The Mostly-Science Post of the Day

I have a big ‘ol pile of sciencey-type stuff on my desk I’ve been meaning to post… so let’s do this thing:

You probably don’t think about it much, but people who create international websites have a constant stream of pains-in-the-ass to deal with on a daily basis. We all know that British English spells some things differently than American English (“colour” vs. “color”), and that British people write their dates differently than Americans do (“10 January 2014” vs. “January 10, 2014”). But have you ever thought about the grammar quirks of the hundreds of other countries? This video from the guys at Computerphile breaks it all down, and makes you appreciate the developers at Facebook so much more:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0j74jcxSunY&list=UU9-y-6csu5WGm29I7JiwpnA

Interested in cryptography but don’t know how it works? Check out this video, also from Computerphile, about how public key crypto works. It’s amazing how clever people can be sometimes:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSIDS_lvRv4&list=UU9-y-6csu5WGm29I7JiwpnA

You may not know this, but American soldiers often use a dozen or more radios while out on patrol. You might think this is due to parochialism between the services: the Army has their radios, while the Navy, Air Force and Marines have their own systems ‘cos they think theirs is “better”. And yes, there is a bit of that. But it’s mostly due to physics: the type of radio you need to briefly communicate with warplanes hundreds of miles away isn’t the same kind of radio you need for frequent communications with headquarters a dozen miles away, which isn’t the kind of radio you need for near-constant communication with fellow soldiers only yards away. The US Army spent $6 billion working on a “soft radio” that could quickly be reconfigured to meet any possible need. And, as Ars Technica notes, it was a total disaster. Read this article, not just for the tech behind it all, but how changing the scope of a project during the project can lead to disaster.

Having said that, while we always think of the Pentagon when it comes to massive-scale government waste, things are not always what they seem. Back in the 1980s, there was a “scandal” in which the Pentagon allegedly paid $600 for a hammer. Come to find out, the real story was a bit more complicated: the Pentagon needed to make some repair kits for a specialized device. The company contracted to make the kits had to do some R&D for the project: they were repairing a custom-made product after all. When it came time to bill the government, the folks at the Pentagon for some reason insisted that the contractor spread the R&D costs equally across the project. So instead of paying $5 million in R&D and $15 each for hammers, the R&D costs were $0 and the hammers appeared to cost $435 (which the media later conflated to $600). It’s an accounting thing. If you were to take your car to a mechanic, and he put four $2 spark plugs in your car and charged you $75 for the labor, most people would understand the difference between parts and labor. Journalists back in the 80s apparently did not, and bemoaned the Pentagon spending almost $21 each for $2 spark plugs,

I’m bringing all this up because of the recent stories about how the Army “wasted” $5 billion on a camouflage pattern that didn’t work. Again, this is more about lazy journalism than wasted tax dollars: the Army did try a new camouflage pattern, and no, it didn’t work. But they actually spent well under $100 million on the design. That’s hardly chump change. But the other $4.9 billion was spent on new uniforms and other gear with the new camo pattern on it. The Army actually used most of that equipment… so how much did it actually waste? It’s like when a company decides to change its logo. You often hear that “[company’s] new logo cost $100 million”. Of course, the actual logo probably cost around $100,000 to design, with another million or two thrown in for research (to make sure the new logo doesn’t have an offensive or negative meaning in dozens of countries) and legal fees (to make sure it doesn’t look too much like some other company’s logo). The other $95 million is for new uniforms, new paint jobs on trucks or planes, new stationary, updating the company’s website, etc. But even if a company decides to go back to their previous logo a few years later, how much is actually wasted? Certainly the cost for the new logo and research and legal fees. But employees need uniforms, trucks need to be repainted, and the website was probably going to need some other update anyway.

There is, however, an amusing aspect to this: when the Army decided to change their camo, they had a complicated, bureaucratic process for doing so. When the Marines decided that they needed new camo, they went to their sniper school in Virginia and asked a couple of guys to come up with a better color scheme. So the snipers went to a nearby Home Depot and found some paint samples. Done and done.

The idea of blood transfusions has been around for a remarkably long time. It wasn’t tested scientifically until the 1600s, however. It was a disaster, mostly because doctors of the time were trying to transfer blood between species – putting goat blood into a human, for instance. In 1817 a British physician named James Blundell finally hit upon the idea of human to human transfusion. This seemed to work a tiny bit better: in some cases it worked, but in most cases it did not. Why that was became a huge mystery for medicine, and it wasn’t until 1900 that blood types were discovered. Despite humanity knowing about blood types for over a century, we know very little else about it. Why do European populations have different blood type ratios than Africans and Asians? Why do we even have blood types at all? If you don’t have an answer to that question, rest easy: science doesn’t either. This amazing story from Ars Technica talks about how much we know, and really, how much we don’t know, about the blood in our veins.

In medieval times, secular courts often transferred “undesirable” cases to church courts, where the accused would be subjected to “trial by ordeal”. You probably learned about these in history class, but if not you’ve probably seen a movie or TV show where someone accused of a crime was made to do something horrific, like stick their arm into boiling oil to retrieve an object at the bottom of the pot. The theory was that an innocent would be protected by God, while a guilty person would not. So, after a few days, the person’s wounds would be checked, and the person’s guilt or innocence determined by how well they’d healed. It sounds barbaric, but economist Peter Leeson argues (PDF) that such trials were actually a clever bit of game theory devised by priests, probably based on the Judgment of Solomon. If you’re not up on your Old Testament (specifically 1 Kings 3:16-28), two new mothers come to King Solomon for help. One mother claimed that the other had accidentally smothered her son while sleeping, and had secretly swapped the other’s son for hers. Solomon thought about it for a while, and called for a sword. He intended to cut the baby in two, so that each mother could have half the baby. One mother said this was fine with her, while the other cried out for Solomon to stop, that the other woman could have the baby. Solomon reckoned the latter woman to be the baby’s mother, since a baby’s true mother would rather give the baby away than see it hurt. It’s one of the earliest written examples of game theory, and Leeson thinks those “trials by ordeal” were just a variation on that. Leeson has done statistical analysis of such trials, and his theory appears to be correct, Incidentally, Leeson thinks that priests knew who was guilty before the “ordeal” even happened (which is the whole point), and for innocent people the “boiling” oil was actually “uncomfortably warm” instead.

For decades, historians and anthropologists have tried to paint Native Americans as eco-aware pacifists who didn’t know of war and strife before those eeeeviiillll Europeans showed up. Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler disagrees, and in a recent paper he argues that the most violent period in Native American history happened some time in the 1200s. Kohler even argues that, as far as “genocides” go, what happened to the Mesa Verde people of modern day Colorado was worse, percentage-wise, than what happened in the 20th century in China or the Soviet Union. It’s an interesting read, to be sure.

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