Somali piracy was reduced to zero this year

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Somali piracy was reduced to zero this year:

In all of 2013, only nine vessels were attacked by pirates off the Horn of Africa, 4 in the final 2 months of the year. None were successfully hijacked.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

R.I.P. The Blog, 1997-2013

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Jason Kottke declares that the blog is dead:

Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.

Hey, remember when blogs were online diaries? Wow.

A Strange and Romantic Continent

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

A cartographer with an interest in etymology “started to exchange real names for rue names and the world became a strange romantic continent“:

The New Navel of the Moon. It’s so poetic, isn’t it? (And sure, maybe a bit anatomically confusing.) That’s the real meaning behind the state name New Mexico, and it’s one of many etymological gems uncovered by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust while they were creating this U.S. map depicting the original, literal meanings behind the states and cities we know today.

United States of the Home Ruler

Of course, most state names aren’t nearly as gorgeous as New Mexico’s moon navel. For every Idaho “Light on the Mountains,” there is a Missouri “Land of the People with Dugout Canoes.” Many states, of course, simply describe geography, which works out well for Mississippi “Land of the Great River” but a bit less elegantly for Washington “Marsh Farm Land.”

Things You Need To Know To Survive Combat

Monday, December 30th, 2013

American and allied troops have relearned in the last decade just how easy it is to train hard in peacetime and still find yourself unprepared for combat:

The list is long and often embarrassing. For example, in peacetime troops are taught to drive carefully, in order to avoid accidents. But in combat the safest form of driving is fast and, to peacetime sensibilities, reckless. Even if commanders seek to practice “combat driving” in peacetime they do so in the knowledge that after a few bad accidents orders will come down to not drive like that because it causes bad publicity.

It’s a somewhat similar situation with battlefield first aid. It’s difficult to provide many troops with realistic training, especially since it’s harder to train on pigs or goats with the animal welfare zealots constantly trying to sue you into training methods that will get more troops killed in combat.

Another bad habit armies tend to drift into during peacetime is using weapons for training less and less. These things are, after all dangerous and with all the safety precautions and restrictions it is understandable why firing practice is cut and cut until it’s a rare event. But once war breaks out you quickly appreciate why sending troops to the weapons range several times a week is one of those lifesaving things you need to do.

Then there are the Emergency Action Drills. These are the things you do when there is an emergency. You must practice them with the people in your unit, to make sure everyone understands and does it the same way. You must practice these drills a lot until it becomes automatic. When someone new comes into your unit, you have to go through all the drills for them. The drills are varied, ranging from what to do during various situations while on the road, to where the bomb shelters (or trenches) are in your camp. For combat units, these drills are no great shock, as most combat operations are a succession of drills (which are practiced regularly). But for non-combat support troops, these drills are a new experience, and more practice is always useful. Drills save lives. In peacetime there are so many competing demands on troop time that the drills are just abandoned one after another.

Along with learning how to drive like a madman, you have to practice hard so you can change tires like one as well. In combat you will often have to do this under fire, so you must learn to do it quickly. This does two things. First, you learn how long it takes, even when you are in a hurry. This can be a useful bit of information if you are under fire while changing the flat. Second, practicing it forces you to make sure the spare tire is in good shape, and can quickly be reached (along with any tools needed.)

Then you must learn how Mister Grenade can be your friend, even on the crowded streets of a city like Baghdad or Kandahar. If your vehicle has a glove compartment, re-label it as the “grenade compartment.” Carry one smoke, one fragmentation and one tear gas grenade. If you’re stuck in traffic and the situation outside it starting to look dicey, then drop a smoke grenade out the window and try to get moving. You MUST be moving if you drop the tear gas grenade, because you cannot drive through the tears. Most other drivers will give you a wide berth when they see the smoke or tear gas grenade go off. For those who keep coming, with evil intent, the fragmentation grenade may come in handy (it is good for getting at bad people hiding behind something.) Remember, when using grenades, do not touch the pin until the grenade is outside the window. Accidents happen, and having a smoke grenade go off in your vehicle will ruin your day, at the very least.

After the shooting war’s over, one commenter notes, “those without combat experience will move the the forefront of promotion and command queues because of their sterling record of ‘education’ and accident (i.e. risk) free service.”

Original Dune Illustrations

Monday, December 30th, 2013

The Omni reboot shares John Schoenherr’s original Dune illustrations:

John Schoenherr Dune 01

John Schoenherr Dune 02

John Schoenherr Dune 03

John Schoenherr Dune 04

John Schoenherr Dune 05

John Schoenherr Dune 06

John Schoenherr Dune 07

John Schoenherr Dune 08

John Schoenherr Dune 09

Battle of Britain

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Netflix doesn’t warn you when a movie or show is about to expire, but some users glean that information for the rest of us.

I noticed that The Battle of Britain was about to expire (on January 1), so I just watched it, and I really enjoyed the real aircraft, filmed without digital effects:

The film required a large number of period aircraft. In September 1965 producers Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz contacted former RAF Bomber Command Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie to find the aircraft and arrange their use.[5] Eventually 100 aircraft were employed, called the “35th largest air force in the world”.[8] With Mahaddie’s help, the producers located 109 Spitfires in the UK, of which 27 were available although only 12 could be made flyable. Mahaddie negotiated use of six Hawker Hurricanes, of which three were flying.[9] The film helped preserve these aircraft, including a rare Spitfire Mk II which had been a gate guardian at RAF Colerne.[5]

During the actual aerial conflict, all RAF Spitfires were Spitfire Mk I and Mark II variants. However, only one Mk Ia and one Mk IIa (the latter with a Battle of Britain combat record) could be made airworthy, so the producers had to use seven other different marks, all of them built after the battle. To achieve commonality, the production made some modifications to “standardise” the Spitfires, including adding elliptical wingtips, period canopies and other changes. To classic aircraft fans, they became known as “Mark Haddies” (a play on Grp. Capt. Mahaddie’s name).[5] A pair of two-seat trainer Spitfires were camera platforms to achieve realistic aerial footage inside the battle scenes.[10] A rare Hawker Hurricane XII had been restored by Canadian Bob Diemert, who flew the aircraft in the film. Eight non-flying Spitfires and two Hurricanes were set dressing, with one Hurricane able to taxi.[11]

A North American B-25 Mitchell N6578D, flown by pilots John “Jeff” Hawke and Duane Egli, was the primary aerial platform for aerial sequences. It was fitted with camera positions in what were formerly the aircraft’s nose, tail and waist gun positions. An additional camera, on an articulating arm, was mounted in the aircraft’s bomb bay and allowed 360-degree shots from below the aircraft. The top gun turret was replaced with a clear dome for the aerial director, who would co-ordinate the other aircraft by radio.[12]

N6578D was painted garishly for line-up references[8] and to make it easier for pilots to determine which way it was manoeuvring. When the brightly coloured aircraft arrived at Tablada airbase in Spain in early afternoon of 18 March 1968, the comment from Derek Cracknell, the assistant director, was “It’s a bloody great psychedelic monster!” The aircraft was henceforth dubbed the Psychedelic Monster.[13]

For the German aircraft, the producers obtained 32 CASA 2.111 twin-engined bombers, a Spanish-built version of the German Heinkel He 111H-16. They also located 27 Hispano Aviación HA-1112 M1L ‘Buchon’ single-engined fighters, a Spanish version of the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. The Buchons were altered to look more like correct Bf 109Es, adding mock machine guns and cannon, redundant tailplane struts, and removing the rounded wingtips.[14] The Spanish aircraft were powered by British Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, and thus almost all the aircraft used, British and German alike, were Merlin-powered. [N 3] After the film, one HA-1112 was donated to the German Luftwaffenmuseum der Bundeswehr, and converted to a Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2 variant, depicting the insignias of German ace Gustav Rödel.

Two Heinkels and the 17 flyable Messerschmitts (including one dual-controlled HA-1112-M4L two-seater, used for conversion training and as a camera ship), were flown to England to complete the shoot.[8] In the scene where the Polish training squadron breaks off to attack, (“Repeat, please”), the three most distant Hurricanes were Buchons marked as Hurricanes, as there were not enough flyable Hurricanes. In addition to the combat aircraft, two Spanish-built Junkers Ju 52 transports were used.


Permission was granted to the producers to use the Royal Air Force Museum’s Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber (one of only two that survive intact).[16] The 1943 aircraft was repainted and slightly modified to resemble a 1940 model Ju 87. The engine was found to be in excellent condition and there was little difficulty in starting it, but returning the aircraft to airworthiness was ultimately too costly for the filmmakers.[16] Instead, two Percival Proctor training aircraft were converted into half-scale Stukas, with a cranked wing, as “Proctukas”.[8] To duplicate the steep dive of Ju 87 attacks, large models were flown by radio control.[17]

To recreate airfield scenes in the film, with the limited number of period aircraft available for the film, large scale models were used. The first requirement was for “set decoration” replicas. Production of full-size wood and fibreglass Hurricanes, Spitfires and Bf 109s commenced in a sort of production line set up at Pinewood Studios. A number of the replicas were fitted with motorcycle engines to enable them to taxi. Although most of these replicas were destroyed during filming, a small number were made available to museums in the UK.[18]

The other need was for models in aerial sequences, and art director and model maker John Siddall was asked by the producer to create and head a team specifically for this because of his contacts in the modelling community. [N 5] A test flight was arranged at Lasham Airfield in the UK and a model was flown down the runway close behind a large American estate car with a cameraman in the rear.[citation needed] This test proved successful, leading to many radio-controlled models being constructed in the band rehearsal room at Pinewood Studios. Over a period of two years, a total of 82 Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts and He 111s were built.[17] Radio-controlled Heinkel He 111 models were flown to depict bombers being destroyed over the English Channel. When reviewing the footage of the first crash, the producers noticed a trailing-wire antenna; this was explained by an added cutaway in which the control wires of a Heinkel are seen shot loose.[18]

Catch it now, if you’re interested.

Oh, and the film was yet another influence on Star Wars:

We Pretend To Teach, and They Pretend to Learn

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Jerry Pournelle describes the original Master Plan for the University of California system:

Back about 1970 I was involved with the Council that was to draw up the Master Plan for the University of California system. The program was very structured: the University System would have a limited number of campuses, and would do all the graduate school education. There would be a limited number of undergraduates at each of those campuses, and they would be the elite applicants. Tuition would be low for state residents, and very high for out of state and foreign students. This would be the University system, and it would be for the best and the brightest. Salaries would be high for an elite faculty.

In addition, there would be the California State Colleges, which would not be permitted to award graduate degrees. They would do undergraduate education, and send their best and brightest to compete for places in the University system graduate schools. Their primary purpose was teaching, and it was on their ability to teach that faculty members would be chosen and retained: no publish or perish, because their purpose was to teach, not to do “research”. They were not to discover knowledge, but to convey it to most of the undergraduates in the state. A small number would go to the University undergraduate system, but about 90% of all undergraduates enrolled in state higher education would be in the California State Colleges. This would include colleges of education and teacher. Again the focus would not be on ‘research’ or anything else other than producing great teachers for the California schools.

Of course as soon as the Master Plan was adopted and funded, the California State Colleges began a political campaign to be turned into universities, with salaries comparable to the Universities, and graduate schools with research, and publish or perish, and all the rest of it; and instead of being teaching institutions they would become second rate copies of the Universities, with a faculty neglecting teaching in order to gather prestige in research and publication, or, perhaps, at least to look as if they were. In any event the California State Colleges became California State Universities, their commitment to actual undergraduate education was tempered to make room for the graduate schools, budgets were higher, costs were higher, and tuition, which had been designed to be very low, began to climb.


The Universities pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn, the costs rise and the number qualified to do something a company might actually pay them to do goes down. And the salaries of the teachers and professors and deans and assistants to the Associate Deans, and all the rest continues. The ‘Post Doc” fellowship, which pays a pittance to someone who has actually earned a PhD but can’t find anything useful to do with it continues.

Credentials are essential and expensive, and they are not worthless because you generally can’t get a job without them; but they don’t really certify that you can do anything, only that you have acquired the credential, something that you must have even to be considered for a job

And so it goes.

Checked Leg Kick

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

After their last bout, Chris Weidman worked on checking Anderson Silva’s leg kicks — and his new skills worked a little too well in last night’s fight:

Why did you write more?

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

I haven’t read the entire Dune series — in fact, I haven’t read past the first volume — but I have read about its decline, which made this question elicit a chuckle:

JMS:  You said earlier that your original vision of the Dune saga encompassed only the material in three volumes culminating with Children of Dune. Why did you write more?

Oyster Books

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Oyster presents itself as “Netflix for books”:

Read unlimited books, just $9.95 a month.

This could get dangerous.

Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

An epilepsy drug, Valproate, appears to reopen the critical period for learning absolute (“perfect”) pitch:

Absolute pitch, the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a sound without a reference point, has a critical period, i.e., it can only be acquired early in life. However, research has shown that histone-deacetylase inhibitors (HDAC inhibitors) enable adult mice to establish perceptual preferences that are otherwise impossible to acquire after youth. In humans, we found that adult men who took valproate (VPA) (a HDAC inhibitor) learned to identify pitch significantly better than those taking placebo—evidence that VPA facilitated critical-period learning in the adult human brain. Importantly, this result was not due to a general change in cognitive function, but rather a specific effect on a sensory task associated with a critical-period.

Survival of the species depends on adaptability

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Survival of the species depends on adaptability, Frank Herbert argues, and that depends on variability, variation:

I think that big government is one of the major dangers in our world.  It tends to homogenize a society, and our strength is in our variations.  The bigger it is, the worse it is.  Small governments, small societies — developing their own mores, their own social systems, their own people, going their own ways to a limit — do not endanger their neighbors.  I hope to God we get off the planet soon, because that’s what will happen in space.  The difficulty of communication across space at our present level of technology dictates that if we get off this planet with a viable breeding population of humans, and if they scatter into different directions, each group is going to develop in its own way.  Variation means the species will survive.  And that’s what I’m addressing in the Dune books.

When your check has cleared, we will ship

Friday, December 27th, 2013

The amount of energy that can be aimed and released is getting greater and greater and falling into the hands of smaller and smaller groups, Frank Herbert noted, back in 1984:

The availability of this energy is also being disseminated all through this society. Something I proved conclusively in my research for White Plague. I got on the horn and I started calling suppliers of equipment I would need to engage in recombinant DNA research myself in my basement. I introduced myself only as Dr. Herbert. I didn’t elaborate. You know, what’s the difference between a Doctor of Letters and a Doctor of Medicine? Anyway, I asked, “How, does my purchasing department get your XR 21?” Their reply was, “When your check has cleared, we will ship.” Anything I wanted.

Now does that mean I want to clamp a lid on it? No way! That would only drive it underground and make a black market, which is what we do with hard drugs. We create a black market. A very profitable black market by the way, which can buy the inviolate Briefcases of diplomats, buy the police force of an entire major city or enough of it that it makes no never mind. You know what happened to the heroin the cops seized in The French Connection? It vanished from the police property room in New York City. You can’t control these things with a lid. In fact if you try, like a pressure cooker, you only create dangerous, explosive pressure.

Can We Disrupt Poverty by Changing How Poor Parents Talk to Their Kids?

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Can we disrupt poverty by changing how poor parents talk to their kids?

By the time poor children are 3, researchers believe they have heard on average about 30 million fewer words than children the same age from better-off families, setting back their vocabulary, cognitive development, and future reading skills before the first day of school. This disadvantage is “already almost irreversible,” says Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University.

I love the way correlation is treated as causation. How many different English words do affluent children with a nanny hear, by the way?

The Providence Talks project is spending its $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies on a pedometer for words:

The device, a 2-ounce specialized recorder about the size of a deck of cards, maps the intensity of communication between parents and children. The infants and toddlers in Providence Talks will wear it twice a month, tucked into a custom-made vest, for 12 to 16 hours at a time. The recorder then plugs into a computer, where software automatically converts the audio files into charts that can be used by Meeting Street to coach the parents on how and when they might speak to their children more often.

As always, these things devolve into self-parody:

For years, we didn’t notice this inequality of vocabulary — or the extent of it — because it was a painstaking thing to measure before the advent of smarter recorders and software. A seminal study, published in 1995 by two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, manually identified the effect.

They spent two-and-a-half years studying 42 Kansas City families of varying incomes with children who were, at the start of the study, 7 to 9 months old. For an hour each month, Hart and Risley recorded and observed everything that took place in a home around a child. They ultimately spent four years transcribing and analyzing 1,300 hours of observation. Their results showed that children in families on welfare heard half as many words per hour as children of working-class parents, and a third as many as children of professional parents.

Over time, the children also came to mirror their parents in vocabulary and interactions. “When we listened to the children,” Hart and Risley wrote, “we seemed to hear their parents speaking.”

Really? No one noticed the difference in speech patterns between poor children and rich? And only now do we realize that children sound like their parents?

The goal is clear:

Suskind is eager to see this strategy, backed by more research, help more than a handful of families. Imagine, for example, if aggregated data from a project like this could help cities make the case for more library funding in neighborhoods where children do not hear as many words.

“We need this to succeed. We want this to succeed,” Suskind says of Providence Talks, whose advisory board she has joined. “If this can be shown to be effective on a larger scale, it would be a great thing.”

The Original Welfare Queen

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

The original welfare queen was even worse than anyone imagined:

In late September 1974, seven weeks after Sherwin met Taylor for the second time, the detective’s findings made the Chicago Tribune. “Linda Taylor received Illinois welfare checks and food stamps, even tho[ugh] she was driving three 1974 autos—a Cadillac, a Lincoln, and a Chevrolet station wagon—claimed to own four South Side buildings, and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winner George Bliss. The story detailed a 14-page report that Sherwin had put together illuminating “a lifestyle of false identities that seemed calculated to confuse our computerized, credit-oriented society.” There was evidence that the 47-year-old Taylor had used three social security cards, 27 names, 31 addresses, and 25 phone numbers to fuel her mischief, not to mention 30 different wigs.

As the Tribune and other outlets stayed on the story, those figures continued to rise. Reporters noted that Linda Taylor had used as many as 80 names, and that she’d received at least $150,000—in illicit welfare cash, the numbers that Ronald Reagan would cite on the campaign trail in 1976. (Though she used dozens of different identities, I’ve chosen to call her Linda Taylor in this story, as it’s how the public came to know her at the height of her infamy.) Taylor also gained a reputation as a master of disguise. “She is black, but is able to pass herself off as Spanish, Filipino, white, and black,” the executive director of Illinois’ Legislative Advisory Committee on Public Aid told the Associated Press in November 1974. “And it appears she can be any age she wishes, from the early 20s to the early 50s.”

It gets worse.