These places reject many smart (and rich) applicants every year

April 12th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonAt Yale, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he found that the vast majority of his peers were high performers:

One thing many people don’t understand is that it’s usually not enough to be smart (or rich) to get into a top college — these places reject many smart (and rich) applicants every year. You have to be diligent as well, and I respected their work ethic.

I came to understand that along with the fact that they were generally bright and hardworking, my peers on campus had experienced a totally different social reality than me and had grown up around people just like them.

[…]

On the midterm exam, my score placed me in the bottom quartile of the class.

I befriended some other students and picked up some tips. We held study sessions, and they showed me how to make flashcards, and how to review PowerPoint slides from the class. One simple approach I learned was to read a slide and then commit the information on it to memory and go through that exercise a few times with each slide. Spaced repetitions. Other students taught me that for the assigned readings, they read a page, and then wrote bullets at the bottom of the page summarizing the most important points. These strategies might sound simple, but for me they were a revelation.

[…]

My classmates taught me that I didn’t have to read every single item on course syllabi. At first, I thought if I wasn’t reading everything, then I was cheating myself out of my education. This, I discovered, is a common belief held by first-generation college students. I spoke with a variety of students about how they approached coursework and noticed a distinct difference. Students from well-to-do backgrounds, who had parents who were college graduates, seemed to have developed a good sense of how to manage their assignments and understood that reading everything wasn’t always necessary. Classmates showed me that we could split the heavy reading burdens by dividing it. We’d write up a summary of our share of the readings and notes.

[…]

The professor asked the class to anonymously respond to a question about family background. Out of twenty students, only one other student besides me was not raised by both birth parents. Put differently, 90 percent of my classmates were raised by an intact family. I felt a sense of vertigo upon learning this, because it was so at odds with how I’d grown up. Later, I read a study from another Ivy League school — Cornell — which reported that only 10 percent of their students were raised by divorced parents. This is a sharp juxtaposition with a national divorce rate of about 40 percent, which itself is quite low compared to the families I’d known in Red Bluff. When I explained to a classmate how disoriented I felt when I discovered these differences, she replied that this was how she felt when she learned that seven out of ten adults in the US don’t have a bachelor’s degree, because that was so out of line with her own experiences.

Life detection radar works on the Doppler principle and only detects movement

April 10th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingMost forms of radar are blocked by walls and other solid objects, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), but there are also through-the-wall “life detection” radars:

These use ultra-wideband radio waves, which can go through solid walls as easily as air. Life detection radar works on the Doppler principle and only detects movement, in particular the movements associated with human life — breathing and heartbeats. First responders use portable units in rescue operations to detect if there are people alive in a building. It is imprecise but will give the number and approximate location of any people inside. The technology is also used by the military and police.

Dull, dirty, and dangerous

April 9th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenThe development of drones become a national security priority, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), when Taiwanese “Black Cat” U-2 pilots got shot down over “Red” China:

Drones could accomplish what the U-2 could in terms of bringing home photographic intelligence, but a drone could do it without getting pilots captured or killed. Ideally, drones could perform missions that fell into three distinct categories: dull, dirty, and dangerous. Dull meant long flights during which pilots faced fatigue flying to remote areas of the globe. Dirty included situations where nuclear weapons or biological weapons might be involved. Dangerous meant missions over denied territories such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China, where shoot-downs were a political risk. Lockheed secured a contract to develop such an unmanned vehicle in late 1962. After Yeh Changti’s shoot-down, the program got a big boost. Flight-testing of the drone code-named Tagboard would take place at Area 51 and, ironically, getting the Lockheed drone to fly properly was among the first duties assigned to Colonel Slater after he left Taoyuan and was given a new assignment at Area 51.

“Lockheed’s D-21 wasn’t just any old drone, it was the world’s first Mach 3 stealth drone,” says Lockheed physicist Ed Lovick, who worked on the program. “The idea of this drone was a radical one because it would fly at least as fast, if not faster, than the A-12. It had a ram jet engine, which meant it was powered by forced air. The drone could only be launched off an aircraft that was already moving faster than the speed of sound.” The A-12 mother ship was designated M-21, M as in mother, and was modified to include a second seat for the drone launch operator, a flight engineer. The D-21 was the name for the drone, the D standing for daughter. But launching one aircraft from the back of another aircraft at speeds of more than 2,300 mph had its own set of challenges, beginning with how not to have the two aircraft crash into each other during launch. The recovery process of the drone also needed to be fine-tuned. Lovick explains, “The drone, designed to overfly China, would travel on its own flight path taking reconnaissance photographs and then head back out to sea.” The idea was to have the drone drop its photo package, which included the camera, the film, and the radio sensors, by parachute so it could be retrieved by a second aircraft nearby. Once the pallet was secure, the drone would crash into the sea and sink to the ocean floor.

The first test encountered some problems:

Park hit Ignite, and the drone launched up and off the M-21. But during separation, the drone pitched down instead of up and instantly split the mother aircraft in half. Miraculously, the drone hit neither Park nor Torick, who were both trapped inside.

The crippled aircraft began to tumble through the sky, falling for nearly ten thousand feet. Somehow, both men managed to eject. Alive and now outside the crashing, burning airplane, both men were safely tethered to their parachutes. Remarkably, neither of the men was hit by the burning debris falling through the air. Both men made successful water landings. But, as Slater recalls, an unforeseen tragedy occurred. “Our rescue boat located Bill Park, who was fine. But by the time the boat got to Ray Torick, he was tied up in his lanyard and had drowned.”

Kelly Johnson was devastated. “He impulsively and emotionally decided to cancel the entire program and give back the development funding to the Air Force and the Agency,” Johnson’s deputy Ben Rich recalled in his 1994 memoir about the Lockheed Skunk Works. Rich asked Johnson why. “I will not risk any more test pilots or Blackbirds. I don’t have either to spare,” Johnson said. But the Air Force did not let the Mach 3 drone program go away so quickly. They created a new program to launch the drone from underneath a B-52 bomber, which was part of Strategic Air Command. President Johnson’s deputy secretary of defense, Cyrus Vance, told Kelly Johnson, “We need this program to work because our government will never again allow a Francis Gary Powers situation develop. All our overflights over denied territory will either be with satellites or drones.”

Three years later, in 1969, the D-21 drone finally made its first reconnaissance mission, over China, launched off a B-52. The drone flew into China and over the Lop Nur nuclear facility but had then somehow strayed off course into Soviet Siberia, run out of fuel, and crashed. The suggestion was that the drone’s guidance system had failed on the way home, and it was never seen or heard from again. At least, not for more than twenty years. In the early 1990s, a CIA officer showed up in Ben Rich’s office at Skunk Works with a mysterious present for him. “Ben, do you recognize this?” the man asked Rich as he handed him a hunk of titanium. “Sure I do,” Rich said. What Ben Rich was holding in his hand was a piece of composite material loaded with the radar-absorbing coating that Lovick and his team had first developed for Lockheed four decades before. Asked where he got it, the CIA officer explained that it had been a gift to the CIA from a KGB agent in Moscow. The agent had gotten it from a shepherd in Siberia, who’d found it in the Siberian tundra while herding his sheep. According to Rich, “The Russians mistakenly believed that this generation-old panel signified our current stealth technology. It was, in a way, a very nice tribute to our work on Tagboard.”

Kelly Johnson expected planes to be pilotless soon, when he wrote his memoir in 1985.

That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table

April 8th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk had jolted his team, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), right after the third failed flight in August 2008, with his deadline of getting a new rocket to Kwaj in six weeks:

That seemed like a Musk reality-distortion ploy. It had taken them twelve months between the first and second failed launches, and another seventeen months between the second and the third. But because the rocket did not need any fundamental design changes to correct the problems that caused the third failure, he calculated that a six-week deadline was doable and would energize his team. Also, given his rapid cash burn, he had no other choice.

SpaceX had components for that fourth rocket in its Los Angeles factory, but shipping it by sea to Kwaj would take four weeks. Tim Buzza, SpaceX’s launch director, told Musk that the only way to meet his deadline would be to charter a C-17 transport plane from the Air Force. “Well, then, just do it,” Musk replied. That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table.

Twenty SpaceX employees rode with the rocket in the hold of the C-17, strapped into jump seats along the wall.

[…]

As they started to descend for refueling in Hawaii, there was a loud popping sound. And another. “We’re like looking at each other, like, this seems weird,” Harriss says. “And then we get another bang, and we saw the side of the rocket tank crumpling like a Coke can.” The rapid descent of the plane caused the pressure in the hold to increase, and the valves of the tank weren’t letting in air fast enough to allow the pressure inside to equalize.

There was a mad scramble as the engineers pulled out their pocket knives and began cutting away the shrink wrapping and trying to open the valves. Bülent Altan ran to the cockpit to try to stop the descent. “Here’s this big Turkish guy screaming at the Air Force pilots, who were the whitest Americans you have ever seen, to go back higher,” Harriss says. Astonishingly, they did not dump the rocket, or Altan, into the ocean. Instead, they agreed to ascend, but warned Altan that they had only thirty minutes of fuel. That meant in ten minutes they would need to start descending again. One of the engineers climbed inside the dark area between the rocket’s first and second stage, found the large pressurization line, and managed to twist it open, allowing air to rush into the rocket and equalize the pressure as the cargo plane again started to descend. The metal began popping back close to its original shape. But damage had been done. The exterior was dented, and one of the slosh baffles had been dislodged.

They called Musk in Los Angeles to tell him what happened and suggest that they bring the rocket back. “All of us standing there could just hear this pause,” says Harriss. “He is silent for a minute. Then he’s like, ‘No, you’re going to get it to Kwaj and fix it there.’” Harriss recalls that when they got to Kwaj their first reaction was, “Man, we’re doomed.” But after a day, the excitement kicked in. “We began telling ourselves, ‘We’re going to make this work.’”

[…]

After SpaceX’s first three failures, Musk had imposed more quality controls and risk-reduction procedures. “So we were now used to moving a little bit slower, with more documentation and checks,” Buzza says. He told Musk that if they followed all these new requirements, it would take five weeks to repair the rocket. If they jettisoned the requirements, they could do it in five days. Musk made the expected decision. “Okay,” he said. “Go as fast as you can.”

Musk’s decision to reverse his orders about quality controls taught Buzza two things: Musk could pivot when situations changed, and he was willing to take more risk that anyone. “This is something that we had to learn, which was that Elon would make a statement, but then time would go on and he would realize, ‘Oh no, actually we can do it this other way,’” Buzza says.

[…]

“It was unlike anything that the bloated companies in the aerospace industry could possibly have imagined,” Buzza says. “Sometimes his insane deadlines make sense.”

No one ever managed so brilliantly without it

April 7th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon’s (first) wife Josephine was born in Martinique on June 23, 1763, Andrew Roberts notes (in Napoleon: A Life), although in later life she claimed that it was 1767:

She arrived in Paris in 1780 aged seventeen, so poorly educated that her first husband — a cousin to whom she had been engaged at fifteen, the General Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais — couldn’t hide his contempt for her lack of education.

Josephine had blackened stubs for teeth, thought to be the result of chewing Martiniquais cane sugar as a child, but she learned to smile without showing them.58 ‘Had she only possessed teeth,’ wrote Laure d’Abrantès, who was to become Madame Mère’s lady-in-waiting, ‘she would certainly have outvied nearly all the ladies of the Consular Court.’ Although Beauharnais had been an abusive husband — once kidnapping their three-year-old son Eugène from the convent in which Josephine had taken refuge from his beatings — she nonetheless courageously tried to save him from the guillotine after his arrest in 1794.

[…]

Her husband was executed just four days before Robespierre’s fall, and had Robespierre survived any longer Josephine would probably have followed him.

[…]

On leaving prison she had an affair with General Lazare Hoche, who refused to leave his wife for her but whom she would have liked to marry, even up to the day she reluctantly married Napoleon. Another lover was Paul Barras, but that didn’t last much longer than the summer of 1795.

[…]

It is a well-known historical phenomenon for a sexually permissive period to follow one of prolonged bloodletting: the ‘Roaring Twenties’ after the Great War and the licentiousness of Ancient Roman society after the Civil Wars are but two examples. Josephine’s decision to take powerful lovers after the Terror was, like so much else in her life, à la mode (though she wasn’t as promiscuous as her friend Thérésa Tallien, who was nicknamed ‘Government Property’ because so many ministers had slept with her). Whatever ‘zigzags’ were, Josephine had performed them for others besides her first husband, Hoche and Barras; her éducation amoureuse was far more advanced than her near-virginal second husband’s.

Josephine took the opportunity of the post-Vendémiaire arms confiscations to send her fourteen-year-old son Eugène de Beauharnais to Napoleon’s headquarters to ask whether his father’s sword could be retained by the family for sentimental reasons. Napoleon took this for the social opening that it plainly was, and within weeks he had fallen genuinely and deeply in love with her; his infatuation only grew until their marriage five months later.

At first she wasn’t attracted to his slightly yellow complexion, lank hair and unkempt look, nor presumably to his scabies, and she certainly wasn’t in love with him, but then she herself was beginning to get wrinkles, her looks were fading and she was in debt.

[…]

Asked whether Josephine had intelligence, Talleyrand is said to have replied: ‘No one ever managed so brilliantly without it.’ For his part, Napoleon valued her political connections, her social status as a vicomtesse who was also acceptable to revolutionaries, and the way she compensated for his lack of savoir-faire and social graces.

Terraform Industries converts electricity and air into synthetic natural gas

April 6th, 2024

Terraform Industries converts electricity and air into synthetic natural gas via a system it calls the Terraformer:

Roughly the size of two shipping containers, the Terraformer consists of three subsystems: an electrolyzer, which converts solar power into hydrogen; a direct air capture system that captures CO2; and a chemical reactor that ingests both these inputs to produce pipeline-grade synthetic natural gas. The entire machine is optimized for a one-megawatt solar array.

Terraformer Diagram

The result is some fairly staggering cost reductions: Terraform says its system converts clean electricity into hydrogen at less than $2.50 per kilogram of H2 (currently, green hydrogen ranges from $5-11 per kilogram, Handmer estimated). The direct air capture system also filters CO2 for less than $250 per ton, which the company said in a statement, is a world record.

The startup says that improvements are already in the works to bring these prices down even further to ensure that its synthetic natural gas hits cost parity with conventionally sourced liquified natural gas. Much of that is dependent on the build-out of lots (and lots and lots) of cheap solar power, and the requisite production of thousands of Terraformers per year.

The medication rattled as she set it on her desk

April 5th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhen Rob Henderson got to Yale, he explains (in Troubled), he helped a female senior with some boxes:

We entered her room, and I set the boxes down. She opened the larger box and pulled out a large case of pills.

The medication rattled as she set it on her desk.

“Nice stash. Anything for sale?” I joked.

“Yeah, the Adderall is.” She didn’t appear to be joking.

I thought back to my first day in high school, and how my neighbor offered to sell me drugs. Now here I was at this fancy college, and this senior is offering to sell drugs, too. Later, I’d observe rampant drug and alcohol use on campus. This was at odds with the widespread belief, which I held at the time, that poverty was the primary reason for substance abuse.

The minimum order is a box of five

April 4th, 2024

Just as small, agile drones are starting to look like the future of war, David Hambling notes, small agile suppliers may be the future of defense procurement:

Steel Hornets, “a private manufacturer of weapons systems for unmanned aircraft systems”, is essentially a mail-order drone bomb company sending munitions directly to users.

[…]

Steel Hornets, “a private manufacturer of weapons systems for unmanned aircraft systems”, is essentially a mail-order drone bomb company sending munitions directly to users.

[…]

Steel Hornets provide their munitions without explosive filling or detonator. This makes them safe to handle and easy to distribute via the postal service, allowing Steel Hornets to supply drone operators quickly and efficiently wherever they are.

To arm the munition, the operator fits it with a standard military MD5M or KD8A detonator, devices the size of a thumb drive available by the million. Then also pack the bomb body with plastic explosive.

A spokesman for Steel Hornets said that explosive was typically drawn from supplies for demolition work, or scavenged it from other munitions. For example, the UR-77 Meteorite demining system uses line charges filled with over 1,450 kilos / 3,200 pounds of plastic explosive to blast a path through minefields. One line charge contains enough explosives for several hundred drone bombs.

Steel Hornets are also exploring other ways for users to source explosive filler. With commercial plastic explosive costing just a few dollars a pound (the U.S Army pays $22 a pound for small demolition charges but they do not do things cheaply), it should not add much to the cost of the finished munition.

[…]

Steel Hornets produce three types of drone bomb: armor-piercing shaped charges for use against tanks and other vehicles, fragmentation weapons effective against personnel, and dual-purpose munitions which combine both functions. All three require considerable design, so munitions from Steel Hornets give a real advantage over garage-made or field-improvised alternatives.

The aerodynamics plastic bomb casings are 3D printed with fins to ensure they fall in straight. They are also well balanced so they can be carried without affecting the stable flight of the drone.

“It’s not the cheapest, but it’s a very flexible manufacturing method,” says the Steel Hornets spokesman.

It allows them to make in very small batches, and also to change the design instantly with no need for re-tooling. But the more significant element is inside.

[…]

For example Steel Hornet’s BP 75mm replacement for the standard PG-7 warhead weighs 850 grams/ 30 ounces, somewhat lighter than the original. In tests Steel Hornets’ shaped charge with a copper liner penetrated 180mm / 7 inches of steel plate. This is less than the original which can go through 260mm/ 10 inches of armor, but this is not seen as a problem.

“We are seeking a compromise between weight, size, and cost,” the Steel Hornets spokesman told Forbes. “Additionally, we are making the shaped charge jet thicker, which often results in more confident penetration, albeit slightly reducing the penetration thickness.”

[…]

The miniature tank busters are a bargain at $14 a time. As with other Steel Hornets products the minimum order is a box of five. This gives an idea of how different they are to traditional arms companies dealing in orders of thousands.

The enemy would only ever see expendable unmanned drones, loitering overhead permanently and holding everything underneath at risk of instant, laser-guided destruction

April 3rd, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingA laser illuminator, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), is not a laser designator:

The Raven’s most conspicuous battlefield shortcoming is the lack of a laser designator to highlight targets for Hellfire missiles and other guided munitions. It has a laser illuminator so it can “sparkle” targets, highlighting them for helicopter gunners or others to aim at, but it cannot “lase” a target to guide a missile to the aim point.

[…]

Laser designators are large because they have to put out a beam powerful enough for the laser seeker on an incoming missile to lock on to.

[…]

Back in the early 2000s, the US Army’s “portable” laser designator weighed almost forty pounds. The latest version is below ten pounds.

[…]

Previously laser guidance was confined to bigger and more expensive weapons like the Hellfire and 500-pound bombs. These days, there are small, cheaper laser seeker heads. Not only are there laser-guided artillery rounds and rockets a quarter the size of Hellfire, but even mortars can fire laser-guided bombs. The mortar might have a range of ten miles, but still needs someone within eyeball range of the target to light it up with the designator. If artillery spotters could do this with a small drone, they would be able to direct precise fire to anywhere.

[…]

Standard, unpowered laser-guided bombs can hit targets fifteen miles away if the plane dropping them has enough speed and height. More advanced gliding bombs, like the recent SDB II, have a range of up to forty miles and almost qualify as drones in their own right.

Air strikes can be carried out by simple “bomb trucks” like transport aircraft which have no need for high speed and maneuverability to avoid anti-aircraft defenses. The enemy would only ever see expendable unmanned drones, loitering overhead permanently and holding everything underneath at risk of instant, laser-guided destruction.

The Black Cats flew the deadliest missions in the U-2’s 55-year history

April 2nd, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenPreparing for “Oxcart” missions — that is, preparing to fly the CIA’s A-12, precursor to the Air Force’s SR-71, over enemy territory — involved punishing survival-training operations, Annie Jacobsen explains, in her book about Area 51:

“I crawled slowly through the brambles, bugs, and mud for about thirty minutes when, suddenly, I hit a trip wire and alarms went off. A glaring spotlight came on and ten Chinese men in uniform grabbed me and dragged me to one of their jeeps.” Collins was handcuffed, driven for a while, put into a second vehicle, and taken to so-called Chinese interrogation headquarters. There, he was stripped naked and searched. “A doctor proceeded to examine every orifice the human body has, from top to bottom—literally,” which, Collins believes, “was more to humiliate and break down my moral defenses than anything else.” Naked, he was led down a dimly lit hallway and pushed into a concrete cell furnished with a short, thin bed made of wood planks. “I had no blanket, I was naked, and it was very cold. They gave me a bucket to be used only when I was told.”

For days, Collins went through simulated torture that included sleep deprivation, humiliation, extreme temperature fluctuation, and hunger, all the while naked, cold, and under surveillance by his captors. “The cell had one thick wooded door with a hole for viewing. This opening had a metal window that would clank open and shut. A single bright light was on and when I was about to doze off, the light would flash off, which would immediately snap me out of sleep.” For food, he was given watery soup, two thin pepper pods, and two bits of mysterious meat. “I had no water to drink and I was always watched. I didn’t know day from night so there was no sense of time. The temperature varied from hot to very cold. The voice through the viewing window shouted demands.”

Soon Collins began to hallucinate. Now it was interrogation time. Naked, he was led to a small room by two armed guards. He stood in front of his Chinese interrogators, who sat behind a small desk. They grilled him about his name, rank, and why he was spying on China. The torturous routine continued for what Collins guessed was several more days. Then one day, instead of being taken to his interrogators, he was told that he was free to go.

Halfway across the world, the Chinese interrogators were real:

A CIA pilot named Yeh Changti had been flying a U-2 spy mission over a nuclear facility in China when he was shot down, captured by the Chinese Communist government, and tortured. Yeh Changti was a member of the Thirty-Fifth Black Cat U-2 Squadron, a group of Taiwanese Chinese Nationalist pilots (as opposed to the Communist Chinese, who inhabited the mainland) who worked covert espionage missions for the CIA. In the 1960s, the Black Cats flew what would prove to be the deadliest missions in the U-2’s fifty-five-year history, all of which were flown out of a secret base called Taoyuan on the island of Taiwan. When the CIA declassified most of the U-2 program, in 1998, “no information was released about Yeh Changti or the Black Cats,” says former Black Cat pilot Hsichun Hua. The program, in entirety, remains classified as of 2011.

Colonel Hugh “Slip” Slater, the man who would later become the commander of Area 51, remembers Yeh Changti before he got shot down. “His code name was Terry Lee and he and I played tennis on the base at Taoyuan all the time. He was a great guy and an amazing acrobat, which helped him on the court. Sometimes we drank scotch while we played. Both the sport and the scotch helped morale.” Slater says that the reason morale was low was that “the U-2 had become so vulnerable to the SA-2 missiles that nobody wanted to fly.” One Black Cat pilot had already been shot down. But that didn’t stop the dangerous missions from going forward for the CIA.

Unlike what had happened with the Gary Powers shoot-down, the American press remained in the dark about these missions. For the CIA, getting hard intelligence on China’s nuclear facilities was a top national security priority. On the day Yeh Changti was shot down, he was returning home from a nine-hour mission over the mainland when a surface-to-air missile guidance system locked on to his U-2. Colonel Slater was on the radio with Yeh Changti when it happened. “I was talking to him when I heard him say, ‘System 12 on!’ We never heard another word.” The missile hit Yeh Changti’s aircraft and tore off the right wing. Yeh Changti ejected from the airplane, his body riddled in fifty-nine places with missile fragments. He landed safely with his parachute and passed out. When he woke up, he was in a military facility run by Mao Tse-tung.

This was no training exercise. Yeh Changti was tortured and held prisoner for nineteen years until he was quietly released by his captors, in 1982. He has been living outside Houston, Texas, ever since. The CIA did not know that Yeh Changti had survived his bailout and apparently did not make any kind of effort to locate him. A second Black Cat pilot named Major Jack Chang would also get shot down in a U-2, in 1965, and was imprisoned alongside Yeh Changti. After their release, the two pilots shared their arduous stories with fellow Black Cat pilot, Hsichun Hua, who had become a general in the Taiwanese air force while the men were in captivity. Neither Yeh Changti nor Major Jack Chang was ever given a medal by the CIA. The shoot-down of the Black Cat U-2 pilots, however, had a major impact on what the CIA and the Air Force would do next at Area 51. Suddenly, the development of drones had become a national security priority, drones being pilotless aircraft that could be flown by remote control.

We either do this or we die

April 1st, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson Musk’s tolerance for stress is high, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), but 2008 almost pushed him past his limits:

Some Tesla executives and board members felt that the deposits should have been kept in escrow rather than tapped for operating expense, but Musk insisted, “We either do this or we die.”

[…]

Musk’s friend Bill Lee invested $2 million, Sergey Brin of Google invested $500,000, and even regular Tesla employees wrote checks. Musk borrowed personally to cover his expenses, which included paying $170,000 per month for his own divorce lawyers and (as California law requires of the wealthier spouse) those of Justine. “God bless Jeff Skoll, who gave Elon money to see him through,” Talulah says of Musk’s friend, who was the first president of eBay. Antonio Gracias also stepped up, loaning him $1 million. Even Talulah’s parents offered to help. “I was very upset and called Mommy and Daddy, and they said they would remortgage their house and try to help,” she recalls. That offer Musk declined.

[…]

Talulah watched in horror as, night after night, Musk had mumbling conversations with himself, sometimes flailing his arms and screaming. “I kept thinking he was going to have a heart attack,” she says. “He was having night terrors and just screaming in his sleep and clawing at me. It was horrendous. I was really scared, and he was just desperate.” Sometimes he would go to the bathroom and start vomiting. “It would go to his gut, and he would be screaming and retching,” she says. “I would stand by the toilet and hold his head.”

[…]

He gained a lot of weight, and then suddenly lost it all and more. His posture became hunched, and his toes stayed stiff when he walked.

States are never more vulnerable than when they attempt to reform themselves

March 31st, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts Alexis de Tocqueville would write that states are never more vulnerable than when they attempt to reform themselves, Andrew Roberts notes (in Napoleon: A Life), and that was certainly true of France in the autumn of 1795:

It was in the ‘Sections’, forty-eight districts of Paris established in 1790 which controlled local assemblies and the local National Guard units, that the insurrection was focused. Although only seven Sections actually rose in revolt, National Guardsmen from others joined in.

[…]

The Sections included middle-class National Guardsmen, royalists, some moderates and liberals, and ordinary Parisians who opposed the government for its corruption and domestic and international failures. The very disparate nature of the rebellion’s political make-up made any central co-ordination impossible beyond establishing a date for action, which couldn’t be kept secret from the government.

[…]

On the evening of Sunday, October 4, Napoleon was at the Feydeau Theatre watching Saurin’s play Beverley when he heard that the Sections intended to rise the following day. Very early the next morning — 13 Vendémiaire by the revolutionary calendar — Barras appointed him second-in-command of the Army of the Interior, and ordered him to use all means necessary to crush the revolt. Napoleon had impressed the most important decision-makers in his life — among them Kéralio, the du Teil brothers, Saliceti, Doppet, Dugommier, Augustin Robespierre and now Barras, who had heard of him from Saliceti after the victory at Toulon.

[…]

(He later recalled with amusement that the politician who had had least qualms about the spilling of blood at Vendémiaire had been the priest and political theorist Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès.)

[…]

From Napoleon’s reactions to the two Tuileries attacks he had witnessed in 1792, there was no doubt what he would do.

This was Napoleon’s first introduction to frontline, high-level national politics, and he found it intoxicating. He ordered Captain Joachim Murat of the 21st Chasseurs à Cheval to gallop to the Sablons military camp two miles away with one hundred cavalrymen, secure the cannon there and bring them into central Paris, and to sabre anyone who tried to prevent him. The Sections had missed a great opportunity as the Sablons cannon were at that point guarded by only fifty men.

[…]

He then spent three hours visiting each of his guns in turn. ‘Good and upstanding people must be persuaded by gentle means,’ Napoleon would later write. ‘The rabble must be moved by terror.’

Napoleon prepared to use grapeshot, the colloquial term for canister or case shot, which consists of hundreds of musket balls packed into a metal case that rips open as soon as it leaves the cannon’s muzzle, sending the lead balls flying in a relatively wide arc at an even greater velocity than the 1,760 feet per second of a musket shot. Its maximum range was roughly 600 yards, optimum 250.

[…]

‘If you treat the mob with kindness,’ he told Joseph later, ‘these creatures fancy themselves invulnerable; if you hang a few, they get tired of the game, and become as submissive and humble as they ought to be.’

Napoleon’s force consisted of 4,500 troops and about 1,500 ‘patriots’, gendarmes and veterans from Les Invalides. Opposing them was a disparate force of up to 30,000 men from the Sections, nominally under the control of General Dancian, who wasted much of the day trying to conduct negotiations. Only at 4 p.m. did the rebel columns start issuing from side streets to the north of the Tuileries. Napoleon did not open fire immediately, but as soon as the first musket shots were heard from the Sections sometime between 4.15 p.m. and 4.45 p.m. he unleashed a devastating artillery response. He also fired grapeshot at the men of the Sections attempting to cross the bridges over the Seine, who took heavy casualties and quickly fled. In most parts of Paris the attack was all over by 6 p.m., but at the church of Saint-Roch in the rue Saint-Honoré, which became the de facto headquarters of the insurrection and where the wounded were brought, snipers carried on firing from rooftops and from behind barricades. The fighting continued for many hours, until Napoleon brought his cannon to within 60 yards of the church and surrender was the only option. Around three hundred insurrectionists were killed that day, against only half a dozen of Napoleon’s men. Magnanimously by the standards of the day, the Convention executed only two Section leaders afterwards. ‘The whiff of grapeshot’ — as it became known — meant that the Paris mob played no further part in French politics for the next three decades.

[…]

Before the end of Vendémiaire, Napoleon had been promoted to général de division by Barras and soon afterwards to commander of the Army of the Interior in recognition of his service in saving the Republic and possibly preventing civil war. It was ironic that he had refused the Vendée post partly because he hadn’t wanted to kill Frenchmen, and then gained his most vertiginous promotion by doing just that. But to his mind there was a difference between a legitimate fighting force and a rabble.

For a while afterwards Napoleon was sometimes called ‘General Vendémiaire’, though not to his face. Far from being uneasy about his involvement in the deaths of so many of his compatriots, he ordered the anniversary to be celebrated once he became First Consul, and when a lady asked him how he could have fired so mercilessly on the mob he replied: ‘A soldier is only a machine to obey orders.’ He did not point out that it was he who had given the orders.

The ‘whiff of grapeshot’ advanced the Bonaparte family hugely, and overnight. Napoleon would now be paid 48,000 francs per annum, Joseph was given a job in the diplomatic service, Louis advanced through the Châlons artillery school and later became one of Napoleon’s burgeoning team of aides-de-camp, while the youngest of the Bonaparte boys, the eleven-year-old Jérôme, was sent to a better school.

It was a giant coercion machine

March 29th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhen Rob Henderson attended the two-week Warrior-Scholar program at Yale, he explains (in Troubled), he couldn’t help but apply some of the lessons he learned from eminent Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’s seminar on Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative liberty to his own life:

For long stretches of my childhood, I had an abundance of negative liberty, and it simply allowed me to make a lot of bad decisions. The military stripped me of those freedoms; it was a giant coercion machine. It demanded I conform to certain beliefs and behaviors, which, at age seventeen, was beneficial.

Berlin believed people should not be tampered with or coerced. But he went on to say that giving children total freedom means they may “suffer the worst misfortunes from nature and from men.” Therefore, he believed, kids need a higher authority who knows better than they do in order to set boundaries. Restricting some freedom is essential for children to grow up, or, in the case of my enlistment, recover from the process of growing up.

Chickenpox is now so rare in the US that doctors are misdiagnosing it half the time

March 28th, 2024

Thanks to a successful vaccination campaign starting in 1995, chickenpox is now so rare in the US that doctors are misdiagnosing it half the time, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Health:

The country’s nationwide childhood vaccination effort reduced case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths in under 20-year-olds by more than 97 percent.

[…]

Some people who have been vaccinated against chickenpox can still get the disease, usually with milder fevers and fewer or no blisters, just red spots. This occurs more often in people who’ve only had one dose of the vaccine, not the recommended two.

Since the milder-looking ‘breakthrough’ chickenpox looks different to what doctors might be expecting of the once-rampant childhood disease, it can be difficult to diagnose just by looking at the red rash or spots.

[…]

The investigation found that of 420 patients with a suspected chickenpox infection who provided specimens to MDH’s labs between December 2016 and March 2023, only 37 percent tested positive for varicella-zoster — the virus that causes chickenpox.

One-fifth of those positive cases were examples of ‘breakthrough’ chickenpox, having received at least one dose of the chickenpox vaccine, and around half of the patients tested by MDH were fully or partially vaccinated.

More specifically, among 208 patients whose doctors suspected they had chickenpox after examining them at a medical facility, only 45 percent (or 95 people) tested positive for the disease. Another 26 people tested positive for an enterovirus, and a sole person was found to have HSV-1, a different type of herpes virus related to chickenpox.

There are already several drones that can hook up to power lines and recharge

March 27th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingBattery-powered drones have limited range, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), but perching on power lines opens up the possibility of recharging by stealing electricity:

There are already several drones that can hook up to power lines line and recharge. Design Research Associates has developed such a system for small drones and a spin-off known as the “Bat Hook” for Special Forces. This really does look like something Batman would use – a small, sharpened boomerang with a line attached. Toss it over a power line and the sharp edge cuts through insulation. A device on the end of the line converts the high-voltage alternating supply into a regulated direct current for charging electronics. The Bat Hook can be popped off the line so it can be removed and reused.