He is a very knowledgeable man

June 29th, 2018

Óscar Tabárez has turned around tiny Uruguay’s soccer team by treating his players as if he were a housemaster at Eton or Harrow:

Just as any British boarding school, Tabárez has long said his primary goal was to mold well-rounded men. He imparts lessons about respect, decency, and the importance of good manners. At Tabárez’s request, Uruguay might be the only team in Russia to have its squad of millionaires share bedrooms for the duration of the tournament. And they drink tea constantly.


Other managers at the World Cup simply coach the senior squad. But Tabárez became the dean of the entire men’s national program, from the Under-15s to the team that travels to the World Cup. Every member of those squads would come to train under Tabárez at the national training center, where he could shape their development as players and as people.

First, the setting had to be right. The Celeste Complex outside Montevideo needed to foster a sense of heritage—and, unlike Eton, Tabárez didn’t have a long line of British prime ministers to point to. So he started by commissioning a giant Uruguayan crest for the lobby. He decorated the walls with black-and-white photos of players who had fought for the team’s colors before. And outside, he ordered the federation to install a fogón, a traditional Uruguayan grill that doubled as a campfire, where he could sit with the players and tell stories at night.

Tabárez’s professorial air is no coincidence. Before he went into management full time, he was an elementary-school teacher. To this day, he likes to educate his players on history, geography, the arts, and anything else he happens to find interesting in the moment. This too is part of the Tabárez curriculum.

“One time we played in Japan and we were talking about how we were surprised by the culture,” said Forlán, an analyst for Telemundo Deportes at the World Cup. “So after dinner, the Maestro got the lads together and we listened to him talk about Japan, its history, everything that has happened in the country. He is a very knowledgeable man.”

Tabárez organizes trips for young players to attend museums and the theater. He engages his players on subjects as diverse as classical music and botany. “What Tabárez knows about plants is tremendous,” Claudio Pagani, who runs Uruguay’s national training complex, has said.

Tabárez is also a stickler for good manners. Many a Uruguayan star has run afoul of his no-muddy shoes rule. And there are strict rules about not leaving plates on the table or putting feet up on chairs. The use of cellphones is prohibited at breakfast, lunch, and during team talks or meetings.

Target the terrorist, not the engine block or tires

June 28th, 2018

It’s the season for outdoor festivals, concerts, and Independence Day celebrations, Greg Ellifritz notes, and all of those events are vulnerable to terrorist vehicle run-down attacks:

I did an informal poll of the 5000+ people who follow me on Facebook last week. I asked all my police readers to send me comments about what tactics and security precautions their police agencies were utilizing to specifically combat terrorist vehicle attacks. The single most common response was I received was “NOTHING.”


When I asked my question about police vehicle terrorism countermeasures, one officer described a rather unique way of acquiring large vehicles to block roadways. He contacted a local heavy equipment rental store. In exchange for some advertising at the event, the rental facility brought in a bunch of backhoes and bulldozers. The police placed these heavy pieces of equipment at key intersections they were trying to block off. They treated the parked heavy equipment like a “touch a truck” event for children. What young boy wouldn’t want to play around on a parked bulldozer?


Rifled slugs are the best weapon for penetrating vehicles during a ramming attack. The slugs will penetrate deeper into most vehicles than buckshot, handgun rounds, or even 5.56mm rifles.

Officers deployed as interceptors should use their shotguns to stop a terrorist attack vehicle if a physical blockade with the intercepting police cars is unsuccessful. Officers should be instructed to shoot through the windshield, side windows, or door panels to target the driver. It requires fewer shots to stop the driver than would be necessary to disable the vehicle with gunfire. Target the terrorist, not the engine block or tires.


Since many previous attackers have utilized large trucks in their attacks, I would recommend that the officers stationed as blocking/ramming vehicles use large city trucks (like dump trucks or garbage trucks) for this purpose. A police cruiser is not likely to stop a large box truck by ramming it.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war

June 27th, 2018

The U.S. military has extensive combat experience — in small wars — but it may not know what to expect from war in the Fourth Industrial Revolution:

Schwab’s book has generated some fascinating discussions about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will affect governance, business, and society. But surprisingly little of this discussion seems to have penetrated the U.S. military and influenced its thinking about future wars. What will it mean to fight wars in a world characterized by the Fourth Industrial Revolution — and what will it take to win?

Just as it will disrupt and reshape society, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war. The fundamental nature of war may remain constant, as Clausewitz argued so many years ago, but the ways in which wars are fought constantly shift as societies evolve. The synergies among the elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are already transfiguring the battlefields of the 21st century, in several different ways:

Space and cyber. These two relatively new domains emerged from the third industrial revolution, but have never been fully contested during wartime. There are no lessons learned documents, no historic battles to study, no precedent for how warfare in these domains might play out — and no way to know how cripplingly destructive it could be to modern society. And any battles in those domains will also hinder — and could even debilitate — the U.S. military’s ability to fight in the more traditional domains of land, sea, and air, since vital communications and other support systems today depend almost entirely on space satellites and computer networks.

Artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, autonomy, and robotics. Some of the most prominent leaders in these fields are publicly warning about the dangers in an unconstrained environment. Military operations enabled by these technologies, and especially by artificial intelligence, may unfold so quickly that effective responses require taking humans out of the decision cycle. Letting intelligent machines make traditionally human decisions about killing other humans is fraught with moral peril, but may become necessary to survive on the future battlefield, let alone to win. Adversaries will race to employ these capabilities and the powerful operational advantages they may confer.

The return of mass and the defensive advantage. T.X. Hammes convincingly argues that the U.S. military has traded mass for precision in recent decades, enabling smaller forces using guided weapons to fight successfully. But the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will enable a wide range of actors to acquire masses of inexpensive capabilities that they never could before, especially through advances in additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing). That means the U.S. military must move away from today’s small numbers of exorbitantly expensive “exquisite” weapons systems toward smaller, smarter, and cheaper weapons — especially masses of autonomous drones with swarming destructive power. Hammes also argues that such swarms “may make defense the dominant form of warfare,” because they will make “domain denial much easier than domain usage.”

A new generation of high tech weapons. The United States and some of its potential adversaries are incorporating the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution into a range of innovative new weapons systems, including railguns, directed energy weapons, hyper-velocity projectiles, and hypersonic missiles. These new weapons will dramatically increase the speed, range, and destructive power of conventional weapons beyond anything previously imaginable. However, the U.S. military remains heavily over-invested in legacy systems built upon late 20th century technologies which compete against these newest technologies for scarce defense dollars. Here, rising powers such as China have a distinct new mover advantage. They can incorporate the very newest technologies without the huge financial burdens of supporting of older systems and the military-industrial constituencies that promote them (and, for authoritarian states, without adhering to democratic norms of transparency and civilian oversight). This challenge is severely exacerbated by the broken U.S. acquisition system, in which the development timelines for new weapons systems extends across decades.

The unknown x-factor. Secret technologies developed by friend and foe alike will likely appear for the first time during the next major war, and it is impossible to predict how they will change battlefield dynamics. They could render current weapons inoperable or obsolete, or offer a surprise war-winning capability to one side. And it is entirely possible that technologies secretly guarded by one side or the other for surprise use on the first day of the next war may have already been compromised. The usual fog of war will become even denser, presenting all sorts of unanticipated, unfamiliar challenges to U.S. forces.

The emerging characteristics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution suggest we are on the precipice of profound changes to the character of war. While the next major conflict will unquestionably exhibit all of war’s enduring human qualities, its battles, weapons, and tactics may well be entirely unprecedented. Military officers today may be marching, largely unaware, to the end of a long and comfortably familiar era of how to fight a major war.

The study of warfare has always heavily relied upon scrutinizing past battles to discern the lessons of those as yet unfought. But in today’s world, that important historical lens should be augmented by one that focuses on the future. Fictional writings about future war can help military thinkers break free of the mental constraints imposed by linear thinking and identify unexpected dynamics, threats, and challenges of the future battlefield. Stories such as Ghost Fleet, Automated Valor, Kill Decision, and many others all can help creative military leaders imagine the unimaginable, and visualize how the battles of the next war may play out in ways the lens of the past fails to illuminate. This will help ensure the first war of the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not result from a failure of imagination, as the 9/11 attacks have been so memorably described.

Where education was tried, it turned out to be futile

June 26th, 2018

Gwern reviews McNamara’s Folly — which is about one particular sub-folly, The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War:

It’s not well-known, but one of the most consistent long-term sponsors of research into intelligence has been the US military. This is because, contrary to lay wisdom that “IQ only measures how well you do on a test” or book-learning, cognitive ability predicts performance in all occupations down to the simplest manual labor; this might seem surprising, but there are a lot of ways to screw up a simple job and cause losses outside one’s area.


Gregory’s book collates stories about what happened when the US military was forced to ignore these facts it knew perfectly well in the service of Robert McNamara & Lyndon Johnson’s “Project 100,000” idea to kill two birds with one stone by drafting recruits who were developmentally disabled, unhealthy, evil, or just too dumb to be conscripted previously: it would provide the warm bodies needed for Vietnam, and use the military to educate the least fortunate and give them a leg up as part of the Great Society’s faith in education to eliminate individual differences and refute the idea that intelligence is real.

It did not go well.

The main value of the book is providing many concrete examples of what a lack of intelligence can mean (useful for people who spend their whole lives in high-IQ bubbles and have no idea of what that means; more examples in Gottfredson’s “Why g Matters: The Complexity of Everyday Life“), the difficulty of implementing social welfare programs (McNamara’s education fantasies never materialized for lack of funds & the enlistees not being smart enough to qualify in the first place), and a forceful denunciation of the harms & cruelty committed by a willful blindness to the fact of individual differences, harms which fall on those least able to understand or withstand them. (“…He was perpetually angry and aggrieved, and he talked back to the sergeants. When they cursed him and threatened him, he would say angrily, ‘I just wanna go home! Why don’t you let me go home?’”) The phrase “banality of evil” comes repeatedly to mind in examining the ramifications of McNamara’s blank-slatism through the military system.


Gregory describes how many would be sent to remedial training, repeatedly failing the exercise requirements because they didn’t understand how to correctly execute actions; in swinging from monkey bars, they would try to swing one bar at a time, coming to a halt each time; in running an obstacle course, they would have to pause in front of each arrow and think about what an arrow meant before understanding which direction to go, costing them too much time to ever beat the deadline; they would insist on throwing grenades like a baseball directly to the target, not understanding that throwing up in a parabola would gain them the necessary distance; and in the mile run, they would sprint as fast as possible at the start and be surprised when they became utterly exhausted long before the finish line. One mutinied from the drills, under the impression that being sent to the ‘stockade’ meant ‘going home’, until it was explained to him that the word meant ‘jail’.


Where education was tried, it turned out to be futile, and those who did train them found them too slow or too dangerous to trust. A man assigned to t-shirt printing shop was unable to understand alphabetization and had to pick out each letter for printing by scanning through the box one by one; a sergeant trained two men to drive military trucks somewhat successfully but they were too dangerous drivers to be used and were transferred out; another simply forgot to get back on the helicopters after a village search forcing a second retrieval mission; another was lucky enough to be sheltered by his sergeant in mess hall duties (until a mortar hit it, killing him); one played a prank on his squad mates, tossing a defused grenade at them two times, but on the third throw forgot to disable it; another wandered away from an ambush and wandering back, was killed by his squad; while yet another almost shot his commander with a LAW rocket when startled; another did kill his commander while on guard duty when he forgot to ask for the password before shooting; another forgot to put his rifle safety on (shooting a squad mate in the foot, who died); another tripped a booby-trap while not paying attention; another was captured by the NVA and went insane, screaming endlessly and defecating on himself while being beaten… It is unsurprising that many of them would be made to ‘walk point’, or ejected somehow, in addition to the constant insults and abuse – a new recruit was told the NVA would kill them all in a few hours, went insane from fear, climbed up a flag pole, and jumped off it; and another was beaten to death in Marine basic training.

(McNamara may have had good intentions, but in the social sciences, good results follow good intentions much as the rain follows the plow; which is to say, they do mostly by accident, and we find it easier to tailor our preferences to the results than vice-versa.)

Only a few of the stories, like the recruit who was confused by having two left boots and two right boots but no complete pairs of boots, or the one who thought semen was urine, or the extremely-short man who received an honorable discharge & medical pension for contracting the terrible disability of ‘dwarfism’ in a war zone, or the draftee who tried to commit suicide “by drinking a bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo” could be considered all that funny. Most are painful to read. (But educational, again, especially if you are in a high-IQ bubble and have a lack of empathy for what low intelligence means.) Once you’ve read some of these anecdotes, other anecdotes, like Scott Alexander’s experiences in Haiti no longer seem like such a stretch.

A commenter added some useful details:

As to the McNamara experiment, according to the RAND report on this program, they did not accept men in the bottom 10% of the IQ spectrum. The anecdotes you cite refer to men in the 11-30% range. Of course, some sub-10% men were no doubt accidentally enlisted since the recruitment was based on only 1 IQ test. I wouldn’t expect that many of these recruits were “funny looking kids.” The clearest mistake of this program was allowing guys into combat who were so dysfunctional as to be dangerous to their comrades. But, the idea that it was a priori absurd to recruit guys at the 20th percentile (about 85 IQ), is a post hoc judgment and probably not even rigorously demonstrable (it is not clear from the 250 page RAND report). Combat efficacy increases as the soldier’s IQ increases with no ceiling. The question is whether there are thresholds that matter. The only clear useful threshold is the point at which lower IQ men become too dangerous to their comrades. Another threshold might be the point at which they become too financially burdensome or too ineffective against the enemy (ie, their mortality rate is higher than the enemy’s).

In World War II, the minimum IQ permissible was even lower than it was for this experimental program. They didn’t recruit 350,000 sub-89 IQ soldiers; they recruited millions of them.

Gun violence goes unreported by residents

June 25th, 2018

This Atlantic piece on the normalization of gun violence in poor communities seems like a decent political Roschach test:

Ralph A. Clark remembers the first time he went for a ride-along with police. He was in Baltimore, and a teenager had been killed. He says what shocked him was not the sight of the body on the street, but the lack of reaction from people at the scene — “as if nothing had happened.”


Clark noted that although much of the focus on gun violence in the U.S. is on mass shootings, they account for about 1 percent of all shooting deaths. The overwhelming majority of gun crimes are committed with illegally obtained firearms. Not only that: very few individuals are responsible for most of those gun crimes, he said. But the vast majority of persistent, ongoing gun violence goes unreported by residents who live in communities that are often poor and under-served by police.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the time a gun is fired, there’s no call to 911,” Clark said, “which means there’s no police response, which means that gun violence becomes normalized in these communities.”

Clark is the president and CEO of ShotSpotter:

Clark’s company’s technology is used in 100 U.S. cities, as well as in Cape Town, South Africa. It costs cities an annual subscription of between $65,000 and $85,000 per square mile per year. Smaller cities can get the service for about $200,000, but for larger ones like Chicago, which uses ShotSpotter to track gunfire across 100 square miles, the cost is about $5 million annually.

Heuristics that have worked in the past

June 24th, 2018

Gore Burnelli explains how Nassim Taleb changed his mind about religion;

I used to unquestioningly accept the atheistic framing of the theism vs atheism debate, which presents religion as a collection of factual statements aimed at “explaining” what the world is and how it got that way, providing made up answers before we had science to find out the truth.


What Taleb brought to the table were the following ideas:

  • The quality of your decisions isn’t a function of the amount of articulated knowledge you posses. Having more factual information doesn’t automatically make you a better decision maker.
  • The utility of religion doesn’t come from believing the stories literally, so whatever it does, it doesn’t make sense to judge it on the basis of treating it as if it were trying to be an explanatory science.

I find Taleb’s framing much more convincing, because it provides actual reasons as to why you can’t simply say “religion is obsolete, we will use science to guide our decision making from now on”.

Life constantly makes us take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We can’t simply compute every possible outcome, and decide with perfect accuracy what the path forward is. We have to use heuristics. Religion is seen as a record of heuristics that have worked in the past.


It’s telling that while Christianity has been around for 2000 years, every modern revolutionary ideology (from international communism to national socialism) has failed to produce a self-sustaining community.

He couldn’t carry on later

June 23rd, 2018

There’s a scene in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot that left 14-year-old Nassim Nicholas Taleb obsessed with the author:

Prince Myshkin was giving this story. Actually, it was autobiographical for Dostoyevsky.

He said he was going to be put to death. As they woke him up and were taking him to the execution place, he decided to live the last few minutes of his life with intensity. He devoured life, it was so pleasurable, and promised himself, if he survives, to enjoy every minute of life the same way.

And he survived. In fact, it was a simulacrum of an execution, and Dostoyevsky… effectively that says the guy survived. The lesson was he no longer did that. It was about the preferences of the moment. He couldn’t carry on later. He forgot about the episode. That marked me from Dostoyevsky when I was a kid, and then became obsessed with Dostoyevsky.

Sophistication is actually a burden

June 22nd, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is not that ascetic:

One day, I went with someone to dinner. I wanted go to a taverna, and, “Oh, no. We’ve got to go to a better restaurant.” So I ended up having a meal, which you have to realize the look of a meal in a three-star Michelin restaurant. We sit down. There’s farming people, microscopic organs. It’s work, we’re doing work. You’re concentrating, afraid, biting too much, and you get all this sophistication for nothing.

Then I realize that as people get rich, they get controlled by the preferences, they’re controlled by the outside.

It was $200 a person. I said, “OK, I’d rather pay $200 for a pizza and would pay $6.95 for the same meal except that by social pressure.” This is how we use controlling preferences. It’s the skin in the game. You discover that your preferences are… People are happier in small quarters. You have neighbors around you and narrow streets.

I’d rather eat with someone else a sandwich, provided it’s good bread — not this old bread — than eat at a fancy restaurant. It’s the same thing I discovered little by little. Even from a hedonic standpoint, sophistication is actually a burden.

Aside from that, there is something also that, from the beginning, you realize that hedonism — that pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake — there’s something about it that gives me anxiety. On the other hand, doing something productive — not productive in the sense of virtual signaling, but something that fits a sense of honor — you feel good.

We’re gossip machines

June 21st, 2018

We shouldn’t turn our backs on social media, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, because social media is Lindy:

Lindy means that there are things that are robust in time, like some basins that are robust in time.

OK, the book is 500 years old under this form, and maybe several thousand years old under a different form. So Lindy means that they’re robust in time, and they come back. Until they disappear, they tend to come back.

Now, it so happens that at no point in history, except during the postwar period, did people receive news without being conveyors of news. That nuclear family, where people — pop, mom, 2.2 kids, one dog — are watching TV, receiving information and not transmitting.

The solitude of big city blocks — that was the idea. Well, it’s gone because traditionally, you get the news and you purvey the news. So you’re a recipient and a purveyor, with a little bit of alteration in the process.

There, we get back to the social media. I knew very quickly to learn to identify that there was a false alert yesterday in Saudi Arabia, as if there was a coup or something. You can figure out that there are some people you can trust, others you can’t trust. Those you can’t trust, you quickly identify them — those who cry wolf all the time.

Social media is bringing us back to a naturalistic environment because, say, in Athens, what was the newsroom?

The newsroom was the barbershop — you go in, you give information, and you take information. Or a fish market — you go in, you get fish, you get information and give information. And funerals, where you go in and chat, fake like you’re crying, and then you’re getting all the gossip.

We’re gossip machines. Social media is great in that respect. I love it.

These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us

June 20th, 2018

What’s the best thing to do on an airplane? Twitter fight, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says:

I tried to get in a fight with an Indian fellow who’s repeating that story that we’re refusing expertise at all. Remember that cartoon? They’re imitating that cartoon in The New Yorker that shows people with the sign that they don’t need the expertise of the pilot.

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

You cannot compare a macroeconomist to a pilot. There are two classes of experts. Belly dancers are experts at belly dancing. The people who steal radios from cars are experts at stealing radios from cars. Dentists are experts at dentistry. I’m not sure macroeconomists know anything about anything.

Because there’s no feedback, so we don’t know. Maybe they know. Policymakers or people in the State Department, I’m not sure they know anything because there’s no feedback. We definitely know that a carpenter is an expert at carpentry, you see?

Look at both sides of the scissors

June 19th, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is housing six Syrian refugees:

Let me tell you, the Ba’aths have indoctrinated people to the point of maybe no return. People understand that Assad is not a god, but I bet you a lot of Iraqis would like Saddam to come back after what they saw.

The idea that they all have regarded as saying — if you were on the ground, you don’t have this theoretical thing. “This guy is an asshole.” OK, fine. You’ve got to realize what scissors. You got to look at both sides of the scissors.

That when you have civil war you have two groups fighting, so you take the least asshole becomes someone good in your eyes, but you’re only analyzing one portion.

Assad, his father blew up my house. My grandfather was a member of parliament, and voted for pro-Israeli candidate Gemayel, and he came in and blew up our house. So I have a hatred for Assad’s family, but at the same time I just realize I have a bigger hatred for the jihadis and for the clients of Obama.

This is how we can analyze it, comparatively, not naively like one-sided.

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent

June 18th, 2018

Is Singapore antifragile?

Singapore has size going for it. You see that we’re talking about a city-state.

Who’s gonna invade it? One thing I’ve learned from history, particularly the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians don’t really have an army or an empire. At some point they had some army, but you might say it’s not economically viable. Why? When you come to invade them, unless you’re Nebuchadnezzar, and supposedly the history books say that he was very nasty, but then fact-checking take place. The genetics don’t actually show what really may have happened.

A guy comes in, very bloodthirsty, comes to you, and you tell him, “Listen, what do you want? You kill us all, you get nothing. Land is not interesting. What are you going to get? We’ll give you 5 percent. What do you want, 5 percent of something or 100 percent of nothing?”

That’s how the Phoenicians operated. Someone would come in. They had a hiccup with Alexander, one pound higher than a hiccup with Alexander.

They had an ego problem on both sides, but other than that, it worked very well as a system.

[The Seleucids did conquer the Phoenicians, right?]

The Phoenicians? No, the Seleucids came in, they said, “OK.” The system, at the time, was patronage. You come in, you’re a vassal state.

You guys here, you don’t understand. I live in New York City, so I have two options. One, pay the state — with all of this now, it’s going to go 50-some percent taxes — and you almost get nothing. Or, you can go to mafia now and give them 2 percent, and you get protection.

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent. That’s exactly what happened. Think about the defense budget if it were run by the mafia.

The guy would come in, and the system at the time was the system of — when you say “conquer,” the imperial methods everywhere, including the Ottomans, before them the Romans, before them the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies had more integration.

The whole technique was, you come in… And remember that government role, the GDP was, at the turn of the century in France, 5 percent, OK, last century. So having been, you’re not part of anything, you’re just paying taxes to someone you’ll never see — that was the thing. The integration usually was through commerce, not through military conquest.

The idea of Singapore, someone invaded — let’s say Malaysia decides to take over Singapore. What are they going to do with that? They’ve got nothing. It’s much better for you to go to Singapore, tell them, “We want 2 percent.” Or “We want 10 percent.” And then they will break it down to 3 percent.

Some religions are religions

June 17th, 2018

Some religions are religions, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains, while some religions are just bodies of laws:

Judaism and Islam are not religions like Christianity is a religion, the exact opposite. Let me explain.

The foundation of Judaism was law, but it was minuscule, it was for a tribe. It was law: “you should not go and do this or that.” Then in Islam, the same word, din, in Arabic means law in Hebrew, but not in Syriac, which is a Semitic language used by Christians, where they use two different words, one nomos, law, and one, din, for religion. Why is it so?

Islam and Judaism are laws. It’s law — there’s no distinction between holy and profane — whereas Christianity is not law. Why isn’t it law? A simple reason — you remember the Christ said what is for Caesar and is not for Caesar? It’s because the Romans had the laws. You’re not going to bring the law because they already have the law, and very sophisticated law at that, the Romans.

With Christianity was born the separation of church and state. It’s secular, so it’s effectively a secular religion that says that when you go home, you do whatever you want. Of course, Christianity, they got to have theocracies, a few, but it was all cosmetic.

For example, when you have the codes, whether Theodosius or Justinian Code — you take Justinian’s code, you look at it. You see, just cosmetically, he said you were blessed by the grace of God , et cetera — two pages.

The rest is intact, the Roman law. When you talk about religion, when people are talking about Salafi Islam — it’s not a religion in the sense that Mormon Christianity is a religion. It is a body of laws. It’s a legal system. It’s a political system. It’s a legal system.

So people are very confused when they talk about religion. They’re comparing things that are not the same. Effectively, when I say that I’m Christian, it’s very different from saying I am something else.

The same weakness that I see sometimes describe ethnicity. Being Greek Orthodox is more ethnicity than something else, or being Serbian versus Croatian. Sometimes religion becomes an identity, sometimes law, sometimes very universal.

And sometimes you have pagan tendencies hidden under some kind of Taqiya that you see in the north, you have the monastic religions. Comparing religions naively is silly, it’s heuristic and leads to things like saying, “Well, he has a right to exercise his faith.”

Some faiths should not have the right to be exercised, like Salafis or extreme jihadism because they’re not religions. They’re a legal system. They’re like a political party that wants to ban all other political parties. If you go with that, you’re repeating certain mistakes.

We’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany

June 16th, 2018

The point is that we are imperfect, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains:

And the way you can function best is accepting we’re imperfect. It’s why we have theology. You want perfection, you can find it in theosis and find a lot of things.

Incidentally, to go back to the idea of being orthodox, theosis is a way for us humans to rise above our condition as human, and it’s given to us openness, this equal opportunity for anyone. If you consider that we are imperfect, and the way you can arise, this sense of honor, by doing duties or self-sacrifice, then you have a lot of risk in the game.

It’s taking risks for the sake of becoming more human. Like Christ. He took risks and he suffered. Of course, it was a bad outcome, but you don’t have to go that far. That was the idea.

I didn’t talk about theosis. I just mentioned it in one footnote. It’s like we understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.

Some people take risks and some people labor in the fields. You have the option of doing either one or the other. But my point is you should never have someone rise in society if he or she is not taking risks for the sake of others, period. That’s one rule.

Re-creating the first flip-flop

June 15th, 2018

The flip-flop was created 100 years ago — in the pre-digital age:

Many engineers are familiar with the names of Lee de Forest, who invented the amplifying vacuum tube, or John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, who invented the transistor. Yet few know the names of William Eccles and F.W. Jordan, who applied for a patent for the flip-flop 100 years ago, in June 1918. The flip-flop is a crucial building block of digital circuits: It acts as an electronic toggle switch that can be set to stay on or off even after an initial electrical control signal has ceased. This allows circuits to remember and synchronize their states, and thus allows them to perform sequential logic.

The flip-flop was created in the predigital age as a trigger relay for radio designs. Its existence was popularized by an article in the December 1919 issue of The Radio Review [PDF], and two decades later, the flip-flop would find its way into the Colossus computer [PDF], used in England to break German wartime ciphers, and into the ENIAC in the United States.

Modern flip-flops are built in countless numbers out of transistors in integrated circuits, but, as the centenary of the flip-flop approached, I decided to replicate Eccles and Jordan’s original circuit as closely as possible.

This circuit is built around two vacuum tubes, so I started there. Originally, Eccles and Jordan most likely used Audion tubes or British-made knock-offs. The Audion was invented by de Forest, and it was the first vacuum tube to demonstrate amplification, allowing a weak signal applied to a grid to control a much larger electrical current flowing from a filament to a plate. But these early tubes were handmade and unreliable, and it would be impractical to obtain a usable pair today.

Instead I turned to the UX201A, an improved variant of the UV201 tube that General Electric started producing in 1920. While still close in time to the original patent, the UV201 marked the beginning of vacuum-tube mass production, and a consequent leap in reliability and availability. I was able to purchase two 01A tubes for about US $35 apiece.

Flip-Flop Circuit Diagram

In a flip-flop, the tubes are cross-coupled in a careful balancing act, using pairs of resistors to control voltages. This balancing act means that turning off one tube, even momentarily, turns the second tube on and keeps the first tube off. This state of affairs continues until the second tube is turned off with a control signal, which pushes the first tube on and keeps the second tube off.

Achieving the right balance means getting the values of the resistors just right. In their laboratory, Eccles and Jordan would have used resistor decade boxes, bulky pieces of equipment that would have let them dial in resistances at different points in their circuit. For reasons of space, I decided to use fixed resistors of a similar vintage as the patent.

I was able to obtain a set of such resistors from the collection of antique radios that I’ve accumulated over the years. In the 1920s, radio manufacturing exploded, and the result is that I have quite a few early radios that are pretty nondescript and beyond repair, so I didn’t feel too bad about cannibalizing them for parts. Resistors made before 1925 were generally placed into sockets, rather than soldered into a circuit board, so extracting them wasn’t hard.

The hard part was that these resistors are very imprecise. They were handmade with a resistive carbon element held between clips in a glass enclosure. One way to get their resistance closer to the desired value is to open up the enclosure, remove the strip of carbon, make notches in it to increase its resistance, and put it back in. I adjusted several of the resistors this way, but it was too tricky to do with others, so for those I cheated a little and placed modern resistors inside the vintage glass casing.

Flip-Flop Replica

I used modern battery supplies, in order to avoid the use of the numerous wet cells that the inventors probably used. One of the issues with tube-based circuits is that a range of voltages is required. Four D cells wired in series provides the 6 volts needed for the indicator lamps and the filament of the tubes. Connecting eleven 9-V batteries in series provided the 99 V required for the tubes’ plate. A similarly constructed 63-V power supply is needed to negatively bias the tubes’ grids. Old-fashioned brass doorbell buttons let me tap a 9-V battery connection to provide the control pulses. To show the flip-flop’s state, I used sensitive antique telegraph relays that operate miniature incandescent lamps.

With a lot of trial and error and tweaking of my nearly century-old components, over the course of a year I was finally able to achieve stable operation of this venerable circuit!