Anger is no longer his go-to emotion

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

In many ways, SEALS represent the perfect test group for experimental brain treatment:

At the lab, Tony (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) met Dr. Erik Won, president and CEO of the Newport Brain Research Laboratory, the company that’s innovating Magnetic EEG/ECG-guided Resonant Therapy, or MeRT. Won’s team strapped cardiac sensors on Tony and placed an electroencephalography cap on his skull to measure his brain’s baseline electrical activity. Then came the actual therapy. Placing a flashlight-sized device by Tony’s skull, they induced an electromagnetic field that sent a small burst of current to his brain. Over the course of 20 minutes, they moved the device around his cranium, delivering jolts that, at their most aggressive, felt like a firm finger tapping.

For Tony, MeRT’s effects were obvious and immediate. He walked out of the first session to a world made new. “Everything looked different,” he told me. “My bike looked super shiny.”

He began to receive MeRT five times a week — each session lasting about an hour, with waiting room time — and quickly noticed a change in his energy. “I was super boosted,” he said. His mood changed as well.

Today, he admits that he still has moments of frustration but says that anger is no longer his “go-to emotion.” He’s developed the ability to cope. He still wants help with his memory, but his life is very different. He’s taken up abstract painting and welding, two hobbies he had no interest in at all before the therapy. He’s put in a new kitchen. Most importantly, his sleep is very different: better.

Tony’s experience was similar to those of five other special-operations veterans who spoke with Defense One. All took part in a double-blind randomized clinical trial that sought to determine how well MeRT treats Persistent Post-Concussion Symptoms and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Five out of the six were former Navy SEALS.

In many ways, SEALS represent the perfect test group for experimental brain treatment. They enter the service in superb health and then embark on a course of training that heightens mental and physical strength and alertness. Then comes their actual jobs, which involve a lot of “breaching”: getting into a place that the enemy is trying to keep you out of. It could be a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan — or every single door in that compound. Breaching is so central to SEAL work that it’s earned them the nickname “door kickers.” But it often involves not so much kicking as explosives at closer-than-comfortable range. “I got blown up a lot in training,” says Tony, and a lot afterwards as well. Put those two factors together and you have a population with a high functioning baseline but with a lot of incidents of persistent post-concussive syndrome, often on top of heavy combat-related PTSD and other forms of trauma.

One by one, these former SEALs found their way to Won’s lab. One — let’s call him Bill — sought to cure his debilitating headaches. Another, Ted, a SEAL trainer, had no severe symptoms but wanted to see whether the therapy could improve his natural physical state and performance. A fourth, Jim, also a former SEAL, suffered from severe inability to concentrate, memory problems, and low affect, which was destroying his work performance. “I was forcing myself to act normal,” Jim said. “I didn’t feel like I was good at anything.”

Yet another, a former member of the Air Force Security Forces named Cathy, had encountered blasts and a “constant sound of gunfire” during her deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. She suffered from memory problems, depression, anger, bouts of confusion, and migraines so severe she had to build a darkroom in her house.

Like Cathy, the rest had difficulty sleeping. Even Ted, who had no severe PTSD-related problems, reported that he “slept like crap,” before the treatment began.

All said that they saw big improvements after a course of therapy that ran five days a week for about four weeks. Bill reported that his headaches were gone, as did Cathy, who said her depression and mood disorders had lessened considerably. Jim’s memory and concentration improved so dramatically that he had begun pursuing a second master’s degree and won a spot on his college’s football team. Ted said he was feeling “20 years younger” physically and found himself better able to keep pace with the younger SEALS he was training. All of it, they say, was a result of small, precisely delivered, pops of electricity to the brain. Jim said the lab had also successfully treated back and limb pain by targeting the peripheral nervous system with the same technique.

Won, a former U.S. Navy Flight Surgeon, and his team have treated more than 650 veterans using MeRT. The walls of the lab are adorned with acrylic paintings from veterans who have sought treatment. The colors, themes, and objects in the paintings evolve, becoming brighter, more optimistic, some displaying greater motor control, as the painter progresses through the therapy.

The lab is about one-third of the way through a double-blind clinical trial that may lead to FDA approval, and so Won was guarded in what he could say about the results of their internal studies. But he said that his team had conducted a separate randomized trial on 86 veterans. After two weeks, 40 percent saw changes in their symptoms; after four weeks, 60 did, he said.

Few even had wallets

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

A century ago the market economy was important, but a lot of economic activity still took place within the family, Peter Frost notes, especially in rural areas:

In the late 1980s I interviewed elderly French Canadians in a small rural community, and I was struck by how little the market economy mattered in their youth. At that time none of them had bank accounts. Few even had wallets. Coins and bills were kept at home in a small wooden box for special occasions, like the yearly trip to Quebec City. The rest of the time these people grew their own food and made their own clothes and furniture. Farms did produce food for local markets, but this surplus was of secondary importance and could just as often be bartered with neighbors or donated to the priest. Farm families were also large and typically brought together many people from three or four generations.

By the 1980s things had changed considerably. Many of my interviewees were living in circumstances of extreme social isolation, with only occasional visits from family or friends. Even among middle-aged members of the community there were many who lived alone, either because of divorce or because of relationships that had never gone anywhere. This is a major cultural change, and it has occurred in the absence of any underlying changes to the way people think and feel.

Whenever I raise this point I’m usually told we’re nonetheless better off today, not only materially but also in terms of enjoying varied and more interesting lives. That argument made sense back in the 1980s — in the wake of a long economic boom that had doubled incomes, increased life expectancy, and improved our lives through labor-saving devices, new forms of home entertainment, and stimulating interactions with a broader range of people.

Today, that argument seems less convincing. Median income has stagnated since the 1970s and may even be decreasing if we adjust for monetization of activities, like child care, that were previously nonmonetized. Life expectancy too has leveled off and is now declining in the U.S. because of rising suicide rates among people who live alone. Finally, cultural diversity is having the perverse effect of reducing intellectual diversity. More and more topics are considered off-limits in public discourse and, increasingly, in private conversation.

Liberalism is no longer delivering the goods — not only material goods but also the goods of long-term relationships and rewarding social interaction.

Previously they had been a lumpenproletariat of single men and women

Monday, January 21st, 2019

Liberal regimes tend to erode their own cultural and genetic foundations, thus undermining the cause of their success:

Liberalism emerged in northwest Europe. This was where conditions were most conducive to dissolving the bonds of kinship and creating communities of atomized individuals who produce and consume for a market. Northwest Europeans were most likely to embark on this evolutionary trajectory because of their tendency toward late marriage, their high proportion of adults who live alone, their weaker kinship ties and, conversely, their greater individualism. This is the Western European Marriage Pattern, and it seems to go far back in time. The market economy began to take shape at a later date, possibly with the expansion of North Sea trade during early medieval times and certainly with the take-off of the North Sea trading area in the mid-1300s (Note 1).

Thus began a process of gene-culture coevolution: people pushed the limits of their phenotype to exploit the possibilities of the market economy; selection then brought the mean genotype into line with the new phenotype. The cycle then continued anew, with the mean phenotype always one step ahead of the mean genotype.

This gene-culture coevolution has interested several researchers. Gregory Clark has linked the demographic expansion of the English middle class to specific behavioral changes in the English population: increasing future time orientation; greater acceptance of the State monopoly on violence and consequently less willingness to use violence to settle personal disputes; and, more generally, a shift toward bourgeois values of thrift, reserve, self-control, and foresight. Heiner Rindermann has presented the evidence for a steady rise in mean IQ in Western Europe during the late medieval and early modern era. Henry Harpending and myself have investigated genetic pacification during the same timeframe in English society. Finally, hbd*chick has written about individualism in relation to the Western European Marriage Pattern (Note 2).

This process of gene-culture coevolution came to a halt in the late 19th century. Cottage industries gave way to large firms that invested in housing and other services for their workers, and this corporate paternalism eventually became the model for the welfare state, first in Germany and then elsewhere in the West. Working people could now settle down and have families, whereas previously they had largely been a lumpenproletariat of single men and women. Meanwhile, middle-class fertility began to decline, partly because of the rising cost of maintaining a middle-class lifestyle and partly because of sociocultural changes (increasing acceptance and availability of contraception, feminism, etc.).

This reversal of class differences in fertility seems to have reversed the gene-culture coevolution of the late medieval and early modern era.

This is the mindset that enabled northwest Europeans to exploit the possibilities of the market economy

Friday, January 18th, 2019

There is reason to believe that northwest Europeans were pre-adapted to the market economy:

They were not the first to create markets, but they were the first to replace kinship with the market as the main way of organizing social and economic life. Already in the fourteenth century, their kinship ties were weaker than those of other human populations, as attested by marriage data going back to before the Black Death and in some cases to the seventh century (Frost 2017). The data reveal a characteristic pattern:

  • men and women marry relatively late
  • many people never marry
  • children usually leave the nuclear family to form new households
  • households often have non-kin members

This behavioral pattern was associated with a psychological one:

  • weaker kinship and stronger individualism;
  • framing of social rules in terms of moral universalism and moral absolutism, as opposed to kinship-based morality (nepotism, amoral familialism);
  • greater tendency to use internal controls on behavior (guilt proneness, empathy) than external controls (public shaming, community surveillance, etc.)

This is the mindset that enabled northwest Europeans to exploit the possibilities of the market economy. Because they could more easily move toward individualism and social atomization, they could go farther in reorganizing social relationships along market-oriented lines. They could thus mobilize capital, labor, and raw resources more efficiently, thereby gaining more wealth and, ultimately, more military power.

This new cultural environment in turn led to further behavioral and psychological changes. Northwest Europeans have adapted to it just as humans elsewhere have adapted to their own cultural environments, through gene-culture coevolution.

[...]

Northwest Europeans adapted to the market economy, especially those who formed the nascent middle class of merchants, yeomen, and petty traders. Over time, this class enjoyed higher fertility and became demographically more important, as shown by Clark (2007, 2009a, 2009b) in his study of medieval and post-medieval England: the lower classes had negative population growth and were steadily replaced, generation after generation, by downwardly mobile individuals from the middle class. By the early 19th century most English people were either middle-class or impoverished descendants of the middle class.

This demographic change was associated with behavioral and psychological changes to the average English person. Time orientation became shifted toward the future, as seen by increased willingness to save money and defer gratification. There was also a long-term decline in personal violence, with male homicide falling steadily from 1150 to 1800 and, parallel to this, a decline in blood sports and other violent though legal practices (cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, public executions). This change can largely be attributed to the State’s monopoly on violence and the consequent removal of violence-prone individuals through court-ordered or extrajudicial executions. Between 1500 and 1750, court-ordered executions removed 0.5 to 1.0% of all men of each generation, with perhaps just as many dying at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial (Clark 2007; Frost and Harpending 2015).

Similarly, Rindermann (2018) has argued that mean IQ steadily rose in Western Europe during late medieval and post-medieval times. More people were able to reach higher stages of mental development. Previously, the average person could learn language and social norms well enough, but their ability to reason was hindered by cognitive egocentrism, anthropomorphism, finalism, and animism (Rindermann 2018, p. 49). From the sixteenth century onward, more and more people could better understand probability, cause and effect, and the perspective of another person, whether real or hypothetical. This improvement preceded universal education and improvements in nutrition and sanitation (Rindermann 2018, pp. 86-87).

Decoupling is not a worry for anything but a very small explosion

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

The U.S. government conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests, most of them in the Nevada desert or on faraway Pacific islands, but it also set off a couple nukes under Mississippi:

In 1959, the American physicist Albert Latter theorized that setting off a bomb in an underground cavity could muffle the blast. After tests with conventional explosives, Latter wrote that a detonation as big as 100 kilotons—more than six times bigger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—“would make a seismic signal so weak it would not even be detected by the Geneva system.” His theory, known as “decoupling,” became a rallying point for people who wanted to keep testing, says Jeffrey Lewis, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.

“They wanted to come up with a reason that we couldn’t verify an agreement with the Soviets,” says Lewis, who’s also the publisher of the Arms Control Wonk blog. But in 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world nose-to-nose with the unthinkable, the superpowers signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. It kept future tests underground, and researchers turned to making sure those tests would be spotted.

The Atomic Energy Commission wanted to test Latter’s theory using actual nukes. And salt deposits were considered the ideal places for tests, since they could be excavated more easily than rock and the resulting cavity would endure for years. So the search was on for a salt dome in territory similar to where the Russians tested their bombs, Auburn University historian David Allen Burke says.

“It had to be a certain diameter. It had to be a certain size. It needed to be a very large salt dome that was still a distance underground and not where it could interfere with water or petroleum or anything else,” says Burke, who wrote a book about the Mississippi tests.

That led the agency to southern Mississippi, which is full of salt domes. The government leased a nearly 1,500-acre patch of forest atop one of those domes and got to work.

[...]

The first blast, code-named Salmon, was a 5.3-kiloton device that would blow a cavity into the salt dome half a mile underground. The second, Sterling, was only 380 tons, and would go off in the cavity left behind by Salmon. AEC crews drilled a 2,700-foot hole down into the salt dome, lowered the first bomb into it, plugged it with 600 feet of concrete… and waited.

The Salmon test was put off nearly a month by a string of technical problems and bad weather, including Hurricane Hilda, which hit one state over in Louisiana. People living up to five miles from the test site were evacuated and recalled twice in preparation for blasts that never happened. They got paid $10 a head for adults and $5 for children for their trouble.

[...]

Far from Latter’s predictions that a blast as big as 100 kilotons could be kept off the scopes, Lewis says, it turned out that decoupling “is not a worry for anything but a very small explosion.” However, the data helped shape a later treaty which limited underground tests to 150 kilotons.

[...]

Federal records now indicate cancer rates in Lamar County are lower than both the state and national average.

(Hat tip to Hans Schantz.)

The plasmids force their hosts to lay down their arms

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

Bacteria evolve drug-resistance in the usual way, but they also spread genes for drug-resistance horizontally, through plasmids:

As a self-defense mechanism, Acinetobacter kills other bacteria that get too close, which doesn’t help the plasmids reproduce. So, the plasmids force their hosts to lay down their arms, allowing them to then pass copies of themselves into the neighboring bacteria.

In response, the researchers mutated the plasmids so they couldn’t stop the bacteria from defending itself. In another test, they mutated the Acinetobacter itself so its defenses couldn’t be lowered, and in both cases the outcome was the same. The plasmids — and by extension, antibiotic resistance — were unable to spread.

One of the most pivotal cocktails in history

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

Scientists have been studying cancers in a strange way, Ed Yong points out — or, rather, in a strange medium:

In 1959, an American physician named Harry Eagle mixed up one of the most pivotal cocktails in medical history — a red blend of sugar, salts, vitamins, and amino acids that allowed scientists to efficiently grow the cells of humans and other animals in laboratory beakers. This red elixir, known as Eagle’s minimal essential medium (EMEM), became a bedrock of biological research. Sixty years later, the medium and its variants are still heavily used whenever researchers want to study animal cells, whether to investigate the viruses that infect us, or to work out what goes wrong when cells turn cancerous.

As its name suggests, EMEM was designed to be as simple as possible — it has everything a cell needs to grow and nothing more. And in recent years, scientists have started realizing that such pared-down concoctions might be skewing their results, by warping the ways in which cells process nutrients. It’s as if they had spent decades studying the health of people who had only ever been given rations to eat.

Instead of using generic “culture media” like EMEM (or its more concentrated variant, Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle’s Medium, known as DMEM), it might be better to start creating concoctions that more accurately reflect the chemical profiles of our bodies. That’s what Saverio Tardito did in 2012, when he joined the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. “Around 90 percent of the papers in cancer research are using the same two or three commercially available media,” he says. “We researchers are aware that the medium you choose at the beginning of the experiment will affect the output, but it’s too easy to open the door of the fridge and use what’s there. I think we have been all been a bit too lazy.”

Over several years, he fine-tuned a mixture called Plasmax, which contains around 60 nutrients and chemicals at the concentrations usually found in human blood. “It was a side project — just a way of obtaining a better tool to do better research,” Tardito says. “But from the beginning, we noticed that the medium was making a difference.”

His colleague Johan Vande Voorde realized that cancer cells, when grown in Plasmax, behave more like they would in actual tumors, without several weird behaviors that are triggered by commercially available media. For example, DMEM contains a substance called pyruvate at 10 times its normal concentration in blood. These abnormal levels force cancer cells to grow as if they were starved of oxygen, even when the gas is abundantly present. In DMEM, the cells act as if they were being choked. In Plasmax, they do not.

Unlike DMEM, Plasmax also contains selenium, an essential mineral. By comparing the two media, Vande Voorde showed that when breast cancer cells are grown at low densities, they die in the absence of selenium, but flourish in its presence. That’s a little worrying. Several researchers have tested selenium supplements as a way of preventing cancer, but despite many studies there’s no strong evidence for a protective effect. Instead, Tardito wonders if such supplements could be risky: If selenium allows cancer cells to survive in sparse populations, it might make it easier for fragments of tumors to spread to other parts of the body. “We’ll need to follow that up in animal studies,” he says.

David Sabatini of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research has also been mixing up his own culture medium that mimics the nutrient levels of human blood. In 2017, he showed that cancer cells grown in this mixture are much less sensitive to a chemotherapy drug called Adrucil.

These results come at an interesting time. In recent years, cancer biologists have been grappling with a possible reproducibility crisis, in which results from several experiments involving lab-grown cells can’t be repeated by other teams. More broadly, researchers have struggled to translate the results of basic experiments involving such cells into new treatments that actually help cancer patients. Although there are many possible reasons for these problems, Tardito wonders whether he and his colleagues might get better results if they grow their cells in more realistic media.

The sensation of a continuous sharp trill

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

The US embassy in Havana halved its staff when diplomats came under sonic attack:

The mysterious wave of illness fuelled speculation that the staff had been targeted by an acoustic weapon. It was an explanation that appeared to gain weight when an audio recording of a persistent, high-pitched drone made by US personnel in Cuba was released to the Associated Press.

But a fresh analysis of the audio recording has revealed what scientists in the UK and the US now believe is the true source of the piercing din: it is the song of the Indies short-tailed cricket, known formally as Anurogryllus celerinictus.

“The recording is definitively a cricket that belongs to the same group,” said Fernando Montealegre-Zapata, a professor of sensory biology at the University of Lincoln. “The call of this Caribbean species is about 7 kHz, and is delivered at an unusually high rate, which gives humans the sensation of a continuous sharp trill.”

Scott Adams adds his hypnotist perspective:

If you tell a hundred random people they were attacked by a sonic device, twenty will have symptoms. You can test it without the noise.

We want to believe that we’re descended from angels instead of primates

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

I didn’t realize that Robert Greene had suffered a near-fatal stroke last August. His new book, The Laws of Human Nature, is out. Some people don’t like to accept that there is such a thing as human nature, but Greene argues that looking at reality is always better:

The people who don’t believe that human nature is something real, who believe that humans are malleable and that we make our own nature, generally want to believe that we are perfectible by some kind of government or system. It has traditionally been a kind of a communist socialist revolutionary idea. And the idea is that by creating the right kind of system or government, you can alter what corrupted us (which they maintain was done by social injustice, the rise of large civilizations, and the oppression and the accumulation of capital, et cetera.) They believe that if we go back and alter this system, we can return to that kind of pure human being. This is what I wrote about the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong — Mao wanted to recreate human nature. That’s always been the belief and it’s kind of a mix of wishes that humans were really this kind of angelic creature in the beginning and that we can return to that.

And what I’m trying to say is humans can change, we can alter, we could become something superior, but only by really coming to terms with who we are and getting over this myth of the Garden of Eden — of the fallen human being who was once so angelic just 5,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago. But I think the evidence is clear looking at our chimpanzee ancestors and the record of early homo sapiens that we do have aggressive, violent impulses, that we are pretty much irrational by nature, and that the kinds of qualities that we value can only come about through personal work, through conquest, through overcoming our tendencies that are kind of animal-like. And that rather than some government that’s going to perfect us, it’s the work of individuals being conscious and aware of who they are as opposed to being in denial. There’s a quote from Angela Carter that I’ve used in several books: “We want to believe that we’re descended from angels instead of primates.”

Human beings are susceptible to supernormal stimuli, too

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

The story of supernormal stimuli begins with the Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen:

As a boy growing up in The Hague in the 1910s, Tinbergen was fascinated by the fish and fowl inhabiting the little pond in his backyard. These early encounters with the wildlife of the Netherlands informed his later work, and as an adult, he kept an aquarium in his home.

One day he noticed that the male three-spined sticklebacks — which have “gorgeous nuptial colors,” Tinbergen observed, “red on the throat and breast, greenish-blue on the back” — went into attack mode every time a red postal van parked outside. They dropped their heads and raised their dorsal fins, a posture normally assumed only in the presence of a rival male.

Wondering whether the fish were reacting to the postal van, Tinbergen introduced variously colored objects into the tank. He discovered that the males became aggressive in response to anything red — the unmistakable sign of another male’s presence — regardless of whether it resembled a fish. The observation sparked Tinbergen’s discovery of color’s influence on animal behavior, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973.

When he wasn’t observing three-spined sticklebacks, Tinbergen spent a lot of time with adult herring-gull hens, which have pronounced orange spots on their lower mandibles. For the first few weeks of a chick’s life, its mother’s beak is its sole food source. That orange spot is a good target for chicks to aim at when they peck at their mother to prompt her to regurgitate food.

Tinbergen noticed that the chicks in his lab, like the male sticklebacks in his aquarium, aggressively pecked not just at their mother’s beak but at anything with an orange spot on it. It occurred to him that it might be possible to one-up nature, to “make a dummy that would stimulate the chick still more than the natural object,” he wrote.

So Tinbergen started making “super-gulls”: cobbled-together constructions that amplified the orange spot to which the chicks so enthusiastically responded. He painted orange spots on everything from old pieces of wood to kitchen utensils. He made the orange spots bigger and surrounded them with white rings to enhance the contrast. The chicks pecked at absolutely everything that had an orange spot on it. The bigger the spot, the more aggressively the chicks pecked.

Tinbergen called his exaggerated orange spots “supernormal stimuli,” which, he concluded, “offer stimulus situations that are even more effective than the natural situation.” This response to supernormal stimuli is not limited to herring gulls. Chicks from all species will beg for food from a fake bill if it has more dramatic markings than its parents have, and parents will ignore their own eggs and attempt to incubate much larger objects — including volleyballs — if those objects are decorated to resemble eggs.

Tinbergen theorized that human beings are susceptible to supernormal stimuli, too. The oversized eyes of stuffed animals, dolls, and cartoon characters are supernormal, he reasoned, kick-starting our instinctive response to nurture anything with infantile facial features. Sugar-saturated soft drinks, works of art, clothing, perfume, even lipstick — anything that intensifies or exaggerates an instinctive biological, physical, or psychological response — can be considered supernormal stimuli.

We were told the sound was from snapping shrimp, end of story

Monday, December 31st, 2018

Lauren and Simon Freeman, oceanographers with the US Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island, noticed strange pings in the Hawaiian Islands:

They perceived that the soundscape of healthy, protected reefs was dominated by low-frequency sounds (the kind typically made by fish and other large animals), while degraded reefs were noticeably higher pitched.

“We were told the sound was from snapping shrimp, end of story,” says Simon. “[But] there seemed to be a correlation between the sound and the proportion of algae covering the seafloor.”

Determined to dig deeper, the Freemans and their colleagues housed red algae in tanks devoid of clamorous crustaceans or other animals. The sounds they picked up matched the high-frequency sounds of struggling reefs.

[...]

Like the plants that help us breathe, algae also photosynthesize. Underwater, that process of converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy and oxygen sends tiny bubbles spiraling toward the surface. And according to new research, when each bubble detaches from the seaweed, it goes ping. The scientists behind the discovery suggest that, like a heartbeat heard through a stethoscope, measuring that unique sound could be a new way to monitor the health of a coral reef.

Aluminum normally casts a silvery white light when it burns

Sunday, December 30th, 2018

The green-blue glow that filled the New York City sky was not caused by a transformer explosion, Consolidated Edison clarified:

The extraordinary event had in fact been traced to a voltage monitoring gizmo known as a coupling capacitor potential device — or CCPD if you happen to operate a power grid — that failed to function properly at a Queens substation on Thursday night.

That led to an arc flash in which electricity delivered via a 138,000-volt transmission line jumped from one point to another, ionizing the very air through which it leapt. The energy was too great to be constrained to a straight trajectory, and it began to arc with its own power. The arc grew higher and higher, as did the heat it generated.

“Temperatures can reach as high as 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” notes a General Electric fact sheet. “This is hotter than the surface of the sun.”

The fact sheet adds, “Arc Flash temperatures can… liquefy or vaporize metal parts in the vicinity.”

Some of the substation equipment is aluminum, which normally casts a silvery white light when it burns. But at extremely high temperatures such as this bit of sun in Queens, the light generated by the vaporized aluminum was the almost-Tiffany blue that New York City residents saw rise into the sky and spread through the low-lying cloud cover.

It’s proved itself over the past 113 years

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Because Taleb has a much higher IQ than Steve Sailer has, the only way Sailer can win an argument with him is by being right:

It’s almost as if the IQ glass is somehow both half empty and half full at the same time…

This doesn’t mean that IQ is a perfect measure above criticism, just that in an imperfect world, it’s proved itself over the past 113 years as one of the social sciences’ enduring accomplishments.

Draw to remember

Monday, December 24th, 2018

A picture is worth a thousand words — when it comes to taking notes:

Fernandes and her colleagues first established what they call the “drawing effect” — getting people to draw quick pictures of words in a list (such as “truck” or “pear”) led to much better recall of those words than writing them out multiple times. Creating just a four-second drawing was also superior to imagining the items or viewing pictures of the words.

This was proof of principle type work. The researchers next looked at whether drawing aids memory of more complex terms and concepts. They found that study participants who had a minute to draw an image representing “isotope” or “spore”, for example, were more likely to remember the meaning than people who were asked to copy out the definitions instead. “As with single words, we reasoned that drawing facilitates retention, at least in part, because it requires elaboration on the meaning of the term and translating the definition to a new form (a picture),” the researchers write.

In fact, there are various components to the process of drawing a picture of a word or concept, each of which seem to cumulatively aid memory. Getting people to trace over an existing drawing (so getting them to make relevant arm and hand movements, but not allowing personal elaboration), or to create a drawing which they were then not allowed to see (so allowing the physical movements and personal elaboration, but depriving them of the visual memory of the end result) both improved memory — but not as much as when all of these stages were allowed. “Memory scaled up as components were added to the encoding task,” the researchers note.

Fernandes and her colleagues went on to find that although older adults performed worse than younger adults at remembering words they had learned by writing, there was no difference between the two age groups in their ability to remember words they had drawn. Encouraged by these results, the team then asked 13 people diagnosed with dementia and living in a long-term care facility to either draw or write 60 words that were read aloud by an experimenter. The results showed a “massive” memory benefit for words that had been drawn rather than written. If it can be shown that drawing also helps with other sorts of memory — for where things are kept, perhaps — this strategy could be practically useful for people with dementia.

In some cases, the patients’ drawings looked just like scribbles. But how good — or bad — the drawings were didn’t seem to matter. In fact, in most of the experiments, the researchers assessed their participants’ ability to create vivid images and also their experience at drawing, and neither was correlated with memory performance. Even people who struggle to create a stick figure should, then, get memory benefits from drawing.

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz.)

Let the best woman win!

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018

Don’t deny girls the evolutionary wisdom of fairy-tales:

Ironically, far from contaminating young female minds, these Disney princess stories — and their fairy-tale-fic precursors — provide vitally helpful messages that parents could be discussing with their girls.

Cinderella, for example, revolves around the perniciousness of what researchers call “female intrasexual competition” — the often-underhanded ways women compete with each other. While men evolved to be openly competitive, jockeying for position verbally or physically, female competition tends to be covert — indirect and sneaky — and often involves sabotaging another woman into being less appealing to men. Accordingly, in Cinderella, when the king throws a ball to find the prince a wife, the nasty stepsisters aren’t at all “let the best woman win!” They assign Cinderella extra chores so she won’t have time to pull together something to wear. (Mean Girls, the cartoon version, anyone?)

[...]

Understanding this evolutionary mismatch helps women get why it’s sometimes hard for them to speak up for themselves — to be direct and assertive. And identifying this as a problem handed them by evolution can help them override their reluctance — assert themselves, despite what feels “natural.” Additionally, an evolutionary understanding of female competition can help women find other women’s cruelty to them less mystifying. This, in turn, allows them to take such abuse less personally than if they buy into the myth of female society as one big supportive sisterhood.

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In other words, the allure of “princess culture” was created by evolution, not Disney. Over countless generations, our female ancestors most likely to have children who survived to pass on their genes were those whose emotions pushed them to hold out for commitment from a high status man — the hunter-gatherer version of that rich, hunky prince. A prince is a man who could have any woman, but — very importantly — he’s bewitched by our girl, the modest but beautiful scullery maid. A man “bewitched” (or, in contemporary terms, “in love”) is a man less likely to stray — so the princess story is actually a commitment fantasy.