Me Want It (But Me Wait)

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

If you’re having trouble sticking to your New Year’s Resolutions, heed these words:

Effects of Liberal-Arts Education

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

Richard A. Detweiler, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, recently studied the long-term effects of a liberal-arts education:

Detweiler said he wanted to look at characteristics of the undergraduate experience and didn’t want to rely on whether graduates would identify their colleges as liberal arts institutions or not. First, he obtained a sample of 1,000 college graduates — some from lists of liberal arts colleges’ alumni and others from a random sample of the population of college graduates in the United States, a group in which liberal arts graduates are a minority. The sample was divided into groups of those 10 years, 20 years, and 40 years after graduation.

Those in the sample were then asked a series of questions about their undergraduate educational experiences and about their lives since college.

The questions about undergraduate experiences focused on qualities associated with (but not always unique to) liberal arts colleges. There were questions about the intimate learning environment associated with liberal arts colleges (Did most professors know your name? Did you talk with faculty members outside of class about academic issues and also about nonclasswork-related topics? Were most class sizes in your first year not more than 30?).

There were questions about intellectual competencies related to the skills liberal arts colleges say they teach. But rather than saying, “Were you taught critical thinking?” the survey subjects were asked whether their professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and those of others, and whether they spent class time regularly talking about issues for which there was no single correct answer.

To examine breadth of education, they were asked how many courses (or what share of courses) came from outside their major.

With regard to life experiences, the survey subjects were then asked questions designed to tease out whether these graduates possessed the qualities liberal arts colleges claim to provide. But again, the questions weren’t direct. So rather than say, “Are you a leader?” people were asked if they regularly had people seeking their advice outside their areas of expertise, whether they were frequently called on as mentors, whether they have been elected to positions in social, cultural, professional and political groups.

Another goal many liberal arts colleges have is to educate people who will contribute to society. So the college graduates in the sample were asked things such as whether they are volunteers and how much they volunteer, whether they vote regularly, what share of their income they donate to charity.

Detweiler then reviewed the findings, which had the audience of liberal arts supporters excited.

For example, in looking at whether people in the larger sample had leadership characteristics, he found that — depending on how many characteristics of an intimate education they reported — adults were 30 to 100 percent more likely to show leadership with the liberal arts background. The key factor appeared to be out-of-the-classroom discussions with faculty members (both on academic and nonacademic subjects).

The same faculty interaction made alumni 26 to 66 percent more likely to be people who contribute to society (volunteering, charitable giving, etc.).

Another quality the study examined was whether people were generally satisfied with their lives and viewed their professional and family lives as meaningful. This type of happiness was significantly more likely (25 percent to 35 percent), the study found, for those who reported that as undergraduates they had conversations with those who disagreed with them and had in-class discussions of different philosophical, literary and ethical perspectives.

In Football We Trust

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

In Football We Trust examines the “Polynesian pipeline” into the NFL through Mormon Utah:

The documentary could be considered a study in human biodiversity. You can’t help but notice that these young men are big, strong, fast, tough, and impulsive. One of the dads laments that he doesn’t have a short fuze; he has no fuze. All of the grown men in the family have personal problems; that is, they’ve served time in prison.

The Dark Side of Mindfulness

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

In The Buddha Pill, psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm look at the dark side of mindfulness — all the people who report experiencing panic attacks, hearing voices, or finding that meditation has deepened their depression after some initial respite:

“Since the book’s been published, we’ve had a number of emails from people wanting to tell us about adverse effects they have experienced,” Wikholm says. “Often, people have thought they were alone with this, or they blamed themselves, thinking they somehow did it wrong, when actually it doesn’t seem it’s all that uncommon.”

One story in particular prompted Farias to look further into adverse effects. Louise, a woman in her 50s who had been practising yoga for 20 years, went away to a meditation retreat. While meditating, she felt dissociated from herself and became worried. Dismissing it as a routine side-effect of meditation, Louise continued with the exercises. The following day, after returning home, her body felt completely numb and she didn’t want to get out of bed. Her husband took her to the doctor, who referred her to a psychiatrist. For the next 15 years she was treated for psychotic depression.

Farias looked at the research into unexpected side-effects. A 1992 study by David Shapiro, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that 63% of the group studied, who had varying degrees of experience in meditation and had each tried mindfulness, had suffered at least one negative effect from meditation retreats, while 7% reported profoundly adverse effects including panic, depression, pain and anxiety. Shapiro’s study was small-scale; several research papers, including a 2011 study by Duke University in North Carolina, have raised concerns at the lack of quality research on the impact of mindfulness, specifically the lack of controlled studies.


Friday, January 29th, 2016

Researchers at DeepMind staged a machine-versus-man Go contest in October, at the company’s offices in London:

The DeepMind system, dubbed AlphaGo, matched its artificial wits against Fan Hui, Europe’s reigning Go champion, and the AI system went undefeated in five games witnessed by an editor from the journal Nature and an arbiter representing the British Go Federation. “It was one of the most exciting moments in my career, both as a researcher and as an editor,” the Nature editor, Dr. Tanguy Chouard, said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

This morning, Nature published a paper describing DeepMind’s system, which makes clever use of, among other techniques, an increasingly important AI technology called deep learning. Using a vast collection of Go moves from expert players — about 30 million moves in total — DeepMind researchers trained their system to play Go on its own. But this was merely a first step. In theory, such training only produces a system as good as the best humans. To beat the best, the researchers then matched their system against itself. This allowed them to generate a new collection of moves they could then use to train a new AI player that could top a grandmaster.

“The most significant aspect of all this…is that AlphaGo isn’t just an expert system, built with handcrafted rules,” says Demis Hassabis, who oversees DeepMind. “Instead, it uses general machine-learning techniques how to win at Go.”


“Go is implicit. It’s all pattern matching,” says Hassabis. “But that’s what deep learning does very well.”


At DeepMind and Edinburgh and Facebook, researchers hoped neural networks could master Go by “looking” at board positions, much like a human plays. As Facebook showed in a recent research paper, the technique works quite well. By pairing deep learning and the Monte Carlo Tree method, Facebook beat some human players — though not Crazystone and other top creations.

But DeepMind pushes this idea much further. After training on 30 million human moves, a DeepMind neural net could predict the next human move about 57 percent of the time — an impressive number (the previous record was 44 percent). Then Hassabis and team matched this neural net against slightly different versions of itself through what’s called reinforcement learning. Essentially, as the neural nets play each other, the system tracks which move brings the most reward — the most territory on the board. Over time, it gets better and better at recognizing which moves will work and which won’t.

“AlphaGo learned to discover new strategies for itself, by playing millions of games between its neural networks, against themselves, and gradually improving,” says DeepMind researcher David Silver.

According to Silver, this allowed AlphaGo to top other Go-playing AI systems, including Crazystone. Then the researchers fed the results into a second neural network. Grabbing the moves suggested by the first, it uses many of the same techniques to look ahead to the result of each move. This is similar to what older systems like Deep Blue would do with chess, except that the system is learning as it goes along, as it analyzes more data — not exploring every possible outcome through brute force. In this way, AlphaGo learned to beat not only existing AI programs but a top human as well.

At Least One Anti-Soviet Counterintelligence Agent

Friday, January 29th, 2016

Malcolm Muggeridge came home from Mozambique near the end of WWII and was promoted into the inner circles of British military intelligence:

His new position was under Kim Philby, the head of the Department Of Counter-Intelligence Against The Soviet Union, who turned out to be a really bad choice for this position given that he, LIKE EVERY OTHER PROGRESSIVE INTELLECTUAL IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY OF BRITAIN, was a secret Soviet spy. But at the time he seemed okay enough, and he sent Muggeridge to France to aid in the Liberation there.

We like to think of the Liberation of France as a nice, happy time, but for Muggeridge it was basically the time when an entire country worth of very angry Frenchmen massacred, pogrommed, lynched, or otherwise descended upon anyone accused of collaborating with the German occupation. Unsurprisingly, everybody turned out to think their personal and political rivals had collaborated with the German occupation, so it was basically the atmosphere of a 17th century Massachusetts witch hunt, only with less restraint.

Muggeridge’s job was, as usual, darkly hilarious — actual spies for the French and British governments usually acted all cooperative toward the German occupation to keep their cover and get a chance of infiltrating enemy ranks; as a result, they were usually First Up Against The Wall When The Liberation Came. Sure, they said “I was just a spy doing it as part of a secret plan,” but of course everybody said that. So Muggeridge had to rush from prison to prison, trying to convince mobs of angry Frenchmen not to execute the people who had just been most instrumental in saving them.

His spy career ended with what seems like maybe the most typical incident in the entire book — somehow P. G. Wodehouse had wandered into Nazi Germany and been stuck in a prison camp there. Then he had wandered out into France, gotten marked as a Collaborator, and was now in serious fear for his life. The British Secret Service picked Muggeridge as their Official Attache For P. G. Wodehouse Related Affairs, showing such exceptional genius in choosing the right man for the job that you would think they would have been able to get AT LEAST ONE ANTI-SOVIET COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENT WHO WASN’T A SECRET SOVIET SPY. Anyway, Muggeridge and Wodehouse wander around the cratered, mob-ruled French landscape, having a series of very Wodehousian adventures, until finally the war ends, Wodehouse is deposited safely the United States, and Muggeridge is able to return to Britain.

Chronicles Of Wasted Time

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Scott Alexander asked Mencius Moldbug to suggest one book, and he chose Chronicles of Wasted Time, the autobiography of Malcolm Muggeridge:

His reaction to journalism is an increasing terror that this might be his calling. He is very good at it, takes to it like an old veteran almost immediately, feels in some strange way that he has come home — but the entire enterprise fills him with loathing. He watches in horror how easily the words flow on to the page when his puppet-masters tell him to argue for a particular cause, how fluidly he takes to idioms like “It is surely incumbent upon all of us to…” and “there can be no one here present who does not…”.


But getting back to the story… although it is clear to him that the Soviet economy is struggling, every dispatch they are given to send home declares that things are better than ever, that the Workers’ Paradise is even more paradisiacal than previously believed, that the evidence is in and Stalinism is the winner. It doesn’t matter what he makes of this, because anything he writes which deviates from the script is rejected by the censors, who ban him from sending it home. He is reduced to sending secret messages at the bottoms of people’s suitcases, only to find to his horror that even when they successfully reach the Guardian offices back in Britain, his bosses have no interest in publishing them because they offend the prejudices of its progressive readership. Finally, he finds himself a part of the elite fraternity of western journalists on the Soviet beat, who maintain their morale by one-upping each other in how cynical and patronizing they can be towards their Russian hosts and their credulous readers back home.


His final break with the rest of the enlightened progressive world comes when he decides to do something that perhaps no other journalist in the entire Soviet Union had dared — to go off the reservation, so to speak, leave Moscow undercover, and see if he can actually get into the regions where rumors say some kind of famine might be happening. The plan goes without a hitch, he passes himself off as a generic middle-class Soviet, and he ends up in Ukraine right in the middle of Stalin’s Great Famine. He describes the scene — famished skeletons begging for crumbs, secret police herding entire towns into railway cars never to be seen again. At great risk to himself, he smuggles notes about the genocide out of the country, only to be met — once again — with total lack of interest. Guardian readers don’t look at the newspapers to hear bad things about the Soviet Union! Guardian readers want to hear about how the Glorious Future is already on its way! He is quickly sidelined in favor of the true stars of Soviet journalism, people like Walter Duranty, the New York Times‘s Russia correspondent, who wrote story after story about how prosperous and happy and well-fed the Soviets were under Stalin, and who later won the Pulitzer Prize for his troubles.

What killed the duel?

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Eric Raymond considers himself an expert on the history of the duel of honor:

First, the undisputed facts: dueling began a steep decline in the early 1840s and was effectively extinct in English-speaking countries by 1870, with a partial exception for American frontier regions where it lasted two decades longer. Elsewhere in Europe the code duello retained some social force until World War I.

This was actually a rather swift end for a body of custom that had emerged in its modern form around 1500 but had roots in the judicial duels of the Dark Ages a thousand years before. The conventional accounts attribute it to a mix of two causes: (a) a broad change in moral sentiments about violence and civilized behavior, and (b) increasing assertion of a state monopoly on legal violence.

I don’t think these factors were entirely negligible, but I think there was something else going on that was at least as important, if not more so, and has been entirely missed by (other) historians. I first got to it when I noticed that the date of the early-Victorian law forbidding dueling by British military officers – 1844 – almost coincided with (following by perhaps a year or two) the general availability of percussion-cap pistols.

The dominant weapons of the “modern” duel of honor, as it emerged in the Renaissance from judicial and chivalric dueling, had always been swords and pistols. To get why percussion-cap pistols were a big deal, you have to understand that loose-powder pistols were terribly unreliable in damp weather and had a serious charge-containment problem that limited the amount of oomph they could put behind the ball.

This is why early-modern swashbucklers carried both swords and pistols; your danged pistol might very well simply not fire after exposure to damp northern European weather. It’s also why percussion-cap pistols, which seal the powder priming charge inside a brass cap, were first developed for naval use, the prototype being Sea Service pistols of the Napoleonic era. But there was a serious cost issue with those: each cap had to be made by hand at eye-watering expense.

Then, in the early 1840s, enterprising gunsmiths figured out how to mass-produce percussion caps with machines. And this, I believe, is what actually killed the duel. Here’s how it happened…

First, the availability of all-weather pistols put an end to practical swordfighting almost immediately. One sidearm would do rather than two. Second, dueling pistols suddenly became tremendously more reliable and somewhat more lethal. When smokeless powder became generally available in the 1880s they took another jump upwards in lethality.

Moral sentiments and state power may have been causes, but I am pretty convinced that they had room to operate because a duel of honor in 1889 was a far more dangerous proposition than it had been in 1839. Swords were effectively out of play by the latter date, pistols no longer sputtered in bad weather (allowing seconds to declare that “honor had been satisfied”) and the expected lethality of a bullet hit had gone way up due to the increased velocity of smokeless-powder rounds.

I’m not sure that’s a new idea.

ISIS Salaries

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

ISIS might seem like a ragtag group of terrorists, but it operates as a government that hands out biweekly paychecks:

ISIS soldiers earn between $400 and $1,200 a month, plus a $50 stipend for their wives and $25 for each child, according to the Congressional Research Service.


“On account of the exceptional circumstances the Islamic State is facing, it has been decided to reduce the salaries that are paid to all mujahideen by half, and it is not allowed for anyone to be exempted from this decision, whatever his position,” the ISIS’ government wrote in a memorandum.


ISIS makes most of its money by taxing its population. But one major source of pressure on ISIS’ finances is the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing runs. Airstrikes are taking aim at the ISIS oil business: blowing up oil trucks, storage tanks, mobile refineries and other oil field equipment.

The result? ISIS was making $40 million a month on oil alone in early 2015, according to the U.S. Treasury. Now, it’s making only a fraction of that, according to the State Department.

The airstrikes have also targeted ISIS money itself — literally. Last week, the United States military made an extremely unusual move, two U.S. defense officials told CNN. It dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on a building in central Mosul, Iraq, destroying a cache of cash worth “millions.”

Another source of financial pressure is the massive cost of operating a functioning government. ISIS provides public services and collects taxes. That means it has to pay for infrastructure and civilian employee salaries.
To keep the lights on, it pays highly skilled engineers and technicians, who can make upwards of $1,500 a month, according to an investigative team of UN researchers.
ISIS also subsidizes the cost of bread for the public, experts say.

Even in its most successful year, ISIS made an estimated $2 billion total, according to a CNNMoney review. But back in 2014, that’s what it cost just to maintain the portion of ISIS territory in Iraq — at least, that’s what the Iraqi government previously budgeted for that region, according to David S. Cohen, then the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Orange County Jailbreak

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Three prisoners slipped behind some beds at Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana and disappeared into a hole in the wall — and these guys sound hardcore:

Jonathan Tieu, 20, Bac Duong, 43, and Hossein Nayeri, 37, were discovered missing about 9 p.m. Friday when Orange County sheriff’s jail personnel conducting a nightly head count came up three short. A search of the facility turned up a makeshift rope made from bedsheets and spare cloth, a rectangular hole cut in a steel screen behind some beds and a misplaced coil of razor wire on the roof.

OC Jailbreak Cut steel screen in Mod F Tank

Authorities are investigating the possibility that a fight that occurred about 8 p.m. Friday at the jail was staged deliberately to delay the head count to help hide the escape. The men bypassed three security checkpoints undetected. Authorities don’t know where they got the tools to help in the escape or what they were.

OC Jailbreak Roof area of CMJ

Nayeri had been held without bond since September 2014 on charges of kidnapping, torture, aggravated mayhem and burglary. Nayeri and three other men are accused of kidnapping a California marijuana dispensary owner in 2012.

They drove the dispensary owner to a desert spot where they believed he had hidden money and then severed his penis, authorities said.

After the crime, Nayeri fled the U.S. to his native Iran, where he remained for several months. He was arrested in Prague, Czech Republic, in November 2014 while changing flights from Iran to Spain to visit family.

Duong was being held without bond since last month on charges including attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, shooting at an inhabited dwelling and being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. His criminal history also includes multiple convictions for possessing and selling methamphetamine and avoiding arrest and burglary.

Tieu had been held in lieu of $1 million bond since October 2013 on charges of murder, attempted murder and shooting at an inhabited dwelling. His case is believed to be gang-related.

OC Jailbreak Jonathan Tieu, Hossein Nayeri and Bac Duong


Monday, January 25th, 2016

Bioinformaticist Bob MacCallum explains the DarwinTunes project, which evolves pleasant tunes using simple algorithms and listener ratings:

Kylo & Darth

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Brian Kesinger demonstrates his mad illustrative skills with Kylo & Darth — and the rest of his Calvin & HobbesForce Awakens mash-ups:

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 01

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 02

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 03

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 04

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 05

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 06

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 07

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 08

Kesinger Kylo and Darth 09

(I meant to post this as soon as I got around to watching the new Star Wars movie, but, alas and alack, I never got around to seeing it. Hat tip for the nudge to post from Stephen Hardesty.)

Why We Picture Bombs As Round Black Balls with a Burning Wick

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

The iconic bomb entered the public imagination after the Civil War:

Ignited, uncontained gunpowder will burn, but for it to explode the gas pressure needed to be built up in a sealed container. Often, a spherical one made the most sense, since the shape was aerodynamic and could be made of two halves with one seal, instead of a box with many sides.

They were also dark, being made of cast iron or other metals, both to ensure sturdiness and to maximize shrapnel after the explosion. The only thing inaccurate about the cartoon depiction of bombs is the string wick, says Kelly. “Fuses were made of wood and they’d be drilled down through the center, and they’d be packed very solidly with gunpowder that would burn at a predictable rate,” he says, “The idea of a string fuse coming out of the bomb is really a fantasy.”

If the Civil War was the last gunpowder war, given the sheer number of Americans involved, it seems likely that many would have some familiarity with an explosive of that kind. But another aspect of American culture helped to popularize that image — editorial cartoons.

By the mid-19th century, many papers across the country featured editorial cartoons. The most famous was probably Harper’s Weekly, often considered the most widely read publication during the Civil War. Their illustrations featured caricatures of politicians, depictions of the treatment of slaves, and of course, battles. In one cartoon, a smoking bomb with the face of who appears to be General Scott is lobbed toward Jefferson Davis. The bomb is round with a skinny, string wick sticking out of the top. Comics like that made it pretty clear just what a bomb looked like.

In 1867, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, which Kelly said was quickly and widely “publicized at that time as the weapon of the people,” something easily accessible and easy to make at home. It seems that spherical gunpowder bombs would be on their way out. But another widely publicized event may have sealed their images in the minds of the populace. In 1886, a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square was thrown into riot by a dynamite bomb, but one that reportedly resembled a stereotypical mortar bomb. According to the New York Times accounts of the riots, a group of men arrived on a wagon, and from it “something rose up into the air, carrying with it a slender tail of fire.”

Three days after the bombing, police searched the house of anarchist Louis Lingg, who was suspected to have made the bombs, and found two spherical dynamite bombs with metal casings. Given that dynamite is enough of an explosive, the metal casings were likely not used to hold in pressure, but to cause damage as metal shards flew into the crowd. The prosecution used these bombs as evidence in the trial of eight suspects, and testified that they matched the chemical makeup of the bombs used in the Haymarket riot.


The trial was heavily covered in the press, and again Harper’s Weekly provided images. In one, a bearded anarchist is seen standing over a spherical bomb, and in another Lady Justice holds one labeled “law” over a panicked crowd. It didn’t matter if they were gunpowder bombs or not. The image was the same.


The Protector

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

Chemistry lecturer Syed Hamid Husain opened fire on militants who attacked Bacha Khan university in Pakistan, allowing his students to escape the massacre:

One student said: ‘We saw three terrorists shouting “Allah is great!” and rushing towards the stairs of our department.

‘One student jumped out of the classroom through the window. We never saw him get up.’

He described seeing Husain holding a pistol and firing at the attackers, adding: Then we saw him fall down and as the terrorists entered the (registrar) office we ran away.’

Geology student Zahoor Ahmed said Husain had warned him not to leave the building after the first shots were fired.

‘He was holding a pistol in his hand,’ he said. ‘Then I saw a bullet hit him. I saw two militants were firing. I ran inside and then managed to flee by jumping over the back wall.’

‘They fired directly at’ the professor, sociology student Muhammad Daud said, describing Husain as ‘a real gentleman and a respectable teacher’.

Students and university officials paid tribute to the slain academic, saying he had been nicknamed ‘The Protector’ even before his death.

‘He would always help the students and he was the one who knew all their secrets because they would share all their problems with him,’ said 22-year-old geology student Waqar Ali. ‘He was referred to by students as “The Protector”.’

Special Computing Subsystem 24

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

The Russian Air Force, now known as the Russian AirSpace Force, has been able to maintain a high tempo of operations in Syria, launching a high volume of precision munitions surprisingly cheaply:

Instead of mounting a kit on an old bomb and losing the kit every time, the Russians mounted a JDAM-like kit, but on the airplane.

Introducing the SVP-24:


SVP stands for “special computing subsystem”. What this system does is that it constantly compares the position of the aircraft and the target (using the GLONASS satellite navigation system), it measures the environmental parameters (pressure, humidity, windspeed, speed, angle of attack, etc.). It can also receive additional information from datalinks from AWACs aircraft, ground stations, and other aircraft. The SVP-24 then computes an “envelope” (speed, altitude, course) inside which the dumb bombs are automatically released exactly at the precise moment when their unguided flight will bring them right over the target (with a 3-5m accuracy).

In practical terms this means that every 30+ year old Russian “dumb” bomb can now be delivered by a 30+ year old Russian aircraft with the same precision as a brand new guided bomb delivered by a top of the line modern bomber.

Not only that, but the pilot does not even have to worry about targeting anything. He just enters the target’s exact coordinates into his system, flies within a defined envelope and the bombs are automatically released for him. He can place his full attention on detecting any hostiles (aircraft, missiles, AA guns). And the best part of this all is that this system can be used in high altitude bombing runs, well over the 5000m altitude which MANPADs cannot reach. Finally, clouds, smoke, weather conditions or time of the day play no role in this whatsoever.

Last, but not least, this is a very cheap solution. Russian can now use the huge stores of ‘dumb’ bombs they have accumulated during the Cold War, they can bring an infinite supply of such bombs to Syria and every one of them will strike with phenomenal accuracy. And since the SVP-24 is mounted on the aircraft and not the bomb, it can be reused as often as needed.

(Hat tip to Randall Parker.)