Practice smarter, not harder

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

Researchers looked into what “practice smarter, not harder” really means:

A group of researchers led by Robert Duke of The University of Texas at Austin conducted a study several years ago to see if they could tease out the specific practice behaviors that distinguish the best players and most effective learners.

Seventeen piano and piano pedagogy majors agreed to learn a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The passage had some tricky elements, making it too difficult to sight read well, but not so challenging that it couldn’t be learned in a single practice session.

The students were given two minutes to warm up, and then provided with the 3-measure excerpt, a metronome, and a pencil.

Participants were allowed to practice as long as they wanted, and were free to leave whenever they felt they were finished. Practice time varied quite a bit, ranging from 8 1/2 minutes to just under 57 minutes.

To ensure that the next day’s test would be fair, they were specifically told that they may NOT practice this passage, even from memory, in the next 24 hours.

When participants returned the following day for their test, they were given 2 minutes to warm up, and then asked to perform the complete 3-measure passage in its entirety, 15 times without stopping (but with pauses between attempts, of course).

Each of the pianists’ performances were then evaluated on two levels. Getting the right notes with the right rhythm was the primary criteria, but the researchers also ranked each of the pianists’ performances from best to worst, based on tone, character, and expressiveness.

That led to a few interesting findings:

  1. Practicing longer didn’t lead to higher rankings.
  2. Getting in more repetitions had no impact on their ranking either.
  3. The number of times they played it correctly in practice also had no bearing on their ranking. (wait, what?!)

What did matter was:

  1. How many times they played it incorrectly. The more times they played it incorrectly, the worse their ranking tended to be.
  2. The percentage of correct practice trials did seem to matter. The greater the proportion of correct trials in their practice session, the higher their ranking tended to be.

[...]

Of the eight strategies above, there were three that were used by all three top pianists, but rarely utilized by the others. In fact, only two other pianists (ranked #4 and #6) used more than one:

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct; or speeded things up to test themselves, but not too much).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

What’s the common thread that ties these together?

The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.

The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.

Strategically slowing things down.

After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.

This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.

A combination of scolding and re-instruction

Friday, October 19th, 2018

Did legendary college basketball coach John Wooden rely more on praise or criticism?

Psychologists Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore were interested in education and learning, and thought that observing and analyzing John Wooden’s teaching methods might deepen their understanding of learning. Or more specifically, help them understand how more teachers can get the very best out of their students.

So, over the course of 15 practices during the 1974–1975 season (Wooden’s last at UCLA), they sat, observed, and systematically tracked Wooden’s specific coaching behaviors — which added up to 2326 “acts of teaching” in total.

So how much of this was praise? And how much was criticism?

Very little, actually.

Just over half (50.3%) of Wooden’s behaviors were pure instruction — specific statements about what to do or how to do it. No judgment. No approval or disapproval. Just information.

The next most frequently occurring coaching behavior (12.7%) was called a “hustle.” This was basically a cue or reminder to act on some previous instruction. For instance “Drive!” or “Harder!” or, of course, “Hustle!”

Next most frequent was what the researchers affectionately named a “Wooden,” a unique feedback technique that was a combination of scolding and re-instruction (8%). This was designed to make it clear he was not satisfied, but followed by an immediate reminder of the correct way to do something. For example, “How many times do I have to tell you to follow through with your head when shooting?” or “I have been telling some of you for three years not to wind up when you throw the ball! Pass from the chest!”

Next up were praise (6.9%), scolds (6.6%), positive modeling — or how to do something (2.8%), and negative modeling — or how not to do something (1.6%).

So, altogether, ~75% of Wooden’s teaching acts contained specific information geared at providing the athlete with a clearer picture of what to do or what not to do. The researchers felt that this was a major contributor to his coaching success, and it also makes perfect sense given that Wooden, at his core, always saw himself as an educator.

After all, simply knowing that something is good or bad is not especially helpful if you don’t know what exactly should be repeated or changed the next time. Otherwise, it’s just more shots in the dark.

Another of the researchers’ interesting findings was their observation of how Wooden modeled behavior.

When Wooden saw something he didn’t like, and stopped practice to correct the incorrectly executed technique, he would immediately demonstrate the correct way to do the technique, then show everyone the incorrect way the athlete just did it, then model the correct way again.

This correct-incorrect-correct demonstration was usually very brief and succinct, rarely lasting longer than 5 seconds, but making it very clear what his expectations were, and how to meet these expectations.

Some Russian guy tried it 15 years ago

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

The origin of Blue Origin sounds fascinating:

Jeff Bezos remembers being 5 years old and watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white television. The event triggered a lifelong obsession. He spent his boyhood in Houston and moved to Florida by high school, but he passed his summers on his grandparents’ farm in rural Cotulla, Texas. There, his grandfather — a former top Defense Department official — introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.

When he was a junior at Miami’s Palmetto Senior High School, his physics teacher, Deana Ruel, tasked the students with designing a piece of playground equipment. Bezos’ idea was to build one in low gravity. “One day I’m going to be the first one to have an amusement park on the moon,” he told Ruel. He promised her a ticket. For a newspaper profile, Bezos spouted O’Neillian talking points to a local reporter curious about his space obsession: “The Earth is finite, and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.”

Bezos went to Princeton, where he attended seminars led by O’Neill and became president of the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. At one meeting, Bezos was regaling attendees with visions of hollowing out asteroids and transforming them into space arks when a woman leapt to her feet. “How dare you rape the universe!” she said, and stormed out. “There was a pause, and Jeff didn’t make a public comment,” says Kevin Polk, another member of the club. “But after things broke up, Jeff said, ‘Did she really defend the inalienable rights of barren rocks?’”

After Princeton, Bezos put his energies toward finance, working at a hedge fund. He left it to move to Seattle and start Amazon. Not long after, he was seated at a dinner party with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Their conversation quickly left the bounds of Earth. “There’s sort of a matching game that goes on where you climb a ladder, figuring out the level of someone’s fanaticism about space by how many details they know,” Stephenson says. “He was incredibly high on that ladder.” The two began spending weekend afternoons shooting off model rockets.

In 1999, Stephenson and Bezos went to see the movie October Sky, about a boy obsessed with rocketry, and stopped for coffee afterward. Bezos said he’d been thinking for a long time about starting a space company. “Why not start it today?” Stephenson asked. The next year, Bezos incorporated a company called Blue Operations LLC. Stephenson secured space in a former envelope factory in a funky industrial area in south Seattle. Other early members of the team included Pablos Holman, a self-described computer hacker, and serial inventor Danny Hillis, who had crafted a proposal to build a giant mechanical clock that would run for 10,000 years. Bezos also recruited Amazon’s general counsel, Alan Caplan, a fellow space nerd. (“We both agreed we’d like to retire on Mars,” Caplan says.) These people were more thinkers than rocketeers, but at Blue Origin’s start the point was to brainstorm: Had any ideas been overlooked that could shake up space travel the way the internet had upended terrestrial commerce?

Another early participant was George Dyson, a science historian and son of physicist Freeman Dyson. At the 1999 PC Forum, an elite tech event run by Dyson’s sister, Esther, Bezos made a beeline for George, who had been writing about a little-known 1950s venture called Project Orion. Project Orion sought to propel space vehicles with atomic bomb explosions, and Bezos wanted to know all about it. As Dyson recalls, Bezos saw Orion as “his model for a small group of crazy people deciding to go into space without the restrictions of being an official government project.” (Bezos later reviewed Dyson’s book on Amazon—something he’s done only three times in the company’s history.) Some months later, Stephenson asked Dyson if he would consult for the company. Then he asked him to join Blue.

When Dyson signed on, he says, Blue Origin felt like Wernher von Braun’s Society for Space Travel. Like that amateur group of dazzling scientists, Blue resembled a club more than a company. Its members were obsessed with finding an alternative to chemical combustion, which is a woefully inefficient way to propel rockets on interplanetary journeys. “We went through a long list of not-quite-crazy but way-out-there projects at the beginning,” Dyson says.

Those were hashed out at Blue Origin’s monthly Saturday all-hands meetings. The sessions began at 9 and lasted all day. Bezos rarely missed one. “It was almost incomprehensible how technically engaged Jeff was in every part of the discussion,” Dyson says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’ll leave the hydrogen-flow control valve question to the hydrogen-flow control valve people.’ Whatever the question was, Jeff would have technical knowledge and be involved.”

But as the Blue Origin team experimented with eccentric ways to heave things upward, they began to realize there was a reason big tubes full of chemical fuel had persisted. Every new tack proved infeasible, because of cost, risk, or technical complexity. “You can work really hard and come up with what you think is a super original idea, and you always find out that some Russian guy tried it 15 years ago,” Stephenson says.

We’ve all been planet chauvinists

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Gerard K. O’Neill (The High Frontier) and Isaac Asimov appeared in a 1975 Roundtable TV interview, where Asimov noted that he and his fellow science-fiction writers failed to imagine free-floating space colonies:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon. So have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the Asteroid Belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the Earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Steven Levy was able to interview Jeff Bezos — head of Amazon, of course, but also Blue Origin — only after watching that O’Neill-Asimov interview.

That vision captivated a generation of space nerds, including Bezos, who believed it back then, as a brainy schoolkid. And he believes it now, with “increasing conviction” every passing year. Earth is destined to run out of resources, he explains patiently to anyone questioning his priorities. Humans need a plan B. While he readily concedes that building a space company qualifies as a cool adventure, the ultimate point, he always insists, is getting people to live in space. He often remarks with astonishment and disgust that there have never been more than 13 humans in space at one time. He’s out to change that, by creating the backbone needed for O’Neill’s millions, billions, maybe even a trillion people to reside off-planet.

That rubber-ducking rubber-ducker!

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Anyone who has ever tried to solve a problem knows that the surest way to solve it is to call someone over and then explain how it just doesn’t make sense. That someone doesn’t even have to be a real person. (The Pragmatic Programmer calls this rubber-ducking, since explaining all your problems to a cute little toy works just fine.)

A group of researchers studied how to maximize the talking-aloud effect:

109 participants were tasked with solving different variations of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle (try it yourself right here) in the fewest number of moves, before being given a final test on the most challenging variation (to see how effectively they could transfer what they’ve learned to a new problem).

Participants were randomly assigned to one of five groups, each of which was designed to test a different kind of thinking aloud.

Before each move, the “metacognitive” group was asked to answer questions like “How are you deciding which disk to move next?” or “How do you know that this is a good move?” The idea was to get them to adopt a higher-level process focus, by thinking about what they were doing (consciously monitoring performance) and how they were doing — i.e. whether the move was a good one or not (evaluating success/failure/effectiveness).

The “if-then” group’s instructions were a little more rigidly structured, but similarly intended to get them focused on the problem-solving process: “Before each move, I want you to tell me where you are going to move each disk, and why. Specifically, I want you to state this in an ‘if-then’ statement, for example, ‘if I move this disk to this peg, then this will happen’.”

The “problem-focused” group was asked to answer questions like “What is the goal of the problem?” or “What are the rules of the problem?” before each move. The idea was to give them some structure, but not at the higher process level of the other two groups.

The “think-aloud” control group was given no real structure to guide their thinking, but simply told to “think out loud while you are solving this problem. Try to keep talking as much as you can so that I can hear what you are thinking about as you solve the problem.”

The “silent” control group was given no additional instructions beyond the standard instructions for the puzzle, so did no verbalizing of their thoughts.

[...]

On average, the control groups (silent and think-aloud) made more mistakes than the two process-focused (metacognitive and if-then) groups. This was true for every variation of the puzzle during the practice trials — from the easiest 2-disk version to the more complex 5-disk version.

Then, when the participants were tested on their ability to solve the most challenging 6-disk puzzle (to see how effectively they could transfer what they learned from the practice puzzles), the control groups made an average of 2.5 error moves for every correct move vs. just 1 error move for the process-focused groups.

The problem-focused group fared somewhere in the middle. Better than the control groups, but not as good as the process-focused groups.

[...]

1. Unless we are guided, we tend not to focus on or engage in process-level thinking. It’s more natural for us to simply execute a skill, stop, and repeat the skill on “autocorrect” mode until the problem seems to go away. Like playing a passage over and over until it sounds better. Hitting forehand volleys over and over until we get into a groove and everything seems peachy.

Except that in “solving” problems on this implicit level, while we may be able to work ourselves up to a pretty high level of performance in the short term, it involves making more mistakes during the process, and we don’t actually figure out what the solution is, so therefore can’t apply it very effectively to future problems that we might encounter.

2. When, on the other hand, we focus on what we are doing and why we are doing it (whether we are verbalizing these out loud or not), we can not only solve problems more efficiently, but transfer those solution to similar new problems we might encounter later.

How experts get even better

Monday, October 15th, 2018

A team of researchers in the UK asked expert and intermediate players of Gaelic football to perform 10 kicks from the ground (like a penalty kick in soccer) and 10 from their hands (like punting a football) at target zones on the gym wall for points and then had the players practice for 15 minutes, once per week, for four weeks, to compare how experts practice versus non-experts:

Experts work on their weaker areas; intermediates work on their stronger skill.

The experts spent a greater percentage of their time working on their weaker kick — 66% of the time, compared to the intermediate athletes who devoted only 27% of their time to improving their weaker kick.

Not surprisingly, the experts demonstrated significant improvement on their weaker kick from the pre-test to the post-test (improving from 14.4 points to 19.9 points). Their improvement was also more permanent, as their scores remained stable 6 weeks later on the retention test (19.4 points at retention test).

Conversely, while the intermediate players did make significant improvements to their stronger kick from pre-test to post-test (8 points to 14.7 points), their improvement was less stable, as they regressed on the retention test (12.7). And more importantly perhaps, their weaker kick did not improve at all.

Experts put in fewer repetitions, but expend more effort and energy on each one.

Both expert and intermediate footballers spent the same total amount of time practicing, but experts logged fewer practice attempts than the intermediate group (43.9 vs 56.4 practice attempts).

However, results from the effort and enjoyment assessments suggest that the elite performers expended more effort on each practice attempt.

Specifically, the experts rated their practice sessions as being less enjoyable than the intermediate players (57.7% for the experts vs. 75.8% for the intermediates, where a rating of 65-70% equals riding on an exercise bike at a comfortable pace for 20 minutes).

The experts also rated their practice as requiring more mental effort than the intermediate players (57.9% vs. 30.7%, where higher scores=more effort).

The experts rated their practice as requiring more physical effort as well (58.8% vs. 46.8%, where higher scores=more effort).

This is likely due to the experts and intermediate players’ focus on weaker vs. stronger skills. The more repetitions the experts did of their weaker kick, the less enjoyable they rated their practice time to be. And the more repetitions the intermediate players did of their stronger kick, the easier and less effortful they found their practice to be.

Experts do more planning before each practice attempt.

Based on the voice recordings of their spoken-aloud thoughts during practice, the researchers found that experts did more thinking and planning before each practice attempt.

On average, the experts made almost twice as many statements per attempt than their intermediate counterparts (3.3 statements vs 1.7 statements). In particular, they made more “monitoring and planning” statements before each kick. In other words, they seemed to be able to better utilize feedback from the previous kick and form a clearer plan for what they were going to do in the subsequent kick.

Experts do more random practice.

Experts spent less time engaged in a “blocked” style of practice — spending 17% of their practice sessions in this format, as compared with 22% for the intermediate players. Note: For this study, blocked practice was defined as spending at least 60% of the practice attempts in one 5-minute block on just one kick, with only one switch between kicks per 5-minute block.

The expert footballers also spent more time engaged in “random” practice — with 26% of their practice being considered random, compared with the intermediates who at 3%, did almost none of this kind of practice. Note: For this study, random practice was defined as 4 or fewer consecutive trials before switching to the other kick. Or in other words, to be considered random practice, athletes could do no more than 4 kicks of the same kind in a row.

It’s not right to want others to believe wrong thoughts, is it?

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

The new San Francisco school board president has dispensed with the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of board meetings and has substituted the new tradition of reading from Maya Angelou. This reminded Travis Corcoran (The Powers of the Earth) of The Children’s Story, by James Clavell:

That’s the one where the US loses a war and the “new teacher” helps the children cut up the American flag so they can each have pieces as a “new tradition”.

You can find the full text of the story easily enough, and it’s a quick, breezy read.

The story of how it came to be is almost as interesting as the story itself:

Children's Story 1
Children's Story 2
Children's Story 3

There’s also a short movie version:

Far more catechized by popular culture than by the church

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Rod Dreher addresses Handle’s critique of his Benedict Option:

I have had an open tab on my browser for almost three weeks now, trying to figure out how to engage with this massive, massive post about The Benedict Option from a blogger named Handle. It might be the longest single post anyone has ever written about the book. He likes parts of it, and he doesn’t like parts of it. Most of his commentary is really interesting, and I’ve been struggling with how to engage it without giving myself over to a 7,000-word reply that few people will read.

[...]

To be clear: my Ben Op argument has always been that conservative Christians already are in very bad shape. Political power is holding up a façade that won’t remain much longer, precisely because politics is a lagging indicator of culture. Christians in America today — even those who identify as conservative — are far more catechized by popular culture than by the church. It’s not even close. The statistics are clear (I present them in my book.)

Learn at night and relearn in the morning

Friday, October 12th, 2018

We already know that (1) spacing practice out results in better learning and long-term retention than cramming it all together, and (2) sleep enhances learning and long-term retention.

A team of French researchers combined these two effects into a simple practice scheduling hack:

Two groups of 20 participants were tasked with learning the French translations of 16 Swahili words. All 40 participants went through the same exact training, but there was one teensy difference.

One group (“wake” group) had their first study session at 9am, and their relearning session at 9pm on the same day. The other group (“sleep” group) had their first study session at 9pm, and their relearning session at 9am the following morning.

[...]

The researchers kept track of how much practice the participants needed to get all 16 translations correct. The sleep group got to perfect recall in about half the time that it took the wake group (3.05 cycles through the list vs. 5.80 cycles). Plus, every single participant in the sleep group got a perfect score within 5 attempts, whereas 75% of the wake group needed more practice.

[...]

A full half a year later, the sleep group continued to out-remember the wake group (8.67 correct vs. 3.35).

Dementia starts in the ICU

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

Doctors are gradually realizing that a trip to the intensive care unit can lead to serious memory problems:

This dementia, a side-effect of intensive medical care, can be permanent. And it affects as many as half of all people who are rushed to the ICU after a medical emergency. Considering that 5.7 million Americans end up in intensive care every year, this is a major problem which, until recently, has been poorly appreciated by medical caregivers.

[...]

“This is a huge problem,” says Dr. E. Wesley “Wes” Ely, an intensive care specialist who heads that effort. He says post-ICU syndrome — a cluster of cognitive symptoms that can include anxiety, depression and PTSD, as well as delirium — affects 30 to 50 percent of all patients who are rushed to the ICU because of a medical emergency. That’s including younger patients who had no prior mental challenges. And in some of those patients, dementia soon follows.

“You have somebody coming into the ICU with a previously very well-working brain and they leave critical care not being able to have a good conversation,” Ely says. “They can’t balance their checkbook, they can’t find the names of people at a party and they get very embarrassed, so they start socially secluding themselves. Our patients tell us what a misery this form of dementia is.”

Ely has been tracking his patients for more than a decade through scientific studies such as the BRAIN-ICU study. He says about one third of patients who have cognitive problems following their ICU stay fully recover; another third stay about the same after their dementia sets in — and a third continue to go downhill.

For many, the damage to mental processing is akin to what’s seen with a traumatic brain injury, or in a condition called mild cognitive impairment — or even Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers don’t yet know how the brain is changing to give rise to these symptoms, or how extended delirium leads to that brain damage; Ely is launching a large study to help tease out some of those mechanisms. What parts of the brain are affected, and how does the damage differ from that caused by other forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s? One idea he will explore is whether tiny blood clots might be forming in the brain and playing a role the long-term damage.

In the meantime, Ely says, one thing the doctors treating these patients with sudden dementia are certain of is that their mental problems are linked to the degree of delirium they experience while in the ICU.

“Every day you’re delirious, you have about a 35 percent increased risk of this dementia,” he says. “So if you do the math on that — [after] three days of delirium, you have almost a sure thing you’re going to have some elements of the dementia.”

Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, explains why English is so weirdly different from other languages:

The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a “spelling bee” competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

[...]

There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort. German and Dutch are like that, as are Spanish and Portuguese, or Thai and Lao. The closest an Anglophone can get is with the obscure Northern European language called Frisian.

[...]

We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family — Indo-European — and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

[...]

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third-person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s — why just that? The present-tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult?

Read the whole thing.

McWhorter’s book, The Language Hoax, refutes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking.

Why Paul Romer and William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Tyler Cowen explains why Paul Romer won the Nobel Prize in economics and why William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics:

These are excellent Nobel Prize selections, Romer for economic growth and Nordhaus for environmental economics. The two picks are brought together by the emphasis on wealth, the true nature of wealth, and how nations and societies fare at the macro level. These are two highly relevant picks. Think of Romer as having outlined the logic behind how ideas leverage productivity into ongoing spurts of growth, as for instance we have seen in Silicon Valley. Think of Nordhaus as explaining how economic growth interacts with the value of the environment.

Lessons from Escape University

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

In The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War, Neal Bascomb explains what Allied POWs learned at Escape University:

In 1917 the most troublesome, breakout-prone Allied POWs were sent to a land-locked prison called Holzminden. By assembling such a group with dozens of attempts under their belts, the Germans unwittingly created an “Escape University”. Its practiced artists taught each other how to detect weaknesses in the camp’s defenses, build secret caches, create makeshift compasses, smuggle in supplies, tailor German uniforms, pick locks, and engineer any number of elaborate constructions to get beyond the walls. Nine months after Holzminden opened, its prisoners orchestrated the war’s greatest escape. Twenty-nine got out, 10 made it to freedom, and their effort inspired the Allies in the darkest time of the war. In WWII, these “escape artists” guided MI-9, the secret British escape and evasion service, that aided tens of thousands of men reach freedom after being caught behind enemy lines.

Here are their hard-fought lessons that I gleaned from reading dozens of their memoirs, letters, and notes on their lectures:

1. Be prepared. In WWI pilots and soldiers had little to no supplies if they found themselves behind enemy lines. A small compass, knife, maps, a knife, portable food, first aid kit — all these will help evade capture in the first hours/days.

2. Once captured, your best chance of escape is the immediate one. Take a breath, assess your surroundings, and go when the opportunity strikes. In transport, there are few guards and you are likely closer to safer ground. The further into enemy territory you go, the harder things become. Once in a camp, your options become more limited.

3. When you find yourselves in a prison — or the like — again, your chances of breaking out are often in the earliest days. Guards have not yet detected weaknesses in security. Take advantage.

4. If it looks like you are in for the long-term, remember that no prison is impregnable, regardless of commandant’s warnings otherwise. Reconnoiter the whole place. Walk the perimeter. Time guard rotations and movements. Watch entrance and exits. Who is allowed in and out? What kind of passes do they need to show? Are interior walls solid? What kind of locks secure doors? Are there dark areas where the lights do not shine? Are there work duties that allow greater movement? What kind of uniforms do staff where? Are their tools that can be stolen? Is communication beyond the walls possible? Can supplies be smuggled inside? Opportunities exist. They only need be found.

5. Find partners. Solo escapes are often the most difficult. Ideas need to be hashed over. Many hands make light work. You need lookouts, diversions, skills that others have. Morale support is also imperative. Further, once outside the walls, traveling in pairs or threes, is often easier. Watches can be set so one can rest. Again, having someone to lean on in tough moments is helpful.

6. The former notwithstanding, secrecy is essential. Spies are often everywhere. A slipped word, an indiscreet remark, can foil the best of plans. Keep the cabal small, and information limited to those who need to know.

7. Allies among the guards. Foster these. Make nice. A bribe might do. They need not know your plans — or even intentions to escape — but they can provide information, and sometimes key supplies.

8. Be patient. There will be roadblocks thrown into your path. That is to be expected. Do not lose hope.

9. It is not enough to get beyond the walls, one has to make it to a place of safety, whether a border or otherwise. Plan accordingly. Secure supplies for your run. Food, good boots, a compass, and maps are key. A head start also helps, so weave that into your plans. The longer you have to get away from the prison before you are discovered missing, the wider the search range, the better shot you have of getting away for good. Have a cover plan too. What if you run into a local or even a policeman? What story do you have to tell? Travel by night. Rest by day. Steer far from populated areas. Never cross a bridge if you can ford the barrier below.

10. Last, but certainly not least, luck favors the bold. Often the most audacious plans are rewarded with the most success. The massive tunnel escape at Holzminden proved this lesson.

Did China use a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies?

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Bloomberg claims that China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies:

A Chinese military unit designed and manufactured microchips as small as a sharpened pencil tip. Some of the chips were built to look like signal conditioning couplers, and they incorporated memory, networking capability, and sufficient processing power for an attack.

The microchips were inserted at Chinese factories that supplied Supermicro, one of the world’s biggest sellers of server motherboards.

The compromised motherboards were built into servers assembled by Supermicro.

The sabotaged servers made their way inside data centers operated by dozens of companies.

When a server was installed and switched on, the microchip altered the operating system’s core so it could accept modifications. The chip could also contact computers controlled by the attackers in search of further instructions and code.

The claims are… incredible:

In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.

Rebel leadership continued to be plagued by breakdowns in leadership and planning

Friday, October 5th, 2018

The Angry Staff Officer looks back at the battle for Hoth:

The situation on Hoth was as such: a Rebel task force under the command of General Carlist Rieekan established defensive positions around Echo Base. The heart of Echo Base was the power shield generator which provided overall protection for the base from off-planet bombardment by the Empire’s star destroyers. This capability denied the Imperial Navy use of their chief weapons platform and forced them to deploy ground troops in a conventional force-on-force engagement.

Now, just as with all military debates, there are two schools of thought as to the Rebels’ courses of action. One states that the Rebel base was merely temporary and should not have been defended more than it was; and that General Rieekan’s evacuation of his fleet and garrison was not unlike George Washington’s evacuation from New York during the American Revolution. In essence, Rieeken saved his forces – minus the ground troops lost in delaying the Imperials – and harbored his strength to fight another day. The other school of thought is that Rieeken missed a prime opportunity to deal a devastating defeat to the Empire by luring them into an engagement area and destroying their ground troops in detail. However, this assumes a unified Rebel chain of command with adequate command and control and good staff functions, all of which were nonexistent on Hoth.

[...]

Stepping into the communication breach was Leia Organa – serving as operations officer – who provided task and purpose to the pilots of the Rebel task force and briefed them their mission, direction, fire support plan, and coordination measures. Because of this, the air arm of the task force was able to accomplish its mission. The land forces never received the same attention.

General Rieekan’s opposite number was Lord Vader, who also failed to utilize mission command in his operations. Rather than provide vision, Lord Vader summarily executed his primary admiral in charge of fleet operations for making a tactical error. While this did inspire prompt movement from his subordinates, it was also created a risk-averse atmosphere. As the joint commander, Vader issued instructions to initiate planetary invasion while establishing a blockade around Hoth. Vader’s desire to always be in control led him to micromanage his commanders throughout the entire operation. Nothing like holographic technology to enable you to micromanage the hell out of your troops.

[...]

As it was, Rebel land forces neglected a golden opportunity. Their intelligence preparation of the battlefield had led them to build their base in the heart of a deep draw, where the only ground approach was through a long valley, flanked on either side by steep ridgelines. However, the Rebels decided that their only defenses were to be a few short lines of trenches backed by heavy weapons systems. Because they had committed themselves to a linear defense, they lost any ability to maneuver in the face of the enemy. They also allowed themselves to fall victim to the enemy’s primary forward-facing weapons on the AT-ATs. By neglecting to build any type of flanking positions, the Rebels lost their chance strike the Imperial armor from the sides and back, where it was the weakest.

[...]

General Rieeken entrusted the air cover for the defense to Commander Luke Skywalker. Skywalker – who had gained notoriety for his destruction of the Death Star – was not a trained airspace coordinator. Nor was he an able squadron leader. His assault with snow speeders was right over the top of the forces he was supporting and straight into the guns of the enemy armor. Had he begun his approach over either the left or right ridgeline, Skywalker could have engaged the enemy armor in their vulnerable flanks and rear while keeping his ships out of the limited fan of fire that characterizes the AT-AT. What could have been an effective sortie ended instead in the loss of all ships after only destroying two AT-ATs.

[...]

The Rebel center of gravity was their fleet, including transports, supply ships, and life support ships. In getting the fleet to safety and preserving their ability to sustain themselves, they effectively managed to gain a strategic victory while enduring a tactical defeat. Poor maintenance nearly cost the Alliance Leia Organa and Han Solo, however, when the freighter Millennium Falcon nearly failed to start. Lack of spare parts for dissimilar ships was an endemic issue for the Alliance in all of its operations.

[...]

The lesson of the Battle of Hoth could be postulated as “ignore the warfighting functions at your own risk.” Rebel leadership possessed many advantages at the outset of the Battle of Hoth: superior intelligence, excellent terrain, exceptional protection from air bombardment, and experienced troops. However, each of these advantages was squandered because there was no system of unified command and control that disseminated plans in an orderly fashion. Rebel leadership continued to be plagued by breakdowns in leadership and planning as it had been in the Battle of Yavin 4.