Qattara Depression Project

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

The Qattara Depression Project is no Atlantropa, but it’s still pretty ambitious:

The depression is a region that lies below sea level and is currently a vast desert. By connecting the region and the Mediterranean Sea with tunnels and/or canals, water could be let into the area. The inflowing water would then evaporate quickly because of the desert climate. This way a continuous flow of water could be created if inflow and evaporation were balanced out. With this continuously flowing water hydroelectricity could be generated. Eventually this would result in a hypersaline lake or a salt pan as the water evaporates and leaves the salt it contains behind.

The proposals call for a large canal or tunnel being excavated of about 55 to 80 kilometres (34 to 50 mi) depending on the route chosen to the Mediterranean Sea to bring seawater into the area.

Or otherwise a 320 kilometre (200 mile) pipeline north-east to the freshwater Nile River at Rosetta.

For comparison, the nearby Suez Canal is currently 193 kilometres in length.

By balancing the inflow and evaporation the lake level can be held constant. Several proposed lake levels are -70, -60, -50 and -20 m.

Plans to use the Qattara Depression for the generation of electricity date back to 1912 from Berlin geographer Professor Penck.

In 1957 the American Central Intelligence Agency proposed to President Dwight Eisenhower that peace in the Middle East could be achieved by flooding the Qattara Depression. The resulting lagoon, according to the CIA, would have four benefits:

  • It would be “spectacular and peaceful.”
  • It would “materially alter the climate in adjacent areas.”
  • It would “provide work during construction and living areas after completion for the Palestinian Arabs.”
  • It would get Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser’s “mind on other matters” because “he need[ed] some way to get off the Soviet Hook.”

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)

Harlem Knight Fight

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

I have trouble taking the Harlem Knight Fight seriously:

It does give some idea what a medieval tourney would’ve been like though, with armored knights fighting in a rough contact sport.

Foreign Languages and SF

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Army Special Forces is the only combat arms element in the US military that requires every member to have some mastery of a foreign language:

Why not just use interpreters?

Well, can you trust an interpreter the way you can a team member? Maybe. In time. With a certain subset of interpreters. But right from the beginning? No.

You also need to have linguists on the team as a safety check on those interpreters. If they think they can get away with it, they’re going to put their own spin on what you’re saying — at the very least. It’s human nature.


But some people find language learning inordinately hard. We don’t know the neuropsychiatric explanation for this, but some bright people struggle to learn a language, just like some people are (at least in their youth) natural language sponges. It seems to be correlated with verbal reasoning in one’s native language, but not perfectly (or it would track IQ, most measures of which are half dependent on verbal reasoning). So there is a Language Aptitude or “L” factor which is only weakly correlated with Spearman’s “G” factor of general intelligence.

The Army (and now DOD) has a test that purports to measure one’s language aptitude. It’s recently been subject to a little drama, as the test scores tend to have a correlation with race, which is anathema to all right-thinking people, but so far they have not race-normed the scores (i.e., provided some affirmative action points to popular ancestries). Your performance on the DLAB, Defense Language Aptitude Battery is a usable indicator, albeit an imperfect one, of your general “L” factor, and the military will often assign languages based on DLAB performance. (The military assesses languages in Categories. Cat I is an easy language, for an English speaker, like Spanish or French. Cat IV is a tough one, like Chinese Mandarin or Arabic). For an 18X starting out in Special Forces, your language may also determine what Group you go to, although all bets are off in time of war. A trainee may get an opportunity to pick the language from within the category, depending on the needs of the Army. So if you’re a Category III, picking Russian might get you assigned to Europe-oriented 10th Group (although some Russian speakers are needed in other groups). Pick Chinese or Korean, and you will be wearing the yellow flash of the 1st Group; select Farsi, and you’ll be wearing the freshly-restored Vietnam-era flash of the 5th. Or a trainee may just be told “You start language school Monday. Roster Number 107, to French. Roster 116…”

People who scored high on the DLAB often find language learning easier than people who scored low. There’s a mountain of data on this after decades of DLABs. While the cut-off score for Cat I languages in 95, cut-off scores are a bit rubbery… if they don’t have enough students to fill a class, they may bend on admissions requirements. This bending often does the candidate no favors. Few people with scores below 100 complete a long-term language school like DLI, although with good study habits, hard work, and self-discipline, someone with limited aptitude can bull through the shorter SF language school. And the higher the score, the better. While you can get into a Cat IV language school with a 110, the cluster of people down around the minimum score are often not there on graduation day.

Of course, SF and other linguist positions in the military sometimes luck into a native speaker. This is a good thing, subject to CI investigation of the student and his or her family. (If the CI work is botched, you get situations like the Naval flight officer now sitting in the brig, charged with spying for China).

Not everyone in SF thinks language is worthwhile.

This idea tends to be concentrated in the officer corps, especially in those who have spent much of their career in Direct Action units (like the Rangers, for one example). One such officer was Colonel (later Brigadier General) Frank J. Toney, who had been a protegé of James Guest, in an environment where only door-kicking counted. When Toney took over SF Command, he brought his attitude with him: “My men don’t need any language training. They can speak 5.56 and 7.62!”

We leave as an exercise for the reader, why his nickname was Blank Frank.

Doing, not Knowing

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Eric Barker sums up Anders Ericsson’s Peak:

Get Help: Find a mentor who can help you develop that image in your head of the best way to do something.

It’s Not “Try Harder”, It’s “Try Different”: Design specific activities to address your weak points.

It’s About Doing, Not Knowing: Remember the three F’s: Focus, Feedback, Fix it.

Study The Past To Have A Better Future: Find examples that have been judged and quiz yourself.

How to Build an Economic Model in Your Spare Time

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Hal Varian explains how to build an economic model in your spare time:

In reality the process is much more haphazard than my description would suggest — the model of research that I describe is an idealization of reality, much like the economic models that I create. But there is probably enough connection with reality to make the description useful — which I hope is also true for my economic models.

The first step is to get an idea. This is not all that hard to do. The tricky part is to get a good idea. The way you do this is to come up with lots and lots of ideas and throw out all the ones that aren’t good.


The first test is to try to phrase your idea in a way that a non-economist can understand. If you can’t do this it’s probably not a very good idea. If you can phrase it in a way that a noneconomist can understand, it still may be a lousy idea, but at least there’s hope.

Before you start trying to decide whether your idea is correct, you should stop to ask whether it is interesting. If it isn’t interesting, no one will care whether it is correct or not.


One of the primary purposes of economic theory is to generate insight. The greatest compliment is “Ah! So that explains it!” That’s what you should be looking for — forget about the “nice solid work” and try to become a Wizard of Ahs.


Write down the simplest possible model you can think of, and see if it still exhibits some interesting behavior. If it does, then make it even simpler.

Several years ago I gave a seminar about some of my research. I started out with a very simple example. One of the faculty in the audience interrupted me to say that he had worked on something like this several years ago, but his model was “much more complex”.

I replied “My model was complex when I started, too, but I just kept working on it till it got simple!”

Magic Mushrooms Lift Depression

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

Nature reports that “magic” mushrooms do indeed lift depression:

Researchers from Imperial College London gave 12 people psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms. All had been clinically depressed for a significant amount of time — on average 17.8 years. None of the patients had responded to standard medications, such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or had electroconvulsive therapy.

One week after receiving an oral dose of psilocybin, all patients experienced a marked improvement in their symptoms. Three months on, five patients were in complete remission.

This study was not easy to administer:

Magic mushrooms are categorized as a Class A illegal drug in the United Kingdom — the most serious category, which also includes heroin and cocaine.

The ethics committee that granted approval for the trial was so concerned that trial volunteers could experience delayed onset psychotic symptoms that it requested a three-month follow-up on the subjects.

“This was unprecedented,” says neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt at Imperial, who is senior author of the study.

It took 32 months between having the grant awarded and dosing the first patient, says Nutt. By comparison, it took six months “to get through the machinations” for his team’s previous studies using the equally illegal drugs LSD and MDMA, he says.

“Every interaction — applying for licenses, waiting for licenses, receiving the licenses, applying for contracts for drug manufacture, on and on — involved a delay of up to two months. It was enormously frustrating, and most of it was unnecessary,” says Nutt. “The study result isn’t the remarkable part — it’s the fact that we did it at all.”

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Ecco the Dolphin

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

I never played Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin, but I’m not surprised that it would be linked to John C Lilly:

Lilly was once a renowned and respected American scientist, with a particular interest in marine biology and interspecies communication. In the early 1960s he was given funding by NASA to research whether it was possible to teach dolphins to speak. NASA’s logic was that if we could learn to communicate with dolphins, we would have a better understanding of how to converse with extra-terrestrials if they were to ever pop down for a visit.

Lilly flooded a house in the Caribbean so that dolphins could live as closely as possible with him and his team, amongst them Margaret Howe Lovatt, who apparently had sex with one of the animals. The experiment fizzled out as, unsurprisingly, nobody was able to get any of them to talk – although check out YouTube for one of his subjects attempting a pretty close “Hello Margaret”. Useful, if all aliens were called Margaret. Lilly lost funding for the project, moved away from traditional science and threw himself further and further into 1960s pseudo-mysticism and chemical experimentation.

Around 1971 Lilly was looking for a cure for his chronic migraines, and a friend suggested that ketamine could help get rid of them. Back then ketamine wasn’t a widely used drug, probably only used recreationally by a small group of dedicated trippers, quite unlike its status today as a popular party drug. When he was under the influence of a small dose of K, Lilly said that he felt the migraine being pushed out of his body and, miraculously, he never had one again. Encouraged by this, he developed a longstanding affection for the substance he dubbed “Vitamin K”, and started taking it regularly, gradually injecting it in higher doses.

Just shooting up ketamine on its own wasn’t enough for Lilly, though, and soon he was IV-ing it inside a sensory deprivation tank with the help of his friend, Dr Craig Enright. They thought that by using the tank external stimulation would be significantly reduced, giving a psychedelic or, in this case, a dissociative experience at a higher level of intensity. Neither appreciated that what they were doing was incredibly $#@!ing dangerous – tranquilising drugs and floating on water aren’t to be mixed under most circumstances, and sure enough Lilly’s wife, Antonietta, had to resuscitate him on one occasion where he nearly drowned. These experiments would form the foundation for Paddy Chayefsky’s 1978 novel Altered States, later adapted into a movie by director Ken Russell.

During his sessions, Lilly came to believe that he was being contacted by an organic extra-terrestrial entity called the Earth Coincidence Control Office – ECCO. This alien group was benevolent, omniscient and in control of all earthly matters. Except for when they weren’t quite so friendly, as at one point Lilly thought they’d made off with his penis.

The similarities between Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin and Lilly’s ketamine fantasies are undeniable. It’s almost like the game’s story is an amalgamation of his interest in dolphins and the wacky philosophy he spouted when returning to reality from his phenomenal K-hole trips.

Alongside ECCO, Lilly encountered another alien life force, which he called the Solid State Intelligence. Unlike the entities from ECCO, the SSI were spawned by a mechanical solar system, and their main aim was to ravage the earth and destroy mankind. It’s not unlike the much-documented cinematic battles between us fleshy creatures and advanced AI turned malevolent, and it’s no stretch to compare the SSI with Ecco’s Vortex enemies, those evil, dolphin-kidnapping, interstellar villains.

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)

Dorian Yates’ First Cycle

Friday, May 20th, 2016

I stumbled across an interview with Dorian Yates — it takes some odd turns, by the way — where he briefly mentions how he started using “gear” right before his first competition — where he blew everyone away:

It was 1985. I was 23 years old and had decided to enter my first competition after a year and a half of training, in which I had made excellent progress. I knew the others who would be competing would be using gear, and I wanted to even the playing field. It was a very deliberate decision that I didn’t take lightly, and I did as much reading as I could first. At 23, I feel I was old enough. At that age, you are fully matured physically, you’ve reached your full adult height, and so on. Even though I hadn’t been training terribly long, I had already managed to develop my physique to a decent level.

Looking back, I may have been able to win that contest without using anything. I did one six-week “building” cycle of 20 milligrams of Dianabol a day, which took me from 215 at 5’11” to 235. Those were the most dramatic results I ever saw from steroids. I took six weeks off the gear, then at eight weeks out from my contest I began using 15 milligrams of Anavar per day, as well as one shot of Primobolan a week, which was 200 milligrams.

I competed at around 210-215 and won that contest. EFBB [Britain’s equivalent of the NPC] officials were there and convinced me to represent the United Kingdom the following weekend as our heavyweight at the IFBB World Games. I placed seventh, and competed with men like Berry de Mey and Matt Mendenhall, both of whom were the top amateur heavyweights in their respective nations at that time.

I suppose Dorian was a natural, even if he wasn’t natural.

Who Died in World War II?

Friday, May 20th, 2016

Interesting facts emerge when you make the best estimate of World War II deaths by nation, and by alliance (Allies vs Axis), convert them to a percentage of the population ante bellum, and then put them in rank order — which Paul Mirengoff of PowerLine did, based on historian Tomek Jankowski’s Eastern Europe:

Let’s start by comparing the death tolls of the winning side, the Allies, and the losing side, the Axis.

Jankowski estimates that the Allies lost nearly 48 million people, compared to fewer than 12 million people on the Axis side. It strikes me as astonishing that the winning side would suffer four times as many deaths as the losers.


Now let’s look at the death count by country in terms of percentage of population killed. Poland, not atypically, suffered the most. It lost an estimated 16 percent of its population.

After Poland comes the Soviet Union, which lost around 14 percent of its population.

Then come Lithuania, Latvia, and Greece, all at between 11.2 and 13.7 percent.


After that, finally, we come to Germany at 9.4 percent. Thus the chief aggressor, and the loser, is in sixth place.


What about Japan, the other major aggressor? It lost an estimated 3.8 percent of its population. This puts Japan in 14th place, behind some of its victims (the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina) and just slightly ahead of the Philippines.

Italy, despite some horrific fighting there, didn’t make the top 20.

The Most Wanted Man in China

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Freeman Dyson reads Fang Lizhi’s memoir and concludes Chinese reeducation camps worked:

Fang’s book is the personal story of a scientist whose life was shaped by Chinese history. From the evidence provided by this book, I am led to believe that communism survived in China because the brutal reeducation of the elite, by exile to coal mines and villages and forced sharing of hardships with dirt-poor workers and peasants, was to some extent a genuine reeducation. A great many members of the elite endured a period of gross abuse and humiliation, so severe as to drive many of them to suicide. Fang—who died in 2012—describes four of these personal tragedies that he remembered vividly when he wrote his book thirty years later. But the majority of the victims, like Fang, survived the physical and mental battering, and returned to pursue careers as leaders of society. They became a privileged and corrupt class, but had acquired some indelible firsthand knowledge of the real needs and desires of the Chinese people.

In Russia there was much talk of reeducation of the elite, but the reality was different. In Russia the purges killed large numbers of the elite and condemned others to long years of imprisonment in the gulag archipelago, but those who survived were not re-educated. The intellectuals who survived in Russia remained isolated from the realities of working-class existence. The working class in the minds of the rulers of Russia remained an intellectual abstraction, detached from contact with reality.

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Fang became a dissident. His reeducation was too successful, pushing him all the way to a final rejection of communism. But he was the exception who proves the rule. The rule is demonstrated by the majority of Chinese intellectuals who climbed back into the system after reeducation, not by the small minority who became dissidents. The historical fact is that reeducation generally succeeded in its avowed purpose. It produced a governing class that combined a formal acceptance of the regime’s Communist dogma with some understanding of the people it was governing.

Diversity is Our Vibrancy

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

As the slogan etched on the blade of every Obama Youth dagger says, Diversity is Our Vibrancy:

Friday was a red-letter day for both of the motivating principles of the modern United States as the Army announced, in a Friday data dump, that they were commissioning 22 women as Infantry and Armor officers. A large percentage of them are West Pointers; a few are ROTC scholarship foundlings.

They have not yet passed any of the requirements, but what’s most important is how everybody feels about it, unless they don’t feel totally awesome about it, in which case they will be punished suitably. Of the 22 greatest 2nd lieutenants ever, 13 will bring their light to the dank of the tank, as operated by the Armor Branch; and nine will be the only officers that ever mattered in the previously unfashionable Infantry Branch.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has now checked one of his highest priority boxes.

Absolute Harrison Bergeron equality-of-results is not upon us yet, unfortunately. True, the women need to pass their courses, but having announced their success already makes that a mere formality. But still, some problems remain.

To start with, the women will have no subordinate women to command, at least, not yet. So far, exactly one woman has volunteered to serve as an enlisted infantry entity, and none has signed up for enlisted armor duty. Of course, neither the cat pack of officers nor the one female infantry entity has passed and been Distinguished Honor Graduates of their respective courses, yet, but today’s announcement makes it clear it’s the merest of formalities.

All right-thinking people know that the only reason women haven’t been infantrymen everywhere, taken over the offensive line of the Seattle Seahawks, and broken all the mens’ Olympic records, is because of false consciousness, and because they don’t have incredibly awesome female officers yet to show them the way.

If enlisted women don’t start signing up in larger numbers, the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Combat, that is, self-actualization of the upper class female officers, will require them to be drafted. Self-actualization of upper class female officers is, after all, the reason we have an Army in the first place.

It should stop evolving

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Nick Land shares this passage from Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye (from the end of Chapter 3):

“They used to teach us that evolution of intelligent being wasn’t possible,” she said. “Societies protect their weaker members. Civilizations tend to make wheel chairs and spectacles and hearing aids as soon as they have the tools for them. When a society makes war, the men generally have to pass a fitness test before they’re allowed to risk their lives. I suppose it helps win the war.” She smiled. “But it leaves precious little room for the survival of the fittest.”


“You were saying about evolution?”

“It — it ought to be pretty well closed off for an intelligent species,” she said. “Species evolve to meet the environment. An intelligent species changes the environment to suit itself. As soon as a species becomes intelligent, it should stop evolving.”

He adds:

It makes you think (or rather, the opposite). The original sin of intelligence — falling back in blind homeostatic antipathy against its own conditions of emergence — isn’t so hard to see.

Demonstrated Intellectual Superiority

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

As their Wall Street Journal piece was going to press, Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim received a copy of an astonishing letter written in 1969, from Macklin Fleming, Justice of the California Court of Appeal to Louis Pollack, the dean of Yale Law School:

The immediate damage to the standards of Yale Law School needs no elaboration. But beyond this, it seems to me the admission policy adopted by the Law School faculty will serve to perpetuate the very ideas and prejudices it is designed to combat. If in a given class the great majority of the black students are at the bottom of the class, this factor is bound to instill, unconsciously at least, some sense of intellectual superiority among the white students and some sense of intellectual inferiority among the black students. Such a pairing in the same school of the brightest white students in the country with black students of mediocre academic qualifications is social experiment with loaded dice and a stacked deck. The faculty can talk around the clock about disadvantaged background, and it can excuse inferior performance because of poverty, environment, inadequate cultural tradition, lack of educational opportunity, etc. The fact remains that black and white students will be exposed to each other under circumstances in which demonstrated intellectual superiority rests with the whites.


No one can be expected to accept an inferior status willingly. The black students, unable to compete on even terms in the study of law, inevitably will seek other means to achieve recognition and self-expression. This is likely to take two forms. First, agitation to change the environment from one in which they are unable to compete to one in which they can. Demands will be made for elimination of competition, reduction in standards of performance, adoption of courses of study which do not require intensive legal analysis, and recognition for academic credit of sociological activities which have only an indirect relationship to legal training. Second, it seems probable that this group will seek personal satisfaction and public recognition by aggressive conduct, which, although ostensibly directed at external injustices and problems, will in fact be primarily motivated by the psychological needs of the members of the group to overcome feelings of inferiority caused by lack of success in their studies. Since the common denominator of the group of students with lower qualifications is one of race this aggressive expression will undoubtedly take the form of racial demands–the employment of faculty on the basis of race, a marking system based on race, the establishment of a black curriculum and a black law journal, an increase in black financial aid, and a rule against expulsion of black students who fail to satisfy minimum academic standards.


The American creed, one that Yale has proudly espoused, holds that an American should be judged as an individual and not as a member of a group. To me it seems axiomatic that a system which ignores this creed and introduces the factor of race in the selection of students for a professional school is inherently malignant, no matter how high-minded the purpose nor how benign the motives of those making the selection….

The present policy of admitting students on two bases and thereafter purporting to judge their performance on one basis is a highly explosive sociological experiment almost certain to achieve undesirable results.

The Lazy Way To Kill Bad Habits

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Eric Barker summarizes Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit:

One at a time. Beat one bad habit per month and in a year you’ll be awesome.

Don’t stop. Just count. Don’t eliminate the bad behavior just yet. First, be consistent in your awfulness.

Don’t change you. Change your world. 20 second rule. Make it harder to engage in bad habits.

Chill, dude. Stress makes the bad stuff tempting. Relax and you’ll behave better.

Don’t eliminate. Replace. You can’t kill bad habits but you can swap them out for new ones.

“If” and “Then.” A simple plan for how you’ll beat temptation helps you beat temptation.

Forgive yourself. Beating yourself up makes you behave worse. Self-compassion keeps you going.

OkCupid Study Reveals the Perils of Big-Data Science

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

A recent OkCupid study reveals the ethical perils of Big Data:

On May 8, a group of Danish researchers publicly released a dataset of nearly 70,000 users of the online dating site OkCupid, including usernames, age, gender, location, what kind of relationship (or sex) they’re interested in, personality traits, and answers to thousands of profiling questions used by the site.

When asked whether the researchers attempted to anonymize the dataset, Aarhus University graduate student Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, who was lead on the work, replied bluntly: “No. Data is already public.” This sentiment is repeated in the accompanying draft paper, “The OKCupid dataset: A very large public dataset of dating site users,” posted to the online peer-review forums of Open Differential Psychology, an open-access online journal also run by Kirkegaard.