Nature has won

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

In reviewing Robert Plomin’s Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, Gregory Cochran says, forget Nature versus Nurture. Nature has won:

Assuming that this work is correct, what does it mean? What are the implications?

It means that we have to completely rethink and rebuild the social sciences. Steven Pinker said: “For most of the twentieth century it was assumed that psychological traits were caused by environmental factors, called nurture.” This was completely wrong. Problems like p-value fishing and the current ‘replication crisis’ are nothing compared to the tsunami that’s coming.

Indeed, social scientists have done such a terrible job that it’s hard to see how the field can be repaired. They wanted the false results they got, and they still do. I’m sure their descendants will as well. Isn’t heritability grand?

We need a different kind of social science researcher, smarter, less emotional, and more curiosity-driven. Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. But where will we find them?

Abixia is a paracosm

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Alison Gopnik explores the imaginary worlds of childhood:

In 19th-century England, the Brontë children created Gondal, an imaginary kingdom full of melodrama and intrigue. Emily and Charlotte Brontë grew up to write the great novels “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” The fictional land of Narnia, chronicled by C.S. Lewis in a series of classic 20th-century novels, grew out of Boxen, an imaginary kingdom that Lewis shared with his brother when they were children. And when the novelist Anne Perry was growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s, she and another girl created an imaginary kingdom called Borovnia as part of an obsessive friendship that ended in murder — the film “Heavenly Creatures” tells the story.

But what about Abixia? Abixia is an island nation on the planet Rooark, with its own currency (the iinter, divided into 12 skilches), flag and national anthem. It’s inhabited by cat-humans who wear flannel shirts and revere Swiss army knives — the detailed description could go on for pages. And it was created by a pair of perfectly ordinary Oregon 10-year-olds.

Abixia is a “paracosm,” an extremely detailed and extensive imaginary world with its own geography and history. The psychologist Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon and her colleagues discovered Abixia, and many other worlds like it, by talking to children. Most of what we know about paracosms comes from writers who described the worlds they created when they were children. But in a paper forthcoming in the journal Child Development, Prof. Taylor shows that paracosms aren’t just the province of budding novelists. Instead, they are a surprisingly common part of childhood.

Prof. Taylor asked 169 children, ages eight to 12, whether they had an imaginary world and what it was like. They found that about 17 percent of the children had created their own complicated universe. Often a group of children would jointly create a world and maintain it, sometimes for years, like the Brontë sisters or the Lewis brothers. And grown-ups were not invited in.

Prof. Taylor also tried to find out what made the paracosm creators special. They didn’t score any higher than other children in terms of IQ, vocabulary, creativity or memory. Interestingly, they scored worse on a test that measured their ability to inhibit irrelevant thoughts. Focusing on the stern and earnest real world may keep us from wandering off into possible ones.

But the paracosm creators were better at telling stories, and they were more likely to report that they also had an imaginary companion. In earlier research, Prof. Taylor found that around 66% of preschoolers have imaginary companions; many paracosms began with older children finding a home for their preschool imaginary friends.

Children with paracosms, like children with imaginary companions, weren’t neurotic loners either, as popular stereotypes might suggest. In fact, if anything, they were more socially skillful than other children.

Why do imaginary worlds start to show up when children are eight to 12 years old? Even when 10-year-olds don’t create paracosms, they seem to have a special affinity for them — think of all the young “Harry Potter” fanatics. And as Prof. Taylor points out, paracosms seem to be linked to all the private clubhouses, hidden rituals and secret societies of middle childhood.

Prof. Taylor showed that preschoolers who create imaginary friends are particularly good at understanding other people’s minds — they are expert at everyday psychology. For older children, the agenda seems to shift to what we might call everyday sociology or geography. Children may create alternative societies and countries in their play as a way of learning how to navigate real ones in adult life.

On we sweep with threshing oar

Friday, September 28th, 2018

Thor Ragnarok recently came to Netflix, and while finally watching it I couldn’t help but notice the “otherworldly howl” of a certain classic rock song — “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin:

Thor Ragnorak’s director, Taika Waititi, doesn’t come from a typical action movie background. A bit like Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn and Captain America’s Russo brothers, Waititi’s career is rooted in comedy and indie films (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople).

If anything, he’s the most quirky and uniquely talented director that Marvel have hired so far. And it was partly through his use of Immigrant Song that he secured the Thor job in the first place, having put together a demo reel to showcase what he had in mind for the film.

“I put Immigrant Song over the top of it, and then played it for them,” Waititi said in an interview with Den of Geek. “And they were like, ‘Oh that’s really cool. That’s a cool song. What’s that?’ I was like, [deadpan] ‘It’s Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin, one of the most famous songs of all time.’ They were like, ‘Oh cool, never heard it before, very cool.’

“And I was like, ‘Oh f—, really worried now.’ Er, and then, yeah, when I got the job. But from the start we’d always talked about using Immigrant Song, in the film, because it just makes perfect sense for that character, doesn’t it?”

The song only makes perfect sense for Thor if you’ve heard and deciphered the lyrics:

Ah-ah, ah!
Ah-ah, ah!

We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow
The hammer of the gods
W’ell drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, and sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming!

On we sweep with threshing oar
Our only goal will be the western shore

Ah-ah, ah!
Ah-ah, ah!

We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow
How soft your fields so green
Can whisper tales of gore
Of how we calmed the tides of war
We are your overlords

On we sweep with threshing oar
Our only goal will be the western shore

So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins
For peace and trust can win the day despite of all your losing

Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh

For a long time it was notoriously difficult to get permission to use one of Led Zeppelin’s songs, but the times, they are a-changing:

When this particular track was used on 2003’s School of Rock, Jack Black had to personally beg for it after director Richard Linklater failed to persuade them. He won them over by filming himself singing in front of a huge crowd, pleading for their permission.

The song has its own origin story:

Immigrant Song was the only single released internationally from Led Zeppelin III, but the band were dead set against selling singles in the UK and so it – like all their others – was not available here. On the US 45 RPM single, however, the band had the Alastair Crowley quote “Do What Thou Wilt… So Mote Be It” inscribed into the dead wax.

Though the music was already written, featuring a menacing staccato riff from Jimmy Page, it was while the band were on tour in Iceland that the lyrics were reworked with a Norse war cry and Viking-inspired imagery.

“We weren’t being pompous,” Plant told journalist Chris Welch for his book Led Zeppelin: Dazed Confused. “We did come from the land of the ice and snow. We were guests of the Icelandic Government on a cultural mission. We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik and the day before we arrived all the civil servants went on strike and the gig was going to be cancelled. The university prepared a concert hall for us and it was phenomenal. The response from the kids was remarkable and we had a great time. ‘Immigrant Song’ was about that trip and it was the opening track on the album that was intended to be incredibly different.”

The inventor who plans to build a city under the sea

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

Phil Nuytten has built submarines and diving suits, but now he’s planning to build a city under the sea:

An underwater city is cool, but I’m not sure how much sense it makes. He does mention siting it on a thermal vent though, for “free” energy via a Stirling engine.

Taiwan can win a war with China

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

T. Greer explains how Taiwan can win a war with China:

One of the central hurdles facing the offensive is surprise. The PLA simply will not have it. The invasion will happen in April or October. Because of the challenges posed by the strait’s weather, a transport fleet can only make it across the strait in one of these two four-week windows. The scale of the invasion will be so large that strategic surprise will not be possible, especially given the extensive mutual penetration of each side by the other’s intelligence agencies.

Easton estimates that Taiwanese, American, and Japanese leaders will know that the PLA is preparing for a cross-strait war more than 60 days before hostilities begin. They will know for certain that an invasion will happen more than 30 days before the first missiles are fired. This will give the Taiwanese ample time to move much of their command and control infrastructure into hardened mountain tunnels, move their fleet out of vulnerable ports, detain suspected agents and intelligence operatives, litter the ocean with sea mines, disperse and camouflage army units across the country, put the economy on war footing, and distribute weapons to Taiwan’s 2.5 million reservists.

There are only 13 beaches on Taiwan’s western coast that the PLA could possibly land at. Each of these has already been prepared for a potential conflict. Long underground tunnels—complete with hardened, subterranean supply depots—crisscross the landing sites. The berm of each beach has been covered with razor-leaf plants. Chemical treatment plants are common in many beach towns—meaning that invaders must prepare for the clouds of toxic gas any indiscriminate saturation bombing on their part will release. This is how things stand in times of peace.

As war approaches, each beach will be turned into a workshop of horrors. The path from these beaches to the capital has been painstakingly mapped; once a state of emergency has been declared, each step of the journey will be complicated or booby-trapped. PLA war manuals warn soldiers that skyscrapers and rock outcrops will have steel cords strung between them to entangle helicopters; tunnels, bridges, and overpasses will be rigged with munitions (to be destroyed only at the last possible moment); and building after building in Taiwan’s dense urban core will be transformed into small redoubts meant to drag Chinese units into drawn-out fights over each city street.


In an era that favors defense, small nations like Taiwan do not need a PLA-sized military budget to keep the Chinese at bay.

No one needs to hear this message more than the Taiwanese themselves. In my trips to Taiwan, I have made a point of tracking down and interviewing both conscripts and career soldiers. Their pessimism is palpable. This morale crisis in the ranks partly reflects the severe mismanagement of the conscription system, which has left even eager Taiwanese patriots disillusioned with their military experience.

But just as important is the lack of knowledge ordinary Taiwanese have about the strength of their islands’ defenses. A recent poll found that 65 percent of Taiwanese “have no confidence” in their military’s ability to hold off the PLA. Absent a vigorous campaign designed to educate the public about the true odds of successful military resistance, the Taiwanese people are likely to judge the security of their island on flawed metrics, like the diminishing number of countries that maintain formal relations with Taipei instead of Beijing. The PLA’s projected campaign is specifically designed to overwhelm and overawe a demoralized Taiwanese military. The most crucial battlefield may be the minds of the Taiwanese themselves. Defeatism is a more dangerous threat to Taiwanese democracy than any weapon in China’s armory.

Read the whole thing.

Tribalism is the new American norm

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

Americans keep dividing into two hostile camps, Victor Davis Hanson says:

It seems the country is back to 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, rather than in 2018, during the greatest age of affluence, leisure, and freedom in the history of civilization.

The ancient historian Thucydides called the civil discord that tore apart the fifth-century b.c. Greek city-states “stasis.” He saw stasis as a bitter civil war between the revolutionary masses and the traditionalist middle and upper classes.

Something like that ancient divide is now infecting every aspect of American life.

Americans increasingly are either proud of past U.S. traditions, ongoing reform, and current American exceptionalism, or they insist that the country was hopelessly flawed at its birth and must be radically reinvented to rectify its original sins.

No sphere of life is immune to the subsequent politicization: not movies, television, professional sports, late-night comedy, or colleges. Even hurricanes are typically leveraged to advance political agendas.

What is causing America to turn differences into these bitter hatreds — and why now?

The internet and social media often descend into an electronic lynch mob. In a nanosecond, an insignificant local news story goes viral. Immediately, hundreds of millions of people use it to drum up the evils or virtues of either progressivism or conservatism.

Anonymity is a force multiplier of these tensions. Fake online identities provide cover for ever greater extremism — on the logic that no one is ever called to account for his or her words.

Speed is also the enemy of common sense and restraint. Millions of bloggers rush to be the first to post their take on a news event, without much worry about whether it soon becomes a “fake news” moment of unsubstantiated gossip and fiction.

Globalization has both enriched and impoverished — and also further divided — America. Those whose muscular labor could be outsourced abroad to less expensive, less regulated countries were liable to lose their jobs or find their wages slashed. They were written off as “losers.” Americans whose professional expertise profited from vast new world markets became even richer and preened as “winners.”

Geography — history’s intensifier of civil strife — further fueled the growing economic and cultural divide. Americans are increasingly self-selecting as red and blue states.

Liberals gravitate to urban coastal-corridor communities of hip culture, progressive lifestyles, and lots of government services.

Conservatives increasingly move to the lower-tax, smaller-government, and more traditional heartland.

Lifestyles in San Francisco and Toledo are so different that it’s almost as if they’re on two different planets.

Legal, diverse, meritocratic, and measured immigration has always been America’s great strength. Assimilation, integration, and intermarriage within the melting pot used to turn new arrivals into grateful Americans in a generation or two.

But when immigration is often illegal, not diverse, and massive, then balkanization follows. Currently, the country hosts 60 million non-natives — the largest number of immigrants in America’s history.

Yet unlike the past, America often does not ask new immigrants to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. Immigration is instead politicized. Newcomers are seen as potentially useful voting blocs.

Tribalism is the new American norm. Gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, and ethnicity are now essential, not incidental, to who we are.

Americans scramble to divide into victimized blocs. Hyphenated and newly accented names serve as advertisements that particular groups have unique affiliations beyond their shared Americanism.

America is often the target of unrealistic criticism — as if it is suddenly toxic because it is not perfect. Few appreciate that the far worse alternatives abroad are rife with racism, sexism, civil strife, corruption, and poverty unimaginable in the U.S.

The last few elections added to the growing abyss.

What “neoreaction” ought to mean

Monday, September 24th, 2018

Handle is definitely not the worst candidate to provide some insight into what “neoreaction” ought to mean:

In the case of the French Revolution the bloody results were terrifying and horrific, and it is from that event that we get the terms for three different types of anti-progressive op positional responses: Right, Conservative, and Reactionary.

This is really oversimplifying, but very roughly, ‘Right’ was in favor of changes, just different changes and for different reasons that those of the leftists. ‘Conservative’ was more pragmatic and intuitive than ideological, and favored keeping the traditions and institutions that remained, and stability for its own sake, having seen the awful consequences of implementing all those recent radical reforms. A ‘Reactionary’ says that conservatism is just yesterday’s progressivism (thus today’s left is just tomorrow’s right), and contains the seed of the same problem which will inevitably bloom into exactly the noxious weed it claims to want to prevent. A reactionary then is in favor of radical change to reestablish and restore the status quo ante. Instead of just being yesterday’s conservatism, reactionaries seek to ideologically justify and explain the practical basis for the wisdom undergirding the prior regime. And what naturally accompanies that project is the attempt to explain the root causes of what went wrong with the new system and why it resulted in such atrocious excesses and led to political and economic catastrophes. Filmer, de Maistre, and Chateaubriand are typical examples of classic reactionary thinkers. Many later counter-revolutionaries and anti-Socialists shared similar ideas.

Ok, now fast forward to the political and ideological context of late 20th and early 21st century America. The dominant ideology of the elites and the state is an updated form of progressivism combined with New Left identity politics, and we see not three, but two kinds of anti-progressive opposition. The ‘Right’ (not really, but let’s roll with my somewhat inaccurate framework here) in this case might be the classical liberals and libertarians, who are ok with plenty of rapid, radical changes, but often different changes that what the progressives want, and on the basis of a very different set of principles. The conservative movement is numerically dominant, but intellectually vapid and incoherent and generally ineffective, and again is often merely ‘slower progressivism’, getting dragged along the same ride. I’m glossing over lots of subtleties and cross-fertilizations here, but let’s keep going.

Now, yes, there are plenty of conservatives that might seem ‘reactionary’ in that they want to roll things back to some prior point, but the numbers of these follow a diminishing decay curve with a half life period between every right-wing heyday. Some want to go back to 1994 , some fewer to 1985, a fraction to 1963, some to 1953, and perhaps there are still a few who would go all the way back to 1931 or 1912. Maybe even one or two dozen to 1860.

But you won’t find hardly anyone who go all the way to 1760, that is, to the pre-revolutionary regime, like the French Reactionaries argued for. There is no #ThomasHutchinsonWasRight hashtag. That’s because the revolution and democracy and, yes, the progressive aspects of the national origin story and evolution, are baked into the cake of American Conservatism.

But, with a few noteworthy (though probably temporary) exceptions, American Conservatism had been failing for a long, long time, and during the freewheeling heyday of unmoderated and high-quality political discussion on this new-ish thing called the internet, anti-progressives were ‘reacting’ not just to the excesses of the progressives, but of the apparent inability and often unwillingness of the American right to do anything about it, even when they enjoyed majority support and formal political power.

And one of the plausible conclusions was that the fault lies in democracy itself. Now, even the founders knew that, being familiar with the history of classical antiquity, and they tried to establish a system to contain democracy running amok in various predictable ways. The vast majority of American conservatives like to believe the founders generally succeeded with the Constitution enshrining a vision of limited government and a society of free individuals, and that if people continued to revere and obey that document in good faith, things would be fine. That’s what 99.99% of the American right still believes.

But the other point of view is that the Constitution failed, and was doomed to fail, because a document cannot enforce itself if the people who matter don’t want to obey. What they will want to obey instead is the dominant social ideology, the tenets of which are incompatible with the Constitutional structure, which will be circumvented with whatever hand-waving is required, whenever it stands in the way. If one really wanted to address the root of the problem, one would have to accept some very unpopular ideas about human nature and political reality, and give those pre-enlightenment political theories and structures another look and a fair hearing. And one would do so from the perspective enlightened, as it were, by all the latest advances in the study of human social psychology, economics, political science, and so forth.

This is a species of Reaction, but it’s also different because new. Hence, neoreaction.

How fighting wildfires works

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

In case you were wondering how fighting wildfires works, this video explains the process:

You’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson), author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, explains the importance of generating alternatives to any course of action you are considering:

In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt set out to catalog real-world decisions the way a botanist might catalog the various types of vegetation growing in a rain forest. In his initial study, published in 1984, he analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers at a range of public and private organizations in the United States and Canada: insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms.

The most striking finding in Professor Nutt’s research was this: Only 15 percent of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.

This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.

The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

He continues with a rather fashionable follow-on notion:

What’s the best way to expand your pool of options? Researchers suggest that if possible, you diversify the group of people who are helping make the decision. About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better at their task. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.

Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

A 2008 study led by the management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.

Where did ranch dressing come from?

Friday, September 21st, 2018

Where did ranch dressing come from?

Steve Henson, a plumber from the tiny village of Thayer, Neb., came up with the dressing mix around 1950, during a stint in Anchorage as a construction worker, where he also served as an occasional cook for the crew. In that part of the world, perishable ingredients like fresh herbs, garlic and onions, and dairy products were not easy to come by.

By 1954, he and his wife, Gayle, had moved to California and bought a ramshackle property called Sweetwater Ranch, in the San Marcos Pass above Santa Barbara, Calif. They renamed it Hidden Valley, and opened it as a guest ranch. But according to their son, Nolan Henson, the place became even more popular as a steakhouse, with Steve’s dressing a favorite souvenir.

“It was all dry ingredients the way my dad made it,” said Nolan Henson, now 74, who grew up on the ranch. (Gayle died in 1993, Steve in 2007.)

“People carried it home in mayonnaise jars,” Mr. Henson said. “Seemed like we were always mixing it, and we put it on everything: steaks, vegetables, potatoes.”

Overwhelmed by demand, in the late 1950s the Hensons began packaging the dry ingredients in an envelope that could be presented or mailed to customers, who would add their own buttermilk and mayonnaise at home — much like a boxed cake mix, which was introduced to the mass market by Pillsbury in 1948.

The product was a runaway success. “The dressing pretty much took over the ranch,” said Mr. Henson, who spent hours as a child filling seasoning packets.

With that, ranch began to take over the nation, moving from the West to the Midwest and occupying salad bars through the 1970s; a shelf-stable version arrived on supermarket shelves in 1983. But according to Abby Reisner, the author of the new cookbook “Ranch” (Dovetail Press), ranch madness didn’t go national until 1986, with the introduction of Cool Ranch Doritos, tortilla chips that were infused with a distinctly creamy, oniony bite. Ranch was already popular on its own, but the combination of cream and crunch in one bite — a fusion of dip and chip — turned out to be a masterstroke.

Cool Ranch Doritos opened the door to ranch as a seasoning beyond salad. It began to show up frequently as a dip for French fries (replacing ketchup), for chips (instead of salsa) and for Buffalo chicken wings (pushing aside blue cheese dressing).


Ranch may be a modern phenomenon, but its flavor profile isn’t new at all. Many classic condiments also combine cream (or creaminess) with alliums (the family that includes garlic, onion, leeks and chives). Middle Eastern toum, Mediterranean aioli, Caesar dressing, French onion dip and the pasta sauce “Alfredo” served at places like Olive Garden all have the same profile: a mild, cooling base set against the heat of strong, pungent alliums.

That coolness is what makes ranch an appealing partner for food that is spicy or charred or deep-fried, and many of America’s favorite foods have those flavors front and center. (In case you don’t believe that ranch flavor represents the pinnacle of American culinary achievement, consider that ranch dressing is already called “American dressing” in many European supermarkets, and that the Doritos flavor we know as “Cool Ranch” goes by “Cool American.”)

Giving Mars a magnetosphere

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Brandon Weigel talks about the potential for supplying Mars with an artificial magnetic field:

By placing a satellite equipped with technology to produce a powerful magnetic field at Mars L1 (a far orbit around Mars where gravity from the Sun balances gravity from Mars, so that the satellite always remains between Mars and the Sun), we could encompass Mars in the resulting magnetic sheath.

Martian Magnetosphere

Earth’s magnetic field, originating at it’s core, has a strength of ~6*10^-5 Teslas at the distance of the Earth’s surface. This is the force which deflects compass needles. It is also the strength required to defend our atmosphere against deadly solar wind. However, a space-based magnetic field at Mars does not have to be quite this powerful. First of all, our goal is only to encompass Mars in the magnetosheath of the field; it does not need to extend as far as the Earth’s does. Earth’s magnetosheath extends to ~6 million kilometers. Mars L1 is only about 1 million km from Mars. Of course, we are going to want to allow some leeway for potential solar flare events, but extending the field ~1.5 million km is probably sufficient.

Another thing to take into account is the fact that the intensity of solar wind at Mars’ distance is less than half that at 1 AU. This means that we only need a magnetic field half as powerful as what we would have needed to defend a planet at Earth’s distance from the sun. Taking both of these factors into account, a space-based magnetic field around Mars only needs to have a strength of roughly 11% that of Earth’s. This will create a magnetosheath long enough to extend 500,000 kilometers beyond Mars.

Using the magnetic field magnitude equation, we can now solve for the amperage of the “wire” required to produce such a field. This yields a current of ~200 Mega-amperes. Any electrician knows right now that we are going to need a BIG ASS wire.


Some things to note are the exceptionally low voltage for the system of about 2 volts, and the dimensions/mass of the copper solenoid which come out to a torus with a total diameter of ~3.5 meters and a mass of ~57 tonnes. This is a big copper doughnut. It would fill the average living room area wall-to-wall and weigh more than 6x the legal mass of a loaded semi truck on the freeway. A magnetic field of ~81 Teslas is generated at the surface of the solenoid; nearly twice the strength of the strongest artificial continuous magnetic field ever produced to date. Another thing to note is the fact that a fission reactor of this size will require over 40 tonnes of uranium every two years to remain in operation. This may be the biggest problem for any future Martian-magnetosphere endeavor, seeing as a launch to Mars from Earth takes about 18 months and the abundance of uranium on Mars itself is unknown.

Not as outlandish as the concepts from the 1970s

Wednesday, September 19th, 2018

Jeff Foust of The Space Review reviews The High Frontier: An Easier Way:

In space, as in other fields, ideas come and go, returning after past failures in the hopes that changes in technology, policy, or economics will allow people to accept a concept they previously rejected. That appears to be the case with space settlements. In the 1970s, “space colonies” were all the rage among space enthusiasts, attracted by the idea proposed by Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill that giant habitats, many kilometers in size, would be the best place for humanity to live in space. There were NASA-sponsored studies of space colonies with lavish illustrations of the concepts, and ideas to use such facilities to enable space-based solar power (another idea that comes and goes) and other space industries. But, within a few years the concept faded away, with NASA ending its support and predictions that the Space Shuttle would enable frequent low-cost access to space failing to come true.

In the last few years, though, there’s been a push to bring back the idea, now often called “free space settlements” (avoiding the negative perception many have of “colonies.”) A new book by two space settlement advocates, Tom Marotta and Al Globus, offers an update of sorts of the original space colony concept O’Neill offered decades ago in his book The High Frontier, arguing that such settlements need not be as large and as expensive as O’Neill once thought.

As its subtitle suggests, the authors of The High Frontier: An Easier Way make the case that several changes in the original assumptions that drove the 1970s-era space colony concepts make such settlements more feasible today. One eschews the plan to place settlements at the Earth-Moon L-5 Lagrange point in favor of an equatorial low Earth orbit (ELEO) over the Equator at an altitude of 500 to 600 kilometers. That orbit gives such a facility radiation protection from the Earth’s magnetic field while also avoiding the South Atlantic Anomaly, a major source of charged particles. Doing so, they conclude, drastically reduces the mass needed for radiation protection: from five to ten tons per square meter of the facility’s surface to as little as 10 kilograms.

A second design change is to speed up the rotation rate of the facility needed to produce Earth-equivalent gravity. Previous studies assumed humans could tolerate rotation rates of no more than 1–2 revolutions per minute (RPM), but research suggests people can tolerate speeds of 4 RPM without any long-term consequences. That reduces the diameter of the facility, and hence its mass and cost.

Those changes, coupled with work to reduce launch costs, makes a settlement more feasible — or, at least, less infeasible. An initial concept mentioned in the book, called Kalpana, would be 112 meters in diameter and 112 meters long, weighing about 16,800 metric tons: enough to be carried by a little more than 100 flights of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) vehicle, at least according to designs the company disclosed last year. It’s still an expensive proposition, but one not as outlandish as the concepts from the 1970s.

The Communist Manifesto: A Graphic Novel

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

Gord Doctorow reviews British graphic novelist Martin Rowson’s illustrated adaptation of The Communist Manifesto:

The preface describes how the middle-aged Rowson became smitten by Marx and Engels’ exciting prose when he was only 16. Aside from expressing his great admiration for Marx’s writing, as well as his own critical stance, he furnishes the reader with some historical backdrop to the completion of The Manifesto. Marx had been commissioned to write it by a socialist group in the summer of 1847, but, under pressure, succeeded in producing it at the beginning of 1848. Significantly, that was before the outbreak of revolutionary movements in Europe later on in 1848. Rowson goes on to explain that the initial publication failed to attract the attention of many people. Only after the events of the Paris Commune in 1871 did the pamphlet receive a wide audience and a publication renewal.

The illustrations create an atmospheric accompaniment to the Marx figures whose speaking balloons relay the text of The Manifesto. The graphics pair nicely with the text with dense images that impart the feeling of the clashes of historical forces (classes) or with the dramatic rendering of the first lines of The Manifesto in which a spectre appears, so Hamlet-like in two dark and foreboding images to haunt the reader’s mind. There is plenty of theatricality too: images of Marx interacting from a stage with a hostile audience (Rowson’s added flourishes added to enhance the exposition in a stimulating theatrical way).

The Communist Manifesto A Graphic Novel

As a literary work, the illustrations do justice to the marvelously compressed, yet sweeping, literary quality of Marx’s verbal imagery and present readers. Though I had read The Manifesto years ago, I found the adaptation to be both a refresher and newly insightful.

Quite… uncritical.

More Hobbit than Ranger

Monday, September 17th, 2018

Austin Gilkeson first read Tolkien in college, and it convinced him he was bound for great adventure:

I was a privileged college student with my whole life before me, and I imagined myself as Aragorn, ready to leave the comforts of the Last Homely House and strike out into strange-starred lands. But, as I soon discovered, I am more hobbit than Ranger.

After grad school, I taught English in Japan, which had the advantage of being both a far country and a comfortable one. There were ancient castle ruins in the forest and Frosted Flakes in the grocery store. The stars in the sky were the same as in America, but at night the squid boats from my town would go out to sea and light enormous bulbs to attract their catch. From the shore they looked like floating stars, or a fleet of Vingilots, Silmarils at their bows, sailing through the Door of Night.

In those moments, I did feel a bit like Aragorn on his journeys, but I had also realized I was no true wanderer. It wasn’t the shining squid boats or mist-covered mountains that I loved most — it was the comforting routines of teaching, playing with my students at recess, and chatting over drinks with friends at the local fishermen’s izakaya, a pub as lively and inviting as the hobbits’ beloved Green Dragon.


When I reread The Lord of the Rings last year, I wasn’t sitting on a folding chair in a haunted antebellum mansion as I had been the first time, but on the couch in my own house in the suburbs of Chicago. At night, after my son Liam had gone to sleep, and the cooking, dishes, laundry, and other chores were done, I’d park my tired body on the couch and read until I fell asleep — the book splayed across my chest, the living room lights still on. I thrilled at wandering again in Middle-earth, but this time I especially loved the quieter moments in seemingly peaceful countries — the cozy cheer of the Shire, the rustic bustle of Bree, the fragrant woods of Ithilien. The once-exciting battles were now the parts that often left me snoring on the couch. It seems I no longer fantasize about escaping a stifling job to go on dangerous quests in far-off lands; instead I fantasize about a comfy armchair by a roaring fire, book and beer at hand.

Now, when my wife Ayako wakes me on the couch after I’ve fallen asleep reading, my teeth ache from grinding and I grumble at myself for how much electricity I’ve wasted leaving the lights on. I go upstairs and try not to think about how few hours I have to sleep before I need to wake up, get my son ready for daycare, and head to work. If I once imagined myself a young Aragorn, now I identify with the elderly Bilbo when he describes feeling “sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises

Sunday, September 16th, 2018

No one who gets a postgraduate degree in Hobbit Studies ever imagines they’ll be sued by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, Austin Gilkeson says:

I certainly didn’t expect to wind up in court against Christopher Tolkien and his lawyers, like Frodo Baggins facing down the Nazgûl on Weathertop. Little did I know I was heading into a legal and scholarly Midgewater when I wrote and published The Lord of the Rings: A New English Translation.

As anyone who’s read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings knows, both it and The Hobbit are Tolkien’s translations from the so-called “Red Book of Westmarch,” an ancient manuscript written in Late Vulgar Adûni. How Tolkien came to possess the Red Book is a mystery, and the Tolkien Estate has never allowed other scholars access to it.

Tolkien’s original translation is justly famous and beloved. He treeherds an unwieldy ancient text into lyrical modern English and captures the vast scope and romance of the epic.

It is also deeply flawed.

Tolkien refers to Quendi people as “elves,” a common term in his time, but considered highly offensive today. And while Tolkien was a great scholar of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, his command of Late Vulgar Adûni was rudimentary at best, and his translation of the Red Book suffers for it.

In the most infamous instance, Tolkien botched The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the first edition. He was so confused by the text’s use of pronomial prefixes in the subjunctive that he has Gollum leading Bilbo to safety in the goblin caves, rather than pursuing him with murderous malice. Tolkien corrected this blunder in later editions, but the damage was done. Similarly, he describes there being nine Nazgûl, when in fact there were only three.

Because Tolkien’s Estate didn’t let anyone else so much as peek at the Red Book, his The Lord of the Rings remained the only available version for half a century. Nobody even attempted a new translation until me.

When I entered the Hobbit Studies program at the University of Chicago in 2003, I wasn’t planning to write my own translation. Like most of my peers, I was content to lead a quiet scholarly life, writing my dissertation on Adûni phonology and having friendly debates over second brunch about whether or not Balrogs have wings (they don’t). The best I really hoped for professionally were a few publication credits and a full-time lecturer job at a small Franciscan college.

Then one day, in a back corner of the second sublevel of Regenstein Library, I stumbled across an unmarked file dropped by a twitchy-looking undergrad. After flipping through it for a few minutes, I realized it was an unauthorized manuscript copy of the Red Book of Westmarch.


Using my knowledge of Adûni, Quenya, and Sindarin, and the unauthorized copy of the Red Book, I undertook my translation. My goal was never to match Tolkien’s masterful prose, but to provide a more literal translation into English and fix Tolkien’s errors. I also wanted to restore the real names of the characters and settings, in place of Tolkien’s whimsical anglicizations. You won’t find Frodo Baggins or Samwise Gamgee of the Shire in my version of The Lord of the Rings. You’ll find Maura Labingi and Banazîr Galbasi of Sûzat.

Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises. I discovered that the Tom Bombadil chapters weren’t original to the text at all, but had been inserted by a different author at a later date. They’re written in the Adûni dialect of Bree, not Sûzat, and judging by the sloppy handwriting, whoever wrote them was almost certainly drunk, a child, or both.

Tolkien also excised a lengthy, in-depth description of hobbit sexual customs from the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue (an unfortunate omission, as it is here where we learn how Bullroarer Took earned his nickname). In fact, the famously conservative and Catholic Tolkien left out almost all of the Red Book’s ribald humor and attention to the body. Gone are the dwarves’ dirty songs, gone is Gandalf repeatedly referring to Pippin’s brain as “blunter than an orc’s dick,” gone is the Fellowship’s graphic struggle with dysentery in the Mines of Moria.

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz, author of The Hidden Truth, a science-fiction techno-thriller.)