There are other reasons why stories are remembered

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

I recently shared an interview with Frank Herbert, where he and Professor McNelly discuss, among other things, why stories are remembered:

Willis McNelly: I have said this to my classes that, in many ways as satisfying as “Dune” is, I find it unsatisfying because there are so many unanswered questions; you don’t tie up the loose ends of, say, Paul’s sister, unless you read…what is it?.. a “Huntress of a Thousand Worlds” (Laughter)…that marvellous little…little footnote of Princess Alia. But… or several other things. The whole question of the Spacing Guild itself and how it got to be the way it was is handled very…you know…

Frank Herbert: Well, let’s…let’s examine something, as far as fiction in general is concerned…

WM: All right.

FH: Now there are other reasons why stories are remembered, and I’m talking about story in the classic sense of the knights who goes from castle to castle to earn his meal.

WM: All right.

FH: Entertainment…

WM: Sure.

FH: The stories that are remembered are the ones that strike sparks from your mind, one way or another. It’s like a grinding wheel. They touch you and sparks fly.

WM: Would this be something like the Miller’s tale of Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if you please?

FH: Yes, indeed.

WM: Or, well, we could adduce thousands of other examples up to, say, Treasure Island or what you will. There’s sparks there.


WM: I understand your term.

FH: Now we all have stories that we go on with after we finish reading them. As children, we can remember playing Treasure Island…

WM: Or playing Tom Sawyer…

FH: Or Tom Sawyer…any of these. We remember playing these. The story stayed with us…the characters and their conflicts, their joys, their play all stayed with us.

WM: And it enkindled sparks in our own imagination, so that we were then active in creative play.

FH: That’s exactly right! We went on and told the story ourself…

WM: Yes.

FH: Now, I deliberately did this in “Dune” for that purpose. I want the person to go on and construct for himself all of these marvellous flights of fantasy and imagination. I want him to…you see, you haven’t had the Spacing Guild explained completely…just enough so that you know its existence. Now with lots of people, they’ve got to complete this.

WM: Yes.

FH: So they build it up in their own minds. Now this is right out of the story, though, you see…

WM: Yes. Or the whole…

FH: The sparks have flown.

I found this almost ironic, since I had just watched the first episode of Netflix’s The Toys that Made Us, about the original Star Wars toys, which no major toy manufacturer was willing to produce. Only Kenner was willing to take on the project, because Bernard Loomis recognized how toyetic the new film would be. Millions of kids would go on to play out their own versions of Star Wars, never knowing how heavily it borrowed from Dune.

Give them living eulogies

Sunday, February 4th, 2018

Megan McArdle offers her own 12 rules for life:

  1. Be kind. Mean is easy; kind is hard.
  2. Politics is not the most important thing in the world. It’s just the one people talk about the most.
  3. Always order one extra dish at a restaurant, an unfamiliar one.
  4. Give yourself permission to be bad.
  5. Go to the party even when you don’t want to.
  6. Save 25 percent of your income.
  7. Don’t just pay people compliments; give them living eulogies.
  8. That thing you kinda want to do someday? Do it now.
  9. Human beings are often splendid, the world is often glorious, and nature, red in tooth and claw, also invented kindness, charity and love. Believe in that.
  10. Don’t try to resolve fundamental conflicts with your spouse or roommates.
  11. Be grateful. No matter how awful your life seems at the moment, you have something to be grateful for.
  12. Always make more dinner rolls than you think you can eat.

I’ve been blogging for 15 years!

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Our Slovenian guest brought it to my attention that I’ve been blogging for 15 years! I don’t have Google Analytics going back to January, 2003, when this site was still hosted on, but I do have data going pretty far back, to December 2005, and my top posts over the years make an eclectic list:

  1. Icelandic skipper kills shark with bare hands (2003)
  2. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics (2008)
  3. A One-Way Ticket to Mars (2009)
  4. Stalin’s half-man, half-ape super-warriors (2005)
  5. Rich, Black, Flunking (2009)
  6. The ‘Israelification’ of airports (2010)
  7. Foux du Fafa (Foux Da Fa Fa) (2007)
  8. He-Man Opening Monologue (2007)
  9. Archetypal Stories (2004)
  10. Myostatin, Belgian Blue, and Flex Wheeler (2004)

It all started as a way to share interesting links with friends and family and evolved into a digital commonplace book. I didn’t plan on accumulating a couple million page views.

(By the way, my first post was Foreign Scientists Are Stranded By Post-9/11 Security Concerns. Our Slovenian guest asked, “Whatever happened to the mentioned Heng Zhu? I hope to find out soon.” Well, a quick search shows that he made it back into the country and into an important position at Johns Hopkins‘ High Throughput Biology Center.)

I suppose this is a good time to ask you, my gentle readers, how did you find this blog? And what keeps you coming back?

Even nomads take snow days

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Modern nomad Aaron Gulley experiences extreme digital detox in the tundra of Siberia:

Alexey lies in his bed of frost-dusted furs, his breath rising in tendrils like woodsmoke.

In the ashen dawn light inside the chum, a reindeer-hide tepee, I watch slivers of snow slip through crevices at the tent’s apex around the stovepipe. Alexey’s wife, Rosa, clambers up from beside him, rips birch bark from branches stored beneath the stove to coax the embers to flame, then steps outside into a maelstrom of snow.

A storm has blown in overnight, a complication for the Nenets, a tribe of reindeer herders who move their animals across Siberia’s frozen tundra twice a year. The 20-person group, six families known as Brigade 20, have been camped in the same exposed spot for three days with about 3,000 reindeer, and the animals have nearly exhausted the forage. They must cross the Gulf of Ob, a 30-mile-wide ice sheet that separates the Nenets’ winter and summer grounds, before the spring thaw. But March has been unseasonably warm, with temperatures hovering around freezing for the past week, and if conditions persist, the crossing could become perilous. Today’s objective is to close half the 15 miles to the southern gulf, but with the tundra suddenly turned opaque with falling snow, that seems unlikely.

“If you want to know the weather,” Alexey says, exiting, “you have to ask the sky.”

Two days earlier, I, along with 11 other paying tourists and three guides, joined the Nenets on a $4,646, ten-day trip that would take us as far away from the comforts of modern life as possible. Our outfitter, a British tour company called Secret Compass that organizes adventures to some of the planet’s most remote places, presented the journey as both an escape from the relentless grind of the West and an immersion into one of the world’s last nomadic cultures. The landscape, a roadless expanse of central Russia above the Arctic Circle, was daunting, but it was the cold that I found most intimidating. During our first night on the tundra, as we headed into the bleak wilderness with the temperature plummeting below zero, I realized that without the Nenets’ guidance, we’d likely freeze to death within hours.

Inside the chum, a few minutes after Alexey goes out to check the weather, I rise from my bed on the ground, slip the reindeer-fur cloak that I’ve been sleeping beneath over my head, then exit through the flap that serves as the front door. Outside, Alexey battles to keep his cigarette lit amid clots of wet snow blasting sideways. He motions me back inside. We aren’t going anywhere. Following Alexey’s lead, I cozy up under my furs. Even nomads take snow days.

42 rules for dealing with Life, the Universe, and Everything

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s answer to What are the most valuable things everyone should know? garnered quite a bit of attention and led him to consider writing a book of his rules, rather than a simplified version of his Maps of Meaning for a popular audience:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Do not do things that you hate.
  • Act so that you can tell the truth about how you act.
  • Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
  • If you have to choose, be the one who does things, instead of the one who is seen to do things.
  • Pay attention.
  • Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you need to know. Listen to them hard enough so that they will share it with you.
  • Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationships.
  • Be careful who you share good news with.
  • Be careful who you share bad news with.
  • Make at least one thing better every single place you go.
  • Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.
  • Do not allow yourself to become arrogant or resentful.
  • Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.
  • Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  • Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
  • If old memories still make you cry, write them down carefully and completely.
  • Maintain your connections with people.
  • Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or artistic achievement.
  • Treat yourself as if you were someone that you are responsible for helping.
  • Ask someone to do you a small favour, so that he or she can ask you to do one in the future.
  • Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  • Do not try to rescue someone who does not want to be rescued, and be very careful about rescuing someone who does.
  • Nothing well done is insignificant.
  • Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  • Dress like the person you want to be.
  • Be precise in your speech.
  • Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  • Don’t avoid something frightening if it stands in your way — and don’t do unnecessarily dangerous things.
  • Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  • Do not transform your wife into a maid.
  • Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
  • Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
  • Read something written by someone great.
  • Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
  • Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  • Don’t let bullies get away with it.
  • Write a letter to the government if you see something that needs fixing — and propose a solution.
  • Remember that what you do not yet know is more important than what you already know.
  • Be grateful in spite of your suffering.

He thought he’d title his book 42 and include 42 rules for dealing with Life, the Universe, and Everything, but he instead pared it down to 12 Rules for Life.

Here he gives a preview:

His former student, Gregg Hurwitz, included the (older) rules in his thriller Orphan X.

Popular Posts of 2017

Monday, January 1st, 2018

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2017. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year, three of which are new, seven of which are older:

  1. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics
  2. Polar Bear Turns Purple After Medication
  3. Fast Friends Protocol
  4. He-Man Opening Monologue
  5. The Father of Social-Science
  6. Observations from Actual Shootings
  7. Summary of the Fate of Empires
  8. John Danaher on Mayweather-McGregor (new)
  9. The Nine Strategic Consequences of Chinese Racism (new)
  10. Erik Prince’s Training Bases in China (new)

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2017 and not from an earlier year:

  1. John Danaher on Mayweather-McGregor
  2. The Nine Strategic Consequences of Chinese Racism
  3. Erik Prince’s Training Bases in China
  4. The very bottom 14% have very simple skills
  5. Teenagers and the Education Apocalypse
  6. The easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere
  7. African farmers’ kids conquer the marshmallow test
  8. There might be something amiss with our institutions of higher education
  9. The rest of us are end users
  10. This isn’t the “PC police” talking

Again, I’m not sure what to conclude.

Also, I should thank some of my top referrers: Reaction Times, Social MatterZ ManMapping The Dark EnlightenmentFree Northerner (despite going dormant!)Ex-Army (despite disappearing completely!)Outside In, and Amerika (new to the list!).

God Jul!

Monday, December 25th, 2017

Please enjoy these yuletide posts of Christmas Past:

Saturnalia gift ideas from Martial

Thursday, December 21st, 2017

Martial‘s Epigrams include his list of 223 Saturnalie gift ideas — some of which seem timeless; some of which don’t.

An ordinary politician would have been powerless

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

Ryan Holiday describes the most durable form of influence and power:

In 1931, Winston Churchill found himself more or less exiled from political life. In the previous years he had found himself vehemently fighting members of his own party over a number of issues and when a new government was formed, Churchill was not invited. He was viewed as out of date and out of touch by his fellow politicians and so began a period now known as his “wilderness years.”

An ordinary politician would have been powerless when voted out of office or driven to the fringes by political enemies. Not Churchill. Because he held onto something even more valuable than office — he had a platform.

Most people are unaware that Churchill made his living as a writer, publishing some ten million words in his lifetime in hundreds of publications and published works. In fact, it was his enormous worldwide readership that Churchill cultivated through books, newspaper columns, and radio appearances that allowed him to survive the periods in which he did not have the ability to directly shape policy. Instead, he was able to reach directly to the people about the rising threat of world war, not just in Britain but worldwide, including in America.

During his infamous time in the so-called political wilderness between 1931 and 1939, Churchill published 11 volumes and more than 400 articles, and delivered more than 350 speeches. His enormous platform — based on his editorial contacts, his extraordinary gift with words, and his relentless energy — allowed him not only to be relevant but also to guide policy and opinion across the globe until he was eventually brought back in to save Britain and eventually and in many ways, the world. For any kind of leader, creator or entrepreneur, this kind of platform is essential. Because it is the ultimate insurance policy and the most durable form of influence and power.

He presents another, quite different example:

Think about a band like Iron Maiden — radio hasn’t played their kind of music since the mid 80′s. MTV hasn’t played their kind of videos in almost as long. But in that time they’ve put out a dozen albums which have sold millions of copies. How? Because their relationship was directly with their audience. They had a platform. They have an enormous email list.

They had 1,000 true fans.

It can be far worse than laziness

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

Overanalysis has been Tim Ferriss’s life story:

It can be far worse than laziness, as overanalysis leads to the same lack of action but ALSO self-loathing.

What helped me quite a bit was studying military history, military strategy, and decisive battles (check out Blink and Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership).

The stories informed how I overcame paralysis by analysis. Step one is set deadlines for decisions. In warfare, you rarely have complete information, and if you wait to push certainty from 75% to 85%, say, that lag time could cause you to lose advantage and opportunity. It’s the same in many parts of life.

So I set deadlines. By X point in time, I must make a go or no-go decision, no matter how much or how little information I have. Furthermore, I try and figure out small, short-term, low-risk experiments (e.g., split testing, hiring a contractor to design mockups) I can run as “go” decisions, so that I don’t perceive action as high-risk.

So, in short: set deadlines for decisions (put them in your calendar or they aren’t real) and break large intimidating actions/projects into tiny mini-experiments that allow you to overcome fear of failure. Once you have a little momentum, the paralysis usually disappears on its own.

Hope that helps!


But what does he really mean by overanalysis?

All Hallows’ Eve

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

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

The DNA from both wolves and dogs brings big advantages

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

The coywolf — a combination of wolf, coyote and dog — is greater than the sum of its parts:

Some call this creature the eastern coyote. Others, though, have dubbed it the “coywolf”. Whatever name it goes by, Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, reckons it now numbers in the millions.

The mixing of genes that has created the coywolf has been more rapid, pervasive and transformational than many once thought. Javier Monzon, who worked until recently at Stony Brook University in New York state (he is now at Pepperdine University, in California) studied the genetic make-up of 437 of the animals, in ten north-eastern states plus Ontario. He worked out that, though coyote DNA dominates, a tenth of the average coywolf’s genetic material is dog and a quarter is wolf.

The DNA from both wolves and dogs (the latter mostly large breeds, like Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds), brings big advantages, says Dr Kays. At 25kg or more, many coywolves have twice the heft of purebred coyotes. With larger jaws, more muscle and faster legs, individual coywolves can take down small deer. A pack of them can even kill a moose.


Coyotes dislike hunting in forests. Wolves prefer it. Interbreeding has produced an animal skilled at catching prey in both open terrain and densely wooded areas, says Dr Kays. And even their cries blend those of their ancestors. The first part of a howl resembles a wolf’s (with a deep pitch), but this then turns into a higher-pitched, coyote-like yipping.

The animal’s range has encompassed America’s entire north-east, urban areas included, for at least a decade, and is continuing to expand in the south-east following coywolves’ arrival there half a century ago. This is astonishing. Purebred coyotes never managed to establish themselves east of the prairies. Wolves were killed off in eastern forests long ago. But by combining their DNA, the two have given rise to an animal that is able to spread into a vast and otherwise uninhabitable territory. Indeed, coywolves are now living even in large cities, like Boston, Washington and New York. According to Chris Nagy of the Gotham Coyote Project, which studies them in New York, the Big Apple already has about 20, and numbers are rising.

Some speculate that this adaptability to city life is because coywolves’ dog DNA has made them more tolerant of people and noise, perhaps counteracting the genetic material from wolves — an animal that dislikes humans. And interbreeding may have helped coywolves urbanise in another way, too, by broadening [their] diet. Having versatile tastes is handy for city living. Coywolves eat pumpkins, watermelons and other garden produce, as well as discarded food. They also eat rodents and other smallish mammals. Many lawns and parks are kept clear of thick underbrush, so catching squirrels and pets is easy. Cats are typically eaten skull and all, with clues left only in the droppings.

Thanks to this bounty, an urban coywolf need occupy only half the territory it would require in the countryside. And getting into town is easy. Railways provide corridors that make the trip simple for animals as well as people.

Surviving once there, though, requires a low profile. As well as having small territories, coywolves have adjusted to city life by becoming nocturnal. They have also learned the Highway Code, looking both ways before they cross a road. Dr Kays marvels at this “amazing contemporary evolution story that’s happening right underneath our nose”.

Inaccurate shots could still plunge into areas where people were huddled

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

The New York Times managed to get someone experienced with guns and combat — former Marine infantry officer C.J. Chivers — to explain how the gunman’s vantage point and preparations opened the way for mass slaughter:

The possibility that Mr. Paddock used tripods, which two law enforcement officials said were in the room, indicates that he understood how to overcome some of the difficulties of his plan. Special mounts designed to fit the underside of a rifle and sit atop camera tripods allow the gunman to fire more accurately while standing. Military snipers use tripods in urban spaces, often setting themselves back from a window so neither they nor their weapons can be seen from the streets below.

These preparations, along with the downward angle of Mr. Paddock’s gunfire and the density of concertgoers, would make the shooting more lethal than it might otherwise have been, and more difficult to counter or escape.

When the gunshots started, videos showed, those in front of the stage dropped to their stomachs — often an adequate first measure when under fire. But on Sunday night, the decision potentially put them at greater risk.

Mr. Paddock’s position overhead gave him a vantage point over objects and obstacles that would typically protect people from bullets flying from a gunman at ground level. It also meant that inaccurate shots — the sort common to rapid or hurried fire, which typically sail high or strike the ground short — could still plunge into areas where people were huddled.


Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of Clark County, Nev., said that at least 16 rifles, ranging from .308 to .223 caliber, and a handgun were retrieved from Mr. Paddock’s hotel room. A federal law enforcement official said that AR-15-style rifles were among them. The authorities did not detail all of the guns, or which weapons Mr. Paddock fired.

Several pounds of a nonflammable exploding target used for practice were recovered from Mr. Paddock’s home in Mesquite, about an hour outside Las Vegas, Sheriff Lombardo said. Ammonium nitrate was found in Mr. Paddock’s car in Las Vegas, the sheriff said, but he did not say how much was recovered.


The duration of the bursts, as recorded, suggest that Mr. Paddock cared little about the military’s prescriptions for automatic fire. Sustained rapid fire is difficult to control and causes many weapons, especially light weapons, to overheat quickly.

I wouldn’t think to use a light camera tripod for full-auto fire.

No training variable meaningfully predicted injury risk

Monday, September 11th, 2017

A recent survey of 1,900 powerlifters looked at injury rates:

Men were much more likely to have sustained an acute injury than women; roughly two-thirds of men had sustained at least one acute injury in their training career, whereas only about one-half of women had sustained at least one acute injury.  This held true even when controlling for training age and competitive success.

Unsurprisingly, people who’d been training longer were more likely to have sustained an acute injury than newer lifters.

Lifters who had sustained at least one acute injury were relatively stronger (assessed via allometric scaling), competed more frequently, and were more likely to have previously dealt with a chronic injury than lifters who had never sustained an acute injury.  All of those factors were also (unsurprisingly) associated with time spent training, but were still independently predictive of having experienced an acute injury, meaning stronger lifters and lifters who competed more often were more likely to have experienced an injury regardless of training experience.

The most surprising finding of this analysis was that no training variable meaningfully predicted injury risk, including weekly training volume, per-lift training frequency, or proportion of training with loads in excess of 85% of 1RM.

There are two kinds of popularity, and we are choosing the wrong one

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

There are two kinds of popularity, and we are choosing the wrong one:

Some people are popular because they are likable — their peers like them, trust them, and want to be with them. Others are popular because they somehow gain a certain status, and use that power to wield influence over others (ie, high school).

Which kind of popularity you pursue matters, says Mitch Prinstein, a professor and director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina. He recently published Popular: The Power of Likability In A Status-Obsessed World.

Prinstein delves into reams of research about what popularity is, and what effects it has on us. He shows that people who seek to be likable tend to end up healthier, in better relationships, with more fulfilling work, and even live longer. Status-seekers, on the other hand, often end up anxious, depressed, and with addiction problems.

In the age of Instagram, it’s no shock that most of us are gravitating to the wrong kind.


“The world has become a perpetual high school,” Prinstein says. “We can live in that adolescent mindset for the rest of our lives if we are not careful.”


For boys, there is some correlation between likability and status; it is possible to be high-status and liked. For girls, there is no correlation. Thus, the high-status girl in high school who is socially shrewd, beautiful, and effortlessly popular — ie, the stereotypical “mean girl” — becomes the paragon of what popularity looks like. Girls use “relational aggression” to maintain their power over others. Building status is not about developing relationships but dominating others, which ultimately makes many popular but unlikeable.