There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

Clinicians at the Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center have used MRI scanners to find a Goldilocks effect in how children react to being read to:

For a small 2018 study involving 27 children around the age of 4, the researchers watched how the young brains responded to different stimuli. As with the first bowl of porridge that Goldilocks finds in the house of the Three Bears, the sound of the storytelling voice on its own seemed to be “too cold” to get the children’s brain networks to fully engage. Like the second bowl that Goldilocks samples, animation of the sort that children might see on a TV screen or tablet was “too hot.” There is just too much going on, too quickly, for the children to be able to participate in what they were seeing. Small children’s brains have no difficulty registering bright, fast-moving images, as experience teaches and MRI scanning confirms, but the giddy shock and awe of animation doesn’t give them time to exercise their deeper cognitive faculties.

Just as Goldilocks sighs with relief when she takes a spoonful from the third bowl of porridge and finds that it is “just right,” so a small child can relax into the experience of being read a picture book. There is a bit of pleasurable challenge in making sense of what he’s seeing and hearing. There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations in his own life — a transaction that may be as simple as the flash of making a connection between a real donkey he once saw with the “honky tonky, winky wonky donkey” of Craig Smith’s picture book. The collaborative engagement that a child brings to the experience is so vital and productive that reading aloud “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development,” as a 2014 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics put it, strengthening the neural connections that will enable him to process more difficult and complex stories as he gets older.

Much of the hidden magic of reading aloud has to do with those curious eyes and that devouring gaze. Looking at a book with an adult, a child increases his capacity for “joint attention,” noticing what others see and following their gaze. This phenomenon has a remarkable tempering power in children. It encourages the development of executive function, an array of skills that includes the ability to remember details and to pay attention. Children “learn to naturally regulate their attention when they are focusing on a task they find interesting in a context that is nurturing, warm and responsive,” as Vanderbilt University’s David Dickenson and colleagues put it in a paper summarizing the rich developmental value of reading aloud.

By contrast, fast-paced TV shows have been shown to impair executive function in young children after as little as nine minutes of viewing. Nor is that the only tech-related downside. Babies look at adults to see where we’re looking, so if we’re glued to our electronic devices, that’s what will draw their gaze too. What they see may not be what we want them to see. As the psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair has written: “Babies are often distressed when they look to their parent for a reassuring connection and discover the parent is distracted or uninterested. Studies show that they are especially perturbed by a mother’s ‘flat’ or emotionless expression, something we might once have associated with a depressive caregiver but which now is eerily similar to the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down to text, stare away as we talk on our phones or stare into a screen as we go online.”

A Tesla valve allows a fluid to flow preferentially in one direction, without moving parts

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

In 1920, Nikola Tesla was awarded U.S. Patent 1,329,559 for his valvular conduit, or Tesla valve, which allows a fluid to flow preferentially in one direction, without moving parts:

That’s a goofy sounding scheme

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle closes There Will Be War Volume II with a discussion of the strategic dilemma facing the United States, where any defensive measure reduces the stability of Mutual Assured Destruction:

Civil Defense structures were originally planned as part of the Interstate Highway System. There were to be fallout and partial blast shelters under most of the approach ramps. This would have been easy to do as part of the construction, and a few model shelters were actually built as a demonstration.


The Triad is composed of manned bombers, submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Prior to the ICBM leg we had Snark, an air-breathing pilotless aircraft capable of flying intercontinental distances—an early “cruise missile.”

Each leg, then, depends on a different mechanism for survival. The manned bomber is very soft; it can be killed on the ground by nukes landing a long way off. It depends for early survival on warning: unlike the other two legs of the Triad, the manned bombers can be launched at an early stage of alert and still be recalled.


(I helped work on updates to the B-52 as my first aerospace job.)


One USAF colonel recently described a B-52 as “a mass of parts flying in loose formation.”


Even if the bombers can penetrate, they’re not useful for fighting a nuclear war. You can’t send the bombers to attack Soviet missile bases; there’d be nothing to hit but empty holes by the time a subsonic bomber got to the target.


Cruise missiles can be an excellent supplement to the strategic force, but they are certainly not a potential leg of the Triad. They are vulnerable to everything that kills airplanes (on the ground or in the air) without the recall advantages of manned aircraft.

The second leg of the Triad is the submarine. Its survival depends entirely on concealment. If you can locate a submarine to within a few miles, it can be killed by an ICBM carrying an H-bomb.


Note, by the way, that all the subs in harbor — up to a third of them, sometimes more — are dead the day the war starts.


Unfortunately, the submarine’s concealment isn’t what it used to be. Subs can be located in at least two ways. First, by tracking them from their bases; every submariner can tell you stories about playing tag with the Russkis when they leave Holy Loch.

Worse, though, the oceans aren’t nearly so opaque as we thought. Not long ago we took a look at some radar pictures made from a satellite. “Look at that,” one of the engineers said. “You can see stuff down in the ocean! Deep in the ocean.” And sure enough, using “synthetic aperture” radars, the oceans have become somewhat transparent down to about fifty meters. While the subs can go deeper than that, they can’t launch from deeper than that.


Incidentally, as I write this, a Soviet naval surveillance satellite is about to fall. It carried a 100 kilowatt nuclear power plant. The United States has yet to put a ten kilowatt satellite into orbit.


Submarines have to launch their missiles from unpredictable places (by definition; imagine what the KGB would pay to find out where our subs would launch from), and this drastically limits their accuracy.


Suppose one morning the Soviets knock out our Minutemen installations (not too difficult, as we’ll see in a bit) and many of our subs. They still have quite a few birds left. The Red Army is marching into Germany. The hot line chatters, and the message is pretty simple: “You haven’t really been hurt. Most of your cities are in good shape. Cool it, or we launch the rest of our force.”

At that point it would be useful to have something capable of knocking out the rest of their strategic force.

To have that capability, you need land-based missiles. To be exact, you need MX. MX, and only MX, has both the accuracy and the Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVS, and they’re different from multiple warheads; MIRVS can attack targets much farther apart) that might give some counterforce capability.


If you attack a target with an ICBM, your “single shot probability of kill” (PKSS) depends on three major factors: attacker’s yield, attacker’s accuracy, and hardness of target.


While there are classified refinements, all the numbers you really need have long since been published in the US Government Printing Office’s “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons”. They’ve even been put on a circular slide rule that the RAND Corporation used to sell for about a dollar in the 60’s.


The Minutemen Missile lies in a soil that’s officially hardened to 300 PSI. When we put in Minutemen—the last one was installed in the 60’s—it was no bad guess that the Soviets could throw a megaton with a CEP of about a nautical mile. This gave them a PKSS of about .09, and it would take more than 20 warheads to give better than .9 kill probability. That was obviously a stable situation.[...]Going to ten megatons puts the PKSS to about 35%, and it still takes more than five attackers to get a 90% chance of killing one Minuteman; still not a lot to worry about.

Changes in accuracy, on the other hand, are very significant. Cutting the CEP in half (well, to 2700 feet) gives one megaton the same kill probability as ten had for a mile. Cutting CEP to 1000 feet is more drastic yet: now the single shot kill probability of one megaton is above 90%.

If you can get your accuracy to 600 feet CEP, then a 500 kiloton weapon has above 99% kill probability. Now all you need is multiple warheads, and you’re able to knock out more birds than you launched. Clearly this is getting unstable.

In 1964 we figured the Soviets had 6000 foot CEP, and predicted that by 1975 they’d have 600 feet. By 1975 I’d given up my clearances, and I don’t know what they achieved.


Item: weather satellites; winds over target are predictable, so you can correct for them. Item: lots of polar-orbiting satellites; by studying them, you can map gravitational anomalies. Item: observation satellites; location errors just aren’t significant any more. Item: the Soviets have been buying gyros, precision lathes, etc., as well as computers. They already had the mathematicians.


Two: in the 60’s we studied lots and lots of mobile basing schemes: road mobile, rail mobile, off-road mobile, canal and barge mobile, ship mobile, etc. We even looked at artificial ponds, and things that crawled around on the bottom of Lake Michigan. There were a lot of people in favor of mobile systems — then. Now, though, there are satellites, and you know, it’s just damned hard to hide something seventy feet long and weighing 190,000 pounds. (Actually, by the time you add the launcher, it’s more like 200 feet and 500,000 pounds.)


Worse, you can’t harden a mobile system very much. Even a “small” ICBM rocket is a pretty big object. Twenty PSI would probably be more than we could achieve. The kill radius of a 50 megaton weapon against a 20 PSI target is very large: area bombardment becomes attractive.


And nearly every mobile basing scheme puts nukes out where they have to be protected from terrorists and saboteurs including well-meaning US citizens aroused in protest (and you just know there’ll be plenty of them).

Air-mobile and air-launched were long-term favorites, and I was much for them in the 60’s. The Pentagon’s most recent analysis says we just can’t afford them; it would cost in the order of $150 billion, possibly more.


In fact, every alternative you’ve ever heard of, and a few you haven’t, were analyzed in great detail back in 1964. I know, because I was editor of the final report. I even invented one scheme myself, Citadel, which would put some birds as well as a national command post under a granite mountain. The problem with that one is that the birds will survive, but if they attack the doors, how does it get out after the attack?


First try the obvious: harden your birds. In 1964 we called it “Superhard,” 5000 PSI basing. Now 5000 PSI isn’t easy to come by. There are severe engineering problems, and it isn’t cheap. Worse, “Superhard” didn’t buy all that much: at 500 foot CEP’s a megaton has a 95% chance of killing “superhard” targets. (A megaton weapon makes a crater 250 feet deep and over a thousand feet in diameter even in hard rock.) Thus putting MX in 5000 PSI silos separated by miles didn’t seem worth the cost.


Just about every honest analyst who takes the trouble to work through the numbers comes away muttering “That’s a goofy sounding scheme, but damned if it doesn’t look like it might work…”


Use the space environment and our lead in high technology to construct missile defenses. They won’t be perfect, but they won’t need to be: the enemy can’t know how good our defenses are. Thus he can’t be sure of the outcome of his strike.


Whether space research pays for itself fifteen times over, as space enthusiasts say, or only twice over, as its critics say, nearly everyone is agreed that it does pay for itself — which is more than you can say for most other parts of the budget.

If we fail to provide for the common defense, it does no good to promote the general welfare.

No one ever complained about those burns

Tuesday, December 17th, 2019

The piston-engined Skyraider was designed during World War II to meet United States Navy requirements for a carrier-based, single-seat, long-range, high performance dive/torpedo bomber. The Skyraider wasn’t ready to fight before the end of World War II, but it did see service in Korea and even Vietnam, where it was much appreciated by SOG troops on the ground:

In the northern side of Da Nang, at the joint military/civilian airfield Air Force SPAD pilots who flew the single-wing A-1 Skyraiders received their initial op order for Operation Tailwind. The single engine warplane was loved by American groundpounders and feared by communist troops because of the havoc and death they rained down on enemy troops.

Additionally, through the unique design by Ed Heinemann at Douglas Aircraft Company during World War II, the Skyraider could stay on station over a target longer than any aircraft and it brought bombs, cluster bomb units (CBUs), 2.75 rockets, 20mm cannons and two miniguns to the battlefield.

One of the key reasons this SPAD unit was successful in providing close air support to ground troops was a major tactic used during gun runs: the pilots stayed close to the jungle, thus lowering the old lumbering A-1s profile for enemy gunners, while providing spot on gun runs.

Over the years, several SOG recon and Hatchet Force Green Berets recalled getting showered with shell casings from the A-1 Skyraiders as they flew danger close to the teams they were supporting.

Some later reported receiving burns on the back of their necks from hot shell casings that fell from the war bird and landed on the soldiers’ necks, burning their skin once they lodged in the collar. However, no one ever complained about those burns — burns that were often life saving.

Anyone With a Scanner & Associates

Tuesday, December 17th, 2019

The Far Side finally has a home on the Internet, and its creator has penned this letter about how it came about:

Hard to believe.

It’s been close to 25 years since I decided to retire my trusty Rapidograph X500, with added Comfort Grip, Turbo Flow, and Steadycow. (I especially loved that last option.) That was a nice pen. We went places. But just around the time the two of us were emerging from our adventure down one rabbit hole, another one suddenly loomed.

Back then, the Internet was a cute little Internet-ling, its cold, digital eyes just starting to open. The first website (I just looked this up) debuted only a couple years prior to my retirement, Google came along several years later, and Facebook was launched a full decade after I had drawn my last cow. Meaning, like most of my generation, I was pretty much clueless about this new technology that was on the rise. Hell, I was still marveling at the wonders of my electric pencil sharpener. (I splurged.)

But as the digital world gathered speed, I was as excited as most of us who lived outside the tech world (and back then, as a cartoonist, you couldn’t get much further outside of tech unless maybe you were a coal miner) and were seeing all these amazing tools unfold. Tools to help us better communicate, write, explore, and learn. (Of course, soon to be adding hack, steal, exploit, deceive, bully, and maybe destroy democracy, but hey, what’re a few wrinkles? We’ll figure this out. Or not.) Naively, I now realize, I never once foresaw any connection between this emergent technology and my cartoons. I had spent years drawing The Far Side for (real) newspapers, which segued into (real) books and (real) calendars. These, as some of you may recall, were rather quaint, three-dimensional objects that could also double as flyswatters. What did the Internet have to do with me? Cue the scary music.

Okay, “scary” might be a little melodramatic, but years ago, when I slowly started realizing I had a second publisher and distributor of my work, known as Anyone With a Scanner & Associates, I did find it unsettling enough to write an open letter to “whom it may concern,” explaining — best as I could — why I preferred that the people doing this would kindly refrain. I won’t rehash it all here, but my powers of persuasion had at least some impact, and many of my fans were very understanding and responsive. Maybe it takes a warped mind to understand a warped mind. (No, seriously, my thanks to those who removed my cartoons willingly, or even begrudgingly.)

So fast-forward to today, and hey, look! I’m writing another letter! This time, though, I’m writing to say something I never thought I would: Welcome to The Far Side website! Guess I’ve got some ’splainin’ to do.

One of Orwell’s grim truths

Tuesday, December 17th, 2019

There’s more than one kind of loyalty:

Intentional loyalty (trying to help the Party), emotional loyalty (believing in the Party), and objective loyalty (being useful to the Party) are three different things. One of Orwell’s grim truths is how easy it is to be objectively useful to a regime by intentionally rebelling against it.

It all gets lost in the crowd

Monday, December 16th, 2019

I expected The Roman Guide to Slave Management to include more tips like this:

Gang labour makes slaves work faster, harder and better. You should form them into groups of about ten. This is a particularly easy number of men to keep watch over. Larger gangs can be difficult for an overseer to control on his own. So, on your estate, you should assign these groups to different sections of it, and the work should be distributed in such a way that the men will not be on their own or in pairs, since they cannot be supervised properly if they are scattered all over the place. The other problem with larger groups is that the individuals within the group will not feel that the work has anything to do with them personally. It all gets lost in the crowd.

Their writings were taken quite seriously

Monday, December 16th, 2019

In There Will Be War Volume II, Jerry Pournelle introduces “On the Shadow of a Phosphor Screen” with some thoughts on war-gaming:

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the US Department of Defense became interested in war games. These were highly complex affairs, typically conducted in three rooms laid out with one-way glass so that those in the “Control Room” could see into each of the two participant rooms. I was involved in several of those war games. In one series, it was my responsibility to try to inject the consequences of tactical air power into a ground forces engagement.

Eventually that series of games led to the creation of the 11th Air Assault Brigade; which became the Air Cavalry. Helicopter troops are now a mainstay of US (and Soviet) military forces.


Such games can be useful. For example: it is nearly impossible to simulate Fall Gelb (Operation Gold), the German breakthrough which brought about the Fall of France in 1940. Any rational analysis leads to a clean win by the Allies, who had a preponderance of armor, men, and supplies, and who were defeated only by a total lack of understanding. Thus, one might think, had gaming fanatics and the tools for simulations games existed in the 30’s, the course of the war would have been far different.


Lest one place too much faith in these analyses, it should be remembered that the intellectual tools leading to Blitzkrieg were developed by Captain B. H. Liddell Hart and General J. F. C. Fuller, both of His Majesty’s forces. Their writings were taken quite seriously — but alas, only by the Germans.

Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

One tool for avoiding cognitive entrenchment, David Epstein reports (in Range), is to keep one foot outside your world:

Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation. And those who have won the Nobel Prize are more likely still. Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction. And, again, Nobel laureates are far more likely still. The most successful experts also belong to the wider world. “To him who observes them from afar,” said Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, “it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.”


“When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” [Steve Jobs] said. “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

Or electrical engineer Claude Shannon, who launched the Information Age thanks to a philosophy course he took to fulfill a requirement at the University of Michigan. In it, he was exposed to the work of self-taught nineteenth-century English logician George Boole, who assigned a value of 1 to true statements and 0 to false statements and showed that logic problems could be solved like math equations. It resulted in absolutely nothing of practical importance until seventy years after Boole passed away, when Shannon did a summer internship at AT&T’s Bell Labs research facility. There he recognized that he could combine telephone call-routing technology with Boole’s logic system to encode and transmit any type of information electronically. It was the fundamental insight on which computers rely. “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both those fields at the same time,” Shannon said.


Connolly’s primary finding was that early in their careers, those who later made successful transitions had broader training and kept multiple “career streams” open even as they pursued a primary specialty.


They employed what Hogarth called a “circuit breaker.” They drew on outside experiences and analogies to interrupt their inclination toward a previous solution that may no longer work. Their skill was in avoiding the same old patterns.

No hardcoded program is perfect

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Is our taste for politics so different from our taste for sugar?

Instinct is not intelligence. No hardcoded program is perfect. But in a stable adaptive environment, an instinct that fails systematically will have long since been revised by evolution.

In the tribal world, not only were political instincts like loyalty and ambition productive for us individually — they also tended to work out well collectively for the tribe.

Biologists still argue about group selection, but a dysfunctional tribe is unlikely to pass on any DNA. Massacre has always been a thing. While you’re bickering endlessly around the cave fire, the next tribe over is figuring out how to just eat you.

In modern civilization, these equations need not hold. Any of our instincts may be dangerous individually or collectively. Evolution just hasn’t had enough time yet to tune our biology.

The Japanese should have looked East

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

In Ghost Fleet, the Americans should have looked up. The Japanese should have looked East:

The U.S.-Japanese combined air-defense network was designed for a threat from China, to the west. And east was where Denisov and his twenty-two other fighter-bombers had launched from the Admiral Kuznetsov.

The Russian aircraft carrier was believed to be on exercises in the North Pacific, out of range of Chinese airstrikes. In fact, it had waited for a gap in satellite coverage and darted south at thirty knots for eight hours, moving just within the strike package’s range.

The MiGs flew in fast and low, and, once they were over Japan, they popped up to mimic the flight paths that commuter jets took from Narita Airport.


Denisov’s radio picked up the frantic calls of the air traffic controller. He hit the button and a digital recording began to play. It sounded like gibberish to him, but the FSB officer back on the Kuznetsov had been clear about the need to play it at just this moment.

To the air traffic controller on the ground, it sounded like the pilot of one of Sony’s executive jets was having a heart attack.

As the MiGs passed Miyazaki and turned again toward the Ryukyu Islands, it was clear that the defenses were finally onto them. Denisov’s radar scope showed four Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15s were vectoring as fast as they could, but they wouldn’t get there in time. The ruse had bought Denisov only a few minutes, but it should be enough.


He expected losses today, but also success. His latest imagery of one of his targets showed just eleven U.S. aircraft parked inside their hardened hangars. Dozens remained out in the open, as usual.

The MiGs dove to low altitude and pushed forward to their full sea-level velocity of nearly fifteen hundred kilometers per hour, well over the speed of sound. The new MiG-35Ks were called fourth-generation-plus fighters by the Americans. They weren’t fully stealthy, but they had a significantly reduced radar signature.

Each second counted now. When the jets neared Okinawa, Denisov’s radar-warning receiver lit with a pulsing red icon. The Patriot IV missile batteries that the Japanese had acquired from the Americans were tracking his low-flying fighter. They had him in their sights and could knock him down at will.

This was a crucial component of the plan. He took a deep breath and waited, telling himself that the missiles were threats only if someone pushed the launch button. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Forces, however, were not authorized to fire on targets without permission from that country’s civilian leadership. The gamble was that permission wouldn’t come in time. Two decades of near-daily airspace incursions by Chinese aircraft would have desensitized the Japanese, plus their communications networks were supposed to have been knocked offline by cyber-attacks. At least, that was the plan.


The only sounds on the radio this time were digital recordings of the voices of American F-22 Raptor pilots copied by a surveillance ship that had monitored the RIMPAC war games held each year off Hawaii. Anything to create uncertainty and delay the Japanese and American response by just a few more seconds.

The silent progress of an icon in his jet’s heads-up display told him he had arrived: Kadena Air Base. His war started here.

A flash of movement caught Denisov’s eye as four dark gray darts raced ahead of his squadron. It was a volley of Sokols (Falcons)29 fired by his second flight. A sort of miniaturized cruise missile, the electromagnetic weapon used pulses of directed energy to knock out air-defense and communications systems. Following a preprogrammed course, the flight of Falcon missiles separated, each leaving a swatch of electronic dead zone behind it.

If his flight’s opening shots were silent, the next wave of destruction would be deafening. Denisov released four RBK-500 cluster bombs30 over the unprotected U.S. Air Force planes parked near the base’s three-and-a-half-kilometer-long runway. As he banked his MiG, he caught a glimpse of an F-35A Lightning II31 being towed out of its hangar in a rush to confront him. His MiG was designed to be a match for the F-35, and the pilots of both had always wondered how the planes would actually stack up against each other. It would have to wait for some other time. The RBK canisters opened up behind Denisov’s plane, releasing hundreds of cluster bomblets, each the size of a beer can. Tiny parachutes deployed and the cans drifted toward the ground.

When proximity fuses detected that they were ten meters from the ground, the cans exploded, one after another. Hundreds of explosions ripped across the air base, blowing open scores of the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced fighters.

Denisov’s wingman made the next run and dropped three penetrating anti-runway bombs. The hardened tips of the massive bombs buried themselves almost five meters into the runway’s concrete and then detonated with more than fifteen hundred kilograms’ worth of explosives. While the limited number of American jets protected in hardened hangars might survive Denisov’s bombs, none would be taking off from the biggest U.S. air base in the Pacific for days, if not weeks.

Six kilometers away, the flight’s two trailing MiG-35Ks split past each other and then banked back hard as they raced toward the center of an imaginary X. That X was located in the middle of the largest U.S. Marine Corps base in Japan.


At the imaginary point of their crossing lines, the MiGs dropped four KAB-1500S thermobaric bombs, each weighing just over thirteen hundred kilograms. The bombs opened to release a massive cloud of explosive vapor, which was then ignited by a separate charge. It was the largest explosion Japan had experienced since Nagasaki, and it left a similar mushroom cloud of smoke and dust hanging over the base as the jets flew away.


He wasn’t sure the Americans would appreciate the irony of the Russians following the same plan of attack the Americans had used on the Japanese some eighty years earlier, but Plan Doolittle had worked.


That was the other part they’d copied from the raid the Americans had pulled back in the early months of their previous war in the Pacific: by coming in from an unexpected approach and making it a one-direction flight, they could strike at twice the range the enemy believed possible.

The Russian navy had held up its end; now it had to trust that the Chinese aerial refueling tankers would be there as promised.

T. Greer recently asked, At what point is defending Japan no longer worth it?

You must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

In There Will Be War Volume II, Jerry Pournelle introduces an essay from This Kind of War:

Ted Fehrenbach is one of the best military theorists of the Twentieth Century. I can say this with no reservations. His book, This Kind of War, is not only the finest study of the Korean War ever done, but more importantly, is the only book I have ever seen that correctly draws the lessons of that war. I have several times used it as a text; which is to do it injustice. The book is very readable.


“Proud Legions” is one chapter from This Kind Of War. It is required reading for every officer nominated for promotion to general. It ought to be read more widely than that.

Here’s how “Proud Legions” starts:

During the first months of American intervention in Korea, reports from the front burst upon an America and world stunned beyond belief. Day after day, the forces of the admitted first power of the earth reeled backward under the blows of the army of a nation of nine million largely illiterate peasants, the product of the kind of culture advanced nations once overawed with gunboats. Then, after fleeting victory, Americans fell back once more before an army of equally illiterate, lightly armed Chinese.

The people of Asia had changed, true. The day of the gunboat and a few Marines would never return. But that was not the whole story. The people of the West had changed, too. They forgot that the West had dominated not only by arms, but by superior force of will.

During the summer of 1950, and later, Asians would watch. Some, friends of the West, would even smile. And none of them would ever forget.

News reports in 1950 talked of vast numbers, overwhelming hordes of fanatic North Koreans, hundreds of monstrous tanks, against which the thin United States forces could not stand. In these reports there was truth, but not the whole truth.

The American units were outnumbered. They were outgunned. They were given an impossible task at the outset.

But they were also outfought.

In July 1950, one news commentator rather plaintively remarked that warfare had not changed so much, after all. For some reason, ground troops still seemed to be necessary, in spite of the atom bomb. And oddly and unfortunately, to this gentleman, man still seemed to be an important ingredient in battle. Troops were getting killed, in pain and fury and dust and filth. What had happened to the widely heralded pushbutton warfare where skilled, immaculate technicians who had never suffered the misery and ignominy of basic training blew each other to kingdom come like gentlemen?

In this unconsciously plaintive cry lies buried a great deal of the truth why the United States was almost defeated.

Nothing had happened to pushbutton warfare; its emergence was at hand. Horrible weapons that could destroy every city on earth were at hand—at too many hands. But pushbutton warfare meant Armageddon, and Armageddon, hopefully, will never be an end of national policy.

Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.

The object of warfare is to dominate a portion of the earth, with its peoples, for causes either just or unjust. It is not to destroy the land and people, unless you have gone wholly mad.

Pushbutton war has its place. There is another kind of conflict—crusade, jihad, holy war, call it what you choose. It has been loosed before, with attendant horror but indecisive results. In the past, there were never means enough to exterminate all the unholy, whether Christian, Moslem, Protestant, Papist, or Communist. If jihad is preached again, undoubtedly the modern age will do much better.

Americans, denying from moral grounds that war can ever be a part of politics, inevitably tend to think in terms of holy war—against militarism, against fascism, against bolshevism. In the postwar age, uneasy, disliking and fearing the unholiness of Communism, they have prepared for jihad. If their leaders blow the trumpet, or if their homeland is attacked, their millions are agreed to be better dead than Red.

Any kind of war short of jihad was, is, and will be unpopular with the people. Because such wars are fought with legions, and Americans, even when they are proud of them, do not like their legions. They do not like to serve in them, nor even to allow them to be what they must.

For legions have no ideological or spiritual home in the liberal society. The liberal society has no use or need for legions—as its prophets have long proclaimed.

Except that in this world are tigers.

The Americans should have looked up

Friday, December 13th, 2019

In Ghost Fleet, the Chinese “Directorate” — the replacement for the Communist Party — uses a manned space station armed with lasers to take out satellites:

The chemical oxygen iodine laser, or COIL, design had originally been developed by the U.S. Air Force in the late 1970s. It had even been flown on a converted 747 jumbo jet15 so the laser’s ability to shoot down missiles in midair could be tested. But the Americans had ultimately decided that using chemicals in enclosed spaces to power lasers was too dangerous.


The Directorate saw it differently. Two modules away from the crew, a toxic mix of hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide was being blended with gaseous chlorine and molecular iodine.


There was no turning back once the chemicals had been mixed and the excited oxygen began to transfer its energy to the weapon. They would have forty-five minutes to act and then the power would be spent.


For years, military planners had fretted about antisatellite threats from ground-launched missiles, because that was how both the Americans and the Soviets had intended to take down each other’s satellite networks during the Cold War.

More recently, the Directorate had fed this fear by developing its own antisatellite missiles and then alternating between missile tests and arms-control negotiations that went nowhere, keeping the focus on the weapons based below. The Americans should have looked up.


A quiet hum pervaded the module. No crash of cannon or screams of death. Only the steady purr of a pump signified that the station was now at war.

The first target was WGS-4,16 a U.S. Air Force wideband gapfiller satellite. Shaped like a box with two solar wings, the 3,400-kilogram satellite had entered space in 2012 on top of a Delta 4 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral.

Costing over three hundred million dollars, the satellite offered the U.S. military and its allies 4.875 GHz of instantaneous switchable bandwidth, allowing it to move massive amounts of data. Through it ran the communications for everything from U.S. Air Force satellites to U.S. Navy submarines. It was also a primary node for the U.S. Space Command. The Pentagon had planned to put up a whole constellation of these satellites to make the network less vulnerable to attack, but contractor cost overruns had kept the number down to just six.

The space station’s chemical-powered laser fired a burst of energy that, if it were visible light instead of infrared, would have been a hundred thousand times brighter than the sun. Five hundred and twenty kilometers away, the first burst hit the satellite with a power roughly equivalent to a welding torch’s. It melted a hole in WGS-4’s external atmospheric shielding and then burned into its electronic guts.

Chang watched as Huan clicked open a red pen and made a line on the wall next to him, much like a World War I ace decorating his biplane to mark a kill. The scripted moment had been ordered from below, a key scene for the documentary that would be made of the operation, a triumph that would be watched by billions.


Originally known as the X-37,17 USA-226 was the U.S. military’s unmanned space plane. About an eighth the size of the old space shuttle, the tiny plane was used by the American government in much the same way the shuttle had been, to carry out various chores and repair jobs in space. It could rendezvous with satellites and refuel them, replace failed solar arrays using a robotic arm, and perform many other satellite-upkeep tasks.

But the Tiangong’s crew, and the rest of the world’s militaries, knew the U.S. military also used USA-226 as a space-going spy plane. It repeatedly flew over the same spots at the same altitude, notably the height typically used by military surveillance satellites: Pakistan for several weeks at a time, then Yemen and Kenya, and, more recently, the Siberian border.

With its primary control communications link via the WGS-4 satellite now lost, the tiny American space plane shifted into autonomous mode, its computers searching in vain for other guidance signals. In this interim period, USA-226’s protocol was to cease acceleration and execute a standard orbit to avoid collisions. In effect, the robotic space plane stopped for its own safety, making it an easy target.

The taikonauts moved on down the list: the U.S. Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness system was next. These were satellites that watched other satellites. The Americans’ communications were now down, but once these satellites were taken out, the United States would be blind in space even if it proved able to bring its networks back online.

After that was the mere five satellites that made up the U.S. military’s Mobile User Objective System, akin to a global cellular phone provider for the military. Five pulses took out the narrowband communications network that linked all the American military’s aerial and maritime platforms, ground vehicles, and dismounted soldiers.

Then came the U.S. Navy’s Ultra High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) system,19 which linked all of its ships.

It was almost anticlimactic, the onboard targeting system moving the taikonauts through the attack’s algorithm step by step, slowing down only when a cluster of satellites sharing a common altitude needed to be dispatched one by one.

The last to be “serviced,” as Huan dryly put it, was a charged-particle detector satellite. The joint NASA and Energy Department system had been launched a few years after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster as a way to detect radiation emissions. A volley of laser fire from Tiangong-3 exploded its fuel source.


On the other side of the Earth, discarded booster rockets were coming to life after months of dormancy. The boosters turned kamikazes advanced on collision courses with nearby American government and commercial communications and imaging satellites. The American ground controllers helplessly watched the chaos overhead, unable to maneuver their precious assets out of the way.

The Pi 4 is acting as a WiFi jammer on itself

Friday, December 13th, 2019

Making upgrades to a popular product line sounds like a good idea:

In the Raspberry Pi world, it seems that the “upgraded engine” in the Pi 4 is causing the WiFi to stop working under specific circumstances.

[Enrico Zini] noticed this issue and attempted to reproduce exactly what was causing the WiFi to drop out, and after testing various Pi 4 boards, power supplies, operating system version, and a plethora of other variables, the cause was isolated to the screen resolution. Apparently at the 2560×1440 setting using HDMI, the WiFi drops out. While you could think that an SoC might not be able to handle a high resolution, WiFi, and everything else this tiny computer has to do at once. But the actual cause seems to be a little more interesting than a simple system resources issue.

[Mike Walters] on a Twitter post about this issue probed around with a HackRF and discovered a radio frequency issue. It turns out that at this screen resolution, the Pi 4 emits some RF noise which is exactly in the range of WiFi channel 1. It seems that the Pi 4 is acting as a WiFi jammer on itself.

Once it was deployed, it offered inspiration for anyone, including one’s enemies

Thursday, December 12th, 2019

Early in Ghost Fleet, the DIA — “it was something like the CIA, but for the U.S. military” — gets compromised:

Neither of them noticed the other, but as she passed the landscaper, his tablet recognized the RFID chips embedded in Allison’s security badge. A localized wireless network formed for exactly 0.03 seconds. In that instant, the malware hidden in the video packet from Caracas made its jump.


The idea of using covert radio signals to ride malware into a network unconnected to the wider Internet had actually been pioneered by the NSA, one of the DIA’s sister agencies. But like all virtual weapons, once it was deployed in the open cyberworld, it offered inspiration for anyone, including one’s enemies.


And bit by bit, the malware worked its way into the various subnetworks that linked via the Defense Department’s SIPRNet classified network.


The initial penetrations didn’t raise any alarms among the automated computer network defenses, always on the lookout for anomalies. At each stop, all the packet did was link with what appeared to the defenses as nonexecutables, harmless inert files, which they were, until the malware rearranged them into something new. Each of the systems had been air-gapped, isolated from the Internet to prevent hackers from infiltrating them. The problem with high walls, though, was that someone could use an unsuspecting gardener to tunnel underneath them.

The Battlestar Galactica remake seems oddly prescient in its emphasis on cyber-warfare vulnerabilities.