The Wind Rises

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

What does it mean when Hayao Miyazaki — whose films often feature peace-loving, young, female protagonists — follows his love of aviation and makes a film about Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Zero? This trailer for The Wind Rises starts off in classic Miyazaki style:

Disneyland’s Construction

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Imagineer Tony Baxter presents a trove of vintage footage documenting the construction and renovation of Disneyland at the 2011 D23 expo:

Return of the Option

Friday, July 19th, 2013

The NFL has added rules to protect its precious quarterbacks, and so the option’s back. Long live the Peltzman effect!

Save the Cat!

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Hollywood movies feel formulaic because so many literally follow a formula laid out by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need:

Opening image (p. 1): Sets the tone for the story and suggests the protagonist’s primary problem.

Theme is stated (p. 5): A question or statement, usually made to the protagonist, indicating the story’s main thematic idea.

Set-up (p. 1-10): An introduction to the main characters and setting — the background.

Catalyst (p. 12): A major event that changes the protagonist’s world and sets the story in motion.

Debate (p. 12-25): A question is raised about the choice now before the protagonist. Often this section lays out the stakes for the journey ahead.

Break into Act II (p. 25-30): The hero definitively leaves his old world or situation and enters a strange new one.

B-story (p. 30): A secondary plotline that often fleshes out side characters — frequently a mentor or a love interest — who assist the hero on his journey.

Fun and games (p. 30-55): Snyder says this section offers “the promise of the premise.” It’s an exploration of the story’s core concept that gives the story its “trailer-friendly moments.” It’s usually lighter in tone, and it typically builds to a big victory at the midpoint.

Midpoint (p. 55): The A and B stories cross. The story builds to either a false victory or (less often) false defeat. New information is revealed that raises the stakes.

Bad guys close in (p. 55-75): After the victory at the midpoint, things grow steadily worse as the villains regroup and push forward.

All is lost (p. 75): Mirroring the midpoint, it’s usually a false defeat. The hero’s life is in shambles. Often there’s a major death or at least the sense of death — a reference to dying or mortality somehow.

Dark night of the soul (p. 75-85): A moment of contemplation in which the hero considers how far he’s come and all he’s learned. It’s the moment in which the hero asks, “Why is all this happening?”

Break into Act III (p. 85) A “Eureka!” moment that gives the hero the strength to keep going—and provides the key to success in Act III.

Finale (p. 85-110) Relying on all he has learned throughout the story, the hero solves his problems, defeats the villains, and changes the world for the better.

Final image (p. 110). A mirror of the opening image that underlines the lessons learned and illustrates how the world has changed.

Armageddon 2419 AD

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Armageddon 2419 AD 002The post-Star Wars Buck Rogers TV show bears little resemblance to the original novella, Armageddon 2419 AD, which is summarized at the beginning of its sequel:

In a previous record of my adventures in the early part of the Second War of Independence I explained how I, Anthony Rogers, was overcome by radioactive gases in an abandoned mine near Scranton in the year 1927, where I existed in a state of suspended animation for nearly five hundred years; and awakened to find that the America I knew had been crushed under the cruel tyranny of the Airlords of Han, fierce Mongolians, who, as scientists now contend, had in their blood a taint not of this earth, and who with science and resources far in advance of those of a United States, economically prostrate at the end of a long series of wars with a Bolshevik Europe, in the year 2270 A.D., had swept down from the skies in their great airships that rode “repeller rays” as a ball rides the stream of a fountain, and with their terrible “disintegrator rays” had destroyed more than four-fifths of the American race, and driven the other fifth to cover in the vast forests which grew up over the remains of the once mighty civilization of the United States.

I explained the part I played in the fall of the year 2419, when the rugged Americans, with science secretly developed to terrific efficiency in their forest fastness, turned fiercely and assumed the aggressive against a now effete Han population, which for generations had shut itself up in the fifteen great Mongolian cities of America, having abandoned cultivation of the soil and the operation of mines; for these Hans produced all they needed in the way of food, clothing, shelter and machinery through electrono-synthetic processes.

I explained how I was adopted into the Wyoming Gang, or clan, descendants of the original populations of Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania; how quite by accident I stumbled upon a method of destroying Han aircraft by shooting explosive rockets, not directly at the heavily armored ships, but at the repeller ray columns, which automatically drew the rockets upward where they exploded in the generators of the aircraft; how the Wyomings threw the first thrill of terror into the Airlords by bringing an entire squadron crashing to earth; how a handful of us in a rocketship successfully raided the Han city of Nu-Yok; and how by the application of military principles I remembered from the First World War, I was able to lead the Wyomings to victory over the Sinsings, a Hudson River tribe which had formed a traitorous alliance with the hereditary enemies and oppressors of the White Race in America.

In the future, the Chinese take over? How fanciful!

The Sorry State of US Higher Ed

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

The US higher education system is breaking down:

This mission clearly includes getting students to graduate, yet only a bit more than half of all US students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities complete their degrees within six years, and only 29% who start two year degrees finish them within three years. America is last in graduation rate among 18 countries assessed in 2010 by the OECD. Things used to be better; in the late 1960s, nearly half of all college students got done in four years.

Have graduates learned a lot? In too many cases, apparently not. One of the strongest bodies of evidence I’ve come across showing that students aren’t acquiring many academic skills is work done by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and summarized in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and subsequent research.

Arum, Roksa, and their colleagues tracked more than 2300 students enrolled full time in four-year degree programs at a range of American colleges and universities. Their findings are alarming: 45% of students demonstrate no significant improvement on a written test of critical thinking called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) after two years of college, and 36% improved not at all after four years. And the average improvement on the test after four years was quite small.

Consider a student who scored at the 50% percentile as a freshman. If he experienced average improvement over four years of college, then went back and took the test again with another group of incoming freshmen, he would score only in the 68th percentile. The CLA is so new that we don’t know if these gains were bigger in the past, but previous research using other tests indicates that they were, and that only a few decades ago the average college student learned a great deal between freshman and senior years.

These declines in learning and graduation rates come during a time of exploding costs. the Pew Research Center found that the price of a private college education tripled between 1980 and 2010, and that average student loan debt for bachelor’s degree holders who had to borrow was more than $23,000 in 2011. This debt is not dischargeable even in bankruptcy, and is certainly not erased if you fail to graduate.


It also seems, though, that colleges in general have stopped asking students to work as hard, and the students have been more than happy to take them up on that offer. Arum, Roksa, and their colleagues document that college students today spend only 9% of their time studying (compared to 51% on “socializing, recreating, and other”), much less than in previous decades, and that only 42% reported having taken a class the previous semester that required them to read at least 40 pages a week and write at least 20 pages total. They write that “The portrayal of higher education emerging from [this research] is one of an institution focused more on social than academic experiences. Students spend very little time studying, and professors rarely demand much from them in terms of reading and writing.”

It made sense

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

America was conservative, prosperous, and (superficially) happy, but change came, Fred Reed notes — and it made sense:

As it turned out, there were minor downsides to these sensible policies, but nothing serious. Our children are unattended drug-ridden mall rats, often divorce wreckage, our daughters sexually used at thirteen and growing up hating men, our sons drugged by their teachers and shaped into unhappy transgendered puzzloids. Men avoid marriage because of vindictive feminist courts, the young avoid marriage because of assured divorce. The schools and universities have been enstupidated to hide the failures of particular groups and genders, merit has been superseded by group identity, and here come the Chinese.

But it makes sense.

High Potential

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

In the early 1980s Israeli psychologist Dov Eden predicted exactly which young recruits in the Israeli military would become top performers:

It worked like this: Eden studied the mental and physical aptitudes of one thousand recruits, then selected a handful of soldiers he labeled as “high potential.” Eden informed platoon commanders that they could “expect unusual achievements” from these individuals.

Sure enough, Eden was right. Over the next 11 weeks, Eden’s group performed significantly better than their peers — 9 percent higher on expertise tests and 10 percent higher on weapons evaluation.

It looked for all the world like an impressive display of talent identification — except that it wasn’t.

Because here’s the twist: the “high-potential” soldiers weren’t really high-potential. Eden had selected them completely at random. The real power was in the act of labeling them as high-potential. In sending a simple signal — these people are special.

That signal had created a massive effect in both the mind of the instructor and the learner — a virtuous spiral between teacher and learner that led to the full expression of potential. (The phenomenon, dubbed the Pygmalion Effect, has been repeated many times, and is particularly powerful in educational settings.)

Math, Science Popular Until Students Realize They’re Hard

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Math and science are popular majors — until students realize they’re hard:

The researchers surveyed 655 students entering Berea College, a private liberal arts college located in Kentucky, in the falls of 2000 and 2001. The students were asked about their beliefs pertaining to majors 12 times during each year they were in school, the first time prior to starting college. The questions covered a variety of topics, including their certainty of graduating with a particular major, their anticipated grade point average and the amount of work they expected to do each day.

The researchers found that while math and science majors drew the most interest initially, not many students finished with degrees in those subjects. More students dropped out of math and science majors and fewer students switched into them than any other area of study, including professional programs, social sciences, humanities and business.

The survey results also showed that the students who dropped out didn’t do so because they discovered an unexpected amount of the work. In fact, students who expressed interest initially anticipated more work than other majors.

The students switched out because they were dissatisfied with their grades. “Students knew science was hard to begin with, but for a lot of them it turned out to be much worse than what they expected,” said Todd R. Stinebrickner, one of the paper’s authors. “What they didn’t expect is that even if they work hard, they still won’t do well.”

Cory Doctorow’s Lunch with the Financial Times

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Cory Doctorow has lunch with the Financial Times — or, rather, with economist Tim Harford — and reveals his rather typical, for a writer, economic views:

Science fiction is often a way of exploring issues of contemporary relevance, and Doctorow’s work is no exception. In For the Win (2010), a novel aimed at the “young adult” market, he describes a battle between internationally mobile capital and the attempts of the trade union movement to mobilise “virtual sweatshop” workers across international boundaries. The action moves between India, where anything goes in a deregulated environment, and China, where the state is powerful but allied with the corporations in suppressing workers’ rights. The book manages to explore some complex economics in the context of a well-paced thriller.

Doctorow is clearly fascinated by economic issues, and points out that most science fiction and fantasy economies make no logical sense. The exception, he declares, is when Marxists write science fiction or fantasy. Take the recent Hobbit movie, for example. “How can the goblins have a mine that’s so inefficient?” he laughs, as he pauses from ripping the soft flesh from the marrowbones on his plate with his bare hands.

The porterhouse steak arrives, pre-sliced. It’s very good, charred on the outside but soft and pink beneath the surface. Doctorow has asked for horseradish while I am dipping my steak and chips into béarnaise sauce. The conversation is animated enough to slow our progress, and neither of us raises an eyebrow when a waiter noisily drops something fragile on the other side of the dining room.

So, I ask, if only Marxists get economics right in their novels, does that make Doctorow a Marxist? There’s a tension there, somehow – he’s a successful player in the market economy and fluently speaks the language of business; of profit, marketing reach, margins, and price discrimination. But his political activism seems squarely on the left – pro-labour, pro-equality, pro-rights.

“Marxists and capitalists agree on one thing: they agree that the economy is important. Once we’ve agreed on that we’re arguing over the details,” he says. But no, he’s not a Marxist. “I always missed the explanation of how the state is supposed to wither away.” In his novels and his blogging, the ruthless abuse of state power is just as much of a theme as the grasping amorality of large corporations.

Before long we’re talking about automation, and whether the rise of robots and algorithms is a threat to middle-class jobs. Doctorow’s next book will explore that territory in a suitably dystopian form, and he is keen to pick my brains about how things might play out. We discuss possible scenarios and I recommend an essay by John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. (Within hours he’s found it, read it and tweeted a recommendation.)

Artillery Speed Shifter

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

One of the tactical mainstays of the Vietnam war was the firebase:

Sometimes permanent and sometimes carved out of jungle, rice paddies, or rough terrain in a matter of hours just for a particular operation, these relatively small outposts were dedicated to providing artillery support to infantry units anywhere within range. And therein lay the challenge, for in the absence of the front lines common in a more typical conflict, the tubes in this unconventional war had to be able to fire in any direction at a moment’s notice. The standard 105-mm. howitzer was reasonably well suited to this role, but its heavier towed 155-mm. cousin was not. If a mission were outside the latter’s existing fan of fire (limited to 800 mils or 45 degrees), the crew had to lower the piece from its firing jack, lift the trails, swing it into the new position, and get it set again to fire. Even with a full complement of eight soldiers and optimal conditions, this cumbersome procedure could take several minutes — precious time when American and allied infantrymen were engaged with the enemy. But a complete crew was seldom on hand, and more often rain and mud created an unstable ground surface that made the howitzer extremely difficult to move.

A solution would come from 1st Lt. Nathaniel W. Foster Jr., a champion cross-country runner and Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. In 1966 Foster was serving in Vietnam as the executive officer of Battery B, 8th Battalion, 6th Artillery — a 155-mm. towed outfit of the 1st Infantry Division — and was certain there had to be a quicker more efficient way to shift the howitzer to respond to the fast-moving requirements of combat. He was aware that U.S. Army Weapons Command was looking at some form of pedestal to bear the weight of the piece so it could spin more easily and rapidly, but he took it upon himself to find an immediate answer in the field rather than waiting for the bureaucracy at home to develop the perfect solution. He attacked the problem methodically, determining that the first order of business was to find the point of balance of the howitzer. He and his soldiers started with the tube of the test weapon at an elevation of 300 mils, the standard setting when initially aiming it. They simply kept moving the firing jack until their experiments revealed that the point of balance of the howitzer was two feet seven inches to the rear of the standard location for the jack.

Artillery Speed Shifter

With that knowledge in hand, the officers and men of the battery began work on a prototype speed-shifting device. Because they did not have the proper tools, they had to take a howitzer during downtime to a maintenance shop, where Pfc. Charles Harkness of the battery’s fire direction center did the welding. The initial attempt was very simple, a metal collar fixed under the howitzer at its point of balance and a pedestal consisting of a torsion bar welded to the base of a firing jack. When the soldiers lowered the piece from the regular firing jack onto the tip of the torsion bar, they found that they could shift the howitzer with a minimum of physical effort using handspikes in the appropriate sockets of the trails. Two could move the 155-mm. through an entire 360-degree circle in just nineteen seconds. Even adding in the time to raise and lower the firing jack before and after the shift, the job could be completed faster than other tasks required to execute a firing mission, such as computation of the firing data.

Saudi princess keeping slaves

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Meshael Alayban, a 42-year-old Saudi princess, was charged Wednesday with one count of felony human trafficking when her Kenyan servant escaped — from their Irvine, California gated community:

Orange County prosecutors allege that Alayban forced the woman to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for only $220 a month. Authorities say she was unable to leave because Alayban kept the woman’s passport and documents.


In addition to the Kenyan woman, police said officers found four other workers being held under similar circumstances at Alayban’s home. No charges have yet been filed in those cases.

Orange County prosecutors identified Alayban as one of the wives of Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al Saud.

Alayban’s attorney, Paul S. Meyer, said there was no physical abuse, no physical restraint and that the complaints were about hours worked and wages paid.


The servant, whose identity was not released by authorities, began working for the family in Saudi Arabia to help cover her young daughter’s medical care, officials said. The woman was contacted through an agency in Kenya to work for Alayban’s family in Saudi Arabia in March 2012. She was meant to work for two years and be paid $1,600 a month. She was told she’d work eight hours a day, five days a week and that her pay would rise after three months, authorities said.

Irvine police said that when the woman arrived in Saudi Arabia, Alayban took her passport. She accompanied Alayban and her family when they came to Irvine in May. Police said the servant came with four other women from the Philippines working under similar contracts.

She told detectives she was required to work excessive hours and paid only a fraction of the agreed-upon salary. When the woman complained about the working conditions and asked for her passport back so she could leave, Alayban refused to give it to her, police said.

The servant told authorities she was working for various Alayban family members living in four luxury apartments in a development off Jamboree Road, police said. She claimed she was not allowed to leave the complex without a member of the family present.

Character and Work Ethic

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

We use terms like character or work ethic as catch-alls to explain unexpected patterns of success and failure:

I think most of us would agree that character and work ethic clearly matter, and matter hugely. But the real question is: what do those terms really mean? More important, is it possible to translate them into a measurable, identifiable skill set?

As it happens, we get a beautiful case study of this right now in the baseball world in the form of Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt. You might not have heard the name, but you already know the story: completely overlooked as a young player, didn’t start until his junior year of high school, drafted in 49th round, attended tiny college — and then (insert inspiring music here) worked incredibly hard, kept improving and improving and really improving, and is now one of the league’s brightest young players.

Why? That’s where it gets interesting. Because “character” and “work ethic” do not adequately describe what has propelled Goldschmidt. Instead, it’s about his remarkable ability to learn (see this story for more). Specifically, his willingness to take ownership of an intentional daily process in which he attacks his weaknesses and builds his strengths.

To the hitting coach, he would ask: How do I become a consistent major league hitter? To the infield coach: How do I become a Gold Glove first baseman? To the strength coach: How do I change my body to get in the best shape possible? Zinter said he trusted the coaches implicitly.

“A lot of kids have so much pride that they want to show the coaches and the front office that they know what they’re doing, and they don’t need the help,” Zinter said. “They don’t absorb the information because they want us to think they know it already. Goldy didn’t have an ego. He didn’t have that illusion of knowledge. He’s O.K. with wanting to learn.”

“He’s done such a great job of listening to everything and channeling how it works for him,” said Aaron Hill, a veteran second baseman. “He asks guys everything — about ground balls, footwork, counts, swings, setups, where to sit in the box, what I’m doing. You name it, he’s asking the questions.”

The picture that emerges is not of vague qualities, but rather of a highly specific set of traits — a combination of inquisitiveness, growth mindset, humility, adaptiveness, and relentlessness.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest an idea called Learning Quotient. The idea is that our ability to learn is a measurable skill, just like IQ.

Here’s how it might work: rate yourself from 0 to 5 on the following questions according to the usual scale: 0 for strongly disagree; 5 for strongly agree.

  1. You work on your skills for an hour or more every day
  2. You are focused on process, not the immediate outcomes
  3. You have strong relationships with mentors/coaches, and use them as models and guidance
  4. You are keenly aware of how much you do not know, and the gap between your present abilities and your longterm goals
  5. You can accurately and precisely describe the skills you want to build
  6. You think about improving your skills all the time
  7. You approach your daily work with enthusiasm
  8. You are balanced between building with repetition and seeking innovations
  9. You are comfortable going outside of your comfort zone
  10. You are constantly adapting and refining your learning process

Mostly Peaceful Protests

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Remember, they’re not riots; they’re mostly peaceful protests.

Airmobile Troops

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Airmobile troops, delivered by helicopter, are practically synonymous with the counterinsurgency in Vietnam — but they were originally meant for tactical nuclear warfare:

Army leaders soon reached the conclusion that ground units would have to be highly dispersed to survive a nuclear attack while simultaneously retaining the ability to mass quickly to exploit an atomic strike on opposing forces. Helicopters would provide the mobility that friendly ground troops needed to capitalize on the ensuing shock and disruption of the enemy, without relying on roads and bridges that probably would be damaged in the exchange.


In 1957 Howze had prepared a briefing, making a case for what
he termed air cavalry units. The presentation revolved around a tactical scenario, set in Bavaria, between a reinforced air cavalry brigade and an attacking Soviet armored force. Because the American unit needed neither bridges nor roads, friendly engineers and artillery demolished these avenues of approach. Rather than conduct a conventional linear defense, the brigade used observation aircraft to identify targets for Air Force tactical aircraft, employ transport helicopters to land artillery observers behind enemy lines, attack armored columns with helicopter-launched antitank missiles, and engage the foe in depth with helicopter-borne infantry tank-killer teams.