It just has to bring the detonator

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Back before GPS was ubiquitous, a couple decades ago, I thought it would lend itself all too well to sabotage or terrorism. Imagine sending out a fleet of miniature, autonomous Hindenburgs to burn down a dozen targets on a windless night, or dropping lawn darts from the sky.

The Russians figured this out, it would appear:

A precision attack does not need to deliver a massive warhead: it just has to ‘bring the detonator’ to a vulnerable target.

The Ukrainian SBU – the equivalent of the FBI – now believe that the destruction of a giant arms depot at Balakliya in eastern Ukraine in March was carried out by a small drone. The spectacular explosion and fire destroyed some seventy thousand tons of munitions with damage estimated at a billion dollars, though only one person was killed. This destruction is a graphic illustration of the threat posed by small drones, as many other high-value targets may be equally vulnerable.

Balakliya was said to be the largest ammunition dump in the world. Photographs of the site show wooden boxes of ammunition left in the open, making it a tempting target for an aerial saboteur. Several similar strikes have been carried out in Ukraine.

“This form of anti-materiel attack—though on a lesser scale—has already taken place at least two times in South-East Ukraine by Russian-linked forces utilizing weaponized UAS dropping incendiary bomblets,” says Robert Bunker, Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College.

On 29th October 2015, the ammunition depot at Svatovo was hit. Some three thousand tons of ammunition went up, and 1,700 homes were damaged nearby.

This year, on the night of 17th February, an ammunition warehouse in Zaporozhye region was set on fire causing a series of explosions. The same tactics were used the next night at a storage site near Grodovka village in the Donetsk region, but this time the fires were put out. On 14th March a drone attacked another Ukrainian military facility near Donestsk, making three separate sorties and dropping two grenades each time according to Ukrainian military officials.

There had been a previous drone attack at Balakliya in December 2015, when small drones dropped at least fourteen grenades. The grenades started fires in the open storage areas, but the Ukrainian soldiers, showing considerable bravery, put out the fires. On that occasion one of the devices was recovered intact, and was identified as a Russian ZMG-1 mine grenade.

The ZMG-1 is a thermite charge, a specialist tool used for demolition by Russian special forces, which resembles the U.S. AN-M14 grenade. Grenades of this type burn rather than exploding, and are placed rather than thrown, as they must be in contact with the target. They are filled with a mixture of metal and metal oxide which react to produce extreme temperatures – something over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The AN-M14 can melt through a steel plate half an inch thick and is typically used to disable artillery. The ZMG-1 appears to have similar capability. The Ukrainian SBU have previously captured ZMG-1s in caches associated with Russian separatist groups, so they have such weapons, and ammunition dumps are a prime target.

“A weapons depot is such a good target for drones because incendiary device dropped from the drone only needs to act as fuse, using the materiel on the ground for the actual explosion,” says Ulrike Franke, a drone expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This echoes the warning by T X Hammes of the Center for Strategic Research about a type of attack he calls ‘bringing the detonator’. Where there is a suitably vulnerable target, even a drone with a small warhead can do tremendous damage. It does not need to carry the explosive, because explosive is already there, it is just a matter of setting it off. This does not just mean ammunition dumps.

“Other infrastructure sites that would be particularly vulnerable to this form of attack would be those storing highly flammable substances such as fuel — especially aviation fuel,” says Bunker. “Commercial aircraft parked at an airport laden with fuel in their wing storage cells would also be very susceptible.”

Hammes also mentions parked aircraft as a target. Sites storing quantities of liquified natural gas or petrochemicals, fuel depots and similar locations could be similarly susceptible to such attacks. Storage tanks of other dangerous chemicals might not explodes and burn, but if ruptured they could still have catastrophic effects. Th accidental release of methyl isocyanate gas from a plant on Bhopal in 1984 caused over three thousand deaths. Any risk of a similar incident is likely to result in the evacuation of a wide area as a minimum, even if there are no casualties.

Small drones are readily available over the internet. Unlike earlier generations of radio-controlled aircraft, they are easy to use, and a beginner can fly one out of the box. Grenades of the sort dropped by drones in Iraq and Syria may be hard to acquire outside of a war zone, but thermite is another matter. It is easy to make, and can be legally purchased in the US, UK and elsewhere. Terrorists may have trouble making their own explosives, and often get caught in the process, but they can acquire thermite without attracting attention.

Electron rockets and Rutherford engines

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

At 18, Peter Beck strapped a rocket engine to his bike. Now he’s taking on SpaceX, with smaller, even less expensive rockets:

In 2007, New Zealand’s government let Beck take over a floor, rent-free, at the lab where he’d been working. He now had access to high-end equipment, but he needed money to buy other gear. So he called Mr. Rocket — real surname, first name Mark — a wealthy internet entrepreneur and fellow Kiwi whom Beck had heard on the radio talking about his interest in space. Beck arrived at their meeting with a proposal to launch a cheap rocket every week. Rocket was intrigued enough to start making calls. “When I was pitching the idea to my lawyer and accountants, there were some raised eyebrows,” he says. “It seemed like an easy way to get rid of a bunch of money. But Peter had engines he could show me, and we shared the same vision.”

Beck raised $300,000 from Rocket and some family and friends, then spent two years building a prototype. In November 2009 he and two new hires unveiled the Atea-1 — a nod to the Maori word for space. He arranged to launch the 20-foot-long rocket, which weighed only 130 pounds, from a pad on Great Mercury Island, co-owned by a businessman named Michael Fay.


Since that first triumphant test, Rocket Lab has become a lean, accomplished builder. The company’s manufacturing facilities, a few low-slung warehouses in an industrial part of Auckland, have a giant assembly area for its Electron rockets and rooms where software engineers fine-tune its Rutherford engines, which are named after the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford. Rocket Lab conducts engine tests a few miles away, in a patch of pasture near the Auckland airport. Things have gone awry on occasion — like the time a wayward igniter caused a bush fire that shut down the airport — but on the whole, the company has progressed much faster than typical aerospace startups. It has raised $148 million to build out its operations and is valued at more than $1 billion.

There’s a degree to which all viable rockets are the same: thin, metal tubes packed with as much explosive material as physics will allow. Rocket Lab’s primary innovation was to opt for carbon fiber over aluminum, which makes the Electron much lighter than competing models. It’s also much smaller — a sleek, black 56-by-4-foot shell with nine Rutherford engines at the base. SpaceX’s workhorse, the Falcon 9, is 230 feet tall and 12 feet across, and can take a 50,000-pound payload into low Earth orbit, compared with the Electron’s 500-pound limit. Rocket Lab charges just $5 million per flight, though, while SpaceX charges $60 million.

Beck’s goal of launching at least once a week is also more ambitious than SpaceX’s once a month. His target is made more plausible by an additional innovation: Rutherford engines are among the first to be almost entirely 3D-printed, which means more of their parts are fused together and don’t need to be assembled by hand. This lets Rocket Lab build engines practically at the press of a button.

The company will also be able to launch more frequently because it has a private facility — a rarity in the aerospace industry — on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Launch Complex 1 sits at the pointy edge of the Mahia Peninsula. The setting is stunning: a 26-by-26-foot launch pad, surrounded by the grasslands of the 10,000-acre sheep and cattle farm from which Rocket Lab leases its land. All of this is positioned atop a plateau that gives way to sheer, rocky cliffs that drop to a beach and open up to the turquoise ocean. Decades ago, Europeans and Americans had whaling stations here; during World War II, American troops practiced beach landings nearby.


That Peter Beck and New Zealand have been at the forefront of it all has been unlikely, to say the least. But Beck’s lack of formal training and his home country’s remoteness gave him a unique vantage from which to reimagine the rocket business.

No one online reads anything

Saturday, July 29th, 2017

No one online reads anything, Freddie deBoer laments:

In my time writing online, which is approaching 10 years now, I’ve never seen anything like the current moment when it comes to the utter collapse of any communal expectation that people will read the work they’re commenting on.

I will read an interesting article, want to see what people are saying about it, pop the link in the Twitter search bar, and I will be absolutely amazed at what % of the reactions demonstrate that the people talking about it haven’t actually read the piece. You will see conversations about various essays that go on for dozens and dozens of exchanges where it is glaringly clear that not one person in the conversation actually has a grasp of what the essay says. And these aren’t just randoms, either, but usually writers themselves, people who have built careers producing text. Go to any event where established people give young writers advice and they always say, you have to read to write! But my impression is that many, many professional writers don’t.

I get that there are structural reasons that professional writers don’t read. I get that it’s not all a character or integrity issue. I get that the modern media economy forces people to be producing at a pace that makes reading enough difficult. I’m not unsympathetic. But at some point people have to make the personal decision to say “I’m not going to comment on something I haven’t read.”

I meet people IRL who know me from writing a lot more often, now that I live in New York. And sometimes there’s tension. I’ll be introduced by a friend of a friend to someone who is sure they don’t like me. If I get the chance, I’ll eventually try to tease out which of my opinions they reject. Likewise, I sometimes challenge people on social media or in my email to list their actual grievances, to tell me what I believe that is so objectionable. Often enough – maybe a majority of the time – it will turn out that they are mad at me about something I don’t believe and have never said. I am fine with being controversial or personally disliked for what I actually think and have actually said. But at present my online reputation has almost nothing to do with me or my actual beliefs, because no one online reads anything.

Standing up a Space Corps today is like setting up a USAF in 1911

Friday, July 28th, 2017

The House of Representatives’ 2018 defense budget proposes a whole new military branch, the US Space Corps. The Yawfle thinks it’s too soon:

Look at it this way: how successful would the Air Force have been had it been created ten or twenty years earlier? In 1947, the US Army Air Corps had thousands of planes, thousands of airmen and mechanics, pilots and navigators. They’d just played a major part in winning the biggest war in history, and they’d been the means by which the first atomic bombs were delivered to their intended recipients.

In ’37, let alone ’27, the Army Air Corps was a tiny appendage of the Army, and its role in warfare was largely theoretical. Strategic bombing advocates were making absurd claims (that, absurdly, are still believed today) and the mechanics of CAS were still being worked out. But even here, there was the example of air combat in the First World War to draw on.

Right now, there are two military space vehicles. Two. (Yes, there are countless communications, surveillance and other satellites operated by the military. And all the ICBMs. But the X-37b is the only military space vehicle in any sense that makes sense. It could have guns, and possibly even crew.) Space weapons have never been used in anger. There are no Space Aces. Standing up a Space Corps is most akin to setting up a USAF in 1911, when the US Army had a few experimental aircraft and little else.

Of course, any SF geek knows that we should have a space navy:

There’s a reason why most science fiction has used a naval analog for warcraft in space. Even where space fighters are a thing, the model is not so much Air Force as Naval Aviation – squadrons of space fighters flying off space carriers. Long duration missions will require the traditions and methods of the Navy, not the Air Force. Soon enough, most space missions will necessarily be long-duration missions. That being the case, the sensible thing to do is to stand up a space navy and get it right from the start.

Assume that there is still a United States a hundred years from now, and that space travel is commonplace. (One of these speculations is crazy. But which one?) If there are American bases, outposts, and colonies on other planets then there will need to be an American Space fleet. Having a space fleet would mean that most of the nuclear deterrent that we’ve laboriously created will be moot – attack from space is cheaper, cleaner, and easier. Our strategic deterrent will *be* the space fleet.

In this scenario, its easy to imagine a suitable force structure, and their respective roles.

Army: combat on the ground. Ground troops, fully capable, fixed-wing drone CAS, and artillery to include missiles and nukes.

Navy: combat on, below, and above the seas. Subs (and missiles), surface combatants, and squadrons of drone fighters/bombers.

Aerospace Force: combat above the earth, out to Earth orbit. What is now strategic bombers, air superiority missions, etc. But also space fighters launched from earth or orbital bases and designed to operate in near earth space.

Space Navy: Combat in space. Cruisers of the void, battleships and the like. Capable of strikes to planetary surfaces as well as fighting opposing fleets.

And, having created a United States Space Navy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to go a bit further and create US Space Marines, which is the logical and desirable end for the United States, its military, and space travel.

Priests and rabbis are getting high on shrooms for science

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Scientists at Johns Hopkins are giving two powerful doses of psilocybin to two dozen religious leaders from a wide range of denominations — Catholic, Orthodox, and Presbyterian priests, a Zen Buddhist, and several rabbis:

“It is too early to talk about results, but generally people seem to be getting a deeper appreciation of their own religious heritage,” [Dr William Richards] said. “The dead dogma comes alive for them in a meaningful way. They discover they really believe this stuff they’re talking about.”

There is also a suggestion that after their psychedelic journey, the leaders’ notions of religion shifted away from the sectarian towards something more universal. “They get a greater appreciation for other world religions. Other ways up the mountain, if you will,” said Richards.

“In these transcendental states of consciousness, people seem to get to levels of consciousness that seem universal,” he added. “So a good rabbi can encounter the Buddha within him.”

The notion that hallucinogenic drugs can bring about mystical experiences is not new and was previously studied in a famous Harvard study known as the “Good Friday experiment”. The study involved a group of seminary scholars being given psilocybin during the Easter-season service to see how it altered their experience of the liturgy. The latest work is thought to be the first involving religious leaders from different faiths.

Men are just as likely to be harassed online as women

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

Men are just as likely to be harassed online as women:

A new study released by the Pew Research Center supports what some of us have argued all along about online harassment: that it affects men as much as women and that the problem should not be framed as a gender issue — or defined so broadly as to chill legitimate criticism.

If anything, the study says, men tend to get more online abuse than women, including serious abuse such as physical threats (though women are, predictably, more likely to be sexually harassed). However, when people are asked about free speech vs. safety on the internet, women are more likely to come down on the side of the latter. Thus, it is very likely future efforts at speech regulation will continue to be cast as “feminist” initiatives.

At war for more than a billion years

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

Viruses and their hosts have been at war for more than a billion years:

This battle has driven a dramatic diversification of viruses and of host immune responses. Although the earliest antiviral systems have long since vanished, researchers may now have recovered remnants of one of them embedded, like a fossil, in human cells.

A protein called Drosha, which helps to control gene regulation in vertebrates, also tackles viruses, researchers report today in Nature1. They suggest that Drosha and the family of enzymes, called RNAse III, it belongs to were the original virus fighters in a single-celled ancestor of animals and plants. “You can see the footprint of RNAse III in the defence systems through all kingdoms of life,” says Benjamin tenOever, a virologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and lead author of the paper.

Plants and invertebrates deploy RNAse III proteins in an immune response called RNA interference, or RNAi. When a virus infects a host, the proteins slice the invader’s RNA into chunks that prevent it from spreading. But vertebrates take a different approach, warding off viruses with powerful interferon proteins — while Drosha and a related protein regulate genes in the nucleus.

But in 2010, tenOever witnessed an odd phenomenon: Drosha appeared to leave the nucleus of human cells whenever a virus invaded2. “That was weird and made us curious,” tenOever says. His team later confirmed the finding, and saw that Drosha demonstrates the same behaviour in cells from flies, fish and plants.

To test the hypothesis that Drosha leaves the nucleus to combat viruses in vertebrates, the researchers infected cells that had been genetically engineered to lack Drosha with a virus. They found that the viruses replicated faster in these cells. The team then inserted Drosha from bacteria into fish, human and plant cells. The protein seemed to stunt the replication of viruses, suggesting that this function dates back to an ancient ancestor of all the groups. “Drosha is like the beta version of all antiviral defence systems,” tenOever says.

tenOever speculates that RNAse III proteins originally helped bacteria to maintain their own RNA, and that bacteria later deployed the proteins against the genetic material of viruses. He points out the occurrence of RNAse III proteins in immune responses throughout the tree of life. For instance, some CRISPR systems, a virus-fighting response in archaea and bacteria, include RNAse III proteins. Plants and invertebrates deploy the proteins in RNAi. And although vertebrates rely on interferons for viral control, this study now shows that Drosha still chases after viruses, in the same way a pet Golden Retriever — a dog bred to retrieve waterfowl — fetches a stick as if it were a fallen duck.

At least 90% less likely to die than cigarette smokers

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

As cigarette consumption falls, tobacco companies want U.S. regulators to bless smokeless tobacco as a safer alternative to smoking:

Many scientists agree that moist, smokeless tobacco, including chewing and dipping tobacco, is significantly less harmful than cigarettes. But rather than encouraging the country’s 37 million smokers to switch to less risky products, U.S. health officials have so far stuck with an abstinence-only message in communications with the public.

Online fact sheets published by the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute list multiple health risks associated with smokeless tobacco—including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and pancreas—but give no indication it is less harmful than cigarettes. “There is no safe form of tobacco,” the cancer institute says on its website.

Tobacco Mortality

At recent scientific conferences, Altria has presented an analysis of two federal surveys showing that users of moist, smokeless tobacco were at least 90% less likely to die over the course of the surveys than cigarette smokers. The U.S. data included nearly 387,000 survey respondents. Altria now is preparing this analysis for submission to an academic journal.

The reactor, named Norman, can operate at 60 million degrees Celsius

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Tri Alpha Energy has been working on nuclear fusion technology for nearly two decades and has just hit a milestone:

On Monday, the company announced that it started up a new nuclear fusion reactor that can achieve the high temperatures needed to continue to validate its technology plans. The reactor, named Norman — after the late company founder and professor, Norman Rostoker — can operate at temperatures between 50 million and 70 million degrees centigrade, which is in the temperature range of the core of the sun.

Commercial-scale nuclear fusion will likely have to operate in the range of a billion degrees centigrade. So Norman, which is the company’s fifth reactor, is just a step along the way.


Norman, which is 100 feet in length and 45 feet wide, is housed at the company’s Foot Hill Ranch facility in Southern California. It can consume a whopping 750 megawatts of power in a short burst when it’s holding the plasma that is needed to create a nuclear fusion reaction.

Because of the high energy needs, the facility has an array of batteries and flywheels on standby that store the needed energy to get the reactor running. Norman achieved what’s called “first plasma” (i.e., it generated plasma in its core) in June.


Unlike the tokamak’s donuts, Tri Alpha Energy is using a design that shoots beams of plasma into a vessel where it’s held in place, spinning, by a magnetic field. The design shares some properties with particle accelerators.

Norman cost $100 million to build, and can fit five times more plasma in it than the previous reactor. At the same time, it can still be housed at the facility that held the previous reactor.

Industrial seed oils seem positively dangerous to health

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Vegetable oils are better called industrial seed oils, P.D. Mangan reminds us, since they’re made from seeds, not vegetables, and require an industrial process to make them in any volume:

The manufacturing process for vegetable oils involves pressing at high pressure, and extracting more oil using solvents such as hexane, a volatile hydrocarbon similar to gasoline. The oils are then refined by heating to a high temperature and adding sodium hydroxide (lye), and finally, degummed, bleached, and deodorized.

Without knowing anything else about it, I already know that I don’t want this industrial substance in my body, much less in the massive quantities most people consume.


The lipid hypothesis of heart disease, sometimes called the diet-heart hypothesis, holds that dietary saturated fat and high blood cholesterol cause coronary heart disease. Since the beginnings of that idea, mainstream health authorities have urged people to use vegetable oils in order to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, in the hope that this would reduce the incidence of heart disease. How has that worked out?

A recently published re-analysis of data from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment found that polyunsaturated fats did indeed lower serum cholesterol. Problem is, each 30 mg/dL reduction in cholesterol was associated with a 22% increased risk of death.

The same group re-analyzed the data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and found that the intervention group that had replaced saturated fat with vegetable oils had a death rate from all causes that was 62% higher than the control group, and 70% higher for cardiovascular disease.

These were randomized controlled studies, which can show causation, as opposed to epidemiological studies, which cannot, and only show association. In epidemiological studies that show an association between intake of polyunsaturated fats and less heart disease, that association could very well be due to the healthy user effect.

Knowing this, deliberately consuming more polyunsaturated fats in the form of industrial seed oils seems positively dangerous to health.

How Communists overthrew Salazar’s regime in Portugal

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Wolfgang Adler explains how Communists overthrew Salazar’s regime in Portugal:

An interesting answer to these outsized fixations on the Lusophone world comes to us via the October 1961 issue of the French military journal Revue Militaire Générale. Reporting on the “Congress of 81” of communist countries held in Moscow on December 6, 1960, the Frenchmen captured the product of three weeks of deliberation in Moscow on the course to take in the Third World, with the Soviets:

[A]nnouncing the targeting of a number of countries for subversive activities. Portugal and its colonies were on the top of the list. They asserted that the way to change Portugal’s dictatorship was to disturb the colonial situation, and presented a plan to topple the authoritarian government of Dr. Salazar and separate the Portugal from its colonies. This plan was to be implemented simultaneously with the support of African nationalist organizations advocating the independence of the Portuguese colonies and by the infiltration of Portuguese universities with elements supporting this notion of colonial independence and espousing the communist doctrine… Portugal could cope with the military situation initially, but as the wars expanded, its armed forces would need to recruit large additional members of temporary junior officers from the universities. Thus, the appropriately indoctrinated university graduates would in the meantime be entering the government and particularly the military service and making their new views felt. The plan called for these forces to combine and to create an opportunity for the installation of a communist government in Lisbon. The ultimate aim was to replace the Salazar regime, which had refused to establish diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, with a government friendly to the communist sphere.

What would appear at first glance to be a phantasm of reactionaries in the French military suffering from some “McCarthy-esque” red-baiting neuroticism was in actuality one of the most shockingly accurate predictions of the collapse of an authoritarian regime to a seemingly unreal level of exactitude. Almost a decade and a half after the conference, the Estado Novo was toppled in the Carnation Revolution of 1974 by a cadre of leftist junior officers, previously radicalized towards Marxism to a large degree during their university tenures.

What made the Soviet plan successful was the unity of action of the Soviet command and the placement of highly competent people in key positions:

The regimented Soviet communist structure stands in stark contrast to the American method of power projection evident in this first part of the 21st century. Regardless of party, American presidents provide contradictory and confused foreign policy statements on many geographies. At the departmental level, conflicting initiatives from the Pentagon on one hand and the State Department and CIA on the other hobble the ability to develop cohesive policy. Out-dated sub agency structures poorly match the needs of campaigns, and change is too slow to ever be impactful. The general quality of many American proxy agents in conflicts appears poor and ineffectual. And, arguably most tellingly, our local partners in conflicts will oftentimes have higher allegiances to any number of capitals — Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Ankara, Tehran, Moscow, Beijing — before Washington, and don’t display much competence in many matters beyond burning through terrific amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars.

If anything, with its domestic hyper-factionalization, inter-departmental strife, dated bureaucratic structures, weak executive visionary leadership, growing encroachment by hostile powers in its spheres of influence, and questions around a long-term power decline, the United States government in the early 21st more clearly matches the ailing Estado Novo regime under Caetano than its Soviet opponents.

The Sparkses simply got lucky

Monday, July 24th, 2017

While out for a walk with his family in Las Cruces, New Mexico, 9-year-old Jude Sparks tripped over something unusual:

It looked like a massive jaw, and Jude’s younger brother Hunter thought it belonged to a cow skull. His parents, Michelle and Kyle Sparks, thought it resembled the remains of an elephant. So they took a picture of the object to investigate further.

Jude Sparks with Stegomastodon Jaw

“When we went home, we were trying to research,” Ms. Sparks said. “It didn’t match perfectly with elephants, so then we said, O.K., I guess it was something else.”

They sent an email to a biology professor at nearby New Mexico State University, Peter Houde. He recognized the find almost immediately: These were the remains of a long-extinct Stegomastodon, and Jude had tripped over its fossilized tusk.

Dr. Houde said he gets calls and emails about potential finds from time to time — often, they amount to nothing much. But this time, it was different.

“This is really very unusual to find,” he said, explaining that prehistoric remains are so fragile that they typically disintegrate shortly after erosion exposes them to the elements. The Sparkses simply got lucky by visiting the site shortly after strong rains had exposed the fossil.

When Dr. Houde and the Sparks family visited the remains one day after Jude’s discovery, they made sure to bury them again. After months of arranging a team, getting money and securing a permit, the skull was finally excavated in May.

The creature it belonged to lived at least 1.2 million years ago, Dr. Houde estimated.

Construction Time Again was an open rebellion to Jacques Derrida’s openly nihilistic and destructive deconstructionism

Monday, July 24th, 2017

Richard Wolstencroft examines Depeche Mode as an Alt-Right band:

The new CD is rather good, by the way, a true return to form after their last less-than-stellar Delta Machine effort. And—surprise, surprise—it’s filled to the brim with political and Alt-Rightish-type messages, memes, misanthropy, and mischief.

But first a little history and a somewhat outrageous statement: I think Depeche Mode are the Rolling Stones or Beatles of the 80s.


Now apropos the accusations of right-wing or fashy politics. First let’s consider the historical milieu from which they emerged—the New Romantic, New wave and Electro Revolution. In the late 70s/early 80s, fashy right-wing signalling was surprisingly common. It was even very hip to do so. Bands like Joy Division, Kraftwerk, NON, Death In June, Current 93, and Throbbing Gristle, to name just a few, openly embraced fascist and right-wing aesthetics—probably taking after Bowie and his Thin White Duke period. And the lyrics in many songs and publicity shots reflected the same.

Even more commercial bands like Ultravox, Human League, Gary Numan, Japan, Devo, Furniture, Visage, and Talk Talk embraced some fashy style imagery, as well as conservative ideas and lyrics. It was sort of a New Romantic and New Wave counter revolution against the destructive anarchy of punk and it’s aftermath. Funnily enough John Lydon recently said he backed Brexit and thought Trump was punk, so even he has come around and you can some early signs of this in his Flowers of Romance and PiL projects. “I could be Right, I could be wrong”—from Rise, etc.


After Ian Curtis of Joy Division, an open admirer of fascism, topped himself, the band looked across the channel to Portugal and Salazar’s regime and to Indonesia’s fashy Suharto to choose their new name, New Order. They went on to achieve global success, dominance, and importance, much like the subject of this essay, Depeche Mode.

The members of Mode all emerged from this fashy signalling New Romantic and avant grade electronic milieu. The band’s first album, mainly written by the synth pop guru and genius Vince Clarke of later Yazoo (Yaz in the U.S) and Erasure fame, launched the band with their first album Speak and Spell.

Politics was not so present on the first album, but was more reflected the band’s name a reference to Fast Fashion and New Romance—a pre-Bret-Easton-Ellis type notion that celebrated the decadent 80s love of surface, fast living, young love, good looks, and high times. But, as soon as Vince Clarke left the band and Martin Gore took over the songwriting slot, they began signalling political ideas of both the Left and Right.

This Left and Right synthesis was both progressive and forward-looking for the era, and really added to the band’s power level, intellectual weight, longevity, and the ability of their work to sound as relevant today as ever. Some may laugh at that, but there were recent articles in NME and elsewhere reporting the “findings” of some university boffins that Depeche Mode has the most intelligent lyrics of any band ever.

A Broken Frame, their second LP, featured a Neo-Realist folk type cover, reminiscent of both Nazi art and the Communist “Realism” that was favoured by the Stalin and subsequently China and North Korea. The follow up Construction Time Again was an open rebellion to Jacques Derrida’s openly nihilistic and destructive deconstructionism that was all the rage in the 80s intellectual scene. It also featured a fascistic cover of an Aryan man smashing down a hammer. From that image alone the Alt-Right could have been born. Again, the Left and Right symbolism were being mixed together.

So, “construction time again” it was with Mode, and many of our generation who despised deconstruction and relativist bullshit!

Mode went forward with leaps and bounds after Vince Clarke left, having smash hits like People are People and releasing dark, subversive dance masterpieces with an S&M flavour, like Master and Servant. That song gives off a Nazi vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on The Night Porter.

The album Music for the Masses featured a kind of overarching, fashy motif of a loudspeaker in the wilderness on the cover and an anthem and theme song on the record, Pimpf, given visual expression with the help of the wonderful Anton Corbijn.

This was quite openly the most fascist reference in their whole oeuvre. Pimpf was named after a Nazi Youth Movement, and at this time Martin Gore began making his most fashy statements in the media about politics. There is a side story here I might share.

Gore, the rumour goes, was getting into fascist aesthetics, fashion, and ideas from the mid to late 80s until the early 90s, until he discovered his real father was of mixed race, or something along those lines. Then he went silent on the issue. But he still continued to signal these ideas in his art, albeit in a slightly more diffused and subterranean way. But he was also signalling some left-wing Socialist ideas. With him, it seems, there’s always been a kind of dialectic at play.

They listen at chipmunk speed

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

The Wall Street Journal notes that “podcast nuts” find the time to listen to so much material by listening at chipmunk speed — which is a cute phrase, but one that doesn’t make sense in the digital age, since we can now speed up audio without shifting the pitch, too:

A fourfold speedup sounds entirely sane to Max Deutsch, 24, who says he has speed-listened to 69 audiobooks this year. The faster the speed, he found, the more engaged he was. “That’s when I asked myself: I wonder how fast I could actually listen?”

The San Francisco tech-product manager, unable to find apps with speeds over 3x, created Rightspeed, a $2.99 app that accelerates podcasts in nearly unnoticeable 0.1x increments every two minutes. A one-hour podcast that begins at 2x, ends at 5x and takes 17 minutes.

“It’s sort of like the Roger Bannister, four-minute-mile effect,” Mr. Deutsch says. “Until you’re told it’s possible for a human to listen at this speed, you just decide you can’t.”

My first thought was, “no thank you,” but then I accidentally set my podcast app to 1.5x and found it entirely listenable — but definitely not relaxing or pleasant.

Even books running hundreds of thousands of words reach your browser in a second or two

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

Ron Unz has made 150 million words of books available through a new system that promises to be fast and responsive:

I’d think that the vast majority of all the serious writing ever produced exists in the form of books, yet currently there does not seem any fully satisfactory means of reading this huge accumulation of content material on the Internet.

Most of those books currently available are provided in PDF-type format, but this is inconvenient for sustained reading, especially on small-screen devices such as smartphones, and particular parts of PDFs also cannot easily be referenced elsewhere or shared. Meanwhile, closed-design Kindle-type books may not be externally linked, nor is their content generally visible to Google and other search engines. The pure HTML-type books found at Project Gutenberg and other websites either occupy inconveniently large webpages or must be split between numerous separate ones, representing chapters or sections.

Therefore, since the beginning of this year, I have been working on a project to produce a new software system aimed at avoiding these difficulties by presenting even very long books in the form of single HTML webpages, but with the individual chapters or sections hidden by default for reading convenience, but available for display at the click of a mouse. The underlying software technology represented an extension of what I had already developed for the website. As a consequence of my design architecture, the system is extremely fast and responsive, with even books running hundreds of thousands of words reaching your browser in just a second or two, and all subsequent operations usually being almost instantaneous. And unlike books displayed in PDF-type formats, the system should function quite well on smartphones and other mobile devices.