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.

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.

Why is English so weirdly different from other languages?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, explains why English is so weirdly different from other languages:

The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a “spelling bee” competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

[...]

There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort. German and Dutch are like that, as are Spanish and Portuguese, or Thai and Lao. The closest an Anglophone can get is with the obscure Northern European language called Frisian.

[...]

We think it’s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family — Indo-European — and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

[...]

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third-person singular. I’m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s — why just that? The present-tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult?

Read the whole thing.

McWhorter’s book, The Language Hoax, refutes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking.

The Russians are considering a semi-catamaran aircraft carrier

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

I don’t know much about naval architecture, but I remember idly musing — while reading about World War II, of course — that a catamaran design would allow an almost arbitrarily large flight deck on an aircraft carrier — and I wondered what I was missing.

Now it looks like the Russians are considering a semi-catamaran design for their new Krylov light aircraft carrier:

The underwater part of the light aircraft carrier features a semi-catamaran hull which is the major distinction of the project designed by the Krylov Scientific Center, a representative of the organization told TASS.

Krylov Light Aircraft Carrier Stern

“The project is distinguished by the underwater part of a semi-catamaran form. Catamaran actually means two hulls united by a platform. It has a wide deck which is important for an aircraft carrier. The design adds flight deck space on which the number of aircraft depends. As a result, a medium-displacement ship can carry a full-fledged air wing,” he said.

Abixia is a paracosm

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Alison Gopnik explores the imaginary worlds of childhood:

In 19th-century England, the Brontë children created Gondal, an imaginary kingdom full of melodrama and intrigue. Emily and Charlotte Brontë grew up to write the great novels “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” The fictional land of Narnia, chronicled by C.S. Lewis in a series of classic 20th-century novels, grew out of Boxen, an imaginary kingdom that Lewis shared with his brother when they were children. And when the novelist Anne Perry was growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s, she and another girl created an imaginary kingdom called Borovnia as part of an obsessive friendship that ended in murder — the film “Heavenly Creatures” tells the story.

But what about Abixia? Abixia is an island nation on the planet Rooark, with its own currency (the iinter, divided into 12 skilches), flag and national anthem. It’s inhabited by cat-humans who wear flannel shirts and revere Swiss army knives — the detailed description could go on for pages. And it was created by a pair of perfectly ordinary Oregon 10-year-olds.

Abixia is a “paracosm,” an extremely detailed and extensive imaginary world with its own geography and history. The psychologist Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon and her colleagues discovered Abixia, and many other worlds like it, by talking to children. Most of what we know about paracosms comes from writers who described the worlds they created when they were children. But in a paper forthcoming in the journal Child Development, Prof. Taylor shows that paracosms aren’t just the province of budding novelists. Instead, they are a surprisingly common part of childhood.

Prof. Taylor asked 169 children, ages eight to 12, whether they had an imaginary world and what it was like. They found that about 17 percent of the children had created their own complicated universe. Often a group of children would jointly create a world and maintain it, sometimes for years, like the Brontë sisters or the Lewis brothers. And grown-ups were not invited in.

Prof. Taylor also tried to find out what made the paracosm creators special. They didn’t score any higher than other children in terms of IQ, vocabulary, creativity or memory. Interestingly, they scored worse on a test that measured their ability to inhibit irrelevant thoughts. Focusing on the stern and earnest real world may keep us from wandering off into possible ones.

But the paracosm creators were better at telling stories, and they were more likely to report that they also had an imaginary companion. In earlier research, Prof. Taylor found that around 66% of preschoolers have imaginary companions; many paracosms began with older children finding a home for their preschool imaginary friends.

Children with paracosms, like children with imaginary companions, weren’t neurotic loners either, as popular stereotypes might suggest. In fact, if anything, they were more socially skillful than other children.

Why do imaginary worlds start to show up when children are eight to 12 years old? Even when 10-year-olds don’t create paracosms, they seem to have a special affinity for them — think of all the young “Harry Potter” fanatics. And as Prof. Taylor points out, paracosms seem to be linked to all the private clubhouses, hidden rituals and secret societies of middle childhood.

Prof. Taylor showed that preschoolers who create imaginary friends are particularly good at understanding other people’s minds — they are expert at everyday psychology. For older children, the agenda seems to shift to what we might call everyday sociology or geography. Children may create alternative societies and countries in their play as a way of learning how to navigate real ones in adult life.

You’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson), author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, explains the importance of generating alternatives to any course of action you are considering:

In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt set out to catalog real-world decisions the way a botanist might catalog the various types of vegetation growing in a rain forest. In his initial study, published in 1984, he analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers at a range of public and private organizations in the United States and Canada: insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms.

The most striking finding in Professor Nutt’s research was this: Only 15 percent of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.

This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.

The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

He continues with a rather fashionable follow-on notion:

What’s the best way to expand your pool of options? Researchers suggest that if possible, you diversify the group of people who are helping make the decision. About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better at their task. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.

Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

A 2008 study led by the management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.

No more than a few dozen excellent examples were ever published

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby kicked off a wave of horror novels that flourished throughout the 1970s and 80s. James Clavell’s Shogun kicked off a similar, smaller wave of historical adventure novels set in Asia:

I’ve long been a big fan of these books which, for lack of a better term, I refer to collectively as ‘The Children of Shogun.’

Alas, Shogun didn’t produce nearly as many bastard offspring as Rosemary’s Baby did. It was fairly easy for any professional writer with imagination and a passion for horror stories to turn out a handful of 300-page supernatural thrillers over the course of a couple of decades. Producing a 900-page Shogun-like epic is another matter entirely. The Children of Shogun were written mostly by men and women with years of personal experience in Asia. They tended to be journalists or academics with a profound interest in the history and culture of the East. If you were a horror fan in the 1970s and ’80s (and I was), it was easy to find titles to feed your hunger for demonic children, seductive witches, and haunted houses. If you craved massive historical epics featuring singsong girls, opium pipes, rickshaws, treaty ports, forbidden cities, warlords, seppuku, pillow dictionaries, foot binding, and godowns filled with tea or silk or jade, feeding your hunger took a bit more initiative.

Nevertheless, quite a few such books got published between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, and I’ve read dozens of them. The phenomenon seems to have faded over the past 20 years, giving way to other literary booms: vampire novels, fantasy epics, young-adult dystopian series. It is unlikely the boom will ever be revived. In a critical review of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth posted on Goodreads, author Celeste Ng probably spoke for many of today’s progressive readers when she complained about “the weirdness that arises from a Westerner writing about a colonized country.” Apparently it’s all right when an Asian author like Haruki Murakami (whose work I love) writes novels inspired by the likes of Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, and Franz Kafka. But Westerners who write about the adventures of English-speaking protagonists in Asia are likely to be shouted down with accusations of cultural appropriation.

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One thing that stands out about these authors is that many of them led lives nearly as adventurous as their protagonists. Anthony Grey spent 27 months in a Chinese prison. During his long career in journalism, Noel Barber was stabbed five times and shot in the head once. James Clavell was a prisoner of war during WWII. Robert Elegant covered both the Korean and Vietnam wars as a journalist and Richard Nixon once called him “my favorite China expert.” If books in this genre seem somewhat more convincing than horror novels of the same era, perhaps it’s because no horror novelists of the era were ever actually possessed by Satan, bitten by vampires, or capable of starting fires with their minds. But, while horror novels are still being churned out in large numbers, almost no one is writing Shogun-like sagas any longer. Soon the genre may cease to exist entirely. If you don’t believe me, consider the decline of the American Indian novel written by white authors.

During much of the twentieth century, white American authors produced some excellent novels featuring Native American characters. The list includes masterpieces such as Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Laughing Boy (1929) and Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). Other prominent titles in the genre include Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man (subsequently adapted into a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway directed by Arthur Penn), Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967), and Douglas C. Jones’s A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978).

But the production of such novels has dwindled markedly over the last 40 years or so. This probably has something to do with what happened to Ruth Beebe Hill after the publication of her 1978 novel Hanta Yo. The early reviews of the book were positive. A reviewer for the Harvard Crimson called Hanta Yo “the best researched novel yet written about an American Indian tribe.” Native American author N. Scott Momaday, author of House Made of Dawn, admired the book. David Wolper, the producer of the landmark TV miniseries Roots purchased the film rights to Hanta Yo and planned to give it the same treatment as Roots. Alas, before Wolper could put his plan into action, the book began drawing criticism from Native American groups contending that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Sioux.

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If you haven’t yet experienced the joys of exploring ‘The Children of Shogun,’ a great literary pleasure still awaits you. But read slowly and linger over each book. No more than a few dozen excellent examples were ever published. And no new titles are likely to appear in the foreseeable future, if Celeste Ng and her ilk have their way.