You’ll feel a film

Wednesday, April 14th, 2021

In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg shares some advertising history:

Hopkins was the man who had convinced Americans to buy Schlitz beer by boasting that the company cleaned their bottles “with live steam,” while neglecting to mention that every other company used the exact same method.

He had seduced millions of women into purchasing Palmolive soap by proclaiming that Cleopatra had washed with it, despite the sputtering protests of outraged historians.

He had made Puffed Wheat famous by saying that it was “shot from guns” until the grains puffed “to eight times normal size.”

He had turned dozens of previously unknown products — Quaker Oats, Goodyear tires, the Bissell carpet sweeper, Van Camp’s pork and beans — into household names.

And in the process, he had made himself so rich that his best-selling autobiography, My Life in Advertising, devoted long passages to the difficulties of spending so much money.

[...]

Throughout his career, one of Claude Hopkins’s signature tactics was to find simple triggers to convince consumers to use his products every day. He sold Quaker Oats, for instance, as a breakfast cereal that could provide energy for twenty-four hours — but only if you ate a bowl every morning. He hawked tonics that cured stomachaches, joint pain, bad skin, and “womanly problems” — but only if you drank the medicine at symptoms’ first appearance. Soon, people were devouring oatmeal at daybreak and chugging from little brown bottles whenever they felt a hint of fatigue, which, as luck would have it, often happened at least once a day.

[...]

“Just run your tongue across your teeth,” read one. “You’ll feel a film — that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.”

“Note how many pretty teeth are seen everywhere,” read another ad, featuring smiling beauties. “Millions are using a new method of teeth cleansing. Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Pepsodent removes the film!”

The brilliance of these appeals was that they relied upon a cue — tooth film — that was universal and impossible to ignore. Telling someone to run their tongue across their teeth, it turned out, was likely to cause them to run their tongue across their teeth. And when they did, they were likely to feel a film. Hopkins had found a cue that was simple, had existed for ages, and was so easy to trigger that an advertisement could cause people to comply automatically.

[...]

Before Pepsodent appeared, only 7 percent of Americans had a tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests. A decade after Hopkins’s ad campaign went nationwide, that number had jumped to 65 percent.

There’s a bit more to the story:

Unlike other pastes of the period, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals. Pepsodent’s inventor used those ingredients to make the toothpaste taste fresh, but they had another, unanticipated effect as well. They’re irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums.

[...]

What they found was that customers said that if they forgot to use Pepsodent, they realized their mistake because they missed that cool, tingling sensation in their mouths. They expected — they craved — that slight irritation.

SARS-CoV-2 is a sort of zombie virus

Tuesday, April 13th, 2021

Athena Aktipis and Joe Alcock suggest that SARS-CoV-2 is a sort of zombie virus, turning people not into the undead but rather into the unsick:

People typically think of zombies as the stuff of science fiction. But in the biological world, zombies are all over the place, from the Ophiocordyceps fungus that perpetuates itself by zombifying ants; to Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite that completes its life cycle by leading rodents into the jaws of predators. Zombie viruses are also a real thing, influencing their host’s behavior in ways that enhance the viruses’ evolutionary fitness.

[...]

About 40% of those with SARS-CoV-2 are asymptomatic spreaders, never showing symptoms at all. And those who do show symptoms are most contagious in the two days before symptoms appear. Why people don’t feel sick earlier – or sick at all – might be part of the evolutionary strategy of SARS-CoV-2.

A look under the hood of the virus reveals more about that manipulative machinery. SARS-CoV-2 interferes with a person’s immune response; this is why people don’t necessarily feel sick and withdrawn as they would in a typical viral infection. Instead, SARS-CoV-2 silences the body’s alarm signals that otherwise would orchestrate anti-viral defenses. It blocks interferons, a set of molecules that help fight viruses. Interferon activity makes people feel more depressed and socially withdrawn – so when the novel coronanvirus impedes interferon activity, mood is lifted, sociality is increased and you feel less sick.

The virus also decreases pain perception. Normally, pain motivates us to hunker down when we need to heal. But SARS-CoV-2 blocks this response by preventing the transmission of pain signals. This is why people feel fine even when they are teeming with virus before the onset of symptoms.

At the same time, SARS-CoV-2 dampens the body’s response to infection. It hinders pro-inflammatory cytokines, molecules that help spur the immune response. This too makes hosts feel better than they should. Typically, feeling sick helps our bodies prioritize healing by making us reduce our energy expenditure. With SARS-CoV-2, unsick hosts have the energy to do as much as they used to, maybe more.

Habits never really disappear

Monday, April 12th, 2021

One of the central ideas that Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit is the habit loop:

To deal with this uncertainty, the brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit looking for something — a cue — that offers a hint as to which pattern to use.

[...]

And at the end of the activity, when the reward appears, the brain shakes itself awake and makes sure everything unfolded as expected.

[...]

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:

[...]

The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

Habit Loop

Habits never really disappear.

[...]

In one set of experiments, for example, researchers affiliated with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism trained mice to press levers in response to certain cues until the behavior became a habit. The mice were always rewarded with food.

Then, the scientists poisoned the food so that it made the animals violently ill, or electrified the floor, so that when the mice walked toward their reward they received a shock. The mice knew the food and cage were dangerous — when they were offered the poisoned pellets in a bowl or saw the electrified floor panels, they stayed away.

When they saw their old cues, however, they unthinkingly pressed the lever and ate the food, or they walked across the floor, even as they vomited or jumped from the electricity. The habit was so ingrained the mice couldn’t stop themselves.

Although ice might seem simple, it is complicated stuff

Sunday, April 11th, 2021

Regular six-sided crystals of ice are actually just one of ice’s many forms, or polymorphs, the form known as ice 1. Now ice 19 has been discovered:

Although ice might seem simple, it is complicated stuff. For instance, only the oxygen atoms in the water molecules of six-sided ice crystals form a hexagonal shape, while their hydrogen atoms are randomly oriented around them. This makes ice I a “disordered” or “frustrated” ice in the terminology of ices. One of the properties of such disordered ices is that they can deform under pressure: “This is the reason why glaciers flow,” Loerting said.

In contrast, the hydrogen atoms in several of the other polymorphs of ice also have their own crystal patterns, and they are called “hydrogen-ordered” or “H-ordered” as a result. Unlike disordered ices, H-ordered ices are very brittle and will shatter, rather than deform, he said.

In those terms, the newly identified 19th form of ice is an H-ordered ice; in fact, it’s an H-ordered form of a disordered ice, called ice VI, which has a random pattern of hydrogen atoms. And ice VI also has yet another H-ordered polymorph, ice XV, in which the hydrogen atoms are aligned in an entirely different pattern.

“Ice VI, ice XV and ice XIX are all very similar in terms of density [because] they share the same kind of network of oxygen atoms,” Loerting said. “But they differ in terms of the positions of hydrogen atoms.” It’s the first time that such a relationship between ice polymorphs has been discovered, and it could allow experiments to study transitions between one form and another, he said.

Naturally this reminded me of ice-nine, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:

Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and acts as a seed crystal upon contact with ordinary liquid water, causing that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

No one wondered how a man who couldn’t draw a map of his home was able to find the bathroom without hesitation

Saturday, April 10th, 2021

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of a man who lost his ability to form new memories:

The scans indicated that almost all the damage within Eugene’s skull was limited to a five-centimeter area near the center of his head. The virus had almost entirely destroyed his medial temporal lobe, a sliver of cells which scientists suspected was responsible for all sorts of cognitive tasks such as recall of the past and the regulation of some emotions.

[...]

At the time, no one wondered how a man who couldn’t draw a map of his home was able to find the bathroom without hesitation.

[...]

She asked him to point out which doorway led to the kitchen. Eugene looked around the room. He didn’t know, he said. She asked Eugene what he would do if he were hungry. He stood up, walked into the kitchen, opened a cabinet, and took down a jar of nuts.

[...]

As they rounded the corner near his house, the visitor asked Eugene where he lived. “I don’t know, exactly,” he said. Then he walked up his sidewalk, opened his front door, went into the living room, and turned on the television.

He couldn’t form “real” memories, but he could form habits.

This division of powers between the federal government and the central bank is what keeps the money supply relatively stable

Friday, April 9th, 2021

Printing money requires both nuclear keys:

The Federal Reserve can create new base money, but doesn’t have a mechanism to spend it into the real economy. The Treasury, on the other hand, can spend money on behalf of Congress, but has to issue bonds to do it, which sucks money out from somewhere else in the economy. In other words, the Treasury mostly just moves money around. This division of powers between the federal government and the central bank is what keeps the money supply relatively stable during most times in history, and leaves money creation mostly to the commercial bank system.

However, the combination of the Treasury and Federal Reserve working in concert results in a sharp rise in the broad money supply. With this approach, the Treasury spends money into the economy at a massive scale, and the bonds that are issued to pay for it are bought by the Federal Reserve with brand new base money, resulting in outright broad money creation. This close collaboration between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve occurred in the 1940s, and began occurring again in 2020.

[...]

During the subprime mortgage crisis, the Federal Reserve rapidly expanded the monetary base, but the Treasury’s response was more modest. If we continue with the nuclear key analogy for money-printing, only the Federal Reserve’s key was used. The Treasury did not use their key back then; little money was handed out to the broad economy.

[...]

Banks went into the 2008 crisis woefully under-capitalized, much like 1929. In response to a systemic failure of the banking system in 2008, the Federal Reserve created trillions of dollars of new base money to buy some of their assets, in a process referred to as quantitative easing. Additionally, fiscal bills removed troubled assets from bank balance sheets and provided very modest aid to the public. There was, however, no broad bailout of homeowners or other members of the general public other than for relatively small programs like “cash for clunkers”, and this dichotomy of bailing out Wall Street more than Main Street contributed to the rise of both left-leaning and right-leaning populist movements, ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party.

All of this new base money in 2008, in other words, mostly remained in the banking system to recapitalize the banks and to decrease leverage ratios. As a result, the broad money supply didn’t spike at all, since people were not getting stimulus checks and there was no massive fiscal policy response.

Fast-forward to 2020, we went into this pandemic crisis with very different circumstances. Banks were well-capitalized this time from a combination of prior bailouts, leverage regulations, and more risk-averse lending behavior. Indeed, the banking system had plenty of excess reserves going into this crisis.

Instead, the economic shock came directly to consumers and businesses, and the fiscal response of providing stimulus checks, federal unemployment benefits, small business loans that mostly turn into grants, and a variety of other forms of aid, directly increased the broad money supply. Finishing with the analogy, both “keys” were initiated in 2020; the Federal Reserve created even more base money than before, and unlike 2008, the Treasury also sent out massive checks to inject it into the broad money supply, with massive fiscal deficit levels as a percentage of GDP that had not been seen since the 1940s.

Once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work

Thursday, April 8th, 2021

Charles Duhigg first became interested in the science of habits — interested enough to go on to write The Power of Habit — as a news reporter in Baghdad:

The U.S. military, it occurred to me as I watched it in action, is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history.

[...]

I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.

When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.

[...]

At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle, and making decisions while exhausted and overwhelmed. He had attended classes that taught him habits for saving money, exercising each day, and communicating with bunkmates. As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work alongside people he normally couldn’t stand.

[...]

“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” the major told me. “It’s changed everything about how I see the world. You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine. I drill my kids on this stuff. My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage. This is all we talk about in command meetings. Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.”

One of the craziest things we do is praise children constantly

Wednesday, April 7th, 2021

In Hunt, Gather, Parent, Michaeleen Doucleff explains what ancient cultures can teach us about the lost art of raising happy, helpful little humans:

“Our culture often has things backward when it comes to kids,” she writes.

Doucleff arrives at this conclusion while traveling, with her then-3-year-old daughter, to meet and learn from parents in a Maya village on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; in an Inuit town in a northern Canadian territory; and in a community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. During her outings, she witnesses well-adjusted, drama-free kids share generously with their siblings and do chores without being asked.

One of the craziest things we do, she notes, is praise children constantly:

When I was first working on the book, I recorded myself to see how frequently I praised my little girl, Rosy, and I noticed that I would exaggeratedly react to even her smallest accomplishments, like drawing a flower or writing a letter, with a comment like “Good job!” or “Wow! What a beautiful flower!”

This is insane if you look around the world and throughout human history. Everywhere I went, I don’t know if I ever heard a parent praise a child. Yet these kids are incredibly self-sufficient, confident, and respectful—everything we want praise to do, these kids already have it, without the praise.

It’s hard to cut back on praise, because it’s so baked in, but later on, I decided to try. It’s not that there’s no feedback, but it’s much gentler feedback—parents will smile or nod if a child is doing something they want. I started doing that, and Rosy’s behavior really improved. A lot of the attention-seeking behavior went away.

Policemen were also needed

Tuesday, April 6th, 2021

From the Korean War, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), the United States drew troubled conclusions:

American policy had been to contain Communism along the parallel, and in this, American policy succeeded. But no one realized, at the beginning, how exceedingly costly such containment would be. The war reaffirmed in American minds the distaste for land warfare on the continent of Asia the avoidance of which has always been a foundation of United States policy. But the war proved that containment in Asia could not be forged with nuclear bombs and that threats were not enough, unless the United States intended to answer a Communist pinprick with general holocaust.

Yet the American people, Army, and leaders generally proved unwilling to accept wars of policy in lieu of crusades against Communism. Innocence had been lost, but the loss was denied. The government that had ordered troops into Korea knew that the issue was never whether Syngman Rhee was right or wrong but that his loss would adversely affect the status of the United States — which was not arguable.

That government’s inability to communicate, and its repudiation at the polls, firmly convinced many men of the political dangers of committing American ground troops in wars of containment. Yet without the continual employment of limited force around the glove, or even with it, there was to be no order. The World could not be policed with ships, planes, and bombs — policemen were also needed.

Less than a year after fighting ended in Korea, Vietnam was lost to the West, largely because of the complete repugnance of Americans toward committing a quarter of a million ground troops in another apparently indecisive skirmish with Communism. Even more important, the United States, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported, simply did not have the troops.

Korea, from Task Force Smith at Osan to the last days at Pork Chop, indicates that the policy of containment cannot be implemented without professional legions. Yet every democratic government is reluctant to face the fact. Reservists and citizen-soldiers stand ready, n every free nation, to stand to the colors and die in holocaust, the big war. Reservists and citizen-soldiers remain utterly reluctant to stand and die in anything less. None want to serve on the far frontiers, or to maintain lonely, dangerous vigils on the periphery of Asia. There has been every indication that mass call-ups for cold war moves may result in mass disaffection.

[...]

However repugnant the idea is to liberal societies, the man who will willingly defend the free world in the fringe areas is not the responsible citizen-soldier. The man who will go where his colors go, without asking, who will fight a phantom foe in jungle and mountain range, without counting, and who will suffer and die in the midst of incredible hardship, without complaint, is still what he has always been, from Imperial Rome to sceptered Britain to democratic America. He is the stuff of which legion are made.

His pride is in his colors and his regiment, his training hard and thorough and coldly realistic, to fit him for what he must face, and his obedience is to his orders. As a legionary, he held the gates of civilization for the classical world; as a bluecoated horseman he swept the Indians from the Plains; he has been called United States Marine. He does the jobs — the utterly necessary jobs — no militia is willing to do. His task is moral or immoral according to the orders that send him forth. It is inevitable, since men compete.

Since the dawn of time, men have competed with each other — with clubs, crossbows, or cannon, dollars, ballots, and trading stamps. Much of mankind, of course, abhors competition, and these remain the acted upon, not the actors.

Anyone who says there will be no competition in the future simply does not understand the nature of man.

The great dilemma of our time is that, with two great power blocs in the world, each utterly distrustful of the other, and one, at least, eager to compete, we cannot compete with thermonuclear weapons. Competition, after all, is controlled action or controlled violence for an end, and nuclear weapons do not lend themselves to control. And in nuclear war there is apparently no prize, even for first place.

Yet men must compete.

Eliminating systemic racism should be a lucrative undertaking

Monday, April 5th, 2021

It would be in the profit-maximizing interest of firms to snatch up underpaid performers, Steve Sailer reminds us:

If there really is much discrimination, then eliminating systemic racism should be a lucrative undertaking, not one that requires constant paid sermonizing by innumerates about how handing privileges to the politically preferred will turn out to be in our own financial interest.

Of course, if you go far enough back into America’s past, it is easy to find a clear example of an employer who did flourish due to his diverse hiring: Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. By bringing Jackie Robinson up in 1947 to be the first black big-leaguer since the 19th century, Rickey got a lucrative jump on other teams.

[...]

The Brooklyn Dodgers’ example of the payoff from not discriminating is so vivid because:

(1) There really was systemic racism against black ballplayers: the Color Line.

(2) Blacks were as good as whites at baseball. (By the way, it’s often assumed today that whites were surprised in 1947 by how strong blacks were at baseball. In reality, though, black and white stars had often played together in barnstorming exhibition tours and in Caribbean winter ball, so white ballplayers had long publicly praised the talents of their black counterparts.)

(3) Some teams stubbornly resisted integration for up to a dozen years after 1947, highlighting the contrast.

Strikingly, it’s oddly hard to find more recent examples than this of firms that long earned outsize profits by first hiring blacks or women.

[...]

This should remind us that the Women’s Lib battle was quickly and almost painlessly won during the first half of the 1970s. For example, by the time I entered UCLA’s MBA program in 1980, conscious discrimination against women in corporate white-collar hiring was a thing of the past. The only employers I can recall being told were still bigoted against women were Los Angeles’ department-store chains, which, a professor explained, wouldn’t promote shiksas beyond Buyer.

Presumably, some companies took the lead in the early 1970s and outearned their rivals by hiring more women, which allowed them to pay lower wages than the industry standard. But, a half century later, it’s hard to identify these trailblazing corporations because their rivals responded so quickly to this now socially acceptable profit-maximizing scheme.

Before 1969, discrimination in white-collar hiring was less against women per se than against married women. (In contrast, blue-collar jobs that are today 95 percent male were often 100 percent male back then, and good-paying union jobs were usually reserved for men.)

Yet, there had always been a certain number of spinster career women in upscale jobs. For instance, in the 1940 movie His Girl Friday, newspaper editor Cary Grant is desperate to keep his ace reporter (and ex-wife) Rosalind Russell from marrying Ralph Bellamy and immediately quitting the newspaper to be a housewife and mother.

Why the feeling that married women shouldn’t work? The polite assumption had been that respectable women didn’t use contraception, so a married woman was likely to be a mother by the year after her wedding, after which she’d be too busy with child-rearing for paid employment.

But by 1969, The Pill had become socially accepted, plus the burdens of housework had declined due to advances in appliances such as dishwashers and dryers. As Goldin noted, women increasingly went back to paid work after their children were old enough, so it made sense for them to get the education when young that would enable them to hold better-paying jobs.

Hence, most genteel industries rapidly switched over to hiring large numbers of young women in the 1970s.

Now the emphasis would be on infiltration, subversion, and insurgency

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

The Communist powers, T. R. Fehrenbach notes (in This Kind of War), would remember the rapid escalation of Korea from a small, almost civil-type conflict into a large-scale action involving major powers:

After Korea, overt, brutal armed aggression, which had produced so violent — and unexpected — a counteraction from the West, would be avoided. Now the emphasis would be on infiltration, subversion, and insurgency to gain Communist ends in the fringe areas; the trick was never again, as with the South Korean invasion, to give the West a clear moral issue.

Communist planners, studying the lessons of Korea, could not help wondering what the result might have been could they have slipped several North Korean divisions into the South clandestinely, keeping them supplied across a fluid border. They might well wonder if the West would have then sprung to the defense of autocratic old Dr. Syngman Rhee, even though the interests of the West were equally imperiled.

[...]

Within a year after Korean fighting ended, they would succeed in Vietnam, this time without overt aggression.

Why are there no biographies of Xi Jinping?

Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Many people fell for the delusion that China was nominally Communist but sliding inexorably toward greater freedom:

Indeed, there is a growing consensus that this is a country intent on pushing its dictatorial creed in a tussle for global supremacy against Western liberal democracy. It is a nation which has inflicted genocide on Muslim minorities, throttled freedom in Hong Kong, threatened Taiwan, sabre-rattled on borders in the Himalayas, developed a sinister surveillance society and even infiltrated our universities to scoop up their latest research.

All of which makes the lack of curiosity surrounding the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong seem rather strange. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history, recently asked: “Why are there no biographies of Xi Jinping?”. Their absence is all the more striking when you consider that China’s ruler is not simply far more important than the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spawned a small library of books; he is also a fascinating figure with a compelling life story.

Lurking behind that calm facade lies a childhood tale that helps cast some light on Xi’s controlling policies and his aggressive nationalism. Bear in mind that it is Xi who turned his nation back towards harsh totalitarianism, ordered his acolytes to ratchet up repression in Xinjiang and broke any pretence of keeping to the handover deal with Britain to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms. He has ditched term limits to retain power, crushed party foes, stifled domestic dissent and enshrined his name in the party constitution, elevating his position and ideology to the status of Chairman Mao. It is hard to disagree with the view of former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd that he is “the most formidable politician of our age”.

[...]

Xi, born in 1953, is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a Communist revolutionary hero who was close to Mao and became a vice premier. Although China was riddled with poverty, this prominent family lived in a compound for party chiefs with their own cooks, nannies and drivers. One official biography claims that his parents sought to ensure their children were not spoilt, so he wore clothes handed down from his siblings — including floral shoes from his sisters that were dyed black. His father, meanwhile, was so strict that friends said his treatment of his son bordered on inhuman, and Xi also attended the “CCP aristocracy school” in Beijing infamous for military-style discipline. Any hint of softness, said one classmate, was seen as weakness.

Disaster struck when he was nine. His father fell out with Mao amid party in-fighting, so was sent to work in a factory in central China and his family lost its prized home — although his mother Qi Xin retained her party job in Beijing. Worse came in the 1966 Cultural Revolution, with its brutal purging of senior officials as enemies of the state. His father was beaten, paraded on a truck through jeering crowds and jailed. The family home was ransacked by militants, his mother forced into hard labour on a farm. Xi, a bookish boy, was made to denounce his father and bullied by teachers as the child of a “black gang”, the term for disgraced officials. His older sister eventually killed herself after being “persecuted to death”.

The following year Xi’s school was shut down and turned into an exhibition to showcase the pampered privileges of the reactionary elite. At the age of 14, he was caught by a gang of revolutionary Red Guards, who threatened to execute him before making him read quotations from Mao. Another time, he fled from a meeting attacked by students armed with clubs, who caught and badly beat one of his friends. “I always had a stubborn streak and wouldn’t put up with being bullied,” he claimed later. “I riled the radicals and they blamed me for everything that went wrong.”

[...]

Xi himself only evaded jail after Mao, seeking to regain control of spiralling chaos, ordered 30 million young city dwellers into the countryside for “re-education” by peasants. Analysts speculate this difficult period in his teenage years led to Xi’s ability to hide his feelings beneath an impassive surface, along with the development of his fervent desire for stability.

[...]

He found it a shock to eat rough peasant food, sleep on flea-ridden blankets and perform hard rural labour. Dozens of others sent to this region died from disease or the tough conditions. Instead Xi developed extraordinary self-discipline: “The knife is sharpened on a stone, people are strengthened in adversity,” he said later.

His loathing of chaos was fuelled later by the collapse of the other major twentieth-century Communist empire. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” he once asked. “In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”

It spelled the doom of Communist massed armies

Friday, April 2nd, 2021

In Nevada, at Frenchman’s Flat, a bright flash and ugly mushroom cloud signified a change in the tactical battlefield, T. R. Fehrenbach notes (in This Kind of War) — a change that had not come about at Hiroshima:

In its early years the atomic device had remained a strategic weapon, suitable for delivery against cities and industries, suitable to obliterate civilians, men, women, and children by the millions, but of no practical use on a limited battlefield — until it was fired from a field gun.

Until this time, 1953, the armies of the world, including that of the United States, had hardly taken the advent of fissionable material into account. The 280mm gun, an interim weapon that would remain in use only a few years, changed all that, forever. With an atomic cannon that could deliver tactical fires in the low-kiloton range, with great selectivity, ground warfare stood on the brink of its greatest change since the advent of firepower.

Nuclear_artillery_test_Grable_Event_-_Part_of_Operation_Upshot-Knothole

The atomic cannon could blow any existing fortification, even one twenty thousand yards in depth, out of existence neatly and selectively, along with the battalions that manned it. Any concentration of manpower, also, was its meat.

It spelled the doom of Communist massed armies, which opposed superior firepower with numbers, and which had in 1953 no tactical nuclear weapons of their own.

The 280mm gun was shipped to the Far East. Then, in great secrecy, atomic warheads — it could fire either nuclear or conventional rounds — followed, not to Korea, but to storage close by. And with even greater secrecy, word of this shipment was allowed to fall into Communist hands.

At the same time, into Communist hands wafted a pervasive rumor, one they could neither completely verify nor scotch: that the United States would not accept a stalemate beyond the end of summer.

A number of “pansies” and a lot of alcohol

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

After questioning Neovictorian’s Sanity a couple years ago, I decided to read (and then comment on) The Maltese Falcon, as he had called out Dashiell Hammett as one of his favorite authors in his afterward.

That story is better known for the Bogart film, which brings up the biggest difference between the book and the movie: the character of Sam Spade looks absolutely nothing like Bogart.

I bring this up, because I just read The Big Sleep, which is also better known for its Bogart film, where, again, the actor looks nothing like the book’s protagonist — in this case, Philip Marlowe — who is tall, solidly built, and notably good looking.

Like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep features a number of “pansies” and a lot of alcohol.

I’ll have more to say later, in part because I got an annotated edition full of interesting tidbits.