Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Riptides are dangerous currents that drag people away from shore — but they also drag people back to shore:

Using GPS devices, he’s tracked them, and found that they circulate, coming back towards land. The accepted wisdom on what to do if you’re caught in a riptide is swim parallel to the shore to get away from the current, but professor Jamie MacMahan calculated that that gives you a good chance of being swept out to sea. Treading water for a three-and-a-half minutes yields a 90% chance of being brought back to shore.

Collapsing Capitals

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Ancient capital cities often grew for centuries, reached a Golden Age, and then collapsed rapidly:

Angkor was flourishing in the late 13th century when Zhou Daguan visited; a little over a century later, it was all but abandoned. Researchers are beginning to see similarities in how these ancient low-density cities failed — and this is of particular interest today because, even as our cities grow in extent and population, their densities are falling.


There had long been a debate about what led to the decline of Angkor and the southward move of the Khmer seat of power. Proposed explanations included the strain on theocratic rule of Hindu-Buddhist jostling; attacks by Thai armies; and changes brought about by maritime trade. But the Greater Angkor Project added a significant new possibility: extreme climate instability. Analysis of tree rings in neighbouring Vietnam showed long periods of droughts followed by periods of unusually wet monsoons in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The upheaval caused by flooding during mega-monsoons is clearly visible in remote sensing images produced by the project: erosion channels show rapidly moving water breaching a dam, crashing into the wall of a reservoir, then tearing away the edge of a residential area, flowing at a high level through housing, and later damaging a bridge. Perhaps the scenes in Angkor were not very different from those seen in recent years in New Orleans or Fukushima.

Sand accumulated in Angkor’s canals, and parts of the water network were cut off from each other. Damage to an old, complex water management system meant the city became less resilient in intervening periods of drought. Angkor, with its large population and broken infrastructure, would have found it hard to sustain itself.

The pattern of urbanism at Angkor was hardly unique: the Mayan cities that Pottier’s maps of Angkor reminded Fletcher of have long been recognised as low-density agrarian settlements. The lack of the wheel and the absence of draught animals meant that large quantities of food could not be transported, and cities had to be largely self-sufficient, growing maize, varieties of beans, squash, manioc and other staples of the region.

The city of Tikal, in present-day Guatemala, was one of the most important of these Mayan centres. In what is called its Late Classic Period, around 600 AD, there was a flowering of art and architecture: large plazas, palaces, pyramid temples, sculpture and painted ceramics (of the many structures still found in Tikal, a 65-metre high pyramid is one of the tallest man-made structures in all pre-Columbian America). Conservative estimates put the city’s population at around 45,000 during this period; the city extended over 160 square kilometres. Then, in the middle of the ninth century, Tikal collapsed.


Originally, the area of Tikal was around 70% upland tropical rainforest, and the rest swampy wetland. An extended family would build their houses in a cluster, with cultivable land attached. In all, the people of Tikal cleared around two-thirds of the rainforest to create their monuments and homes, and to fuel their fires. “In many ways they were managing the forest very effectively,” says Lentz. “But they weren’t aware that cutting down a forest reduces the amount of precipitation in the region. Then suddenly a horrible drought comes along, and they can’t figure out why they can’t supplicate their gods adequately to prevent it.”

It didn’t help that Tikal’s water management system had become increasingly reliant on collecting rainwater in reservoirs, at the cost of groundwater. “As Tikal grew and grew,” Lentz says, “they created all these pavements around the city, from which they’d divert water to the reservoirs. But this cut off the recharge capacity of the springs. When there was no longer any rainfall to fill up their reservoirs, the springs had dried up too.”

For centuries, the Maya at Tikal had been erecting stelae — upright stone slabs with hieroglyphs and depictions of gods and rulers. The last one is dated 869. Soon after, there are signs of what might today be called urban decay, with palaces being occupied by squatters. Charred, gnawed human bones from this late period suggest desperate times. Then, the city went quiet.


Lentz draws a comparison with a neighbouring city called El Zotz, which had a smaller population, which didn’t modify its landscape as drastically, and was thus able to survive the drought that felled Tikal.


Tikal, Angkor and Anuradhapura (which foundered in the 10th century after thriving for more than a millennium) were very different cities in their geography, environment and social and political functioning. But, Fletcher points out, they all had operational similarities: extensive land clearance, sprawling low-density settlement patterns, massive infrastructure — all of which are attributes of modern cities. The extended infrastructure of Angkor and Tikal proved vulnerable to a changing climate, something else that may be upon us.

Measuring College Learning Outcomes

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Pressure is growing for outcomes testing in higher education, Stephen Hsu notes, but the CLA+ (Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus) exam, which purports to measure critical-thinking and written-communication skills that other assessments cannot, seems to measure the same general cognitive ability as the SAT, ACT, and GRE.

Hollywood Sniper

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

The central frustration of being a film critic, Steve Sailer says, is that there isn’t much opportunity to be a tastemaker, because it’s pretty obvious to most everybody whether a film works or not:

Not many people are going to go out of their way to see a frosting-centric film. But of those who do, few could deny that whatever The Grand Budapest Hotel is doing, it’s doing it quite well. In a spotty year for filmmaking, The Grand Budapest Hotel was the highest grossing Best Picture nominee, with $59 million in domestic box office revenue.

Or it was until American Sniper blew past the Best Picture field with $105 million over the four-day weekend, setting a record for a movie going into wide release in January. (For reasons that nobody can quite explain, it has been universally assumed that people would much rather spend weekend afternoons indoors at the movie theater in May and June than in January and February. But as I’ve suggested before, perhaps that’s not a law of nature.)


The auteur theory of directing holds that filmmaking is one man’s titanic struggle to create Art. Not surprisingly, the idea was made up by young critics who really wanted to direct, such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

The Eastwood theory of directing, by contrast, is that you find a decent script, hire movie stars who are also good actors, don’t waste too much time or money on how the movie will look, point the camera in the right direction, don’t make your cast do too many takes, and maybe you’ll get lucky.


Clint’s movie just works, beginning with the now famous opening scene used in the trailer. Leave it to Eastwood to figure out that the easy way to make an effective trailer is not to mash up all your explosion shots, but to just reuse your most gripping scene, leaving potential ticket buyers wondering: What happens next?

As an aside, Sailer mentions that famously liberal Hollywood is full of gun nuts — like Spielberg.

In true Sailer fashion, he ends with a note on Orwell’s apocryphal “rough men stand ready” quote:

But American Sniper is carried by Bradley Cooper’s star turn as one of the rough men who let the rest of us sleep peacefully in our beds at night because they stand ready to do violence on our behalf, a sentiment that conservative film critic Richard Grenier attributed to George Orwell in 1993.

Designing The Best Board Game On The Planet

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Twilight Struggle is the best board game on the planet — at least according to BoardGameGeek:

Twilight Struggle traces its roots to the early 2000s and a board gaming club at George Washington University. That’s where Gupta and co-designer Jason Matthews met. Not GW students themselves, they were friends with some, and would go to the school to play and also to bemoan the increasing complexity of historical games — a genre especially dear to them. The rulebooks were overlong, the game mechanics baroque.

Simplification, to Gupta and Matthews, was the name of their design philosophy. Rather than overwhelm players with a fat rulebook at the start, the designers spread the information required throughout the gameplay, on cards. A typical Twilight Struggle card reads, “Truman Doctrine: Remove all USSR Influence from a single uncontrolled country in Europe.” The Twilight Struggle rulebook is a relatively slender 24 pages.

They originally intended to do a game about the Spanish Civil War but realized they’d been scooped by a guy in Spain. “We’re probably not going to do a better job than he is,” Gupta joked. They eventually settled on the Cold War. Most games on the topic had focused on when the Cold War got hot. But thermonuclear war is depressing. Gupta and Matthews instead designed a game about the geopolitics, rather than a hypothetical military conflict.

Matthews, of Alexandria, Virginia, is an American history expert and was the legislative director for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Gupta, a history buff, was doing policy work at a think tank, then was in school for computer science, before dropping out after he landed his first job in the video-game industry. The two would discuss key aspects of the Cold War — the domino theory, the arms race, the space race — and these would make their way into the game.

But publishers balked. “The Cold War? Why would anyone want to play a game about the Cold War?” Gupta recalled being asked.

Salvation came in the form of the company GMT Games, and its Project 500 — a kind of Kickstarter before Kickstarter was cool. Interested gamers would pledge money, and GMT would print the game if enough capital was raised. Even then, it took a grinding 18 months for Twilight Struggle to generate enough pledges to warrant a printing.

That first printing sold out in 20 minutes. It has gone on to amass 17,781 ratings on BoardGameGeek, as I write, with an average rating of 8.33.


Twilight Struggle is emblematic of a sea change from older, magisterial games with titles like Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, War in Europe and The Civil War. (The Civil War’s listed playing time is 1,200 minutes.) The redistribution of game information from massive rulebooks onto game cards was a revolution that can be traced to Mark Herman’s We the People, a game about the American Revolution, and Paths of Glory, a World War I game by Ted Raicer.

“What that meant was the game was a lot easier to learn,” Gupta said. “That started a renaissance in historical gaming.”

Why we fear and admire the military sniper

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Snipers are both feared and admired:

“Back in Vietnam, our own people called us ‘Murder Inc.,’” says Jack Coughlin, a retired Marine sniper and author of “Shock Factor: American Snipers in the War on Terror.” “They thought we were psychopathic killers. But the whole point of our existence is to be there on overwatch to minimize the threat to our own men.”

Snipers for the United States military are, without question, exceptionally efficient killers. According to one estimate, in Vietnam it took an ordinary infantryman 25,000 rounds per confirmed enemy kill. Snipers killed once every 1.3 rounds. A recent report from Afghanistan claimed that two US Special Forces soldiers killed 75 Taliban with 77 rounds. Exceptional snipers count their victims in the hundreds—the Finnish World War II sniper Simo Häyhä registered over 500, the most ever—whereas in most wars, ordinary soldiers often kill no one at all, and in many cases never even fire their weapons.


In addition to natural human revulsion at killing, snipers have had to overcome social conventions that stigmatize attacking people by surprise. The military historian Martin Pegler traces this attitude to a more gentlemanly age of war: “It was an officer-class attitude,” he says. “The British thought shooting an enemy from great distance in cold blood was unacceptable, in a way that blasting them to pieces with artillery was not.” Snipers, who were generally enlisted men, tended to aim for officers, which compounded the feeling of unfairness; killing above one’s class rankled some of the more status-minded soldiers. Pegler says snipers in one British Army unit in the 1980s were called “The Leper Colony” because of their colleagues’ aversion to socializing with them.

The reluctance to snipe goes back to the earliest days of sniping, in the late 18th-century. (It was about this time when the specialty got its name, after the game-bird known as the snipe, which required expert marksmanship to hit.) During the American Revolutionary War, a Scottish marksman named Patrick Ferguson spotted an American officer on horseback and reckoned he could shoot the man half a dozen times. He decided not to, he later said, because “it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty.” That individual was George Washington, and Ferguson acknowledged that he did not regret letting the enemy commander get away.

Up through World War II, snipers were so loathed that they were generally executed on sight, rather than taken captive. Only in the last two decades, experts say, have snipers’ reputations turned from reviled to heroic.

Ever Greater Rituals

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

When there is pressure for leaders to respond to a crisis, they often intensify existing efforts, whether or not they’re relevant to the real problem, Arthur Demarest notes:

To do otherwise requires taking on entrenched practices and asserting power in areas where it often will not be well received. And leaders tend to see major crises more as threats to their own position rather than as systemic challenges for the societies that they govern or the institutions that they manage.

Frenzied grand constructions, wars and great rituals are among the common responses of ancient leaders to crises. These demonstrate powerful responses by the leaders (enhancing their threatened hold on power), but almost never really address the problems themselves. A cynic might characterize the giant U.S. stimulus bill of 2009 as such an effort.

Leaders may recognize that they are not addressing the real problems, but they rationalize their actions with the argument that they must first politically survive in order to later address the hard problems and sacrifices. Of course, they usually don’t ever actually get around to addressing the fundamental problems later, either because they don’t make it through the initial crisis or because, even later, they are not willing to risk sacrificing their own position (or “career”) with needed measures that usually require tough sacrifices by the population.


The divine kings of the Classic Maya civilization led their societies in religion, religious constructions, and enormous rituals, as well as warfare. When that civilization ran into problems of overpopulation, environmental damage, drought and economic competition in the late eighth century, they could only respond with ever greater rituals and temple construction to appease the (clearly unsatisfied) deities, as well as responding through warfare against other states.

These steps were actually counterproductive, imposing additional costs and damage and not addressing the real problems. Yet, any really helpful response would have involved political change to redefine the very nature [of] leadership and its roles and institutions.

Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Bushwick, Brooklyn has changed over the years:

Guntry Clubs

Monday, January 19th, 2015

The trend in shooting ranges is toward high-end guntry clubs:

The high-end ranges come as the $15 billion gun industry’s sales have more than doubled since 2005. Fears of regulations with a Democrat in the Oval Office have juiced much of that growth, which is now leveling out. But experts also say an industry shift away from hunting culture has helped spawn a new generation of firearms enthusiasts buying up sleekly designed handguns and AR-15 rifles for tactical shooting practice.

The average age of new target shooters is 33, while 47 percent live in urban or suburban areas, and 37 percent are female, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry. Shooters spend $10 billion a year on target shooting, including the cost of firearms, ammunition and range fees.

Those demographics and economics are attracting investors without firearms industry backgrounds; they see ranges as a new place to employ their cash. Elite Shooting Sports, a nearly $14 million project, has investors from the electronics industry. Real estate, finance, hotel and auto industry executives have backed other new ranges.

A Beautiful Disaster

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Arthur Demarest — “the real Indiana Jones” — explains why Western civilization is a bubble:

Paradoxically, the key strengths of civilizations are also their central weaknesses. You can see that from the fact that the golden ages of civilizations are very often right before the collapse.

The Renaissance in Italy was very much like the Classic Maya. The apogee was the collapse. The Renaissance status rivalry between cities through art and science and warfare and architecture was a beautiful disaster, and it only lasted about 150 years. The Golden Age of Greece was the same thing: status rivalry with architecture, literature, and all these wonderful things — along with warfare — at the end of which Greece was conquered by Macedonia and remained under the control of foreign powers for 2,300 years.

We see this pattern repeated continuously, and it is one that should make us nervous. I just heard Bill Gates say that we are living in the greatest time in history. Now you can understand why Bill Gates would think that, but even if he is right, that is an ominous thing to say.

The Man in the High Castle

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Amazon has released the pilot of their proposed Man in the High Castle series, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, in which Hitler has won, and America has been split between German and Japanese overlords.

The subject matter lends itself to visual storytelling. (I’d love to see Atlantropa.)

TechCrunch on TrackingPoint

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Techcrunch tries out the TrackingPoint rifle:

It was a location that was straight out of the opening scene of Iron Man. Sitting there was an AR-15 overlooking the endless desert expanse.

The targets sat 300 and 500 yards away and I was supposed to be able to hit them with the TrackingPoint Precision-guided Semi-Auto 5.56.

The company’s spokesperson, Anson Gordon, gave me the run-down, highlighting the basics of the system. It seemed easy enough. Designate the target with the red button, pull the trigger and find that dot again to fire the gun.

TrackingPoint Precision-guided Semi-Auto 5.56

It was that easy. I hit my mark on the first try. The system works as advertised.

Gordon explained the system that consists of four parts. Housed inside the scoop are the brains of the operation. It features a laser rangefinder, gyroscopes, an accelerometer, and a magnetometer. The shooter targets on an LCD screen. This system is linked to a custom trigger system, which also consists of the target designation button and zoom buttons housed on the trigger guard. Everything is powered from batteries housed in the stock and TrackingPoint encourages its shooters to use ammo loaded specifically for their guns.

The technology works like this: A shooter designates a target using a small button on the rifle’s trigger guide. This target can be moving up to 30 mph. Once the target is mapped, a Linux-based system housed in the optics casing calculates all the variables needed to hit that mark. When the shooter is ready to fire, they pull the trigger all the way back, yet the gun fires only when they line the crosshairs up with designated mark one more time. The system assesses the effects of gravity and Coriolis force. When the bullet leaves the barrel it always hits its mark. The shooter cannot miss.

Everything seen by the optics can be streamed live to a smartphone, tablet or even online. Either for coaching or sharing the hunting experience, TrackingPoint built a social shooting system.

This wasn’t cobbled together by hobbyists:

Founder John McHale sold his first company to Compaq in 1995 for $372 million. The deal netted McHale $24 million. In the following years McHale went on to found and sell companies to Cisco and 3Com. TrackingPoint is familiar ground for the serial entrepreneur.

Backed by $33 million in financing in part from McHale himself, the young Texas-based company released its first product in 2013. It cost $22,000 to $27,000. This model didn’t hit its mark. Early testers reported inconstant performance, yet videos demonstrating the smart gun went viral. While not perfect, this first model put the company on the board.

McHale recruited impressive talent to build the products. He stole engineers and executives from Remington, Amazon and enlisted the help of a design firm that had built software for Siemens and Motorola. Yet after the early unreliable reports, the CEO, Jason Schauble, previously a Remington vice president, was replaced by John Lupher who had led the development of the first gun.

The first product was clearly priced too high for average hunter or gun enthusiast. The company demonstrated the system to the US Military and later the Canadian military. Gordon told me that the U.S. Military has ordered six units and the Canadians five.

Yet the company kept developing the system and driving down the price. The system I tried, a modified AR-15, only cost $7500. This model has a range of a third of a mile and can track an object moving up to 10 miles an hour. Spend more money to net additional range, stopping power and the ability to hit faster moving targets.

TrackingPoint is about to introduce a .338TP called the Mile Maker, and as the name suggests, it can hit a target a mile away. Think about that. A person, with very little skill or training, will soon be able to accurately hit a target a mile away.

The Packers of Catan

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

Apparently the Green Bay Packers are obsessed with Settlers of Catan.

I suppose they’ll move on to The Cones of Dunshire:

Extraordinairy Photos of Ordinary People

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

Artsy photographer Benjamin Von Wong brought along his expensive lighting equipment and a rain machine and took extraordinairy photos of ordinary people:

Charlie Hebdo Simulation

Friday, January 16th, 2015

What happens when you run an office-shooting simulation, with two tactical trainers, armed with ARs, as the shooters, and random volunteers as the victims? Watch the (NSFW) video:

In a previous simulation of a school shooting, they found that an armed defender was almost always able to either kill the attacker or to prevent them from entering the classroom and killing more students.

In this case, not so much. Two trained attackers, operating as a team, are more than a match for one untrained defender with a handgun — most of the time:

In one of the early scenarios, a relatively new shooter decided that instead of trying to confront the armed terrorists she would use her gun to cover her retreat and give her co-workers time to escape. This plan worked perfectly, and she was able to escape from the room while returning fire towards the attackers, allowing nearly everyone in the room to escape before she too turned tail and ran.

In the face of overwhelming numbers and firepower, it appears that this tactic using the firearm as a means to give everyone else time to escape is extremely effective. There was only one person who used this tactic, but they used it to great effect.