It’s not necessary to have a brain disorder in order to control one’s fear

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

Scientists are starting to understand the biology of bravery:

Most of the science focuses on the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure deep in the brain (one on each side) that generates such feelings as fear and anxiety. In 2005, a team led by Gleb Shumyatsky at Rutgers University reported in the journal Cell that stathmin, a protein produced by the STMN1 gene, has an important role in the amygdala. Mice that were bred not to have the protein explored more of a new environment. They lacked what the researchers called “innate fear” and were unable to form memories of fear-inducing events.

The researchers also manipulated the gene as a kind of “volume” control, producing different levels of stathmin, which in turn resulted in different levels of fear in the mice. In 2010, researchers led by Burkhard Brocke at the Institute of Psychology II in Germany found that people with an exaggerated response to fear had mutations in the gene that controls this volume switch.

As for how we overcome fear, scientists have found brain structures that appear to resist the prompting of the amygdala. In a 2010 study published in the journal Neuron, the neurobiologist Uri Nili at the Weizmann Institute in Israel scanned the brains of research subjects who were afraid of snakes as they decided whether or not to move a live snake closer or farther away on a conveyor belt. The more people were able to overcome their fear and move the snake closer, the more activity they showed in the sgACC, a brain region that sits between the amygdala and the hypothalamus, which stimulates the release of hormones. A control group that wasn’t scared of snakes didn’t show such activity.

Hormones released in the amygdala itself also have been shown to affect bravery. Oliver Bosch, a neurobiologist at the University of Regensburg in Germany, studies maternal instinct in mammals and has found that oxytocin is released in the amygdala when a mother faces a danger to herself and her children. This hormone, in turn, blocks the production of a hormone called CRH, which primes the body for action but can generate feelings of fear and anxiety. It is this sort of hormonal override that would have given Angie Padron, the mother in Florida, the instant courage to confront her assailants. As she herself said of the incident, her instincts just kicked in.

Indeed, taking the amygdala entirely out of the picture can virtually eliminate fear. Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research at the University of Tulsa, works with three women, known in the literature just by their initials, who have Urbach-Wiethe disease, a rare genetic disorder that destroys the amygdala. One of them, SM, has never experienced fear in her adult life. A man once threatened her by putting a gun to her head and shouting “Bam!” She didn’t flinch.

Of course, it’s not necessary to have a brain disorder in order to control one’s fear, even in the face of heart-stopping danger. Consider Alex Honnold, the climber who has scaled the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes (as featured in the new documentary, “Free Solo”) and made other notable ascents. In 2016, Mr. Honnold’s brain was scanned by neuroscientist Jane Joseph at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. When exposed to images that excite the amygdala in most people, his brain scans showed no response. What’s unclear is whether this capacity predates and enables his daredevil climbing or has been created by it.


But the amygdala isn’t the only candidate for controlling fear. In a study published earlier this month in the journal Nature Communications, Sanja Mikulovic and colleagues at Uppsala University in Sweden showed that cells called OLM neurons produce theta brain waves, which are seen during meditation and when you feel safe despite a threat in the environment. By manipulating those cells in laboratory mice, the scientists were able to dial up a mouse’s willingness to venture into unexplored areas and tamp down its indications of anxiety, even when smelling a cat. Nicotine also stimulates OLM neurons in humans, a reason that some people chain-smoke to relieve stress.

We know, too, that training and conditioning alters pathways in the brain and can help to mitigate stress and promote calm in fearful situations. A study published in the journal PLOS Biology last year showed, for example, how training instills a kind of autopilot setting. Researcher Sirawaj Itthipuripat at the University of California, San Diego, measured brain activity when people were learning a task and found that less was needed after training, though improvement in performance remained. Another recent paper connected that idea to how people respond to uncertainty and threats. A team of German and Greek researchers completed a nine-month longitudinal study, published in the journal Science Advances, that showed some forms of training changed structures in the cortex and reduced secretions of the stress hormone cortisol.

Military training is partly designed to hold fear in check when carrying out missions that risk death and injury, as well as in the case of disaster. Dave Henson’s training before he deployed to Afghanistan helped him to stay composed while detecting and disarming improvised explosives. Then, a year into his tour, Mr. Henson stepped on an IED. He lost both of his legs.

Once the immediate shock of the blast receded, he found himself reciting the process that he had been trained to follow in the event of a casualty scenario. “The training definitely kicked in,” he says; it distracted him from the pain.

All Hallows’ Eve

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

I’ve written a surprising amount about Halloween and horror over the years:

The fall of Big Data and the rise of the Blockchain economy

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

George Gilder’s Life After Google predicts the fall of Big Data and the rise of the Blockchain economy:

Famously, Google gives most of its content away for free, or (in comments Gilder credits to Tim Cook) if it’s free, you’re not the customer; you’re the product. That’s the least of it. Spanish has two words for “free”–gratis and libre. In our context it means gratis.

Let’s count the ways gratis benefits Google:

  • They are completely immune from any antitrust prosecution and most other regulatory oversight.
  • They can roll out buggy, beta software to consumers and improve it over time.
  • They don’t have to take responsibility for security. Unlike a bank, Google is at no risk if somehow your data gets corrupted or stolen.
  • They provide no customer support.
  • Your data doesn’t belong to you. Instead it belongs to Google, which can monetize it with the help of AI.
  • You get locked into a Google world, where everything you own is now at their mercy. (I’m in that situation.) Your data is precisely not libre.

Note that Google didn’t even bother to show up at the recent Congressional hearings about “fake news.” They consider themselves above the law (or, perhaps more accurately, below the law). They can get away with this because it’s free.

There are some disadvantages.

  • It’s not really free, but instead of paying with money you pay with time. Attention is the basic currency of Google-world.
  • People hate ads. “[O]nly 0.06 percent of smartphone ads were clicked through. Since more than 50 percent of the clicks were by mistake, according to surveys, the intentional response rate was 0.03 percent.” This works only for spammers. Ad-blockers are becoming universal.
  • Google thinks it can circumvent that by using AI to generate ads that will interest the user. No matter–people still hate them.The result is the value of advertising is declining. Gilder does not believe that AI will ever solve this problem. (I agree with him.)
  • Most important–Google loses any information about how valuable its products are. Airlines, for example, respond sensitively to price signals when determining which routes to fly, what equipment to use, what service levels to provide, etc. Price is the best communication mechanism known for conveying economic information. You immediately know what is valuable to consumers, and what isn’t.Google loses all that information by going gratis.Is Gmail more valuable than Waze? Google has no idea. As a result it has no way of knowing where to invest its money and resources. It’s just blindly throwing money at a dartboard.

Wired to look for chances to earn money

Monday, October 29th, 2018

Americans have a blind spot when it comes to saving:

Americans seem to excel at working. But saving? Not so much. As of last year, the median American household had only $1,100 saved for retirement, according to an analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

While many factors likely contribute to the poor U.S. savings rate, a recent Cornell University study published in the journal Nature Communications pointed to another factor that may be at least partially to blame: our brains. More specifically, the researchers found that our brains may be wired to look for chances to earn money — but fail to recognize chances to save, even when they are right in front of us.

The study measured something we can’t usually measure ourselves: how much attention we pay to earning and saving opportunities. First, participants had to identify colors shown quickly on a computer: one “earning” color that let them gain 30 cents, a neutral color that had no monetary effect and one “saving” color that let them avoid losing 30 cents.

When the “earning” color was shown, a staggering 87.5% of participants identified it more quickly and accurately than when the “saving” color was shown. Even in trials that framed “saving” as earnings that would come slightly later, participants were still better at immediate earning.

In the study’s second part, participants had to identify which color appeared first. Three out of four said they saw the “earning” color appear first — when in fact, the “saving” color did. This suggests our “earning” bias may even be strong enough to warp our perception of time.

Any idiot can train himself into the ground

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

Performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama discusses the importance of mentally disengaging from work and practice:

A group of German and US researchers conducted a study of 109 individuals. The setup was pretty simple, consisting of two surveys, spaced 4 weeks apart to see how participants’ mental and emotional states might change over time.

The researchers were primarily interested in the relationship between psychological detachment (our ability to disengage from work during our “off” hours — a key factor in greater well-being and performance), exhaustion (feeling fatigued, emotionally drained/overwhelmed, and unable to meet the demands of our work), time pressure, and pleasurable leisure activities (the degree to which we engage in activities that recharge our batteries and balance out our work demands).

There were a couple interesting findings that came out of the resulting data.

Exhaustion begets exhaustion

You would think that emotionally exhausted folks would be more detached and disengaged from work in their off-work hours. Paradoxically, the opposite seems to be true.

The data suggest that individuals who were exhausted had an increasingly difficult time disconnecting from work concerns as the weeks went by. The idea being, when we’re exhausted, we tend not to do our best work, which makes us feel less capable of meeting the demands of the situation, which makes us worry more and expend even more energy, effort, and time trying to make up for our sub-par work, which only keeps the cycle of worry/practice/exhaustion going.

To use a music example, when we have a big audition coming up, there’s a tendency to worry more about our level of preparation, which leads us to practice more, worry more, and obsess more, which in turn makes it harder to disengage, take a break, and recoup our energy outside of the practice room, so we can dive back in refreshed, recharged, and ready to do our most productive and focused work.

Indeed, someone recently suggested to me that while our instinct when behind in our work is to put in a few extra hours at the office after work to catch up, what ends up happening is that we get home late, feel even more tired and drained, get less rest and relaxation, and return to work tired yet again to repeat the cycle. Instead, she suggested that it’s more productive to go home early, get quality R&R, and go to work early the next morning, fresher, more productive, and more motivated to get things done.

Time pressure makes things worse

The other finding was that time pressure seems to make detaching from work more difficult if you’re already feeling exhausted. As in, exhausted folks find it increasingly difficult to mentally detach from work and get the mental/physical break they need when they feel like they’re on a time crunch.

This makes sense too, as the less time we have to prepare, and the closer we get to the day of a big audition, the more likely we are to worry, stress, and obsess about it, even when we’re not practicing.


As Olympic marathoner Keith Brantly once said, “Any idiot can train himself into the ground; the trick is working in training to get gradually stronger.”

If you’re going to practice, you might as well do it right

Saturday, October 27th, 2018

The most valuable lesson Noa Kageyama learned from playing the violin was, if you’re going to practice, you might as well do it right:

I began playing the violin at age two, and for as long as I can remember, there was one question which haunted me every day.

Am I practicing enough?

I scoured books and interviews with great artists, looking for a consensus on practice time that would ease my conscience. I read an interview with Rubinstein, in which he stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day. He explained that if you needed that much time, you probably weren’t doing it right.

And then there was violinist Nathan Milstein who once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”

Even Heifetz indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays.


Here are the five principles I would want to share with a younger version of myself. I hope you find something of value on this list as well.

1. Focus is everything
Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes, and as long as 45-60+ minutes.

2. Timing is everything, too
Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods, when you are able to focus and think most clearly. What to do in your naturally unproductive times? I say take a guilt-free nap.

3. Don’t trust your memory
Use a practice notebook. Plan out your practice, and keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into “flow” when practicing is to constantly strive for clarity of intention. Have a crystal clear idea of what you want (e.g. the sound you want to produce, or particular phrasing you’d like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently), and be relentless in your search for ever better solutions.

When you stumble onto a new insight or discover a solution to a problem, write it down! As you practice more mindfully, you’ll began making so many micro-discoveries that you will need written reminders to remember them all.

4. Smarter, not harder
When things aren’t working, sometimes we simply have to practice more. And then there are times when it means we have to go in a different direction.

I remember struggling with the left-hand pizzicato variation in Paganini’s 24th Caprice when I was studying at Juilliard. I kept trying harder and harder to make the notes speak, but all I got was sore fingers, a couple of which actually started to bleed (well, just a tiny bit).

Instead of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that clearly wasn’t working, I forced myself to stop. I brainstormed solutions to the problem for a day or two, and wrote down ideas as they occurred to me. When I had a list of some promising solutions, I started experimenting.

I eventually came up with a solution that worked, and the next time I played for my teacher, he actually asked me to show him how I made the notes speak so clearly!

5. Stay on target with a problem-solving model
It’s extraordinarily easy to drift into mindless practice mode. Keep yourself on task using the 6-step problem solving model below.

1. Define the problem (What result did I just get? What do I want this note/phrase to sound like instead?)
2. Analyze the problem (What is causing it to sound like this?)
3. Identify potential solutions (What can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
4. Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one (What tweaks seem to work best?)
5. Implement the best solution (Reinforce these tweaks to make the changes permanent)
6. Monitor implementation (Do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?)

Or simpler yet, try out this model from Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Talent Code.
1. Pick a target
2. Reach for it
3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
4. Return to step one

It’s just plain good science fiction and it satisfies

Friday, October 26th, 2018

I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code — or any other conspiracy thrillers, now that I think of it — but I have to assume that Hans G. Schantz‘s Hidden Truth series reads like Dan Brown’s bestselling novel — but with physics taking the place of theology.

Schantz can credibly weave physics into his story, because he is a trained physicist and “wrote the book” on The Art and Science of Ultra-Wideband Antennas, and the first book definitely made me want to know more about the pioneers of electromagnetic theory — many of whom did die young or inexplicably left the field.

But the real draw — or drawback — of the novel is that it is unambiguously conservative and especially anti-Progressive. This makes it a bit of a guilty pleasure, if you ascribe to Jordan Peterson’s point about art versus propaganda:

Neovictorian reviewed the second book, and I think he reviewed it well:

It’s fun, it’s well written, it’s just plain good science fiction and it satisfies. Also, it’s a practical guide to understanding, infiltrating and grandly screwing with college SJWs. After you’ve read it, buy a copy (of both volumes) for your friends and children at school! Buy copies for younger kids, too. These books show how young people should conduct themselves with honor and perseverance, and not through preaching, but through example.

I may have to read Neovictorian’s own Sanity next.

The people who put the yellow cartridge in the food replicator

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

Rick and Morty head writer and executive producer Mike McMahan has signed on to expand the Star Trek franchise with Lower Decks, a half-hour animated show about the support crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships:

“Mike won our hearts with his first sentence: ‘I want to do a show about the people who put the yellow cartridge in the food replicator so a banana can come out the other end.’ His cat’s name is Riker. His son’s name is Sagan. The man is committed,” Kurtzman said. “He’s brilliantly funny and knows every inch of every Trek episode, and that’s his secret sauce: he writes with the pure, joyful heart of a true fan. As we broaden the world of ‘Trek’ to fans of all ages, we’re so excited to include Mike’s extraordinary voice.”

In 2011 McMahan started a Twitter account where he posted episode plots to a fake season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. They were such a hit that Simon & Schuster hired him to write a readers’ guide to a fictitious eighth season of TNG titled Star Trek: The Next Generation: Warped: An Engaging Guide to the Never-Aired 8th Season. At All Access/CBS TV Studios, he also is a writer on the Start Trek: Short Treks series of shorts.

Art & Arcana

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

I haven’t kept up with Dungeons & Dragons, which is now in its fifth edition, but Art & Arcana seems designed for people who grew up with the game, whether they kept up or not, and for youngsters who want to know about the good old days:

What makes Art & Arcana so special are the creative minds who came together to write it. They include Michael Witwer, author of Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, and Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World, two of the most well-regarded books on the early history of D&D. Together with filmmaker Kyle Newman and actor Sam Witwer, their depth of knowledge is as substantial as the massive, 440-page coffee table book itself.

Art & Arcana is especially informative for those who’ve come to D&D with its fourth and fifth editions, both of which were launched after the turn of the century. Many new fans simply aren’t aware of just how grassroots the birth of the original RPG was, or how it challenged its creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Illustration was particularly difficult to secure. Neither of the two men were trained artists, but their imaginations were overflowing with wild creature designs. How do you describe a mind flayer or a beholder to a consumer, let alone the poor artist tasked with drawing one for the first time? The communication challenges alone are astonishing, and Art & Arcana does an excellent job explaining them in the context of the evolution of the look and feel of D&D as we know it today.

Some of the earliest art for Dungeons & Dragons, at that time published by TSR, was created by a teenager from Rockford, Illinois named Greg Bell. His style, remarks the book’s authors, was “a blocky rendering of strong shapes and lines, [which] translated surprisingly well to the crude printing process TSR could afford.”

Art and Arcana Strange Inspirations

It was also heavily inspired by period Marvel comics. Some of D&D’s earliest images were, in fact, conspicuously similar to pages from Strange Tales #167 featuring Dr. Strange and Nick Fury.

But comics weren’t D&D’s only inspiration. A set of toy creatures, common in pharmacies and convenience stores in the 1970s, are a dead ringer for some of D&D’s most iconic monsters. That includes this grey/green critter which would go on to become the bulette, also known as the “landshark.”


Art and Arcana Bulette Illustration

Some of D&D’s most iconic adventures, dating to 1978 and 1979, have a unique pastel cover. Assembled together on a single page, these so-called “monochrome” covers create one of the many collages that make Art & Arcana such a delight to explore.

Art and Arcana Module Covers

How precision engineers created the modern world

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists explains how precision engineers created the modern world:

The story of precision begins with metal.

And the story begins, according to Winchester, at a specific place and time: North Wales, “on a cool May day in 1776.” The Age of Steam was getting underway. So was the Industrial Revolution — almost but not quite the same thing. In Scotland, James Watt was designing a new engine to pump water by means of the power of steam. In England, John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson was improving the manufacture of cannons, which were prone to exploding, with notorious consequences for the sailors manning the gun decks of the navy’s ships. Rather than casting cannons as hollow tubes, Wilkinson invented a machine that took solid blocks of iron and bored cylindrical holes into them: straight and precise, one after another, each cannon identical to the last. His boring machine, which he patented, made him a rich man.

Watt, meanwhile, had patented his steam engine, a giant machine, tall as a house, at its heart a four-foot-wide cylinder in which blasts of steam forced a piston up and down. His first engines were hugely powerful and yet frustratingly inefficient. They leaked. Steam gushed everywhere. Winchester, a master of detail, lists the ways the inventor tried to plug the gaps between cylinder and piston: rubber, linseed oil–soaked leather, paste of soaked paper and flour, corkboard shims, and half-dried horse dung — until finally John Wilkinson came along. He wanted a Watt engine to power one of his bellows. He saw the problem and had the solution ready-made. He could bore steam-engine cylinders from solid iron just as he had naval cannons, and on a larger scale. He made a massive boring tool of ultrahard iron and, with huge iron rods and iron sleighs and chains and blocks and “searing heat and grinding din,” achieved a cylinder, four feet in diameter, which as Watt later wrote “does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.”

By “an old shilling” he meant a tenth of an inch, which is a reminder that measurement itself — the science and the terminology — was in its infancy. An engineer today would say a tolerance of 0.1 inches.

James Watt’s fame eclipses Iron-Mad Wilkinson’s, but it is Wilkinson’s precision that enabled Watt’s steam engine to power pumps and mills and factories all over England, igniting the Industrial Revolution. As much as the machinery itself, the discovery of tolerance is crucial to this story. The tolerance is the clearance between, in this case, cylinder and piston. It is a specification on which an engineer (and a customer) can rely. It is the foundational concept for the world of increasing precision. When machine parts could be made to a tolerance of one tenth of an inch, soon finer tolerances would be possible: a hundredth of an inch, a thousandth, a ten-thousandth, and less.

Watt’s invention was a machine. Wilkinson’s was a machine tool: a machine for making machines and their parts. More and better machines followed, some so basic that we barely think of them as machines: toilets, locks, pulley blocks for sailing ships, muskets. The history of machinery has been written before, of course, as has the history of industrialization. These can be histories of science or economics. By focusing instead on the arrow of increasing precision, Winchester is, in effect, walking us around a familiar object to expose an unfamiliar perspective.

Can precision really be a creation of the industrial world? The word comes from Latin by way of middle French, but first it meant “cutting off” or “trimming.” The sense of exactitude comes later. It seems incredible that the ancients lacked this concept, so pervasive in modern thinking, but they measured time with sundials and sandglasses, and they counted space with hands and feet, and the “stone” has survived into modern Britain as a measure of weight.

Any assessment of ancient technology has to include, however, a single extraordinary discovery — an archaeological oddball the size of a toaster, named the “Antikythera mechanism,” after the island near Crete where Greek sponge divers recovered it in 1900 from a shipwreck 150 feet deep. Archaeologists were astonished to find, inside a shell of wood and bronze dated to the first or second century BC, a complex clockwork machine comprising at least thirty bronze dials and gears with intricate meshing teeth. In the annals of archaeology, it’s a complete outlier. It displays a mechanical complexity otherwise unknown in the ancient world and not matched again until fourteenth-century Europe. To call it “clockwork” is an anachronism: clocks came much later. Yet the gears seem to have been made — by hand — to a tolerance of a few tenths of a millimeter.

After a century of investigation and speculation, scientists have settled on the view that the Antikythera mechanism was an analog computer, intended to demonstrate astronomical cycles. Dials seem to represent the sun, the moon, and the five planets then known. It might have been able to predict eclipses of the moon. Where planetary motion is concerned, however, it seems to have been highly flawed. The engineering is better than the underlying astronomy. As Winchester notes, the Antikythera mechanism represents a device that is amazingly precise, yet not very accurate.

What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools — as opposed to mere machines — lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few,” Winchester writes. “It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.” That was John Wilkinson’s achievement in 1776: “the first construction possessed of a degree of real and reproducible mechanical precision — precision that was measurable, recordable, repeatable.”

Perhaps the canonical machine tool — surely the oldest — is the lathe, a turning device for cutting and shaping table legs, gun barrels, and screws. Wooden lathes date back to ancient China and Egypt. However, metal lathes, enormous and powerful, turning out metal machine parts, did not come into their own until the end of the eighteenth century. You can explain that in terms of available energy: water wheels and steam engines. Or you can explain it as Winchester does, in terms of precision. The British inventor Henry Maudslay made the first successful screw-cutting lathe in 1800, and to Winchester the crucial part of his invention is a device known as a slide rest: the device that holds the cutting tools and adjusts their position as delicately as possible, with the help of gears. Maudslay’s lathe, described by one historian as “the mother tool of the industrial age,” achieved a tolerance of one ten-thousandth of an inch. Metal screws and other pieces could be turned out by the hundreds and then the thousands, every one exactly the same.

Because they were replicable, they were interchangeable. Because they were interchangeable, they made possible a world of mass production and the warehousing and distribution of component parts. A French gunsmith, Honoré Blanc, is credited with showing in 1785 that flintlocks for muskets could be made with interchangeable parts. Before an audience, he disassembled twenty-five flintlocks into twenty-five frizzle springs, twenty-five face plates, twenty-five bridles, and twenty-five pans, randomly shuffled the pieces, and then rebuilt “out of this confusion of components” twenty-five new locks. Particularly impressed was the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, who posted by packet ship a letter explaining the new method for the benefit of Congress:

It consists in the making every part of them so exactly alike that what belongs to any one, may be used for every other musket in the magazine…. I put several together myself taking pieces at hazard as they came to hand, and they fitted in the most perfect manner. The advantages of this, when arms need repair, are evident.

As it was, when a musket broke down in the field, a soldier needed to find a blacksmith.

Replication and standardization are so hard-wired into our world that we forget how the unstandardized world functioned. A Massachusetts inventor named Thomas Blanchard in 1817 created a lathe that made wooden lasts for shoes. Cobblers still made the shoes, but now the sizes could be systematized. “Prior to that,” says Winchester, “shoes were offered up in barrels, at random. A customer shuffled through the barrel until finding a shoe that fit, more or less comfortably.” Before long, Blanchard’s lathe was making standardized gun stocks at the Springfield Armory and then at its successor, the Harpers Ferry Armory, which began turning out muskets and rifles by the thousands on machines powered by water turbines at the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. “These were the first truly mechanically produced production-line objects made anywhere,” Winchester writes. “They were machine-made in their entirety, ‘lock, stock, and barrel.’” It is perhaps no surprise that the military played from the first, and continues to play, a leading and deadly part in the development of precision-based technologies and methods.

A fantasy world that stood in as a facsimile for the real one

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

It should come as no surprise that D&D players test well:

A group of Grade 9 students in Texas who substantially outperformed their district on a statewide standardized test all had one surprising thing in common: they all were members of the school’s Dungeons & Dragons club.

The real question:

A coincidence? Otherwise, how does a fantasy role-playing game produce improved test scores? The obvious explanation is that the club draws the bright kids who are already academically inclined. But many of the kids in the club at the Title I school had histories of struggling with academics.

For Kade Wells, the teacher who runs the club at Davis Ninth Grade School outside Houston, the answer is simple: “Playing Dungeons & Dragons makes you smarter.”

The two explanations aren’t mutually exclusive.

In one striking example, educational researcher and teacher Alexandra Carter used a student-modified version of Dungeons & Dragons as the centerpiece of a yearlong program with a Grade 3 class that combined math, reading, writing, and social studies. Many students in the class struggled with academic and behavioral challenges, but rooting their core subjects in the game produced remarkable results.

In a paper she authored recounting the experience, Carter describes a wealth of student success stories, both behavioral and academic. “I was able to see progress in all of the students,” summarizes Carter, “and was especially impressed with the work that those who struggled the most produced.”

Carter observes that a great deal of the project’s success hinged on students being motivated to learn and practice skills that applied to the game. Students often have trouble appreciating the value of what they learn in school when it is abstracted from its real-world purpose. In this case, learning was meaningful for the students because it had traction in a fantasy world that stood in as a facsimile for the real one, the central dynamic of play and a key feature of its value for development and learning.

There were balloons, and the whole class got to have ice-cream

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

Eight-year-old Saga Vanecek’s first-hand account — “as told to Moya Sarner” — of how she pulled a 1,500-year-old sword out of a lake is as adorable as you could hope:

Daddy was begging me to rush so he could watch the World Cup final, but I like to take my time about things so I ignored him.

I was crawling along the bottom of the lake on my arms and knees, looking for stones to skim, when my hand and knee felt something long and hard buried in the clay and sand. I pulled it out and saw that it was different from the sticks or rocks I usually find. One end had a point, and the other had a handle, so I pointed it up to the sky, put my other hand on my hip and called out, “Daddy, I’ve found a sword!”

I felt like a warrior, but Daddy said I looked like Pippi Longstocking. The sword felt rough and hard, and I got some sticky, icky brown rust on my hands. It started to bend and Daddy splashed up to me, and said I should let him hold it. It was my sword and now he was taking it away! I gave it to him in the end.

I ran to my mamma and my mormor — my grandma — and some other relatives who were all sitting outside having fika, which is Swedish for having a sit-down with coffee and cookies. I was yelling, “I found a sword, I found a sword!” Daddy went to show it to our neighbours, whose family has lived in the village for more than 100 years, and they said it looked like a Viking sword. Daddy didn’t get to watch the football in the end.


She made me promise not to tell anyone because she and other archaeologists wanted to see if there was anything else buried in the lake; they didn’t want anyone else to come and take the treasures.


Then they announced the news and I could finally tell everyone at school. I came back from gym class and the whiteboard said, “Saga’s sword” and there were balloons, and the whole class got to have ice-cream.

Quickly fire barbed Kevlar cords toward suspects at speeds of 640 feet per second

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

The NYPD is testing a high-powered lasso gun to subdue mentally ill suspects:

Unveiled last year, the BolaWrap™ 100 is a hand-held remote that allows officers to quickly fire barbed Kevlar cords toward suspects at speeds of 640 feet per second. The stated goal of the product is to entangle a person’s limbs “early in an engagement,” thereby allowing police officers to avoid using lethal force. The intended target is described by the company as “the mentally ill population” and, elsewhere, “the bad guys.” Each unit costs $800, and sounds like a gunshot when discharged.


Wired Technologies, which manufactures and distributes the wraps, claims that 24 police departments across the country are testing the product internally, and that six departments are testing it in the field. A version that sounds less like a gunshot is currently in development, for use on college campuses, according to Mike Rothans, the senior vice president of Wrap Technologies.

During Thursday’s demonstration, Adams, flanked by Rothans and Wired Technologies CEO David Norris, assured reporters that the product was neither painful nor dangerous (Adams did wear protective goggles, just in case). The trio brushed off questions about whether it might be more difficult to deploy the wraps in a crowded, high-pressure environment, rather than a tightly controlled courtroom, by pointing to the device’s laser sight. Despite the fact that a website advertises the wraps as having 380 pounds of strength, Rothans promised that they wouldn’t be strong enough to strangle someone if accidentally fired at their neck.

Rather, the gizmo should be seen as a low-risk alternative to the more painful, less reliable stun gun, they said. At one point, Adams referred to a video—shown by company reps earlier in the demonstration—of an 86-year-old man with dementia getting tased by police officers during a traffic stop, as precisely the sort of situation in which the resistance tool could be of use. “Some might look at the incident with the 86-year-old and say why would you need any force there, but that’s not the real universe of policing,” said Adams, a former NYPD officer. “I would have used the device with the 86-year-old. Maybe I strike his legs instead of his arms, so he can break his fall.”

In Adams’s estimation, the device could successfully subdue about 70 percent of the 150,000 or so emotionally disturbed individuals encountered annually by the NYPD. The department’s handling of such cases—known as EDPs—has attracted scrutiny in recent years, with advocates demanding better training for officers responding to mental health crises, particularly following the deaths of Saheed Vassell and Deborah Danner.

The article refers to “Wired Technologies,” but I believe the company name is Wrap Technologies:

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.