The Japanese should have looked East

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

In Ghost Fleet, the Americans should have looked up. The Japanese should have looked East:

The U.S.-Japanese combined air-defense network was designed for a threat from China, to the west. And east was where Denisov and his twenty-two other fighter-bombers had launched from the Admiral Kuznetsov.

The Russian aircraft carrier was believed to be on exercises in the North Pacific, out of range of Chinese airstrikes. In fact, it had waited for a gap in satellite coverage and darted south at thirty knots for eight hours, moving just within the strike package’s range.

The MiGs flew in fast and low, and, once they were over Japan, they popped up to mimic the flight paths that commuter jets took from Narita Airport.

[...]

Denisov’s radio picked up the frantic calls of the air traffic controller. He hit the button and a digital recording began to play. It sounded like gibberish to him, but the FSB officer back on the Kuznetsov had been clear about the need to play it at just this moment.

To the air traffic controller on the ground, it sounded like the pilot of one of Sony’s executive jets was having a heart attack.

As the MiGs passed Miyazaki and turned again toward the Ryukyu Islands, it was clear that the defenses were finally onto them. Denisov’s radar scope showed four Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15s were vectoring as fast as they could, but they wouldn’t get there in time. The ruse had bought Denisov only a few minutes, but it should be enough.

[...]

He expected losses today, but also success. His latest imagery of one of his targets showed just eleven U.S. aircraft parked inside their hardened hangars. Dozens remained out in the open, as usual.

The MiGs dove to low altitude and pushed forward to their full sea-level velocity of nearly fifteen hundred kilometers per hour, well over the speed of sound. The new MiG-35Ks were called fourth-generation-plus fighters by the Americans. They weren’t fully stealthy, but they had a significantly reduced radar signature.

Each second counted now. When the jets neared Okinawa, Denisov’s radar-warning receiver lit with a pulsing red icon. The Patriot IV missile batteries that the Japanese had acquired from the Americans were tracking his low-flying fighter. They had him in their sights and could knock him down at will.

This was a crucial component of the plan. He took a deep breath and waited, telling himself that the missiles were threats only if someone pushed the launch button. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Forces, however, were not authorized to fire on targets without permission from that country’s civilian leadership. The gamble was that permission wouldn’t come in time. Two decades of near-daily airspace incursions by Chinese aircraft would have desensitized the Japanese, plus their communications networks were supposed to have been knocked offline by cyber-attacks. At least, that was the plan.

[...]

The only sounds on the radio this time were digital recordings of the voices of American F-22 Raptor pilots copied by a surveillance ship that had monitored the RIMPAC war games held each year off Hawaii. Anything to create uncertainty and delay the Japanese and American response by just a few more seconds.

The silent progress of an icon in his jet’s heads-up display told him he had arrived: Kadena Air Base. His war started here.

A flash of movement caught Denisov’s eye as four dark gray darts raced ahead of his squadron. It was a volley of Sokols (Falcons)29 fired by his second flight. A sort of miniaturized cruise missile, the electromagnetic weapon used pulses of directed energy to knock out air-defense and communications systems. Following a preprogrammed course, the flight of Falcon missiles separated, each leaving a swatch of electronic dead zone behind it.

If his flight’s opening shots were silent, the next wave of destruction would be deafening. Denisov released four RBK-500 cluster bombs30 over the unprotected U.S. Air Force planes parked near the base’s three-and-a-half-kilometer-long runway. As he banked his MiG, he caught a glimpse of an F-35A Lightning II31 being towed out of its hangar in a rush to confront him. His MiG was designed to be a match for the F-35, and the pilots of both had always wondered how the planes would actually stack up against each other. It would have to wait for some other time. The RBK canisters opened up behind Denisov’s plane, releasing hundreds of cluster bomblets, each the size of a beer can. Tiny parachutes deployed and the cans drifted toward the ground.

When proximity fuses detected that they were ten meters from the ground, the cans exploded, one after another. Hundreds of explosions ripped across the air base, blowing open scores of the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced fighters.

Denisov’s wingman made the next run and dropped three penetrating anti-runway bombs. The hardened tips of the massive bombs buried themselves almost five meters into the runway’s concrete and then detonated with more than fifteen hundred kilograms’ worth of explosives. While the limited number of American jets protected in hardened hangars might survive Denisov’s bombs, none would be taking off from the biggest U.S. air base in the Pacific for days, if not weeks.

Six kilometers away, the flight’s two trailing MiG-35Ks split past each other and then banked back hard as they raced toward the center of an imaginary X. That X was located in the middle of the largest U.S. Marine Corps base in Japan.

[...]

At the imaginary point of their crossing lines, the MiGs dropped four KAB-1500S thermobaric bombs, each weighing just over thirteen hundred kilograms. The bombs opened to release a massive cloud of explosive vapor, which was then ignited by a separate charge. It was the largest explosion Japan had experienced since Nagasaki, and it left a similar mushroom cloud of smoke and dust hanging over the base as the jets flew away.

[...]

He wasn’t sure the Americans would appreciate the irony of the Russians following the same plan of attack the Americans had used on the Japanese some eighty years earlier, but Plan Doolittle had worked.

[...]

That was the other part they’d copied from the raid the Americans had pulled back in the early months of their previous war in the Pacific: by coming in from an unexpected approach and making it a one-direction flight, they could strike at twice the range the enemy believed possible.

The Russian navy had held up its end; now it had to trust that the Chinese aerial refueling tankers would be there as promised.

T. Greer recently asked, At what point is defending Japan no longer worth it?

There’s a simple rule of simul-climbing

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Rock-climber Emily Harrington was making a one-day free attempt on the 5.13 Golden Gate route up Yosemite’s El Capitan, when her foot slipped, and she fell:

Having Honnold on board as a belay partner was only one part of a strategy that would need to work perfectly in order for Harrington to become the first woman and fourth person to free climb Golden Gate in a day. She’d been working through the moves of the route for years. In 2015, she freeclimbed it in six days. And on November 7 of this year, she came heartbreakingly close, climbing all but the last 30 feet of the final 5.13 pitch before exhaustion overtook her. “It’s not about the hard pitches,” she explains. “It’s about the accumulation of fatigue. Even the 5.10 pitches are really physical, so it becomes this huge endurance challenge that a lot of climbers don’t quite grasp.”

[...]

To stack the deck in her favor, she and Honnold planned to use a technique called simul-climbing, a time-saving high-risk endeavor in which the leader and follower both advance at the same time. The leader places gear sparingly, “running it out,” as they say, while the follower cleans the gear. By leaving huge gaps between placements and climbing simultaneously, a team can cover four pitches with the amount of gear and time that it typically takes to finish one. The tradeoff is, of course, safety. If the follower slips, he pulls the leader off with him. If the leader falls, she takes an enormous fall that must be caught by a belayer who is focused on climbing.

“You have to conserve your gear,” says Harrington. “Instead of climbing the Freeblast in 12 pitches, we planned to climb it in four pitches.” The Freeblast, for people who remember the movie Free Solo, is the lower, less-than vertical-section of Freerider/Golden Gate where the climbing isn’t technically as difficult as the upper sections, but it’s slabby, slippery, and what Harrington generally characterizes as “insecure.”

“It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s easy for your fingers and feet to be numb and to slip unexpectedly,” says Honnold. When he made his abortive attempt on Freerider early in Free Solo, it was the Freeblast section that turned him around rather than the most difficult sections up high. Harrington is a 5.14 climber. When she slipped, she was making the last move of a 5.10c pitch while navigating a pair of twin cracks. Just a few feet above her was a fixed bolt she could have clipped for ultimate safety.

About 150 feet below, Honnold was belaying Harrington when he heard her scream. “I was sitting on the ground tying my shoes, getting ready to start simul-climbing,” says Honnold. “Tons of slack just pools on the ground, which is consistent with huge falls.” The phenomenon occurs when the leader is falling but still above her last piece of gear. “The rope is falling at the same speed as the climber,” says Honnold. “It’s just physics.”

Honnold was belaying with a gri-gri, a mechanical device that’s a little bit like the cams in a car seat belt. Its mechanism allows the rope to slide smoothly through it at low speeds but locks down tight if you try to pull the rope through it with any kind of jarring motion. But the energy of the fall never actually reached the gri-gri. In most circumstances, a belayer’s hand is never supposed to leave the rope. But at the highest echelons of simul-climbing, that’s just not an option. The follower has to climb and remove gear from the wall while also belaying the leader. That’s why there’s a simple rule of simul-climbing: don’t fall.

[...]

At the hospital, her injuries proved to be gruesome but largely superficial. Most shockingly, Harrington had somehow managed to get her neck caught in the rope during the fall and was left with a long bruise that made it look like she’d been strangled. Ultimately she was able to walk out of the hospital a day later.

[...]

Honnold, who is famously dry when it comes to assessing risk, doesn’t view it as a cautionary tale: “In a lot of ways, this shows that the techniques actually work,” says Honnold. “She took one of the worst possible falls on the whole route and still wound up basically fine.”

[...]

Ultimately, though, Harrington herself sees the accident as a validation, if a painful one: “The system worked. The rope caught me. My gear held,” she says. “I’ll try again in spring.”

Happy Turkey Day!

Thursday, November 28th, 2019

I don’t discuss Thanksgiving nearly as much as Halloween:

Happy Halloween

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

I’m always surprised by how much I’ve written about Halloween and horror over the years:

The best offenses use the width and the depth of the field

Monday, October 14th, 2019

NFL offenses averaged more points per possession and yards per play last year than ever before by challenging defenses to cover the entire football field:

Fifty years ago, college football was upended by an idea that began this way of thinking. It was a formation called the wishbone. Texas used it to win 30 consecutive games, and other powerhouses like Alabama and Oklahoma soon followed en route to national championships of their own.

The wishbone was based on the concept of the triple-option. A quarterback could hand off, run the ball himself, or later pitch it to another running back. Passing was a rarity. But this antiquated offense was also futuristic: it took advantage of the vast width of a football field. Running was no longer limited to a singular direction. Defenders had to make a choice between going after the guy with the ball, or the one who would later receive it.

But the wishbone shunted another dimension. Because passing was such an afterthought, wishbone teams didn’t push the ball vertically. When Texas went undefeated in 1969, the Longhorns ran for 3,630 yards and passed for only 1,091.

“The best offenses use the width—and the depth of the field,” McVay says.

Other scheming minds looked for an edge by revolutionizing the passing game. The “West Coast Offense,” which Bill Walsh used to win three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, attacked the edges of the field with a preponderance of higher percentage, shorter-length passes. Observers likened it to reconstructing the running game into a passing attack.

Other twists opened up the vertical element. In 1980, the Chargers broke the NFL record for most passing yards in a season, and by 1985 they had five of the six most prolific passing years ever. They did it with a self-explanatory offense called “Air Coryell.” Their coach, Don Coryell, wanted to air the ball as far down field as frequently as possible.

Still, there was a lingering question: how could an offense attack defenses in every direction on every play? The solution was hiding in plain sight—in college football. It just took shockingly long to trickle up to the pros.

In 2000, the same season the Ravens won the Super Bowl with one of the best defenses in NFL history, something far more important happened: Northwestern won a bunch of football games. The Wildcats didn’t invent the spread offense, but when a bunch of eggheads started using it to topple powerhouses, the whole football world had to pay attention. They beat No. 7 Wisconsin, thumped No. 18 Michigan State and then toppled No. 12 Michigan 54-51 in a nationally televised thriller.

“I saw them almost scoring at will,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said afterward.

Variations of the spread proliferated across college football. Teams lined up wide on every play with four or five receivers. They played almost exclusively out of the shotgun. The most radical teams adopted an extreme version known as the “Air Raid,” which played at hyperspeed and eschewed the idea of striking a balance between running plays and passing plays.

[...]

In 2001, NFL teams used the shotgun on just 14% of plays, according to Football Outsiders. In 2006, it was still just 20%. By last season, that had skyrocketed to 64%. [...] The Chiefs lined up in the shotgun on 81% of snaps last year.

A few years ago, Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, looked at Texas Tech’s unorthodox offense.

Can the Aussies make punting interesting?

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Five years ago Steve Sailer got a neighbor’s tickets to the Rose Bowl and spotted an unusual punter on the Utah team. Watching Utah’s Hackett punt was “like watching golfer Phil Mickelson play around the green”:

For example, on one punt from inside the 50, the kind of situation where an American punter normally blasts it into the end zone for a touchback, Hackett took the snap, sprinted to his right like it was a fake punt, then blasted a diagonal punt across the field to his left, knocking it out of bounds around UCLA’s 10 yard line.

Hackett normally ran for one to two seconds with the ball before punting, which looked bizarre to this American football fan, but offered several advantages.

  • Running to his right could give him a better angle at kicking the ball over the left sideline within the 20.
  • It made it harder for the defense to plan to block the punt since he could pick a lane without defensive penetration.
  • He punted while running forward, while typical American punters punt while walking forward. This increased forward momentum translates into longer punts.
  • By not punting immediately, he gained the equivalent amount of “hang-time” for his teammates to get downfield and cover the punt. Hackett tended to kick the ball with a different trajectory from American punters who aim for height — his punts were like a 1970s Jack Nicklaus tee-shot, starting out low, then rising in arc. Some of his punts were designed to roll forward like a modern teeshot, while ones in danger of going over the goalline were crafted to roll backwards.

Now ESPN is writing about the Australian pipeline to American football, and Sailer is justly proud of his insight:

(This is one of the rare occasions I’ve been ahead of the curve on sports, so I’m tooting my own horn here.)

My guess is that in the long run, Americans will figure out how to teach their own kids these superior techniques, so in a few decades, Americans will once again dominate the ranks of NFL punters, just as the soccer-style kicker revolution in American football in the 1960s-1970s wound up with an influx of foreign Garo Yepremian-style kickers, but now is back to being predominately American kickers using the once foreign style.

Scientists are hoping to train the body to accept new organs

Monday, February 11th, 2019

Before the discovery of anti-rejection drugs, organ transplants were simply impossible, but anti-rejection drugs are immune-depressant drugs. Now scientists are hoping to train the body to accept new organs:

In 1953, Dr. Peter Medawar and his colleagues in Britain did an experiment with a result so stunning that he shared a Nobel Prize for it. He showed that it was possible to “train” the immune systems of mice so that they would not reject tissue transplanted from other mice.

His method was not exactly practical. It involved injecting newborn or fetal mice with white blood cells from unrelated mice. When the mice were adults, researchers placed skin grafts from the unrelated mice onto the backs of those that had received the blood cells.

The mice accepted the grafts as if they were their own skin, suggesting that the immune system can be modified. The study led to a scientific quest to find a way to train the immune systems of adults who needed new organs.

[...]

Many types of white blood cells work together to create and control immune responses. A number of researchers, including Dr. Markmann and his colleague, Dr. Eva Guinan of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, chose to focus on cells called regulatory T lymphocytes.

These are rare white blood cells that help the body identify its own cells as not foreign. If these regulatory cells are missing or impaired, people can develop diseases in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs.

The idea is to isolate regulatory T cells from a patient about to have a liver or kidney transplant. Then scientists attempt to grow them in the lab along with cells from the donor.

Then the T cells are infused back to the patient. The process, scientists hope, will teach the immune system to accept the donated organ as part of the patient’s body.

“The new T cells signal the rest of the immune system to leave the organ alone,” said Angus Thomson, director of transplant immunology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Dr. Markmann, working with liver transplant patients, and Dr. Leventhal, working with kidney transplant patients, are starting studies using regulatory T cells.

At Pittsburgh, the plan is to modify a different immune system cell, called regulatory dendritic cells. Like regulatory T cells, they are rare and enable the rest of the immune system to distinguish self from non-self.

One advantage of regulatory dendritic cells is that researchers do not have to isolate them and grow them in sufficient quantities. Instead, scientists can prod a more abundant type of cell — immature white blood cells — to turn into dendritic cells in petri dishes.

“It takes one week to generate dendritic cells,” Dr. Thomson said. In contrast, it can take weeks to grow enough regulatory T cells.

The regulatory T cells also have to remain in the bloodstream to control the immune response, while dendritic cells need not stay around long — they control the immune system during a brief journey through the circulation.

“Each of us is taking advantage of a different approach,” Dr. Markmann said. “It is not clear yet which is best. But the field is at a fascinating point.”

They aren’t gaming the system

Saturday, January 26th, 2019

Amazon isn’t just the world’s largest book retailer. It’s also a publisher:

When veteran book author Mark Sullivan tried to sell a World War II saga in 2015, eight New York book publishers rejected it. Then Amazon’s publishing arm scooped up Beneath a Scarlet Sky for an advance in the low five figures.

The novel was released in 2017 and featured on Amazon First Reads. The online promotion also is emailed each month to more than 7 million U.S. subscribers and exclusively showcases titles from Amazon Publishing.

“Wham, we get 300,000 downloads,” said Mr. Sullivan, whose title has sold more than 1.5 million print books, e-books and audio books. It was ranked No. 56 on USA Today’s top 100 best-seller list for all of 2018.

The Seattle-based giant houses 15 imprints in the U.S. under the Amazon Publishing banner, turning out everything from thrillers to romance novels to books translated from other languages. Amazon published 1,231 titles in the U.S. in 2017, up from 373 in 2009, the year it entered the $16 billion-a-year consumer book publishing business.

To promote these works, it has tools other publishers can only dream about owning, including Amazon First Reads and Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s e-book subscription service. Together, they reach an estimated 10 million or more customers who can read offered titles with a few keystrokes.

“They aren’t gaming the system,” literary agent Rick Pascocello said. “They own the system.”

[...]

On Wednesday, 16 of the top 20 books on Amazon’s romance best-seller list were titles from its book-publishing arm or were self-published on Amazon’s platform.

[...]

Amazon commands some 72% of adult new book sales online, and 49% of all new book sales by units, according to book-industry research firm Codex Group LLC.

[...]

Amazon has more than 100 million Amazon Prime members world-wide, and its U.S. subscribers can pick one title from Amazon First Reads free each month. Non-Prime members pay $1.99.

On Jan. 2, Amazon First Reads sent an email to members about six new titles from Amazon Publishing. By early evening, those books were the top six on Amazon’s Kindle store e-book best-seller list.

The power extends to Amazon’s $9.99-a-month Kindle Unlimited e-book subscription service. The service enables subscribers to select as many as 10 e-books at a time. It had an estimated 4.6 million paid subscribers in June 2018, according to Codex. Amazon Publishing titles and Amazon’s self-published books get prominent display, industry executives said,

[...]

Industry trackers say Amazon is shrinking publishing revenue in adult fiction by releasing so many low-price books from Amazon imprints and its self-published authors. Publisher revenue from adult fiction fell 16% to $4.4 billion in 2017 from 2013, the Association of American Publishers said.

[...]

Mr. Hildick-Smith said the decline in revenue for fiction issued by traditional publishers coincided with the Kindle e-book store’s growing share of the overall adult book market—up 43% between 2013 and 2017—to a bit more than a quarter of the total market. E-books skew heavily to fiction, and much of that increase comes from books self-published on Amazon.

[...]

An Amazon spokesman said thousands of self-published authors in 2018 “earned more than $50,000, with more than a thousand surpassing $100,000 in royalties.”

Who is supporting you? Big Kale?

Friday, January 11th, 2019

Siddhartha Mukherjee, author The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, says it’s time we studied diet as seriously as we study drugs:

Several months before my surgical procedure, a cancer patient asked me whether she should change her diet. She had lost her appetite. One nutritionist had advised her to start consuming highly caloric, sugar-loaded drinks to maintain her body weight. But, she worried, what if the sugar ended up “feeding” her cancer? Her anxiety was built on nearly eight decades of science: In the 1920s, Otto Warburg, a German physiologist, demonstrated that tumor cells, unlike most normal cells, metabolize glucose using alternative pathways to sustain their rapid growth, provoking the idea that sugar might promote tumor growth.

You might therefore expect the medical literature on “sugar feeding cancer” to be rich with deep randomized or prospective studies. Instead, when I searched, I could find only a handful of such trials. In 2012, a team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston divided patients with Stage 3 colon cancer into different groups based on their dietary consumption, and determined their survival and rate of relapse. The study generated provocative data — but far from an open-and-shut case. Patients whose diets consisted of foods with a high glycemic load (a measure of how much blood glucose rises after eating a typical portion of a food) generally had shorter survival than patients with lower glycemic load. But a higher glycemic index (a measure of how much 50 grams of carbohydrate from a food, which may require eating a huge portion, raises blood glucose) or total fructose intake had no significant association with overall survival or relapse.

While the effect of sugar on cancer was being explored in scattered studies, the so-called ketogenic diet, which consists of high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrate, was also being promoted. It isn’t sugars that are feeding the tumor, the logic runs. It’s insulin — the hormone that is released when glucose enters the blood. By reducing carbohydrates and thus keeping a strong curb on insulin, the keto diet would decrease the insulin exposure of tumor cells, and so restrict tumor growth. Yet the search for “ketogenic diet, randomized study and cancer” in the National Library of Medicine database returned a mere 11 articles. Not one of them reported an effect on a patient’s survival, or relapse.

But what if diet, rather than acting alone, collaborates with a drug to produce an effect on a tumor? In the winter of 2016, I had dinner with Lewis Cantley, director of the Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Decades ago, Cantley discovered an enzyme named PI3 kinase, which regulates the growth and survival of cells in the presence of nutrients. By inhibiting this enzyme using novel drugs, researchers had hoped to target the signals used by tumor cells to grow, thus “starving” the cancer. But the drugs designed thus far were only marginally effective. Why, we wondered over salmon teriyaki in a nondescript Upper East Side joint, might blocking such a central hub of growth activity have had only a modest effect on tumor growth?

The trials gave us a crucial, obvious clue that we had missed: Many patients had become diabetic, a phenomenon seen as a side effect of the drug that had been ignored. Perhaps the drug wasn’t just providing a “starvationlike” signal only to the tumor cells, we speculated. As most drugs do, the molecule circulated through the entire body of the patient and also acted on the liver, which sensed the same starvationlike signal and, as a reflexive response, sent glucose soaring into the blood. The glucose, in turn, most likely incited insulin release in the pancreas. And some patients treated with the medicine returned to the clinic with sky-high levels of glucose and insulin — in essence, in the throes of drug-induced diabetes.

Cantley wondered whether the additional insulin was reactivating the signals within the tumor cells that had been shut off by the PI3 kinase inhibitor, and so allowing the cells to survive — in effect, undoing all the good being done by the drug. On a paper napkin borrowed from the waiter, he drew out a scheme to outwit this vicious cycle. What if we cut off all extra insulin released, by putting patients on a low-carb, ketogenic diet while on the drug? It would be a novel kind of trial — one in which diet itself would become a drug, or a co-drug, with the PI3 kinase inhibitors.

Between 2016 and 2018, postdoctoral researchers in Cantley’s laboratory and mine established that this strategy worked on several mouse cancers, and on human cancers implanted into mice. By 2019, working with clinicians at Columbia, Cornell and Memorial Sloan Kettering, we hope to begin a study in humans with lymphomas, endometrial cancer and breast cancer, to use ketogenic diets in concert with the PI3 kinase inhibitors. (In the meantime, a host of other studies have also demonstrated that other diets could potently modulate the effects of targeted therapies on cancers in mouse models.)

But the experiments on mice also warned us of an important pitfall of such an approach. While the “drug plus diet” model worked on experimental mouse and human cancers, the ketogenic diet had a limited effect by itself. For some cancers in the mouse models, the keto diet alone kept the tumor growth at bay. But for others, like some leukemias implanted into mice, the diet alone accelerated the cancer, while the drug-plus-diet approach slowed it down.

We published this data in the scientific journal Nature early this year. I sent out a tweet with the results, emphasizing that the human trial was about to be started, and that the keto diet alone might have a negative effect on some tumors — in essence, a “folks, don’t try this at home” message. The response over social media was unexpected — brisk, vicious, angry, suspicious and, at times, funny. “Keto is pure hype,” one responder wrote. Another countered: “Who is supporting you? Big Kale?”

Humor at its best is a kind of heightened truth

Friday, January 4th, 2019

Supernormal stimuli are key to certain kinds of wit, skewing or exaggerating our usual patterns of perception:

The great silent comic Buster Keaton is a case in point.

In The High Sign (1921), as Keaton settles down on a bench to read his local daily, he unfolds the paper to standard broadsheet format. He soon notices, though, that the newspaper is bigger than he expected, so he continues unfolding it — first to roughly the surface area of an ample picnic blanket, then easily to the proportions of a king-size bedsheet, until he’s finally engulfed by a single gigantic swath of newsprint.

In Seven Chances (1925), Keaton, a stockbroker on the verge of financial ruin, learns that he will inherit handsomely from his grandfather — if he weds by 7 p.m. When his sweetheart rebuffs him (she will marry for love, not for money), he places an open offer of marriage, with details of the pecuniary benefits, in the newspaper. Hundreds of women turn up at the church for the ceremony, only to become enraged at Keaton’s tactics. The bevy of would-be brides chases him out of town and onto a nearby hill, where he dislodges a single rock, which sets in motion an avalanche of boulders, which rain down on our hapless groom’s head.

Keaton’s gags start innocuously enough, with some ordinary object, then snowball into supernormal stimuli. But stimuli can also be made supernormal by visual or verbal tricks that disrupt the ordinary ways we see and understand the world.

Marcel Marien’s work is rife with such tricks. Marien started out as a photographer’s apprentice while still in his teens. But in 1935, after seeing the work of René Magritte for the first time, he decided on a career as an artist, soon becoming a close friend of Magritte and one of the most prominent of the Belgian surrealists. He worked in a variety of media — photography; film; collage; and “ready-mades,” works of art assembled from discarded materials, common household items, or unused parts of other objects.

In Star Dancer (1991), Marien attached a doll’s high-heel shoe to one of the arms of a dead starfish, transforming it into a wispy, Matisse-esque ballerina. The strange juxtaposition makes the viewer do a double take. How can such a clearly alien creature have such distinctly human expressiveness? Like the volleyball/egg that birds try to incubate, the cobbled-together starfish/doll becomes a supernormal stimulus that alters viewers’ perceptions.

The same principle is at work in verbal wit. The English film director Anthony Asquith, for example, once introduced Jean Harlow, the platinum-blond 1930s Hollywood star, to his mother, Lady Margot Asquith, the author and wife of the longtime British prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith. Harlow mispronounced Lady Margot’s first name, sounding the final t, as in forgot. “The t is silent, my dear,” Asquith snipped, “as in Harlow.” Lady Margot isolated and exaggerated the significance of the simple t, just as Tinbergen isolated and exaggerated the herring gull’s orange spot, thereby dramatically enhancing its impact.

What is a punch line but a supernormal stimulus?

We respond to witty words and images more intensely than to “normal” objects, just as Tinbergen’s theory of supernormal stimuli suggests. “Humor at its best is a kind of heightened truth — a super-truth,” E. B. White wrote. This is also true of wit, which takes routine seeing and heightens it by shearing ordinary things and meanings of their habitual context, revealing them as suddenly strange and unfamiliar.

Their habits require habits!

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

Ryan Holiday explains how to develop better habits in 2019. I’ve edited down his advice:

Think Small — Really Small

The writer James Clear talks a lot about the idea of “atomic habits” (and has a really good book with the same title). An atomic habit is a small habit that makes an enormous difference in your life. He talks about how the British cycling team was completely turned around by focusing on 1 percent improvements in every area. That sounds small, but it accumulates and adds up in a big way. He emphasizes thinking small with big habits. Don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more; instead, commit to reading one page per day.

Create a Physical Reminder

The author and minister Will Bowen has a simple system that helps people quit complaining. He provides each member of his congregation with a purple bracelet, and each time they complain, they switch the bracelet from one wrist to the other. This method is simple and straightforward and makes it easy to hold yourself accountable.

Lay Out Your Supplies

When I get to my desk in the morning, the three journals I write in are sitting right there. If I want to skip the habit, I have to pick them up and move them aside. So most mornings I don’t move them, and I write in them.

Piggyback New Habits on Old Habits

I listened to an interview with David Sedaris, who talked about how he likes to go on long walks and pick up trash near his home. I go for a walk nearly every morning. It’s an ingrained habit that’s part of my routine. Boom: I just added picking up garbage to my walk. This was easy because I had already done the heavy lifting of creating the first habit. Now it’s harder not to pick up trash, like when I don’t have a bag.

Surround Yourself With Good People

“Tell me who you spend time with and I will tell you who you are” was Goethe’s line. Jim Rohn came up with the phrase that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. If you want to have better habits, find better friends.

Commit to a Challenge

In 2018, we did our first Daily Stoic Challenge, which was 30 consecutive days of different challenges and activities based on Stoic philosophy. It was an awesome experience. Even I, the person who created the challenge, got a lot out of it. Why? I think it was the process of handing myself over to a script. It’s the reason personal trainers are so effective. You just show up at the gym and they tell you what to do, and it’s never the same thing as the last time. Deciding what we want to do, determining our own habits, and making the right choices is exhausting. Handing the wheel over to someone else is a way to narrow our focus and put everything into the commitment.

Make It Interesting

Right now I’m in a 50-push-up challenge with about two dozen people. Every day, we do 50 push-ups and upload video proof that we’ve done them. If you miss a day, the app charges you $5. At first you do the daily deed just so you don’t lose money. But soon enough, it’s about competing with the people in the group. Then a few days in, another motivation kicks in: The winners (people with the fewest misses) split the pot of everyone else’s fees.

It’s About the Ritual

Professional dancer Twyla Tharp has written about how every morning she gets up early, dresses, and takes a cab to the same gym, where she works out for several hours. This is how she trains and keeps herself fit. Her workouts are tough and exhausting, and you’d think she would need a lot of discipline to commit to showing up each morning. But, as she writes in The Creative Habit, she just has to get herself to the cab. That’s it. The rest takes care of itself. The ritual takes over.

It Doesn’t Have to Be an Everyday Thing

I read a lot, but not usually every day. I do most of my reading when I travel, when I binge on books. Trying to force myself to read every single day (or for a set amount of time or a set amount of pages) would not be as productive or as enjoyable as periods of three to five days of really heavy reading (where I might finish three to five books). Binge reading may not be the right thing for everyone, but not every good habit has to be part of a daily routine. Sprints or batching can work too. What matters is that the results average out.

Focus on Yourself

One of the reasons I’ve talked about watching less news and not obsessing over things outside your control is simple: resource allocation. If your morning is ruined because you woke up to CNN reports of another ridiculous Trump 2 a.m. tweet-storm, you’re not going to have the energy or the motivation to focus on making the right dietary choices or sitting down to do that hard piece of work. I don’t watch the news, I don’t check social media much, and I don’t stress about everything going on in the world—not because I’m apathetic, but because there are all sorts of changes I want to make. I just believe these changes start at home. I want to get myself together before I bemoan what’s going on in Washington or whether the U.K. will figure out a Brexit strategy. “If you wish to improve,” Epictetus said, “be content to be seen as ignorant or clueless about some things.” (Or a lot of things.)

Make It About Your Identity

Generally, I agree with Paul Graham that we should keep our identities small, and generally, I think identity politics are toxic. It’s a huge advantage, however, to cultivate certain habits or commitments that are foundational to your identity. For example, it is essential to my understanding of the kind of person I am that I am punctual. I also have decided that I am the kind of person who does not miss deadlines. That I see myself as a writer is also valuable because if I’m not writing, I’m not earning that image.

Keep It Simple

Most people are way too obsessed with productivity and optimization. They want to know all the tools a successful writer or an artist uses because they think this is what makes these individuals so great. In reality, they are great because they love what they do and they have something they’re trying to say. When I look at some people’s routines and all the stuff they’re trying to manage, I shudder. Their habits require habits!

Pick Yourself Up When You Fall

The path to self-improvement is rocky, and slipping and tripping is inevitable. You’ll forget to do the push-ups, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter, or you’ll complain and have to switch the bracelet from one wrist to another. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’ve always been fond of this advice from Oprah: If you catch yourself eating an Oreo, don’t beat yourself up; just try to stop before you eat the whole sleeve. Don’t turn a slip into a catastrophic fall.

Popular Posts of 2018

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

I just took a look back at my numbers for 2018. Here are the most popular posts during that calendar year, four of which are new, six of which are older:

  1. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics
  2. The Bob Rubin Trade (new)
  3. Polar Bear Turns Purple After Medication
  4. The Father of Social-Science
  5. Fast Friends Protocol
  6. Observations from Actual Shootings
  7. He-Man Opening Monologue
  8. I’ve been blogging for 15 years (new)
  9. Maximum effective range of buckshot (new)
  10. The most expensive new public school in San Francisco history failed (new)

Here are the most popular posts actually from 2018 and not from an earlier year:

  1. The Bob Rubin Trade
  2. I’ve been blogging for 15 years
  3. Maximum effective range of buckshot
  4. The most expensive new public school in San Francisco history failed
  5. The physical strength of nations varies considerably
  6. Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation?
  7. Why some people become sudden geniuses
  8. Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?
  9. Where education was tried it turned out to be futile
  10. Marine experiment finds women get injured more frequently, shoot less accurately than men

Again, I’m not sure what to conclude.

Also, I should thank some of my top referrers: Social MatterZ ManMapping The Dark Enlightenment, and The Scholar’s Stage.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 25th, 2018

Please enjoy these yuletide posts of Christmas Past:

All Hallows’ Eve

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

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

We’ve all been planet chauvinists

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

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

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

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

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