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Posted by Sarah

So I think I mentioned yesterday that via ferratas used to be graded from 1 to 5. There are actually multiple grading systems in existence. The one that’s popularly used in English speaking countries is the one invented by guide book writer Cicerone, and since adopted by the Rockfax guides. The way it started out was each route would have a numeric grade from 1 to 5, and an alphanumeric grade from A to C.

The numeric grade describes the technically difficulty of the VF. From Cicerone, “Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites, Volume 1”:

  1. Easy routes with limited climbing, suitable for the young and inexperienced. They require a head for heights and sure-footedness.
  2. Straightforward routes for the experienced mountain walker or scrambler with a head for heights.
  3. Rather more difficult routes, not recommended for the novice. Complete freedom for vertigo, sure-footedness and competence with the use of self belay equipment needed.
  4. Demanding routes, steep rock faces requiring a fairly high standard of technical climbing ability.
  5. Routes of the highest technical standard and suitable only for the most experienced ferratist.

Then there’s the alphabetic grade, which describes the seriousness of the mountain conditions. A is straightforward outings in unthreatening terrain, B requires a degree of mountain experience, C requires experienced mountaineering skills and a mishap could have “the most serious consequences”.

To put this into context, VF Brigata Tridentina, which we did as our warm up, is graded 3B. That’s pretty much the definition of “generic, middle of the road via ferrata”. Vf Sci Club 18, which beat us up, is a 5B. VF Punta Anna, which we wanted to do on Sunday but bailed due to the weather, is a 5C. The one we pottered around the waterfalls on is a 1A.

This all worked fine.

Then someone built VF I Magnifici Quatro (The Magnificent Four)

VF I Magnifici Quatro (from here on, “M4”) is graded 6B. They literally had to invent a new grade for this bugger because 5 really didn’t cut it. It might give you the idea that it was as “easy” as the Sci Club (briefly the most technically difficult VF in the high Dolomites), and that would never do.

M4 is quite literally in a category of its own. My uncharitable description of it, after doing it today, is “a brutal via ferrata in a hole that alternates between being dusty and muddy and which keeps trying to kill you”.

Sylvia and I did it in 2013, when we were at the top of our climbing game, and we aced it. Today went less well, but we were OK.

It’s appropriate to explain where the name comes from. 4 mountain rescuers went out on Boxing Day in 2009 and never returned. These heroic individuals were killed in an avalanche. The via ferrata was built in their memory.

It was built to be, without question, the single most technically difficult ferrata in the high Dolomites, probably the most technically difficult one in Italy, and one of the hardest in the world (the Austrians have a ludicrous one called VF Adrenaline).

It does not disappoint.

You are advised to take a rope with you. We did, in case we needed to retreat by abseil, use it to assist ourselves, or potentially rescue someone else who’s got stuck. My pack was heavy via 30 metre rope and some extra bits of metal to use it effectively though.

Here’s the overview:

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Maps

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Maps

The first thing that should be noted is that the ferrata is not where the map says it is. The markers were added by me to the app in 2013 because at that point, it hadn’t appeared on the maps yet. Now it has, but it’s in the wrong place.

You’ll also notice there’s no descent route marked. That’s because we cheated. More on that later.

Lengthy drive from Corvara, into the Val di Fassa, which is on the opposite corner of the Sella Group: the roundabout of the Dolomites. This meant having to go over two passes, including using the highest paved road in the Dolomites, at Passo Pordoi.

A descent of Pordoi took us to the busy town of Canazei, where they have police officers standing in the middle of Zebra crossings, directing traffic and vastly increasing the chance someone (them) will get hit. Have to say, I prefer Corvara, which is more centrally located and isn’t heaving all the time. I also had a bad experience with a hotelier who seemed to be the Italian version of Basil Fawlty there many years ago, and I’ve gone off the place ever since.

Faded sign of doom!

Faded sign of doom!

A short drive down the Val di Fassa takes us to the pretty town of Pozza di Fassa, where we turn left and start the drive up the side valley of S. Nicolo. After ascending about 200m from Pozza, we park at a chapel and start walking.

A side path soon appears by a small wooden hut, which has a nice carved wooden sign on it announcing the Ferrata, with a faded note underneath where I could just about read the English words, “Extremely difficult”.

Pretty alpine wildlife

Pretty alpine wildlife

The approach now becomes a pleasant woodland path (the entire ferrata is below the tree line) which gets steeper and steeper and ends up being reminiscent of the punishing approach to Sci Club 18, with a series of short, steep switchbacks which bring you closer to the cliff face, metre by agonising metre, but never seem to actually get you there. At least it’s in pretty pine woods though: it smells lovey and we can admire the wildlife.

Then suddenly we enter a huge cleft in the rock, that goes up fro about a hundred metres and overhangs at the top. The soil gives way to rocks, covered in dust, which turns to mud where water is seeping out of the mountain side. M4 is many things, but a climb on a cliff face with stunning views it’s not. You do most of your climbing in big dusty/muddy holes.

It’s time to gear up and get going. It immediately throws a slight overhang at us, which relies on powerful cable hauling. Get used to this, as it’s going to become a theme.

After that it becomes less steep, but awkward for a few metres, and then suddenly there’s this nasty thrutchy move across a crevice onto another slightly overhanging cliff face with a big loop of wire stuck into it. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to get your foot into the wire.

By this point the climber will notice the unusual protection. Sci Club 18 innovated with rubber bumpers on the pegs (OK, it wasn’t quite the first, but they were new at the time). M4 has a couple of other innovations. Many of the pegs terminate in almost closed hooks which you can thread your rope through if you want to belay a following climber. You could probably even use these to pitch it as a sport aid climb, although I’ve never heard of anyone trying this.

The other innovation is that the pegs, instead of being straight, curve down at the end and run parallel to the cable for a few centimetres. This is presumably to avoid impaling yourself on the open end of one if you fall, and seems like a clever idea, but as I discovered later, there’s a problem with these.

Anyway, after getting my foot in the cable, I climbed a few very awkward and very steep sections, where the ferrata couldn’t make its mind up which side of the cable I was supposed to be on. This is poor design, frankly. This is followed by an airy traverse where I have to trust the cable as I haul myself over the void. After this, we both find ourselves in the first of M4’s 2 big set pieces:

The Grande Dom

I assume it means “big dome”, but the other interpretation is valid because M4 is about to beat the shit out of you. Here’s how this works: you step up awkwardly onto a stemple under a slight overhang, smack your head on the rock above you (thank goodness for helmets), wiggle about in the crack, and then you are confronted with the crux of the whole ferrata.

I mentioned the Cicerone/Rockfax grading system. There’s another popular one, mainly used in Germany, which grades each section of cable on a Ferrata from A to E. The ferrata then gets the technical grade of its highest section:

A is “easy” – walking, basically.

B is “moderate” – scrambling, exposure.

C is “difficult” – climbing up to vertical, some small overhangs.

D is “very difficult” – long sections of vertical rock, proper climbing technique needed.

That’s where pretty much every via ferrata in the high Dolomites stops. Sci Club 18, which gave us a good kicking a few days earlier, has precisely 2 D sections along its entire 400m length. There are lots of C/D sections.

Sci Club 18 is a very hard ferrata.

Just to get here, we’ve already done 3 D sections. Now here’s the grading for each cable section in the Grande Dom: D E E D D C/D.

Yes, there’s a grade E. It is described thus:

E is “extremely difficult” – at a bare minimum, vertical rock with no stemples. Severe overhangs. Considerable power and training required.

And M4 is about to throw 2 of them at us, consecutively.

Yes, this image is the right way up.

Yes, this image is the right way up.

So yeah, we’ve just done the D. The 2 Es are short, but extremely strenuous severe overhangs with just cable (no stemples). I hauled my way up the first and then managed to heel hook the cable to clip. Now I have the second E section to do. I figure the sensible thing to do is try and clip as quickly as possible, to protect myself (unlike sport climbing, you want to clip early when ascending a ferrata).

This was a mistake. Rather than taking my time to see if I can get purchase on the steeply overhanging rock, I lift the leg that was standing on it already and push off the peg that the other one is heel hooked by. This thrusts my body out into space towards the next cable section (a mere D). I am now horizontal in space, one foot on the cable, hanging from it by both arms. I take one arm off the cable to clip. I am now hanging by one arm, but I have clipped. I try to make the second clip, but my arm is getting tired and I can’t reach. It occurs to me that I may be about to fall. I’m already  below the cable, and it probably won’t even deploy my screamer, but it the thought still lights up a primitive bit of my brain and I have to fight to keep the fear at bay.

Dangling from a steel cable. I'm sure I've seen this in movies.

Dangling from a steel cable. I’m sure I’ve seen this in movies. Note my feet are in contact with air and nothing else.

I let out a roar and heave on the arm holding the cable, pushing with my leg and stiffening my core. I make the second clip. I return to having two hands on the cable.

I’m still horizontal. I figure the only thing I can do is cut loose with my feet and hang my entire body, in the void, from the cable. When I do this I will have a few seconds to find a foothold. The rock isn’t great for them.

I cut loose and swing out to the right. I look at the overhanging limestone in front of me, pick out a couple of small footholds as quickly as I can, and put my toes on them. I am safe, but I am experiencing a huge adrenaline surge and I have just scared myself silly.

I didn’t make such a hash of this when I climbed in in 2013, but in 2013 I was in my 30s and was at the top of my climbing game. Today I am rusty and it shows. Today M4 taught me a lesson.

Sylvia wants me to wait for her. The rock is still overhanging, and there’s now a 20-30 metre long overhanging ascending high wire traverse (Zoe is probably reading this and having heart palpitations). I deploy my resting carabiner, awkwardly because my hands are shaking, and clip it to the cable. I now have to make my hindbrain believe that it’s perfectly safe to let go and sit there in my climbing harness, dangling from a piece of dyneema the size of a hair ribbon. My hind brain doesn’t quite believe it, so I keep putting an arm over the cable too. Tomorrow there will be a bruise there.

Sylvia arrives at the 2 E sections. She takes her time and does it in much better style than I did, but the second clip is still hard for her and I reach out and help. Now we have two D sections on the high wire traverse, followed by a climb out of the Grande Dom and the ordeal will be over for the time being.

I make the traverse. My arm muscles are pumped and I’m still trembling. I start to climb out on the vertical C/D section that I remember I still needed to use proper climbing technique for 4 years ago.

And it’s here I discover the problem with the new fangled pegs. Again, I’m clipping early to be as safe as I can, and I clip the cable just above where it connects to the peg and start upwards. It’s then that I realise that I have clipped both the cable and the peg. I try to reach down to free it, but I can’t reach. Time to evaluate my options: I can try to downclimb: it’s an overhang below me and the odds I will fall and deploy my screamer are very high. I can extend the sling of my resting carabiner, clip it to the peg above me, weight it, literally turn upside down in space and free it. That does not appeal.

I could try to get my rope out and abseil down a metre or two to free it. That appeals about as much as the whole “upside down” thing.

This is not a happy Sarah

This is not a happy Sarah

In the end I ask Sylvia if she can come and free it for me. I then find some purchase on the rock, above my protection and aware that a fall would hurt, and stay very still.

Sylvia arrives and frees the carabiner. I climb out, grabbing the same tree root I grabbed in 2013, and haul myself onto the flat expanse of grass in front of me. The Grande Dom is over. Time to take my helmet off and try to compose myself after what was very much not the best piece of via ferrataing I’ve ever done.

We’re now on a broad and verdant ledge, about half way up the cliff. The ferrata turns into a path, sometimes cabled (mostly to show the direction to go, but sometimes to help over slippery and exposed ground) leading through the woods. Since the ferrata was built the soil erosion here has got very bad in places, and I imagine it would be a quagmire after heavy rain. With the dirty, dusty rock and all the mud everywhere I wonder how long this VF will remain viable. The path follows the cliff edge and eventually leads up through a bank of stinging nettles(!) until you enter another big cleft in the rock. This is:

The Grande Camino

Me enjoying the Grande Camino

Me enjoying the Grande Camino

M4 is very much a via ferrata in two acts. This is the second. It also has a short prologue and epilogue, but the meat is in the previous section, and this one. It’s almost a Venus and Mars thing; the Grande Dom is characterised by the sort of powerful steeply overhanging climbing that young muscular men seem to excel at. The Grande Camino is a  100ish metre high slab that starts off vertical and gets shallower and shallower as you climb, until you end up walking. It requires thoughtful delicate footwork and balance, and is generally the sort of climbing that women excel at. The cable is cleverly placed to give you lots to think about with some quite delicate and run out sections. Frankly I could do this sort of climbing all day; it appeals to the tactician in me. No matter how much finesse you apply to the Grande Dom (in my case, not much), it’s always going to require some brute strength. This sort of climbing is cerebral, and I love it.

Eventually the angle gets shallow enough to stand up and walk, and then the cable gives way to a wooded path again. This time it’s very short, leading to M4’s Headwall. This is its last hurrah, and it’s even optional: there’s a path round. If you take it though you will miss out on signing the log book, which is to be found in an alcove halfway up the short headwall climb.

And suddenly, its over. I emerge panting into a grassy meadow with a family standing there watching me climb out over the cliff edge and collapse on the grass, exhausted. The children seem confused. The father explains. “Molto difficile”, I add, by way of an explanation.

Sylvia arrives shortly after me. We exchange a high five and collapse into the nearby refugio, where we immediately order beer.



And that’s it! Very much a “Type II Fun” experience. Sylvia and I have now done the undisputed most technically difficult via ferrata in the high Dolomites, and one of the hardest in the world, twice. Not sure I ever want to do it again (unlike the Sci Club).

Oh, there is one more thing. I noted I hadn’t marked the descent route on the map. Last time we did this we used the official one. It’s a long trudge down a very steep ski slope (somehow you gain about 700 metres doing this ferrata, but I’m not sure where), and it’s horrible. Too steep to walk on, no proper path, slippy grass, hard on the knees.

We went and paid the nice man and used his gizmo to take us into Pozza, then caught a little shuttle bus thing back to the car park. Much more civilised.

The highly civilised gondola down to Pozza.

The highly civilised gondola down to Pozza.

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Posted by thingsthatareawful

It’s Bad Advice Tuesday over at The Establishment, and this letter writer wants to know exactly what the fuck your fucking problem is, LADIES.

Read the Bad Advisor’s response to this and two other people using their email outboxes as verbal toilets >>>> here.

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Posted by Scott Alexander

[followup to Targeting Meritocracy]

Some commenters rightly question exactly what we mean by meritocracy. For example, Mark writes:

Isn’t the real problem that we have no good system to identify who deserves power over others, in the most general sense?

Grant the surgeon their power, in their specific field of expertise, within their own hierarchy. But I think we have to question strongly whether we need grant them any special power beyond that.

Different considerations certainly apply to surgeons versus senators, and talking about appointment to a vague “ruling class” probably confuses things pretty badly. I’m much more willing to listen to arguments for a randomly selected Congress than I am for a randomly selected surgical staff. Maybe the problem is that, aside from a few elected officials, nobody ever notices that they’re choosing people for the ruling class at all. They’re just choosing economists, lawyers, bankers, et cetera, for the particular purposes of their institution/law firm/bank. Any rigorous discussion of meritocracy would have to separate these out more than anyone’s done so far, and definitely more than I am going to do in the rest of this thread.

Another group of people express concern about meritocracy insofar as they define it as focusing on certain kinds of proxies for merit (standardized testing?) rather than real merit. From RSJ:

Meritocracy is an ideological hammer to beat down those who demand consequences for failure. It is a shift from being judged based on results to being judged based on “qualifications”. It is very easy to be judged based on qualifications since that status never changes no matter how often you get things wrong. It’s a type of aristocracy that short-circuits the necessary discipline that must be applied to any elite.

Tom Bartleby tries to tease some of this apart:

Genuine question (for Scott and everyone else): what is the “meritocratic” outcome in the following hypothetical:

Alice and Carol are both programmers, and are up for a promotion to management. Alice is smarter, works harder, and produces better code. She gets along well with everyone and is consistently rated as the highest performer in the group. By contrast, Carol is consistently a mediocre programer. She’s not awful—certainly in no danger of being fired. But she’s not as smart, she doesn’t work nearly as hard, and her code is acceptable rather than excellent.

On the other hand, Carol has a real knack for management. When she’s in a group project, she naturally takes the lead and others feel comfortable deferring to her. (Alice is more likely to just do an unfair share of the work herself.) Looking at the two of them, we can confidently predict that—even though Alice is the better programer—Carol would be the better manager.

So, is it more meritocratic to promote Alice or Carol?

I would say that it’s more meritocratic to promote Alice. If a company has the habit of promoting people like Alice, I would describe that company as having a meritocratic culture. I get the feeling, though, that Scott disagrees.

Some Faceless Monk had the same worry, but was more fatalistic about it:

I think in some ways, meritocracy as it is practiced as opposed to meritocracy as it is idealized is in play here. Companies that incorporate meritocracy start out in the idealistic manner: Choosing based on merit and ability. However, over time, companies (especially big ones that get hundreds or thousands of applications) will start to make the hiring process efficient, and gloss over a lot of details by weighing on specific factors: “Oh hey, these guys came from X school and were in Y organization and have done really well for us! We should pay attention to more applicants that have X and Y.” Or “Oh, these two guys have experience from Z company and were fired two months in. Are we sure we want applicants from Z?” The reasons why X, Y, and Z matter are almost never analyzed, and instead these name just get turned into keywords for the applicant tracking system to filter. This can lead to, worst of all, “This applicant may have the abilities, but they went to A school, served in B organization, and worked at C company. And I haven’t heard any of these!” What you witness is an institutionalized form of quasi-nepotism, in that your application gets weighed on by the names on your resume rather than what you did with those names. That’s what I really think these publications are deriding, they just call it meritocracy because they can’t think up a good word for it.

MartMart was more fatalistic still:

If word X should mean X, but thru out known history has always meant Y, it’s not unreasonable to claim that you oppose X on the grounds that it always results in Y which is terrible. I mean, people who oppose soviet style communism do just that.

I would counter-argue that people still use words like “justice” and “equality” despite their similarly dismal histories. If we have to abandon a good-sounding word just because the people who claim to practice the good-sounding word usually don’t, we’re not going to have a lot of good-sounding words left.

A third group of people have more fundamental concerns that apply even to ideal meritocracies. A common worry was that if all the meritorious people end up in the upper-class, then the upper-class has complete power and the lower classes don’t have anyone competent left to represent their class interests. For example, dndsrn writes:

[Young’s] attack on meritocracy – really, the original attack on meritocracy – was not “gee it’s awful convenient how the people on top have come to the conclusion that society puts the best on top” (which is, to a considerable degree, a legitimate and true criticism) – his attack on meritocracy was that it would strip the working classes of high-IQ individuals from those classes who in his world (the Britain of the early to mid 20th century) became union reps and Labour politicians – that a real meritocracy would leave the working classes defenceless against being snookered by the bosses.

And Iain quotes part of the Guardian article:

It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.

They have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came.Their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and the powerful in the never-ending competition in parliament and industry between the haves and the have-nots.

With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.

I’ve heard this argument before in the context of segregation and immigration. That is, when segregation ended, many of the upper-class black people who could move to white neighborhoods did, stripping black neighborhoods of their potential leadership. And when the doctors and lawyers in a Third World country immigrate to America, it creates a brain drain back home.

Both of these are recognized as difficult problems, but the meritocracy version seems even harder. Once someone from the lower class becomes a Senator, they’re not so lower-class anymore; this seems like a natural problem in any governmental system. I’m not going to say it’s tautologically impossible, because there are ways to keep them more or less in touch with their lower-class roots, but it does seem like a harder problem than a lot of people give it credit for.

This naturally segues into another class of critique: meritocracy unifies all of the talented people into a hegemonic upper class with its own values, disconnected from the people they’re supposed to rule. RSJ again:

Meritocracy-as-practiced means herd behavior as a very small group schools (both intellectual and actual) produce the leaders who echo each other’s conventional wisdom. This is how we get entire nations pursuing economically or militarily disastrous policies, such as the whole western world deciding it needed to go back on the gold standard after WWI, or, for that matter, WWI. Or the current tragedy of Greece, and the sadism of the European Monetary Union. It’s how all economists agree that we should tax consumption rather than unearned income. It’s how we got financial de-regulation, wall street bailouts, a flatter tax schedule, a shrinking middle class. When these are deeply unpopular beliefs among common, less “meritocratic” people who didn’t all go to the same 5 elite graduate schools.

And Jaskologist quoting dndsrn:

Their cluelessness, lack of self-awareness, and lack of empathy for people they consider below them is absolutely breathtaking. “Let them eat cake” level stuff. They can’t understand that their high IQs are not earned, and that intellect is not a moral quality (as an aside, I think this is part of the appeal of blank-slatism to intelligent people: if they ignore that IQ is probably about 50% inherited, and most environmental factors are out of their control, they can pretend that their university degrees and so on simply show their high quality as individuals, instead of showing that they rolled well for INT at character creation). They can’t understand why all those factory workers who want to keep their jobs, or want the jobs to come back to town, instead of learning to code and moving to the Bay, or getting a business degree and moving to London or NYC, or getting a law degree and… etc. Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot. The people from all over the world working in finance in London feel loyalty to each other – after all, they are the best, are they not? – far more than they do to the peons from wherever they come from.

I hope that deemphasizing education in favor of skill will be of some help with this – after all, where do these people learn their class solidarity and distinct values except at Harvard and Oxford? When I hear rags-to-riches stories from a bygone era, they always involve the guy who did such a good job as a waiter that he became head waiter, then restaurant manager, then head of the restaurant chain. That seems both most truly meritocratic, and like a strong antidote for the identical-Oxbridge-clones problem.

I really don’t think that self-contained elites are meritocracy’s fault. The hereditary aristocracy wasn’t exactly famous for avoiding the failure mode of becoming a cloistered elite who talked only among themselves and ignored the people they were supposed to rule. Has there ever been a system that was any good at this?

A final class of commenter takes this to its logical conclusion and says that the problem isn’t rule based on merit, it’s rule, period. From qwints:

Young is proceeding from a socialist perspective by looking at classes means of reproducing themselves. His key emphasis is on the suffix – the ruling done by the intellectual elite. The problem is not at all an inequality of opportunity, it’s the power given to those who’ve taken the opportunity and the moral authority they wield.

These critiques are really saying that letting the most able rule is, in fact, a bad thing – even worse than letting all the important jobs go to aristocrats (at least for Hayes and Young). They’re really saying that the seductive nature of the claim “we should give out jobs based on merit” is dangerous, and the claim must be opposed. The solution they offer is getting rid of the idea of ruling altogether.

I was also lucky enough to get a response from Andrew Granato, author of the Vox article linked in the piece. He wrote on Twitter:

Even if we had some extremely accurate way of identifying the most talented people and allocating them to the top positions, we would still have the same structural force at play that mars America now: the stratification of society into increasing distant tiers. Except now the stratification would be more based on “merit” than what we have now- which is what Ivies sought to do in the 60s and 70s.

Seems reasonable to claim that there are ways of finding better elites than we currently have. But it would still generate elites by design. And whenever you structurally give people money and power, you give them the means to seek and extract rents from society.

Okay, so, uh, the problem is that we “structurally give people money and power”. And the solution is “getting rid of the idea of ruling altogether”. That sounds nice and straightforward. Let’s get a couple of grad students to write a white paper on it and try to have it implemented by next quarter.

Okay, fine, I’m being mean. But it does seem like a lot of these solutions are utopia-complete; that people’s objection to meritocracy is that it’s not a perfectly just world where everyone is free and equal and prosperous and lives in harmonious understanding and nobody has power over anyone else. I agree this is a pretty good objection to a lot of things. But it doesn’t seem to be an objection to anything in particular.

I guess what I mean by this is…suppose I attack welfare. I write a bunch of articles like “Welfare Is Destroying America” and “We Need To Smash Welfare” and “Ten Reasons Why Welfare Ruins Everything (Number Six Will Astound You!)”. When questioned, I admit my main objection is that welfare is inferior to a world where everyone is rich. There’s no way my criticism helps produce the everyone-is-rich world, but it’s super-likely that it helps people like Paul Ryan who just literally want to destroy welfare, in the normal sense of destroying welfare.

And look. A couple days ago, Donald Trump nominated Sam Clovis as the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist. Clovis is a right-wing talk radio host who has “never even taken an undergraduate course in any science”, and believes global warming is a scam. This follows a few months after Trump appointed his son-in-law as one of the nation’s top diplomats. And I wish I could say this is one of those completely unique Trump things that we keep being told we should “never normalize”, but it’s just an exacerbation of politics as usual. We justly celebrate the decline of the spoils system in much of the civil service, but it never totally disappeared, and I wouldn’t want to speculate on how common it is today, whether it’s going up or down, or anything like that.

The most salient alternative to welfare isn’t everyone-being-rich, it’s poverty. The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism. If people keep criticizing meritocracy, eventually the word is going to become uncool, it’ll be impossible to advocate for it without giving three boring paragraphs worth of qualifiers that put everyone to sleep, and it’ll become that much harder to criticize cronyism or advocate for something different.

And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.

One point I keep pushing on this blog is that it’s a bad idea to demand downstream solutions to upstream problems. For example, I’ve argued that if a company’s applicant pool is only 20% women, and the company engages in gender-blind hiring and gets 20% women employees, it’s more useful to focus on the factors shaping the applicant pool composition than it is to yell at the company. For some reason nobody (sometimes including me) seems very good at this.

But this same problem seems to be shaping discussions of meritocracy. If you don’t like the fact that the CEO of Goldman Sachs exists, that’s a pretty reasonable upstream problem to have. If instead you complain about the downstream problem that he’s chosen based on merit, all you’re going to get is more people appointing their son-in-laws.

Other miscellaneous good comments: baconbacon on which seemingly-unmeritocratic rules are just excuses to protect people’s feelings. Nikolai Rostov on the difficulty of measuring merit in different domains. And especially rminnema linking to an excellent article on how the Soviet upper class always managed to get their kids into top schools despite the system’s supposed Communist bent.

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Posted by Bruce Schneier

Policy essay: "Encryption Substitutes," by Andrew Keane Woods:

In this short essay, I make a few simple assumptions that bear mentioning at the outset. First, I assume that governments have good and legitimate reasons for getting access to personal data. These include things like controlling crime, fighting terrorism, and regulating territorial borders. Second, I assume that people have a right to expect privacy in their personal data. Therefore, policymakers should seek to satisfy both law enforcement and privacy concerns without unduly burdening one or the other. Of course, much of the debate over government access to data is about how to respect both of these assumptions. Different actors will make different trade-offs. My aim in this short essay is merely to show that regardless of where one draws this line -- whether one is more concerned with ensuring privacy of personal information or ensuring that the government has access to crucial evidence -- it would be shortsighted and counterproductive to draw that line with regard to one particular privacy technique and without regard to possible substitutes. The first part of the paper briefly characterizes the encryption debate two ways: first, as it is typically discussed, in stark, uncompromising terms; and second, as a subset of a broader problem. The second part summarizes several avenues available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies seeking access to data. The third part outlines the alternative avenues available to privacy-seekers. The availability of substitutes is relevant to the regulators but also to the regulated. If the encryption debate is one tool in a game of cat and mouse, the cat has other tools at his disposal to catch the mouse -- and the mouse has other tools to evade the cat. The fourth part offers some initial thoughts on implications for the privacy debate.

Blog post.

New Doctor Who Post on Mindless Ones

Jul. 25th, 2017 01:51 am
[syndicated profile] andrew_hickey_feed

Posted by Andrew Hickey

After a couple of weeks of not being able to type much because of arthritis, here’s the final post in my look at Doctor Who season twenty-two, on Revelation of the Daleks. Patreon backers can also find an ebook of the whole series of posts (which I won’t be putting up for sale) here. I’ll be posting more stuff here this week now my hands are a little better.

Targeting Meritocracy

Jul. 24th, 2017 06:40 pm
[syndicated profile] slatestarcodex_feed

Posted by Scott Alexander


Prospect Magazine writes about the problem with meritocracy. First Things thinks meritocracy is killing America. Feminist Philosophers comes out against meritocracy. The Guardian says “down with meritocracy”. Vox calls for an atack on the false god of meritocracy. There’s even an Against Meritocracy book. Given that meritocracy seems almost tautologically good (doesn’t it just mean positions going to those who deserve them?), there sure do seem to be a lot of people against it.

Some of these people are just being pointlessly edgy. The third article seem to admit that a true meritocracy would be a good thing, but argues that we don’t have one right now. This hardly seems “against meritocracy”, any more than saying we don’t have full racial equality right now means you’re “against racial equality”, but whatever, I guess you’ve got to get clicks somehow.

The other articles actually mean it. Their argument seems to be gesturing at the idea that elites send their kids to private schools, where they get all A+s and end up as president of the Junior Strivers Club. Then they go to Harvard and dazzle their professors with their sparkling wit and dapper suits. Then they get hired right out of college to high-paying management positions at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV. Then they eat truffle-flavored caviar all day and tell each other “Unlike past generations of elites, we are meritocrats who truly deserve our positions, on account of our merit”, as the poor gnash their teeth outside.

Grant that this is all true, and that it’s bad. Does that mean we should be against meritocracy?


There’s a weird assumption throughout all these articles, that meritocracy is founded on the belief that smart people deserve good jobs as a reward for being smart. Freddie de Boer, in his review of yet another anti-meritocracy book, puts it best:

I reject meritocracy because I reject the idea of human deserts. I don’t believe that an individual’s material conditions should be determined by what he or she “deserves,” no matter the criteria and regardless of the accuracy of the system contrived to measure it. I believe an equal best should be done for all people at all times.

More practically, I believe that anything resembling an accurate assessment of what someone deserves is impossible, inevitably drowned in a sea of confounding variables, entrenched advantage, genetic and physiological tendencies, parental influence, peer effects, random chance, and the conditions under which a person labors. To reflect on the immateriality of human deserts is not a denial of choice; it is a denial of self-determination. Reality is indifferent to meritocracy’s perceived need to “give people what they deserve.”

I think this is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.

The Federal Reserve making good versus bad decisions can be the difference between an economic boom or a recession, and ten million workers getting raises or getting laid off. When you’ve got that much riding on a decision, you want the best decision-maker possible – that is, you want to choose the head of the Federal Reserve based on merit.

This has nothing to do with fairness, deserts, or anything else. If some rich parents pay for their unborn kid to have experimental gene therapy that makes him a superhumanly-brilliant economist, and it works, and through no credit of his own he becomes a superhumanly-brilliant economist – then I want that kid in charge of the Federal Reserve. And if you care about saving ten million people’s jobs, you do too.


Does this mean we just have to suck it up and let the truffle-eating Harvard-graduating elites at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV lord it over the rest of us?

No. The real solution to this problem is the one none of the anti-meritocracy articles dare suggest: accept that education and merit are two different things!

I work with a lot of lower- and working-class patients, and one complaint I hear again and again is that their organization won’t promote them without a college degree. Some of them have been specifically told “You do great work, and we think you’d be a great candidate for a management position, but it’s our policy that we can’t promote someone to a manager unless they’ve gone to college”. Some of these people are too poor to afford to go to college. Others aren’t sure they could pass; maybe they have great people skills and great mechanical skills but subpar writing-term-paper skills. Though I’ve met the occasional one who goes to college and rises to great heights, usually they sit at the highest non-degree-requiring tier of their organization, doomed to perpetually clean up after the mistakes of their incompetent-but-degree-having managers. These people have loads of merit. In a meritocracy, they’d be up at the top, competing for CEO positions. In our society, they’re stuck.

The problem isn’t just getting into college. It’s that success in college only weakly correlates with success in the real world. I got into medical school because I got good grades in college; those good grades were in my major, philosophy. Someone else who was a slightly worse philosopher would never have made it to medical school; maybe they would have been a better doctor. Maybe someone who didn’t get the best grades in college has the right skills to be a nurse, or a firefighter, or a police officer. If so, we’ll never know; all three of those occupations are gradually shifting to acceptance conditional on college performance. Ulysses Grant graduated in the bottom half of his West Point class, but turned out to be the only guy capable of matching General Lee and winning the Civil War after a bunch of superficially better-credentialed generals failed. If there’s a modern Grant with poor grades but excellent real-world fighting ability, are we confident our modern educationocracy will find him? Are we confident it will even try?

Remember that IQ correlates with chess talent at a modest r = 0.24, and chess champion Garry Kasparov has only a medium-high IQ of 135. If Kasparov’s educational success matched his IQ, he might or might not have made it into Harvard; he certainly wouldn’t have been their star student. And if it was only that kind of educational success that gave spots on some kind of national chess team, Kasparov and a bunch of other grandmasters would never have a chance. Real meritocracy is what you get when you ignore the degrees and check who can actually win a chess game.

One of the few places I see this going well is in programming. Triplebyte (conflict of interest notice: SSC sponsor) asks people who want a programming job to take a test of their programming ability, “no resume needed”. Then it matches them with tech companies that want the kind of programming the applicant is good at. It doesn’t matter whether you were president of the Junior Strivers’ Club in college. It doesn’t matter whether you managed to make it past the gatekeepers trying to keep you out for not excluding the right kind of upper-class vibe. What matters is whether you can code or not. As a result, a bunch of the people I know are poor/transgender/mentally ill people who couldn’t do college for whatever reason, bought some computer science books and studied on their own, and got hired by some big tech company. Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.

I think we should be doing the opposite: reworking every field we can on the same model. Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance. Some of these people will be the academic stars who learned how to do it at Harvard Business School. But a lot of others will be ordinary working-class people who self-studied or who happen to have a gift, the investing equivalents of General Grant and Garry Kasparov.

I don’t think the writers of the anti-meritocracy articles above really disagree with this. I think they’re probably using a different definition of meritocracy where it does mean “rule by well-educated people with prestigious credentials”. But I think it’s important to defend the word “meritocracy” as meaning what it says – decision by merit, rather than by wealth, class, race, or education – and as a good thing. If we let the word be tarnished as some sort of vague signifier of a corrupt system, then it’s too easy for the people who really are in that corrupt system to exploit the decline and fall of the only word we have to signal an alternative. “Oh, you don’t like that all the important jobs go to upper-class people instead of the people who are best at them? You’d prefer they be given out based on merit? But haven’t you read The New Inquiry, First Things, and Vox? Believing in so-called ‘meritocracy’ is totally uncool!” And then we lose one of the only rallying points, one of the few pieces of vocabulary we have to express what’s wrong with the current system and what would be a preferable alternative. We ought to reject the redefinition of “meritocracy” to mean “positions go to people based on their class and ability to go to Harvard”, and reclaim it as meaning exactly what we want instead – positions going to those who are best at them and can best use them to help others. Which is what we want.

(None of this solves one of the biggest problems that the anti-meritocracy folk are complaining about: the fact that there’s a distinction between millionaire Goldman Sachs analysts and starving poor people in the first place. I’m just saying that in a world where somebody has to be an investment banker, a surgeon, or a Federal Reserve chair, I’d rather choose them by true meritocracy than by anything else.)

[see here for more discussion]

Real life

Jul. 24th, 2017 02:51 pm
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Mark Liberman

Today's SMBC:

For a more complex but pointed analogy, see "The Pirahã and us", 10/6/2007.

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July 24th, 2017next

July 24th, 2017: NON-CANON

San Diego Comic Con was AMAZING: I met so many great and interesting readers, got to meet some people that I really admire, and won two (TWO!) Eisner Awards, for my work on Squirrel Girl and Jughead! IT WAS PRETTY AMAZING!!

– Ryan

[syndicated profile] sarahlizzy_feed

Posted by Sarah

Before I get into what we spent the last 2 days doing, I need to write a few words of explanation about footpaths in the Dolomites. There are thousands of miles of “walking” routes here, maintained to various standards by various groups from commercial bodies (for example VF Sci Club 18) to the government (Italy has national service and some of the youths doing it opt to do it with the alpine troops, building and maintaining footpaths and via ferratas). These are comprehensively marked on maps. Some of them are kinda indicative as paths across scree slopes tend to get obliterated with the snow melt and reformed over the summer months. Some are paved. Some are protected with cables.

The maps need to distinguish these different types, particularly as this is serious mountain terrain and people have all sorts of different capabilities and experience. The definitive maps are published by Tabacco and they’re really good. They mark paved paths with solid outlines, well maintained, graded but unpaved paths with a solid red line, and then the line gets broken into smaller and smaller dots as the terrain gets harder. A path marked with small dots means you cam expect scrambling, scree surfing, possibly the odd stemple ladder.

Here, for example, is the map around Piz Boe: the highest peak of the Sella Group:

No paved paths up here

No paved paths up here!

In 2002, Sylvia who was working on an IT project at Trento at the time, suggested I come visit her and we could go hiking in these pretty mountains she’d seen. I grew up near the Peak District, but had never climbed anything in my life. I was happy with hill walking though, so we ended up drinking beer at the mountain refuge on top of Piz Boe, at 3152 metres. We then had to get back down to the cable car station. I saw what looked like a shortcut on the map.

“Why don’t we take this path?” I said.

“We can’t. See those crosses? That means it’s a via ferrata or protected path.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You need special equipment to use them. They aren’t safe without.”

And that was that, for 8 years until Sylvia, Zoe and I found ourselves back here in 2010, ready to find out what this Via Ferrata business was about.

The paths marked with crosses are either Via Ferratas, or protected paths. There’s a grey area where the two sort of blend into each other. As a rule of thumb, a Via Ferrata requires at least scrambling and a protected path doesn’t, but that’s not 100% definitive.

Basically, if you see a long line of crosses on the map, go that way and you don’t have a climbing harness, VF kit and helmet, and know how to use them, you are either going to be scared out of your wits, but basically OK, or you’re going to die.

So on to …

Day 3 – Cascate di Fanes

. After being given a thorough kicking by the Sci Club on day 2, I hurt. I had blisters on my fingers from cable hauling and my quadriceps were killing me. We decided to do some gentle exercise. There’s a easy, gentle gradient path north of Cortina that leads to a series of waterfalls, which are accessed by a “grade 1” via ferrata (they’re graded from 1 to 6. They used to stop at 5, but then … well, watch this space)

So I started to pack my VF kit and harness, until Sylvia said the guide book said they weren’t needed by anyone with any kind of experience. Happy to save weight, I didn’t bother. We jumped in the car and set off for Cortina.

A nice easy walk with pretty scenery

A nice easy walk with pretty scenery.

We parked at the very busy carpark and set off along the trail. It followed the side of the River Fanes which is everything you expect a mountain brook to be: clear blue water, rapids, waterfalls, tributaries coming in from mysterious looking slot canyons. Lots of families with kids messing about at the water’s edge. Mountain bikers rolling past. It was really pretty, even if I did complain about my leg muscles every time the gradient hit.

The River Fanes, doing its thing.

The River Fanes, doing its thing.

What we also saw were quite a few people walking along the path in brand new climbing harnesses with brand new via ferrata kits attached to them.

This is nice. Grade 1 via ferratas are fantastic for learning on. You get to familiarise yourself with the kit, see if you can handle some exposure and a bit of moving on rock, and it’s generally all very safe and straightforward. My first VF was a 1, and I used a VF kit on it too (if I was doing it now, I wouldn’t bother).

However, wearing your VF kit on easy hikes in is a bit of a faux pas. One reason is purely practical: you’ve got to store those long slings somewhere, and if you clip them to your gear loops they hang down in just the right place to catch your knee and make you have a nasty accident; embarrassing on a path you could drive a family car up without too many problems.

The other reason is, well, it can come across as showing off, and something you learn very quickly when doing this stuff is that some of the people you’re trying to show off to are probably well beyond your technical ability.

I’m reminded of a story about Sir Edmund Hillary walking up Snowdon via the Pyg Track. Someone, not recognising him, stopped him and castigated him for his recklessness in climbing such a dangerous mountain improperly attired. Didn’t he know the weather can change really fast up here?

Sir Edmund thanked the man for his advice, and carried on.

The ledge leading to the waterfalls. Note the cable for protection.

The ledge leading to the waterfalls. Note the cable for protection.

I have my own similar experiences. It never pays to make assumptions.

We arrived at the start of the via ferrata, and with no kit to put on, proceeded straight onto it. A short length of cable protecting a walk along a moderately exposed ledge led to the uppermost of two waterfalls. To my delight, I saw the path continued round under the waterfall itself. I suddenly felt like a twelve year old kid and simply had to go and stand behind the thundering water, so I did!

Fiddling with my phone to get a good video of the waterfall.

Fiddling with my phone to get a good video of the waterfall.

Then I called Sylvia under and made her pose for photographs until she complained she was getting soaked. I was also thoroughly wet, so we moved on. There was a bit of down climbing on easy rock with stemples, but the guy in front of me, with shiny new via ferrata kit seemed nervous and I didn’t want to spook him by getting too close when I was following with no equipment, so I waited until he’d reached the bottom before starting my own descent.

This led to a second waterfall, even more spectacular than the first. I took the opportunity to play with an iPhone app that lets me take long exposure photos even in broad daylight. I asked Sylvia to go and pose on a rock, and hold still, which she did, and then as she walked back she put her foot in the river half way to her knee. Oops!

The lower falls, with posy long exposure water blurring.

The lower falls, with posy long exposure water blurring.

Pretty waterfalls seen and excessively photographed, it was time to ascend via the rest of the ferrata (it’s a loop), which again had some basic scrambling and ledges with cables, before the pleasant downhill walk back to the car.

Day 4 – Messing about on the slopes of Tofana

Blue - the start of our planned ascent. Yellow - what we actually ended up doing.

Blue – the start of our planned ascent. Yellow – what we actually ended up doing.

The forecast was for a clear morning with thunderstorms rolling in late afternoon. We were interested in climbing Tofana di Mezzo, the third highest peak in the Dolomites, via the via ferrata whose name nobody can agree on. I’ve seen it called VF Punta Anna (after the subsidiary peak of Tofana that it starts ascending), VF Giuseppe Olivieri (apparently he was a famous early 20th century racing cyclist), VF Aglio (literally “Via Ferrata Garlic” – there’s a pinnacle on Tofana named after this most delicious of foodstuffs) and VF Tofana di Mezzo (named after the summit it eventually reaches).

Looking down the valley, with Cortina far below us. Scary clouds form on the peaks.

Looking south down the valley, with Cortina far below us. Scary clouds form on the peaks. The big peak in the distance is Antelao: the second highest in the Dolomites.

Increasingly “VF Punta Anna” seems to be winning this naming war. It ascends the south ridge of the Tofana massif. The climb is technical (not as hard as the Sci Club, but not far off) and really, really airy. You do not do this via ferrata if you can’t handle exposure because there’s a lot of it. The plan was to start early, climb, and given there were 3 well spaced escape routes, bail if the weather rolled in early.

We parked at the big carpark at Ristorante Pie Tofana (not actually one of their menu items) and took a pair of ski lifts up to Rifugio Pomedes, situated where the grassy shoulder of Tofana’s south east flank gives way to the towering buttress of Punta Anna.

The towering buttress of Punta Anna disappearing into cloud. The ascent route follows the ridgeline.

The towering buttress of Punta Anna disappearing into cloud. The ascent route follows the ridgeline.

It was 9am. An hour earlier there had not been a cloud in the sky. Now the vast buttress of Punta Anna had been lost in cloud, the base of which hovered mere tens of metres above us, and the distant big peaks of Sorapis, Antelao and Civetta all had towering cumulonimbus clouds forming over them. It occurred we were under something very similar.

Via ferratas are, predominantly, steel cables attached to mountains. They tend to go to summits and pinnacles because that’s cool.

An alternate name for this arrangement is “lightning conductor”. Climbing one inside a forming thundercloud is at best reckless. I’ve heard stories of people being welded to the cable by lightning strikes, and never being quite the same again, if they survive at all.

I looked at Sylvia. Sylvia looked at me. We made a decision: they were not thunderclouds yet. We might be OK.

There was pointing. There was the scratching of heads. There was ... teeth sucking.

There was pointing. There was the scratching of heads. There was … teeth sucking.

“Might” isn’t good enough when the penalty for getting it wrong is being turned into a charcoal briquette via one point twenty one jiggawatts.

“Fuck that”, we both said, and wandered the short distance to Rifugio Pomedes to replan our day over a cup of tea.

As we did so, a group of people arrived, all wearing via ferrata kit. They proceeded to gather on the terrace and look up at Punta Anna, and presumably have a conversation similar to the one Sylvia and I had just had.

I’m not their mother. If they want to climb in a thundercloud that’s their concern. Never found out if they decided to risk it or not, as they were still there as we set off west along Sentiero Astaldi towards the base of Tofana’s third peak: Tofana de Roses.

Me (lower right), on Sentiero Astraldi. Yes, this is a marked footpath on the map!

Me (lower right), on Sentiero Astaldi. Yes, this is a marked footpath on the map! The ledge is very narrow in places.

Sentiero Astaldi is one of those paths that’s marked with crosses on the map. It follows the line where Punta Anna meets Tofana’s lower slopes. For a few hundred metres the limestone at this elevation is infused with large amounts of iron and other minerals. This has two effects: it makes the limestone really colourful, and it turns it into choosy crap that will turn into sand if you look at it funny. As a result, erosion is rapid and plant life can’t get established to stabilise the scree slope. This means any transit is precarious in the extreme, and so it’s protected by cable.

It’s not a via ferrata, but unlike the walk to the waterfalls, which was, I wouldn’t dream of doing this without gear. The ledge is really narrow and the ground very unstable. It’s safe enough if you clip to the cable, and the alternative is a descent of nearly 300 metres followed by ascent of same.

So learning how to use VF kit can save you a lot of sweat by making otherwise inaccessible shortcuts available to you.

That being said, the protection on Astaldi is in appalling shape. The old cable has spots where it’s almost rusted through and has been reinforced with short lengths of newer cable. It’s not dangerous, but I wonder how long they can keep patching up before they need to properly recable it.

The protected path soon gave way to broad, safe walking paths and we removed our kit. Here you can either ascend the steep pass between Punta Anna and Tofana de Roses (this was one of our possible escape routes), descend towards Rifugio Diboba, or carry on along the base of Tofana de Roses. We chose the latter, and soon came to a junction with a path leading up to a grade 1 via ferrata to some caves. Above us were some rock climbers (doing it properly, not cheating using a VF), drawing oohs and ahhs from appreciative hikers.

The via ferrata leading to the caves. I'm in this picture; can you spot me (click for larger version)

The via ferrata leading to the caves. I’m in this picture; can you spot me (click for larger version)

We decided to go and investigate the caves. Neither of us had been on this part of Tofana before, and it looked interesting. A short scramble up a cleft in the rock led to a via ferrata cable protecting a traverse along a ledge some 50-100 metres above the talus. Technically easy, but the presence of the cable is reassuring!

It was as we retraced our steps along this VF, as Sylvia took the picture of me above (yes, I am in it – click for a larger version) that a guy with a French accent looked up from the path below, waved, and declared, “You are crazy! You are crazy!”

I responded that the view was nice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The cave was awesome. Not some little dent in the rock, but a proper deep cave with junctions and mysterious side passages and rockfalls and stuff. Without my head torch the interior would have been utterly pitch black. The cave soon came to a junction, and we took the lower passage, which led deeper and deeper into the mountain. Eventually it came to a metal staircase that someone had thoughtfully installed. I photographed Sylvia on it by the light of our torches; took a few goes to get a sharp exposure at a third of a second handheld!


Not an easy photograph to take handheld!

Carrying on, we thought we must be very deep into the mountain when, suddenly, daylight appeared round a corner! The passage had brought us back to the junction. We had become completely disoriented down there.

As we hung around, the noises we had assumed were birds were becoming increasingly agitated by our presence. We then realised they weren’t birds at all, but bats! They were flying around in the gloom and were not small ones. We decided to leave them to it and retraced our steps, out of the cave, along the precarious ledge, past the climbers, who had now made quite a bit of upwards progress, back along Sentiero Astaldi and thence to Rifugio Pomedes for a late lunch.

The clouds had lifted. The promised thunderstorms failed to materialise. We would have been fine if we’d gone for the summit, but hindsight is always 20:20, and we did some cool stuff instead. I’m up for a rematch with Tofana later in the week, but not tomorrow: they’re forecasting 25cm of snow up there!

Me on Sentiero Astraldi

Me on Sentiero Astaldi

US Army Researching Bot Swarms

Jul. 24th, 2017 11:39 am
[syndicated profile] bruce_schneier_feed

Posted by Bruce Schneier

The US Army Research Agency is funding research into autonomous bot swarms. From the announcement:

The objective of this CRA is to perform enabling basic and applied research to extend the reach, situational awareness, and operational effectiveness of large heterogeneous teams of intelligent systems and Soldiers against dynamic threats in complex and contested environments and provide technical and operational superiority through fast, intelligent, resilient and collaborative behaviors. To achieve this, ARL is requesting proposals that address three key Research Areas (RAs):

RA1: Distributed Intelligence: Establish the theoretical foundations of multi-faceted distributed networked intelligent systems combining autonomous agents, sensors, tactical super-computing, knowledge bases in the tactical cloud, and human experts to acquire and apply knowledge to affect and inform decisions of the collective team.

RA2: Heterogeneous Group Control: Develop theory and algorithms for control of large autonomous teams with varying levels of heterogeneity and modularity across sensing, computing, platforms, and degree of autonomy.

RA3: Adaptive and Resilient Behaviors: Develop theory and experimental methods for heterogeneous teams to carry out tasks under the dynamic and varying conditions in the physical world.

Slashdot thread.

And while we're on the subject, this is an excellent report on AI and national security.


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