Sunday, September 24, 2017


So what is known about the genetics of speed? In the cases of horses and dogs, quite a lot. For humans, maybe not as much, since we don't deliberately breed people for speed. Still, there is quite a lot that is known. One big factor is limb conformation, specifically the lever arm of the attached muscles. This has to do with the relative lengths of the limbs and where exactly the muscles are attached. These things are mostly controlled by genetics and completely immune to training. The strength and composition of the muscles involved is also important, and in particular the types of muscle fibers composing the muscles. Muscle fiber type is specified by genetics, while training has the ability to strengthen muscles, but can't change the type. Recruitment, the degree and ease with which fibers are neurally activated is partially genetic but can be increased by training. Muscle training essentially works by increasing the size of individual fibers and improving their recruitment.

It's also known that good to excellent sprinters have much higher proportions of fast twitch fibers than average persons, and that even their type of fast twitch fiber is special. Studies of elite sprinters (and jumpers) have also shown that they were "born fast", or at least that they were always the fastest kid on the block and all showed exceptional speed at their first exposure to competition and training. Elite sprinters, as I've mentioned elsewhere, are almost all American or Caribbean of West African or European and West African descent. Independently, this population is known to have relatively high proportions of fast twitch muscle fibers.

Some of these facts are captured in some homely expressions long known to coaches. On the limits of training: "I can make you faster, but I can't make you fast." On the athletic benefits of speed: "Speed never has a bad day." On areas where training doesn't help: "You can't teach height."

In conclusion, for one crucial athletic ability, speed, genetics is the essential substrate of exceptional capability.

More on Genes

Arun Gupta:

Americans of the stupid variety keep trying to justify the way things are by genetics. But the fact is that culture (learned behavior) is far stronger.

I have pretty good reason to suspect that the "American of the stupid variety" he has is mind is your humble correspondent. But let's consider the merits of the claim. It seems to me that claiming that culture is much more important than genetics is a bit like claiming that the brain is more important than the lungs. Both are essential, but the relative importance of the two depends on context. In this case, the crucial qualities under consideration are running speed and what the football scouts refer to as athleticism - essentially acceleration in changing one's state of motion. These are matters of details of body mechanics like limb proportions and the relative size of the achilles tendon.

Training can affect muscle strength and reaction times, but the above mentioned critical matters are determined by genetics and probably, childhood nutrition. Culture is almost certainly a very minor factor in running speed and athleticism.

So what about the linked story Arun adduced in evidence? I've read it carefully (when I first cited it) and again in response to Arun's comment, and I think his interpretation is utterly unreasonable. In one of the cases discussed in the story, the authors cite the case of a highly successful black center in college who was converted to tackle in the NFL. The story, and Arun, quote a history prof to the effect that a "tradition" of white centers accounts for the reassignment. The story, but not Arun, quotes the twice winning super bowl coach who drafted him:

“Trent is so athletic, so talented and so smart, he could play any position and play it at a Pro Bowl level. Could he be a great center or guard? Absolutely. But you win in this league with tackles.”

Tackles get the big bucks, tackles play the more crucial roles, so if you have the skills and talents to play either position, you play tackle. That sounds like a far more convincing answer to me. Other elements of the cited story also reinforce what I said. Yet other element are highly dubious, e.g.:

Any athlete may be able to compensate for a lack of genetic ability through practice and skill mastery.

This is bullshit. Everybody playing top level professional athletics has had plenty of practice and skill mastery. Everybody at that level is also, in some respects, a genetic freak. Diligent training will turn an ordinary Joe into a pretty good weekend athlete. but the gap between that level and pro is enormous.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Insults: Advantage Kim

I think Kim Jong Un is currently leading the insult contest with "Deranged Dotard" crushing "Rocket Man." I mean, come on. Rocket Man sounds more like a compliment than an insult, so it lacks sting. "Deranged Dotard" is not only clearly insulting but it seems appropriately descriptive.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sue the Bastards: Football Kills Your Brain

Ken Belson in the NYT:

Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who committed suicide in April while serving a life sentence for murder, was found to have a severe form of C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma that has been found in more than 100 former N.F.L. players.

Researchers who examined the brain determined it was “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age,” said a lawyer for Hernandez in announcing the result at a news conference on Thursday. Hernandez was 27.

C.T.E., or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, can be diagnosed only posthumously. Hernandez is the latest former N.F.L. player to have committed suicide and then been found to have C.T.E., joining Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, Andre Waters, Ray Easterling and Jovan Belcher, among others. Seau and Duerson shot themselves in the chest, apparently so that researchers would be able to examine their brain. Hernandez was found hanging in his prison cell.

Seau, Duerson and Waters were all older than 40, while Hernandez is one of the youngest former N.F.L. players to have been found with the disease. In July, researchers at Boston University released findings that showed that they had found C.T.E. in the brains of 110 of the 111 former N.F.L. players they had examined.

Combine this result with the recent study that showed that kids who started football at age of less than 12 showed signs of impaired mental function later:

Athletes who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than those who started playing after they turned 12, a new study released on Tuesday showed.

The findings, from a long-term study conducted by researchers at Boston University, are likely to add to the debate over when, or even if, children should be allowed to begin playing tackle football.

The results of the study by researchers at Boston University, published in the journal Nature’s Translational Psychiatry, was based on a sample of 214 former players, with an average age of 51. Of those, 43 played through high school, 103 played through college and the remaining 68 played in the N.F.L.

Former players should start suing the NCAA, that profoundly corrupt parasite on our universities.

Full disclosure: I think I was eleven or twelve when my two years older neighbor knocked me out with a swung baseball bat (accidentally).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Genetic Differences

I think I read that Jimmy the Greek got fired from his sports job for saying that blacks dominate American sports because they have more talent. It's probably more complicated than that but the science of human genetic differences is controversial mainly because of its potential implications for the subject of racial differences. What with White Supremacists and Nazis making a comeback, it's hardly possible to dispassionately discuss such matters.

The standard line on the left, I think, is that race is a social construct. Well, of course, but that doesn't mean that it isn't related to biological history. I think that the left - and I'm slightly left myself - overplays its hand when it insists that noticing differences correlated with race is evidence of racism or other dastardly crimes against propriety. If you publicly insist on a claim that anyone can see is false you discredit yourself more than anyone else.

I would guess that anyone who follows sports in America knows that despite whites being far more numerous in the country than blacks, most NBA teams are much more black than white. So are college teams. And nearly all the superstars are either black or mixed race identifying as black. In track, nearly all the top sprinters have some combination of West African and White ancestry, while the marathon is dominated by East Africans from Ethiopia, Kenya, and a few other countries. NFL Football is more complicated, with cornerbacks being nearly all black, wide receivers and defensive ends being mostly black, while offensive guards, centers and quarterbacks are majority white.

These differences have a lot to do with physical characteristics, especially size, strength, and speed. There are plausible evolutionary reasons why systematic differences might exist, one of the most obvious being that Europeans had to adapt to living in a cold climate. So when the modern human ancestors of Europeans moved from Africa to cold country, they experienced evolutionary pressures to develop blockier bodies, just like other animals living in cold climates. This could have happened partly due to loss of long limbed genes and partly due to interbreeding with Neandertals, who had been living in the cold climate for half a million years.

Other things being equal, being able to run fast and jump high are pretty useful, but a blockier body prevents that. Ergo, an evolutionary explanation for why White Men Can't Jump - it was cold. Speed is a factor for every position in the NFL except kicker, so blacks are overrepresented compared to their percentage in the population at every other position. Whites are relatively highly represented at quarterback and center, positions with less of a premium on speed. This article has the racial breakdown of every NFL position. Whites are a majority at only four non-kicker positions.

The average African-American has about 17% European genes, mainly, but obviously not exclusively, a legacy of slavery. It would be interesting to know how the genetics break down at the various positions.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sonic Warfare in Cuba

For sometime American and then Canadian diplomats and their families in Cuba seem to have been subjected to some kinds of weird sonic attacks, which have caused hearing loss and even brain injury. Aa central oddity is that the Cuban government would seem to have no obvious motive for such attacks. As reported by Josh Lederman, Michael Weissenstein, and Rob Gillies on TPM:

The Cuban president sent for the top American envoy in the country to address grave concerns about a spate of U.S. diplomats harmed in Havana. There was talk of futuristic “sonic attacks” and the subtle threat of repercussions by the United States, until recently Cuba’s sworn enemy.

The way Castro responded surprised Washington, several U.S. officials familiar with the exchange told The Associated Press.

In a rare face-to-face conversation, Castro told U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis that he was equally befuddled, and concerned. Predictably, Castro denied any responsibility. But U.S. officials were caught off guard by the way he addressed the matter, devoid of the indignant, how-dare-you-accuse-us attitude the U.S. had come to expect from Cuba’s leaders.

The Cubans even offered to let the FBI come down to Havana to investigate. While U.S.-Cuban cooperation on law enforcement had improved, this level of access was extraordinary.

If not the Cuban government, then who might be the perps?

There are a few candidates:

Investigators considered whether a rogue faction of Cuba’s security forces had acted, possibly in combination with another country like Russia or North Korea.

Another group with a clear motive would be diehard Cuban exiles, who bitterly resent normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, but it would be difficult for them to get the kind of necessary access that the previously mentioned would have.

Nuclear Targeting Strategy

Every President from Eisenhower to Reagan had looked at our nuclear war plans and been appalled. Several, including Kennedy and Carter had resolved to do something about a hair trigger plan that promised to destroy civilization and perhaps all human life. All were defeated by what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, which had the US Strategic Air Command close to its heart.

ON JANUARY 25, 1991, General George Lee Butler became the head of the Strategic Air Command. During his first week on the job, Butler asked the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff to give him a copy of the SIOP[The US Single Integrated Operational Plan for nuclear war]. General Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had made clear that the United States needed to change its targeting policy, now that the Cold War was over. As part of that administrative process, Butler decided to look at every single target in the SIOP, and for weeks he carefully scrutinized the thousands of desired ground zeros. He found bridges and railways and roads in the middle of nowhere targeted with multiple warheads, to assure their destruction. Hundreds of nuclear warheads would hit Moscow—dozens of them aimed at a single radar installation outside the city. During his previous job working for the Joint Chiefs, Butler had dealt with targeting issues and the damage criteria for nuclear weapons. He was hardly naive. But the days and weeks spent going through the SIOP, page by page, deeply affected him.

For more than forty years, efforts to tame the SIOP, to limit it, reduce it, make it appear logical and reasonable, had failed. “With the possible exception of the Soviet nuclear war plan, this was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had ever reviewed in my life,” General Butler later recalled. “I came to fully appreciate the truth . . . we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

Butler eliminated about 75 percent of the targets in the SIOP, introduced a targeting philosophy that was truly flexible, and decided to get rid of the name SIOP. The United States no longer had a single, integrated war plan. Butler preferred a new title for the diverse range of nuclear options: National Strategic Response Plans.

Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (Ala Notable Books for Adults) (pp. 456-457). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Command and Control is a gripping and chilling book, which I intend to review shortly. At its center is the Damascus Incident, in which a Titan II missile armed with a ten megaton hydrogen bomb exploded in its silo near Damascus, Arkansas, but that story, and the stories of the heroic responders to the accident is embedded in a detailed and scholarly discussion of the whole issue of how nuclear weapons in the US were controlled or not and made safer or (mostly) not.

From a review quoted on Amazon:

Financial Times “Command and Control ranks among the most nightmarish books written in recent years; and in that crowded company it bids fair to stand at the summit. It is the more horrific for being so incontrovertibly right and so damnably readable. Page after relentless page, it drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your reluctant mind... a work with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel… Schlosser has done what journalism does at its best when at full stretch: he has spent time – years – researching, interviewing, understanding and reflecting to give us a piece of work of the deepest import.”

Full disclosure: The book is required reading for the Nuclear History class I'm taking.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Mark of Cain

Recent hurricanes, the incredible shrinking airline coach seat, and, especially the recent Equifax data breach, have reminded me of how important I believe government regulation to be. Which gives me yet another excuse to bash libertarianism.

I believe that I first encountered libertarians in high school, and I reacted with an instant hostility which has neither evaporated nor abated in the succeeding sixty years, though reading Ayn Rand certainly refreshed my immune reaction. I have sometimes tried to comprehend the deep roots of this distaste, with only modest success. I consider myself a liberal, more classical than modern, so I share some values with the libertarians, but certainly not all.

In the Bible, after Cain had whacked his brother Abel, God asked him, perhaps rhetorically, "where is your brother?" Cain replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

That question, or rather its answer, is the central difference between liberals and libertarians. To put it less bluntly, do we each have an obligation to our fellows? The history of human society says yes. Libertarians say no.

The extreme libertarian is exemplified by Ayn Rand and her "heroes." It's no coincidence that they are routinely criticized by their families and others as "lacking human feeling." Many of them, like John Galt, the Voldemort like hero of Atlas Shrugged, are clearly psychopaths. The same was likely true of Rand herself. They lack empathy and take pleasure in tormenting others. Such people have always been the bane of human society. Among primitive peoples, they are often ostracized or murdered.

Unfortunately, civilization offers them more fertile ground, where they frequently rise or fall to positions that allow them to indulge their narcissistic or sadistic tendencies.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Evacuations and Uncertainty

Irma spent the night slow dancing with Cuba. Very bad for Cuba but probably spared Miami and the East coast of Florida the worst effects of the hurricane. If so, those who evacuated Miami at considerable cost and trouble may be outraged. The thing always is that prediction of hurricane path and especially intensity, though drastically improved, is not, and is not likely to become, an exact science. On the other hand, if evacuations had not happened, and the quite likely event of a direct hit on the East coast had happened, the casualties could have been immense. All of which invites the question: is there a better way?

I think there is. It's not cheap, but I think it would save lives and money over the long run. I've mentioned the basic idea before. Build large, well-equipped, durable, and multi-use shelters near as many flood prone regions of high density population as possible. This should be accompanied with two other policy changes: phase out flood insurance and discourage building in flood prone regions.

It's simply not feasible to evacuate millions or tens of millions of people for hundreds of miles. Such evacuations are dangerous, expensive, and frequently leave the evacuees worse off, for example, consider the East Floridians who evacuated to West Florida. If safe, well-equipped shelters were available within a few miles, people could much more safely, easily and quickly evacuate. Moreover, it would be both safe and sensible to wait until forecasts were far more certain.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Category Six

Weather Underground has an extremely popular weather blog that used to be called Category Six. (I think that the new name is Weather Underground Category Six). Anyway, the name led some noobs to think that Hurricane Irma was in fact a category six hurricane. There isn't any such, but should there be? Maggie Astor, writing in the NYT, mentions some of the arguments while saying that its not going to happen:

As Irma churned west with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour on Tuesday, making it among the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, some armchair meteorologists suggested that there should be. On the surface, that makes some sense: The difference between successive categories on the existing scale ranges from 14 to 26 miles per hour, and Irma’s winds were 28 miles per hour past the Category 5 threshold. In the years ahead, hurricanes are quite likely to become stronger, and the strongest ones more frequent. But Category 6 still is not going to happen.

Why not?

The purpose of the categories, known as the Saffir-Simpson scale, is to quantify a hurricane’s destructive power, and the destructive power of a Category 5 hurricane — one with sustained winds of at least 157 miles per hour — is virtually total. “A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse,” Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center, wrote in an email. “Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

The scale classifies this level of damage as “catastrophic,” Mr. Feltgen said, and “what is left after ‘catastrophic’ damage?”

The problem with that argument is that a lot of modern concrete and steel buildings are built to stand up under 160 mph winds. It's much less clear that they can withstand 185 mph winds with 225 mph gusts, much less 200 mph winds with 240 mph gusts. Some catastrophes are worse than others.

“The scale was developed 1 to 5,” Joel Myers, the founder and president of AccuWeather, said in an interview Tuesday evening. “When you develop a scale 1 to 5, there can’t be any Category 6.”

Dr. Myers may have snoozed through this part of elementary school, but here's the deal Joel: after every integer, there is always another one, and the one after five is called "six." I say add a category six for, say 180 mph -200 mph, and if necessary category seven and maybe more.