You need to learn to walk before you can run

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

You need to learn to walk before you can run, but getting better at walking doesn’t always help you get better at running:

A similar thing can happen in music too. For instance, have you ever encountered a speed plateau in a piece you’re working on? A section that you can play perfectly at about 80-90% of the final tempo, but no matter how hard you try, you keep hitting a wall, and can’t seem to get over the hump?


Back in the 1950’s, a psychologist named Paul Fitts wrote an influential paper about the relationship between speed and accuracy. Namely, that there seemed to be a proportional relationship between the two. Want to move faster? No problem, but your movements will be less accurate. Want to be more accurate? Ok, but you will need to sacrifice speed.


But going back to the walking vs. running analogy, is it possible that we could be developing bad habits by trying to learn a tricky passage too slowly as well?


In one study (Belkin & Eliot, 1997), a team of researchers recruited 16 children aged 6-11 to learn some basic hockey skills (none had any previous organized hockey experience).

The kids were randomly assigned to two different groups, and given some basic instructions on how to hold a hockey stick and how to stand. Then they were placed 25 feet away from the gym wall, and instructed to hit a street hockey ball at the wall — but each group had a slightly different objective.

One group hit against a wall which had a vertical line of masking tape placed on the wall. This was their “target” which they were instructed to aim for. After each shot, they were given their accuracy score, and encouraged to improve their score on the next shot. This was the accuracy group.

The other group of kids was simply asked to shoot the ball as hard as they could. Their wall was totally bare, with no target to aim for. So they basically couldn’t miss — they just had to hit the ball against the wall with maximum velocity. These kids also received feedback after each shot, but theirs was given in miles per hour — the speed of their shot as measured by a radar gun. After each shot, they were encouraged to shoot even harder. This was the speed group.

Over the course of two days, both groups improved. The accuracy group improved their accuracy scores by about 34% — from 95.975 cm on Day 1 to 65.375 cm on Day 2 (lower scores is better, indicating that they hit the ball closer to the target).

And the speed group improved their speed scores, going from from 18.275 mph to 21.188 mph (an increase of about 16%).

Neither of which is especially surprising, of course. And then Day 3 happened.

On Day 3, everyone was tested on both speed and accuracy. Unlike the previous day’s tests where each group was asked to focus on either speed or accuracy, this time both groups were being scored on their ability to shoot as accurately and as fast as possible. They were told that one wasn’t more important than the other, and that they both mattered equally.

As you can imagine, the speed group hit the ball significantly faster than the accuracy group — more than twice as fast, in fact (21.725 mph vs. 10.063 mph). And when it came to accuracy, the groups were no different. If anything, the speed group was even more accurate than the accuracy group (56.588 cm vs. 66.300 cm — though this difference was not statistically significant).

So after the same exact amount of practice, the group which was instructed to focus on speed (and where accuracy was de-emphasized), ended up performing substantially better than the group whose initial focus was on maximizing accuracy.

The researchers note that even over a very brief 2-day period of practice, the two groups developed very different shot mechanics. The accuracy group seemed to shoot with a tighter, more constrained set of motions. Their shot loosely resembled a putting stroke in golf.

The speed group, on the other hand, swung much more freely — with a longer backswing and follow through. A much more efficient and effective motion which was a closer approximation of what the shot should actually look like.

In other words, the stroke mechanics that were developed to maximize accuracy, worked ok for accurate shooting. But the same movements were no longer effective when speed was also important. Conversely, the mechanics that were developed to maximize speed, not only worked well for maximizing speed, but were much more easily adapted to successfully account for accuracy too, when that became an important factor.

Another study (Engelhorn, 1997), conducted over a 6-week period with 10 and 11-year old fast-pitch softball players, found that excessive focus on accuracy in the early stages led to the development of poor throwing mechanics, which ended up impeding overall development.

Children influence their parents

Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

Children influence their parents, as well as the other way around, a phenomenon called “bidirectional parenting“:

One large study looking at bidirectional parenting and featuring over 1,000 children and their parents, concluded that the child’s behaviour had a much stronger influence on their parents’ behaviour than the other way around. Parents and their children were interviewed at age eight and again over the subsequent five years. Parental control, the study found, did not change a child’s behaviour, but a child’s behavioural problems led to less parental warmth and more control.

Research also shows that when children demonstrate challenging behaviour, parents may withdraw or use a more authoritarian (strict and cold) parenting style.

Similarly, parents of adolescents with behavioural issues act with less warmth and more hostility. The opposite occurs for adolescents who show good behaviour: their parents behave with more warmth over time. This reveals that it’s not harsh parenting that predicts behavioural problems, says Shaffer, but rather, “children who act out, who are oppositional, who are defiant, have parents who respond by increasing the harshness of their parenting”.


“Genetic influence affects virtually every measurable trait,” explains Nancy Segal who specialises in twin studies at California State University, Fullerton and is author of Deliberately Divided. For instance, a 2015 meta-analysis (a study of studies) looking at a combined total of 14 million twin pairs, either growing up together or raised apart, found that identical twins raised apart were more alike than fraternal twins raised in the same home.

This confirmed what Segal had long noticed among twins she had met — that “shared environments do not make family members alike”, she says. It’s why she often says that parents of one child are environmentalists, whilst parents of two are geneticists, because the latter quickly realise that two children raised in the same home can behave in completely different ways.

We think of Man as #1

Monday, January 10th, 2022

We think of Man as #1, Greg Cochran says, but it wasn’t always true:

I’ve been reading Thin on the Ground, a book by Stephen Churchill. One of his ideas is based on the fact some predator species are dominant over others and get the lion’s share (cough, cough) of the kills. Lions frequently steal carcasses from hyenas, while everyone steals from cheetahs and wild dogs, etc.

There is good evidence (stable isotope data) that Neanderthals were highly carnivorous, and that they used thrusting spears, which are effective but not as generally useful as atlatls — standoff weapons. Churchill suspects that with their thrusting spears tech, Neanderthals were not the top dogs of the predator guild, and that they may have been dominated by cave lions and scimitar cats, while having approximately equal status with hyenas. In practice, this would mean that Neanderthals often lost kills to high-ranked carnivores such as cave lions. The majority of calories from animal kills would go to higher-ranked carnivores (not to Neanderthals) . Neanderthal population size would be limited, and some environments (like open plains, where kills are highly visible) might be effectively closed to them.

Freezing is one of our bodies’ oldest existential threats

Sunday, January 9th, 2022

I recently listened to the audiobook version of The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s memoir of the 1910–1913 British Antarctic expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. It didn’t go well. That said, they seemed to find blizzard conditions in Antarctica perfectly survivable, if they could just wait out the storm in their tents, with fuel to burn and other warm bodies around them.

I was thinking off this as I read a Wired article asking, could being cold actually be good for you?

The human body is simply lousy at facing the cold. “I’ve done studies where people were exposed to 7 degrees Celsius [44.6 Fahrenheit], which is not even extreme. It’s not that cold. Few people could sustain it for 24 hours,” he says. (Those subjects were even fully dressed: “Mitts, a hat, boots, and socks. And they still couldn’t sustain it.”)


Before industrialization, says Haman, “these extremes were actually part of life.” Bodies dealt with cold in the winter and heat in the summer. “You kept on going back and forth, and back and forth. And this probably contributed to metabolic health,” he says.

Researchers know that your body reacts when it’s cold. New fat appears, muscles change, and your level of comfort rises with prolonged exposure to cold. But what all this means for modern human health — and whether we can harness the effects of cold to improve it — are still open questions. One vein of research is trying to understand how cold-induced changes in fat or muscle can help stave off metabolic disease, such as diabetes. Another suggests it’s easier than you might think to get comfortable in the cold — without blasting the heat.

To Haman, these are useful scientific questions because freezing is one of our bodies’ oldest existential threats. “Cold, to me, is [one of] the most fascinating stimuli because cold is probably the biggest challenge that humans can have,” he says. “Even though heat is challenging, as long as I have access to water, and to shade, I will survive fairly well. The cold is completely the opposite.”

“If you’re not able to work together,” he continues, “if you don’t have the right equipment, if you don’t have the right knowledge–you’re not going to survive. It’s as simple as that.”


Haman has since shown that braving the cold can teach your body to stockpile more of it. In 2013, he asked his subjects to wear “cold suits” circulating water at 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 Fahrenheit) two hours a day, five days a week, for four weeks. It was cold and uncomfortable, but this “low intensity, long duration” acclimation caused people to double their amount of brown fat, which appeared around the spinal column, adrenal glands, and pelvic muscles.

Once it appears, brown fat doesn’t just sit around: Its activity replaces shivering as the body’s go-to heat factory. “Everything is being compensated by nonshivering thermogenesis,” says Haman. For the participants in the study, wearing the cold suit also tripled how active that fat was, or how much it burned. Shivering decreased about 10 to 20 percent after acclimating, according to his study. In other words, he concluded that the subjects acclimated to the cold by producing more brown fat, which in turn made them more comfortable at lower temperatures, without needing to shiver.

Then, in 2019, Haman aimed higher. Or perhaps lower. He recruited seven men to undergo seven days of intense cold acclimation. Each day, they sat in 58-degree-Fahrenheit water, submerged up to their clavicles, for up to one hour, until their core temperatures dropped to 95 degrees. They were then dried and slowly warmed back up. “It’s basically an hour of, uh … not having fun,” Haman says. “But after seven days, you’re basically a totally different person.” Participants could go an hour longer before shivering than they could before the trials. And they would shiver 36 percent less intensely, on average.


After the brown fat discoveries in 2009, Joris Hoeks, a diabetes researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was curious about its role in controlling blood sugar. His team recruited people with type 2 diabetes for a cold acclimation study. An important hallmark of type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance, in which organs take up less sugar from the blood. Participants endured six hours of cold, right on the edge of shivering, for 10 days. Their sensitivity to insulin, a key hormone in controlling blood glucose, improved by 43 percent on average — a boost comparable to the effect of a 12-week workout program.


Muscle cells change in the cold. Proteins responsible for transporting glucose fuel into muscle cells appear to migrate toward the outside of the cell. Hoeks thinks that change may help the body process more glucose, either because of mild or unnoticeable shivering contractions, or some other muscle process altogether.

We get rid of the power plant

Friday, January 7th, 2022

Fusion has been just 20 or 30 years away for decades, but new fusion projects are being fueled by billionaire dollars:

The dream inspired Ajay Royan, cofounder of Mithril Capital (with billionaire Peter Thiel), who in 2013 first invested $2 million in Redmond, Wash.-based Helion Energy so that it could build a prototype “repetitive pulse power” machine. Mithril has invested in Helion ever since, including its recent $500 million round (valuing the company at $3 billion) — with the promise of $1.7 billion more if the company’s seventh prototype works as hoped. Helion’s round was led by Sam Altman of Y Combinator.

The year of 2021 was a big one for both fusion financings and forecasts, as developers raised more than $3 billion to fund their next round of machines — with some now promising commercially viable fusion in just five years. Royan is happy to see fusion getting more attention; “Sure 2021 may be a turning point for fusion according to Google analytics, but the real turning point happened a decade ago when power electronics passed a threshold.”


In Helion’s novel system, the energy released in the fusion reactions continuously pushes out against its magnetic containment field, which pushes back — causing oscillations (“like a piston,” says Kirtley) that generate an electric current, which Helion captures directly from the reactor.

Royan of Mithril says perhaps the biggest attraction of Helion’s direct electricity generation method is its simplicity. Other fusion approaches aim to generate heat, in order to boil water and power steam turbines, which make electricity — like at traditional nuclear power plants. “We can do it with no steam turbines or cooling towers. We get rid of the power plant.”


That puts Helion in a race with Boston-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinoff, which raised $1.8 billion from investors including Bill Gates and George Soros. CEO Bob Mumgaard says they’ll have a working reactor in 6 years. His optimism is buoyed by Commonwealth’s successful summer test of new electromagnets engineered with superconductors made from rare earth barium copper oxide.

Mumgaard says these super powered magnets will enable Commonwealth to perfect their somewhat more traditional fusion approach of building a donut-shaped “tokamak” reactor, which Mumgaard calls a “big magnetic bottle” where powerful magnetic fields control balls of 100 million degree plasma — “star stuff.”

There are roughly 150 tokamaks around the world; the biggest one is under construction in France for $30 billion by an international consortium called ITER. The 20,000-ton machine, the size of a basketball arena, is slated to be complete by 2035.


Whereas ITER’s primary magnets (called solenoids) will weigh some 400 tons and achieve fields stronger than 12 tesla, Commonwealth is eyeing 15-ton magnets, each using 300 km of ReBCO thin-film tape, that will generate 20 tesla (for comparison, a magnetic resonance imaging machine does 1.5 tesla).


Other leaders include General Fusion, based in Canada and backed by Jeff Bezos, which raised $130 million this year. Other notable billionaires in the fusion game are Neal and Linden Blue, who own San Diego-based General Atomics, which for decades has operated a research tokamak on behalf of the DOE, and which this year delivered to ITER the guts of its tokamak electromagnets — a 1,000-ton central solenoid. And there’s TAE Energy of California, which has been experimenting with $1 billion for the past decade, and raised $130 million during the pandemic.

Why New Year’s resolutions actually work astoundingly well

Sunday, January 2nd, 2022

David Epstein explains why New Year’s resolutions actually work astoundingly well, by referencing behavioral scientist Katy Milkman’s How to Change:

Milkman’s team found that college students were more likely to hit the gym at the beginning of a new year, at the beginning of a week, at the beginning of a semester, and after their own birthdays. They also saw that students set more self-improvement goals in January, on Mondays, after school breaks, and (again) after birthdays. They called it the “fresh start effect.” The idea is that the sense of a new beginning makes it easier to turn an identity page, to feel like a new person who has new habits, and who is less burdened by past failures.

You certainly wouldn’t intuit this from pessimistic New Year’s headlines.


A 2007 survey, which found that about 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail to take hold, feels disappointing — until you consider that it leaves 20 percent of goal-setters who made a successful change thanks to a flip of the calendar.

A 2019 study found that people were more motivated to work toward a personal goal when a calendar they were shown depicted whatever the current day was (either Sunday or Monday) as the first day of a new week.

At Penn, where Milkman works, students were more likely to sign up for email reminders about new habits if the nudges were offered on “the first day of spring” as opposed to “the third Thursday in March,” even though it was the same day. And when Milkman’s team sent postcards to employees at four universities urging them to start saving (or start saving more) for retirement, the cards that invited employees to launch the new behavior after their next birthday were the most effective.

Why horses explode if you look at them funny

Wednesday, December 29th, 2021

“Why are cows so damn indestructible,” someone asks, “while horses keel over and die if mercury is in retrograde or a dog barked in Kazakhstan?” Gallus Rostromegalus explains — with a fair bit of strong language — Why Horses Explode If You Look At Them Funny, As Explained To Me By My Aunt That Raises Horses After Her Third Glass Of Wine:

When a horse runs at full gallop, it sort of… stops actively breathing, letting the slosh of it’s guts move its lungs, which is tremendously calorically efficient and means their breathing doesn’t fall out of sync. But it also means that the abdominal lining of a horse is weirdly flexible in ways that lead to way more hernias and intestinal tangling than other ungulates. It also has a relatively weak diaphragm for something it’s size, so ANY kind of respiratory infection is a Major Fucking Problem because the horse has weak lungs.

When a Horse runs Real Fucking Fast, it also develops a bit of a fluid dynamics problem- most mammals have the blood going out of their heart real fast and coming back from the far reaches of the toes much slower and it’s structure reflects that. But since there is Only The One Toe, horse blood comes flying back up the veins toward the heart way the fuck faster than veins are meant to handle, which means horses had to evolve special veins that constrict to slow the Blood Down, which you will recognize as a Major Cardiovascular Disease in most mammals. This Poorly-regulated blood speed problems means horses are prone to heart problems, burst veins, embolisms, and hemophilia. Also they have apparently a billion blood types and I’m not sure how that’s related but I am sure that’s another Hot Mess they have to deal with.

ALSO, the Blood-Going-Too-Fast issue and being Just Huge Motherfuckers means horses have trouble distributing oxygen properly, and have compensated by creating fucked up bones that replicate the way birds store air in thier bones but much, much shittier. So if a horse breaks it’s leg, not only is it suffering a Major Structural Issue (also also- breaking a toe is much more serious when that toe is YOUR WHOLE DAMN FOOT AND HALF YOUR LEG), it’s also having a hemorrhage and might be sort of suffocating a little.

ALSO ALSO, the fast that horses had to deal with Extremely Fast Predators for most of their evolution means that they are now afflicted with evolutionarily-adaptive Anxiety, which is not great for their already barely-functioning hearts, and makes them, frankly, fucking mental. Part of the reason horses are so aggro is that if denied the opportunity to ZOOM, it’s options left are “Kill everyone and Then Yourself” or “The same but skip step one and Just Fucking Die”.

When Hans G. Schantz shared this, I immediately thought of Ferdinand Porsche’s point about cars, rather than horses: “The perfect racing car crosses the finish line first and subsequently falls into its component parts.”

Morning exposure to deep red light improves declining eyesight

Saturday, December 18th, 2021

Just three minutes of exposure to deep red light once a week, when delivered in the morning, can significantly improve declining eyesight:

In summary, researchers found there was, on average, a 17% improvement in participants’ colour contrast vision when exposed to three minutes of 670 nanometre (long wavelength) deep red light in the morning and the effects of this single exposure lasted for at least a week. However, when the same test was conducted in the afternoon, no improvement was seen.


In humans around 40 years old, cells in the eye’s retina begin to age, and the pace of this ageing is caused, in part, when the cell’s mitochondria, whose role is to produce energy (known as ATP) and boost cell function, also start to decline.

Mitochondrial density is greatest in the retina’s photoreceptor cells, which have high energy demands. As a result, the retina ages faster than other organs, with a 70% ATP reduction over life, causing a significant decline in photoreceptor function as they lack the energy to perform their normal role.

In studying the effects of deep red light in humans, researchers built on their previous findings in mice, bumblebees and fruit flies, which all found significant improvements in the function of the retina’s photoreceptors when their eyes were exposed to 670 nanometre (long wavelength) deep red light.

“Mitochondria have specific sensitivities to long wavelength light influencing their performance: longer wavelengths spanning 650 to 900nm improve mitochondrial performance to increase energy production,” said Professor Jeffery.

There is a remarkable clustering of surface gravity levels in our solar system

Friday, December 17th, 2021

There is a remarkable clustering of surface gravity levels in our solar system:

All bodies with 9% to 250% of Earth gravity cluster near Earth, Mars, or Moon gravity. Those 3 gravity levels seem like the only levels available for us to live in this solar system. I stumbled onto this only after 34 years in aerospace.

Surface gravity clustering in our solar system

Four other planets have within 12% of Earth gravity. But all four have extreme temperatures and atmospheric pressures. And all but Venus have two to three times Earth’s escape velocity. Returning to Earth would be hard.

The eight smaller bodies near Moon or Mars gravity seem more practical. They also have much lower two-way delta-Vs. So, a key question for living beyond Earth is whether lunar or at least Martin gravity will let us avoid health problems like those we have seen in sustained free fall. But we have no health data between 0g and a full 1g!


Early in the space age, most planners assumed rotating crewed facilities to provide Earth-level artificial gravity. Apollo flights were planned to last only 6 to 12 days, so interest in artificial gravity faded after the Gemini 7 crew spent 14 days in free fall. Even 4-, 8-, and 12-week crew stays on Skylab caused few health issues. But crews who spent 6 to 12 months on Salyut, Mir, or ISS have had significant degradation of their bones, muscles, fluids, eyes, brain, and immune response. Exercise, diet, and drug “microgravity countermeasures” have slowed these trends but have not stopped them, despite decades of countermeasure refinements.


If we find that lunar gravity is enough for long-term health, humanity may expand to the six largest moons plus Mars and Mercury, and not just our Moon. If we need Mars gravity, we might settle Mars and Mercury, but not any moons. But even in 1g, exercise is critical. Any reduction in gravity is likely to require more exercise.

If we do need sustained gravity at levels higher than that of Mars, it seems easier to develop sustainable rotating settlements than to terraform any near-1g planet. And rotating settlements offer lower gravity inboard. A key attraction of such settlements may be the easy access to a wide range of gravity levels.

We’ve been talking about rotating settlements for a long, long time.

The political left and right share an interest in science in general, but not science in particular

Tuesday, December 14th, 2021

Millions of online book co-purchases reveal partisan differences in the consumption of science, researchers report:

Passionate disagreements about climate change, stem cell research and evolution raise concerns that science has become a new battlefield in the culture wars. We used data derived from millions of online co-purchases as a behavioural indicator for whether shared interest in science bridges political differences or selective attention reinforces existing divisions. Findings reveal partisan preferences both within and across scientific disciplines.

Across fields, customers for liberal or ‘blue’ political books prefer basic science (for example, physics, astronomy and zoology), whereas conservative or ‘red’ customers prefer applied and commercial science (for example, criminology, medicine and geophysics). Within disciplines, ‘red’ books tend to be co-purchased with a narrower subset of science books on the periphery of the discipline.

We conclude that the political left and right share an interest in science in general, but not science in particular. This underscores the need for research into remedies that can attenuate selective exposure to ‘convenient truth’, renew the capacity for science to inform political debate and temper partisan passions.

These people worship “the science” but have, shall we say, a selective understanding of it

Tuesday, November 30th, 2021

When the time came to lock down, Freddie deBoer locked down:

When they switched from saying it was selfish to wear a mask to saying it was selfish to not wear a mask I started wearing a mask. I maintain “social distance” even though it’s always been a vague concept of dubious value. I got both vaccine shots as soon as I could and will soon get a booster, even though I’m vaccinated, have had Covid, and I’m 40 years old and healthy. I have no problem showing the app at bars and restaurants to get in. I don’t think ivermectin is an effective treatment against Covid-19; I am very encouraged by the new Pfizer therapeutic. I tell adults to get vaccinated all the time, although I confess that I think the vaccination of young children is mostly a matter of security theater. I am compliant, I guess you might say, which is flattering or unflattering depending on what side of whatever wearying culture divide you’re standing on.

And also the effort against Covid is a colossal social exercise in forcing all of us to submit to the whims of unaccountable authorities who have been proven wrong on elementary questions but who we are still told work only in the spirit of total rationality and science, and our submission to them is enforced by a self-appointed cadre of ordinary people no more informed than the rest of us and whose attitudes are dictated by the rawest and most unjustifiable fears, passions, and desire for control.

There is a new variant, apparently. I know because our newsmedia breathlessly and relentlessly reports on bad Covid news. Unfortunately, they simply refuse to report on good Covid news, at least with anything like equal scale; I invite you to investigate the archives of even the most sober of news sources and compare how they cover cases going up compared to cases going down. Meanwhile, the public health authorities react to every twist of the narrative as an excuse for more fear and greater restrictions, insisting that “an abundance of caution” is always the way to proceed. (No word on whether a correct amount of caution would be a good idea.) Meanwhile the virus does discriminate, despite what you’ve heard over and over again, and in fact it discriminates against very particular and easily-identifiable subpopulations, and most people are not among them, and so every turn of this thing that does not result in mass death and disruption for the larger populace makes that populace feel lied to by the endlessly-panicky media and the abundantly cautious public health officials. We are approaching two years of Covid-19 as a crisis and yet no one in a position of authority has seemed to put it together that the public is exquisitely sensitive to those who cry wolf. Maybe Omicron really is “the big one,” but they’ve said that about every last development in this endless story, so how would we ever know?

Meanwhile we live among a Praetorian guard of busybodies who want everyone to know that the rest of us aren’t taking Covid seriously enough. These are people who are existentially similar to the “Karen,” 2020’s favorite archetype, except that they’re used to calling other people Karens. But they are precisely that figure of clueless white deference to authority that self-nominates as the world’s hall monitor. And while they want you to mask up and vaccinate and obey other rules, what’s much more important to them than regulating your behavior is that they let you know that you don’t feel the right way about Covid. You aren’t taking it seriously enough! You aren’t frightened enough! Who told you that you ever get to go back to normal? It’s not enough that you follow the rules and perform these weird rituals that we’re all compelled to. You are damned if you want things to return to normal. To want that is the gravest sin. To prefer the before times is a mark of terrible unseriousness. Covid is not, to these people, a simple public health emergency but some sort of divine test of our character, and what is weighed in that test is not our actions or their outcomes, but our neuroses, our noble anxiety, our sacred attachment to feeling bad and wanting to go on feeling bad.

These people worship “the science” but have, shall we say, a selective understanding of it. We’ve known for a long time that it’s very hard to catch Covid outdoors, and that children face very little risk, and again most adults are vaccinated. And yet if you took your kid trick or treating a month ago there’s a Greek chorus that wants you to know that it was terribly selfish and irresponsible, and some such thing as the science says so, irrespective of what the iterative, provisional, and antagonistic rhetorical processes of epidemiology might have to say. We have created an entirely new epistemology of public health science in the past couple of years, one that is somehow not a branch of medicine or biology but of public relations. Its vectors are not pathogens but perceptions. It tracks not the spread of disease but the spread of blame.

What people of this school demand is not sound public health policy or compliance with common-sense Covid regulations, much less an end to the epidemic. (That would end the fun.) What they want is for the world to stop. They want Covid to matter so much that we all look around and realize that something is fundamentally out of order and thus grind human life to a halt, in much the same way that they said “this is NOT normal!” when Trump was elected, as if that were true, as if the world would care if it was. And thudding around in the background is the palpable sense that they are attached to this condition that they say frightens and disturbs them, that they need it, as they imagine that finally something has come along so extreme and so wrong that it will arrest the world’s progress, stopping the ride so they can get out and cluck their tongue at the ridiculousness and injustice of it all.

It’s not a good idea to tell yourself what not to do

Saturday, November 27th, 2021

You’ve probably heard that it’s not a good idea to tell yourself what not to do:

A recent study (Gorgulu, 2019) looked at what would happen when experienced tennis players were asked to serve, and not miss, under a bit of pressure.


Specifically, when their anxiety went up, participants hit more balls long and wide — the exact thing they were explicitly told not to do. Meanwhile, the number of balls hit into the middle of the service box — the 0-point area, where they neither gained nor lost points — was pretty much the same regardless of whether they were nervous or not.

In other words, under pressure, the athletes didn’t just become less accurate servers in general. They became less accurate in a very specific way — hitting more balls to the exact place on the court that they were trying to avoid.

Which is pretty weird, when you think about it — so why does this happen?

Well, there are a few possibilities, but the theory of “ironic error” essentially suggests that we have two mental processes in play — an “operating” process and a “monitoring” process. And that when we’re under pressure, given the limited cognitive resources available to us, monitoring our performance ends up taking resources away from the operating process, which makes us more likely to mess up in exactly the way we’re trying not to.

The choice group totally outperformed the no-choice group

Friday, November 26th, 2021

A team of researchers recruited twenty-four 10-year old girls to learn five classical ballet positions:

Each participant was shown pictures of each position and given a verbal explanation of what to do. Then, it was time to give it a try. And after their first practice attempt, half of the participants (the choice group) were told that if they wanted, they could ask to see a video demonstration of the positions before any subsequent practice attempt.

The other participants (the no-choice group) were told that they would be shown videos from time to time, but not given any choice as to when. Each of these participants were “yoked” to another participant in the choice group, such that whenever their counterpart requested a video, they would be shown a video too.

Everyone did 50 practice repetitions (5 sets of 10), and then they were done for the day.

Autonomy support enhances performance expectancies, positive affect, and motor learning

The choice group totally outperformed the no-choice group.

Von Neumann’s genius was apparent early

Wednesday, November 24th, 2021

Tom Chivers (How to Read Numbers) reviews Ananyo Bhattacharya’s The Man from the Future, which explores the genius of John von Neumann:

Von Neumann’s genius was apparent early. In 1915, at the age of 11, he had gone to the famous gymnasium school in his native Budapest; the “legendary” maths teacher, László Rátz, immediately realised that von Neumann was beyond his ability to teach, and sent him for extra tuition at the local university. There he was mentored by Gábor Szegö, later head of Stanford’s maths department, who was “moved to tears” by his brilliance.

At 17, still at high school, he partly rescued Cantor’s set theory, the basis of much mathematical theory, from a crippling paradox. A couple of years later, he helped reconcile Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger’s rival models of quantum mechanics. In the early Thirties, he met the astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and worked with him on general relativity and the behaviour of stellar clusters. Chandrasekhar would later tell an interviewer, “If I say, ‘He reminds me of von Neumann,’ that’s about the best compliment I can give anyone.”

Von Neumamm read some Alan Turing research which imagined a hypothetical computing machine, and saw how to build a working computer. The paper he produced building on Turing’s ideas is considered “the birth certificate of modern computers”, according to the computer scientist Wolfgang Coy. With his wife Kläri, and Ulam, he pioneered Monte Carlo simulations, vital now in climate modelling and a million other fields.


What created this genius? Bhattacharya does not speculate a great deal, but there are things worth considering. First, simple genetics: his family was high-achieving. His father was a doctor of law and an economic adviser to the Hungarian government; his uneducated maternal grandfather apparently could “add or multiply numbers into the millions” in his head instantly, a trick von Neumann emulated. The family was “puzzled” by their son’s inability to play the piano properly at the age of five, suggesting rather higher expectations than most. But it turned out to be because he “had taken to propping up books on his music stand so he could read while ‘practising’”.

He also grew up in a fertile environment. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Budapest Jewish community of which he was part produced an astonishing number of great thinkers. Near-contemporaries included Dennis Gabor, “who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1971 for inventing the hologram”; Theodore von Kármán, after whom the “Kármán line” is named, denoting the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space; and Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard, three of the greatest minds behind the Manhattan Project. The atomic bomb has been described as a “Hungarian high school science fair project”.

Vials labeled “smallpox” discovered at Merck lab near Philadelphia

Thursday, November 18th, 2021

A Merck vaccine research lab in the Philadelphia area was temporarily placed on lockdown Tuesday night after the discovery of “questionable” vials inside a freezer that were labeled “smallpox” and “vaccinia,” according to an alert received by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:

Fifteen frozen vials were found at the research facility, including 10 labeled as “smallpox” and five as “vaccinia.” Both are members of the poxvirus family, but the virus that causes smallpox was a particularly deadly scourge until it was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980.

The facility was placed on lockdown by the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but reportedly was lifted after an initial investigation.

Merck has a pair of facilities in Montgomery County in West Point and North Wales, but authorities have not identified the specific lab where the lockdown occurred.