, their love of comfort, their sometimes hidden courage, and their conservative outlook owe much to Tolkien’s view of ordinary enlisted men. These traits enabled British soldiers not only to survive their tours of duty on the terrible battlefields of France, but to bravely attack and counter-attack the Germans.

The officer/batman paradigm also describes some aspects of Sam and Frodo’s relationship. It is clearly not a formal one in a military sense, but it goes beyond that of an ordinary, civilian master and servant. Their relationship encompasses the closeness of soldiers who have been in combat together and who have depended on their comrades for their lives. Sam is steadfastly loyal to Frodo. He looks after Frodo’s physical comfort — cooking, fetching water, and so forth — and helps Frodo on his quest as much as he possibly can, even carrying him up the slopes of Mount Doom when Frodo’s strength gives out. He loves Frodo although he does not completely understand him. Sam also defends Frodo from danger when he is attacked by Shelob and rescues him from the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Sam and Frodo had been through terror and were tested against the lure of the Ring together, and were closer than a master-servant relationship would imply.

The Lord of the Rings is about the passing of an age:

Most of Europe had known peace for over a generation before 1914. Europeans had made great strides in the sciences and the arts. Socialists preached the brotherhood of the working classes. Progress was considered to be proper and inevitable. Exciting new technologies would bring great benefit to people. World War I saw the destruction of this world. European society was wrenched into new patters as the war grew bloodier and the entire population became involved in the war effort. After the war, Europe never returned to what it was before. Science and technology had proved to be easily misused in the cause of war. Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had fallen, their leaders unforgiven by the citizenry whose sons had been fed to the Moloch of the industrialized battlefield. Much that was beautiful in Europe lay in ruins. Millions of young men who would have contributed much to society were dead or maimed, their families and communities overwhelmed at dealing with this trauma. Noncombatants everywhere had suffered greatly. There was personal grief at the deaths of loved ones, and grief at the death of a way of life. In many ways, the new Modern age seemed a lesser one.

The Lord of the Rings is suffused with a similar sense of grief and sorrow. It too is about the end of an era. The age of the Elves is finished and the time of the dominion of Men is at hand. After the War of the Ring, the last of the Noldor or High Elves return across the sundering seas to the Blessed Land of Valinor. The passing of the High Elves represents the loss of the highest traits of humanity: artistry, craftsmanship, nobility, splendor. All outcomes of the war are fraught with sorrow. If the One Ring is found, Sauron wins and will cover Middle-earth in a new darkness. If the One Ring is destroyed, Sauron is vanquished but the Elves will suffer great loss. Though necessary to defeat evil, the destruction of the One Ring will cause the three Elven Rings to fail because their power is based on it. As Galadriel says to Frodo,

“Do you not see how your coming to us is as the footsteps of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away.”

— “The Mirror of Galadriel,” The Fellowship of the Ring

After Sauron’s defeat, the Elves will fade and pass into the West, the Dwarves will eventually dwindle, and much knowledge and beauty will be lost. Aragorn as King of Gondor will be left holding the pieces in an attempt to preserve what he can of the era that has ended and pave the way for the coming dominance of Men in Middle-earth. There is grief at the passing of the Elves and grief at the end of a way of life that had existed for thousands of years. The new Fourth Age of Middle-earth will be a lesser one.

The Weather Underground

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

After watching Carlos and The Baader Meinhof Complex, I decided to watch The Weather Underground, about American left-wing terrorists of the same era.

A few things caught my attention:

  • The former head of the Students for a Democratic Society was clearly livid, to this day, that the violent faction within his organization took over and pushed him out. Quelle surprise!
  • The Left, in the West, linked sex and drugs and rock & roll with International Communism, despite the obvious lack of drop-out culture in Communist countries.  All of their violent acts are far out.
  • If you declare your solidarity with every oppressed group everywhere and assert that all oppressors everywhere are part of one oppressive class, you will never run out of outrages to serve as excuses for your crimes.
  • These white college kids wanted so desperately to represent the black underclass and the white working class, but neither group wanted them in that role.
  • After declaring a violent war on the US government and then committing violent acts against both the government and the people, they are shocked — shocked! — that government agents would follow them, break into their apartments, threaten them, etc.
  • The war in Vietnam is somehow the most violent and unjust war in human history, and the fact that the US government is prosecuting this war despite their protests is clear evidence that the government is ignoring the will of the People — despite the rather obvious fact that the protesters are a tiny minority.

A Kind of Humor

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Today it’s accepted that fiction can describe war in a realistic fashion, but that wasn’t always the case, David Drake notes:

Stories aren’t required to be realistic, but they’re permitted to be. Until quite recently, that wasn’t the case. (I remember very vividly being called a pornographer of violence by Analog because I was trying to describe war as I’d seen it from the loader’s hatch of a tank in Cambodia.) That may be part of the reason why very few WW II veterans wrote Military SF.

How had Drake seen war from the loader’s hatch of a tank in Cambodia? Like this:

The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the Blackhorse, was the spearpoint of the Cambodian Incursion of May-June, 1970 (the legal invasion, as distinguished from the bombing and black operations which had been going on for years). It was — we were — a crack unit, as fine a combat force as there was in Southeast Asia. The Regimental Commander, Colonel Donn Starry, was in the first vehicle across the border.

The North Vietnamese Army responded by running as fast as it could, but quite early in the operation an NVA soldier was spotted ducking into a bunker. Colonel Starry, with the Regimental Sergeant Major and the regiment’s chief interpreter, decided to talk the enemy soldier into surrendering.

Things seemed to be going well, but the NVA threw a grenade when the Colonel stood up. The blast injured all three friendlies involved in the negotiations as well as the Regimental Operations Officer, Fred Franks, who had just arrived by helicopter. (Despite losing his left leg, Franks went on to command the (coalition) VII Corps in the Second Gulf War.)

According to his award citation, Colonel Starry was wounded in the stomach. According to the medic who worked on him before the dust-off bird — the medical evacuation helicopter — arrived, his most serious wounds were well south of the stomach.

The Colonel was evacuated to Japan. We troopers laughed our collective head off when we heard that the Army had flown his wife there to meet him. To us it was an amazingly cruel joke — and the Army itself had perpetrated it.

You don’t find spit and polish in a real combat unit. You don’t find reverence either. Remember that point.

What happened to that brave NVA soldier? The platoon sergeant rolled his tank up to the bunker and put a round into the opening from as close as he could get the muzzle of his 90 mm main gun. It’s what he would have done first off if the Colonel hadn’t decided to look for a medal. In the Blackhorse we laughed at a lot of things that civilians don’t find funny, but we had no sense of humor toward people shooting at us.

Drake highly recommends Keith Bennett’s The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears as an early example of military science-fiction that captures the unrelenting grind of continuous combat operations.

What kind of army do we need?

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

What kind of army do we need? Max Boot (Invisible Armies) cites Colonel Pierre-Noel Raspèguy, the fictional French paratrooper of Jean Larteguy’s classic novel The Centurions (1962), who was modeled on the real-life legend Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard:

I’d like France to have two armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general’s bowel movements or their colonel’s piles: an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.

The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I would like to fight.

Vintage Calculators

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

These awesome vintage calculators are indeed awesome — especially the calculating machines of Johann Helfrich Müller:

Calculating Machine of Johann Helfrich Müller

Common Risks

Monday, February 4th, 2013

We need to beware low-risk hazards — if they’re frequent, low-risk hazards, as Jared Diamond learned in New Guinea:

I first became aware of the New Guineans’ attitude toward risk on a trip into a forest when I proposed pitching our tents under a tall and beautiful tree. To my surprise, my New Guinea friends absolutely refused. They explained that the tree was dead and might fall on us.

Yes, I had to agree, it was indeed dead. But I objected that it was so solid that it would be standing for many years. The New Guineans were unswayed, opting instead to sleep in the open without a tent.

I thought that their fears were greatly exaggerated, verging on paranoia. In the following years, though, I came to realize that every night that I camped in a New Guinea forest, I heard a tree falling. And when I did a frequency/risk calculation, I understood their point of view.

Consider: If you’re a New Guinean living in the forest, and if you adopt the bad habit of sleeping under dead trees whose odds of falling on you that particular night are only 1 in 1,000, you’ll be dead within a few years. In fact, my wife was nearly killed by a falling tree last year, and I’ve survived numerous nearly fatal situations in New Guinea.

I now think of New Guineans’ hypervigilant attitude toward repeated low risks as “constructive paranoia”: a seeming paranoia that actually makes good sense. Now that I’ve adopted that attitude, it exasperates many of my American and European friends. But three of them who practice constructive paranoia themselves — a pilot of small planes, a river-raft guide and a London bobby who patrols the streets unarmed — learned the attitude, as I did, by witnessing the deaths of careless people.

So an older man, like Diamond, needs to beware the dangerous shower:

Life expectancy for a healthy American man of my age is about 90. (That’s not to be confused with American male life expectancy at birth, only about 78.) If I’m to achieve my statistical quota of 15 more years of life, that means about 15 times 365, or 5,475, more showers. But if I were so careless that my risk of slipping in the shower each time were as high as 1 in 1,000, I’d die or become crippled about five times before reaching my life expectancy. I have to reduce my risk of shower accidents to much, much less than 1 in 5,475.


It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.

Having learned both from those studies and from my New Guinea friends, I’ve become as constructively paranoid about showers, stepladders, staircases and wet or uneven sidewalks as my New Guinea friends are about dead trees. As I drive, I remain alert to my own possible mistakes (especially at night), and to what incautious other drivers might do.

My hypervigilance doesn’t paralyze me or limit my life: I don’t skip my daily shower, I keep driving, and I keep going back to New Guinea. I enjoy all those dangerous things. But I try to think constantly like a New Guinean, and to keep the risks of accidents far below 1 in 1,000 each time.

Modern communication technology magnifies rare, spectacular risks, Bruce Schneier adds, and one of his commenters continues on that line:

Human beings seem to have a limited bandwidth for hearing about threats — about three per day seems to be the limit, what you can fit into a five minute news segment. Those news segments are prioritised by severity, not probability and severity, and so the events we hear about are the rare, extreme ones, not the ones that are an actual threat.

NFL Timeline

Monday, February 4th, 2013

The NFL’s timeline ad implies that modern helmets are safer, which does not seem to be the case, when we take into account how they change behavior:

Affordable Injection Molding

Monday, February 4th, 2013

While everyone is talking about 3-D printing, Protomold is making mass-production injection molding affordable:

Protomold has stepped in to provide servicing to those makers who need small orders by being able to produce 50-5,000 injection-molded parts in one business day with prices starting at $1,495 for a production tool, and each produced part costing a couple dollars or less. The experience isn’t much different than ordering business cards online. A designer uploads their CAD file, chooses from a few preset options, and shelf-worthy injection-molded parts arrive on their doorstep.

The company has been successful, operating since May 1999, while continuing to grow their service. They’ve just added new materials to their list, including injection molded steel, stainless steel, magnesium, copper. Their newest is the option to mold parts in high temperature, medical grade resins, giving garage entrepreneurs the ability to produce parts for medical devices and high performance applications.


What started as a single engineer looking to solve his own problem has turned into a publicly traded company with a billion dollar market cap and 511 workers filling 160,000 square feet of office space producing parts 24 hours a day.

How Obsessive Fans Built a Better Han Solo Blaster

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Before explaining how obsessive fans built a better Han Solo blaster, Norman Chan gives some background on many of the original Star Wars props:

Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, for example, was famously made out of a Graflex camera flash handle, with nothing else but rubber strips of cabinet t-track glued onto the base of the handle for a grip. Original flash handles occasionally appear on eBay and are swooped up by Star Wars fans looking to make their own lightsaber prop replica. The Stormtrooper’s E-11 blaster rifle was a modified British Sterling submachine gun. Luke’s binoculars that he uses on Tatooine were made by a camera company called Rolleiflex.

Han Solo with Blaster

The most important component in building Han Solo’s blaster is the pistol used for its base, and it’s well known that the body for the DL-44 was a German semi-automatic pistol, the Mauser C96. This is easily identifiable by the distinct box magazine in front of the trigger and curved grip in the shape of a household broom handle (the gun is affectionately nicknamed “Broomhandle” in the western world). The Mauser C96 was a very popular pistol in the early 20th century — Winston Churchill is reported to have favored it — and was a mainstay of serials and fantasy characters of that era like the Rocketeer.

Designed for Marathon Viewing

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

With the advent of DVRs, television programming began to change. Shows could expect a more dedicated audience. Now Netflix is unleashing all 13 episodes of its new series at once, for marathon viewing:

“House of Cards,” which is the first show made specifically for Netflix, dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. And if they don’t remember, Google is just a click away. The show “assumes you know what’s happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.


While a large majority of TV is still watched live, not recorded, the ratings for some series — like FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” — double after a week of recorded viewing is counted. A first-of-its-kind Nielsen study last fall found that a handful of shows gain an extra 5 percent after another three weeks.

Nielsen does not routinely count viewers who wait more than a week to watch an episode, nor does it count most of the viewers who watch online, so it’s hard to estimate the true amount of bingeing. Some hoarders wait years: Mr. Mazzara, for instance, said he’s waiting to watch HBO’s “Girls” until the whole series is over, several years from now. This stockpiling phenomenon has become so common that some network executives worry that it is hurting new shows because they cancel the shows before would-be viewers get around to watching them.

Kevin Reilly, the Fox Entertainment chairman, whose network has already canceled two of the three shows it introduced last fall, alluded to this problem at a news conference earlier this month. “If I bumped into one more person that was doing a ‘Breaking Bad’ marathon in the middle of our fall launch…,” he said, trailing off as reporters laughed.

Watching one episode per night is just about perfect.