Daily Archives: 24 January 2014

January 24, 1850 (a Thursday)

Hermann Ebbinghaus

On this date, the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was born.

The scientific study of memory started with the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, published in 1885 in the book Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. He was a careful, cautious researcher who followed simple but logical procedures.

Ebbinghaus devised a set of items to be committed to memory that would have no previous associations, the so-called nonsense syllables. These each consist of two consonants separated by a vowel (C-V-C) that does not spell anything in one’s language — in English, BAF would be an example. Ebbinghaus constructed 2,300 of these items and then proceeded to memorize them in lists of about 20. He learned each list of these syllables until he had reached a pre-established criterion (perfect recall), and then recorded how many he was able to retain after specific time intervals. He also noted how many trials were necessary for relearning after the syllables had been forgotten. His first set of trials took place over the course of one year (1879-1880) and he replicated the experiments three years later.

The curved brown and dotted lines represent forgetting curves; the green line represents the learning curve. Relearning at periodic intervals produces forgetting curves that are progressively flatter.

Ebbinghaus made several findings that are still relevant and supported to this day. First, arguably his most famous finding, the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve refers to the exponential curve that describes how fast we tend to forget information after we have learned it. The sharpest decline is in the first twenty minutes, then in the first hour, and then the curve evens off after about one day.

The learning curve, which was described by Ebbinghaus, refers to the curve that describes how fast we relearn information. The sharpest increase occurs after the first relearning (“repetition”), and gradually evens out, meaning that less and less new information is retained with each successive relearning. Like the forgetting curve, the learning curve is also exponential.

The Ebbinghaus Illusion. Note that the orange circles appear of different sizes, even though equal.

Interestingly, Ebbinghaus is also credited with discovering an optical illusion now known after its discoverer — the Ebbinghaus illusion, which is an illusion of relative size perception. In the best-known version of this illusion, two circles of identical size are placed near to each other and one is surrounded by large circles while the other is surrounded by small circles; the first central circle then appears smaller than the second central circle. This illusion is now used extensively in research in cognitive psychology, to find out more about the various perception pathways in our brain.

References:

  • Plucker, J. A. (Ed.). (2003). “Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources”. Retrieved 24 Jan 2012 from http://www.indiana.edu/~intell
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January 24, 1961 (a Tuesday)

One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached.

One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached.

On this date shortly after midnight, a B-52 plane broke up in midair, accidentally dropping two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina, according to a 1969 U.S. government report on the incident. The document says one of the bombs should have detonated — parachutes were deployed and triggers were armed — but one low-voltage switch failed to activate as it should have, preventing what would have been devastating and widespread damage. The report was only recently declassified by the U.S. and published by The Guardian on 20 September 2013.

The bomb carried a 4-megaton payload, equivalent to 4 million tons of TNT explosive and 260 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Fallout from the explosion could have spread to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even New York City, affecting millions of people, the report said.

There had been speculation that the event more than 50 years ago was extraordinarily serious, but the US government has long denied its nuclear arsenal has put Americans at risk through safety flaws. The declassified report was the first conclusive evidence of how close the U.S. came to nuclear devastation that day.

“It would have been bad news in spades,” wrote the author of the report, U.S. government scientist Parker F. Jones. “One simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and major catastrophe,” wrote Jones. “The MK Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52.”

Jones titled his report “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I Learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb,” a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear satire, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

What the Goldsboro blast would have looked like.  This is the only time we tested this warhead at full yield, the detonation “Cherokee” at Operation Redwing, in 1958.

What the Goldsboro blast would have looked like. This is the only time we tested this warhead at full yield, the detonation “Cherokee” at Operation Redwing, in 1958.

The report was uncovered by the U.S. investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act while he was researching a book on the nuclear arms race, now published as Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Schlosser told The Guardian that he had found at least 700 noteworthy incidents involving nuclear weapons that took place between 1950 and 1968 — but the public largely doesn’t know about any of them.

“The U.S. government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” Schlosser said. “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”

No-Touch Torture: January 24, 1997 (a Friday)

On this date, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by The Baltimore Sun on 26 May 1994, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified and released a heavily redacted version of its Vietnam-era training manual called “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation — July 1963,” a comprehensive guide for teaching interrogators how to effectively create “a world of fear, terror, anxiety, [and] dread.” (Note: The word KUBARK was the CIA’s cryptonym for itself.)

The 1963 KUBARK manual was the result of years of research that began after the United States learned that American prisoners of war in Korea had been subjected to “mind-control” techniques by their captors. That history was immortalized in John Frankenheimer’s political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which features a character who is “brainwashed” to become an assassin for an international communist conspiracy.

27 Apr 1966, Thanh Quit, South Vietnam -- A Vietnamese soldier threatens a Viet Cong prisoner with a knife during an interrogation.

27 Apr 1966, Thanh Quit, South Vietnam — A Vietnamese soldier threatens a Viet Cong prisoner with a knife during an interrogation.

Not to be outdone by a communist regime in the art of brainwashing, on 13 April 1953 CIA director Allen Dulles authorized the MK-ULTRA project, launching a decade of mind-control research. After years of conducting covert experiments, at times on unsuspecting Americans, using hallucinogenic drugs, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, the agency apparently decided that the best methods for extracting information from detainees come through psychological torture. These methods were incorporated into the 1963 KUBARK manual. Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago and author of Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power (2006), in an interview on 24 October 2007 said, “The CIA had funneled millions and millions of dollars into research after the Korean War culminating in this KUBARK Manual. And it has been correctly called the Bible of coercive interrogations.” The CIA then field-tested psychological torture on South Vietnamese civilians suspected of being Viet Cong sympathizers during the Vietnam War.

The CIA’s discovery of psychological torture was a counter-intuitive breakthrough — indeed, the first real revolution in this cruel science since the 17th century. Although seemingly less brutal, “no-touch” torture leaves deep psychological scars. The victims often need long treatment to recover from trauma far more crippling than physical pain, and the perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to cruelty and lasting emotional problems.

President Kennedy and President Joao Goulart on a state visit to Washington April 4, 1962, a year before the US supported a coup to overthrow him and began spreading the KUBARK manual across Latin America.

President Kennedy and President Joao Goulart on a state visit to Washington April 4, 1962, a year before the US supported a coup to overthrow him and began spreading the KUBARK manual across Latin America.

The fear of Communist expansion into the Western Hemisphere grew rapidly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 victory in the Cuban Revolution. His victory not only prompted the 1964 U.S.-supported overthrow of democratically-elected Brazilian President Joao Goulart; it also encouraged the CIA to spread KUBARK across the continent to help prop up pro-U.S. governments. After the Brazilian coup, right-wing military leaders across Latin America began seizing control from democratically-elected governments with U.S. encouragement, School of the Americas degrees, and a copy of the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK manual.

Of course, CIA-supported subversive activities in Latin America actually began before the 1959 Cuban Revolution. On 27 June 1954, the democratically-elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was overthrown by CIA-paid and -trained mercenaries, making way for the U.S. to install a series of military dictatorships that waged a genocidal war against the indigenous Mayan Indians and against political opponents into the 1990s. Arbenz’s offense was to confiscate unused land owned by the United Fruit Company to redistribute under a land reform plan and to pay compensation based on the vastly understated valuation the company had claimed for its tax payments. Arbenz “was not a dictator, he was not a crypto-communist,” said Stephen Schlesinger, an adjunct fellow at the Century Foundation and co-author of Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (1999). “He was simply trying to create a middle class in a country riven by extremes of wealth and poverty and racism,” Schlesinger said.

Thanks to a mandatory declassification review request filed by MuckRock user Jeffrey Kaye, a less-redacted version of the KUBARK manual was made available by the CIA on 25 February 2014. Revelations from the new release include the CIA’s admission to doctoring detainees’ interrogations tapes, a practice it considered “effective” in making it seem as though the detainee had confessed, and using foreign intelligence services for detention and interrogation purposes. The references to foreign intelligence services mean that rendition is not a product of the post-9/11 world; it is a practice at least 50 years old. Supporting this, CIA ex-Deputy Counsel John Rizzo said in a recent Democracy Now interview that “[r]enditions were not a product of the post-9/11 era…renditions, in and of themselves, are actually a fairly well-established fact in American and world, actually, intelligence organizations.”

Also released on 24 January 1997 to The Baltimore Sun in response to the same FOIA request was the “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual — 1983.” This CIA training manual details torture methods used against suspected subversives in Central America during the 1980s, refuting claims by the agency that no such methods were taught there.

The “Human Resource Exploitation” manual, which drew heavily on the language of the 1963 KUBARK manual, was altered between 1984 and early 1985 to discourage torture after a furor was raised in Congress and the press about CIA training techniques being used in Central America. Those alterations and new instructions appeared in the documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, supporting the conclusion that authorities were well aware these abusive practices were illegal and immoral, even as they were being used then and after. A cover sheet placed in the manual in March 1985 cautions: “The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults or exposure to inhumane treatment of any kind as an aid to interrogation is prohibited by law, both international and domestic; it is neither authorized nor condoned,” but with the caveat that forms of torture and coercive techniques “always require prior [headquarters] approval” first.

Despite the revisions to the CIA’s “Human Resource Exploitation” manual in 1985, the practice of torture by that agency continued and, in fact, was expanded after 11 September 2001. The torture of detainees at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has been well documented and is common knowledge. Even Susan Crawford, the former Bush Administration’s top official for reviewing practices at Guantanamo, publicly admitted in January 2009 that torture happened there. “We tortured [Mohammed al-] Qahtani,” she said. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case [for prosecution].” In his memoir Decision Points (2010), George W. Bush states unequivocally that he authorized the torture, including waterboarding, of individuals held in U.S. custody. And on 24 July 2014, the European Court of Human Rights finally officially confirmed the fact, which the U.S. and European governments have sought to deny for more than a decade, that the CIA operated a secret torture center on Polish soil in the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. on 9/11. In a historic ruling, the court concluded beyond reasonable doubt that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah were held in secret and tortured by the CIA at a military base called Stare Kiejkuty in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is the first time that any court anywhere has ruled on the CIA’s secret prisons. Most of the abuses we’ve become far too familiar with through the above revelations — hooding detainees, stress positions, sexual humiliation, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, light and dark, sound and silence — are part of the comprehensive arsenal of techniques first institutionalized in the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK manual.

On 22 January 2009, a newly inaugurated President Obama promised to “return the U.S. to the moral high ground” by signing a series of executive orders. One ordered the closing of Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons; another prohibited torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA. Nevertheless, Obama’s own Justice Department has continued to subject people facing terrorism-related charges in this country to prolonged pretrial solitary confinement and sensory deprivation — conditions that have been condemned by the international community as torture. Waterboarding may have ended, but the U.S. continues to torture terrorism suspects in American prisons.

Alarmingly, a 2011 FBI “primer” on overseas interrogations, which became public on 2 August 2012 as a result of a FOIA action taken by the American Civil Liberties Union, repeatedly and favorably cites and encourages FBI interrogators to read the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK manual. The primer’s title, “Cross Cultural, Rapport-Based Interrogation,” is ironic because it encourages FBI agents to request that detainees in foreign or military custody be put in isolation to prolong the detainee’s fear for interrogation purposes. The encouragement of fear-production through isolation is a disquieting sign that some elements of the CIA’s psychological torture model continue to have currency in the government, despite the scandalous record of U.S. prisoner abuse in the “war on terror” and the Obama administration’s pledge to end torture.

References:

January 24, 1839 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London.