A North Pole Mission the Night Before Christmas

Saturday, December 31st, 2022

From 80,000 feet, SR-71 Blackbird could survey 100,000 square miles of Earth’s surface per hour. On the Night Before Christmas, in 1969, Richard “Butch” Sheffield flew a North Pole night mission:

Late In 1969, shortly after I was crewed with Bob Spencer, we were tasked to fly a night mission to the North Pole. Night missions were very rare in those days because of St. Martins crash (summer of 1967) at night when navigation system failed. We were one of the most experienced SR crews and we were told that the Russians were doing something with our submarines at night at a station they had built on the ice near the North Pole.

It was believed that our Side Looking, High Resolution Radar System could gain valuable intelligence by spying on the unsuspecting Russians in the middle of the night. I found out a few years ago what the Russians were doing, setting up acoustic sensors so they could track our submarines under the ice cape.

We launched from Beale at night, flew north to Alaska and refueled over the central part on a Northern heading. Once we were full of fuel, we lit the afterburners and climbed to about seventy five-thousand feet heading north to the ice station. The tanker was briefed to continue to fly north in case we lost an engine. There was no place to land and our emergency procedure was to turn around 180 degrees and do a head on rendezvous with the tanker on one engine.

As we departed Alaska heading North with the after burners blazing, I looked out the window at the barren land and ice. I could see well because of star light. We had no moon that night. The thought came to my mind, “this is really risky business,” and if anything goes wrong they will never find us. Nothing went wrong, I turned on the Side Looking Radar (SLR), looked at the location and took the images. Returned to Alaska and refueled from the tanker and returned to Beale.


The CIA found out that the station was not manned during the worst part of winter. When not manned, the CIA landed a few people by parachute to find out what was going on at the station. They found everything to include code books. The men were recovered by being snatched up into a low flying aircraft.

A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare would find himself stymied at every turn

Friday, December 30th, 2022

Why are archaeologists taking to anonymous online spaces to practice their craft?

In part because we have an inflation of young people, educated to around the postgraduate level, who no longer see a future in the academy, where jobs are almost non-existent, and acutely aware of the damage a single remark or online comment can do to a career. But also because we have a university research system that has drifted towards a political position that defies a common sense understanding of human nature and history. A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether. Much easier instead to go online and find the ten other people on Earth who share his interests, who are concerned with what the results mean, rather than their wider current political and social ramifications.

Science has been running an experiment on itself

Thursday, December 29th, 2022

For the last 60 years or so, Adam Mastroianni notes, science has been running an experiment on itself:

The experimental design wasn’t great; there was no randomization and no control group. Nobody was in charge, exactly, and nobody was really taking consistent measurements. And yet it was the most massive experiment ever run, and it included every scientist on Earth.

Most of those folks didn’t even realize they were in an experiment. Many of them, including me, weren’t born when the experiment started. If we had noticed what was going on, maybe we would have demanded a basic level of scientific rigor. Maybe nobody objected because the hypothesis seemed so obviously true: science will be better off if we have someone check every paper and reject the ones that don’t pass muster. They called it “peer review.”

This was a massive change. From antiquity to modernity, scientists wrote letters and circulated monographs, and the main barriers stopping them from communicating their findings were the cost of paper, postage, or a printing press, or on rare occasions, the cost of a visit from the Catholic Church. Scientific journals appeared in the 1600s, but they operated more like magazines or newsletters, and their processes of picking articles ranged from “we print whatever we get” to “the editor asks his friend what he thinks” to “the whole society votes.” Sometimes journals couldn’t get enough papers to publish, so editors had to go around begging their friends to submit manuscripts, or fill the space themselves. Scientific publishing remained a hodgepodge for centuries.

(Only one of Einstein’s papers was ever peer-reviewed, by the way, and he was so surprised and upset that he published his paper in a different journal instead.)

That all changed after World War II. Governments poured funding into research, and they convened “peer reviewers” to ensure they weren’t wasting their money on foolish proposals. That funding turned into a deluge of papers, and journals that previously struggled to fill their pages now struggled to pick which articles to print. Reviewing papers before publication, which was “quite rare” until the 1960s, became much more common. Then it became universal.

Now pretty much every journal uses outside experts to vet papers, and papers that don’t please reviewers get rejected. You can still write to your friends about your findings, but hiring committees and grant agencies act as if the only science that exists is the stuff published in peer-reviewed journals. This is the grand experiment we’ve been running for six decades.

The results are in. It failed.


Here’s a simple question: does peer review actually do the thing it’s supposed to do? Does it catch bad research and prevent it from being published?

It doesn’t. Scientists have run studies where they deliberately add errors to papers, send them out to reviewers, and simply count how many errors the reviewers catch. Reviewers are pretty awful at this. In this study reviewers caught 30% of the major flaws, in this study they caught 25%, and in this study they caught 29%. These were critical issues, like “the paper claims to be a randomized controlled trial but it isn’t” and “when you look at the graphs, it’s pretty clear there’s no effect” and “the authors draw conclusions that are totally unsupported by the data.” Reviewers mostly didn’t notice.

In fact, we’ve got knock-down, real-world data that peer review doesn’t work: fraudulent papers get published all the time.


When one editor started asking authors to add their raw data after they submitted a paper to his journal, half of them declined and retracted their submissions. This suggests, in the editor’s words, “a possibility that the raw data did not exist from the beginning.”


If you look at what scientists actually do, it’s clear they don’t think peer review really matters.

First: if scientists cared a lot about peer review, when their papers got reviewed and rejected, they would listen to the feedback, do more experiments, rewrite the paper, etc. Instead, they usually just submit the same paper to another journal.


Second: once a paper gets published, we shred the reviews. A few journals publish reviews; most don’t. Nobody cares to find out what the reviewers said or how the authors edited their paper in response, which suggests that nobody thinks the reviews actually mattered in the first place.

And third: scientists take unreviewed work seriously without thinking twice. We read “preprints” and working papers and blog posts, none of which have been published in peer-reviewed journals. We use data from Pew and Gallup and the government, also unreviewed. We go to conferences where people give talks about unvetted projects, and we do not turn to each other and say, “So interesting! I can’t wait for it to be peer reviewed so I can find out if it’s true.”


Lack of effort isn’t the problem: remember that our current system requires 15,000 years of labor every year, and it still does a really crappy job. Paying peer reviewers doesn’t seem to make them any better. Neither does training them.

He got some nasty comments and came up with some reasons why people got so nasty:

First: the third-person effect, which is people’s tendency to think that other people are susceptible to persuasion. I am a savvy consumer; you are a knucklehead who can be duped into buying Budweiser by a pair of boobs. I evaluate arguments rationally; you listen to whoever is shouting the loudest. I won’t be swayed by a blog post; you will.


And second: social dominance. Scientists may think they’re egalitarian because they don’t believe in hierarchies based on race, sex, wealth, and so on. But some of them believe very strongly in hierarchy based on prestige. In their eyes, it is right and good for people with more degrees, bigger grants, and fancier academic positions to be above people who have fewer of those things. They don’t even think of this as hierarchy, exactly, because that sounds like a bad word. To them, it’s just the natural order of things.

(To see this in action, watch what happens when two academic scientists meet. The first things they’ll want to know about each are are 1) career stage — grad student, postdoc, professor, etc., and 2) institution. These are the X and Y coordinates that allow you to place someone in the hierarchy: professor at elite institution gets lots of status, grad student at no-name institution gets none. Older-looking graduate students sometimes have the experience of being mistaken for professors, and professors will chat to them amiably until they realize their mistake, at which point they will, horrified, high-tail it out of the conversation.)

People who are all-in on a hierarchy don’t like it when you question its central assumptions. If peer review doesn’t work or is even harmful to science, it suggests the people at the top of the hierarchy might be naked emperors, and that’s upsetting not just to the naked emperors themselves, but also the people who are diligently disrobing in the hopes of becoming one. In fact, it’s more than upsetting — it’s dangerous, because it could tip over a ladder that has many people on it.

Black people were mostly an abstraction

Wednesday, December 28th, 2022

Rod Dreher recently found out that his father was in the Ku Klux Klan, back in the 1960s, in Louisiana:

Specifically, as much as I hated to admit it, my dad, who had grown up in rural Louisiana, and who had spent his career as the chief public health officer for our parish, knew more about actual existing black people and their culture than I did — because he had lived among them all his life! For me, black people were mostly an abstraction. I had allowed the living, breathing human beings to be assimilated into an idea of Blackness — specifically, of black people as the eternal victims of white people. When I first discovered Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Enduring Chill” (PDF version here) (I hear that link doesn’t work; listen to Stephen Colbert read it aloud here), I was poleaxed, because O’Connor had seen right through me. It’s a story about Asbury, an intellectual son of rural Southerners, who goes off to college and comes home full of intellectual pride about how much smarter he is than his mother. Back on the farm, Asbury sought out the company of black farmhands, not because he wanted to know them as people, but because they were totems of his anger at his backwards mother, and of his pride that he was not a sinner like her.

I’ve carried Asbury in my heart all these years, as a rebuke to myself. When I read that short story in college, I knew Asbury was me. In the story, O’Connor doesn’t justify the prejudice of Asbury’s mother, but she does use it to reveal that Asbury, in imagining himself free from sin, was guilty of a different sin. I also knew from reading that story that my dad understood things about black folks — at least in the rural South — that I did not, despite the fact that he was blinded by his own unconscious prejudice. The point is that I too was blind, but my blindness carried with it the taint of moral superiority. O’Connor showed me that both my father and I were guilty of making abstractions of black people to suit our own conflicting senses of moral order. She also showed me that this is the way it is with us human creatures. We are all at risk of assimilating our fellow creatures into ideas.

In the years that followed, I puzzled over how it was that my dad, with all his race prejudice, could more easily talk to black people than I could. He had a small farm before I was born. I puzzled over how he would cry telling the story of the love he and his old farmhand, Calvin McKnight, had for each other. I would hear about how he would go to town to bail black farmhands of his out when they had landed in jail for public drunkenness, and wonder: how does a white racist do that? At his retirement from the public health officer job decades ago, I couldn’t avoid reflecting on the fact that the racist white man who was my father had done more practical good to bring water and sewerage to the homes of poor black people in our parish than nice race liberals like me ever would, despite holding all the correct liberal views of race.
How to explain that? The thing is, if I had brought it up with my dad, he would not have been able to understand my point. He wouldn’t have been able to see a contradiction.


Plus, black people and white people really were very different in terms of culture. What a shock it was to me to go to a rare evening assembly at school, when I was 13 and was then moved to the same building as high schoolers, and to see girls only a year or two older than me, whom I would see daily in the hallways at school, carrying their babies while their mothers doted on them. This was how local black culture was. It was also very, very strange to me, as a kid, to learn from black classmates in elementary schools that they had no fathers in the home. I eventually began to wonder to what extent the white taboo against “race mixing” was merely out of pure race hatred, and to what extent it was a form of protection against the sexual code that was destroying the black family.

We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise

Tuesday, December 27th, 2022

C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for The Chronicles of Narnia and then for Mere Christianity, but he’s also known for works like The Inner Ring, Dangers of National Repentance, The Necessity of Chivalry, Equality, On the Reading of Old Books, and The Great Divorce.

I’d been meaning to read his essay on Men without Chests, which opens The Abolition of Man, and, like Brett McKay, I had assumed it meant men without spines, or courage, or manly virtues, which isn’t quite right:

His lament is that modern society makes men without heart.


While the nature of emotional responses is partly visceral and automatic, a man’s sentiments also have to be intentionally educated in order to be congruent — to be more in harmony with Nature. Such training teaches a man to evaluate things as more or less Just, True, Beautiful, and Good, and to proportion his affections as merited. As Lewis notes, this training was considered central to one’s development throughout antiquity.

In the 20th century, it began to be posited that there was not a natural order to the world, and that things did not possess an objective value which demanded a certain response; rather, people simply brought their own feelings to objects, and these feelings are what gave the objects their value. Such feelings were culturally conditioned and relative to particular societies and individuals, and were thus completely subjective. Lewis observes that certain corollaries followed from this conclusion, mainly that “judgements of value are unimportant,” “all values are subjective and trivial,” and “emotion is contrary to reason.”

Rather than education seeking to improve young people by both increasing their stock of facts and honing the sensitivity of their sentiments, students began to be tutored in facts alone. This shift was thought to benefit youth, protecting them from the emotional sway of propaganda. But Lewis argues that not only did dropping an education in and emphasis on sentiment fail to provide this protective effect (and in fact made students more susceptible to hype and disinformation), it atrophied their capacity for virtue and human excellence.

The ostensible subject of his essay is “a little book on English intended for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools’” that he dubs The Green Book, by two amateur philosophers posing as professional grammarians whom he refers to as Gaius and Titius. They present an ad for a cruise as an example of bad writing:

From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible. He will have no notion that there are two ways of being immune to such an advertisement — that it falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water. There are two men to whom we offer in vain a false leading article on patriotism and honour: one is the coward, the other is the honourable and patriotic man. None of this is brought before the schoolboy’s mind. On the contrary, he is encouraged to reject the lure of the ‘Western Ocean’ on the very dangerous ground that in so doing he will prove himself a knowing fellow who can’t be bubbled out of his cash. Gaius and Titius, while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.


I have hitherto been assuming that such teachers as Gaius and Titius do not fully realize what they are doing and do not intend the far-reaching consequences it will actually have. There is, of course, another possibility. What I have called (presuming on their concurrence in a certain traditional system of values) the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ may be precisely the kind of man they really wish to produce. The differences between us may go all the way down. They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. That position will be discussed later.


But I doubt whether Gaius and Titius have really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy. I think they have slipped into it for the following reasons. In the first place, literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier. To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do.


In the second place, I think Gaius and Titius may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda— they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.


Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others.


This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao‘. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.


Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’.


When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgement discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him. But Gaius and Titius cannot believe that in calling such a death sweet and seemly they would be saying ‘something important about something’. Their own method of debunking would cry out against them if they attempted to do so. For death is not something to eat and therefore cannot be dulce in the literal sense, and it is unlikely that the real sensations preceding it will be dulce even by analogy. And as for decorum — that is only a word describing how some other people will feel about your death when they happen to think of it, which won’t be often, and will certainly do you no good.


It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato.


The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

A while back T. Greer mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists both Dune and The Abolition of Man as required reading and combines their ideas:

Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?

Intellectual life needs to be taken abnormally seriously

Monday, December 26th, 2022

The key to aristocratic tutoring, Erik Hoel suggests, is not the schedule of tutoring, nor even what subjects are covered:

Rather, the key ingredients, judged from some of the most stand-out and well-documented accounts, are (a) the total amount of one-on-one time the child has with intellectually-engaged adults; (b) a strong overseer who guides the education at a high level with the clear intent of producing an exceptional mind (in Mill’s case, his father, in Russell’s case, his grandmother, in Hamilton’s case, Knox, and we can look to modern examples like mathematician Terence Tao, whose parents did the same); (c) plenty of free time, i.e., less tutoring hours in the day than traditional school; (d) teaching that avoids the standard lecture-based system of unnecessary memorization and testing and instead encourages thinking from first principles, discussions, writing, debates, or simply overviewing the fundamentals together; (e) in these activities, it is often best to let the student lead (e.g., writing an essay or poetry, or learning a proof); (f) intellectual life needs to be taken abnormally seriously by either the tutors or the family at large; (g) there is early specialization of geniuses, often into the very fields for which they would become notable (even, e.g., Hamilton’s childhood experience with logistics making him an ideal chief of staff for Washington’s war); (g) at some point the tutoring transitions toward an apprenticeship model, often quite early, which takes the form of project-based collaboration, such as producing a scientific paper or monograph or book; (h) a final stage of becoming pupil to another genius at the height of their powers, often as young adulthood is only beginning (Mill with the early utilitarians like the Bethams and his father, Russell with Whitehead, Hamilton with Washington). From there, they are off and running. Earlier on in history, they often eventually became tutors themselves, as if they were an organism completing a life-cycle and returning to the place of its origins (e.g., Huygens, who was tutored by famous scientists of the day, tutoring Leibniz).

I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!

Sunday, December 25th, 2022

Please enjoy these posts of Christmas Past:

Don’t carry anything you don’t control

Saturday, December 24th, 2022

Alma Katsu — who spent 30+ years working for CIA and NSA and went on to write spy novels, like Red Widow — noticed that — spoiler alert!Andor incorporates spycraft into its story better and more subtly than many spy shows:

Spies Everywhere

Andor made it abundantly clear that when you’re involved in a conflict like this, you are always being watched. There are spies and watchers everywhere. Senator Mon Mothma, who knows her driver is an Internal Security Bureau (ISB) plant, complains there is “a new spy every day at the Senate” as well as at the bank where she is trying to discreetly move funds to the rebellion. Free agents, or volunteers, roam the streets of Ferrix, hoping to luck into information they might be able to sell. It becomes quickly apparent that Luthen, architect of the rebellion, has developed a vast network of spies. Spies are such a given that it’s almost humorous when Saw, leader of a partisan group, becomes outraged when he finds out Luthen even has a spy inside Saw’s own ranks.


Covert Communications

Covcomm is essential to running a spy network: it enables you to communicate securely with your assets without the risks that come with meeting in person (a risk Luthen mentions this when a highly-placed agent that he hasn’t laid eyes on in a year requests a meeting.) Covcomm was featured prominently in the show: we see Bix shimmy up a hidden tower to send broadcasts to the handler on a special transmitter (obviously designed to elude detection by the Empire). On the other end, we see Luthen and Kleya, his lieutenant, in the backroom of their antiques shop, the front for their operations, glued to their receiver, listening for messages from agents dispersed all over the galaxy.

Disguise and Persona

Operations officers often must wear a disguise in order to get to a meeting undetected or slip behind enemy lines. This is less about fooling a close observer than it is about slipping past the enemy’s army of watchers. We didn’t see too much in the disguise department in Andor except for Luthen, and it was like something out of The Americans as he alternated between his true self and his false persona, the proprietor of a high-end antiques shop on Coruscant, for which he dons a flamboyant wig and clothing.

Good Tradecraft

The spies of Andor practice good discipline as they ply their trade, from not carrying commercial communications equipment (“don’t carry anything you don’t control”) and always having an exit strategy (“build your exit on the way in,” Luthen warns Cassian), to the chalk marks on the sidewalk that Kleya follows to know where to meet insurgent team leader Vel.

The Destructive Culture of a Toxic Security Organization

Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the atmosphere and culture of a Gestapo-like security bureaucracy. It is eat-or-be-eaten, and often management is missing-in-action, out of design rather than incompetence. You’re rewarded for affirming management’s viewpoint, not for rocking the boat or pointing out problems. Officers compete for turf and to move up the ladder, all under the watchful eye of ruthless supervisors who are themselves afraid of putting a foot wrong or being eaten alive by their underlings.


Protecting Sources

One of the toughest aspects of the espionage business is the protection of assets. When an important asset is at risk, do you leave him in place to continue receiving intelligence or do you pull him out for his own safety? To what lengths do you go in order to protect that asset?

In Andor, the ISB stumbles across a rebel plan to attack a facility. Lonni Jung, an ISB supervisor and embedded asset for the rebels, tells Luthen that their man is going to walk into a trap. But if the rebels warn the man off, the ISB will see there’s a mole in their midst. Luthen makes the decision to let their man (and his entire squad) be slaughtered by the ISB rather than risk exposing their asset. Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the sometimes cold-hearted calculations spymasters are forced to make. Not only does this sub-plot reveal a lot about Luthen, but it left Lonni, the embedded asset, with the knowledge that 30 men died to protect him — a sacrifice he didn’t ask for.

Boucicaut’s Workout du Jour

Friday, December 23rd, 2022

Jean le Maingre, called Boucicaut, (1366-1421) was a French knight known for his rigorous physical training:

And now he began to test himself by jumping onto a courser in full armor. At other times he would run or hike for a long way on foot, to train himself not to get out of breath and to endure long efforts. At other times he would strike with an axe or hammer for a long time to be able to hold out well in armor, and so his arms and hands would endure striking for a long time, and train himself to nimbly lift his arms. By these means he trained himself so well that at that time you couldn’t find another gentleman in equal physical condition. He would do a somersault armed in all his armor except his bascinet, and dance armed in a mail shirt…

When he was at his lodgings he would never ceased to test himself with the other squires at throwing the lance or other tests of war.

I was reminded of this when Ben Espen recently shared this video, demonstrating that plate armor was not especially cumbersome:

Vibrating the water has the effect of “frustrating” the water molecules nearest to the electrodes

Thursday, December 22nd, 2022

“Green hydrogen” is created through electrolysis, which goes much faster, RMIT researchers found, when you apply high-frequency sound waves:

So why does this process work so much better when the RMIT team plays a 10-MHz hybrid sound? Several reasons, according to a research paper just published in the journal Advanced Energy Materials.

Firstly, vibrating the water has the effect of “frustrating” the water molecules nearest to the electrodes, shaking them out of the tetrahedral networks they tend to settle in. This results in more “free” water molecules that can make contact with catalytic sites on the electrodes.

Secondly, since the separate gases collect as bubbles on each electrode, the vibrations shake the bubbles free. That accelerates the electrolysis process, because those bubbles block the electrode’s contact with the water and limit the reaction. The sound also helps by generating hydronium (positively charged water ions), and by creating convection currents that help with mass transfer.

In their experiments, the researchers chose to use electrodes that typically perform pretty poorly. Electrolysis is typically done using rare and expensive platinum or iridium metals and powerfully acidic or basic electrolytes for the best reaction rates, but the RMIT team went with cheaper gold electrodes and an electrolyte with a neutral pH level. As soon as the team turned on the sound vibrations, the current density and reaction rate jumped by a remarkable factor of 14.

So this isn’t a situation where, for a given amount of energy put into an electrolyzer, you get 14 times more hydrogen. It’s a situation where the water gets split into hydrogen and oxygen more quickly and easily. And that does have an impressive effect on the overall efficiency of an electrolyzer. “With our method, we can potentially improve the conversion efficiency leading to a net-positive energy saving of 27%,” said Professor Leslie Yeo, one of the lead researchers.

All the twin pairs came in for physical examinations, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect

Wednesday, December 21st, 2022

Researchers in Finland looked at 17 pairs of identical twins who didn’t have similar exercise habits:

The first thing to note is just how unusual such twin pairs are. The twins in the study were drawn from two previous Finnish twin studies that included thousands of pairs of identical twins. The vast majority of them had similar levels of physical activity. The High Runner mouse line that’s often used in lab studies took mice that loved to run, bred them with each other, and produced mice that love to run even more. I’d like to think that human behavior (and mating patterns) are a little more complex than that, but the twin data certainly suggests that our genes influence our predilection for movement.

Still, they found these 17 pairs whose paths had diverged. There were two different subgroups: young twins in their thirties whose exercise habits had diverged for at least three years, and older twins in their fifties to seventies whose habits had diverged for at least 30 years. On average, the exercising twins got about three times as much physical activity, including active commuting, as the non-exercising ones: 6.1 MET-hours per day compared to 2.0 MET-hours per day. For context, running at a ten-minute-mile pace for half an hour consumes about 5 MET-hours.

All the twin pairs came in for physical examinations, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect. The exercising twins had higher VO2 max (38.6 vs. 33.0 ml/kg/min), smaller waist circumference (34.8 vs. 36.3 inches), lower body fat (19.7 vs. 22.6 percent), significantly less abdominal fat and liver fat, and so on.


A 2018 case study from researchers at California State University Fullerton looked at a single identical twin pair, then aged 52. One was a marathoner and triathlete who had logged almost 40,000 miles of running between 1993 and 2015. The other was a truck driver who didn’t exercise. In this case, the exercising twin weighed 22 pounds less, and his resting heart rate was 30 percent lower. Most fascinatingly, muscle biopsies showed that the marathoner had 94 percent slow-twitch fibers while the truck-driver had just 40 percent slow-twitch. No one before or since (as far as I know) has shown such a dramatic change in muscle properties.

Call Me Psi-Electronics

Tuesday, December 20th, 2022

With the Avatar sequel coming to theaters, I was reminded of Poul Anderson’s 1957 story, Call Me Joe, which inspired the avatar element of James Cameron’s movie. The story opens like this:

The wind came whipping out of eastern darkness, driving a lash of ammonia dust before it. In minutes, Edward Anglesey was blinded.

He clawed all of his four feet into the broken shards which were soil, hunched down, and groped for his little smelter. The wind was an idiot bassoon in his skull. Something whipped across his back, drawing blood, a tree yanked up by the roots and spat a hundred miles. Lightning cracked, immensely far overhead, where clouds boiled with night.

As if to reply, thunder toned in the ice mountains and a red gout of flame jumped and a hillside came booming down, spilling itself across the valley. The ground beneath him shivered.

Sodium explosion, thought Anglesey in the drumbeat noise. The fire and the lightning gave him enough illumination to find his apparatus. He picked up tools in his muscular hands, his tail gripped the trough, and he battered his way to the tunnel and into his dugout.

It had walls and roof of water, frozen by sun — remoteness and compressed by tons of atmosphere jammed onto every square inch. Ventilated by a tiny smokehole, a lamp of tree oil burning in hydrogen made a dull light for the single room.

Anglesey sprawled his slate-blue form on the floor, panting. It was no use to swear at the storm. These ammonia gales often came at sunset, and there was nothing to do but wait them out. He was tired anyway.

It would be morning in five hours or so. He had hoped to create an axehead, his first, this evening, but maybe it was better to do the job by daylight.

He pulled a decapitated body off a shelf and ate the meat raw, pausing for long gulps of liquid methane from a jug. Things would improve once he had proper tools; so far, everything had been painfully grubbed and hacked into shape using only teeth, claws, chance icicles, and what detestably weak and crumbling fragments remained of the spaceship. Give him a few years and he’d be living as a person should.

He sighed, stretched, and lay down to sleep.

Somewhat more than one hundred and twelve thousand miles away, Edward Anglesey took off his helmet.


He looked around, blinking. After the surface of Jupiter, it was always a little unreal to find himself here again, in the clean, quiet orderliness of the control room.

His muscles ached. They shouldn’t. He had not really been fighting a gale of several hundred miles an hour, under three gravities, and a temperature of 140 Absolute. He had been here, in the almost nonexistent pull of Jupiter V, breathing oxynitrogen. It was Joe who lived down there and filled his lungs with hydrogen and helium at a pressure which could still only be estimated because it broke aneroids and deranged piezo-electrics.

Nevertheless, his body felt worn and beaten. Tension, no doubt — psychosomatics — after all, for a good many hours now. he had, in a sense, been Joe, and Joe had been working hard.

With the helmet off, Anglesey held only a thread of identification. The esprojector was still tuned to Joe’s brain but no longer focused on his own. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew an indescribable feeling of sleep. Now and then, vague forms or colors drifted in the soft black — dreams? Not impossible, that Joe’s brain should dream a little when Anglesey’s mind wasn’t using it.

A light flickered red on the esprojector panel, and a bell whined electronic fear. Anglesey cursed. Thin fingers danced over the controls of his chair, he slued around and shot across to the bank of dials. Yes — there — K-tube oscillating again! The circuit blew out. He wrenched the faceplate off with one hand and fumbled in a drawer with the other.

Inside his mind he could feel the contact with Joe fading. If he once lost it entirely, he wasn’t sure he could regain it. And Joe was an investment of several million dollars and quite a few highly skilled man-years.

Anglesey pulled the offending K-tube from its socket and threw it on the floor. Glass exploded. It eased his temper a bit, just enough so he could find a replacement, plug it in, switch on the current again — as the machine warmed up, once again amplifying, the Joeness in the back alleys of his brain strengthened.

Slowly, then, the man in the electric wheelchair rolled out of the room, into the hall. Let somebody else sweep up the broken tube. To hell with it. To hell with everybody.

Jan Cornelius had never been farther from Earth than some comfortable Lunar resort. He felt much put upon that the Psionics Corporation should tap him for a thirteen-month exile. The fact that he knew as much about esprojectors and their cranky innards as any other man alive was no excuse. Why send anyone at all? Who cared?

Obviously the Federation Science Authority did. It had seemingly given those bearded hermits a blank check on the taxpayers’ account.

Our protagonist, from his electric wheelchair, controls a slate-blue alien form with a prehensile tail on a hostile planet — using an esprojector from the Psionics Corporation. As I read this, in my copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A, I suddenly realized that psionics wasn’t simply a word for psychic powers, the way it was used in the D&D books of my childhood, but was a portmanteau of psi (“psychic phenomena”) and the -onics from electronics:

In 1942, two authors — biologist Bertold Wiesner and psychologist Robert Thouless — had introduced the term “psi” (from the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet) to parapsychology in an article published in the British Journal of Psychology. (This Greek character was chosen as apropos since it is the initial letter of the Greek word psyche, meaning “mind” or “soul”.) The intent was that “psi” would represent the “unknown factor” in extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, experiences believed to be unexplained by any known physical or biological mechanisms. In a 1972 book, Thouless insisted that he and Wiesner had coined this usage of the term “psi” prior to its use in science fiction circles, explaining that their intent was to provide a more neutral term than “ESP” that would not suggest a pre-existing theory of mechanism.

The word “psionics” first appeared in print in a novella by science fiction writer Jack Williamson — The Greatest Invention — published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1951. Williamson derived it from the “psion”, a fictitious “unit of mental energy” described in the same story. (Only later was the term retroactively described in non-fiction articles in Astounding as a portmanteau of “psychic electronics”, by editor John W. Campbell.) The new word was derived by analogy with the earlier term radionics. (“Radionics” combined radio with electronics and was itself devised in the 1940s to refer to the work of early 20th century physician and pseudoscientist Albert Abrams.) The same analogy was subsequently taken up in a number of science fiction-themed neologisms, notably bionics (bio- + electronics; coined 1960) and cryonics (cryo- + electronics; coined 1967).

Bach likely intended the simple binary dances as teaching material

Monday, December 19th, 2022

I recently heard the famous Minuet in G major, but I had to ask what the name of the piece was — which wasn’t very helpful — and the name of the composer — which was rather confusing:

The little keyboard student said it was by Christian Petzold. That can’t be right. Isn’t it by Bach? Ah, therein lies a tale!

The second Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach was started in 1725. It opened with two harpsichord suites, that is, the Partitas BWV 827 and 830, composed and written down by Johann Sebastian Bach. Anna Magdalena Bach likely received the notebook from her husband in the autumn of 1725, as a present for either her birthday (22 September) or their wedding anniversary (3 December). Nos. 3 to 11 in the notebook are keyboard pieces written down by Anna Magdalena, likely shortly after she was given the volume. No. 3, the first piece after the two seven-movement Partitas, is a Minuet in F major by an unknown composer (likely not Bach), adopted as No. 113 in the second annex (German: Anhang, Anh.), that is the annex of doubtful compositions, in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV). Petzold’s Minuets in G major and G minor, BWV Anh. 114 and 115, are the next two entries in the notebook (Nos. 4 and 5). These pieces may have been brought back from Dresden by Johann Sebastian when he visited this city in September 1725.

Bach likely intended the simple binary dances contained in Anna Magdalena’s notebooks, including the Minuets entered without composer indication, as teaching material, likely rather for his younger children than for his wife.

Think about why a person who has actually placed a bomb would call in a threat

Sunday, December 18th, 2022

Within the last couple weeks, Greg Ellifritz notes, dozens of schools have been targeted by hoax bomb and active killer threats:

Think about why a person who has actually placed a bomb would call in a threat. The only reason he would call in the threat is if he DOESN’T want anyone to get hurt. If that’s his goal, he will be as specific and convincing as possible to get people out of the danger zone.

All of these non-specific “there’s a bomb in the building” threats are hoaxes. A legit bomb threat will sound something like: “I placed a bomb in the first floor janitor’s closet. It’s set to go off in 10 minutes or whenever the closet door is opened. Get everyone out of the building in the next 10 minutes or people will die.”

Do you see the difference between the two communications strategies?

It actually places MORE people in danger when you evacuate for every non-specific bomb threat. Is it easier to place a large explosive device inside a public building or leave it in a car in the parking lot where everyone is evacuating to?

Sprint speed starts declining after your 20s

Saturday, December 17th, 2022

Alex Hutchinson explains how to hold on to your sprint speed as you age:

Many of the challenges of daily living, once you hit your 70s and 80s and beyond, are essentially tests of all-out power rather than sustained endurance (though both are important).

The problem is that sprint speed starts declining after your 20s, and most endurance athletes have no clue how to preserve it.


Older sprinters take shorter steps and their feet spend longer in contact with the ground, presumably because they’re less able to generate explosive force with each step. That’s consistent with the finding that older sprinters have less muscle, and in particular less fast-twitch muscle, than younger sprinters.

But it’s not just a question of how much muscle you’ve got. In fact, some studies suggest that you lose strength more rapidly than you lose muscle, which means that the quality of your remaining muscle is reduced. There are a bunch of different reasons for muscle quality to decline, including the properties of the muscle fibers themselves, but the most interesting culprit is the neuromuscular system: the signals from brain to muscle get garbled.


The authors cover their bases by recommending that your resistance training routine should include workouts that aim to build muscle size (e.g. three sets of ten reps at 70 percent of one-rep max); workouts that aim to build strength (e.g. two to four sets of four to six reps at 85 percent of max); and workouts to build power (e.g. three sets of three to ten reps at 35 to 60 percent of max).


The authors suggest training to improve coordination through exercises that challenge balance, stability, and reflexes, such as single-leg balance drills. One advantage of this type of training: it’s not as draining as typical “reps to failure” strength workouts, so it may provide more bang for your buck if you can’t handle as many intense workouts as you used to.


On that note, the standard advice that veteran athletes give you when you hit your 40s is that you can no longer recover as quickly. Strangely, the authors point out, the relatively sparse data on this question doesn’t find any differences in physiological markers of post-workout recovery between younger and older athletes. The main difference is that older athletes feel less recovered—and in this case, it’s probably worth assuming that those feelings represent some kind of reality, even if we don’t know how to measure it.