Henry Skrimshander is a shortstop and the star of Chad Harbach's lyrical novel The Art of Fielding. Henry plays for the fictional Westish College, and his flawless defensive play is attracting the attention of major league scouts. But just as he is about to break the NCAA record for error-free games, he forgets how to throw. Just like that, and for no apparent reason, even the simplest routine toss to the first baseman becomes impossible.
Henry has a case of the "yips" -- a well-documented syndrome that has ended real-life major league careers. This perplexing condition is also known as the "Steve Sax Syndrome," after the Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star second baseman who suffered a similar fate. For just one season, in 1983, Sax was unable to make the routine throw to first, committing 30 errors and earning the mockery of fans. Several others -- including pitcher Steve Blass, infielder Chuck Knoblauch, and one of my favorite former Nats, Rick Ankiel -- have had their careers derailed by cases of the yips.
What are the yips? What's going on that a highly skilled athlete can suddenly and inexplicably lose the fundamentals of fielding? The usual explanation is that these players start to "overthink" their automatic, highly tuned visual and motor skills, and sabotage them in the process. But this has never been proven, nor is it clear just what this means on a basic cognitive level.
Leiden University psychological scientists Bruno Bocanegra and Bernhard Hommel decided to explore this phenomenon in the laboratory. Bocanegra and Hommel were not really interested in the yips or shortstops or even baseball, but more generally in any kind of goal-directed behavior -- and the role of cognitive control in performance. They wondered if it were possible that too much cognitive control -- overthinking -- might be a liability under certain circumstances.
Cognitive control is for the most part considered a plus for humans -- an adaptive ability that allows us to control our circumstances in ways that are advantageous. Cognitive control allows us to trump automatic but misguided decisions and actions. But is it possible, the Leiden scientists asked, that our cognitive autopilot is more adaptive when situations are fairly simple and predictable? Put another way, do certain situations provide enough information on their own to trigger optimal behavior without a lot of thought?
To answer this, they devised a fairly complicated set of laboratory tasks, in which volunteers were required to make a choice of actions, depending on the stimulus they saw. Sometimes the task included fairly complex instructions requiring cognitive effort: Do this if this and this, but alternatively do this if this and that. In other cases, the task included instructions that required very little mental effort: a simple stimulus-response based on a single feature, like red-left, green-right. The idea was that the control task would demand considerable attention and integration of information, but for the simple and predictable task, automatic visual and motor skills would be adequate -- superior in fact.
To test this, the scientists added a twist to the tasks. The stimuli varied in size and color and other features, but unbeknownst to the volunteers, the tasks had been manipulated so that color always predicted the correct response in the simple task. The automatic cognitive system would be expected to pick up on this, effortlessly integrating this information and enhancing performance. So, if automatic piloting were in fact enhanced by exertion of mental control, the volunteers would always perform better in the highly structured and predictable task. The hidden information should be an aid, an asset in deliberating the correct choice.
But that is not what Bocanegra and Hommel found. Indeed, as they report in an article to appear in the journal Psychological Science, they found the opposite: The predictive information only improved performance when volunteers were acting automatically. It actually impaired performance when volunteers were trying to exert mental control. Put another way, exerting mental control in a predictable situation, when automatic response was enough, actually impaired performance. The unneeded mental effort appeared to interfere with what is a perfectly adequate automatic performance.
So back to baseball. Shortstop is one of the most demanding positions on the field, requiring complex decision making. Sometimes the shortstop needs to cover second, other times third. He needs to hold runners and turn double plays and take relays. He needs to keep all of this information in his head, and keep all possibilities in mind as the batter approaches the plate. But the instant the ball is struck, all of that mental calculation has to be put on hold, while eyes and legs and hands take over in the art of fielding a hard-hit ground ball.
It might seem too good to be true, but dark chocolate is good for you and scientists now know why. Dark chocolate helps restore flexibility to arteries while also preventing white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels. Both arterial stiffness and white blood cell adhesion are known factors that play a significant role in atherosclerosis. What's more, the scientists also found that increasing the flavanol content of dark chocolate did not change this effect. This discovery was published in the March 2014 issue of The FASEB Journal.
"We provide a more complete picture of the impact of chocolate consumption in vascular health and show that increasing flavanol content has no added beneficial effect on vascular health," said Diederik Esser, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Top Institute Food and Nutrition and Wageningen University, Division of Human Nutrition in Wageningen, The Netherlands. "However, this increased flavanol content clearly affected taste and thereby the motivation to eat these chocolates. So the dark side of chocolate is a healthy one."
To make this discovery, Esser and colleagues analyzed 44 middle-aged overweight men over two periods of four weeks as they consumed 70 grams of chocolate per day. Study participants received either specially produced dark chocolate with high flavanol content or chocolate that was regularly produced. Both chocolates had a similar cocoa mass content. Before and after both intervention periods, researchers performed a variety of measurements that are important indicators of vascular health. During the study, participants were advised to refrain from certain energy dense food products to prevent weight gain. Scientists also evaluated the sensory properties of the high flavanol chocolate and the regular chocolate and collected the motivation scores of the participants to eat these chocolates during the intervention.
"The effect that dark chocolate has on our bodies is encouraging not only because it allows us to indulge with less guilt, but also because it could lead the way to therapies that do the same thing as dark chocolate but with better and more consistent results," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. "Until the 'dark chocolate drug' is developed, however, we'll just have to make do with what nature has given us!"
March 16 is C Day. The Crimean parliament - by 78 votes with 8 abstentions - decided this is the day when Crimean voters will choose between joining the Russian Federation or to remain part of Ukraine as an autonomous region with very strong powers, according to the 1992 constitution.
Whatever "diplomatic" tantrums Washington and Brussels will keep pulling, and they will be incandescent, facts on the ground speak for themselves. The city council of Sevastopol - the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea fleet - has already voted to join Russia. And next week the Duma in Moscow will study a bill to simplify the mechanism of adhesion.
Quick recap: this is a direct result of Washington spending US$5 billion - a Victoria "F**k the EU" Nuland official figure - to promoteregime change in Ukraine. On the horizon, Crimea may be incorporated into Russia for free, while the "West" absorbs that bankrupt back-of-beyond (Western Ukraine) that an Asia Times Online reader indelibly described as the "Khaganate of Nulands" (an amalgam of khanate, Victoria's notorious neo-con husband Robert Kagan, and no man's land).
What Moscow regards as an illegal, neo-nazi infiltrated government in Kiev, led by Prime Minister Arseniy "Yats" Yatsenyuk - an Ukrainian Jewish banker playing the role of Western puppet - insists Crimea must remain part of Ukraine. And it's not only Moscow; half of Ukraine itself does not recognize the Yats gang as a legitimate government, now boasting a number of oligarchs imposed as provincial governors.
Yet this "government" - supported by the US and the European Union - has already declared the referendum illegal. Proving its impeccable "democratic" credentials, it has already moved to ban the official use of the Russian language in Ukraine; get rid of the communist party, which amassed 13% of the votes in the last election, more, incidentally, than the neo-nazi-infested Svoboda ("Freedom") party, now ensconced in key government security posts; and ban a Russian TV station, which happens to be the most popular on Ukrainian cable.
Amid all the hysteria from Washington and certain European capitals, what's not explained to puzzled public opinion is that these fascists/neo-nazis who got to power through a coup will never allow real elections to take place in Ukraine; after all they would most certainly be sent packing.
This implies that "Yats" and his gang - on top of it reveling at their red carpet welcome at a pompous yet innocuous EU summit in Brussels - won't budge. For instance, they used heavy muscle to send pro-Russian protesters in front of the Donetsk government building running. Heavily industrialized Donetsk is very much linked commercially to Russia.
Then there's an even more sinister possible scenario looming in the horizon; an instrumentalization of the lunatic jihadi fringe of the 10% of Tatars in Crimea, from false flags to suicide bombings. The House of Saud, according to a solid Saudi source, is immensely interested in Ukraine, and may be tempted to do a few favors for Western intelligence.
Will our love become a funeral pyre? Arguably, for Moscow, keeping Crimea inside the Ukraine, with large autonomous powers plus the current signed agreement to keep the base in Sevastopol, is a much better deal than annexing it. It's as if Russia was annexing what for all practical purposes was already a Russian province.
Yet the Kremlin may always decide not to annex, and use the all but certain result of the referendum as a key pawn in a complex negotiation with, not the EU, but fundamentally Germany. The EU is a mess. The "government" in Kiev is a mess. What matters is what Vladimir Putin is discussing over the phone with Angela Merkel.
Much has to do with Pipelineistan - as in the 9 billion euro (US$12.4 billion) Nord Stream, the steel umbilical cord between Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea. Merkel, the then Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, and former German chancellor and now Nord Stream chairman Gerhard Schroeder were very close when the pipeline project carrying Russian gas to Germany went online in 2011. The project was initially proposed in 2005 when Schroeder was chancellor and Putin was Russia's president, first time round. Schroeder, earlier this week, said that NATO should shut up.
Moreover, two-way trade between Russia and the EU was around a whopping US$370 billion in 2012 (no 2013 data yet), with Russia exporting mostly oil, gas and cereals, and the EU exporting mostly cars, medicine, machine parts. Forget about sanctions, that sacrosanct Washington mantra; they are really bad for business.
Moscow, though, has a real, tangible and very serious red line. It does not even have to bother about Ukraine in the EU because the overwhelming majority of Europeans don't want it as part of their club. The red line is North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases in Ukraine. Moscow might even compromise on Ukraine remaining a sort of Finland between Russia and Europe. With Crimea still inside the Ukraine, a NATO base side by side with the Russian base in Sevastopol would be nothing short of psychedelic.
So a resolution in Crimea - whichever way it goes - does send a very clear message from Moscow to the "West". Watch our red line. And unlike others, we mean it, and we back it up with all we got.
No time to wallow in the mire First US President Barack Obama solemnly declared that the referendum in Crimea would "violate international law" (Kosovo, though, could merrily secede from Serbia in 2008, to wild Washington fanfare.)
And this after he declared Crimea to be an "extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the US". What next - Crimean nationalists invading Iowa? No, just a ploy for the White House to deploy the usual financial war.
All that when the brilliant "strategy" of Team Obama - keep demonizing Putin to Kingdom Come - was reaching its apex.
But then Obama - noticing Angela Merkel was stealing the spotlight - called Putin and stayed on the phone for nearly a full hour trying to "engage" him. Why the change of heart?
A possible response may be supplied by the inescapable Dr Zbigniew "The Grand Chessboard" Brzezinski, former national security advisor to that Hamlet hick Jimmy Carter; the man who gave the Soviets "their Vietnam"; the man who always dreamed that the US should rule over Eurasia; and Obama's "invisible" top foreign policy mentor.
As Dr Zbig told WorldPost's Nathan Gardels, "The strategy of the West at this moment should be to complicate Vladimir Putin's planning." Well, that didn't work so well, did it? Then Dr Zbig advances that "NATO should invite the Russians to participate in its ongoing discussions". It's not happening.
Dr Zbig is adamant "we have to formally recognize the new government in Ukraine, which I believe expresses the will of the people there". In fact, the will of perhaps half of the nation, at best. "Interference in Ukrainian affairs should be considered a hostile act by a foreign power." That was Obama's rationale until his phone call to Putin.
Dr Zbig got even more apocalyptic, stressing, "We should put NATO contingency plans into operation, deploying forces in Central Europe so we are in a position to respond if war should break out and spread." No wonder US corporate media went bananas.
But then Dr Zbig falls back into sanity; "The best solution for Ukraine would be to become as Finland has been to Russia." So in the end he may have suggested to Obama "a compromise solution that is acceptable for Russia as well as the West". And that will involve "serious economic aid and investment". And guess who should take the lead, as in footing the bill? "Germany, the most prosperous and strongest economy in the EU."
So in the end we fall back, once again, on what Angela and Vlad have been discussing. Is it Finlandization? Or is it about who's trying to set the night on fire?