Nobody should object to buying insurance even if he doesn’t have a fire

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Development projects provide options, Techniques of Systems Analysis emphasizes:

We often hear statements that the major reason for doing a Systems Analysis is that development programs are so expensive and it is crucial that none of them be wasted; therefore, all development programs should be tied into a system, designed as a whole. Nothing could be more wrong. Development people have a saying, “It may or may not be a mistake to develop something which is not procured, but it is always a mistake to procure something which is not developed.”

The most important thing the Department of Defense can do is see to it that we maintain a great deal of flexibility in our capability and have available a great variety of on-the-shelf items to meet a variety of contingencies. This ordinarily means that many of our development projects will never reach the stage of large-scale procurement. This may create very difficult relations with both Congress and the public. The problem has to be faced directly and preferably adroitly, but it is a mistake to cut back on potentially valuable development programs just to prevent possible criticism in the event they do nut turn out to be needed. Nobody should object to buying insurance even if he doesn’t have a fire.

Six turning and four burning

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was the largest mass-produced piston-engined aircraft ever built, with the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built:

The genesis of the B-36 can be traced to early 1941, prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. At the time it appeared there was a very real chance that Britain might fall to the German “Blitz”, making a strategic bombing effort by the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) against Germany impossible with the aircraft of the time.


After the establishment of an independent United States Air Force in 1947, the beginning in earnest of the Cold War with the 1948 Berlin Airlift, and the 1949 atmospheric test of the first Soviet atomic bomb, American military planners sought bombers capable of delivering the very large and heavy first-generation atomic bombs.

The B-36 was the only American aircraft with the range and payload to carry such bombs from airfields on American soil to targets in the USSR. The modification to allow the use of larger atomic weapons on the B-36 was called the “Grand Slam Installation”.


Beginning with the B-36D, Convair added a pair of General Electric J47-19 jet engines suspended near the end of each wing; these were also retrofitted to all extant B-36Bs. Consequently, the B-36 was configured to have ten engines, six radial propeller engines and four jet engines, leading to the B-36 slogan of “six turning and four burning”. The B-36 had more engines than any other mass-produced aircraft. The jet pods greatly improved takeoff performance and dash speed over the target. In normal cruising flight, the jet engines were shut down to conserve fuel. When the jet engines were shut down, louvers closed off the front of the pods to reduce drag and to prevent ingestion of sand and dirt.

The B-36 features prominently in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command, along with Jimmy Stewart, who was a real-life military pilot:

It would be sensible to spend even a few billion dollars

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The history of the B-36 is a “slightly atypical but not extreme” example of how difficult it is to prepare for an uncertain future, Techniques of Systems Analysis explains:

It was designed during World War II when people were thinking first of Germany and then of Japan as the enemy. It was designed to carry high explosives. It was designed when its chief enemy was thought to be the propeller-driven interceptor.

None of the analyses which went into it and determined how we should trade range, weight, altitude and speed considered the possibility that:

  • it might carry atomic bombs
  • the enemy might be Russia
  • it would have to fight its way through jet fighters and guided ground-to-air missiles
  • we would have overseas bases
  • refueling techniques would be available

Any one of these changes might have been sufficient either to eliminate its value completely or to increase it enormously. Somehow, it is up to the man who is designing such vehicles to produce equipment which will be able to fight effectively in almost unpredictable situations.

In addition to proper design, there is one very important thing which can be done to alleviate this particular problem — to defer decisions. One shouldn’t decide today whether he wants to have a long-range slow airplane or a short-range high speed one in 1965. He should carry both projects through the paper design stages. If he still doesn’t know in a couple of years which he needs, then he might carry both projects through the mock-up and possibly even the tooling stages. While the cost of doing this may be high, it is measured in millions and not in billions. It is therefore small compared to the total cost of the strategic air force.

One should always remember that the total investment in an organization like SAC runs between fifty and one hundred billion dollars. Therefore, in principle it would be sensible to spend even a few billion dollars to increase the effectiveness of this force by only 10%. Under these circumstances, one can clearly afford some very expensive development and preliminary tooling programs if they enable you to defer making crucial decisions until you can make them wisely.

Labour repression & the Indo-Japanese divergence

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Indian and the Japanese textile industries had similar levels of wages and productivity, and both were exporting to global markets:

But by the 1930s, Japan had surpassed the UK to become the world’s dominant exporter of textiles; while the Indian industry withdrew behind the tariff protection of the British Raj. Technology, human capital, and industrial policy were minor determinants of this divergence, or at least they mattered conditional on labour relations.

Indian textile mills were obstructed by militant workers who defended employment levels, resisted productivity-enhancing measures, and demanded high wages relative to effort. But Japanese mills suppressed strikes and busted unions; extracted from workers much greater effort for a given increase in wages; and imposed technical & organisational changes at will. The bargaining position of workers was much weaker in Japan than in India, because Japan had a true “surplus labour” economy with high rates of workers ‘released’ from agriculture into industry. But late colonial India was rather ‘Gerschenkronian’, where employers’ options were more limited by a relatively inelastic supply of labour.

The state also mattered. The British Raj did little to restrain on behalf of Indian capitalists the exercise of monopoly power by Indian workers. Britain had neither the incentive, nor the stomach, nor the legitimacy to do much about it. But a key element of the industrial policy of the pre-war Japanese state was repression of the labour movement, which kept the labour market more competitive than it otherwise would have been.

Professors tend to be poor businessmen

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

Some of the most crucial uncertainties that bedevil a Systems Analysis come in the realm of technological progress, Techniques of Systems Analysis explains:

It is at least partly because these are so hard to predict that the scholarly type has become useful on the policy level.

We think that, if experienced men are available whose experience has been obtained in competitive situations such that the incompetent are almost automatically eliminated, it is best to rely on their experience rather than on analytical techniques and analytical people. It is generally believed and probably correct that professors tend to be rather poor business men, even when their field is business administration.

However, it is characteristic of the current world that the effective rate of technological progress has been enormously increased. In a real sense, on many of the problems faced by the Department of Defense nobody has relevant practical experience. Furthermore, the need for good advance planning is also more important. Even in small wars, the pace of events may be so fast and the lead-time for development and procurement of forces or even for making operating changes so long, that it is practically impossible to correct mistakes in planning after the war has broken out. This is, of course, even more likely to be true in large wars. In this situation, one must somehow wed whatever experience is available to analysis. This means making scholars out of some of the military and military out of some of the scholars.

Near-net forging for larger, less expensive aircraft structures

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Arconic in Pittsburgh manufactures parts for the F-35, including some really big parts:

What sets Arconic apart from its competitors is the strength of the alloys it produces — often using patented formulas — and its ability to take many components and manufacture them as a single piece, reducing weight and bulk, said Eric Roegner, president of Arconic Defense.

The company manufactures the F-35’s bulkheads in entirely one piece, using techniques Arconic developed for the inner rear spars on Airbus’ A380 airliner, which first flew in 2005.

“[At] that point, we had been talking to Lockheed, and they were a little skeptical, but when they saw the part flying on the A380, they came to the table,” Roegner said in a Sept. 21 interview.

Arconic forges the bulkheads in one piece out of aluminum or titanium using a 50,000-ton machine at its facility in Cleveland, Ohio. Only one such machine exists anywhere in the world, he said.

To make the 21 foot long, 7 foot tall bulkheads through a more traditional manufacturing process would require machining multiple large pieces of titanium or aluminum, fastening them together, and then putting additional forgings on it, he said. But by using a process called near-net forging — along with some technologies developed and patented by Arconic — the company can make the bulkheads in one piece and dramatically reduce the cost and weight of the component.

F-35 Bulkhead

“Some of the bulkheads [initially] were composed of upwards of 100 different parts. We could make them in one piece. Just wham, you get your titanium forging or your aluminum forging,” he said. “This one application across six bulkheads took 400 pounds out, and it got the installed cost of the final part down 25 percent.”

Preserving a capability for fighting a whole spectrum of limited wars can be difficult

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis notes some strategic changes that may be important — looking into the future from the 1950s:

For example, it is very possible that future wars, like Korea, will include all kinds of target or other limitations, particularly as to the number or yield of atomic weapons that can be used.

Three important problems arise in considering such limitations. First, one must have a capability for enforcing the limitation on the enemy. In particular we must preserve our massive retaliatory capabilities from being destroyed by a sudden blow. Secondly, we must have a satisfactory capability for fighting all of the kinds of wars that may be necessary with whatever limitations or lack of limitations are involved. A third (and often overlooked point) is that we should operate as much as possible in such a way that the enemy is not tempted to violate limitations. It is sometimes possible to design a system to use effectively political, military, and psychological barriers.

In addition to designing systems that operate effectively within limitations, in principle we can consider refusing to accept limitations which would seriously hamper us. However, the question of what limitations we are willing to accept is presumably not within the Systems Analyst’s or even the Department of Defense’s authority to decide. It is decided by either the President or Congress and the enemy. In some circumstances our allies will also have more than a slight say in the matter. It is clear that preserving a capability for fighting a whole spectrum of limited wars can be difficult — sometimes intolerably so. (It is important, however, that the Department of Defense planners realize that it is their job, as much as possible, not to hamper the civilians in their conduct of political and foreign affairs; military solutions which constrain the civilian arm of government in unaccustomed and serious ways should be looked upon as desperate expedients.)

What would this look like if it were easy?

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

What would this look like if it were easy?, Tim Ferriss likes to ask:

It’s easy to convince yourself that things need to be hard, that if you’re not redlining, you’re not trying hard enough. This leads us to look for paths of most resistance, creating unnecessary hardship in the process.

But what happens if we frame things in terms of elegance instead of strain? In doing so, we sometimes find incredible results with ease instead of stress. Sometimes, we “solve” the problem by simply rewording it.

So, Tim “easily” wrote his next book, Tribe of Mentors, by sending his usual questions (and a few new ones) to a list of dream interviewees:

After hitting “send” dozens of times, I clasped my hands to my chest with excitement and bated breath, to which the universe replied with… silence. Crickets.

For 12 to 24 hours, nothing. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. And then, there was a faint trickle through the ether. A whisper of curiosity and a handful of clarifying questions. Some polite declines followed, and then came the torrent.

Nearly all of the people I reached out to are busy beyond belief, and I expected short, rushed responses from a few of them, if I got any at all. Instead, what I got back were some of the most thoughtful answers I’d ever received, whether on paper, in person, or otherwise. In the end, there were more than 100 respondents.

Granted, the “easy” path took thousands of back-and-forth emails and Twitter direct messages, hundreds of phone calls, many marathons at a treadmill desk, and more than a few late-night bottles of wine, but . . . it worked. Did it always work? No. I didn’t get the Dalai Lama (this time), and at least half of the people on my list didn’t respond or declined the invitation. But it worked enough to matter, and that’s what matters.

In cases where the outreach worked, the questions did the heavy lifting.


The older I get, the more time I spend — as a percentage of each day — on crafting better questions. In my experience, going from 1x to 10x, from 10x to 100x, and from 100x to (when Lady Luck really smiles) 1000x returns in various areas has been a product of better questions. John Dewey’s dictum that “a problem well put is half-solved” applies.

Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask. Conscious thinking is largely asking and answering questions in your own head, after all. If you want confusion and heartache, ask vague questions. If you want uncommon clarity and results, ask uncommonly clear questions.

Fortunately, this is a skill you can develop. No book can give you all of the answers, but this book can train you to ask better questions. Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has said that “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.” Substitute “master learner” for “novel,” and you have my philosophy of life. Often, all that stands between you and what you want is a better set of questions.

We presume that we can depend on Texas

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Hegemonies, alliances, and neutral areas continually change, Techniques of Systems Analysis warns:

We must keep our system sufficiently flexible to meet these changes. This means, for example, that we cannot rely on any particular set of foreign bases, though presumably we can place a fairly high reliance on having at least a portion of them available to us. It also means that we have to worry, for example, about the Russians taking over or influencing some countries which we have counted on as being allies or neutrals. We should not therefore make ourselves too dependent upon any particular group unless we have reason to believe that they are just about as reliable as one of the forty-eight states. (We presume that we can depend on Texas.)

There is little that’s quiet about a firearm with a silencer

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

The Washington Post is willing to print a fact-checker column noting that there is little that’s quiet about a firearm with a silencer, unless one also thinks a jackhammer is quiet:

The Environmental Protection Agency developed the noise-reduction rating (NRR), which explains how much a product might reduce noise in decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic, rather than linear, so a difference of a few decibels is important.

Of course, different ear protection has different ratings. We found that the range for ear plugs ranged from 22 to 33 NRR, over-the-ear muffs between 22 and 31 NRR and suppressors were also in 30 NRR range, although some may go higher.

(In all likelihood, the level of noise reduction is overestimated, especially for ear plugs because tests are done in a laboratory setting and people using them often do not achieve the proper fit. 3M advises cutting the NRR by more than half to reflect this problem, so 29 NRR would translate to 11 NRR.)

Katie Peters, a spokeswoman for ARS, supplied an article that stated: “The average suppression level, according to independent tests done on a variety of commercially available suppressors, is around 30 dB, which is around the same reduction level of typical ear protection gear often used when firing guns.”

If that’s the case, we’re not sure why the group would say that ear plugs protect hearing “better” than suppressors.” It seems the answer is that they are about the same, give or take two or three decibels. And if that’s the case, ARS is especially wrong to claim that legislation to make it easier to buy such devices “does nothing to protect hearing.”

Peters acknowledged that gun enthusiasts recommend that even with suppressors, other hearing protection is necessary. Hearing damage begins to occur at about 85 decibels, about the sound of a hairdryer.

This gets us to the other issue — whether a suppressor makes it “quiet,” as Gillibrand tweeted, and harder for law enforcement officials to detect, as she and ARS suggested.

A 30-decibel reduction in theory means an AR-15 rifle would have a noise equivalent of 132 decibels. That is considered equivalent to a gunshot or a jackhammer. A .22-caliber pistol would be 116 decibels, which is louder than a 100-watt car stereo. In all likelihood, the noise level is actually higher.

Maybe we should call them mufflers?

First time anyone came up to my average

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

An important source of uncertainty, Techniques of Systems Analysis notes, is degradation of estimated performance:

Notice we said degradation, not variation.

The reader is undoubtedly familiar with examples of this effect. For instance one might ask a porter what his average tip is. He answers $2.00. You give him $2.00 and he says, “First time anybody came up to my average.”

It should be understood that most of the estimates of average performance are of this sort. They are goals, often idealized and optimistic goals, rather than sober predictions. We are talking here about more than the (very important) question of the degradation of performance of individual soldiers and organizations. The Systems Analyst is equally concerned with the degradation of performance of equipment undergoing Research and Development as compared to the predictions of the designers. It is amazing how uniformly optimistic most of the contracts and official sources seem to be — at least for the short term estimates. For the long term the same sources tend systematically to underestimate long term improvements.

There is another aspect of the degradation of our performance which is of extreme importance. It is related to or identical with the “battleship thinking” of the prewar Navy. The battleship was a fine object in its day but, when it day had passed, some of our naval officers were reluctant to give it up. They placed a reliance on it which proved to be costly.

What’s killing us?

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Mike Huemer looks at what’s killing us:

The top causes of death almost never appear in political discourse or discussions of social problems. They’re almost all diseases, and there is almost no debate about what should be done about them. This is despite that they are killing vastly more people than even the most destructive of the social problems that we do talk about. (Illegal drugs account for 0.7% of the death rate; murder, about 0.6%.)


Hypothesis: We don’t much care about the good of society. Refinement: Love of the social good is not the main motivation for (i) political action, and (ii) political discourse. We don’t talk about what’s good for society because we want to help our fellow humans. We talk about society because we want to align ourselves with a chosen group, to signal that alignment to others, and to tell a story about who we are. There are AIDS activists because there are people who want to express sympathy for gays, to align themselves against conservatives, and thereby to express “who they are”. There are no nephritis activists, because there’s no salient group you align yourself with (kidney disease sufferers?) by advocating for nephritis research, there’s no group you thereby align yourself against, and you don’t tell any story about what kind of person you are.

Just three percent of adults own half of America’s guns

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog notes that just three percent of adults own half of America’s guns but has the sense to note that this is the same pattern we see everywhere.

It’s frankly terrifying that so many guns are concentrated in the hands of collectors who have no interest in killing anyone.

A close examination makes the precise imprecise

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis notes that there are almost always large uncertainties when it comes to costs:

At first sight, costs look like a pretty concrete thing. You just grab an accountant and put him to work. However, as always, a close examination makes the precise imprecise. As we will explain later, when we talk about time-phasing, there is a real ambiguity in deciding the dollar cost of a system. Roughly speaking, this occurs because a military system is not bought at one instant of time by going into a department store and ordering it. It has to be built up over the past years and it is expect to have a continuous existence in the future. Under such circumstances one must always ask himself what it costs to use facilities which are already owned, and what will be the salvage value of any expenditures made this year in future years. Also, if one is procuring or developing a new system, he may have had no experience on which to base cost estimate.s It is surprising, in practice, how inaccurate even careful estimates of the costs of new systems have proved to be. Careless estimates tend to be out of this world.

There is another ambiguity in costs which the Analyst generally ignores but with which the policy make is sometimes concerned. Some dollars are harder to come by than others. Research and Development funds, for example, are ordinarily tighter than procurement funds. In the U.S., expensive gadgets are often easier to buy than high grade, but relatively low cost, people. Public works funds, for obvious reasons, are often easy to get and, of course, traditional expenditures are almost always easier to justify than new ones.

Finally, there are many costs which are not usually measured in dollars, such as crew lives, dislocations, political effects, etc.

He does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate

Monday, October 9th, 2017

I recently shared a video about how American animated films have progressed from conservative fairy tales to liberal allegories as CGI technology has transformed the filmmaking process:

T. Greer doesn’t quite agree with the videomaker’s characterization:

Perhaps a better phrase for these films would be “Mencian fairy tales.” Ancient China nerdery is strong among my readers, and most of you probably understand the reference. For those who don’t, an explanation: Mencius is a famous philosopher who discoursed his way across the central Chinese plains back in ye olde ancient days. In the textual record he is depicted as the first great Confucian after Confucius himself. One of his big ideas was that the most important way to ensure stability and happiness of a kingdom is cultivate virtue in its ruler.


For Mencius, politics is ultimately personal. The rise and fall of kingdoms and countries is a matter of character. But this is hardly an idea unique to the Chinese tradition. When Hamlet struts onto the stage and declares that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” he does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate, or that it the bureaucracy is overstaffed and inefficient, or that the Danish peasantry are being oppressed by the yoke of entrenched intersectional prejudices embedded in its structures of power. Hamlet means that the court of Denmark has nosedived into moral decline, and that the stench of the court’s moral depravity poisons all of the kingdom around it.

So it is with most of these Disney stories.