They were already socially distanced when Covid arrived

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

The CDC put out an 89-page summary of trends from its Youth Risk Behavior Study (YRBS) data from 2011 through 2021, and, Jon Haidt reports, there’s not much evidence of a covid effect:

If we start with girls, we see a steady rise since 2011, with an acceleration in the 2019 administration, and then, if you squint, you can see a slight acceleration beyond that in the 2021 administration. We can call that extra acceleration the covid effect. For the boys, we see no covid effect at all. The big jump was between 2017 and 2019, and the rise slows down between 2019 and 2021.


Why did covid not cause a bigger increase in teen mental illness?

My tentative answer: When school closures and social distancing were implemented in 2020, teens had already lost most of their social lives to their phones. You can see the spectacular loss of time with friends in this graph of time use data plotted by age group.


So 2 hours a day with friends was the norm right up to the time when teens traded in their flip phones for smartphones, in the early 2010s. Once they did that, they moved their social lives onto a few large social media platforms, especially Instagram, Snapchat, and later Tiktok. They were spending vastly more time online, even when they were in the same room as their friends, which meant that they had far less time for each other (in face-to-face interaction or physical play).

I suggest that this is why the effect of covid restrictions on teen mental health was not very large: Gen Z’s in-person social lives were decimated by technology in the 2010s. They were already socially distanced when Covid arrived.

The Liberty Lifter X-plane project aims to deliver a long-range, low-cost X-plane using a wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) ekranoplan-like concept

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

Aurora Flight Sciences and General Atomics have been chosen to compete to design and possibly build the gigantic Liberty Lifter X-plane:

The Liberty Lifter X-plane project aims to deliver a long-range, low-cost X-plane using a wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) ekranoplan-like concept. Artwork released by DARPA shows that the Aurora Flight Sciences concept, which has not been seen before, resembles a more traditional flying boat. The concept features a single hull, high wing and eight turboprops for propulsion. It also looks somewhat similar to Boeing Phantom Works’ Pelican WIG concept from two decades ago.


General Atomics, on the other hand, has selected a twin-hull, mid-wing design – some concept images of which have previously been released by DARPA.


The planned Liberty Lifter X-plane will be similar in capacity, at least, to the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft. The vehicle will also include the ability to takeoff and land in Sea State 4 – characterized by wind speeds of 11-16 knots with wave heights ranging from 3-5 feet – as well as perform “sustained on-water operation” up to Sea State 5. The vehicle will also need to be able to fly close to the water in ground effect, with the ability to fly out of ground effect at altitudes up to 10,000 feet above sea level at speeds faster than current sea lift platforms.


Having a strategic airlift capability that can service virtually any spot in the vast stretches of the Pacific could be a boon for U.S. and allied forces. Its low-altitude flight profile could also provide better survivability in a combat environment that can go from uncontested to contested without warning. In addition, it would not be vulnerable to submarine or traditional anti-ship missile attacks like normal logistics ships.

Accuracy is important for two reasons

Monday, February 27th, 2023

The M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) provided to Ukraine have decisively shaped the battlefield by engaging Russia’s logistics, command and control (C2) nodes, and troop concentrations:

This has prevented the RuAF from concentrating and massing artillery fire in a way that the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) could not match, disrupted RuAF attempts to concentrate forces for offensives, and made command of Russian units a risky endeavour.


The HIMARS and MLRS launchers are armed with six and twelve M31A1 220mm missiles respectively. The missile guidance kits enable them to strike within 15 m of a target, although US Army tests indicate that they can strike within 2 m. They have a range of 70 km and carry a 90 kg high explosive unitary warhead.


The range and accuracy of HIMARS and MLRS are critical to understanding their ability to shape the totality of the battlefield in Ukraine. The 70 km range of the rockets effectively places them beyond the reach of frontline Russian tube artillery systems and enables them to move on roads parallel to the frontline in response to identified targets. It also means that they are able to engage targets such as logistics and ammo dumps in Russia’s operational depth which are beyond the reach of Ukraine’s own conventional tube artillery.

Accuracy is important for two reasons. The first is that it reduces the number of rockets needed to achieve effects on targets, which is a critical consideration given that Ukraine and the West are facing constraints in their ability to meet the AFU’s demand for ammunition. The second is that it means vehicles can quickly relocate after firing and avoid counter-battery fire or attempts to locate them, which improves survivability — as evidenced by Russia’s difficulties in locating and destroying them.

However, this is likely due in part to Russia’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gap. A Russian commander has complained that the RuAF has limited abilities to locate and engage targets beyond the immediate frontline, which allows the MLRS and HIMARS launchers to operate with relative impunity. Furthermore, the Russian air force faces difficulties in operating in Ukraine’s operational depth — where the launchers are present — because it has found suppression of Ukraine’s air defences difficult. In short, the range of MLRS and HIMARS, combined with Russia’s inability to generate targeting information or fly sorties at appropriate altitudes in the areas where the launchers operate, has conferred survivability upon them and enabled them to continue impacting the Russian forces.

The range of the M30A1 missile would account for little without the software and ISR that are used to provide targeting data. From the available information, the AFU uses a variety of reconnaissance tools to locate and identify suitable Russian targets. An innovative method is the use of mobile phone software that enables Ukrainian citizens to report the location of Russian troops using an app. This information is often shared with artillery systems or through the chain of command using applications like Google Meets. It is then shared with a US base in Europe, where operators provide precise targeting data from satellites and other assets, as well as target mensuration, which is necessary for the launchers to conduct an engagement and to shorten the targeting chain. This is fed into the missiles and then they are launched — the whole process takes only a few seconds. The speed of targeting decisions, and in some cases the target location, is reliant upon the use of software, which provides rapid communication and data sharing between Ukrainian operators and US analysts.

Why does it feel like Amazon is making itself worse?

Monday, February 27th, 2023

Let’s say you’re a regular Amazon shopper, John Herrman suggests, in need of a spatula:

You might start your journey by typing the word “spatula” into the search box with a qualifier or two (“silicone,” “fish,” “magenta”). In response, Amazon will produce a very large list presented in a large paginated grid or, on a phone, a bottomless scroll. You have, it is implied, thousands of options within immediate reach; Amazon presents them to you in a particular but mostly unexplained order. Some of the spatulas you encounter first will carry brand names you’ve heard of before, like KitchenAid or Rubbermaid, while others will have names like IOCBYHZ, BANKKY, or KLAQQED. Some of them will appear identical to one another or even share the same product photos with different names and prices. Other listings will disclose, usually in small gray text, that they’re “sponsored.” (Of the 81 clickable, buyable products on my first page of search results for “spatula” — product listings, banners, and recommendation modules — 29, or more than a third, were some form of ad.)

Many products will be described in SEO-ese: “Silicone Spatula Turner, VOVOLY 3-Pack Spatula Set for Nonstick Cookware, BPA Free Rubber Spatulas, Heat Resistant Kitchen Utensil, No Scratch or Melting, Ideal for Egg, Cookie, Crepe, Burger, Pancake.” Most, maybe all, will be eligible for Prime.

You’ll have options! So many options that, unless you have strongly held preferences about spatula brands — unlikely, given that you just typed “spatula” into Amazon — you’re going to need some guidance. BANKKY or KLAQQED? Should you give IOCBYHZ a look or just pay extra for the Oxo? Your eyes are drawn to the only relevant, useful information on the page: star ratings. On this first page, sponsored or not, they’re all hovering between 4 and 5 stars and mostly between 4.6 and 4.9: 403 ratings, 4.7 stars; 10,845 ratings, 4.8 stars; 27 ratings, 4.7 stars; 20,069 ratings, 4.7 stars. (Stars, according to Amazon, are calculated using “machine-learned models instead of a simple average.” Not that it matters — however they’re allocated, they’re what you’re working with. Efforts to find independent reviews of Amazon-exclusive products rarely turn up high-quality content; many sites just summarize Amazon reviews in an effort to collect search traffic from Google and eventually affiliate commissions from Amazon itself.)

You read a little feedback to quell your doubts or ease your mind, then eventually, or quickly, you pluck a spatula out of the cascade. There’s a good chance, however, that it won’t actually be sold by Amazon but rather by a third-party seller that has spent months or years and many thousands of dollars hustling for search placement on the platform — its “store,” to use Amazon’s term, is where you will have technically bought this spatula. There’s an even better chance you won’t notice this before you order it. In any case, it’ll be at your door in a couple of days.

The system worked. But what system? In your short journey, you interacted with a few. There was the ’90s-retro e-commerce interface, which conceals a marketplace of literally millions of sellers, each scrapping for relevance, using Amazon as a sales channel for their own semi-independent businesses. It subjected you to the multibillion-dollar advertising network planted between Amazon users and the things they browse and buy. It was shipped to you through a sprawling, submerged logistics empire with nearly a million employees and contractors in the United States alone. You were guided almost entirely by an idiosyncratic and unreliable reputation system, initially designed to review books, that has used years of feedback from hundreds of millions of customers to help construct an alternative universe of sometimes large but often fleeting brands that have little identity or relevance outside of the platform. You found what you were looking for, sort of, through a process that didn’t feel much like shopping at all.

This is all normal in that Amazon is so dominant that it sets norms. But its essential weirdness — its drift from anything resembling shopping or informed consumption — is becoming harder for Amazon’s one-click magic trick to hide.

Interacting with Amazon, for most of its customers, broadly produces the desired, expected, and generally unrivaled result: They order all sorts of things; the prices are usually reasonable, and they don’t have to think about shipping costs; the things they order show up pretty quickly; returns are no big deal. But, at the core of that experience, something has become unignorably worse. Late last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon’s customer satisfaction had fallen sharply in a range of recent surveys, which cited COVID-related delivery interruptions but also poor search results and “low-quality” items. More products are junk. The interface itself is full of junk. The various systems on which customers depend (reviews, search results, recommendations) feel like junk. This is the state of the art of American e-commerce, a dominant force in the future of buying things. Why does it feel like Amazon is making itself worse? Maybe it’s slipping, showing its age, and settling into complacency. Or maybe — hear me out — everything is going according to plan.

Marriage tranquilizes men and puts them to productive use providing for children

Sunday, February 26th, 2023

The energy and danger in young adolescent men is ancient, Misha Saul notes:

If they enter a polygamous society, one important status game young men will play is wife accumulation.

If they enter a monogamous society, that energy goes elsewhere. In order to be domesticated into monogamy, these wolves must be sedated. Marriage tranquilises men and puts them to productive use providing for children.


Domesticated men — via monogamous marriage and the corresponding decline in testosterone — commit less crime. It’s not that more docile men get married. They become wolves again after a marriage dissolves.


Men in polygamous societies are always on the look out for more wives, so they retain elevated testosterone levels and virility. No wonder some Comanche had such glorious names as “Erection-That-Won’t-Go-Down” (a real example — more on the Comanches later).

The Church took away your slave girls (in a break from its Hebrew forefathers — discussed in detail in a later Part to this series).


The Church enforced monogamous marriage, banning polygamy and incest and also cracking down on divorce.


These policies destroyed Europe’s intensive kin-based institutions.


The Church inherited their land and became the largest landowner in Europe.

Women’s labor was the bottleneck in Lakotas’ quest for goods and wealth

Saturday, February 25th, 2023

Misha Saul looks at what polygamous marriage really looked like:

Let’s take the Lakota and Comanche native American nations as examples. Aside from just being inherently fascinating, they’re interesting examples because polygamy became exacerbated in these societies due to outside economic forces.

He cites Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen:

A skilled tanner could finish twenty-five to thirty-five robes in a year — which fetched three to six guns —  whereas a skilled hunter could bring down ten bison in a single chase. This made women’s labor the most critical resource of the robe trade, which, in effect, was a mechanism for connecting western female labor and expertise to eastern demand for furs. Women’s labor was the bottleneck in Lakotas’ quest for goods and wealth, and like many other Indigenous societies enmeshed in colonial markets, they widened that bottleneck through polygamy. The practice was ancient among the Lakotas, but it grew dramatically with the robe trade.

He continues:

Women’s roles in buffalo robe production meant they became the economic bottleneck with the buffalo robe boom, raising the value of wives as instruments of production. This led to a cycle of rising inequality: wealthier men could afford more wives, who could then generate more wealth and accumulate more wives.


The accumulation of wives by elite men led to a bride deficit. There were fewer brides to go around for under-performing males. This heightened intra-male competition.


Without monogamy, successful men hoard wives and sire more children and there are more men with neither wives nor children. A society with fewer disaffected men is more stable. Such disaffected men benefit from volatility: they’re willing to take bold bets to win status and wives. Crime, revolutions. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Not everything that’s useful to do is quite so “human like”

Friday, February 24th, 2023

It’s always amazing when things suddenly just work, Stephen Wolfram remarks:

I’ve been tracking neural net technology for a long time (about 43 years, actually). And even having watched developments in the past few years I find the performance of ChatGPT thoroughly remarkable. Finally, and suddenly, here’s a system that can successfully generate text about almost anything — that’s very comparable to what humans might write. It’s impressive, and useful. And, as I’ll discuss elsewhere, I think its success is probably telling us some very fundamental things about the nature of human thinking.

But while ChatGPT is a remarkable achievement in automating the doing of major human-like things, not everything that’s useful to do is quite so “human like”. Some of it is instead more formal and structured. And indeed one of the great achievements of our civilization over the past several centuries has been to build up the paradigms of mathematics, the exact sciences—and, most importantly, now computation—and to create a tower of capabilities quite different from what pure human-like thinking can achieve.


At its core, ChatGPT is a system for generating linguistic output that “follows the pattern” of what’s out there on the web and in books and other materials that have been used in its training. And what’s remarkable is how human-like the output is, not just at a small scale, but across whole essays. It has coherent things to say, that pull in concepts it’s learned, quite often in interesting and unexpected ways. What it produces is always “statistically plausible”, at least at a linguistic level. But — impressive as that ends up being — it certainly doesn’t mean that all the facts and computations it confidently trots out are necessarily correct.


Machine learning is a powerful method, and particularly over the past decade, it’s had some remarkable successes — of which ChatGPT is the latest. Image recognition. Speech to text. Language translation. In each of these cases, and many more, a threshold was passed — usually quite suddenly. And some task went from “basically impossible” to “basically doable”.

But the results are essentially never “perfect”. Maybe something works well 95% of the time. But try as one might, the other 5% remains elusive. For some purposes one might consider this a failure. But the key point is that there are often all sorts of important use cases for which 95% is “good enough”. Maybe it’s because the output is something where there isn’t really a “right answer” anyway. Maybe it’s because one’s just trying to surface possibilities that a human — or a systematic algorithm — will then pick from or refine.

It’s completely remarkable that a few-hundred-billion-parameter neural net that generates text a token at a time can do the kinds of things ChatGPT can. And given this dramatic — and unexpected — success, one might think that if one could just go on and “train a big enough network” one would be able to do absolutely anything with it. But it won’t work that way. Fundamental facts about computation — and notably the concept of computational irreducibility — make it clear it ultimately can’t. But what’s more relevant is what we’ve seen in the actual history of machine learning. There’ll be a big breakthrough (like ChatGPT). And improvement won’t stop. But what’s much more important is that there’ll be use cases found that are successful with what can be done, and that aren’t blocked by what can’t.

Man is born polygamous yet everywhere he is monogamous

Friday, February 24th, 2023

Man is born polygamous yet everywhere he is monogamous, Misha Saul notes:

Not long ago I had my own Fermi moment. I looked at the world around me and asked: Where are all the polygamists?

Consider almost any past empire or civilisation — Mongol, native American, Chinese, Indian, African, old European — and you will find powerful men with many wives. It’s all over the Hebrew Bible. 90% (!) of hunter gather societies around the world practice some degree of polygamy. Yet we look around today and…zilch?


It turns out this is no accident. The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich (I’ll call it WEIRD from now) traces how Christianity exterminated the practice over centuries and forged modern, cousin-free, monogamous marriage in the West (hence WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). In light of Christianity’s now millennia long clamp down — occasionally literally hounding kings over successive popes until they submitted — it’s not so surprising world leaders and billionaires today seem about as monogamous as anyone else. It’s remarkable how potent culture is: what was once as natural to a powerful man as eating is unthinkable to such a man today.


And the fact there is not even 10% or 5% or 1% polygamy may not be an accident. Polygamy might be like poison: a little bit is enough to define the lot. 100% of elite men practicing polygamy is a society with only a bit of polygamy. I’m not even sure what a 100% polygamous society looks like — presumably one reliant on captive wives from helot populations. Which explains why you see ~zero today: you are either a polygamous society (>~0%) or not (~0%).


WEIRD traces Christianity’s march through history to harness powerful men to the yoke of civilisation to forge our modern world. Within that frame lie some even more transgressive nuggets. Marriage literally sedates men — changes their physiology — and puts them to productive use providing for children. Breaking clan ties through the abolition of cousin marriage and the rise of female independence freed the Western man from mediating the world mainly through relationships, allowing him to deal in abstractions (reason, law, systems). This led to an explosion in innovation. In some ways it’s a bleak portrait: the dissolution of family ties and the beginnings of the Anglo age of social atomisation.


The progression of theses might go something like this:

  1. Men are in positions of power and so society is run by men.
  2. Actually, just like man domesticated beast (dogs, horses, oxen, etc), women domesticated man (via monogamous marriage). As the ox ploughs the field, so elite men’s energies have been channeled away from war making and wife collecting to civilisation building.
  3. Actually, monogamous marriage is a powerful cultural phenomenon that solved a civilisation-wide coordination problem of individual men maximising wives and individual women selecting for powerful men. It unleashed a civilisation winning configuration — against the individual interests of both elite men and women — to break clan ties, distribute wives and harness man to build civilisation. It shifted men and women away from their local maxima to a global maximum.

The period from 6000 BC to 2000 BC may be a high point in conflict and violence

Thursday, February 23rd, 2023

Of the skeletal remains of more than 2300 early farmers from 180 sites dating from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago, more than one in ten displayed weapon injuries:

Contrary to the view that the Neolithic era was marked by peaceful cooperation, the team of international researchers say that in some regions the period from 6000BC to 2000BC may be a high point in conflict and violence with the destruction of entire communities.

The findings also suggest the rise of growing crops and herding animals as a way of life, replacing hunting and gathering, may have laid the foundations for formalised warfare.

Researchers used bioarchaeological techniques to study human skeletal remains from sites in Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Sweden.

The team collated the findings to map, for the first time, evidence of violence across Neolithic Northwestern Europe, which has the greatest concentration of excavated Neolithic sites in the world,

The team from the Universities of Edinburgh, Bournemouth and Lund in Sweden, and the OsteoArchaeological Research Centre in Germany examined the remains for evidence of injuries caused predominantly by blunt force to the skull.

More than ten per cent showed damage potentially caused by frequent blows to the head by blunt instruments or stone axes. Several examples of penetrative injuries, thought to be from arrows, were also found.

Some of the injuries were linked to mass burials, which could suggest the destruction of entire communities, the researchers say.

Reading taught us to sustain and logically develop ideas

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023

Reading as we know it is engaged in an epic battle it has all but lost, Doug Lemov argues:

No matter where you are, Device is there with you, stowed in your pocket, at your behest, chirping away pleasantly. Check in with a colleague or the kids? Play Candy Crush? Find a baseball score? All while in line at Target or sitting through the 10 a.m. strategy meeting? Of course, Master. It would be my pleasure.

Suddenly Device must always be with you. You check it 150 to 200 times a day, studies tell us. You switch media sources (for instance, from Web browser to email) 27 times an hour. Your average duration of sustained focus on any digital task is just over two minutes.

Clever Device! Once it was the servant; now it is the master.

Poor Dickens. Poor Toni Morrison. They cannot compete with that. So we read less and less. But more importantly, we read differently. This is the subject of Maryanne Wolf’s profound new book, Reader, Come Home.

On the digital screen we read fleetingly, flittingly. Our brains have what scientists call “novelty bias.” We are predisposed to attend to new information; from an evolutionary perspective, what’s new, bright, and flashing could contain survival information. It gets priority. Reading on screens sets up a cycle of expectation and gratification. We are repeatedly distracted by whatever pops up, rewarded for each distraction with a tiny surge of dopamine. This attraction to “the new” crowds out reflection, creative association, critical analysis, empathy—the keys to what Wolf calls the “deep reading process.” We read in a constant state of partial attention. And, Wolf points out, this is as much cause as effect. Human beings developed the capacity to read relatively recently, over the past 5,000 years or so. The brain has no reading center. Rather, when we learn to read, we call upon multiple areas of the brain, exhibiting a cognitive quality known as neuroplasticity.


We made ourselves modern via a collective rewiring when writing and later print emerged and spread across vast strata of society not so long ago. Reading taught us to sustain and logically develop ideas, to enter the minds and perspectives of others through their words. As societies, we became less impulsive, violent, and irrational. Wolf quotes Nicolo Machiavelli reflecting on how he lost himself in a book, conducting an inner dialogue with the author and reading for four hours without interruption. When was the last time you did that?

Many prescription pharmaceuticals retain their full potency for decades beyond their manufacturer-ascribed expiration dates

Tuesday, February 21st, 2023

Eight long-expired medications with 15 different active ingredients were discovered in a retail pharmacy in their original, unopened containers:

All had expired 28 to 40 years prior to analysis. Three tablets or capsules of each medication were analyzed, with each sample tested 3 times for each labeled active ingredient. No analytical standard for homatropine could be found, so that ingredient was not tested.


Twelve of the 14 drug compounds tested (86%) were present in concentrations at least 90% of the labeled amounts, the generally recognized minimum acceptable potency. Three of these compounds were present at greater than 110% of the labeled content. Two compounds (aspirin and amphetamine) were present in amounts of less than 90% of labeled content. One compound (phenacetin) was present at greater than 90% of labeled amounts from 1 medication tested, but less than 90% in another medication that contained that drug.


The Shelf-Life Extension Program (SLEP) checks long-term stability of federal drug stockpiles. Eighty-eight percent of 122 different drugs stored under ideal environmental conditions had their expiration dates extended more than 1 year, with an average extension of 66 months and a maximum extension of 278 months. In our data set, 12 of 14 medications retained full potency for at least 336 months, and 8 of these for at least 480 months.


The most important implication of our study involves the potential cost savings resulting from lengthier product expiration dating. Each dollar spent on SLEP to demonstrate longer than labeled drug stability results in $13 to $94 saved on reacquisition costs. Given that Americans currently spend more than $300 billion annually on prescription medications, extending drug expiration dates could yield enormous health care expenditure savings.

In conclusion, this study provides additional evidence that many prescription pharmaceuticals retain their full potency for decades beyond their manufacturer-ascribed expiration dates. Given the potential cost-savings, we suggest the current practices of drug expiration dating be reconsidered.

Officials feared the incident might cause a devastating increase of tensions and possibly ignite World War Three

Monday, February 20th, 2023

On November 18, 1952, naval aviator Royce Williams was flying his F9F Panther, the US Navy’s first jet fighter, when he shot down four Soviet fighter jets:

The now 97-year-old former naval aviator was presented with the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest military honor at a ceremony Friday in California.


He took off from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, which was operating with three other carriers in a task force in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, 100 miles off the coast of North Korea.

Williams, then age 27, and three other fighter pilots were ordered on a combat air patrol over the most northern part of the Korean Peninsula, near the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. To the northeast is Russia, then part of the Soviet Union, which supported North Korea in the conflict.

As the four US Navy jets flew their patrol, the group’s leader suffered mechanical problems and with his wingman, headed back to the task force off the coast.

That left Williams and his wingman alone on the mission.

Then, to their surprise, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets were identified heading toward the US task force.

“They just didn’t come out of Russia and engage us in any way before,” Williams said in a 2021 interview with the American Veterans Center.

Wary commanders in the task force ordered the two US Navy jets to put themselves between the MiGs and the US warships.

While doing this, four of the Soviet MiGs turned toward Williams and opened fire, he recalled.

He said he fired on the tail MiG, which then dropped out of the four-plane Soviet formation, with Williams’ wingman following the Soviet jet down.

At that point, US commanders on the carrier ordered him not to engage the Soviets, he said.

“I said, ‘I am engaged,’” Williams recalled in the interview.

Williams said he also knew that because the Soviet jets were faster than his, if he tried to break off they’d catch and kill him.

“At that time the MiG-15 was the best fighter airplane in the world,” faster and able to climb and dive quicker than the American jets, he said in the interview.

His plane was suited to air-to-ground combat, not aerial dogfights, he said.

But now he was in one, with not just one, but six Soviet jets as the other three MiGs that broke off earlier returned.

What ensued was more than a half-hour of aerial combat, with Williams constantly turning and weaving — the one area where the F9F could compete with the Soviet aircraft — to not let the superior MiGs get their guns fixed on him.

“I was on automatic, I was doing as trained,” he said.

So were the Soviets.

“But on some occasions … they made mistakes,” Williams said.

One flew at him, but then stopped firing and dipped under him. Williams figured its pilot was killed by his gunfire.

And he described how another MiG got right in front of him, he hit it with his gunfire, and it disintegrated, causing Williams to maneuver sharply to avoid the wreckage and its pilot as the plane came apart.

Over the course of the fight, Williams fired all 760 rounds of 20mm cannon shells the F9F carried, according to an account of the engagement from the US Navy Memorial’s website.

But the Soviets scored hits on Williams, too, disabling his rudder and wing control surfaces, leaving only the elevators in the rear of the plane viable for him to move the jet up and down.

Luckily, he said, at this point he was heading in the direction of the US task force off the coast. But one of the remaining Soviet jets was still on his tail.

He said he flew in an up-and-down roller coaster pattern, with bullets flying above and below him as he moved, the Soviet pilot trying to get a clear shot.

Williams’ wingman rejoined the fight at this point, getting on the Soviet’s tail and scaring him off, according to the Navy Memorial account.

But Williams still had some difficult flying to do to get the damaged jet back on board the carrier.

First, with the task force wary of Soviet warplanes possibly attacking it, its heightened air defenses initially thought Williams’ F9F was a MiG, and destroyers guarding the American carriers opened fire on him.

Williams said his commander quickly put a stop to that, eliminating one danger.

Still, Williams had to get his jet on the deck on the carrier, something he’d usually do at an airspeed of 105 knots (120 mph). But he already knew if he went lower than 170 knots (195 mph), his aircraft would stall and plunge into the icy sea.

And he couldn’t turn to line up with the carrier. So the ship’s captain decided to take the extraordinary step of turning the carrier to line up with Williams.

It worked. He slammed onto the deck and caught the third and final arresting wire.

On the deck on the carrier, Navy crew counted 263 holes in Williams’ plane. It was in such poor shape, it was pushed off the ship into the sea, according to the Navy Memorial account.

But as the plane disappeared below the waves, something else had to also — the fact that the US-Soviet aerial combat happened at all.

News of Williams’ heroics went all the way to the top, with then-President Dwight Eisenhower among the senior US officials eager to speak to the pilot, according to the Navy Memorial’s website.

“Following the battle, Williams was personally interviewed by several high-ranking Navy admirals, the Secretary of Defense, and also the President, after which he was instructed to not talk about his engagement as officials feared the incident might cause a devastating increase of tensions between the US and Soviet Union, and possibly ignite World War Three,” the website says.

A US Defense Department account of the incident also notes that US forces were trying out new communications intercept equipment that day. It was feared that revealing the Soviet role in the combat would have compromised that US’ advantage.

At Mach 5 and beyond, things heat up pretty fast

Sunday, February 19th, 2023

The U.S. might be slipping behind Russia, or even China, in the race to develop hypersonic missiles, but that might be because the U.S. military has its sights set on a bigger prize, a hypersonic bomber:

Meet the Air Force’s secret hypersonic bomber: the Expendable Hypersonic Multi-mission ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and Strike program, a.k.a. Project Mayhem.

The mighty bomber would have a few advantages over its missile-based adversaries, but the big one would be usability. Where missiles like the Kinzhal, Zircon, and China’s Dongfeng-17 are expensive (around $100 million) one-shots, a hypersonic plane traveling in excess of Mach 5 — Project Mayhem would reportedly travel Mach 10 — could be refueled and used again, and again, and again.

The idea of a hypersonic plane dates back to the Space Race, culminating in the North American X-15A-2 record-breaking Mach 6.7 flight in 1967. Further aerospace advancements created mechanical wonders like the supersonic SR-71. Project Mayhem would likely use a multi-cycle propulsion system, employing a jet engine to reach Mach 3 before transitioning to an air-breathing scramjet for hypersonic speeds. But designing a reusable plane at such speeds comes with serious limitations.

At Mach 5 and beyond, things heat up pretty fast thanks to friction and air resistance, so any plane hoping to go that fast and survive the experience would need to be cloaked in advanced materials that haven’t even been invented yet. None of this even touches on the fact that maneuverability at such speeds will also be a gargantuan engineering undertaking, and that combining a traditional jet engine with a scramjet has never been successfully accomplished.

Because of this unique operating environment and the necessity of precision-sensitive design, Project Mayhem is turning to model-based engineering (MBE) to digitally construct every system on the hypothetical plane.

Showing off erudition is more of a bug than a feature

Saturday, February 18th, 2023

The Internet deluges us with information, Arnold Kling notes:

Martin Gurri terms it a tsunami.

Tyler Cowen, who has speed-reading superpowers, says that he finds Twitter to be information dense, by which he means that for him, it contains more information per line he reads than do other media. I disagree with him about Twitter, but I like the term information dense.

I wish that Tyler Cowen would switch his essays to Substack. Same with Martin Gurri.

For several months now, I have found Substack to be more information dense than books. For 2022, I could not even come up with a list of best nonfiction books of the year. But I subscribed to a few dozen Substacks.

I am reading fewer books that I did before Substack came along. The most recent book I read was Good Reasons for Bad Feelings, by Randolph Nesse. Relative to what I wanted, the book did not disappoint. But boy, it felt like it took a long time to get there. The book is not information dense. I had the annoying sense that in the time it took me to read the book I could have profitably explored many substacks.


Actually, showing off erudition is more of a bug than a feature. Professors who enjoy citing a wide range of references in their lectures and writing are kidding themselves if they think the rest of us have the patience for it. Niall Ferguson’s The Cash Nexus had a major, lasting influence on my view of banking and finance. But re-reading it now, it’s really painful. I want to say, “Stop showing off and get to the point.”

People used to talk about the enjoyment they get from “curling up with a good book.” There might be people for whom that is still be true for novels. It is not what we are looking for in non-fiction works.

Even good short pieces can benefit from being edited down…

Soon, governments across Africa and elsewhere were knocking on their doors

Friday, February 17th, 2023

After completing his education at Eton College and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and serving in the Scots Guards and the SAS, Simon Mann decided to try his luck in Africa:

In 1993, Mann went to Angola to seek fortune in the oil industry with his friend Tony Buckingham. Within months of their arrival, the oil-producing city of Soyo was captured by anti-government rebels. It seemed like their oil venture was doomed — until, as Mann tells the story, he proposed a solution: reconquer Soyo. Mann and Buckingham called upon South African contacts, most of whom had backgrounds in the South African Defence Force and the shadowy Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), an apartheid-era counterinsurgency unit. One of these contacts, Eeben Barlow, was a former South African military officer who had seized the opportunity of apartheid’s collapse to recruit compatriots into a private military company (PMC) called Executive Outcomes (EO).

Together, they secured Angolan government contracts for EO to reconquer Soyo, and eventually help the government win the civil war. Their success in achieving an Angolan victory put Mann and his friends on the map. Soon, governments across Africa and elsewhere were knocking on their doors.

EO soldiers have since taken part in conflicts across the continent, and Mann has gone on to many more adventures. In 1997, his own PMC, Sandline International, was involved in the controversial Sandline affair in Papua New Guinea. In 2004, Mann was arrested for organizing a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea, and spent the next five and a half years in some of Africa’s most notorious prisons. He was released in 2009 after a pardon. His memoir, Cry Havoc, was published in 2011.

The meaning of “mercenary” gets torturous, he notes:

For example, if I joined the British army today, am I joining it because I wish to fight for democracy? No, I’m not. Nobody in the British Army that I ever met was doing it for queen and country. They’re doing it because they see it as an exciting lifestyle and the money is okay. Sometimes, it’s the best job they can get. But the motivation is, at least in part, financial. It is unlikely, really, to be patriotic. That doesn’t mean to say that we’re not patriotic. But that is not the prime motivation.

He mentions Operation Storm and the war in Oman in the 1970s:

It was an insurgency coming through Yemen, a serious attempt to overthrow the ruler of Oman.

Nominally communist insurgents, right?

Nominally. The original ruler of Oman was not nominally, but actually a tyrant. Then he was replaced. It’s known as the British Foreign Office’s last coup d’etat. He was replaced by his son, who was much more reasonable. And then a long, hard-fought campaign was conducted against the insurgents. I was around at that time, and I very nearly did go to Oman.

Now, as a young officer in the British army, I could have been attending that conflict in three different ways. One, I could have been a British officer on secondment—an officer in Oman’s armed forces, but still a British officer. Route two: I leave the British army, and go to the Sultan’s armed forces as a contracting officer.

And route three, which actually happened: the SAS was secretly deployed in Oman to fight that engagement. In any one of those three routes, I could have found myself in exactly the same firefight. But is any one of those a mercenary? A lot of people will say that the second one, the contracting officer, is a mercenary. But really, he is contracted with the Sultan’s armed forces, the national military. And he’s just doing the same job as anybody else who is on secondment.

According to the 1977 Organization of African Unity Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Afric, he never quite qualified as a mercenary:

What I’ve done is, I was a general in the Angolan army for a short while when there was a war. We fought it and we won. That was for the recognized government of Angola, and I was enrolled in their armed forces. I’m quite proud of what we did. And I’m very proud of the guys that we did it with, both Angolan and South African.

In Sierra Leone, it was very similar. The RUF [Revolutionary United Front] were the masters of atrocities. If you’ve seen the movie Blood Diamond, you know that they used to go around chopping people’s arms off. They used to bet on whether a woman’s fetus was male or female and open her up to have a look. They were pretty easy to fight against, quite honestly. But again, we were part of the properly formed armed forces of Sierra Leone. So that technically is not a mercenary.

And then, I was involved with Papua New Guinea, remotely. But there was no war going on there. So it was more of a sort of civil contract.

The next thing is Equatorial Guinea, my attempt to overthrow the government—where again, no shot was actually fired. And the plan very much was that no shot would be fired. There was certainly no war going on. So again, if you go back to this convention, one of the things that is stipulated is that there has to be a war going on for you to be a mercenary. There has to be a war going on and you have to fight in it. If you’re a transport airplane pilot and you happen to carry a handgun for your personal safety, you’re not a mercenary according to that convention.

He describes his time with Executive Outcomes by analogy:

Well, look, if I’m walking along the street, and a guy’s house is on fire, I’m going to help him. He says, “Have you got some men, and some firefighting equipment?” and I say, “Yeah, I have got loads of them, but it’s going to cost you. We’re going to charge you because I’m going to get my men and equipment in here. And we’re firefighters, you’re gonna have to pay us.” But that doesn’t mean that I think that private little firefighting companies are the way to go. I think the municipality should produce a proper firefighting force and it should be them putting the fires out. And in this case, that should be the UN or somebody like it. But if the UN is there, as they were in Angola and in Sierra Leone, and they are absolutely and completely failing to put the fire out, then it’s better that we put it out rather than watch it go on burning.

He visited the famously chaotic Moscow of the 1990s:

I just came up from Angola with this shopping list. I didn’t really understand what was going on. But there were a lot of banking and high finance people in Moscow who were basically trying to buy things cheap. That is the process that led to the oligarchs, or people who basically managed to buy for rubles—play money—things that were real, hard dollar-earning assets. That is how the oligarchs, most of them, came into being. They basically stole extremely valuable assets, on the pretext that they were buying them with rubles.

Now, when I was there, I think the realization had dawned that other people were coming into Russia to do the same thing—foreigners, that is. There was a sense that they were being raped. And on the one hand, you had people who were all in favor of being raped, because they just wanted the money. But on the other hand, you had a real resistance building. Around 1993 or ’94, something like twenty Western bankers were murdered in Moscow. I mean, it was really not a good place to be. And it wasn’t safe, because the gloves were off. It was a sort of semi-anarchy, I think, whereby certain Russian agencies were on a mission to stop things. But as mavericks—I mean, I don’t think they’d been told to do this by anybody. They had decided whether this was going to happen, or this was not going to happen. And they were making sure of that, sometimes by recourse to violence. So this stuff was sort of going on.

We were there for several months, so we started to pick up the vibe. And it became really quite frightening. Then, when I met the general, he said, “Well, you know, you’re right to be frightened, because all sorts of shit is going on here. And foreign agencies are here. And they are operating in a way that is not appropriate in a foreign country. They’re taking the law into their own hands.” If you remember, at this time there were all these nuclear and chemical worries going on in the West, that weapons and capabilities could be going into the wrong hands. Everyone knew that Russia was for sale. And you know, it was a real mess. Very dangerous.

His Angolan operations ended up including diamond mining:

We had actually no intention of getting involved with diamond mining until we were asked to by the senior Angolans. And the reason they asked this was because the mining companies—especially De Beers—were applying force majeure to the mining concessions [not fulfilling obligations due to circumstances outside their control, i.e. the war]. So they were not mining.

And once we got to the end of the fighting, the Angolans were very anxious to try and get people back to work. They had to try and create jobs. And they were very anxious to get the mining industry restarted. So what they did was, they told us, “Look, we could set up a joint venture mining company with you. It will be very profitable because we’re the generals and we’ll make sure the company gets the best concessions. And we can then use you as a stick to beat up the other companies. Then we can say, ‘Hey, these guys are mining, so why can’t you?’”


Well, De Beers doesn’t want to do mining. They don’t want to produce diamonds. They want the price to go up. And that was why they wanted out. I mean, Angola is a very important country when it comes to diamonds. Ideally, no production at all from Angola would have suited them just fine, even though they were buying diamonds from UNITA. So it was better to continue the war. There were very powerful forces backing UNITA.

Executive Outcomes was racially mixed:

Well, there’s a very simple answer to that, which is that the black soldiers in Executive Outcomes were all ex-SADF. There was an organization called 32 Battalion. Very famous. They’re also known as Buffalo Battalion because their camp was called Buffalo Camp. And these were people who had been recruited by the South Africans to fight the Angolans, mostly. And they were very often of the Ovambo tribe. And so for those people, it was a very natural state of affairs that the officers they had would be the officers, and they were the men. That was normal for them. 32 Battalion was highly regarded during the South African frontier wars era.


We didn’t need to take other people. We didn’t take British people! I mean, I got flack from some of my old comrades-in-arms, who said, “Hey Simon, what the hell’s going on here? You guys have this amazing thing, and you’ve made all this money. You didn’t ask us?” I said, “Well, no, I didn’t need you.” Because the South Africans were much better and much cheaper. They know Africa, they know the climate, and they know the health issues. And they were pretty desperate, because it was a desperate time in South Africa.

And, you know, the thing with any kind of force is that, obviously, morale is an issue. And cultural cohesion is required. Now, if everyone comes from the same military background, the same army, then they all understand one another perfectly. And in fact, in Executive Outcomes, the recruits had to actually—when they signed up to say that they were joining Executive Outcomes—they had to sign up and agree that they would abide by the rules, traditions, and customs of the SADF. And if a corporal told them to get their hair cut, they had to go and get their hair cut. They couldn’t say “I’m a civilian now, you can’t tell me what to do.” No, no, you don’t understand, we will tell you what to do. This is the old way.