We give education more importance than we should

March 1st, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonRob Henderson opens Troubled with these words:

As someone who never really had one, maybe I am the least qualified person to defend the importance of family. But as someone with more education than I ever expected to receive, maybe I’m more qualified to say we give education more importance than we should.

[…]

I’ve come to understand that a warm and loving family is worth infinitely more than the money or accomplishments I hoped might compensate for them.

[…]

Unstable environments and unreliable caregivers aren’t bad for children because they reduce their future odds of getting into college or making a living; they are bad because the children enduring them experience pain — pain that etches itself into their brains and bodies and propels them to do things in the pursuit of relief that often inflict even more harm.

[…]

In one of my classes at Yale, I learned that eighteen out of the twenty students were raised by both of their birth parents. That stunned me, because none of the kids I knew growing up was raised by both of their parents.

[…]

Even though public assistance in Denmark is widely available and university education is free, disparities in test scores and educational mobility between children raised in wealthy versus low-income families are virtually identical to the US.

[…]

Even when you present opportunities to deprived kids, many of them will decline them on purpose because, after years of maltreatment, they often have little desire to improve their lives.

[…]

An important clue comes from a widely cited 2012 paper in the scientific journal Developmental Psychology. A team of psychologists found that compared to children raised in wealthier families, children raised in lower-income families are no more likely to engage in risky behaviors or commit crimes as adults. However, compared with children raised in stable environments, children raised in unstable environments are significantly more likely to engage in harmful or destructive behaviors later in life. Holding family income constant, the researchers found that the association between childhood instability and harmful behaviors in adulthood remained significant.

[…]

I scored well into the top 1 percent of the most unstable childhoods in the US.

[…]

Given the choice, I would swap my position in the top 1 percent of educational attainment to have never been in the top 1 percent of childhood instability.

[…]

I’ve come to believe that upward social mobility shouldn’t be our priority as a society. Rather, upward mobility should be the side effect of far more important things: family, stability, and emotional security for children. Even if upward mobility were the primary goal, a safe and secure family would help achieve it more than anything else.

AI is now remorselessly generating tragedy

February 28th, 2024

The amount of AI-generated content is beginning to overwhelm the internet, Erik Hoel argues:

Or maybe a better term is pollute. Pollute its searches, its pages, its feeds, everywhere you look. I’ve been predicting that generative AI would have pernicious effects on our culture since 2019, but now everyone can feel it. Back then I called it the coming “semantic apocalypse.”

[…]

Now that generative AI has dropped the cost of producing bullshit to near zero, we see clearly the future of the internet: a garbage dump. Google search? They often lead with fake AI-generated images amid the real things. Post on Twitter? Get replies from bots selling porn. But that’s just the obvious stuff. Look closely at the replies to any trending tweet and you’ll find dozens of AI-written summaries in response, cheery Wikipedia-style repeats of the original post, all just to farm engagement. AI models on Instagram accumulate hundreds of thousands of subscribers and people openly shill their services for creating them. AI musicians fill up YouTube and Spotify. Scientific papers are being AI-generated. AI images mix into historical research. This isn’t mentioning the personal impact too: from now on, every single woman who is a public figure will have to deal with the fact that deepfake porn of her is likely to be made. That’s insane.

[…]

YouTube for kids is quickly becoming a stream of synthetic content. Much of it now consists of wooden digital characters interacting in short nonsensical clips without continuity or purpose. Toddlers are forced to sit and watch this runoff because no one is paying attention. And the toddlers themselves can’t discern that characters come and go and that the plots don’t make sense and that it’s all just incoherent dream-slop. The titles don’t match the actual content, and titles that are all the parents likely check, because they grew up in a culture where if a YouTube video said BABY LEARNING VIDEOS and had a million views it was likely okay. Now, some of the nonsense AI-generated videos aimed at toddlers have tens of millions of views.

[…]

For the first time in history developing brains are being fed choppy low-grade and cheaply-produced synthetic data created en masse by generative AI, instead of being fed with real human culture. No one knows the effects, and no one appears to care.

[…]

That is, the OpenAI team didn’t stop to think that regular users just generating mounds of AI-generated content on the internet would have very similar negative effects to as if there were a lot of malicious use by intentional bad actors.

[…]

Since the internet economy runs on eyeballs and clicks the new ability of anyone, anywhere, to easily generate infinite low-quality content via AI is now remorselessly generating tragedy.

You have to fire a lot of unguided weapons to score a hit

February 27th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingThe implications of the lethal, portable drones for ground combat have not yet been worked out, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers):

Soldiers can see the enemy at a distance and attack them with incredible precision. If someone is shooting at you with machine guns or rockets, you can hide behind a wall or in a hole. There is no way of taking cover from LMAMS short of being inside a closed bunker. It can fly around to attack from any direction and can dive into trenches. This makes it unique, and the tried and tested tactics of previous decades will have to be revised. Lying flat and keeping your head down may simply make you an easier target.

In the future, firefights with rifles may become as rare as stabbing with bayonets. The real action may take place at longer ranges without any face-to-face contact at all.

[…]

You have to fire a lot of unguided weapons to score a hit. For rifles and machine-guns, a figure of twenty thousand rounds or more is often quoted for every casualty. Artillery and mortars fire hundreds of rounds, tearing up vast areas of landscape without hitting a target. Guided weapons are different. From their first use in the 1960s, laser-guided weapons were hitting the target more than half the time. With such weapons, range is irrelevant: a target is as easy to hit from two miles away as from two hundred yards. A squad with twenty LMAMS is likely to score close to twenty hits — which may be on vehicles, firing positions, or individuals.

How would you characterize the isegoria.net blog?

February 26th, 2024

I asked the Perplexity AI, How would you characterize the isegoria.net blog?

The isegoria.net blog appears to cover a variety of topics, including reflections on the material world, personal milestones like blogging for 15 years, and discussions on media, participation, and civic virtues such as republicanism, news journalism, citizen journalism, and deliberative democracy. It seems to engage with philosophical and political themes related to journalism, democracy, and civic engagement.

Interesting.

It was both correct and costly

February 25th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson “We only get to release our first car once,” Musk told Eberhard, Tesla’s CEO at the time, “so we want it to be as good as it can be.” Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), how this played out:

One major design revision that Musk made was to insist that the door of the Roadster be enlarged. “In order to get in the car, you had to be a dwarf mountain climber or a master contortionist,” he says. “It was insane, farcical.” The six-foot-two-inch Musk found he had to swing his rather large butt into the seat, fold himself into nearly a fetal position, then try to swing his legs in. “If you’re going on a date, how is a woman even going to get in the car?” he asked. So he ordered that the bottom of the door’s frame be lowered three inches. The resulting redesign of the chassis meant that Tesla could not use the crash-test certification that Lotus had, which added $2 million to the production costs. Like many of Musk’s revisions, it was both correct and costly.

Musk also ordered that the seats be made wider. “My original idea was to use the same seat structures that Lotus used,” Eberhard says. “Otherwise, we would have to redo all the testing. But Elon felt that the seats were too narrow for his wife’s butt or something. I got a skinny butt, and I kind of miss the narrow seats.”

Musk also decided that the original Lotus headlights were ugly because they had no cover or shield. “It made the car look bug-eyed,” he says. “The lights are like the eyes of a car, and you have to have beautiful eyes.” That change would add another $ 500,000 to the production costs, he was told. But he was adamant. “If you’re buying a sports car, you’re buying it because it’s beautiful,” he told the team. “So this is not a small deal.”

Instead of the fiberglass composite material that Lotus used, Musk decided that the Roadster body should be made from stronger carbon fiber. That made it costlier to paint, but it also made it lighter while feeling more solid.

[…]

No detail was too small to escape Musk’s meddling. The Roadster originally had ordinary door handles, the kind that click open a latch. Musk insisted on electric handles that would operate with a simple touch. “Somebody who’s buying a Tesla Roadster will buy it whether it has ordinary door latches or electric ones,” Eberhard argued. “It’s not going to add a single unit to our sales.”

[…]

Eberhard finally got pushed to despair when, near the end of the design process, Musk decided that the dashboard was ugly. “This is a major issue and I’m deeply concerned that you do not recognize it as such,” Musk wrote. Eberhard tried to put him off, begging that they deal with the issue later. “I just don’t see a path — any path at all — to fixing it prior to start of production without a significant cost and schedule hit,” he wrote. “I stay up at night worrying about simply getting the car into production sometime in 2007…. For my own sanity’s sake and for the sanity of my team, I am not spending a lot of cycles thinking about the dashboard.”

[…]

By modifying so many elements, Tesla lost the cost advantages that came from simply using a crash-tested Lotus Elise body. It also added to the supply-chain complexity. Instead of being able to rely on Lotus’s existing suppliers, Tesla became responsible for finding new sources for hundreds of components, from the carbon fiber panels to the headlights. “I was driving the Lotus people crazy,” Musk says. “They kept asking me why I was being so hardcore about every little curve of this car. And what I told them was, ‘Because we have to make it beautiful.’”

Despite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Napoleon welcomed the Revolution

February 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsDespite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon welcomed the Revolution:

At least in its early stages it accorded well with the Enlightenment ideals he had ingested from his reading of Rousseau and Voltaire. He embraced its anti-clericalism and did not mind the weakening of a monarchy for which he had no particular respect. Beyond that, it seemed to offer Corsica prospects of greater independence, and far better career opportunities for an ambitious young outsider without money or connections. Napoleon believed that the new social order it promised to usher in would destroy both of these disadvantages and would be built on logic and reason, which the Enlightenment philosophes saw as the only true foundations for authority.

[…]

Although Napoleon faithfully carried out his military duties, putting down food riots in Valence and Auxonne — where some men from his own regiment mutinied and joined the rioters — he was an early adherent of the local branch of the revolutionary Society of the Friends of the Constitution.

[…]

Napoleon was unimpressed by what he found in Paris. ‘The men at the head of the Revolution are a poor lot,’ he wrote to Joseph. ‘Everyone pursues his own interest, and searches to gain his own ends by dint of all sorts of crimes; people intrigue as basely as ever. All this destroys ambition. One pities those who have the misfortune to play a part in public affairs.’

[…]

Napoleon was in Paris on June 20, 1792 when the mob invaded the Tuileries, captured Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and forced the king to wear a red cap of liberty on the palace balcony. Bourrienne had met him at a restaurant on the rue Saint-Honoré, and when they saw a heavily armed crowd marching towards the palace, he claims that Napoleon said, ‘Let’s follow the rabble.’ Taking their place on the riverside terrace, they then watched with (presumably well-disguised) ‘surprise and indignation’ the historic scenes that followed.

[…]

Bourrienne later reported that Napoleon remarked: ‘What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with cannon? Then the rest would take themselves off very quickly.’ The humiliation of the royal family on that occasion further lowered the monarchy in Napoleon’s estimation. He supported the toppling of the king but could not understand why Louis XVI had meekly allowed himself to be humiliated. As it was, the royal couple had less than two months of this hazardous liberty left to them.

[…]

Napoleon’s contempt for the pusillanimity of the Bourbons was again made clear on August 10, when the mob returned to arrest the king and queen and massacred their Swiss Guards.

[…]

Che coglione!’ (‘What asses!’) he exclaimed in Italian when, from an upstairs window, he saw the Swiss Guards refrain from firing on the mob, at what turned out to be the cost of their lives.

[…]

Napoleon didn’t deny his own Jacobin past when he ruled France, saying, ‘At one time every man of spirit was bound to be one’, and he gave two of Robespierre’s female relatives annual pensions of 7,200 francs and 1,800 francs respectively.

[…]

By mid-October Napoleon was back in Ajaccio promoting the Jacobin cause, returning to his lieutenant-colonelcy of the Corsican National Guard rather than taking up the captaincy of the 4th Regiment of Artillery in France’s regular army. He found the island far more anti-French than it had been when he left, especially after the September Massacres and the declaration of the Republic. Yet he remained, as he put it, ‘persuaded that the best thing Corsica could do was to become a province of France’.

[…]

‘Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death,’ he later opined, ‘all Europe would have been revolutionized: the war saved England.

Training doctrines, levels of violent crime, and public scrutiny were very different back in the mid-1990s

February 23rd, 2024

In his 25-year police career, Greg Ellifritz pointed guns at lots of people:

Admittedly, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have pointed guns at all of those folks.

In my defense, training doctrines, levels of violent crime, and public scrutiny were very different back in the mid-1990s as compared to our modern age. We were taught to point guns directly at any felony suspect regardless of the level of danger they posed to us. It was just the way things were done. Back in the day, very few cops would have ever considered using a position like “low ready” to confront a potentially armed suspect. We took people down “at gunpoint.” That meant pointing a gun at the suspects’ chests and faces while demanding compliance.

Things have changed.

Most likely due to the fact that most cops now record every criminal arrest on body cameras, police administrators have demanded changes to use of force policies. Cops were pointing guns at too many people without a reasonable cause to do so. Sticking a gun in the face of an unarmed teenage kid in a stolen car looks bad when the bosses review the body cam footage.

The police bosses started cracking down on excessive gun play. Pointing a gun at someone was once considered a “threat” of force generally equivalent to harsh verbal language. At some point during the last decade or so, pointing a gun directly at another human being changed from a low consequence “threat of force” to a serious ”use of force” that was documented and investigated.

While some changes were certainly needed, I fear we might have gone too far.

[…]

Police bosses will argue “pointing a gun at someone meets the elements of the crime of aggravated assault.” That’s correct, in some cases. Putting someone in a painful wrist lock or throwing a person to the ground meets the statutory definitions for assault as well, yet cops do that all the time without issue. Handcuffing someone without their consent meets the statutory definition of “kidnapping” or “unlawful restraint.” Does that mean that cops shouldn’t handcuff people? That’s silly. Society recognizes that cops can legally use force to affect a lawful arrest so long as it is objectively reasonable to do so. I would argue that there are lots of scenarios cops face where it is reasonable to point a gun at someone even if it isn’t (yet) reasonable to shoot that person.

[…]

The thing that many police bosses fail to realize is that sometimes pointing a gun at someone compels compliance when all other tactics don’t work. Cops generally aren’t pointing guns at suspects just for fun. They often point guns as a last resort when all other tactics have failed. When an officer appears competent and points a gun at a suspect, that threat of lethal force often convinces the bad guy to go along with the program. The officer doesn’t have to physically hurt the suspect.

The whole thing includes some illustrative stories.

British tests of Trident missiles are rare

February 22nd, 2024

The test firing of a Trident missile from a Royal Navy submarine has failed, for the second time in a row:

The latest test of the UK’s nuclear deterrent was from HMS Vanguard and was seen by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps.

The missile’s booster rockets failed and it landed in the sea close to the launch site, according to the Sun, which first reported the malfunction.

Mr Shapps said he has “absolute confidence” in Trident’s submarines, missiles and nuclear warheads.

This is highly embarrassing for both the UK and the US manufacturer of the Trident missile.

British tests of Trident missiles are rare, not least because of the cost. Each missile is worth around £17m and the last test in 2016 also ended in failure when the missile veered off course. Test-fired missiles are not armed with their nuclear warheads.

[…]

The missile was supposed to have flown several thousand miles before landing harmlessly in the Atlantic between Brazil and West Africa. Instead, it dropped into the ocean near to where it was launched.

[…]

The missiles the UK uses are drawn from a common pool that the US and UK both use, and the US has conducted multiple tests without these kind of problems.

XTEND say that operators can fly one of their drones like a pro within a few minutes of trying it out

February 21st, 2024

Skilled FPV drone operators are becoming the most feared opponents in the war in Ukraine, David Hambling notes:

When a Ukrainian drone strike team recently took out the Russian FPV operator known as Moisey it was seen as a big success. Moisey was personally credited with destroying dozens of vehicles and killing almost 400 Ukrainian soldiers.

Standard consumer quadcopters like the ubiquitous DJI Mavic series are designed to be flown out of the box by an untrained user. The operator does not exactly fly the drone so much as tell it where to go, with the drone doing all the piloting and preventing crashes. The drone will auto-hover at a fixed point even in gusty winds and, thanks to sonar and other sensors, avoid obstacles.

[…]

FPVs by contrast are stripped-down racing machines without any of the piloting aides on standard quadcopters. This is partly a matter of cost, but mainly to do with speed — a drone switched to manual mode with all the obstacle avoidance turned off is faster than one in normal mode where speed is automatically limited to how fast it can fly safely.

This is why FPV pilots wear VR-style goggles: they need to have good situational awareness, to look ahead and plan their path to avoid flying into things. FPV cameras have a wide field of view so the operator does not make a sharp turn and find a wall in front of them.

[…]

Russia’s Academy BAS says its combat FPV operator course takes a month, working 12 hour days with no days off. The equivalent training at Ukraine’s Victory Drones takes 33 days, and participants are expected to have 20 hours practice on a simulator before they start. The pass rate on FPV courses can be as low as 60%, compared to up to 95% for regular drones.

The average hit rate for FPV drones is sometimes quoted at 10% whereas highly skilled operators may succeed with 70% or more of their attacks.

[…]

XTEND say that operators can fly one of their drones like a pro within a few minutes of trying it out. This includes carrying out tricky maneuvers like flying through doorways or windows, which is exactly the kind of skill needed by an FPV kamikaze operator, or even flying around inside buildings or tunnels.

The intelligence provided by XTEND also solves one of the big issues with current FPVs, that of losing communication in the last second of flight as the drone drops below the radio horizon.

“Our XOS operating system enables a drone to have several ‘state’ solutions to determine what happens during comms-failure, including: hover, continue to target, return to home, patrol, and more,” says Shapira.

This effectively allows the operator to ‘lock on’ to a target as soon as they identify it, so the drone will find a target even if it is evading rapidly, or the signal is lost due to jamming or other causes. In principle XOS could be trained to aim at the weak spot on a target, such as the turret rear of Russian tanks where an FPV hit often results in instant destruction.

[…]

Last year, XTEND signed a contract to supply Israel’s Ministry of Defence with a multi-drone operating system enabling an operator to control “dozens of human-guided semi-autonomous drones simultaneously.”

That might seem like a lot of money for a radio-controlled model aircraft

February 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling”Like mammals evolving beneath the feet of lumbering dinosaurs,“ David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), “a very different type of drone has been proliferating close to the ground”:

These are little craft that do not compete with the lofty lords of the air. And while the big drones are in decline, their miniature cousins have been preparing to inherit the earth.

[…]

As of 2015 the Pentagon has around ten thousand drones, and nine thousand of them are small, hand-launched craft made by AeroVironment Inc of California

[…]

It may look like a toy aircraft with a four-foot wingspan, but it puts air power in the hands of the foot soldier.

[…]

Big drones compete with the manned aircraft that they resemble, but for once, looking like a toy may be an advantage.

[…]

Raven’s built-in GPS meant it could fly a mission via a series of programmed waypoints with no human intervention, so it could take pictures of a building or installation even if it was out of radio range. Endurance was tripled to an hour, and a new modular design meant changing sensors (say, switching between day cameras and infrared night vision) was a matter of “plug and play”.

[…]

Unlike the Predator, which requires pilot’s qualifications to fly, Raven operation can be learned in about three days.

[…]

The controller comes with a shrouded “viewing hood” to make the screen easier to see in bright sunlight — an echo of the black cloth that the TDR-1 operators covered themselves with in WWII.

The ground control unit can run training software, known as the Visualization and Mission Planning Integrated Rehearsal Environment or VAMPIRE. With VAMPIRE, an operator can practice flying virtual missions without needing to launch anything; it is like playing a handheld video game. An enhanced version can download sensor feeds from actual missions; this add-on is known as the Bidirectional Advanced Trainer (yes, that’s VAMPIRE BAT).

[…]

The video feed was originally recorded on a consumer eight-millimetre video recorder, a Sony Handycam, which allowed the user to freeze-frame or look back through the flight; it is now recorded digitally. The other piece of hardware is a ruggedized laptop, a Panasonic Toughbook computer. This provides a moving map display via Army software called FalconView.

[…]

In 2012 a complete system with two ground control stations, three RQ-11B air vehicles, plus all the sensors, spares, and carry cases, can cost the US military $100-$200,000. A single air vehicle on its own costs around $34,000. It is the sensor package, especially the thermal imaging, that pushes the price up.

To civilians that might seem like a lot of money for a radio-controlled model aircraft, but it needs to be put in context. In the conflict in Afghanistan, soldiers have on occasion used shoulder-launched Javelin anti-tank missiles costing $70,000 against individual insurgents behind cover. The mine-resistant MRAP armored trucks, hastily purchased to give protection against IEDs, cost about $600,000.

[…]

It’s certainly a low-cost option compared to $14 million for a Reaper. The Reaper also costs about $4,000 an hour to fly, so one ten-hour flight costs as much as a Raven. The F-22 Raptor costs $50,000 an hour to fly, the F-35 over $30,000, making Reaper cheap by Air Force standards.

Cheap drones were clearly a thing nine years ago, but super-cheap FPV quadcopters with 40-mm grenades or RPG warheads were still in the future.

All requirements should be treated as recommendations

February 18th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonWhenever one of Musk’s engineers cited “a requirement” as a reason for doing something, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), Musk would grill them:

Who made that requirement? And answering “The military” or “The legal department” was not good enough. Musk would insist that they know the name of the actual person who made the requirement. “We would talk about how we were going to qualify an engine or certify a fuel tank, and he would ask, ‘Why do we have to do that?’ ” says Tim Buzza, a refugee from Boeing who would become SpaceX’s vice president of launch and testing. “And we would say, ‘There is a military specification that says it’s a requirement.’ And he’d reply, ‘Who wrote that? Why does it make sense?’ ” All requirements should be treated as recommendations, he repeatedly instructed. The only immutable ones were those decreed by the laws of physics.

When Mueller was working on the Merlin engines, he presented an aggressive schedule for completing one of the versions. It wasn’t aggressive enough for Musk. “How the fuck can it take so long?” he asked. “This is stupid. Cut it in half.”

Mueller balked. “You can’t just take a schedule that we already cut in half and then cut it in half again,” he said. Musk looked at him coldly and told him to stay behind after the meeting. When they were alone, he asked Mueller whether he wanted to remain in charge of engines. When Mueller said he did, Musk replied, “Then when I ask for something, you fucking give it to me.”

Mueller agreed and arbitrarily cut the schedule in half. “And guess what?” he says. “We ended up developing it in about the time that we had put in that original schedule.” Sometimes Musk’s insane schedules produced the impossible, sometimes they didn’t. “I learned never to tell him no,” Mueller says. “Just say you’re going to try, then later explain why if it doesn’t work out.”

[…]

The sense of urgency was good for its own sake. It made his engineers engage in first-principles thinking. But as Mueller points out, it was also corrosive. “If you set an aggressive schedule that people think they might be able to make, they will try to put out extra effort,” he says. “But if you give them a schedule that’s physically impossible, engineers aren’t stupid. You’ve demoralized them. It’s Elon’s biggest weakness.”

Steve Jobs did something similar. His colleagues called it his reality-distortion field. He set unrealistic deadlines, and when people balked, he would stare at them without blinking and say, “Don’t be afraid, you can do it.” Although the practice demoralized people, they ended up accomplishing things that other companies couldn’t. “Even though we failed to meet most schedules or cost targets that Elon laid out, we still beat all of our peers,” Mueller admits. “We developed the lowest-cost, most awesome rockets in history, and we would end up feeling pretty good about it, even if Dad wasn’t always happy with us.”

It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst

February 17th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon was a writer manqué, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), penning around sixty essays, novellas, philosophical pieces, histories, treatises, pamphlets and open letters before the age of twenty-six:

In early May 1786, aged sixteen, Napoleon wrote a two-page essay entitled ‘On Suicide’ which mixed the anguished cry of a romantic nationalist with an exercise in classical oratory. ‘Always alone and in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy,’ he wrote. ‘In which direction are my thoughts turned today? Toward death.’

[…]

A few days after the successful conclusion of the shell-testing project, Napoleon wrote the first paragraph of his ‘Dissertation sur l’Autorité Royale’, which argued that military rule was a better system of government than tyranny and concluded, unambiguously: ‘There are very few kings who would not deserve to be dethroned.’

[…]

Luckily, just as he was about to send his ‘Dissertation’ to a publisher, the news arrived that Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Louis XVI’s finance minister, to whom the essay was dedicated, had been dismissed. Napoleon quickly rescinded publication.

His writing mania extended to drafting the regulations for his officers’ mess, which he somehow turned into a 4,500-word document full of literary orotundities such as: ‘Night can hold no gloom for he who overlooks nothing that might in any way compromise his rank or his uniform. The penetrating eyes of the eagle and the hundred heads of Argus would barely suffice to fulfil the obligations and duties of his mandate.’

In January 1789 he wrote a Romantic melodrama, ‘The Earl of Essex: An English Story’, not his finest literary endeavour. ‘The fingers of the Countess sank into gaping wounds,’ begins one paragraph. ‘Her fingers dripped with blood. She cried out, hid her face, but looking up again could see nothing. Terrified, trembling, aghast, cut to the very quick by these terrible forebodings, the Countess got into a carriage and arrived at the Tower.’ The story includes assassination plots, love, murder, premonitions, and the overthrow of King James II.

Continuing in this melodramatic style, in March 1789 Napoleon wrote a two-page short story called ‘The Mask of the Prophet’, about a handsome and charismatic Arab soldier-prophet, Hakem, who has to wear a silver mask because he has been disfigured by illness. Having fallen out with the local prince, Mahadi, Hakem has his disciples dig lime-filled pits, supposedly for their enemies, but he poisons his own followers, throws their bodies into the pits and finally immolates himself. It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst.

Dispersing energy on impact rather than shattering

February 16th, 2024

The Army has officially started fielding its newest combat helmet, the Next-Generation Integrated Head Protection System:

According to service officials, the NG-IHPS will provide soldiers with “increased ballistic and fragmentation protection” in a 40% lighter package compared to the earlier Integrated Head Protection System, which was first fielded in 2018 to replace the Advanced Combat Helmet and Enhanced Combat Helmet.

The first NG-IHPS units were fielded to around 2,000 soldiers assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, on Monday, the service said.

[…]

Speaking to Army Times, Head Protection Team lead engineer Alex de Groot attributed enhanced protection of the NG-IHPS to the use of lightweight polyethylene instead of rigid and inflexible Kevlar material in the helmet’s construction, with the former dispersing energy on impact rather than shattering like the latter.

Garand Thumb took a look:

It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights

February 15th, 2024

In Europe and Asia, many cars offer adaptive driving beam headlights that can bath the road ahead in bright light without ever blinding other drivers:

ADB is a lighting technology that has been available for many years in other parts of the world including Europe, China and Canada, but not in the United States.

It can actually shape the light coming from headlights rather than scattering it all over the road. If there’s a car coming in the other direction, or one driving ahead in the same lane, the light stays precisely away from that vehicle. The rest of the road is still covered in bright light with just a pocket of dimmer light around the other vehicles. This way a deer, pedestrian or bicyclist by the side of the road can still be seen clearly while other drivers sharing the road can see, too.

In America, the closest we can get to that today are automatic high beams, a feature available on many new cars that automatically flicks off the high beams if another vehicle is detected ahead. But that still means driving much — or most — of the time using only low beam headlights that don’t reach very far. That can be dangerous.

US auto safety regulations enacted in 2022 were supposed to finally allow ADB headlight, something for which the auto industry and safety groups had long been asking for. But, according to automakers and safety advocates, the new rules make it difficult for automakers to add the feature. That means it will probably be years before ADB headlights are widely available in the US.

ADB-enabled headlights already are sold on some luxury cars in America. They just lack the software to perform the way they were designed to. Some American Mercedes drivers can enjoy a dazzling light display as they start up or shut off their cars at night. Moving streaks of light wash across the pavement or walls in front of the car like a glittering snowstorm. But, while driving, the lights work just like standard high beam, low beam headlights. Their adaptive capabilities aren’t enabled here because they still don’t meet US rules.

Some ADB headlights work like digital projectors, using a million or more LED pixels to project light patterns on the road. Even in the US, some Mercedes vehicles can project symbols like arrows or lines on the road to guide drivers. Less expensive systems in Europe and Asia use several thousand or even fewer light emitters, reflectors or shutter systems to create adaptive beams,

Until two years ago, US auto safety regulations, written for traditional headlights, simply didn’t allow for adaptive headlight technology at all. Light beams wrapping around other vehicles just wasn’t something the regulations could encompass so the technology wasn’t allowed here by default.

That changed in early 2022 when, after a decade of work on it, America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized regulations for adaptive beam headlights. But because the US regulations are so different from those in other countries, with requirements so difficult to meet, automakers still can’t offer it here. It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights that meet the standards, auto industry sources say.

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NHTSA’s rules require the ADB headlights to respond extremely swiftly after detecting another vehicle within reach of the lights, much faster than other standards require in the EU and Canada. Also much faster than a human could switch off an ordinary high beam headlight. They also dictate extreme narrow lines between bright and dark regions.

Valentine’s Day is an odd holiday

February 14th, 2024

As I’ve noted before, Valentine’s Day is an odd holiday. Saint Valentine is the name of fourteen different martyred saints — and the one whose feast falls on February 14? We don’t know anything about him, beyond his name, except that he was born on April 16 and died on February 14. And he was removed from the Catholic calendar of saints in 1969.

In fact, it doesn’t look like Saint Valentine was associated with romantic love at all until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Parliament of Fowls in 1382 in honor of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia:

For this was Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

And that reference probably was not to February 14 — mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England — and Chaucer appears to be making up a fictional tradition that never existed.

The notion caught on though, and we see it mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Donne’s Epithalamion a couple hundred years later.

Around that time Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene gave us a rhyme that should sound familiar:

She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

It inspired the modern cliche Valentine’s Day poem, which appeared in Gammer Gurton’s Garland in 1784:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.