In the desert, surrounded motorized forces nearly always could mass at a single point and break out

Wednesday, August 16th, 2023

Rommel had learned something the British had not grasped about desert warfare, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), that attrition or wearing down of an enemy force and destruction of the enemy’s organic cohesion had to be the tactical aims:

In other environments where few units were mechanized, like Poland in 1939 and western Europe in 1940, the greatest danger a force could face was being surrounded. When encircled, and subjected to fire from all sides, a force tended to disintegrate, and could be destroyed or forced to surrender.

In the desert, surrounded motorized forces nearly always could mass at a single point and break out, thereby nullifying what elsewhere would be a devastating trap.

Rommel accordingly concentrated on winning battles of attrition and shattering the enemy’s organization. He came up with a five-point method of doing this. A commander, he wrote, must (1) concentrate his forces, while trying to split the enemy forces and destroy them at different times; (2) protect his supply lines, while cutting the enemy’s; (3) attack enemy armor with antitank guns, reserving his own tanks for the final blow; (4) operate near the front so as to make immediate decisions when tactical conditions change; (5) achieve surprise, maintain great speed of movement, and overrun disorganized enemy formations without delay. Speed is everything, Rommel wrote. And, after dislocating the enemy, he must be pursued at once and never be allowed to reorganize.

Rommel had only one “secret” weapon, the 88-millimeter antiaircraft (AA) gun that he and other German generals discovered in the 1940 campaign could blast through 83 millimeters of armor at 2,000 yards. This made the 88 the most formidable antitank weapon on either side. The British had a comparable high-velocity AA gun of about the same caliber (3.7 inches), which could have been as effective, but they did not use it against tanks.

Rommel also had the 50-millimeter antitank (AT) gun, which slowly replaced the poor 37-millimeter gun developed before the war. The 50-millimeter gun could penetrate 50 millimeters of armor at 1,000 yards. Although the Matilda with its heavy frontal armor was largely invulnerable to this gun, the more lightly armored cruisers could often be stopped, especially at close range. Both the 88 and the 50-millimeter AT gun could fire solid shot, to cut through armor, or high explosive, which could destroy or neutralize British AT weapons or crews.

By comparison, the British two-pounder (40-millimeter) AT gun was ineffective. It fired only solid shot, requiring a direct hit to destroy enemy AT weapons, and could penetrate merely the thinner side plates of armor at ranges below 200 yards. The British 25-pounder (87-millimeter) gun-howitzer, a superb field artillery piece, had to be pressed into service as an antitank weapon, though often at the expense of protecting infantry. Only in the spring of 1942 did the British begin to receive the six-pounder (57-millimeter) AT gun, which fired high-explosive as well as solid shot and had 30 percent greater penetration than the German 50-millimeter gun.

The British took a long time recognizing that Rommel was sending antitank guns against their tanks. In offensive or attack situations, Rommel leapfrogged the comparatively nimble 50-millimeter AT guns from one shielded vantage point to another, while keeping his tanks stationary and below the horizon. Once the AT guns were established, they protected the tanks as they swept forward.

In defensive situations, Rommel tried to bait or lure the British. He sent light tanks forward to contact the enemy, then retire. The typical British response was to mount a “cavalry” charge. But since visibility was obscured by stirred up dust and sand, British tankers usually did not see the 50-millimeter AT guns waiting in ambush in hollows and draws, nor the “gun line” of 88s drawn up at the rear. The 50s picked off British tanks that got within range, while the 88s took on the advancing enemy armor at distances far beyond the capacity of the tanks’ two-pounder (40-millimeter) guns to respond. The British added to the success of Rommel’s tactics by usually committing their armor piecemeal, mostly single units, instead of full brigades, and never massed brigades.


The British dispersed their tanks because it was impossible to conceal armor in the desert from the air. Rommel tried to practice the opposite policy, drawing together every possible tank and gun to work against a single objective—which, because of British dispersion, was often a fragment of total British armored strength.

Finally, the British failed to copy the Stuka dive-bomber, which was in effect mobile artillery that could deliver fire on the point a forward force wished to destroy, or through which it wished to advance. The dive-bomber offered the vanguard of an attacking force a way to eliminate an enemy strongpoint shortly after its discovery without having to bring up more weapons.


Consequently Rommel repeatedly caught British armor dispersed. As he remarked to a captured British officer after the battle: “What difference does it make if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?”

If you’re banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to be an actor, maybe you shouldn’t be an actor

Tuesday, August 15th, 2023

Hollywood will tell you what you’re supposed to do, Taylor Sheridan says, if you listen:

”If you’re banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to be an actor, maybe you shouldn’t be an actor. But the first thing I ever wrote [the pilot for Mayor of Kingstown in 2011] got me meetings at every major network, at every agency. I had multiple people trying to buy it.”

Yet Sheridan refused to sell. The studios, he says, wanted to hire a room of more experienced writers to tackle the project — you know, make TV the usual way. Sheridan felt that he knew exactly how to write the show himself. So even back then, getting his first taste of success as a writer, Sheridan was reluctant to let others adapt his material and demonstrated a willingness to walk away. Some might call that stubborn or impractical; Sheridan sees it as trusting his instincts and sticking to his creative guns. He put Mayor of Kingstown in a drawer.

Over the next few years, Sheridan made a name for himself writing a trio of acclaimed films — Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017) — which he dubbed his “modern American frontier” trilogy.

Another of his scripts, Yellowstone, was likewise originally written as a movie. Sheridan pitched it as “The Godfather in Montana,” and it ended up in series development at HBO. Sheridan says then-programming president Michael Lombardo was supportive, but the rest of his team wasn’t.

“I thought Taylor was the real deal,” Lombardo says. “In a world of people who pose, he was writing what he knew, and he cared desperately about the show. The idea of doing a modern-classic Western was a great idea — we were always doing urban shows, and this felt fresh.”

The one thing they all agreed on was that Yellowstone needed a big star to play its uncompromising patriarch, John Dutton. Sheridan pitched Costner, but HBO executives “didn’t see it.”

“They said, ‘We want Robert Redford,’ ” Sheridan recalls. “They said, ‘If you can get us Robert Redford, we’ll greenlight the pilot.’ “

Being a can-do type of guy, Sheridan went to visit Robert Redford.

“I drive to Sundance and spend the day with him and he agrees to play John Dutton,” Sheridan says. “I call the senior vice president in charge of production and say, ‘I got him!’ ‘You got who?’ ‘Robert Redford.’ ‘What?!‘ ‘You said if I got Robert Redford, you’d greenlight the show.’ “

“And he says — and you can’t make this shit up — ‘We meant a Robert Redford type.’ ”

A crisis meeting was scheduled with the network vp (“whose name I remember, but I’m just not saying it”) to get to the bottom of HBO’s reluctance.

“We go to lunch in some snazzy place in West L.A.,” Sheridan says. “And [Yellowstone co-creator] John Linson finally asks: ‘Why don’t you want to make it?’ And the vp goes: ‘Look, it just feels so Middle America. We’re HBO, we’re avant-garde, we’re trendsetters. This feels like a step backward. And frankly, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think anyone should be living out there [in rural Montana]. It should be a park or something.’ “


HBO typically retains the rights to scripts it develops and rejects, partly to prevent what happened next from happening — a project they spent time and money developing becoming a global smash for a competitor.

“When the regime changed, Lombardo called me,” Sheridan says about the longtime HBO exec’s exit in 2016. “To his credit, he said, ‘I always believed in the show, but I could not get any support.’ His last act before they fired him was to give me the script back.”

As for that nameless vp, Sheridan says he left HBO and landed a production deal. After Yellowstone took off, he emailed Sheridan to say congratulations — and to pitch him a family drama.

Sheridan says he wrote back: “Great idea. It sounds just like Yellowstone.”

Children are not relegated to a child-only world nor deemed too fragile to engage in difficult tasks

Monday, August 14th, 2023

Contemporary parenting in postindustrial societies is characterised by the idea that early childhood experiences are key to successful cognitive and emotional development:

The idea of parental influence is nothing new and, at a first glance, it seems rather banal: who wouldn’t agree, after all, that parents have some sort of influence over their children’s development? However, contemporary parenting (call it what you like: responsive parenting, natural parenting, attachment parenting) goes beyond this simple claim: it suggests that caretakers’ actions have an enormous, long-lasting influence on a child’s emotional and cognitive development. Everything you do – how much you talk to your children, how you feed them, the way you discipline them, even how you put them to bed – is said to have ramifications for their future wellbeing.

This sense of determinism feeds the idea of providing the child with a very specific type of care. As a document on childcare from the World Health Organization (WHO) puts it, parents are supposed to be attentive, proactive, positive and empathetic. Another WHO document lists specific behaviours to adopt: early physical contact between the baby and the mother, repeated eye contact, constant physical closeness, immediate responsiveness to infant’s crying, and more. As the child grows older, the practices change (think of parent-child play, stimulating language skills), yet the core idea remains the same: your child’s physical and emotional needs must be promptly and appropriately responded to, if she is to have an optimal development and a happy, successful life.

Like other such parents, in the first few postpartum months I also engaged, rather unreflectively, in this craze. However, when my son was four months old, during a period ridden with chaos, parental anxiety, sleep deprivation and mental fogginess, my husband and I made the decision to leave Europe. We packed our clothes and a few other things and hopped on a flight to Ecuador. Our final destination: a small Runa Indigenous village of about 500 people in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Our decision wasn’t as mad as it sounds. The Ecuadorian Amazon is where my husband grew up and where his family currently lives. It is also the place where I have been doing research for more than a decade. We wanted to introduce our newborn to our family and friends in the village, and we didn’t think twice before going. I could not yet imagine the repercussions this decision would have on me, both as a mother and as a scholar.

In the first weeks of our stay in my husband’s village, family and neighbours quietly observed how I took care of my son. He was never out of my sight, I was there always for him, promptly responding to (and anticipating) any of his needs. If he wanted to be held or breastfed, I would interrupt any activity to care for him. If he cried in the hammock, I quickly ran to soothe his cries. Our closeness soon became the subject of humour, and then, as the months passed, of growing concern. Nobody ever said anything explicitly to me or my husband. Most Runa Indigenous people – the community to which my husband belongs – are deeply humble and profoundly dislike to tell others how to behave. Yet it became clear that my family and neighbours found my behaviour bizarre, if not at times utterly disconcerting. I did not really understand their surprise nor did I, in the beginning, give it too much thought.

People, however, started rebelling. They did so quietly, without making a fuss, but consistently enough for me to realise that something was going on. For instance, I would leave my baby with his dad to take a short bath in the river and, upon my return, my son would no longer be there. ‘Oh, the neighbour took him for a walk,’ my husband would nonchalantly say, lying in the hammock. Trying desperately not to immediately rush to the neighbours’ house, I would spend the following hours frenetically walking up and down in our yard, pacing and turning at any sudden noise in the hope that the neighbours had finally returned with my son. I was never able to wait patiently for their return, so I often ended up engaging in frantic searches across the village to find my baby, under the perplexed stares of other neighbours. I usually came back home emptyhanded, depressed and exhausted. ‘Stop chasing people! He will be fine,’ my husband would tell me affectionately, giving me the perfect pretext to transform my anxiety into anger for his fastidiously serene and irresponsible attitude. At the end, my son always came back perfectly healthy and cheerful. He was definitely OK. I was not.

On another occasion, a close friend of ours who was about to return to her house in the provincial capital (a good seven hours from our village) came to say goodbye. She took my son in her arms. She then told me: ‘Give him to me. I will bring him to my house, and you can have a bit of rest.’ Unsure whether she was serious or not, I simply giggled in response. She smiled and left the house with my son. I watched her walking away with him and I hesitated a few minutes. I did not want to look crazy: surely she was not taking away my five-month-old son? I begged my husband to go to fetch our baby just in case she really wanted to take him away. When we finally found them, she was already sitting in the canoe, holding my son in her lap. ‘Oh, you want him back?’ she asked me with a mischievous laugh. To this day I am not sure whether she would have really taken him or whether she was just teasing me.

As an anthropologist, I admit, I should have known better. Scholars who work on parenting and childrearing have consistently shown that, outside populations defined as WEIRD (white, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), children are taken care of by multiple people, not solely their mothers.


If the idea of an exclusive, preponderant relationship between mother and son might have seemed alien to our Runa family, equally strange, if not plain wrong, was the idea that a child’s needs should be always and promptly met by her caretakers. This is another central idea of current parenting philosophies: children’s emotions, needs and desires should be not merely accommodated, but also promptly, consistently and appropriately responded to. This translates into a form of care that is highly child-centred, whereby children are treated as equal conversational partners, praised for their achievements, encouraged to express their desires and emotions, stimulated through pedagogical play and talk, often with considerable investment of time and resources.


What these accounts, which claim roots in anthropology, fail to reflect is that, outside of postindustrial affluent societies, no matter how cherished, children are very rarely the centre of adults’ lives. For instance, Runa children, while affectionately cared for, are not the main focus of their parents’ attention. In fact, nothing is adjusted to suit a child’s needs. No canoe trip under a merciless sun is modified to meet the needs of a baby, let alone of an older child. No meal is organised around the needs of a young child. Parents do not play with their children and do not engage in dialogical, turn-taking conversations with them from an early age. They do not praise their children’s efforts, nor are they concerned with the expression of their most intimate needs. Adults certainly do not consider them as equal conversational partners. The world, in other words, does not revolve around children.

This is because children are not relegated to a child-only world nor deemed too fragile to engage in difficult tasks. From an early age, Runa children participate fully in adults’ lives, overhearing complex conversations between adults on difficult topics, helping with domestic tasks, taking care of their younger siblings. Participating in the adult world means that sometimes children can get frustrated, or denied what they want, or feel deeply dependent on others. At the same time, there is so much that they gain: they learn to pay close attention to interactions around them, to develop independence and self-reliance, and to forge relationships with their peers. Most importantly, in this adult world, they are constantly reminded that other people – their parents, their family members, their neighbours, their siblings and peers – also have desires and intentions.

Why are some periods and places so astonishingly more productive than the rest?

Sunday, August 13th, 2023

The most important question we can ask of historians, David Banks suggests, is Why are some periods and places so astonishingly more productive than the rest?

It is intellectually embarrassing that this is almost never posed squarely — I can think of only two articles (Gray, 1958 and 1961) and two books (Kroeber, 1944 and McClelland, 1961) that tackle this directly. But Gray is a lunatic, Kroeber waffles vaguely, and McClelland veers off into a fascinating but incomplete assessment. The question has never been the focus of professional attention in social history, although its answer would have thrilling implications for education, politics, science and art.


When I beard social historians at cocktail parties, they usually dismiss the problem of explaining excess genius as complex and ill-posed. But when coaxed into conversation, several ideas for facilitating factors come forward: Prosperity. They submit that a florescent culture needs the economic wherewithal to support the arts. Peace. They suggest that a climate of peace is also conducive to philosophical, artistic and (perhaps) scientific progress. (But recall Welles’ comment on Switzerland.)

Freedom. They believe that artistic freedom from state or religious control enables new growth.

Social Mobility. They think that when class distinctions are relatively permeable, then there is greater inducement for artists to excel.

The Paradigm Thing. They suppose that when a new medium or perspective arises, then art flourishes until the vein of originality is worked out.

All of these are good ideas, and superficially plausible. But most contradict the historical record.

To be specific, the prosperity suggestion fails for Athens, Florence and London. Athens spent its boom period in combat with Sparta; the income from the Delian League went to the fleet. Athenian farmers could not tend their crops (cf. The Acharnians), and such staples as grain had to be imported. Similarly, quatrocento Florence was poor compared to pre-plague Florence. The Medici bank had about half the capital of the Peruzzi bank in 1340, and Lopez (1970) documents other indications of reduced standards of living. A symptom of this desperation was the revolt of the populo minuto, which pushed the Medici into prominence. And Elizabethan London suffered “dearness without scarcity” (inflation); this fell most heavily on the aristocracy and the very poor. Then the wool trade collapsed, England entered “the worst economic depression in history” (Wilson, 1965), and Parliament anxiously debated means of averting a Bellum Rusticum.

Regarding the peace hypothesis, it clearly fails for Athens. Florence was torn by internal factions (e.g., il popolo grosso vs. il popolo minuto, the assassination of Giuliano de Medici, Savonarola). London had to contend with the Armada, the war with Spain in Holland, and internal religious dissent.

Regarding artistic freedom, the Athenian plays were written for religious festivals, and the prize was awarded according to the taste of respectable, pious and civic-minded judges (this caused Aristophanes and Euripides no end of trouble). In Florence, art was commissioned largely by the Church, sometimes by a patron, and had to voice themes prescribed in the contract. In London, note that Shakespeare’s plays avoid all mention of religion and contemporary politics; Marlowe and Jonson were similarly cautious (in literature, not in their personal lives).

Regarding social mobility, this hypothesis seems borne out by our three primary examples. Athens and Florence were both devaluing the aristocracy and promoting mercantilism. In London, the early part of the period clearly shows the rise of the middle class.

Regarding the emergence of a new paradigm, this is difficult to judge concisely. Much of the problem involves distinguishing a perturbation from an innovation. Did the introduction of a second on-stage character in Athenian plays represent a new paradigm? Was Plato’s decision to record philosophical discussion a minor influence on the content of the debate? Similarly, in Florence, painting and sculpture were well-established before the peak occurred, but the invention of perspective and the rediscovery of the classical period may have constituted a paradigm shift. Finally, in London, the key change seems to have been that small groups of strolling players discovered they could pack a hall in a city, and people would stroll to them. This enabled more elaborate props and larger companies, while pressing the need for a larger repertoire. But this kind of change is not especially Kuhnian in spirit, and the problem merits more lengthy consideration.

One could propose other factors. It seems to me that each of the three societies under consideration enjoyed a substantial military victory in the generation preceding their florescence. Athenians whose names shine today are reported to have prided themselves on being the sons of the men who fought at Marathon. Florence was not a military force (the Italian city-states relied upon mercenary condottieri in time of war) but in 1254 they conquered Pisa and Lucca. This secured an outlet to the sea, which was essential to their economic expansion. And in 1588, England conquered the Spanish Armada. This made the seas safe for colonial empire, and was a watershed for British morale.

Also, the great minds in each of these societies tended to hang out together. Socrates spoke with everyone. The playwrights talked shop, and the orators honed themselves upon each other. In Florence, artists trained under an apprentice system that pulled talents together, and Vasari describes frequent visits by the greats to each other’s studios. Leonardo and Michelangelo held a public contest over The Battle of Anghiari; meanwhile, the poets and philosophers clubbed together at Lorenzo’s mansion. In London, much of the theater circle met for drinks at the Mermaid Tavern, and one expects that their common profession ensured their lives crossed even more regularly.

Aubrey reports that Bacon visited the Mermaid Tavern too, and doubtless Bacon knew Raleigh, who was sufficiently friendly with Marlowe to rise to the Shepherd/Nymph bait. Does the social intercourse of good minds produce great minds?

A third possible factor is education. In each of the three societies, education tended to be as personal as a punch in the nose. In Athens, the upper class had tutors and the lower classes shopped for their educations among various freelance teachers. In Florence, the upper class had tutors and the masses learned as apprentices. In England, the upper class had tutors and the commoners learnt to write plays and poetry from each other, insofar as I can tell. All three of these systems emphasize individual instruction over the currently popular cattle drive approach. And there is ancillary evidence (cf. the lives of Wiener, Maxwell, Dirac, Russell, Mill, Malthus, Arnold, Feynman) that tutoring is enormously effective.

One can postulate many other factors. For example, it is suggestive that all three of Athens, Florence, and London had populations near 300,000. Also, all three had relatively democratic styles of government, and all three’s florescences were ended by right-wing revolutions (the Rule of the 400, Savonarola, and Cromwell). Finally, each of the three were in the process of reinventing their language — Periclean Athens defined the conventions of Attic Greek, Dante made Tuscan the foundation of modern Italian, and the linguistic gap from Chaucer to Shakespeare is enormously larger than the gap from Shakespeare to us (but this could be due to selection bias, since language might gel around great writings, rather than great writings arise from volatile language).

There is never any shortage of hypotheses. The useful trick is to know how to test them. In this case, one could rank a sample of cities in terms of their cultural IQ, and then decide whether the hypothesized factor obtains for each of the cities. If the factor is more common for the florescent cities than for the average or below average cities, then the hypothesis is supported (this can be made formally statistical). To an extent, this style of reasoning is what is used in this section, except that I haven’t elaborated the comparison by listing cities which have made meager cultural contributions.

(Hat tip to Byrne Hobart.)

The story of precision and mechanization is indistinguishable from an ode to Britain

Saturday, August 12th, 2023

Misha Saul reviews Simon Winchester‘s Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, published in the US as The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, with an introduction that makes the case for getting the audiobook:

For a British analogy, Winchester is a kind of David Attenborough of the engineering world. Reading the audiobook himself, he shares the same gentle British tone of old-worldliness and authority, unveiling the story of man’s machine world just for you.

Initially, he says, the story of precision and mechanisation is indistinguishable from an ode to Britain:

We are acquainted with leading figures of the Industrial Revolution, the minds behind the steam engine, the standardised screw, locks and pulleys and more, that preceded and then fed the British Empire’s zenith and allowed her shipyards to support the navy that once ruled the world. Even after her zenith, Britain birthed the jet engine (arguably jointly with Germany2). (Exactly makes for a wonderful companion to James Dyson’s memoir Invention: A Life, Dyson being a British descendent of this British tradition of tinkering and invention.) Some time in the early 20th century (and in some respects much earlier) the Americans pick up the baton in manufacturing and technology. Where the Rolls-Royce was the epitome of precision manufacturing no expenses spared, Henry Ford brought the assembly line and mass manufacturing to the world. And where it was a plucky general who first proposed and demonstrated the power of interchangeable components in a French dungeon,3 the French Revolution put a halt to that. But it was Thomas Jefferson, witness to the experiment, who brought it to the New World and to the gun manufacturers of New England. And it is the Hubble telescope — that American fountain of knowledge — whose first $2bn iteration was ruined by a lens manufacturer who was out by a mere 1/50th of a human hair. Winchester ends his book in Japan, the Mecca of precision engineering, in a charming meditation on the Japanese blend of venerable human craftsmanship and the power of humanless manufacturing.

(Hat tip to Byrne Hobart.)

The Lorraine basin could contain 46 million tons of natural hydrogen

Friday, August 11th, 2023

While carrying out work to check the risk of firedamp pockets in the abandoned mines of the Lorraine region in May, FDE discovered a large deposit of natural hydrogen:

For years, researchers and businesses in the private sector have been looking for rare natural hydrogen, otherwise known as native or white hydrogen, due to its potential as a clean and renewable energy source.

“If confirmed, this would be the largest potential natural hydrogen discovered to date in Europe,” Philippe de Donato, co-director of research at the GeoRessouces laboratory at the University of Lorraine, told France 3 Grand-Est at the end of May.

Indeed, it is believed that the Lorraine basin could contain 46 million tonnes of natural hydrogen — equivalent to half the world’s current hydrogen production — and enough to contribute to the EU’s decarbonisation objectives significantly.

Natural hydrogen is naturally present in the Earth’s crust and mantle, explains Isabelle Moretti, a researcher at the University of Pau and the Pays de l’Adour. It can be found in several places: “at ocean ridges, in the mountains with ophiolites, remnants of ancient oceanic rocks, but also in iron-rich rocks,” she said in an interview with L’Usine Nouvelle in June 2021.

The resource, which can be harnessed when it degases on the earth’s surface or when extracted with boreholes, has been on scientists’ radars for some time. But a broader interest in the resource arose as world nations sought to replace fossil gas with a clean-burning fuel.

Unlike hydrogen produced from natural gas or electrolysis, its natural counterpart requires no water and little energy to extract while taking up very little land.


Indeed, the Earth continuously produces natural hydrogen through chemical reactions that are mainly related to oxidation of ferrous iron minerals.

All these advantages make natural hydrogen a much cheaper resource than hydrogen produced from electrolysis. The price of natural hydrogen is estimated at €1 per kilo, while renewable hydrogen currently reaches €6, according to a position paper published in February at the request of the European Commission by the Earth2 initiative, a French body bringing together industry and research groups.

Glass nanolattice structures are four times higher in strength but five times lower in density than steel

Thursday, August 10th, 2023

Researchers from UConn, Columbia University, and Brookhaven National Lab have created a material lighter and stronger than steel from two unlikely components:

Lee and colleagues report that by building a structure out of DNA and then coating it with glass, they have created a very strong material with very low density. Glass might seem a surprising choice, as it shatters easily. However, glass usually shatters because of a flaw – such as a crack, scratch, or missing atoms – in its structure. A flawless cubic centimeter of glass can withstand 10 tons of pressure, more than three times the pressure that imploded the Oceangate Titan submersible near the Titanic last month.

It’s very difficult to create a large piece of glass without flaws. But the researchers knew how to make very small flawless pieces. As long as the glass is less than a micrometer thick, it’s almost always flawless. And since the density of glass is much lower than metals and ceramics, any structures made of flawless nano-sized glass should be strong and lightweight.

The team created a structure of self-assembling DNA. Almost like Magnatiles, pieces of DNA of specific lengths and chemistry snapped themselves together into a skeleton of the material. Imagine the frame of a house or building, but made of DNA.

Oleg Gang and Aaron Mickelson, nanomaterials scientists at Columbia University and Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials, then coated the DNA with a very thin layer of glass-like material only a few hundred atoms thick. The glass only just coated the strands of DNA, leaving a large part of the material volume as empty space, much like the rooms within a house or building.

The DNA skeleton reinforced the thin, flawless coating of glass making the material very strong, and the voids comprising most of the material’s volume made it lightweight. As a result, glass nanolattice structures are four times higher in strength but five times lower in density than steel. This unusual combination of lightweight and high strength has never been achieved before.


The team is currently working with the same DNA structure but substituting even stronger carbide ceramics for glass. They have plans to experiment with different DNA structures to see which makes the material strongest.

The enemy, the size of the country, and the foulness of the weather were all grossly underestimated

Wednesday, August 9th, 2023

Hitler’s greatest strategic mistake, after he’d decided to invade Russia, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), was his refusal to concentrate on a single, decisive goal:

He sought to gain — all at the same time — three widely distant objectives: Leningrad, because it was the birthplace of Russian Communism; Ukraine and the Caucasus beyond, for its abundant foodstuffs, 60 percent of Soviet industry, and the bulk of the Soviet Union’s oil; and Moscow, because it was the capital of the Soviet Union and its nerve center.


He hoped to seize a million square miles of the Soviet Union in 1941, a region the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. The campaign in the west, on the other hand, had been fought out in an area of 50,000 square miles, roughly the size of North Carolina or New York State. Therefore, the ratio of space to men was twenty times greater in the east than in the west.

Field Marshal Brauchitsch, commander of the army, and General Halder, chief of staff, wanted the primary objective to be Moscow:

Stalin would be compelled to fight for Moscow. It was the hub of railroads, mecca of world Communism, headquarters of the highly centralized government, and a great industrial center employing more than a million workers.

Moreover, an attack into the center of the Soviet Union would turn the nation’s vastness—generally thought of as its greatest asset—into a liability. Once the Germans possessed Moscow’s communications node, Red Army forces on either side could not coordinate their efforts. One would be cut off from aid and succor to the other, and the Germans in the central position between the two could have defeated each separately.

The German army and economy could support a drive on Moscow. Though 560 miles east of the frontier, it was connected by a paved highway and railroads.

This would have still been a direct, frontal assault against the strength of the Red Army, but the ratio of force to space was so low in Russia that German mechanized forces could always find openings for indirect local advances into the Soviet rear. At the same time the widely spaced cities at which roads and railways converged offered the Germans alternative targets. While threatening one city north and another city south, they could actually strike at a third in between. But the Russians, not knowing which objective the Germans had chosen, would have to defend all three.

Hitler, by trying for too much and then altering his priorities failed everywhere:

These failures meant Germany had lost the war. By December 1941, there was no hope of anything better than a negotiated peace. This Hitler refused to consider.

Hitler’s plan rested on two false assumptions. The first was that he would have time enough (even without the shift of panzers to the Ukraine) to switch armor to the north then back to the center in time to win a decisive victory before the rains and snows of autumn. Distances were simply too great, Russian roads and climate too poor, and Red Army resistance too intense for such a plan to have had any hope of success. As Guderian summarized the campaign to his wife on December 10, 1941, “The enemy, the size of the country, and the foulness of the weather were all grossly underestimated.”

Normal aging reduces the amount of nitric oxide in the body, which reduces nitrosylation, which reduces memory and learning ability

Tuesday, August 8th, 2023

Researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus believe they have identified the central mechanism behind cognitive decline associated with normal aging:

“The mechanism involves the misregulation of a brain protein known as CaMKII which is crucial for memory and learning,” said the study’s co-senior author Ulli Bayer, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.


Bayer said that aging in mice and humans both decrease a process known as S-nitrosylation, the modification of specific brain proteins including CaMKII.

“The current study now shows a decrease in this modification of CaMKII is sufficient to cause impairments in synaptic plasticity and in memory that are similar in aging,” Bayer said.

Normal aging reduces the amount of nitric oxide in the body. That in turn reduces nitrosylation which reduces memory and learning ability, the study said.

If you join the commander can be a fool and not know how to conduct quality operations

Monday, August 7th, 2023

The Guardian profiles one of Ukraine’s deadliest drone pilots:

Earlier this week, Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, announced the 10th model of first person view drone (FPV) “that officially goes into operation in the armed forces of Ukraine”.

Not only has Olexsandr, nor any of his colleagues, not seen this drone, but they say they have not received any such hardware from the ministry of defence.

Olexsandr’s drones are all made from components bought online from China and then put together by two of his friends on the 24th floor of an apartment block in Kyiv.

He either picks them up on his monthly trips back to Ukraine’s capital where he lives or they are delivered by post to him close to his field of operation.

The price is about $400 (£314) a drone and the costs are largely met by generous unnamed donors. That is said to be significantly less than the $650 being paid by the big voluntary organisations that are buying up drones for other army units due to the lack of equipment from the defence ministry. “We can win this war with drones,” says Olexsandr. And yet the Russian drive to build them in their thousands and provide them cheaply to the frontline is not being replicated on the Ukrainian side, he adds.

“It is why even now I am not joining the armed forces — if you join the commander can be a fool and not know how to conduct quality operations,” he says. “I’m very effective by myself. I am ready to fight until the end of the war like this. According to official information, Russia produces 3,000 drones from the plants. In Ukraine, some small rich tsars [profiteering businessmen] produce these drones for selling, volunteer funds buy them and then charge them $650 a drone.”

He has lost eight reconnaissance drones to Russian fire, including two last month when a tank shot close to his position leaving him with a deep gash to his leg. “The Russians have changed their strategy to try and kill drone crews,” he says.


Olexsandr had little experience of drones before February 2022 but could see they could be crucial to the war effort and so practised with one purchased from the internet. “I wanted to find something where I could be most useful,” he says.


On a reconnaissance mission, Olexsandr prefers to be alone. He will typically be set a kilometre square piece of ground to monitor, working from as close as 800m from the target and as far away as 12km.

When he is working with kamikaze drones, he operates in teams of three to four. One will operate a reconnaissance drone and another pilots the kamikaze drone itself, which is attached to up to 600g of C4 explosive material. Then there will be at least one other person overseeing the signal and wider communications.

The Ukrainian crew could be as close as 400m from the target or as distant as 5.5km away.

Nanoplastics are small enough to slip across cell membranes

Monday, August 7th, 2023

For the love of God, Wired pleads, stop microwaving plastic:

Microwaving delivers a triple whammy: heat, UV irradiation, and hydrolysis, a chemical reaction through which bonds are broken by water molecules. All of these can cause a container to crack and shed tiny bits of itself as microplastics, nanoplastics, and leachates, toxic chemical components of the plastic.


Our kidneys remove waste, placing them on the front lines of exposure to contaminants. They are OK at filtering out the relatively larger microplastics, so we probably excrete a lot of those. But nanoplastics are small enough to slip across cell membranes and “make their way to places they shouldn’t,” Boland says.


“Babies are at greater risk from those contaminants than full-grown people,” Hussain says. So to test how much plastic babies are exposed to, Hussain’s team chose three baby-food containers available at a local grocery store: two polypropylene jars labeled “microwave-safe” according to US Food and Drug Administration regulations, and one reusable food pouch made of an unknown plastic.

They replaced the original contents of each container with two different liquids: deionized water and acetic acid. Respectively, these simulate watery foods like yogurt and acidic foods like oranges.

They then followed FDA guidelines to simulate three everyday scenarios using all three containers: storing food at room temperature, storing it in the refrigerator, and leaving it out in a hot room. They also microwaved the two polypropylene jars containers for three minutes on high. Then, for each container, they freeze-dried the remaining liquid and extracted the particles left behind.

For both kinds of fluids and polypropylene containers, the most microplastics and nanoplastics — up to 4.2 million and 1.2 billion particles per square centimeter of plastic, respectively — were shed during microwaving, relative to the other storage conditions they tested.

In general, they found that hotter storage temperatures cause more plastic particles to leak into food. For example, one polypropylene container released over 400,000 more microplastics per square centimeter after being left in a hot room than after being stored in a refrigerator (which still caused nearly 50,000 microplastics and 11.5 million nanoplastics per square centimeter to shed into the stored fluid). “I got terrified seeing the amount of microplastics under the microscope,” Hussain says.

To test what these plastics do to our bodies once they’re consumed, the team bathed human embryonic kidney cells in the plastic roughage shed by the baby-food containers. (The team chose this kind of cell because kidneys have so much contact with ingested plastic.) After two days of exposure to concentrated microplastics and nanoplastics, about 75 percent of the kidney cells died—over three times as many as cells that spent two days in a much more diluted solution.

The wellness-to-woo pipeline

Sunday, August 6th, 2023

James Ball, writing in The Guardian, is shocked and appalled that the wellness movement has shifted from hippy to fascist:

“They have been moving generally to far-right views, bordering on racism, and really pro-Russian views, with the Ukraine war,” she says. “It started very much with health, with ‘Covid doesn’t exist’, anti-lockdown, anti-masks, and it became anti-everything: the BBC lie, don’t listen to them; follow what you see on the internet.”

Things came to a head when one day, before a meditation session — an activity designed to relax the mind and spirit, pushing away all worldly concerns — the group played a conspiratorial video arguing that 15-minute cities and low-traffic zones were part of a global plot. Jane finally gave up.

This apparent radicalisation of a nice, middle-class, hippy-ish group feels as if it should be a one-off, but the reality is very different. The “wellness-to-woo pipeline” — or even “wellness-to-fascism pipeline” — has become a cause of concern to people who study conspiracy theories.

This shouldn’t be surprising. German Romanticism led to both hippies and Nazis.

19-year-old MIT dropout is “working to replace gunpowder”

Sunday, August 6th, 2023

Investor interest in defense startups has grown, with nearly $8 billion of VC dollars flowing to aerospace and defense startups last year, and 19-year-old MIT dropout Ethan Thornton’s Mach Industries has landed Sequoia Capital’s first investment into defense tech:

Mach’s seed round, which included participation from Marque VC and Champion Hill Ventures, came to $5.7 million.

Mach is developing hydrogen-powered platforms for the military, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), munitions and hydrogen generation systems.


On LinkedIn Thornton has said that the company is “working to replace gunpowder,” and in our interview he described a less expensive approach to munitions.

“Taking a missile [and turning it into] a bullet, every time you do that, you really, really decrease your costs,” he said. “That’s fundamentally one of the changes Mach wants to see happen: taking more away from the rocket equation — because you have to bring your own propellant, your own sensors, and things get very expensive — and back to actually an older model using more projectile-based systems.”

Thornton’s interest in hardware stretches back to his childhood; the way he tells it, it’s part-nature, part-nurture, with a grandfather who built kit aircraft in his spare time, a high school job as an auto mechanic and a small business selling handmade kitchen knives, cutting boards and other products.

At some point along the way, he developed what he called an “[obsession] with electrolysis.” Electrolysis is a process by which water is split into its constituent elements — one of which, of course, is hydrogen. The first result of that obsession was a small arms device he made while still in high school. The entire thing cost around $200 — funded by his parents, after he pitched them with a 20-page paper — and consisted of a couple of deer feeder batteries and an electrolyzer, all powering what was essentially a bazooka.


Before his first academic year at MIT even commenced, he started working with MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a national R&D center managed by the school for the DOD. The military has long had an interest in hydrogen, especially as a robust energy supply chain for contested war environments, and the lab had its own group focused on energy systems.

While Thornton realized that the Lincoln Lab wasn’t the perfect fit for what he wanted to build, he was able to build his government connections. And then he decided to drop out.

“This was pre-team, pre-revenue, anything,” he said. “I just couldn’t sit through classes anymore.”

Thornton also walked away from Lincoln Lab with two significant hires: Erik Limpaecher, who was a senior technical staff at the lab’s energy systems group, and who had been with the center for nearly 12 years; and Mark Donahue, a former program manager for control and autonomous systems, who departed the lab after 15 years. Limpaecher is now Mach’s chief innovation officer, while Donahue was installed as VP of engineering.

Thornton did end up finishing his first year at MIT this past spring, but not before putting together a team of undergrads and testing a large, mounted gun under the railroad tracks near Charles River, and joining the newest class of Peter Thiel’s Thiel Fellowship in February.

The advanced version replaces the potato projectile, I assume.

In flight, the projectile deploys fins and wings and a motor

Saturday, August 5th, 2023

The US arsenal has been virtually stripped of 155 mm artillery shells:

This has produced a situation where the US military has a powerful incentive to not only buy more 155 mm shells, but to buy the most technologically advanced version.

The Sub-Caliber Artillery Long-Range Projectile is designed to strike targets at long range with extremely high precision using a standard 155 mm gun. It can hit both stationary and moving targets at ranges of well over 68 miles (110 km), greater than the range of its predecessor. The ultimate objective of the shell is to achieve one-shot, one-kill.


The details of the new projectile haven’t been released, though we do know that it’s a sabot round. That is, the projectile is sealed in a canister that strips away when it leaves the gun muzzle, revealing the aerodynamic projectile. In flight, the projectile deploys fins and wings and a motor (a rocket or a ramjet) to provide additional speed and range.

Inside, there is an avionics package to guide the projectile to its target and electronic countermeasures to fend off hostile jamming. This is particularly impressive engineering because these electronics must withstand a shock of 15,500 gs when fired from the gun.

The NCAA has a “hot girl” problem

Friday, August 4th, 2023

The NCAA has a “hot girl” problem:

The [Cavinder] Twins’ attorney, Darren Heitner, calls their stratospheric rise a “blueprint” for other college athletes trying to cash in on the new, multibillion-dollar market. That market is the result of a 2021 Supreme Court ruling that led the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the 117-year-old organization that governs college sports, with roughly 1,100 member schools nationwide, to change its name, image, and likeness (or NIL) policy—enabling student athletes to cash in on their athletic prowess.

Before then, student athletes could generate enormous amounts of money for their schools—in 2019, the year before the pandemic, top-tier schools earned nearly $16 billion in media rights, tickets sales, licensing, and so forth from their athletes—while making nothing for themselves.

Thing is, the athletes now profiting are not necessarily the ones with the most athletic prowess. Or at least that’s the case when it comes to female athletes.

While the Twins are accomplished basketball players—until recently, they played for Division I University of Miami—they’re nowhere near the top of the women’s basketball totem pole. The top players in college women’s basketball—like Keishana Washington at Drexel University or Caitlin Clark at University of Iowa—score close to 30 points per game. In her final year at Miami, Haley Cavinder scored just over 12 points per game; Hanna, just under 4 points. They were good, but not WNBA good.

“If you look at the NIL girls, the first ones who were getting deals were the blonde girls,” Louis Moore, a sports historian at Grand Valley State University, told The Free Press. The Cavinder Twins, Moore said, have benefited handsomely from “their very blonde, girl-next-door looks,” posting videos of themselves in bikinis and tight-fitting dresses. Lots of their videos hint at the possibility of one twin having a boyfriend. Others wink at the male fantasy of group sex with identical sisters, featuring captions like “when he asks for blonde twins for Christmas” and “I want a girl with a twin sister.”

The Twins get their appeal. And even though they think it’s unfair that the mostly black top scorers in women’s college basketball make less than they do—including Louisiana State University’s Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson—that’s not stopping them.


Louisiana State University gymnast Olivia Dunne neatly illustrates this dynamic. Like the Twins, she’s good at her sport, but she’s not heading to the Olympics next year in Paris. And, like the Twins, she’s a button-nose blonde. No surprise, her Instagram is a hit. So is her TikTok, especially this recent video.

Dunne has racked up NIL deals totaling $3.4 million—making her the top-earning female athlete in the NCAA and No. 2 overall. As of this week, she lags behind No. 1 Bronny James, the oldest son of LeBron James who will be playing basketball for USC and is worth nearly $7 million, and she leads No. 3 Arch Manning, a quarterback phenom worth nearly $3 million who is a nephew of former NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. (Nepotism is clearly another driver of NIL success.)