The Taliban Strikes Back

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

In The Taliban Strikes Back, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) describes how insurgency works:

So overall, Afghanistan has rotten living conditions — not a promising market if you’re selling the new iPhone, but perfect conditions, lab-level perfect, for selling rebellion. In the early stages, successful rural insurgencies don’t even worry about combat much. They focus on quietly setting up a local government that replaces the occupiers’ puppet government. If you’ve read much about how the Viet Cong worked in South Vietnam, you’ll recognize the pattern: The puppet government runs around looking busy in the daytime, but when the sun goes down the guerrillas go into action, collecting taxes and settling local disputes, even holding court proceedings in caves, barns or somebody’s hut. The idea is to keep the locals from contacting the occupiers, denying them basic intelligence about what’s going on in the villages, and at the same time making your group indispensable by helping to handle the local feuds, even helping them in the fields. The Taliban has spent the last six years doing all that, to the point that most of Afghanistan now has Sharia-based Taliban courts settling criminal cases.
To make up for the big gaping hole where our military intelligence should be, we’ve been using William Westmoreland’s failed formula: massive firepower. Donald Rumsfeld’s doctrine of doing counterinsurgency warfare on the cheap, with very few troops and lots of air strikes, means that the ISAF has very little local intelligence and has to depend on air power, which worked well enough in the initial defeat of the Taliban in 2002, but just plain doesn’t work in counterinsurgency warfare, because that kind of warfare is about not firing until you know exactly who you’re shooting at. To gain that sort of local knowledge, you need troops settling in to the villages, getting to know people. What you don’t need is F-18s orbiting at medium altitude looking for targets. Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve been using to suppress the Taliban.

Those fighter jets can’t tell the difference between a wedding party carrying the bride to her husband’s village and a Taliban column moving to the attack. And when in doubt, they tend to assume all large groups on the move are Taliban. For six years, ISAF warplanes have been bombing Pashtun wedding parties and processions. It seems to happen over and over again. I’m not sure why. Maybe weddings are the only time that Pashtuns get together in big numbers, big enough to draw fighter pilots’ attention. Maybe it’s their habit of firing rifles to celebrate. But for whatever reason, we have bombed and strafed enough wedding parties to rouse centuries of hatred from the Pashtuns.

The End Of Aviation

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Bradford Plumer looks at The End Of Aviation, as envisioned by Anthony Perl and Richard Gilbert, two Canadian transportation experts, in their new book Transport Revolutions:

[They] envision a world in which rising oil prices have reduced domestic flying in the United States roughly 40 percent by 2025 — even assuming that airlines improve fuel efficiency by about 50 percent. In such a scenario, the United States could go from having nearly 400 primary airports down to 50 or so; instead of dozens of flights each day between New York and San Francisco carrying 200 people apiece, there might be only a handful carrying 800 or more in new extra-jumbo jets.

Transportation Hack 2.0

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

PC World calls it Transportation Hack 2.0, but the flaw found in California’s FasTrak system is so simple, I’m not sure it’s even a “hack” to defeat it:

The hack, exposed at the Black Hat security conference by Root Labs’ Nate Lawson, involves overwriting the unique ID number on a car’s wireless transponder. The transponder is what communicates with the toll system to electronically pay a driver’s fee. By overwriting the number, then, a hacker could use someone else’s digits…and thus, someone else’s dime.

Lawson says the transponders have no encryption — the same issue raised with Boston’s card-based system. In the FasTrak instance, the discovery goes directly against the company’s past claims that the data is secure and protected.

How I Learned to Love Middle Managers

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Joel Spolsky explains how he learned to love middle managers — but first, of course, he explains why he ever doubted their value, starting with his own first experience as a low-level manager at Juno:

I was proud to start getting those mass e-mails that were circulated among the managers.

Until I noticed about half the company was on that distribution list.

For a company of Juno’s size — it had about 150 employees at the time — there seemed to be a disproportional number of managers. I think most of them, like me, had only one or two people reporting to them. But it was hard to know for sure, because the org chart wasn’t circulated; apparently, Juno’s top brass were afraid it would fall into the hands of headhunters. So you knew your boss and your team, but unless you were a smoker, you didn’t know any of the people in the other parts of the company.

Unless you were a smoker. I love that bit.

Here’s what really bothered him though:

I noticed too many situations in which members of top management happily issued an executive fiat even though they were the least qualified to make a decision. I’m not saying that they were stupid, mind you. Most of the managers at Juno were quite smart. But they had hired even smarter people to work for them: people with advanced degrees, raw intellectual firepower, and years of experience. And these people would work on a problem for a long time, come up with a pretty good solution, and then watch in surprise as their bosses overruled them. Executives who did not have specific technical knowledge and who had not studied a problem in depth would swoop down and issue some random, uninformed decree, and it would be implemented — often with farcical results. I called it hit-and-run micromanagement, and I suspected that the managers at Juno acted this way only because many of them were young, and that’s how bosses seemed to behave on TV.

His experience at Microsoft was better:

A bit of Redmond lore: Two software designers got into a debate over how something should be implemented. The question was highly technical. They couldn’t reach agreement, so they went to their boss, a guy named Mike Maples, who was the vice president in charge of the applications division.

“What do I know about this?” he yelled at them. “Of the three people in this room, I’m the one who knows the least. You guys have been hashing this out for hours. I’m the last person who should be deciding. Work it out.”

And so they did.

Based on his personal experience, and based on an exciting article about a GE jet engine plant in North Carolina that had 170 employees and just one boss — an article I noted at the time too — he decided to have no middle managers at his new software company.

That worked for a while, but as the company grew the top managers (Joel and his partner) seemed more and more distant, even though they thought they were plugged in and very welcoming. Now everyone’s happy with a bit of middle management.

The lesson:

Don’t believe everything you read in a business magazine. Not even this one.

Rusting Aluminum

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Theodore Gray explains how aluminum can rust with just a dab of its mortal enemy:

Unless you are a representative of a national meteorological bureau licensed to carry a barometer (and odds are you’re not), bringing mercury onboard an airplane is strictly forbidden. Why? If it got loose, it could rust the plane to pieces before it had a chance to land. You see, airplanes are made of aluminum, and aluminum is highly unstable.

Wait, isn’t one of the great things about aluminum that, unlike iron, it doesn’t rust? Am I talking about the same aluminum? Yes! Your aluminum pot is made of a highly reactive chemical. It simply has a trick that lets it disguise itself as a corrosion-resistant metal.

When iron rusts, it forms iron oxide-a reddish, powdery substance that quickly flakes off to expose fresh metal, which immediately begins to rust, and so on until your muffler falls off.

But when aluminum rusts, it forms aluminum oxide, an entirely different animal. In crystal form, aluminum oxide is called corundum, sapphire or ruby (depending on the color), and it is among the hardest substances known. If you wanted to design a strong, scratchproof coating to put on a metal, few things other than diamond would be better than aluminum oxide.

By rusting, aluminum is forming a protective coating that’s chemically identical to sapphire-transparent, impervious to air and many chemicals, and able to protect the surface from further rusting: As soon as a microscopically thin layer has formed, the rusting stops. (‘Anodized’ aluminum has been treated with acid and electricity to force it to grow an extra-thick layer of rust, because the more you have on the surface, the stronger and more scratch-resistant it is.)

This invisible barrier forms so quickly that aluminum seems, even in molten form, to be an inert metal. But this illusion can be shattered with aluminum’s archenemy, mercury.

Applied to aluminum’s surface, mercury will infiltrate the metal and disrupt its protective coating, allowing it to ‘rust’ (in the more destructive sense) continuously by preventing a new layer of oxide from forming. The aluminum I-beam below rusted half away in a few hours, something that would have taken an iron beam years.

I’ve heard that during World War II, commandos were sent deep into German territory to smear mercury paste on aircraft to make them inexplicably fall apart. Whether the story is true or not, the sabotage would have worked. The few-micron-thick layer of aluminum oxide is the only thing holding an airplane together. Think about that the next time you’re flying. Or maybe it’s better if you don’t.

This is Your War on Drugs

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) argues that war and drugs just go together, no matter what the DEA has to say about it:

Now, those plants, like coca and khat, they’re for primitives, of course. We over here in the developed world, well, we developed some stuff that makes that stuff look like grandma’s chamomile tea. The big breakthrough came when a German chemist synthesized amphetamine in 1887. God. I love the Germans, I mean I love the Germans the way they used to be, pre-1945, when they got gelded (nice pun, huh, “gelded”? Cuz that’s Germans now: Money but no balls.) Back before ’45, German scientists were working night and day to make the world a weirder, faster place, and this discovery was one of their biggest. Unfortunately, nobody realized the possibilities of speed in combat in time for World War I, but by 1919, Japanese chemists had come up with a water-soluble version, good ol’ crystal meth, redneck work ethic in pill or injectable form. So by the time WW II came along, every army was well-stocked with go pills. The British used 72 million speed pills in the war, pretty impressive when you consider how bad they fought. But the serious armies were also bigtime speed dealers.

The Japanese, who’d discovered the stuff, started handing out speed (“Shabu”) like candy to the Imperial Forces, which actually explains a lot about why they were good at suicide charges but not so good at thinking through a tactical problem. When the war was over, and lost, there was so much of the stuff left in the Army warehouses that Japanese civilians broke in and started popping speed to keep their minds off the fact that there was no food, no shelter, and the Emperor wasn’t a god any more. It’s taken about 50 years to get them off the habit, and they say the Yakuza, the closest thing to a military elite Japan has these days, still has a soft spot for the ol’ speed.

Drugs make WW II a lot easier to get. How did those huge armies fight so long and so hard, when people these days are so weak? Cuz, among other things, they were high, dude. In fact, I never understood how either side could have stood up to the misery of a battle like Stalingrad until I found out that every damn soldier on both sides was high on speed. Once you know that, Stalingrad is a whole lot easier to understand.

Of course, as he points out, the one time you don’t want to be using “speedy stuff” in wartime is when you’ve got serious strategic thinking to do — like Hitler, who was getting daily Pervitin (amphetamine) injections.

Greatest Movie Line Ever

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Jonathan of Chicago Boyz calls it the greatest movie line ever. I’d settle for apropos:

Analog Meets Its Match in Red Digital Cinema’s Ultrahigh-Res Camera

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Michael Behar of Wired says that Analog Meets Its Match in Red Digital Cinema’s Ultrahigh-Res Camera — but I find the company’s founder just as fascinating:

Jim Jannard, 59, is the billionaire founder of Red. In 1975 he spent $300 to make a batch of custom motocross handlebar grips, which he sold from the back of a van. He named his company Oakley, after his English setter, and eventually expanded into sci-fi-style sunglasses, bags, and shoes. In November of last year he sold the business to Luxottica, the owner of Ray-Ban, for a reported $2.1 billion.

OK, you’re wondering, so what’s so cool about this camera?

His team of engineers and scientists have created the first digital movie camera that matches the detail and richness of analog film. The Red One records motion in a whopping 4,096 lines of horizontal resolution — “4K” in filmmaker lingo — and 2,304 of vertical. For comparison, hi-def digital movies like Sin City and the Star Wars prequels top out at 1,920 by 1,080, just like your HDTV. (There’s also a slightly higher-resolution option called 2K that reaches 2,048 lines by 1,080.) Film doesn’t have pixels, but the industry-standard 35-millimeter stock has a visual resolution roughly equivalent to 4K. And that’s what makes the Red so exciting: It delivers all the dazzle of analog, but it’s easier to use and cheaper — by orders of magnitude — than a film camera. In other words, Jannard’s creation threatens to make 35-mm movie film obsolete.
Soderbergh took two prototypes into the Spanish wilderness. “It felt like someone crawled inside my head when they designed the Red,” he says. What impressed him most was the cameras’ sturdiness. Movie sets are often a flurry of crashes and explosions, which can vibrate sensitive electronics, introducing visual noise known as microphonics into images. “A lot of cameras with electronics in them, if you fired a 50-caliber automatic weapon a few inches away — which we did — you’d get microphonics all over the place,” Soderbergh says. “We beat the shit out of the Reds on the Che films, and they never skipped a beat.”

Then there’s the economics: The Red One sells for $17,500 — almost 90 percent less than its nearest HD competitor. The savings are even greater relative to a conventional film camera. Not that anyone buys those; filmmakers rent them, usually from Panavision, an industry stalwart in Woodland Hills, California. Panavision doesn’t publicize its rates, but a Panavision New Zealand rental catalog quotes $25,296 for a four-week shoot — more than the cost of purchasing a Red. “It’s clearly the future of cinematography,” Peter Hyams says. “You can buy this camera. You can own it. That’s why people are excited.”

Protect Our Kids from Preschool

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Protect Our Kids from Preschool, Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell implore:

If anything, preschool may do lasting damage to many children. A 2005 analysis by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that kindergartners with 15 or more hours of preschool every week were less motivated and more aggressive in class. Likewise, Canada’s C.D. Howe Institute found a higher incidence of anxiety, hyperactivity and poor social skills among kids in Quebec after universal preschool.

The only preschool programs that seem to do more good than harm are very intense interventions targeted toward severely disadvantaged kids. A 1960s program in Ypsilanti, Mich., a 1970s program in Chapel Hill, N.C., and a 1980s program in Chicago, Ill., all report a net positive effect on adult crime, earnings, wealth and welfare dependence for participants. But the kids in the Michigan program had low IQs and all came from very poor families, often with parents who were drug addicts and neglectful.

Even so, the economic gains of these programs are grossly exaggerated. For instance, Prof. Heckman calculated that the Michigan program produced a 16-cent return on every dollar spent — not even remotely close to the $10 return that Mr. Obama and his fellow advocates bandy about.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

Russia’s Other Great Victory

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Around the anniversary of the Fall of Berlin, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd), decided to discuss Russia’s Other Great Victory, its invasion of Manchuria three months later:

What most people don’t know is that the Red Army had another huge triumph still to come: a crushing strategic victory on a front 3000 miles long, with 1.6 million Soviets annihilating a force that, on paper at least, totaled more than a million battle-hardened Axis troops. I’m talking about Operation August Storm, the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria on August 9, 1945 — exactly three months after the surrender of the Nazis.

That date is no coincidence.

Stalin had made a deal with FDR and Churchill at Yalta in February, 1945:

[I]f the Red Army attacked Japan’s Manchurian colony within three months of the Nazis’ final defeat, the USSR would get permanent occupation of Sakhalin Island, a big long streak of icy forest north of Hokkaido, and the Kuril Islands, a string of fog-bound rocks looping from the North end of Hokkaido to the Southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Not exactly Rodeo Drive in terms of valuable real estate, but those places meant a lot to Stalin: they’d been grabbed from the Russians by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. It was one of those old disgraces that world powers tend to get all obsessive and unhealthy about, like Hitler forcing the French to surrender in the same lousy railroad car where they’d made Germany surrender in 1918. That was what pre-Abba Europe used to be like: never learned anything new, and never, ever forgot a grudge.

There was something kind of poetic-justice about the way the Americans were begging the Soviets to open up a second front against the Japs, because the Russians had been begging the Anglos to open a second front against the Germans for years — two-and-a-half years, actually, counting from Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) to D-Day (June 6, 1944).For all that time, the Soviet armies had fought alone against the Wehrmacht, the finest land army since the Mongols. And all that time they were screeching, “Hey Allies, buddies, ol’ pals, how about a little help here!

Zhukov had already crushed the Japanese army in Mongolia years earlier — which is why the Japanese navy got its way, and the empire expanded to the south:

What Zhukov did way back in 1939 set the pattern not just for the Red Army’s successes against the Germans but for that final, perfect campaign against Japan in Manchuria in 1945. First, Zhukov dealt with his logistical problems, something the Japanese were too mystical and transcendental to take seriously. Next, he made sure all arms were in total coordination: air force, armor, infantry, artillery. That was another thing the Imperial Japanese were too snotty and quarrelsome to do: from 1919 to 1945, one of the constants in Japanese conduct in Manchuria is that the services hated each other, fought among each other all the time. In 1945 that meant that the Navy refused to lift a hand to help stranded Japanese troops evacuate the Asian mainland; back in 1939, it meant that when the Japanese air force launched a successful attack on Soviet airfields in Mongolia, jealous local commanders ordered their pilots to halt all attacks.

In August 1939 — you Russians must like hot weather, you seem to do a lot of your big attacks in August — Zhukov had all his ducks in a row, and gave the word to attack. Remember, attacking wasn’t something most commanders in 1939 did easily. They’d learned in 1914–1918 that the advantage was with the defenders. Only a few guys like Patton, Rommel, de Gaulle and Zhukov realized that that wasn’t necessarily so any more. Zhukov showed how it was done by encircling and annihilating the Imperial Japanese forces in Eastern Mongolia. And I do mean annihilating, because as usual, Japanese troops just didn’t surrender, so after Zhukov’s pincer attack surrounded them and they’d turned down a trip to the GULAG, Soviet artillery wiped them out.

Another little preview of 1945 during this battle was the way Japanese troops dealt with the inevitable, as in “total denial,” aka: “brave but stupid.” One Japanese officer supposedly led his men on foot in an attack against Soviet tanks, with his Samurai sword on high. That was a pattern you were going to see again and again, in Saipan, Okinawa, the Philippines, everywhere Japanese troops were defeated: they thought way too much of arranging glorious deaths for themselves, and not nearly enough about arranging the same thing for the enemy.

But this time, in a rare moment of reason, the Imperial Armed Forces learned their lesson: after meeting Zhukov and getting slaughtered next to that frozen Mongolian river, they lost all appetite for a land war against the Soviets. Now, the Japanese were all for headin’ south, to the sea and sun, to those balmy Pacific beaches, starting with Pearl Harbor.

That little shift in Japan’s business expansion plan kept them pretty busy. So now we can fast-forward all the way to 1945 without losing much, because while the whole rest of the world was exploding, in the meantime, the USSR-Japanese borders in Manchuria/Siberia didn’t so much as flicker from 1939 to 1945. Nothing, zip, nada going on for all that time. Stalin kept 40 divisions there (remember, a Soviet division was only 11,000 troops), but thanks to Richard Sorge’s Tokyo spy ring, he knew the Japanese weren’t interested in another big fight in Manchuria, which made planning for the German front a lot easier.

So now it’s May 1945: “Hey Comrade Stalin, you’ve just won the Super Bowl! Where are you going?” Well, it wasn’t Disneyland; “I’m goin’ to Manchuria!”

And like I said earlier, he was in no hurry to get there, because every day the Japanese were weaker. The B-29s ran the Tokyo route more often than commuter flights from SFO to LAX. The last of the island fortresses were falling — and instead of reinforcing the Manchurian Front, the Japanese Imperial Command, in its usual psychotic state of total denial about the Soviet threat, was actually sucking every decent infantry and armor unit away from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria and feeding them into the hopeless war against the US advance toward the Home Islands.
This was a campaign between two great empires — both gone now, it occurs to me — but one, the Soviet, was at the absolute top of its game, and the other, Imperial Japan, was dying and insane. There were still about 700,000 Japanese and Korean troops holding the line in Manchuria, but they weren’t exactly Samurai-quality. A full 25% of the Kwantung Army’s strength was guys who’d been drafted in the two weeks preceding the Soviet attack. We’re talking about an army that looked like John Bell Hood at Atlanta, missing an arm and a leg and not top-drawer material to start with. The amazing thing is that the Japanese troops knew it themselves. They were the dregs, dragged out of junior-high classrooms and old-age homes and shelters for the hopelessly useless, and they called themselves names that sound like a Heavy Metal amateur night at your local bar: “human bullets,” “Manchurian orphans,” “Victim Units” and “The Pulverized.” (If you don’t believe me, check out Philip Jowett’s book, The Japanese Army 1931–1945, page 22.) Their official strength was 24 divisions, but that translated to about eight divisions of effectives, with only about 1200 light armored vehicles.

Against that was a force that God would have made excuses to avoid facing in the Octagon: 1,600,000 battle-hardened Soviet troops with 28,000 artillery tubes and 5000 tanks — and more than 3000 of those were T-34s, the best tank in the world at that time. (You tank nuts who disagree with that assessment can send me all the King Tiger sites you want; it was a nice blueprint but they tried it against the T-34s and it lost, and I kinda go by success in battle, not bluebook-style stats.)

The Red Army had learned a lot about logistics since 1941, and some of the moves they made to prepare for the assault on Manchuria were pretty amazing. Instead of trying to transfer thousands of tanks across the whole Eurasian landmass from Eastern Europe to Manchuria, the Russian armored units like the 6th Guards Army, one of Zhukov’s best, left their tanks in Czechoslovakia before the engines even had time to cool down, hopped into troop trains and crossed the continent to meet up with fresh new tanks, shipped from factories east of the Urals, when they arrived on the Manchurian front. By August 1945, the Russian supply lines were running so smoothly that they could ship pretty much anything anywhere it was needed. Like Soviet armies always did, they took logistics and surprise both dead seriously, so they ran up to 30 trains a day across Asia, but I should say “a night,” because to keep tactical surprise they ran all those trains at night. (If you want a great detailed account of the prep the Soviets took, read Col. David Glantz’s book The Soviet Strategic Offensive in Manchuria, 1945.)

The combination of logistical superiority and tactical surprise gave the Red Army commanders a lot of flexibility when they looked at the maps of Japanese-held Manchuria. First, a little geography: Manchuria is sort of like a box, with high mountains and big rivers along the borders, sloping down to flatland in the middle. The middle part of the province was the prize; that’s where the fertile land, the population and the industry was concentrated. Most of the Japanese defensive forces were concentrated on the east side of the box, where they faced off against the Soviets along a north-south line following the Ussuri River from Khabarovsk down to Vladivostok.

The Kwantung Army commanders expected the Russian push to come from the east, so the Russians came from the west — through the Gobi desert and over the Khingan Mountains:

Like all advances that work better than they’re supposed to, this one stalled because it literally ran out of fuel. Those T-34s got so far inside Kwantung Army lines in the first few days that the Soviet Air Force had to use DC-3s to bring in gas. By that time, it was pretty clear that the cannon fodder the Japanese had left to man the trenches had had enough, so the problem wasn’t so much defeating the Axis forces as beating the American naval task forces down to the Korean Peninsula, the one big strategic objective the Red Army hadn’t yet overrun. They made it about halfway down the Peninsula, and then had to stop because a US force had made a landing at Inchon — yup, the same Inchon that MacArthur was going to make famous a few years later.

And that’s how the Korean Peninsula came to be divvied up halfway down.

The Tibetans were never peaceful people at all

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) notes that The Tibetans were never peaceful people at all:

They were one of the most warlike peoples in Central Asia and even conquered the Chinese capital, Chang’An, in their heyday.

That was in the glory days of the 7th through 9th centuries though. By the time of the Red Chinese invasion the Tibetan army was no challenge for them:

Their army was mostly cavalry, a lot of it still armed with swords. There were about 200 artillery pieces and about that many machine guns to defend the whole country.

In fact, the Brits had already invaded Tibet a few decades earlier. The Brits, up to the mid-20th-century, were stone killers, the War Nerd likes to point out, and they invaded Tibet in 1904 more-or-less out of boredom:

The guy who ran that invasion, Francis Younghusband, was quite a piece of work himself. One of those India-born Brits, who were generally fiercer and crazier even than the homegrown English. And he had that other feature that makes for a really ruthless conqueror: he was, like his biographers say, “deeply religious.” If you hear that about a guy who’s about to invade your country, go down to the basement, hoard lots of water and canned goods, and try to make yourself invisible for the next few years, because it’s not going to be pretty.

Younghusband marched into Tibet in December 1903 with a force of Sikhs and Gurkhas — pretty scary mix, like rottweiler plus pit bull. And the Gurkhas were definitely the pit bulls in that pair. Sikhs are very tough but not blood-crazy. The Gurkhas were not only devoted lovers of knife-work, especially on POWs, but ancient enemies of the Tibetans. It didn’t take much to push them to a massacre. The Tibetans knew the British were dangerous and tried not to resist at all. But as the British force pushed farther and farther into Tibet, the local commanders decided to resist. That was a mistake. This wasn’t Tony Blair’s cool Britannia they were dealing with. On March 31, 1904, Younghusband encountered a Tibetan militia force of about 2000 guarding a pass near Gyantse. He must have had a hard time keeping a straight face or wiping the drool from his lips, thinking about the medals he’d get for this one, because the Tibetans were armed either with spears and swords or at best with matchlock muskets. That’s right: the kind of 17th-century firearm that won’t fire unless you apply the smouldering wick to the firing pan. Younghusband decided to play with the poor fuckers he was facing. He said, “My friends, my friends, what’s all this hostility? Why dees paranoia? Here, I’ll tell MY soldiers to take the bullets out of their rifles, and you tell YOUR soldiers to put out the flame of their matchlocks.” The Tibetans, who had no idea that Younghusband’s troops had modern repeating rifles, put out their matchlocks. Younghusband then ordered his troops to open fire. 1300 Tibetans were killed, with almost no British casualties.

Ronald Chevalier

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Something about Ronald Chevalier just resonates:

(Yes, that’s Jemaine Clement. He’s playing a role from the upcoming Gentlemen Broncos.)

New Geometric Keyboard

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Kevin Kelly has stumbled on a new geometric keyboard from Axis, which uses hexagonal keys in a honeycomb pattern to arrange notes ordered according to a harmonic table.

Why the Megapixel Race Needs to End

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Charlie Sorrel explains that megapixels, like megahertz before them, are the big consumer swindle of the camera world.:

Fast ISO

ISO ratings on digital cameras mimic the different sensitivities of film, but they don’t quite work in the same way. The same information falls onto the same sensor, but at higher sensitivity settings the signal is simply amplified to make things brighter. Unfortunately, any noise is also amplified, which is why we normally see noisy images at high ISO settings, despite improving noise-reduction software in cameras.

And the more megapixels on a sensor, the more noise; those pixels are so small and so close together, especially on the tiny sensors in compact cameras, that information bleeds between them, a kind of visual cross-talk. Nikon was the first company to have the cojones to release a flagship DSLR, the D3, with “only” 12.1 megapixels. This relatively low count, coupled with a full-frame sensor, means that the D3 can shoot amazingly low-noise photos at ISO 6400, with pretty good images all the way up to ISO 25600. This has left Canon, still focusing on pixels, scrambling to catch up.

Burst Mode

Almost every compact camera comes with a video mode, and many shoot in high definition. If pixel counts were to top out at, say, 8 million, the camera’s processors will soon be powerful enough to shoot video at full resolution. Why do you care? Because if a camera can grab frames that fast, shutter lag (still a problem on compacts), blinking subjects and forced smiles are all moot: You simply review the burst of images and pick the one you want. Sure, this will fill up your memory cards quicker, but that’s just another reason to keep pixel counts low. Casio already does something similar with its Exilim EX-F1, which shoots 6-megapixel images at 60 fps.

New Push to Lower the Drinking Age Clashes With Teen Driving Safety

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Recently, more than 100 college presidents signed the Amethyst Initiative , calling for “an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year old drinking age.” But this new push to re-lower the drinking age clashes with teen driving safety:

For 24 years, the U.S. government, through its control of road construction money, has enforced a minimum drinking age of 21 years old. States that refused to comply can lose 10% of their federal road money. Since 1988, all 50 states have toed the line, enforcing a prohibition against drinking for people between 18 and 21 who are in nearly every other way legal adults.

During roughly the same period, from 1982 to about 1994, the number of annual alcohol-related traffic fatalities among people ages 16 to 20 began to decline from about 5,200 a year in 1982 to about 2,100 in 1994, according to data from the U.S. government’s Fatal Accident Reporting System. Since the mid-1990s, the number of alcohol-related crashes among drivers ages 16 to 20 has leveled out. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, using its own counting methods to tally crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol levels above the current 0.08 legal limit, says that in 1996, 1,359 drivers between ages 16 and 20 died in alcohol-related crashes. In 2006, 1,350 teen drivers died in crashes linked to drinking.

If our actual concern is college-age kids drinking and driving, then it seems like our focus should be on drinking and driving — not one or the other.

For instance, in a city with well-developed mass transit, like New York, how dangerous is it to let 18-year-olds drink (legally)?

If you know college kids are going to drink, and your chief concern is drunk-driving, why not license residence halls to operate pubs? Keep an eye on drinking and know that no one is going to drive home drunk.

But that’s assuming our concern really is drunk-driving.