Parents hate it

May 25th, 2024

Case Against Education by Bryan CaplanA reader of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education who recently caught Roland Fryer on EconTalk (Oct 2022 episode) suggested an unholy synthesis of Caplan and Fryer:

If we simply assert that it is desirable to have students master a subject, then it is at least valuable to know (if that is indeed what we know) that paying students directly to master material is much more effective than paying other people to offer free education to students who are completely unpaid in the near term for being compelled to encounter the material.

One could imagine an extreme synthesis of Caplan and Fryer that says the state is primarily interested only in teaching those skills you’ve called truly general purpose — literacy and numeracy — and to achieve student learning in these fields we have devised a system of payments to students that are contingent on reaching micro-milestones (e.g., what one might reasonably learn and demonstrate mastery of after spending 60 minutes on Khan Academy) in progress towards mastery of arithmetic, basic algebra, phonics, and reading comprehension. If students find it most cost-effective to earn those payments by subcontracting to tutors and educational coaches who help them reach these milestones (or even on-demand traditional in-class lectures if preferred), then we will primarily see the growth in supply of pedagogical methods which are most capital efficient relative to a desired learning outcome.

Caplan added that it would be better to pay periodically for continuing good scores to avoid mere cramming, and that led to this comment:

Our kids’ elementary school recently started doing cumulative testing throughout the year. Basically every week they have a test that goes back and tests on material covered earlier. I’d say maybe 80% new material, 20% old material, but that’s a pretty big test. Parents hate it, partly because they just hate having a significant test each weak, partly because they don’t have a way to help the kids prepare, and partly because kids are doing poorly on them.

In the parents defense, I think a lot of the tests are poorly constructed and have poor questions. (I think but do not know that they are mostly taking questions from prior state tests that students did poorly on, with no understanding of whether that’s because it’s a poorly phrased question or whether it was really a harder question intended to distinguish between top tier students.)

But the school administrators I think have been somewhat shocked by how little interest the parents have in what information their children have retained versus making sure their kids have good grades. In elementary school. Not even grades that will show up on a college application.

Again, in the parents defense, there has been grade inflation for so long it’s hard for 3rd or 4th grader that’s formerly a straight A student to understand suddenly routinely get B’s and C’s or worse on tests each week. And it’d be less frustrating if the people doing the testing understood something about constructing tests (if almost all of the class is failing because of the current material and not the past material, that’s almost certainly a reflection of the teacher and/or the test, not the children). But the parents weren’t really even interested in trying to continue tweaking the process. They were just worried about getting bad grades and the need to study for a test each week interfering with travel sports practices.

Parents want their children to do well, but not in the objective sense of learning and retaining more.

Ultimately, it comes down to luck

May 24th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhile working as a summer research assistant at Stanford, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he discovered another pernicious luxury belief:

I asked a housemate who was working on a start-up how he’d gotten into Stanford and what steps he was taking to build his company.

He paused for a moment and then said, “Ultimately, it comes down to luck.”

As soon as he said that, it occurred to me that this mind-set is pervasive at Yale as well — far more common than among the people I grew up around or the women and men I served with in the military. Many of my peers at Yale and Stanford would work ceaselessly. But when I’d ask them about the plans they’d implemented to get into college, or start a company, or land their dream job, they’d often suggest they just got lucky rather than attribute their success to their efforts.


A 2019 study found that people with high income and social status are the most likely to attribute success to mere luck rather than hard work.

Both luck and hard work play a role in the direction of our lives, but stressing the former at the expense of the latter doesn’t help those at or near the bottom of society. If disadvantaged people come to believe that luck is the key factor that determines success, then they will be less likely to strive to improve their lives. One study tracked more than six thousand young adults in the US at the beginning of their careers over the course of two decades, and found that those who believed that life’s outcomes are due to their own efforts as opposed to external factors became more successful in their careers and went on to attain higher earnings.


“If your sister asked you how to get into Stanford or start a company, would you shrug and say ‘I just got lucky’ or would you explain whatever it was that you actually did — ‘You have to study, sacrifice, work on the weekends, or whatever’?”

He rolled his eyes before replying, “Yeah, I get it.”

Internal Family Systems is the hot new psychotherapy

May 23rd, 2024

The Others Within Us by Robert FalconerInternal Family Systems, Scott Alexander explains, is the hot new psychotherapy:

The therapy that’s getting all the buzz, curing all the incurable patients, rocking those first few small studies. The therapy that was invented by a grizzled veteran therapist working with Patients Like You, not the out-of-touch elites behind all the other therapies. The therapy that Really Gets To The Root Of The Problem. There’s always got to be one, and now it’s IFS.


You treat your mind as containing a Self — a sort of perfect angelic intellect without any flaws or mental illnesses — and various Parts — little sub-minds with their own agendas who can sometimes occlude or overwhelm the Self. During therapy, you talk to the Parts, learn their motives, and bargain with them.


The second assumption is that everything inside your mind is part of you, and everything inside your mind is good.


The secret is: no, actually some of these things are literal demons.

At least this is what I take from The Others Within Us, by Robert Falconer, a veteran IFS therapist.


The first N times they ran into this kind of thing, the IFS therapists said that surely this was some good-albeit-traumatized Part of the patient’s unconscious, which had spun a crazy metaphorical story and needed to be bargained with and brought back to the Self. But it kept happening. The demons’ stories were surprisingly consistent. Finally, some of the IFS therapists would tell their therapist friends — look, this sounds crazy, but sometimes it seems like some of our patients have demons.

And the therapist friends would answer: “Oh, you too?”


To hear Falconer tell it, one of psychotherapy’s big crises is that veteran therapists and psychiatrists keep noticing the demons, keep talking about it in their isolated silos, but nobody’s ever blown the lid off the whole thing and made it public.

(And it’s not just therapists. One of my favorite stories in the book was that of Reverend John Nevius, a sober-minded Protestant missionary in late 1800s China. He learned that the Chinese mostly appreciated Christianity for its ability to cast out demons, and that they expected his help with this task. After great reluctance, he agreed, and was surprised to find himself effecting miracle cures and winning converts. “After experiencing casting out demons himself, he sent circular letters to all the other missionaries in China, almost all of whom had similar experiences. Seventy percent of them had come to believe in possession and re-evaluate their faith.”)


He also falls into a trap I would describe as “has never read a pseudoscience book before, doesn’t realize what the red flags for pseudoscience are, and so collects the whole set”. We go from discussion on how the same doctors who laughed at Ignatz Semmelweiss will no doubt laugh at him, to quotes about science progressing funeral by funeral, to that one story about how the Native Americans couldn’t even see Columbus’ ships because they were so far out of their accepted categorization schemes3. These are all prima facie reasonable things to mention if you have a revolutionary theory that you expect the establishment to reject. But it’s analogous to how, if you’ve just been accused of racism, it prima facie seems reasonable to object that you have lots of black friends. Along with prima facie reasonableness, you also benefit from having some familiarity with the discourse and avoiding the exact phrases that will make doubters maximally hostile.


In the “multiple personalities panic” of the 1980s, some psychologists started thinking multiple personality disorder was a big thing and suggesting to all their traumatized borderline female patients that they might have it. Sure enough, lots of these people developed multiple personalities. This didn’t seem fake, just weird. Eventually the American Psychiatric Association sent out a statement saying “STOP DOING THIS”, therapists stopped talking about multiple personalities with their traumatized borderline female patients, and these people mostly stopped getting multiple personality disorder (although the occasional new case crops up here and there).

Now here comes IFS, saying “hey maybe you have multiple Parts in your mind, have you considered looking for them?”

It goes through a complex, four-stage firing process that is like a speeded-up version of the miner’s approach of drilling and blasting

May 22nd, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingTwo thousand pounds, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), has long been the standard bomb size deemed necessary for destroying structures made of reinforced concrete:

If you lay explosives by hand, about two hundred pounds of well-placed C4 will do the job of a two-thousand pound bomb.


The M150 Penetrating Augmented Munition (PAM) is a portable demolition device weighing just forty-two pounds. First introduced in 1998, it is highly effective against reinforced concrete structures. When triggered it goes through a complex, four-stage firing process that is like a speeded-up version of the miner’s approach of drilling and blasting.

PAM’s first charge punches a tunnel deep into the target. The subsequent stages cut through any steel reinforcing bars, propel a powerful explosive charge into the tunnel, and detonate it. Concrete is strong in compression, but weak in tension. It is almost impossible to crush a concrete block, but comparatively easy to tear it apart from inside. That’s how PAM can replace a two-hundred pound charge of C-4, or the warhead on a 2,000-pound bomb, and demolish a reinforced concrete structure such as a bridge support measuring fifteen feet by five by six. It would take a team of seven about three hours to rig a target with C4 explosives for demolition, whereas with PAM, the same process takes about two man-minutes.

The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers

May 21st, 2024

OpenAI last week introduced its Sky voice, which sounds suspiciously like Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied AI voice in Her:

Johansson said she had been contacted by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in September 2023 about the company hiring her to provide the voice for ChatGPT 4.0. She said she declined for “personal reasons.”

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference,” Johansson said. “Mr. Altman even insinuated that the similarity was intentional, tweeting a single word ‘her’ — a reference to the film in which I voiced a chat system, Samantha, who forms an intimate relationship with a human.”

Johansson called for legislation that would protect individuals from having their name, image or likeness misappropriated. “In a time when we are all grappling with deepfakes and the protection of our own likeness, our own work, our own identities, I believe these are questions that deserve absolute clarity,” she said. “I look forward to resolution in the form of transparency and the passage of appropriate legislation to help ensure that individual rights are protected.”

Asked for comment, OpenAI sent this statement from Altman: “The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers. We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products. We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better.”

The Johansson-soundalike ChatGPT voice was the basis of a joke on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, aimed at her husband, Colin Jost, co-host of Weekend Update.

It would remain in target range for fewer than twenty seconds

May 21st, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenThe A-12, which would evolve into the SR-71, would beat Soviet advances in radar technology in three fields, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), height, speed, and stealth:

The airplane needed to fly at ninety thousand feet and at a remarkably unprecedented speed of twenty-three hundred miles per hour, or Mach 3. In the late 1950s, for an aircraft to leave the tarmac on its own power and sustain even Mach 2 flight was unheard-of. Speed offered cover. In the event that a Mach 3 aircraft was tracked by radar, that kind of speed would make it extremely difficult to shoot down. By comparison, a U-2, which flew around five hundred miles per hour, would be seen by a Soviet SA-2 missile system approximately ten minutes before it was in shoot-down range, where it would remain for a full five minutes. An aircraft traveling at Mach 3 would be seen by Soviet radar for fewer than a hundred and twenty seconds before it could be fired upon, and it would remain in target range for fewer than twenty seconds. After that twenty-second window closed, the airplane would be too close for a Soviet missile to fire on it. The missile couldn’t chase the airplane because, even though the top speed for a missile at the time was Mach 3.5, once a missile gets that far into the upper atmosphere, it loses precision and speed. Shooting down an airplane flying at three times the speed of sound at ninety thousand feet was equivalent to hitting a bullet whizzing by seventeen miles away with another bullet.

Stealth was still a very new technology:

“Radar works analogous to a bat,” Lovick explains. “The bat squeaks and the sound hits a bug. The squeak gets sent back to the bat and the bat measures time and distance to the bug through the echo it receives.” So how does one get the bug to absorb the squeak? “The way in which to solve the radar problem for us at Lockheed was to create a surface that would redirect radar returns. We needed to send them off in a direction other than back at the Soviet radars. We could also do this by absorbing radar returns, like a diaper absorbs liquid. In theory it was simple. But it turned out to be quite a complicated problem to solve.”

Lovick had been solving problems ever since he was a child growing up in Falls City, Nebraska, during the Depression—for instance, the time he wanted to learn to play the piano but did not want to disturb his family while he practiced. “I took the piano apart and reconfigured its parts to suppress the sound. Then I sent the vibrations from the strings electronically through a small amplifier to a headset I wore.” This was hardly something most fourteen-year-old children were doing in 1933. Four years later, at the age of eighteen, Lovick published his first article on radar, for Radio-Craft magazine. Inspired to think he might have a career in radar technology, he wrote to Lockheed Corporation in faraway California asking for a job. Lockheed turned him down. So he took a minimum-wage job as a radio repairman at a local Montgomery Ward, something that, at the age of ninety-one, he still considers a serendipitous career move. “What I learned at Montgomery Ward, in an employment capacity that today some might perceive as a dead-end job, would later play an important role in my future spy plane career.” Namely, that there is as much to learn from what doesn’t work as from what does.


“An anechoic chamber is an enclosed space covered in energy-absorbing materials, the by-product of which is noiselessness,” Lovick explains. It is so quiet inside the chamber that if a person stands alone inside its four walls, he can hear the blood flowing inside his body. “Particularly loud is the blood in one’s head,” Lovick notes. Only in such a strictly controlled environment could the physicist and his team accurately test how a one-twentieth-scale model would react to radar beams aimed at it. Lockheed’s wood shop built tiny airplane models for the physicists, not unlike the models kids play with. Lovick and the team painstakingly applied radar-absorbing material to the models then strung them up in the anechoic chamber to test. Based on the radar echo results, the shape and design of the spy plane would change. So would its name. Over the next several months, the design numbers for the Archangel-1 went up incrementally, through eleven major changes. This is why the final and official Agency designation for the airplane was Archangel-12, or A-12 for short.


With the plane’s underbelly now flat, its radar cross section was reduced by an astonishing 90 percent.


“On 31 March we started to build a full scale mockup and elevation device to raise the mockup 50 feet in the air for radar tests,” Johnson wrote in documents declassified in July 2007. What Johnson was imagining in this “elevation device” would eventually become the legendary Area 51 pylon, or radar test pole.

Lockheed engineers brought with them a mock-up of the aircraft so detailed that it could easily be mistaken for the real thing. For accurate radar results, the model had to represent everything the real aircraft would be, from the size of the rivets to the slope on the chines. It had taken more than four months to build. When it was done, the wooden airplane, with its 102-foot-long fuselage and 55-foot-long wooden wings, was packed up in a wooden crate in preparation for its journey out to Area 51. Getting it there was a daunting task, and the road from Burbank to Area 51 needed to be prepared in advance. The transport crate had been disguised to look like a generic wide load, but the size made it considerably wider than wide. Crews were dispatched before the trip to remove obstructing road signs and to trim overhanging trees. In a few places along the highway, the road had to be made level.


Each member of Lovick’s crew carried in his pocket a small chart indicating Soviet satellite schedules. This often meant working odd hours, including at night. “It also made for a lot of technicians running around,” Lovick explains. “Satellites passed overhead often. Getting an aircraft up on the radar test pole took eighteen minutes. It took another eighteen minutes to get it back down. That left only a set amount of time to shoot radar at it and take data recordings.” As soon as technicians were done, they took the aircraft down and whisked it away into its hangar.


At night, workers needed to bundle up in heavy coats and wool hats. But during the day, temperatures could reach 120 degrees. “Once, I saw a coyote chasing a rabbit and they were both walking,” Lovick recalls.


Bissell had been informed that Lockheed’s A-12 would appear on enemy radar as bigger than a bird but smaller than a man. But he had not yet been told about a problem in the aircraft’s low observables that Lovick and the team had been unable to remedy while testing the mock-up out at Area 51. Lovick explains: “The exhaust ducts from the two huge jet engines that powered the aircraft were proving impossible to make stealthy. Obviously, we couldn’t cover the openings with camouflage coating. During testing, the radar waves would go into the spaces where the engines would be, echo around, and come out like water being sprayed into a can. We’d tried screens and metallic grating. Nothing worked.”


There in the conference room, Edward Lovick decided to speak up about an idea he had been considering for decades, “and that was how to ionize gas,” he says, referring to the scientific process by which the electrical charge of an atom is fundamentally changed. “I suggested that by adding the chemical compound cesium to the fuel, the exhaust would be ionized, likely masking it from radar. I had suggested cesium would be the best source of free electrons because, in the gaseous state, it would be the easiest to ionize.” If this complicated ionization worked—and Lovick believed it would—the results would be like putting a sponge in a can and running a hose into it. Instead of being bounced back, the radar return from the engines would be absorbed. “Bissell loved the idea,” says Lovick, adding that the suggestion was endorsed heartily by several of the customer’s consultants. An enthusiastic discussion ensued among the president’s science advisers, whom Lovick sensed had very little understanding of what it was he was proposing. In the end, the results would be up to Lovick to determine; later, his theory indeed proved correct. Those results remain a key component of stealth and are still classified as of 2011.


Lockheed kept the contract. Lovick got a huge Christmas bonus, and the A-12 got a code name, Oxcart. It was ironic, an oxcart being one of the slowest vehicles on Earth and the Oxcart being the fastest.


The aircraft was going to be five times faster than the U-2 and would fly a full three miles higher than the U-2.

Musk’s Japanese steampunk-themed 42nd birthday party culminated in a demonstration of Sumo wrestling

May 20th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk’s Japanese steampunk-themed 42nd birthday party, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), culminated in a demonstration of Sumo wrestling:

At the end, the group’s 350-pound champion invited Musk into the ring. “I went full strength at him to try a judo throw, because I thought he was trying to take it easy on me,” Musk says. “I decided to see if I could throw this guy, and I did. But I also blew out a disc at the base of my neck.”

Ever since, Musk has suffered severe bouts of back and neck pain; he would end up having three operations to try to repair his C5-C6 intervertebral disc. During meetings at the Tesla or SpaceX factories, he would sometimes lie flat on the floor with an ice pack at the base of his neck.

He never used his spurs or knees to make his horse gallop, but always applied his whip

May 19th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon relied a good deal on intelligence in his campaigns, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), which he insisted on analyzing personally rather than getting through staff officers:

Methods of gaining intelligence included interrogating deserters and prisoners, sending out cavalry patrols, and even dressing soldiers as farm labourers after having taken the real labourers’ wives hostage. Napoleon was conscious of the way that spies and officers on scouting missions could mistake corps for detachments and vice versa and often repeated what they had heard from ‘panic-stricken or surprised people’ rather than what they had witnessed. His orders for his intelligence officers were: ‘To reconnoitre accurately defiles and fords of every description. To provide guides that may be depended upon. To interrogate the priest and the postmaster. To establish rapidly a good understanding with the inhabitants. To send out spies. To intercept public and private letters … In short, to be able to answer every question of the general-in-chief when he arrives at the head of the army.’


He himself then moved continually between Brescia, Castelnuovo, Desenzano, Roverbella, Castiglione, Goito and Peschiera, taking his mobile headquarters to wherever gave him the best idea of the way the campaign was progressing. This constant activity in the often severe heat led to his losing five horses to exhaustion in quick succession. One of his Polish aides-de-camp, Dezydery Adam Chlapowski, recalled that he ‘never used his spurs or knees to make his horse gallop, but always applied his whip’.


The Austrians pushed on boldly and took Rivoli. ‘We shall recover tomorrow, or afterwards, what you have lost today,’ Napoleon reassured Masséna. ‘Nothing is lost while courage remains.’ On July 30, however, in an operation known as the ‘Surprise of Brescia’, the Austrians captured Brescia’s garrison and hospitals with only three killed and eleven wounded. The sick included Murat (who had caught venereal disease from a Madame Rugat), Lannes and Kellermann’s brilliant cavalryman son, François-Étienne. Josephine, who had gone to Brescia from Milan at Napoleon’s request as he had considered the city safely behind the lines, was nearly captured, prompting Napoleon to swear, ‘Wurmser shall pay dearly for those tears.’

‘We’ve suffered some setbacks,’ Napoleon acknowledged to the Directory, while sending all non-essential equipment to the rear.


His order to Augereau to retreat to Roverbella read: ‘Every moment is precious … The enemy has broken through our line at three places: he is master of the important points of Corona and Rivoli … You will see that our communications with Milan and Verona have been cut. Await new orders at Roverbella; I will go there in person.’


Ending the siege of Mantua involved abandoning no fewer than 179 cannon and mortars that couldn’t be removed, and dumping their ammunition in the lakes. It pained Napoleon to do this, but he knew that decisive victories in the field, not fortresses, were the key to modern warfare. ‘Whatever happens, and however much it costs, we must sleep in Brescia tomorrow,’ he told Masséna.


When Sauret’s men complained they were hungry, Napoleon told them they could find food in the enemy camp.


On the morning of August 4, Napoleon was at Lonato with only 1,200 men when more than 3,000 lost Austrians, who had been cut off from Quasdanovich’s command, suddenly blundered into the town. Napoleon calmly informed their parlementaire (officer sent to parley) that his ‘whole army’ was present, and that ‘If in eight minutes his division had not laid down its arms, I would not spare a man.’ He supported this ruse by issuing orders to Berthier about grenadier and artillery units that Berthier knew were entirely bogus. The Austrians only discovered once they had surrendered and been disarmed that there were no French forces nearby, and that they could have captured Napoleon with ease.

Negative social judgments often serve as guardrails

May 17th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonAt Yale, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he had some friends in the ROTC program who weren’t from the upper class, either:

When we were kids, chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden were considered “fine dining.” That was where people with money went out to eat. Upon meeting real rich people, we realized none of them went to such restaurants, except as a novelty. I later suggested to Nick, Esteban, and some other students that we go to the Cheesecake Factory. One guy asked, “Are we going there ironically?” I flatly said no and ordered some Buffalo Blasts.

I realized that even dietary choices reflected class differences. Yale dining halls had soda fountains that nobody used, save for the one nozzle that dispensed water. The halls also offered “spa water,” which was water flavored with cucumbers or strawberries. I’d always associated that with rich people on TV. I mentally contrasted this with my high school, where I couldn’t go more than ten minutes without seeing someone carrying a Powerade or a Pepsi. There was a striking absence of obesity among the students — many of them seemed to be preoccupied with their weight and image. I learned a term I’d never heard before: fat shaming. It was remarkable that students who seldom consumed sugary drinks and often closely adhered to nutrition and fitness regimens were also attempting to create a taboo around discussions of obesity. The unspoken oath seemed to be, “I will carefully monitor my health and fitness, but will not broadcast the importance of what I am doing, because that is fat shaming.” The people who were most vocal about what they called “body positivity,” which seemed to be a tool to inhibit discussions about the health consequences of obesity, were often very physically fit.

The luxury belief class claims that the unhappiness associated with certain behaviors and choices primarily stems from the negative social judgments they elicit, rather than the behaviors and choices themselves. But, in fact, negative social judgments often serve as guardrails to deter detrimental decisions that lead to unhappiness. In order to avoid misery, we have to admit that certain actions and choices are actually in and of themselves undesirable — single parenthood, obesity, substance abuse, crime, and so on — and not simply in need of normalization.

Indeed, it’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision — like young children.

Army soldiers not impressed with 50-kilowatt lasers

May 16th, 2024

The US Army sent four Stryker-mounted 50-kilowatt laser prototypes to the Middle East to test against aerial threats:

“What we’re finding is where the challenges are with directed energy at different power levels,” Bush told members of the Senate Appropriations airland subcommittee on Wednesday. “That [50-kilowatt] power level is proving challenging to incorporate into a vehicle that has to move around constantly — the heat dissipation, the amount of electronics, kind of the wear and tear of a vehicle in a tactical environment versus a fixed site.”

Dubbed the Directed Energy Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD), the service tasked Kord Technologies with integrating a 50-kilowatt class RTX laser onto a Stryker to down class one to three aerial drones and incoming rockets, artillery and mortars. In total, four prototypes were produced, and Breaking Defense first reported that all four were sent to the US Central Command (CENTCOM) region in February.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James Mingus said at the time that the goal was to experiment in a live environment complete with weather challenges and dust storms that can alter light particles and degrade beam quality.

“You may have a 50-kilowatt laser, [but] at 10 kilometers can you put at least four kilowatts in a centimeter square because … that’s what you need to burn through a quarter inch steel plate?” the three-star general asked. “But that’s really hard to get … from a big beam to get the small portion of it on the exact spot to be able to burn at that high intensity and any kind of dust particle or that starts to disrupt that.”

One modern laser-guided bomb was as effective against a point target as thirty Vietnam-era F-4 Phantoms dropping their entire load of bombs

May 15th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling During the Vietnam War, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), the average distance by which a bomb missed its aim point, known as “circular error probable,” was about four hundred feet for bombing from medium altitude:

Four hundred feet may sound haphazard, but computing bombsights had improved greatly since WWII, when the average miss distance was three thousand feet.


The real difficulty comes when attacking something like a bridge, where the target area of a roadway or support beam is just a few feet across. An entire Alpha Strike’s twenty-four planes may not be enough to score one solid hit.


The success of laser-guided weapons at Thanh Hoa was the start of a revolution in “precision guided munitions.”


According to a popular analysis of this improved accuracy, one modern laser-guided bomb was as effective against a point target as thirty Vietnam-era F-4 Phantoms dropping their entire load of bombs.


(Using WWII technology, it would take the bombs from an incredible fifteen hundred B-17 Flying Fortresses to hit the same target.)


Smart bombs though are not truly smart. All they do is go exactly where they are told. Unlike small drones, they cannot send back information about the target and get a close-up view. Weaponized drones are smarter than smart bombs.

Atomic Energy Commission workers could then locate them with magnets

May 14th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAs impossible as it is to imagine now, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), in the early days of atomic testing there was no such thing as a HAZMAT suit:

Instead, workers combed the desert floor dressed in white lab coats and work boots, looking for particles of nuclear fallout. According to Atomic Energy Commission documents made public in 1993, this radioactive debris varied in size, from pinhead particles to pencil-size pieces of steel.

Much to the surprise of the nuclear scientists, the atomic weapons tests revealed that sometimes, in the first milliseconds of destruction, the atomic energy actually jettisoned splintered pieces of the bomb tower away from the intense heat, intact, before vaporization could occur. These highly radioactive pieces were then carried aloft in the clouds and deposited down on places like Groom Lake, and Atomic Energy Commission workers could then locate them with magnets.

American companies saved labor costs, but they lost the daily feel for ways to improve their products

May 13th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonBetween 2000 and 2010, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), the U.S. lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs:

By sending their factories abroad, American companies saved labor costs, but they lost the daily feel for ways to improve their products.

Musk bucked this trend, largely because he wanted to have tight control of the manufacturing process. He believed that designing the factory to build a car — “the machine that builds the machine” — was as important as designing the car itself. Tesla’s design-manufacturing feedback loop gave it a competitive advantage, allowing it to innovate on a daily basis.

Oracle founder Larry Ellison joined only two corporate boards, Apple and Tesla, and he became close friends with Jobs and Musk. He said they both had beneficial cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder. “OCD is one of the reasons for their success, because they obsessed on solving a problem until they did,” he says. What set them apart is that Musk, unlike Jobs, applied that obsession not just to the design of a product but also to the underlying science, engineering, and manufacturing. “Steve just had to get the conception and software right, but the manufacturing was outsourced,” Ellison says. “Elon took on the manufacturing, the materials, the huge factories.” Jobs loved to walk through Apple’s design studio on a daily basis, but he never visited his factories in China. Musk, in contrast, spent more time walking assembly lines than he did walking around the design studio. “The brain strain of designing the car is tiny compared to the brain strain of designing the factory,” he says.


He was able to get the mothballed factory, which at one point had been worth $1 billion, for $42 million. In addition, Toyota agreed to invest $50 million in Tesla.

When redesigning the factory, Musk put the cubicles for the engineers right on the edge of the assembly lines, so they would see the flashing lights and hear the complaints whenever one of their design elements caused a slowdown.


The month after Tesla bought the factory, Musk was able to take the company public, the first IPO by an American carmaker since Ford’s in 1956.


By the end of the day, the stock market had fallen, but Tesla’s stock rose more than 40 percent, providing $266 million in financing for the company.

Bloodletting is among the ingredients of political medicine

May 12th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsAs a rule, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), the educated, professional and secularized elites were more likely to regard Napoleon as a liberating force than the Catholic peasantry, who saw the French armies as foreign atheists:

Wishing to appear as an enlightened liberator, rather than just the latest in a long line of conquerors, Napoleon held out the hope of an eventually independent, unified nation-state and thereby kindled the sparks of Italian nationalism. To that end, the day after his arrival in Milan, he declared the creation of a Lombardic Republic. It would be governed by Italian pro-French giacobini (Jacobins, or ‘patriots’) and he encouraged political clubs to mushroom throughout the region (the one in Milan soon included eight hundred lawyers and merchants). He also abolished Austrian governing institutions, reformed Pavia University, held provisional municipal elections, founded a National Guard and conferred with the leading Milanese advocate of Italian unification, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, to whom he handed over as much power as possible.


Lombardy was now a theoretically independent republic, albeit now a French protectorate, but the Veneto was still an Austrian province and Mantua was occupied by the Austrian army. Tuscany, Modena, Lucca and Parma were ruled by Austrian dukes and grand dukes; the Papal States (Bologna, Romagna, Ferrara, Umbria) were owned by the Pope; Naples and Sicily formed a single kingdom (the Two Sicilies) ruled by the Bourbon Ferdinand IV, and the Savoyard monarchy still reigned in Piedmont and Sardinia.


Over the course of the next three years, known as the triennio, Italians saw the emergence of the giacobini in a series of ‘sister-republics’ that Napoleon was to set up. He wanted to establish a new Italian political culture based on the French Revolution that would prize meritocracy, nationhood and free-thinking over privilege, city-state localism and Tridentine Catholicism.


Reforms that Napoleon imposed on the newly conquered territories included the abolition of internal tariffs, which helped to stimulate economic development, the ending of noble assemblies and other centres of feudal privilege, financial restructurings aimed at bringing down state debt, ending the restrictive guild system, imposing religious toleration, closing the ghettos and allowing Jews to live anywhere, and sometimes nationalizing Church property.


As zealous leaders of what they truly considered to be a new form of civilization — although the actual word ‘civilization’ itself had only entered the French lexicon in the 1760s and was very little used in the Napoleonic era — the French revolutionary elites genuinely believed they were advancing the welfare of Europe under French leadership.


‘All men of genius, everyone distinguished in the republic of letters, is French, whatever his nationality,’ Napoleon wrote from Milan in May 1796 to the eminent Italian astronomer Barnaba Oriani. ‘Men of learning in Milan have not enjoyed proper respect. They hid themselves in their laboratories and thought themselves lucky if … priests left them alone. All is changed today. Thought in Italy is free. Inquisition, intolerance, despots have vanished. I invite scholars to meet and propose what must be done to give science and the arts a new flowering.’


On May 23 a revolt against the French occupation in Pavia led by Catholic priests was put down harshly by Lannes, who simply shot the town council.


‘As I was half way to Pavia, we met a thousand peasants at Binasco and defeated them,’ Napoleon reported to Berthier. ‘After killing one hundred of them we burned the village, setting a terrible but efficient example.’


Napoleon believed that ‘bloodletting is among the ingredients of political medicine’, but he also thought that quick and certain punishments meant that large-scale repression could largely be avoided.


‘If you make war,’ he would say to General d’Hédouville in December 1799, ‘wage it with energy and severity; it is the only means of making it shorter and consequently less deplorable for mankind.’

During the Pavia revolt, which spread over much of Lombardy, five hundred hostages from some of the richest local families were taken to France as ‘state prisoners’ to ensure good behaviour. In the country around Tortona, Napoleon destroyed all the church bells that had been used to summon the revolt, and had no hesitation in shooting any village priest caught leading peasant bands.

Educate yourself

May 10th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonPrestigious universities encourage students to nurture their grievances, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), giving rise to a peculiar situation in which the most advantaged are the most well-equipped to tell other advantaged people how disadvantaged they are:

To become fully acculturated into the elite requires knowing the habits, customs, and manners of the upper class. To stay up to date, you need lots of leisure time or to have the kind of job that allows you to browse Twitter. A common rebuke to those who are not fully up to date on the latest intellectual fads is “educate yourself.” This is how the affluent block mobility for people who work multiple jobs, have children to care for, and don’t have the time or means to read the latest bestseller that outlines the proper way to think about social issues.


Thus, it seems the affluent secure their positions by ensuring that only those who attend the right colleges, listen to the right podcasts, and read the right books and articles can join their inner circle.

Occasionally, I raised these critiques to fellow students or graduates of elite colleges. Sometimes they would reply by asking, “Well, aren’t you part of this group now?” implying that my appraisals of the luxury belief class were hollow because I moved within the same institutions. But they wouldn’t have listened to me back when I was a lowly enlisted service member or back when I was washing dishes for minimum wage. If you ridicule the upper class as an outsider, they’ll either ignore you or tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you ridicule them as an insider, they call you a hypocrite. Plainly, the requirements for the upper class to take you seriously (e.g., credentials, wealth, power) are also the grounds to brand you a hypocrite for making any criticism of the upper class.