Well, to me, anyway. You might think so, too. Certain subjects and activities have engaged my interest for decades, and, in some cases, since childhood. I have always been interested in the military, probably because my father served in the Army, during the Korean War. As a young boy at sleep away camp in New England, I learned to shoot a .22 rifle (earning my NRA Jurnior Marksman’s patch). My interest in shooting deepened after my father retired; he and I would spend time together at the range. I have enjoyed studying science since my days as a curious kid, experimenting (at some personal risk) with one of those metal-cased chemistry sets that were still common in the 1960s.
My purely adult interests include history and literature, geopolitics, economics, philosophy and culture, defense and security (national and personal), as well as technology and religion.
Following are some short write-ups on terms, concepts, ideas, research, and practical notes, gleaned from my readings and my intellectual wanderings, that I find to be both thought provoking and useful. I add more content as the spirit and mood strike me.
5 x 5
Being interested in matters of defense and national security, and also, because I am always looking for useful insights for understanding current affairs, and for investing, I follow a number of military oriented websites and blogs. From these sources, I picked up the term, five by five (that is, 5 x 5,) which is analog radio communications shorthand for the grading of signal quality.
Analog signal quality, which is especially important to voice communications, is reported in two numeric scales: one for signal strength, and one for signal clarity, with number “1” being the worst and the number “5” being the best. Signal strength refers to the ability of a radio signal to get through (is the signal weak or strong?) Signal clarity refers to the ability of the signal to convey information as intended (is it garbled, or is it clear?) To say that a signal is “five by five,” or simply, “5 x 5”), means the signal has excellent strength and perfect clarity. “Five-by-five” is analog world tech-speak for “loud and clear.”
When communicating, think about signal quality. Shoot for 5 x 5.
Developed by the late U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997), a fighter pilot and influential military theorist, the OODA Loop is a “practical concept designed to be the foundation of rational thinking in confusing or chaotic situations.”1 Boyd first conceived of developed the concept of the OODA Loop to improve the success and survival rate of jet fighter pilots engaged in blink-of-an-eye dogfights with Cold War-era adversaries. An acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, the OODA Loop has found application well beyond the military, including business, sports, litigation strategy, self defense and planning.
Boyd was a prolific maker of slide presentations, given mostly to military audiences, yet, he authored surprisingly few publications. I’ve read some of his most noteworthy articles, such as “Destruction and Creation.” 2 I have also read several biographies written about Boyd and an academic treatise on his theories. As often happens with out-of-the-box thinkers, Boyd was somewhat of an outcast within the military establishment, yet his original thinking and influence live on.
Boyd’s OODA Loop offers a practical mental model for handling dynamic problems in many situations, from life-or-death tactical encounters in war and self defense, to business decisions, litigation strategy and planning.
I highly recommend reading up on the OODA Loop, as the concepts on which it is based apply in many areas of life.
1Here’s a good article about Boyd and OODA Loops.
2Click here for a site dedicated to Boyd’s work, with publications and bibliography.
Cargo Cult Science
Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) is one of my heroes. Like my late father (another one of my heroes), Feynman was born in the then largely Jewish neighborhood of Far Rockaway, in the New York City borough of Queens. Feynman, one of history’s greatest theoretical physicists, was a genius and an iconoclast. Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII and shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. He was famous for his lectures to freshman year physics students at Caltech (his lectures were often attended by other Caltech professors and graduate students and were transcribed and compiled into a series of books and recordings; I own sets of both). Feynman also played the bongos and wrote some very funny books.1
Feynman first used the term cargo cult science during his 1974 commencement address at Caltech.2 The term refers to anthropologic observations of the behavior of certain primitive South Pacific islanders who witnessed and experienced first hand the arrival and build up of American might during the U.S. military’s island-hopping campaign toward the eventual defeat of Imperial Japan. The islanders observed the construction of runways, radio shacks and control towers and the arrival of cargo-laden military aircraft (C-47s, I would think), bringing all sorts of never before seen wonders. At night, the islanders noticed the lighting of bonfires alongside the runways, which, it turned out, were used to guide pilots to safe landings in the dark.
After the war, American forces abandoned their island airstrips, leaving behind the islanders, now bereft of the wondrous material goods which the wartime aviators and their giant cargo planes had previously brought to the islands in once unimagined abundance. Believing in their innocent ignorance that recreating the wartime appearance of their island would bring the return of the cargo planes and their bounty, the islanders set about rebuilding runways, radio huts and control towers, using nothing but their native materials. Of course, despite their beliefs and best efforts, no cargo planes returned. The unique conditions that existed during wartime were not to exist again, and no amount of primitive belief, wishful thinking, or self deception would change reality.
Feynman used the term cargo cult science as an admonishment to beware the risks of faulty thinking and the dangerous deceptions of pseudoscience. In today’s highly politicized atmosphere, cargo cult science is all too common.
1“Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”
2See https://sites.cs.ucsb.edu/~ravenben/cargocult.html and be sure to read the whole thing. Feynman had an unmistakable way with words and ideas.
Triggers and Trigonometry
Pythagoras would have been a good rifleman, because he understood his angles. The Pythagorean Theorem states that, in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (“c”) is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides (“a” and “b”), that is, a2 + b2 = c2. The Pythagorean Theorem comes into play when shooting at an angle, i.e., uphill, or downhill, especially at distance. Here’s an interesting phenomenon: When shooting at a distant target, whether shooting uphill or downhill, absent appropriate aiming-point correction (using either an external optic or iron sights), a bullet will tend to hit high. To new shooters, this seems odd. How can it be that, whether shooting uphill or down, the bullet will tend to hit high? Pythagoras has part of the answer. Newton has the other half.
Try this demonstration: Hold one of your arms straight-out in front of you, level (i.e., parallel) to the ground, and pointing straight ahead, with fingers extended. Now, hold your other arm out, but pointed upward, at a 45-degree angle, as if you were aiming a rifle at an uphill target, also, with fingers extended. Now, think of an imaginary plumb line (a string, weighted on one end), descending, from the fingers of your upward-pointed hand, and the finger tips of your other hand (which, of course, is pointed straight ahead). The angle between the plumb line and your level arm would be exactly 90 degree; a right angle. Your upward-pointed arm is the hypotenuse of the triangle formed by your two outstretched arms and the plumb line. Thanks to Pythagoras, we know that the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is longer than either of the other two sides of the triangle.
Now, give your arms a rest and imagine yourself holding and aiming a rifle at an upward angle. The untrained shooter, who also happens to intuit a bit of geometry, thinks, “Hmm, if the line of sight between my rifle and my target is the hypotenuse of a triangle, and the hypotenuse is longer than the other sides of the triangle, my bullet will have to travel farther to get to the target versus a bullet shot at a level target, so, I have to aim higher, to account for the longer distance.” However, it turns out that bullets don’t think like Pythagoras. Bullets don’t think at all. Once a bullet exits the muzzle, it just reacts to external factors. Key among those factors, especially in the vertical direction, is the force of gravity, which works at a right angle to the earth’s surface. In other words, all objects, including bullets, fall straight down. A bullet shot at an angle, regardless of whether that angle is upward or downward, falls straight toward the earth’s surface. Thus, at any given point in its flight, a bullet is pulled directly toward the ground, along an imaginary line that is always level–or parallel–to the ground. A bullet does not “care” whether it is aimed at an uphill or downhill target (as if flying along the hypotenuse of triangle). A bullet “cares” about gravity. The problem, here, is that inexperienced shooters who don’t think about trigonometry and the physics of gravity let their eyes deceive them. When shooting uphill, these shooters think they must “aim high” to account for the effect of gravity on a bullet traveling along the hypotenuse of an imaginary triangle, but gravity only effects the bullet along an imaginary line that lies parallel to earth. Yet, from Pythagoras, we know, in a triangle formed by the line of sight to a target located either uphill or downhill from the shooter, a line parallel to the ground, and a third line connecting the other two lines, the line parallel to the ground is shorter than the line of sight to the target.
Again, why does a bullet aimed either uphill or downhill tend to hit “high?” Because the inexperienced shooter is thinking about the distance to the target along the line of sight, whereas the bullet is “thinking” about the distance along a shorter, imaginary line that is parallel to the ground.
Quiet eye (QE) is neurophysiological phenomenon that describes the momentary fixation of an athlete’s visual gaze during the critical milliseconds that precede a decisive physical action, such as the shooting of a basketball, the putting of a golf ball, or the blocking of a 100 MPH slap shot by an ice hockey goalie. First coined in 1996 by then University of Calgary Professor (now Emeritus) of Kinesiology, Joan N. Vickers, QE plays an important role in determining the outcome of a physical action (e.g., shooting a jump shot, stroking a putter, deflecting a puck), not only in sports, but also, in other activities in which the success of an individual participant’s or competitor’s action depends on hand-eye coordination, reaction time, fine motor coordination and the ability to perform under stress. QE has also been studied in the context of the shooting sports, specifically, competitive pistol, rifle (as in biathlon) and shotgun (including trap and skeet), where hitting targets (paper or otherwise) with speed and accuracy is the goal. QE turns out to be is particularly important in tactical shooting. Thus, a number of studies have been conducted to examine QE in live, force-on-force encounters (using Simunitions) between highly experienced and rookie law enforcement officers (LEOs) and would-be assailants (typically, experienced LEOs role playing according to a fixed scenario). Research results indicate that where an LEO focuses his or her visual attention in the very brief time (measured to the millisecond) between unholstering his or her pistol, raising the gun toward a potential assailant, and pulling the trigger can literally mean the difference between life and death–for both the assailant and/or the LEO. A key study by Vickers and Lewinski1 showed that, in controlled, force-on-force encounters, “a long duration of QE on critical locations prior to a final action is an important factor in the [LEO’s] ability to perform under pressure.” In other words, the duration of the LEO’s gaze on the immediate source of the physical threat–the assailant’s suspected weapon, is a key factor, and perhaps, the determining factor, in whether or not the LEO’s deciding action (to shoot or hold fire) is not only correct (stopping a deadly threat, versus shooting an unarmed suspect), but also, successful (making an accurate shot, versus a poor shot, or a miss).
The neuroscience and physiology of QE are topics worthy of their own discussion, but, for now, let me summarize the basics. The human visual system is a complex assemblage of anatomical, physiological, neurological, biological and molecular components. There’s the eyeball itself, the ocular components (cornea, lens, pupil, vitreous, retina, etc.), the receptors (cones, rods), the muscles of the eye and orbit, the optic nerve, the visual tracts, and the neural processing centers. And that’s just on the inbound side. On the other end are afferent neural fibers that lead to the muscles, organ systems and glands that produce the output, collectively, behavior; a response; a physical action.
If we’re talking about shooting (and we are!) the visual system, as a whole, has an awful lot of information to process, and that information has to travel from the subject being observed, to the back of the eye (the retina, where photoreceptors–the cones and rods, are located), up the optic nerve, to the brain, where a decision must be made (let’s call it a “firing solution,” to stick with the shooting theme), and neurologic signals must be sent, first to the spinal cord, and then, out to the muscles of the extremities, including the finger of the shooter, resting ever so lightly, or tensely, as the case may be, on the trigger of a gun. All this processing takes time! Critical milliseconds. Quickly. Nearly instantaneously. In the literal blink of an eye, the LEO (remember, we’re talking about police officers), must decide, whether or not to take the shot, and, if taking the shot, must attempt to place that shot precisely where it needs to go. The consequences of shooting, not shooting, hitting the target accurately, or missing the mark, can be life changing, which is an understatement.
This is why research on QE in the context of shooting, and especially, in the context of armed law enforcement encounters and civilian self defense encounters is anything but “just academic.” This is really important stuff.
QE is physically measured and analyzed with eye tracking hardware and image processing and analysis software. The hardware consists of a digital camera of some sort, mounted on the study subject’s face (as with an eyeglass frame or some other mounting apparatus). The camera follows the position of a particular point on the pupil of the subject’s dominant eye, by which the location of the subject’s gaze is determined and tracked. Software processes the pupil tracking data (position, duration). Importantly, the software is able to detect the small, finite, “jumping” movements of the eye, known as saccades. Measuring QE is actually measuring the interval during which the eye is fixated at a particular point, or, in other words, the amount of time that the eye’s gaze is directed at particular location or object of interest. In the Vickers and Lewinski study, the study subjects’ gaze would typically be directed at the potential assailant–his face, his clothing, his arms, elbows, hands, or the possible location of a weapon on the assailant’s person or concealed in his clothing. Of course, the entire scene is also captured with digital video cameras, and sound is monitored by microphones. See the referenced publication for the study methodology and a photograph how the whole set up worked. There is also a highly informative video of the study arrangement, which makes the whole study setup perfectly clear.
As a shooting instructor* I was especially interested to read and contemplate the following comment made by Vickers and Lewinski in the publication that I cited above. In their paper’s Discussion Section, Vickers and Lewinski write: “…our results suggest that firearms training should change from a process that inadvertently teaches novices to fixate the sights of their own weapon first and target second, to a type of training that establishes the line of gaze on the target from the outset, followed by alignment of the sights of the weapon to the lie of the gaze. This change in gaze control would lead to a longer QE duration on the target prior to pulling the trigger and should contribute to better decision making and performance. I will note that “better decision making and performance” does not just mean hitting a target (be it a paper bullseye or silhouette, or an actual, would-be assailant) but could mean making the life-or-death decision to shoot, or the decision to hold fire. After all, what if the “would be assailant” at first suspected of carrying and presenting a potentially deadly weapon (gun, knife) is actually carrying or presenting something no more harmful than a cell phone?
*As a NRA Certified Shooting Instructor, PIstol & Rifle, I teach firearms safety and the fundamentals of shooting to beginners. The discussion here is purely of an intellectual nature and not for instructional purposes.
Native American Archaeology in Southeastern Utah
In early October 2021, my wife and I, guided by a retired BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ranger who we had previously befriended during a visit to Durango, CO, toured Native American (Puebloan) archaeological sites found in and around the Montezuma Canyon area of southeastern Utah, located in the northwest quadrant of the Four Corners Region. Archeologists have determined that the Montezuma Canyon area was extensively populated up to about 1300 A.D., when, for unknown reasons, perhaps related to changes in the regional climate, a decline in the ability to grow crops, and the depletion of local game sources, the inhabitants left. According to our guide, the area was once populated by upwards of 200,000 inhabitants, whereas, today, the entire Four Corners Region has a population of only about 70,000 people, spread among the contiguous states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
Ownership of lands in Montezuma Canyon is divided between BLM (within the U.S. Department of the Interior), the State of Utah, and private concerns. Land ownership tends to be related to the natural presence of water, which determines the habitability and utility of the land, either for personal use or for commercial purposes (e.g., cattle grazing, oil and gas production). Ranchers and energy companies lease federal lands, administered by BLM, paying fees for access and use. State lands tend to be reserved for cultural preservation and recreation.
Aside from its physical beauty as a high desert region of varied terrain, with rocky canyons and expansive vistas, encompassing everything from desert lands to the seasonally snow-capped peaks of Western Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Montezuma Canyon is dotted with archaeological wonders. These include the ruins and remains of ancient Puebloan kivas, cliff dwellings, granaries, petroglyphs, pictoglyphs and sites seemingly related to various communal, religious or other practical uses, including, to our fascination, the observance of celestial phenomenon. The latter appear to include at least one extant site that has all the hallmarks of a celestial observatory–a Native American Stonehenge, if you will–that has been determined to be useful for making temporal observations based on the seasonally related position of the sun, most notably, the summer and winter solstices (see photo and caption, immediately below).
What were the specific purposes or uses or this site? Was this site intended for religious commemorations? Seasonal celebrations? Setting of agricultural calendars, as for planting or harvest? Might the original builders have had otherworldly purposes in mind? For example, might the original builders have sought to discover the spiritual or extraterrestrial origins of their own existence? For now, we can only speculate, based on our own knowledge, cultural frameworks and preconceived notions of what our Native American predecessors were thinking, building and doing, many centuries ago, in Montezuma Canyon.
While earlier inhabitants of Montezuma Canyon apparently had the time, if not the luxury, to observe and contemplate the heavens, habitation and survival were undoubtedly of greater practical concern. Life in the high desert of the interior American West was most certainly a struggle, not only against the forces of nature (unfavorable weather, malnutrition, disease, predation), but also, pressure on life and resources brought to bear by other claimants to the land and its limited bounty. Even today, the rocky, mostly parched, high desert lands of southeastern Utah have limited capacity to support human life and activity. One can readily envision the daily challenges faced by the native inhabitants of the region to feed and clothe themselves, to protect themselves from predators, and to fend off encroachment and outright attacks by neighboring inhabitants or migrating interlopers.
This brings us to our surprising (at least to us) discovery of the ruins of tower-like structures, reminiscent, not so much of peaceful, early Native American dwellings, but of medieval European fortresses, of the kind built in the times of the Frankish rulers and early medieval rulers of France. See for yourself. Look at the two photos, below.
For better or worse, we 21st century Americans tend to think within the confines of our own historical and cultural boxes. That said, what could the humble-looking, Native American archaeological ruins in the high desert of southeastern Utah have to do with the heavily studied, historically significant, and culturally celebrated medieval ruins of southwestern France? Why is it that the medieval ruins of France are culturally revered, whereas, the Native American ruins of southwestern Utah, and, other Native American archaeological sites in America, hold comparatively little sway on the American psyche?
Following a similar line of questioning, I will mention another observation, having to do with the petroglyphs (rock carvings) chiseled for posterity into the walls of Montezuma Canyon by some expressive and artistically ambitious Native Americans.
Look at the first image, below. Next, look at the pictograph (painting) from the world-renowned Lascaux Caves, in La Département de la Dordogne, in southwestern France. Pretty similar, yes?
The archaeological heritage and physical remnants of pre-historic and medieval France have had an outsized impact in the worlds of scholarship, art, literature and, of course, tourism. The archaeological record of the early Native Americans has had a more modest impact in these fields, and in American culture. Perhaps, this is just another case of the winners writing history. Unfortunately, the Native Americans left no written record of their history.
We can thank the U.S. National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management for preserving some of the most prominent physical remains of early Native American culture, in places such as the Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Yet, more attention and resources are needed to preserve and protect the lesser known Native American historical sites of the interior west, such as those found in Montezuma Canyon.
The Doom That Awaits Us
Fear sells, because most people have an instinctive “need” to know about any possible threat to survival, no matter how improbable or remote (in time, place, or circumstances). By the way, the human brain does a very poor job of calculating risk. This is also by design. After all, in the early days of our species, when every step outside the cave could have been your last, why test your luck? Even getting a tiny scratch could be fatal.