Monday, April 27, 2015

A Soviet computer malfunction almost caused World War III

Thirty years ago, on 26 September 1983, the world was saved from potential nuclear disaster.

In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union's early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

But duty officer Stanislav Petrov - whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches - decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.

This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up.

But his decision may have saved the world. ...

"The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it," he says.

The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was "highest". There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.

"A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from 'launch' to 'missile strike'," he says. ...

Although the nature of the alert seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.

Alongside IT specialists, like him, Soviet Union had other experts, also watching America's missile forces. A group of satellite radar operators told him they had registered no missiles.

But those people were only a support service. The protocol said, very clearly, that the decision had to be based on computer readouts. And that decision rested with him, the duty officer.

But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was.

"There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those 'checkpoints'. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances," says the retired officer.

Mr Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army's headquarters and reported a system malfunction. ...

Now, 30 years on, Mr Petrov thinks the odds were 50-50. He admits he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one.

He says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. "My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders," he told us.

So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.
--Pavel Aksenov, BBC, on how lucky we are

What it's like to work for Floyd Mayweather

The gig is like no other. [Floyd] Mayweather is such a reality-warping force in his own training camp that he refuses to set a daily schedule of any kind. Each day, his entourage — including his father-slash-trainer, his uncle-slash-trainer, his hand-wrap specialist, his conditioning coach, his bodyguards, and others — wait outside his gated home with their gear packed, often lingering into the early morning hours for the fighter to decide what he wants to do. Mayweather has thrived off this spontaneous model for years, and while those on his payroll have grown accustomed to his eccentric routines, the shifting schedule is especially challenging for [Maywather's personal chef Quiana] Jeffries, one of the newest members of his team.

“If Champ wants a meal at three, four, five, six in the morning, I have to be ready for that,” Jeffries says. “He’s called me at four and says, ‘I want that oxtail.’” She immediately got going on a batch of her special oxtail stew smothered in gravy. ...

Diet, of course, is a key element of his training regimen. “He wants all organic,” Jeffries says — sometimes a tall order in a place like Vegas. She has looked for a farmers’ market, but says she has yet to find one. Even so, it probably wouldn't be open at 3 a.m.. There are several 24-hour supermarkets, but not all the departments of those stores stay open, and racing to get ingredients for Mayweather’s meals has become a kind of sport for her.

“The seafood counters always close early,” she says — so she's befriended night managers who can retrieve special ingredients for her. “They all know who we work for.” She's generally able to get items like king crab legs and shrimp, essential ingredients for the seafood gumbo Mayweather loves, any time of the day or night.
--Geoffrey Gray, New York, on a man unmoored from social conventions

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Letter from Harvard statistics department to Yale statistics department

October 2, 1963

Professor Frank Anscombe, Chairman
Department of Statistics
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Dear Professor Anscombe:

At its meeting of September 23, 1963, the Department of Statistics at Harvard University, after sharp and acrimonious debate,* unanimously instructed the Chairman to extend felicitations to the Department of Statistics of Yale University on the occasion of its founding. The members expressed the view that the new department would add vigor and stature to our field in New England and have a fortunate effect on competence in statistics throughout the nation. Consequently, it is our great pleasure to welcome your department and extend our best wishes.

The Chairman was also directed to explore the possibility of cooperative enterprises that the two departments might develop to their joint advantage.

Sincerely yours,
Frederick Mosteller
Chairman

*The minutes of the meeting are woefully incomplete, but the question whether blue was not a melancholy color for statistics was countered by the opinion that it might be as satisfactory as a shade of red. Concern whether canine tenacity was adequate for either Bayesian or classical statistics was allayed by the depressing thought that it may be superior to complete absence of animal spirits, our diligent researches having failed to uncover any Harvard mascot.
--Letter on display in the common room of the Yale statistics department building

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Oprah's misunderstanding of Anna Karenina

The myth embodied in great romances tells us that love envelops our whole being. Romantic love presses upon us with irresistible intensity. ...

What is more, according to this ideology, we do not choose such love. It befalls us. We “fall in love,” we do not jump in love. Such love is a “passion,” not an action. ...

For this reason, romantic love feels like fate, and an ideology of amoral fatalism often accompanies it. Lovers live in a realm beyond good and evil. After all, good and evil depend on choice, and where fate governs, choice is out of the question. No matter how much pain the lovers cause, one cannot condemn them. Adultery becomes as noble as revolution, and only cramped moralists worry about the pain caused the betrayed spouse or abandoned children.

That is the story Anna Karenina imagines she is living. As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.

Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit. ...

Anna’s story illustrates the dangers of romantic thinking. As she gives herself to her affair, she tells herself that she had no choice, but her loss of will is willed. Returning by train to her husband in St. Petersburg with Vronsky in pursuit, she experiences a sort of delirium:
She was constantly beset by moments of doubt as to whether the car was going forward or back or standing still altogether. Was it Annushka beside her or a stranger? “What is this on the arm, a fur or a beast? And is this me here? Am I myself or someone else?” She was terrified of surrendering to this oblivion. But something was drawing her into it, and she could surrender or resist at will (Part I, chapter 29).
The relativism of motion she experiences is a precise analogue to the delirious moral relativism she is falling into. Though she will later insist she could not have done otherwise, Tolstoy tells us that “she could surrender or resist at will.” Her fatalism is a choice.
--Gary Saul Morson, Commentary, on one of the moral messages of Anna Karenina. HT: SWR

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jury duty is for everybody

Imagine you're a lawyer entering the courtroom to select the 12 men and women who will decide the civil case you've been preparing for nearly a year. Sitting in the gallery's second row, squeezed in among dozens of other ordinary Maryland citizens grudgingly or enthusiastically performing their civic duty, is the chief justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr.

Would you want him on the jury?

That was the question confronting a pair of attorneys last week at the Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville, Maryland. Roberts was Juror No. 49 in the pool under consideration for a case that stemmed from a car wreck, according to the Washington Post. After answering two questions in open court and then speaking quietly with the judge and lawyers, he was not selected for the jury. ...

Kathy Arberg, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said that while several other justices had reported for jury duty in recent years, the Court did not keep records on whether any of them had served on a trial. Roberts made no apparent attempt to be excused from the trial, the Post reported. The judge asked the potential jurors to speak up if they had relatives in the medical profession, and Roberts said that his sister was a nurse in Indiana. When Judge Ronald Rubin then asked, per the custom, whether that would prevent him from being "fair and impartial," the chief justice replied, "Nope."
--Russell Berman, The Atlantic, on the nation's most qualified juror

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"They" may finally become accepted as a singular pronoun

Copy editors might seem like stick-in-the-mud traditionalists when it comes to language change, but when I attended the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, I found growing acceptance of a usage that has long been disparaged as downright ungrammatical: treating “they” as a singular pronoun. ...

According to standard grammar, “they” and its related forms can only agree with plural antecedents. But English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and “they” has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose, much to the grammarians’ chagrin.

When pressed on whether “they” could serve as a singular pronoun, my fellow lexicographers and I pointed out that it already has done so for about seven centuries, appearing in the work of writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen.

Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster turned the question back to the audience. The only thing standing in the way of singular “they” becoming more acceptable? Copy editors who take it upon themselves to edit out the usage, she said. ...

Dozens of gender-neutral pronouns have been put forth over the years, including “thon,” “xe” and “ze,” but all have failed to catch fire. “They” has the virtue of actually being in common use, and even grammatical sticklers may be coming around to it.
--Ben Zimmer, WSJ, on cracks in the wall

What is the Terminator theme song's time signature?

As the [Terminator] score kicked in, I immediately recognized it was in a strange time signature. I’m a (very) amateur musician, and my ears are attuned to bizarre beats. This was as jarring as it gets. A disorienting rhythm—in particular the driving, industrial-sounding beat that gets louder and more prominent as the opening theme progresses. It wasn’t in 5/4 or 7/8, both of which I can generally suss out with not much difficulty. I tried to count the beat in my head, and by tapping on my thigh: “DAH-doonk, dah-doonk, dah-doonk, gonk gonk.” But for the life of me I couldn’t make anything fit. My world had been ripped apart, much like Sarah Connor’s when she discovered she was being hunted by an implacable killing machine from the future. ...

[Composer Brad Fiedel] explained that before The Terminator, he’d worked on a score for a TV movie about Hitler’s last days. The producers were concerned that lush string music might lend sympathy to Hitler, so Fiedel conjured up a crashing, metallic ruckus. It was this sound that formed the germ of the later Terminator score.

Fiedel was at heart an improviser. To create the Terminator theme, he first set up a rhythm loop on one of the primitive, early-’80s devices he was using... He recorded samples of himself whacking a frying pan to create the clanking sounds. Then he played melodic riffs on a synthesizer over the looped beat. Amid the throes of creation, what he hadn’t quite noticed—or hadn’t bothered to notice—was that his finger had been a split-second off when it pressed the button to establish that rhythm loop. Being an old machine, there was no autocorrection. Which meant the loop was in a profoundly herky-jerky time signature. Fiedel just went with it. The beat seemed to be falling forward, and he liked its propulsiveness. He recorded the score that way and (not being classically trained) never wrote down any notation. ...

Much like the creators of Skynet, Fiedel was only later forced to consider what he had wrought. He got a call from the legendary film and TV composer Henry Mancini, who was planning to record an album of movie scores with a full orchestra. Fiedel was giddy to learn that Mancini wanted to include the Terminator theme. But then Mancini asked for the “lead sheet”—the notes the bandleader would use so the orchestra musicians could walk in off the street and nail the recording in one take.

Fiedel enlisted a friend named George Kahn, a jazz musician who had a music degree and more formal training, to help set the score to paper. “He called me up and said, ‘Brad, what time signature is this in?’ I said, ‘I dunno, 6/8?’ He said, ‘No, it’s quirkier than that.’ ” ...

And the verdict? “It’s in 13/16. Three plus three plus three plus two plus two.” ...

Brad Fiedel went on to write the theme for Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in the much less jarring time signature of 6/8, because he felt that film had more warmth)...
--Seth Stevenson, Slate, on musical geeking out

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Female circumcision has stronger support among women than men

In 1996 I went to Kenya—northern Kenya among an ethnic group called the Rendille. ...

[The women] realized that not only had I gotten married without being circumcised, but that I had obviously delivered children without being circumcised, which in their culture was unthinkable.

These women were my very good friends, and they were covering up their faces to not show how repulsed they were by the idea of somebody being uncircumcised and delivering a baby. They were, you know, revolted. ...

They said, “There’s a wedding going on, do you want to go?” And I was like, “Alright.” They took me to this blended-branch hut. They brought in the bride, and they brought in the circumciser, a woman, and a couple of other women followed. ...

One woman went outside and announced the circumcision was successful. People started roasting lamb, meat. A little while later, warriors came over to the hut and started singing and dancing praises to the bride and the groom. This went on for hours. There was this complete celebration. I was completely perplexed. I sat there just sort of, you know, “Did anyone just see what I just saw?” ...

[The bride] was proud. She sat there stoic and looked up at a focal point. She didn’t flinch, and that’s apparently a really important part of showing your maturity: Can you withstand the pain? It shows that you have the maturity to face the hardship that is coming as a woman. ...

A little bit later, I excused myself and ran back to the hut where I was staying, and I travel with a little medical first-aid bag. I raced back to the hut and gave her these codeine tablets. ...

The bride came out and joined the dancing. I almost died. I thought she must be on codeine, but she wasn’t. She was joyful. I didn't understand the joy about this.

But later I remembered that when I gave birth to my first son, I had a very difficult delivery. After my son was born, everyone in the delivery room popped a bottle of champagne. I felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck and they were toasting champagne. But it was a good pain, and that’s what this was. This girl had become a woman.

When I went back two years later, the girl came to me and gave the pills back. She said, “You don’t understand, this is not our way. And if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be a woman now.”

I understood why. And I respected her. ...

Some people in Africa believe that bodies are androgynous and that all male and female bodies contain male and female parts.

So a man’s foreskin is a female part. And for a female, the covering of the clitoris is a male part. The idea of becoming a wholly formed female includes being cut—having any part that is somewhat male-like removed from the body. ...

The sort of feminist argument about this is that it’s about the control of women but also of their sexuality and sexual pleasure. But when you talk to people on the ground, you also hear people talking about the idea that it’s women’s business. As in, it’s for women to decide this. If we look at the data across Africa, the support for the practice is stronger among women than among men.
--Anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan, The Atlantic, on the complicated reality behind female circumcision

Friday, April 3, 2015

The film industry hated Christopher Nolan before it loved him

[Christopher] Nolan described the difficulties he met after finishing 2000’s psychological thriller Memento, his first big-budget feature after his self-financed debut, Following.

"We organized a big distribution screening in L.A. the weekend all the distributors were coming to town for the Spirit Awards," he said. “But every distributor passed [on it] in one night — nobody wanted it. Some of the distributors were really awful to us, actually, and said they’d walked out of the film. It was a really, really tough ride … pretty devastating."

After failing to find a buyer, Memento eventually was distributed in North America by the film’s financier, Newmarket Films, which set up its own distribution arm. The film went on to earn almost $40 million from a budget of $5 million, and two years after the rejections, Nolan and his producer wife, Emma Thomas, returned to the Independent Spirit Awards to pick up the best director, best screenplay and best supporting actress awards, followed by a couple of Oscar nominations. Memento eventually was recognized by many as one of the best films of the decade.

"It was a really unique road. I don’t think I’ll ever have a moment like that [again] in my career," said Nolan. "We took a huge knock, back as far as we could go. But we came back from it with sheer good fortune."
--Alex Ritman, Hollywood Reporter, on the fickleness of human opinion

Monday, March 30, 2015

What makes people happy in Boston vs. San Francisco?

In Boston, residents ranked their financial status, educational attainment (must have that Harvard or graduate degree), family support, and feeling of contributing to their community as essential factors that determine whether they’re satisfied with life. Work is important too.

In San Francisco, however, work is the only social norm that matters for life fulfillment—to heck with the diplomas and big bank accounts. Californians being Californians mainly feed on those ebullient free-to-be-you-and-me thoughts and experiences.

That’s the conclusion of an interesting series of experiments conducted by psychologists who set out to identify predictors of happiness and whether they differ from East Coast to West Coast. ...

In [psychologist Victoria Plaut and coauthors'] experiments, published as one paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Plaut surveyed a total of nearly 3,800 volunteers from both cities and found that people from Boston were significantly more likely than their counterparts to perceive clear norms in their city; Boston participants also reported higher levels of life satisfaction if they hewed to those cultural practices, such as rooting for their local sports teams or being active with community organizations, compared with those from San Francisco. ...

Folks from Boston are also more likely to report higher levels of happiness if they’re not aggravated by life annoyances such as demanding in-laws, a long commute, or a tough boss. On the other hand, those from San Francisco were more apt to say they needed to have fun and novel experiences in order to get a happiness boost.
--Deborah Kotz, Boston.com, on real differences between the coasts

Monday, March 23, 2015

A dying man's beautiful farewell to his daughter

Six years passed in a flash, but then, heading into chief residency, I developed a classic constellation of symptoms — weight loss, fevers, night sweats, unremitting back pain, cough — indicating a diagnosis quickly confirmed: metastatic lung cancer. The gears of time ground down. ...

Verb conjugation became muddled. Which was correct? “I am a neurosurgeon,” “I was a neurosurgeon,” “I had been a neurosurgeon before and will be again”? Graham Greene felt life was lived in the first 20 years and the remainder was just reflection. What tense was I living in? Had I proceeded, like a burned-out Greene character, beyond the present tense and into the past perfect? The future tense seemed vacant and, on others’ lips, jarring. I recently celebrated my 15th college reunion; it seemed rude to respond to parting promises from old friends, “We’ll see you at the 25th!” with “Probably not!”

Yet there is dynamism in our house. Our daughter was born days after I was released from the hospital. Week to week, she blossoms: a first grasp, a first smile, a first laugh. Her pediatrician regularly records her growth on charts, tick marks of her progress over time. A brightening newness surrounds her. As she sits in my lap smiling, enthralled by my tuneless singing, an incandescence lights the room.

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Yet one thing cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters — but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
--Paul Kalanithi (1977 - 2015), Stanford Medicine, “Before I Go

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why girls like Barbies and boys like trucks: a biological explanation?

In 2002, Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University and Melissa Hines of City University in London stunned the scientific world by showing that vervet monkeys showed the same sex-typical toy preferences as humans. In an incredibly ingenious study, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, Alexander and Hines gave two stereotypically masculine toys (a ball and a police car), two stereotypically feminine toys (a soft doll and a cooking pot), and two neutral toys (a picture book and a stuffed dog) to 44 male and 44 female vervet monkeys. They then assessed the monkeys’ preference for each toy by measuring how much time they spent with each. Their data demonstrated that male vervet monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the masculine toys, and the female vervet monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the feminine toys. The two sexes did not differ in their preference for the neutral toys. ...

If children’s toy preferences were largely formed by gender socialization, as traditional sociologists claim, in which their parents give “gender-appropriate” toys to boys and girls, how can these male and female vervet monkeys have the same preferences as boys and girls? They were never socialized by humans, and they had never seen these toys before in their lives. ...

In a forthcoming article [as of 2008] in Hormones and Behavior, Janice M. Hassett, Erin R. Siebert, and Kim Wallen, of Emory University, replicate the sex preferences in toys among members of another primate species (rhesus monkeys). Their study shows that, when given a choice between stereotypically male “wheeled toys” (such as a wagon, a truck, and a car) and stereotypically female “plush toys” (such as Winnie the Pooh, Raggedy Ann, and a koala bear hand puppet), male rhesus monkeys show strong and significant preference for the masculine toys. Female rhesus monkeys show preference for the feminine toys, but the difference in their preference is not statistically significant.
--Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today, on potentially evolutionarily ancient roots of toy preferences. HT: NS

Monday, February 23, 2015

Feed your baby peanuts to prevent peanut allergies

We randomly assigned 640 infants with severe eczema, egg allergy, or both to consume or avoid peanuts until 60 months of age. Participants, who were at least 4 months but younger than 11 months of age at randomization, were assigned to separate study cohorts on the basis of preexisting sensitivity to peanut extract, which was determined with the use of a skin-prick test...

Among the 530 infants in the intention-to-treat population who initially had negative results on the skin-prick test, the prevalence of peanut allergy at 60 months of age was 13.7% in the avoidance group and 1.9% in the consumption group (P < 0.001). Among the 98 participants in the intention-to-treat population who initially had positive test results, the prevalence of peanut allergy was 35.3% in the avoidance group and 10.6% in the consumption group (P = 0.004). There was no significant between-group difference in the incidence of serious adverse events.

CONCLUSIONS
The early introduction of peanuts significantly decreased the frequency of the development of peanut allergy among children at high risk for this allergy and modulated immune responses to peanuts.
--George Du Toit et al., New England Journal of Medicine, on how to slow the peanut allergy epidemic. HT: ACT

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why ramen is better in Japan

In Japan, flour companies have different divisions that make flour for noodles. In general, this flour is milled as much as ten times more finely than it is here. The flour doesn’t need to be as absorbent here in the U.S.—it’s primarily for bread production. So there’s not as much of a reason to mill it as fine. The result is that it’s harder to make a proper ramen noodle here, since the flour is just not fine enough.

Relative to pasta, ramen noodles are on the low end of the water-content spectrum—some can contain as little as 26 percent water. ... The more refined your flour, the better it will bind with water, and the better the texture of the final noodle.

When I talk to our flour salesman in Tokyo, I can say, “I’m thinking about making a tsukemen noodle, and I want it to be aromatic and have a chew,” and he’ll send me samples that make sense. Then we can talk on the phone and I can say, “I want my ash content to be a bit lower or higher” or “I want to be able to see more or less of the grain color in the noodle.” I can really talk to them and have a super intellectual conversation, and at the end of the day you’re able to make a really good product.

This is all to say that when I came back to New York, I felt like making my own noodles would be too big of a challenge. I had already met Ken Uki, of Sun Noodle, and I had worked with him a little bit. He’d done a really good job; they run a really professional operation. So I decided to take making noodles off of my plate. ...

In Japan, you can get great chicken fat for cheap. It’s orange and it doesn’t taste funky—it almost tastes like chicken soup. ...

You can’t get good chicken fat here in the States. A USDA plant needs approval for each part of the animal they want to use: necks, wings, heads, whatever. A guy at one of the chicken farms we use says he throws all his chicken fat away; it’s too much of a hassle to get it USDA approved, and nobody wants to buy it.

So I use whatever I can get. It’s not bad. It’s good, but it’s not as delicious. At the shop, people are like, You could use Flying Pigs Farms or whatever, and it’s like, Yeah, but they want $15 per pound for their birds. Then they’ll say, Why don’t you use pastured, sustainable, organic meat? And I’m like, Will you pay $25 per bowl of ramen?
--Ivan Orkin, Lucky Peach, on non-exportable production chains

Friday, February 20, 2015

The one-part Tversky Intelligence Test

As recounted by Malcolm Gladwell in 2013's David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, [Amos] Tversky's peers thought so highly of him that they devised a tongue-in-cheek one-part test for measuring intelligence. As related to Gladwell by psychologist Adam Alter, the Tversky Intelligence Test was "The faster you realized Tversky was smarter than you, the smarter you were."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The progressive weakening of Harvard

“Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world,” former Harvard Dean of Students Archie Epps III once said. If so, Harvard has seen a lot of evidence of The Almighty One these past few years.

Harvard schools have canceled classes on both Monday and Tuesday due to the latest snowstorm, which so far has dropped two feet of snow on the area and shut down the MBTA. That comes two weeks after the university suspended all operations on January 27 for the blizzard that led to a state of emergency and a travel ban across the state.

There was a time not long ago when canceling a single day of Harvard classes — not to mention three in one semester — would have been a surprise. Administrators called off three days of classes for the historic Blizzard of 1978, the first cancellation since an unnamed hurricane in 1938. Classes also closed in 1985 due to Hurricane Gloria.

But that was it for the entire 20th century. In 100 years, Harvard canceled classes only three times. ...

Graduate schools closed down classes in January 2011 after about 18 inches of snow. Harvard canceled all classes on October 29, 2012 ahead of the high winds and rain of Hurricane Sandy. The blizzard of February 2013 slammed the campus on a weekend, and university libraries were shut down. Officials also canceled classes on April 19, 2013 amid the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after the Boston Marathon bombing.

For undergraduates, there have been as many days off at Harvard in the last five years as there were in the entire 20th century.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Finns ration their hellos

“Well, you’re just special. You’re American,” remarked my colleague, smirking from across the coffee table. My other Finnish coworkers, from the school in Helsinki where I teach, nodded in agreement. They had just finished critiquing one of my habits, and they could see that I was on the defensive.

I threw my hands up and snapped, “You’re accusing me of being too friendly? Is that really such a bad thing?”

“Well, when I greet a colleague, I keep track,” she retorted, “so I don’t greet them again during the day!” Another chimed in, “That’s the same for me, too!”
--Tim Walker, The Atlantic, on eliminating redundancy

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Crusades were not what you think they were

Westerners in general (and Catholics in particular) find the Crusades a deeply embarrassing episode in their history. ...

On September 11, 2001, there were only a few professional historians of the Crusades in America. I was the one who was not retired. As a result, my phone began ringing and didn’t stop for years. ...

It is generally thought that Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them. The Crusaders were Europe’s lacklands and ne’er-do-wells, who marched against the infidels out of blind zealotry and a desire for booty and land. As such, the Crusades betrayed Christianity itself. They transformed “turn the other cheek” into “kill them all; God will know his own.”

Every word of this is wrong. Historians of the Crusades have long known that it is wrong, but they find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions. ...

All the Crusades met the criteria of just wars. They came about in reaction [to] attacks against Christians or their Church. The First Crusade was called in 1095 in response to the recent Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor, as well as the much earlier Arab conquest of the Christian-held Holy Land. The second was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Edessa in 1144. The third was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and most other Christian lands in the Levant in 1187.

In each case, the faithful went to war to defend Christians, to punish the attackers, and to right terrible wrongs. As Riley-Smith has written elsewhere, crusading was seen as an act of love—specifically the love of God and the love of neighbor. By pushing back Muslim aggression and restoring Eastern Christianity, the Crusaders were—at great peril to themselves—imitating the Good Samaritan. ...

Historians have long known that the image of the Crusader as an adventurer seeking his fortune is exactly backward. The vast majority of Crusaders returned home as soon as they had fulfilled their vow. What little booty they could acquire was more than spent on the journey itself. One is hard pressed to name a single returning Crusader who broke even, let alone made a profit on the journey. ...

It is commonly thought—even by Muslims—that the effects and memory of that trauma have been with the Islamic world since it was first inflicted in the eleventh century. As Riley-Smith explains, however, the Muslim memory of the Crusades is of very recent vintage. ... When, in 1291, Muslim armies removed the last vestiges of the Crusader Kingdom from Palestine, the Crusades largely dropped out of Muslim memory.

In Europe, however, the Crusades were a well-remembered formative episode. Europeans, who had bound the Crusades to imperialism, brought the story to the Middle East during the nineteenth century and reintroduced it to the Muslims. ...

Riley-Smith describes the profound effect that Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Talisman had on European and therefore Middle Eastern opinion of the Crusades. Crusaders such as Richard the Lionhearted were portrayed as boorish, brutal, and childish, while Muslims, particularly Saladin, were tolerant and enlightened gentlemen of the nineteenth century. With the collapse of Ottoman power and the rise of Arab nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century, Muslims bound together these two strands of Crusade narrative and created a new memory in which the Crusades were only the first part of Europe’s assault on Islam—an assault that continued through the modern imperialism of European powers. Europeans reintroduced Saladin, who had been nearly forgotten in the Middle East, and Arab nationalists then cleansed him of his Kurdish ethnicity to create a new anti-Western hero.
--Thomas Madden, First Things, on the professional historian's view of the Crusades. HT: Ross Douthat

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A better way to pay ransom to kidnappers

It all began in 2003, when a German official flew into the wilds of northern Mali with three suitcases full of cash to secure the release of 14 European hostages. That first big ransom breathed life into the militant group known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and laid the groundwork for a kidnap economy that now finances Islamist extremist groups around the globe.

Foreigners who stumble into this world are highly prized assets: They are tracked, abducted, sold from one militant group to another and held for months, or even years, in the hope of a multimillion-dollar payday. Such hopes are kept alive by France, Germany and other European governments that routinely facilitate ransom payments for the release of their own citizens.

The United States steadfastly refuses to pay ransom, which undoubtedly reduces the price that American hostages fetch in the kidnap economy. However, money isn’t the only motivator for those holding hostages; they are also used to demonstrate the groups’ ferocity, as shown recently by the Islamic State’s gruesome killings of two Japanese men. ...

The good news is there is a way to change this game, to turn the tables on terrorist kidnappers and undermine the kidnap economy. ...

Throughout the 1980s, federal investigators did not catch a single major business cartel, despite having a whole division at the Department of Justice devoted to the task. That’s because business cartels, groups of companies that work together in secret to fix prices, can be nearly impossible to detect. ...

That all changed, suddenly and dramatically, in 1993 when the Department of Justice instituted a new program offering complete immunity to the first firm in a cartel to confess. ...

And turn on each other they did; soon convictions and settlements in the United States alone were generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fines each year. ...

Imagine what would happen if the federal government were to offer a million-dollar reward and promise safety to anyone — Islamic State militant or not — who provided information that led to the rescue of American hostages, and the capture or killing of their kidnappers. Holding an American hostage would then become fraught with peril, no matter where the kidnappers might hide, as anyone, even one of their own, might turn on them at any time.
--David McAdams, NYT, on kidnapper jujitsu. HT: Marginal Revolution