Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell below his very feet

Thursday, September 15th, 2022

No English child will ever again experience, as Peter Hitchens did, the joys of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great historical romances The White Company and Sir Nigel, set in the far-off fourteenth century:

The remaining copies of these once-popular works now molder, unopened and slowly softening into pulp, in attic rooms in the houses of the elderly.

Conan Doyle explained something very important about the Middle Ages to his original Edwardian readers:

In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life. Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell below his very feet. God’s visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind. The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the ­unbaptized babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.

George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world does not share this Christian outlook:

As far as I can find out, ­Martin is a lapsed Roman Catholic and has quite banal views about how religion causes wars and God is a “giant invisible guy in the sky.” I do not think he has set out to make an attack on Christianity. I do not think he especially likes it, but I suspect he has discarded it, and so he has written an account of a world in which it simply does not exist. His fantasy greatly disturbs me, because it helps to normalize the indifference to Christianity which is a far greater threat to it than active atheism.

The instinct was to curate a culture

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

Henrik Karlsson helped Erik Hoel comb through the literature on the upbringings of historical geniuses:

But what has struck me, more than anything else, is the insane quality of the cultures they internalized. The pedagogies their guardians employed differed radically; they had differing temperaments; they mastered different disciplines, but they all had this in common: they spent their days around highly competent people.

Most who grew up to become geniuses, pre-1900, were kept apart from same age peers and raised at home, by tutors or parents. Michel Montaigne’s father employed only servants who were fluent in Latin, curating a classical culture, so Montaigne would learn Latin as his mother tongue. J.S. Mill spent his childhood at his father’s desk, helping his father write a treatise on economics, running over to Jeremy Bentham’s house to borrow books and discuss ideas.

Blaise Pascal, too, was homeschooled by his father. His father choose not to teach him math. (The father, Etienne, had a passion for mathematics that he felt was slightly unhealthy. He feared mathematics would distract Pascal from less intrinsically rewarding pursuits, such as literature, much like modern parents fear TikTok.) Pascal had to teach himself. When it was discovered that Pascal, then a young teenager, had rederived several of Euclid’s proofs, the family relocated to Paris so father and son could participate in the mathematical salons of Mersenne. The instinct was to curate a culture, not to teach, not primarily.

You are always internalizing the culture around you

Wednesday, September 7th, 2022

Chimpanzees, who are born into the habitat their genes expect, get by largely on instinct:

We cannot. We have to rely on what anthropologists call cultural learning.


If you measure two-and-a-half-year-old children against [same-aged] chimpanzees and orangutans, they are about even in their capacity to handle tools and solve problems on their own. Only when it comes to observing others and repeating their actions is there a noticeable difference.

Two-and-a-half-year-olds can extract knowledge from people just by watching them move about a room. They start to desire what those around them desire. They pick up tacit knowledge. They change their dialect to match their peer groups. And after a handful of years of hanging about with people more skilled than themselves, our babies — these tiny, soft-skulled creatures — can out-compete chimpanzees in all but close combat.

This ability is not something you can turn on and off. You are always internalizing the culture around you. Even when you wish you didn’t. So you better surround yourself with something you want inside — curate a culture.

You can see shadows of the future already being cast

Sunday, September 4th, 2022

David Hacket Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America makes the point that early America was framed around four dominant folkways;

There are the New England Yankees in the northeast; gentry planters in the lowland South along with their retainers; inhabitants of the upland South, originally from Ulster and the Scottish-English border; and the diverse business-oriented groups in the Mid-Atlantic, from Dutch burghers to Quakers. For both authors, the Yankees and the Southern planters have direct genealogical connections to the Roundhead Whigs and the Royalist Tories. The Borderers and the more mercantile folk of the Mid-Atlantic play a less prominent role in Phillip’s narrative, but eventually amalgamated into the broader Northern and Southern cultural and political alliances.

Kevin Phillips’s The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America observes that the migration of dissenters to North America created a much more cohesive 19th-century Britain:

The existence of North America as a release valve for radical Protestantism stabilised the middle path that the Anglican Church occupied. Meanwhile, the Irish potato famine and the mass migration to the US of Roman Catholic peasants meant that the Protestant proportion of the United Kingdom was far higher in 1900 than in 1800.


The Englishmen, Scots or Welshmen who migrated to America were not “normal” Britons. Perhaps they sought more freedom of worship outside the established Church or more economic opportunities outside of the class system, or perhaps they were fleeing debt and the hand of the law. The “cowboy” is a cliché, but these cowboys came from somewhere, many even genealogically descended from herders on the Scottish border that engaged in as much theft as productive labor. The inverse of the American cowboy were the English who were left behind: the aristocrats, peasants and gentry who came together to create a British Empire with a much more united cultural identity in the 19th century than it had in the 17th century.

Albion’s Seed and The Cousins’ Wars have as much to do with the present and future as the past, Razib Khan explains:

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 saw the emergence of a belt of “Red” Republican counties dominated by Borderers, attracted to the aggressive pugilistic style of their candidate. Though Barack Obama was perceived by America and the world as the first black president, he was raised by a mother whose paternal grandfather was named Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham, a nod to her ancestral Yankee lineage. Obama presented a moralistic, even utopian, vision for America in keeping with this ancestry.

In contrast, Trump, the German-Scottish son of New York’s outer boroughs, reflects a persona that is in tension with the dominant Yankee tradition of the North. It is not well remembered, but during the Civil War, New York City was a hotbed of pro-Southern sentiment, and the mayor, Fernando Wood, even proposed the city’s secession from the Union. To the west, much of southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were pro-Confederate during the conflict because the local population were “butternuts”, descended from settlers who had moved north in the first half of the 19th century, like Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator was, though, a direct descendent of Samuel Lincoln of Norfolk, East Anglia, who was to settle in Massachusetts in 1638.


Once you read Fischer and Phillips’s narrative, the past becomes illuminated. You can see shadows of the future already being cast.

This was a world where the humanities mattered

Saturday, September 3rd, 2022

In the 1960s, when history and English majors were among the most popular on campus, America was a very different place, T. Greer explains:

This was an America where most kids memorized reams of poetry in school, where one third of the country turned on their television to watch a live broadcast of Richard III, and where listening to speeches on American history was a standard Independence Day activity. The most prominent public intellectuals of this America were people like Lionel Trilling (literary critic), Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian), and Richard Hofstader (historian). This was a world where the humanities mattered. So did humanities professors. They mattered in part, as traditionalists like to point out, because these professors were seen as the custodians of a cultural tradition to which most American intellectuals believed they were the heirs to. But they mattered for a more important reason—the reason intellectuals would care about that birthright in the first place.

Americans once believed, earnestly believed, that by studying the words of Milton and Dante, or by examining the history of republican Rome or 16th century England, one could learn important, even eternal, truths about human nature and human polities. Art, literature, and history were a privileged source of insight into human affairs. In consequence, those well versed in history and the other humanistic disciplines had immense authority in the public eye. The man of vaulting ambition studied the humanities.

Natural gas is a fuel of the future

Friday, September 2nd, 2022

Natural gas is a fuel of the future, Austin Vernon explains:

Gas power plants are cheap.

Why are gas plants so cheap? They have less equipment. A gas turbine takes in compressed gas and air, burns it, spits out the exhaust, and turns a generator. Modern turbines are as efficient as coal or nuclear plants and a fraction of the size of hulking steam turbines. They are 3x as efficient as the average geothermal facility.

Coal, nuclear, and geothermal plants utilize more complex thermodynamic cycles. They have a boiler, a steam turbine, a generator, a condenser, a boiler feed water pump, more cooling towers, and a water purification system for boiler feed water. Coal plants contend with solids handling, and nuclear plants have complex reactors.

Combined cycle natural gas power plants use hot exhaust from the turbine to make steam like traditional thermal plants. About 2/3 of plant output comes from the gas turbine and 1/3 from the steam turbine. Total efficiency can be over 60% with less equipment and labor than boiler-style thermal plants.

Cheap Storage

Most natural gas storage is in depleted reservoirs. They fill up in the summer when gas demand is low and empty in the winter when gas demand is high.

Building a depleted reservoir gas storage facility costs about $6 million per billion cubic feet of gas. That equates to $0.02/kWh. A grid storage lithium-ion battery currently costs $250-$300/kWh.

The marginal cost of storing gas is determined by renting space in the storage facility and compressing it into the reservoir, usually ~$0.50/MCF for a season. Spot natural gas prices have been between $1.50 and $6 over the last decade. Efficiency determines the marginal cycle cost for a battery. Most lithium-ion battery systems are 90%+ efficient. Tesla’s Powerwall has a 92.5% round trip efficiency.

Reservoir permeability limits gas injection/discharge rates to emptying once per season. Salt dome storage facilities are an exception that can cycle faster but have higher construction costs. Batteries can cycle within a few hours.

Batteries have an advantage in short-term storage, while natural gas storage is much better for long-duration storage.


Why not store hydrogen instead of natural gas?

Hydrogen embrittles metal that pipelines and storage facility wells are made of, limiting usage in existing infrastructure.

Methane (the primary molecule in natural gas) has three times the energy per volume as hydrogen. A switch to hydrogen would mean we’d need three times more pipeline, compressor, and gas storage capacity.

Hydrogen is more expensive to store because of poor volumetric energy density, and it needs all new infrastructure. If we see widespread hydrogen storage, it will likely be local and only for industrial and electricity use. Building new interstate pipelines is increasingly difficult. As we’ve seen with electricity transmission, critics do not make an exception for “green” projects. I will remain skeptical.

Better Than Air

Compressed air storage also uses caverns and reservoirs as cheap, long-term storage. Compressed methane is ~80x more energy-dense than compressed air. Facilities need new turbines and grid connections, unlike natural gas.


Ammonia is easy to liquefy, so it has good volumetric energy density. Proponents favor applications like marine fuel and gas turbines.

The downsides are that it is poisonous, burns slow, releases tons of NOx when burned, and is less dense than regular ship fuel. The toxic aspect eliminates its use in residential applications. The combustion characteristics mean turbines need larger combustion chambers and more emissions control than natural gas turbines. And the lower volumetric density means it is vulnerable to drop-in synthetic liquid fuels in maritime applications.

Pumped Hydro and Other Cats and Dogs

Pumped hydro costs a thousand times more per unit of energy than natural gas storage. All the other random pet technologies are expensive, too. Storing energy in hydrocarbons is laughably cheap. Competing technologies tend to be awkward tweeners. They can’t compete against batteries in short-term storage or against gas in longer-duration storage.

Smart bombs payout immediately by requiring a fraction of the ordnance

Thursday, September 1st, 2022

Austin Vernon discusses the economic logic of smart bombs:

US smart bombs like the GPS-guided JDAM and the laser-guided Paveway cost somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 to manufacture. They are nearly 100% accurate in hitting a target, while unguided bombs are stuck with single-digit accuracy numbers. Unguided dumb bombs cost $2000-$3000 per bomb. Smart bombs payout immediately by requiring a fraction of the ordnance.

It is worse than that, though. A fighter jet like the US Navy’s F-18 costs over $10,000 an hour to operate, not including tankers. A B-52 bomber costs $70,000 an hour. Attacking targets using dumb bombs requires ten times the sorties at a significant cost premium and exposes planes and pilots to more risk.


Modern smart bombs fired by aircraft can provide support and screening for fast advancing mechanized columns instead of artillery. In the early Afghanistan conflict in 2001, the US deployed zero artillery because of its weight and logistics challenges. Combat aircraft were able to cover US ground forces against light Taliban forces.

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, armor columns brought much less artillery than in 1991. Aircraft took over the strategic mission, leaving counter-battery fire and all-weather close fire support to artillery forces.


Smart weapons also have standoff capability. An unpowered JDAM bomb can glide over 25 km.


Drones are a continuation of the precision-guided munition paradigm. Smart bombs can make a plane 20x more effective. Drones are force multipliers across the board. The Army and Air Force have been drone leaders but need to continue to invest in drones across the spectrum. They need large, expensive drones that can operate far from bases and inexpensive micro-drones that can disrupt enemy formations or intercept enemy micro-drones. Modern warfare is an o-ring industry because enemies exploit gaps relentlessly.