Unconscious orientation?

A study from the University of Arizona suggests that your brain takes in and processes information, even though you may not be consciously aware of much of the results.

As Mary Peterson, Professor of Psychology and Director of UA’s Cognitive Science Program, described the results:

Many, many theorists assume that because it takes a lot of energy for brain processing, that the brain is only going to spend time processing what you’re ultimately going to perceive, but in fact the brain is deciding what you’re going to perceive, and it’s processing all of the information and then it’s determining what’s the best interpretation.

This is a window into what the brain is doing all the time. It’s always sifting through a variety of possibilities and finding the best interpretation for what’s out there. And the best interpretation may vary with the situation.

Note the reference to orientation implicitly controlling observation –“the brain is deciding what you’re going to perceive.” It is possible, although the article doesn’t address this question, that the “non-perceived” information may be stored somewhere in your brain and may influence your orientation, that it may affect your actions.

The study also points out that the brain registers the presence of external objects in about .4 seconds, which may provide insight into the conditions necessary for operating inside an opponent’s OODA loop.

[Original article, “Your brain sees things you don’t,” on EarthSky.org, 13 Nov 2013.]

You build snowmobiles; snowmobiles build you

Your DNA is actually an on-going project of building snowmobiles, according to an article in this weekend’s Wall St. J. (paywall):

So stretches of DNA can be copied in particular cells and then pasted elsewhere, producing a novel DNA sequence … Transpositions also occur in the brain. Fred Gage and Alysson Muotri of the Salk Institute and colleagues first showed that human transposons are activated in stem cells in the brain around the time they are becoming neurons. In other words, when you make a new neuron, that old boring DNA sequence that you inherited isn’t good enough. Thus, the brain is a mosaic of neurons with different DNA sequences. “Genes Often Get Shuffled in Our DNA Deck,” by Robert M. Sapolsky

I don’t know what this means, but it is absolutely fascinating. As the article mentions, the vast, vast majority of snowmobiles don’t work, but a vital few do. Plants are especially good at this game, and bacteria, the most successful life form on the planet — you are, basically, just a life support mechanism for a bunch of bacteria — are masters.


National entropy

Maybe the reason that the Chinese continue to do so well is that China is smarter than we are. Simplest explanation I can come up with.

I don’t mean that individual Chinese are smarter than individual Americans, but suppose in a celestial experiment, the usual Martian were asked to gaze down upon both the US and China as organisms and select which one seemed to be more intelligent. On the one hand, the China organism would appear to be engaging in various self-improvement exercises, while the US organism spends most of its energy running up and down the street barking at cars, knocking small children off bikes, and chasing its ideological tail.

Consider: Soon, more Chinese will ride their high-speed train system than Americans will fly our airline system. You wanted to compare Chinese train ridership with American??? Compare high-speed train ridership???

As Keith Bradsher describes the benefits in an article in today’s New York Times:

Productivity gains to the economy appear to be of the same order as the combined economic gains from the usual arguments given for high-speed trains, including time savings for travelers, reduced noise, less air pollution and fuel savings, the World Bank consultants calculated.

Companies are opening research and development centers in more glamorous cities like Beijing and Shenzhen with abundant supplies of young, highly educated workers, and having them take frequent day trips to factories in cities with lower wages and land costs, like Tianjin and Changsha. Businesses are also customizing their products more through frequent meetings with clients in other cities, part of a broader move up the ladder toward higher value-added products.

My old friend, Bill Lind, now heads the Center for Public Transportation at the American Conservative. Hey Bill, time to get to work.

As a side note, the economic and social gains China gets from better integrating its population seem to confirm the value of physical contact, even in this age of virtual everything.

Farewell to the mother country

A few final thoughts on our travels to England. Apologies to those of you who have been there many times. For those who might be considering going, here are some thoughts (click thumbnails for larger views):


Sudeley Castle, home of Henry VIII’s widow

1.  They must be lying to us about their weather, saying that it’s wet and cold most of the year. Perhaps they even pay organizations like the Weather Channel to repeat these lies for them. I can reveal to you, however, that England has the same weather as Southern California. We hiked in the Cotswolds, for example, for eight days and saw not one drop of rain. From the conditions of the trails, it hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks before we showed up. Temps in the mid-80s. Be prepared for anything, in other words.

Tomb of  the Black Prince at Canterbury

Tomb of the Black Prince at Canterbury

2.  Sherpa Expeditions arranged our hike for us. They made the hotel / B&B reservations, transferred suitcases between hotels, and sent us detailed maps and instructions for each day’s trek (“Go through the kissing gate, turn right along the fence line for 50 meters, then take an azimuth of 81 degrees across the field for 300 yards. Look for a stile gate next to the big oak tree near the end of the stone fence.” Etc., for roughly 100 miles.) Will bring back those old land navigation skills that you still brag about to your spouse and kids. This is our second tour through Sherpa, and we recommend them highly. If you’re of the retired persuasion, ask them to schedule a day off about midway along the route.

Detail of a thatched roof

Detail of a thatched roof

3.  Our itinerary started just outside the Cotswolds in Stratford-upon-Avon, then to Mickleton, Broadway via Chipping Campden, Blockley, passing by Stow-on-the-Wold to Bourton-on-the-Water (do they have a committee that makes up these names?), Guiting Power, and Winchcombe.
4.  The Cotswolds make for generally easy hiking, albeit with some vicious descents, as into Broadway from the Tower and down the ridge into Winchcombe. The region lies about a 2-hour train ride due west of London, consisting of rolling hills, stone fences, and

Typical waymarker

Typical waymarker

thatched-roof cottages. You wouldn’t be shocked to see Gandalf waving to you from his garden. The region is criss-crossed with well marked trails including the Cotswold Way from Chipping Campden to Bath. Our route occasionally followed the ‘Way but also included other trails like the Monarch’s Way, Warden’s Way, and the Heart of England Way and often just “public footpaths” through fields and farm buildings. England has strange rules about these things.
5.  I had assumed that those thatched roofs date back to Shakespeare’s day. Actually, they don’t last all that much longer than shingle roofs. For a typical American-sized 3-BR ranch, plan on shelling out about $200,000 to have one installed. Speaking of which, Anne Hatheway’s house was delightful.

The Volunteer Inn

The Volunteer Inn

6.  All of our inns and B&B’s were memorable, and I’d go back to any one of them. Two, though, stand out. The Volunteer Inn in

Looking towards our room

Looking towards our room

Chipping Campden sits over a boisterous local pub, and when we saw it, we went OMG! We’re not going to get any sleep. But they put us into a clean if Spartan room well away from the bar. After dinner at the Lygon Arms, recommended by Rick Steves — as I’ve mentioned before, always trust Rick — one of us needed some urgent medical care unrelated to the Lygon. The bartender at the Volunteer Inn called NHS, then a cab and we were off to the local clinic about 10 miles away. Because of this little problem, one of us couldn’t walk for a couple of days, so the Volunteer Inn volunteered a ride in their luggage car (they actually move the suitcases for Sherpa).

The Guest House at Guiting Power

The Guest House at Guiting Power

7.  The other extra special inn was the Guest House in the hamlet of Guiting Power (“on Post Office Lane, formerly Cow Pat Lane”).  The GH excelled at all the usual B&B ambience and is right next to the Farmers Arms pub, with homemade vegetarian chili

Near the start of the Cotswold Way in Chipping Campden

Near the start of the Cotswold Way in Chipping Campden

on an extensive menu and featuring Donnington’s Ale!! But what made it special was the length Robert and Barbara went to to accommodate our wounded hiker.  The next morning, for example, when the Volunteer Inn’s schedule didn’t mesh with a follow-up appointment at the local clinic, Robert substituted with his own car. It’s about a 20 min trip, and gas over there runs something like $8.50/gal. Many, many thanks, Robert!

8.  So what about the NHS? Two data points: First, they took care of us. We were expecting long lines, perfunctory service (if we got any at all), and maybe even a big bill since we’re foreigners. Sorry to disappoint all my GOP buds out there, but we experienced none of the above. We got in on time to both appointments, care was excellent, problem was solved, and when we asked how much we owed, they just laughed at us. The first time would have been a trip to the emergency room here in the US, to give you an idea. When the incident happened, I called the TRICARE emergency number in the UK. They told me to use the local “minor injuries unit” and not to worry. They were right.

Way marker for the Gustav Holst Way

Way marker for the Gustav Holst Way

9.  Second data point: We visited an American friend who has lived in the UK for 6 years. This friend, whom let’s call “Bob” since I haven’t asked permission to use real names, is over 60 and knows how hard — impossible — it would be to get insurance in the US at his age, not to mention pre-existings. Bob’s putting off moving back until he turns 65 so he can stay on NHS. He certainly doesn’t enjoy paying 45%

Along the Gustav Holst Way

Along the Gustav Holst Way

income tax, but would enjoy paying for a stay in an American hospital even less. He could well afford it, by the way, but feels that the NHS is doing the job for him.
10.  The absolute highlight of the trip? Walking along the Gustav Holst Way between Bourton-on-the-Whatever and Guiting Power, listening to his two suites for military band on my iPhone. These two pieces, particularly the second, weave in many English folk songs, so the experience was magical. Again, visualize Gandalf & hobbits. The final movement of the first has been a favorite of mine since we played it in high school band, and I’ve been using it as my ring tone for the last several years.

The HMS Victory, now undergoing restoration

The HMS Victory, now undergoing restoration

Hastings, looking uphill towards the Anglo-Saxon lines

Hastings, looking uphill towards the Anglo-Saxon lines

11.  After the walk, we hit Bath, Portsmouth, Eastbourne, Canterbury, and London. But you know all those places, so I’ll skip the details, other than to mention that Eastbourne is a short hop from the battlefield at Hastings, 1066 and all that. The train “system,” a conglomerate of private “train operating companies” using a national, not-for-profit rail system, all tied into a unified reservation system, has been criticized in the UK. We rode it on eight occasions, though, and it  did work for us, including making two 4-minute connections in Brighton.

[We brought one of our daughters’ friends along with us. For his pictures, check out http://thefrogexpeditions.com. Best to start at the bottom and scroll up.]

Personages of Merrie Olde England

tarletonThis gentleman is General Sir Banastre Tarleton, 1st Baronet, GCB.  Considered an outstanding practitioner of light cavalry tactics, he rose to the rank of full general and was in contention to command British forces in the Peninsular Campaign, a position that  went to one Sir Arthur Wellesley. He was also an adroit politician, representing Liverpool in Parliament from 1790 – 1812.

Like another outstanding cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Tarleton is more fondly remembered by his compatriots than by his opponents:  Both were accused of massacring soldiers who had surrendered, and both were ardent supporters of slavery.  In Tarleton’s case, his battlefield success worked against him on the grand strategic level as his alleged brutality became a rallying point for the revolutionary forces that ultimately defeated him.

This picture of Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows him as a Lt Col in the uniform of the British Legion, which he commanded. It hangs in the National Gallery in London, and therein hangs another tale. I recognized the picture immediately upon entering the Gallery and took it with my iPhone on Monday, flash off.  As I was reviewing the image on the phone, a polite voice informed me that photography was not allowed.  Great, I’m going to end my visit to England under arrest. But after apologizing, I was was allowed to keep it and the guard and I entered into a discussion of Tarleton, who, I assured him, was well known to students of American military history. He was, however, dismayed to learn that Tarleton is reviled in the States as “Bloody Ban” and the phrase “Tarleton’s Quarter” means no quarter at all. You may remember him caricatured as “Col Tavington” in the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot.  Students of US military history also remember that he got his butt kicked, to use the technical term, and his legion destroyed at The Cowpens. That defeat, coming soon after the British loss at nearby Kings Mountain, made the position of Tarleton’s boss, Lord Cornwallis, untenable and began the retreat to Yorktown.

A most civilized discourse in a country that we often dismiss as just a smaller version of America but with funny accents. But it is not, and more on that in another post.

More box technology

I’m still fascinated by these things.

brooksHere are a couple from recent shoe purchases. They are similar but not identical, which suggests that somebody is working on the design.

It’s amazing that they fabricate these boxes, apparently by the hundreds of thousands, out of cardboard no less, and with such precision that they don’t need glue, tape, or staples to stay together during shipping, at the store, or on the way home. and all for what must be negligible cost.

sauconyThe Saucony pair, by the way, represents my first foray into “zero drop” shoes. Actually they have 4mm, compared to the 10-12 on my regular shoes. I’ve been running for about 40 years, so it’s with some trepidation that I’m trying them, but they do seem to be all the rage.

Rededication of Boyd Hall

On June 13, 2013, Maj. Gen. John N. T. “Jack” Shanahan, USAF, gave the rededication speech of Boyd Hall at the Weapons Center, Nellis AFB, Nevada.

With the general’s kind permission, I have added a copy of his remarks to our Articles page.  General Shanahan gave a speech for the ages, and if it were possible to have embarrassed Boyd, such encomia might have done the trick.

General Shanahan is the commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency at Joint Base San Antonio, Lackland, TX. AFISR is the successor unit to my old organization.

Richards’s Conjecture on Truth and Beauty

Somewhere in my college days, we read Aristotle. I recall that he droned on about truth and beauty, but for the life of me, I have no clue about what he said. Or maybe I’m just recovering snatches from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Regardless, as a defrocked mathematician, I have an ambivalence towards these two notions. This may strike you as strange, “beauty” not often associated with mathematics, so let me explain. In mathematics, we work from guesses called “conjectures,” which we then try to establish by a finite series of logical steps, reasoning from assumptions (axioms) and from results already proven to be true. Once established, they get promoted from “conjecture” to “theorem.” It all sounds so dull when you put it this way. Continue reading