Beware of linkanthropes

Tuesday, October 31st, 2023

I’ve written about Halloween and horror quite a bit over the years:

It was like a Dickensian steampunk nightmare

Monday, October 30th, 2023

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonTeenage Elon Musk tried to get each of his parents to move to the US and to bring him along, Walter Isaacson’s notes (in his biography of Elon), but he ended up going alone:

He first tried to get U.S. citizenship on the grounds that his mother’s father had been born in Minnesota, but that failed because his mother had been born in Canada and had never claimed U.S. citizenship. So he concluded that getting to Canada might be an easier first step. He went to the Canadian consulate on his own, got application forms for a passport, and filled them out not only for himself but for his mother, brother, and sister (but not father). The approvals came through in late May 1989.

“I would have left the next morning, but airline tickets were cheaper back then if you bought them fourteen days in advance,” he says, “so I had to wait those two weeks.”


“You’ll be back in a few months,” Elon says his father told him contemptuously. “You’ll never be successful.”


When Elon left South Africa, his father gave him $ 2,000 in traveler’s checks and his mother provided him with another $ 2,000 by cashing out a stock account she had opened with the money she won in a beauty contest as a teenager. Otherwise, what he mainly had with him when he arrived in Montreal was a list of his mother’s relatives he had never met.

He planned to call his mother’s uncle, but discovered that he had left Montreal. So he went to a youth hostel, where he shared a room with five other people. “I was used to South Africa, where people will just rob and kill you,” he says. “So I slept on my backpack until I realized that not everyone was a murderer.” He wandered the town marveling that people did not have bars on their windows.

After a week, he bought a $ 100 Greyhound Discovery Pass that allowed him to travel by bus anywhere in Canada for six months.


At one stop, he got off to find lunch and, just as the bus was leaving, ran to jump back on. Unfortunately, the driver had taken off his suitcase with his traveler’s checks and clothes. All he had now was the knapsack of books he carried everywhere. The difficulty of getting traveler’s checks replaced (it took weeks) was an early taste of how the financial payments system needed disruption.


The cousin showed up with his father, took him to a Sizzler steak house, and invited him to stay at their wheat farm, where he was put to work cleaning grain bins and helping to raise a barn.


After six weeks, he got back on the bus and headed for Vancouver, another thousand miles away, to stay with his mother’s half-brother. When he went to an employment office, he saw that most jobs paid $5 an hour. But there was one that paid $18 an hour, cleaning out the boilers in the lumber mill. This involved donning a hazmat suit and shimmying through a small tunnel that led to the chamber where the wood pulp was being boiled while shoveling out the lime that had caked on the walls. “If the person at the end of the tunnel didn’t remove the goo fast enough, you would be trapped while sweating your guts out,” he recalls. “It was like a Dickensian steampunk nightmare filled with dark pipes and the sound of jackhammers.”

You have a 99% chance of surviving the encounter

Sunday, October 29th, 2023

Greg Ellifritz was recently watching a video where a guy in Thailand takes his belt off to whip another guy, and that guy pulls out a knife and stabs him in the neck:

First of all, knife wounds (both slashes and stabs) are far less lethal than gunshot wounds. It is generally only the people who are stabbed multiple times in the torso who die from knife wounds. People who are cut or stabbed two, three, or even five times tend to survive. It’s only those who are “sewing machined” that generally die. Don’t believe me? Check out the study titled “Murder and Medicine.” According to this research, firearms assaults have a 5.4% fatality rate. Knife assaults kill only 1.1% of victims. That makes gunshot wounds almost five times more lethal than knife wounds. You really shouldn’t prefer to get shot instead of cut.

Second, most of the people I know who have been stabbed or slashed didn’t know it initially. Virtually all of them perceived the knife strike as a punch. It was only when they saw the blade or their own blood did they realize a blade was involved. Watch the video embedded above. The man in the red shirt was stabbed in the neck, resulting in spurting arterial bleeding. Initially, he had no idea he had been stabbed. He first seems to notice he had been cut approximately five seconds after the attacker delivered the wound. He remains on his feet and capable of violent action for more than 30 seconds, despite massive blood loss.

Generally, puncture wounds hit fewer nerves and cause less pain than slashes even though they are generally more lethal. It isn’t unusual at all for people to report that they didn’t know they were cut or stabbed until the incident was completely over. Instant incapacitations with knives are even more rare than the famed “one shot stop” with a handgun.

How can we use this information?

If you are defending yourself by using a knife to cut an attacker, it’s important that you not give up after one strike. You shouldn’t think your attacker is going to magically vanish as soon as you stab him. Get some training to be able to find good targets (generally large blood vessels close to the surface of the skin or major muscle groups that control bodily functions) under stress and keep slashing and stabbing until the attacker stops hurting you.

If you attacked by a criminal armed with an edged weapon, keep in mind that this phenomenon works both ways. Just because your attacker has a knife doesn’t mean that you are dead. Stay in the fight. Try to avoid getting cut as best you can and work to quickly disable your attacker. Remember, knife attacks have a 1% lethality rate. It doesn’t matter if you are cut or stabbed. Keep fighting. If you can disable your attacker, you have a 99% chance of surviving the encounter.

The Allied high command’s dominating thought was to make sure of success

Saturday, October 28th, 2023

Marshal Kesselring had the most insightful comment, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), on Allied leadership in Italy:

The Allied high command’s dominating thought was to make sure of success, a thought that led it to use orthodox methods and material. As a result it was almost always possible for me, despite inadequate means of reconnaissance and scanty reports, to foresee the next strategic or tactical move of my opponent.

The longstanding U.S. base is a radar facility

Friday, October 27th, 2023

Two months before Hamas attacked Israel, the Pentagon awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to build U.S. troop facilities for a secret base it maintains deep within Israel’s Negev desert, just 20 miles from Gaza:

Codenamed “Site 512,” the longstanding U.S. base is a radar facility that monitors the skies for missile attacks on Israel.

On October 7, however, when thousands of Hamas rockets were launched, Site 512 saw nothing — because it is focused on Iran, more than 700 miles away.


The $35.8 million U.S. troop facility, not publicly announced or previously reported, was obliquely referenced in an August 2 contract announcement by the Pentagon.


“Sometimes something is treated as an official secret not in the hope that an adversary would never find out about it but rather [because] the U.S. government, for diplomatic or political reasons, does not want to officially acknowledge it,” Paul Pillar, a former chief analyst at the CIA’s counterterrorism center who said he had no specific knowledge of the base, told The Intercept. “In this case, perhaps the base will be used to support operations elsewhere in the Middle East in which any acknowledgment that they were staged from Israel, or involved any cooperation with Israel, would be inconvenient and likely to elicit more negative reactions than the operations otherwise would elicit.”

Since I recently read The Puzzle Palace, I can’t help but notice that this sounds like a SIGINT collection facility.

As long as something else is taking off when another technology peaks, that’s tolerable

Friday, October 27th, 2023

Productivity growth is some combination of literal technology and social technology, Byrne Hobart says:

The former is pretty easy to understand: physical technologies from wheels and pulleys to RFID and EUV allow us to get more results from a given amount of effort. Social technologies cover a wide range of other behaviors that can affect economic outcomes, from high-level ones like trustworthiness and punctuality to more granular ideas like accrual accounting, performance-based compensation, post-mortem memos, and the like.[1] Other elements include general attitudes: at the level of companies and countries, having people in charge who think that the institution they’re responsible for will last a long time, but could fail if they make a mistake, will tend to produce better results than the vague hope of retiring before things go off the rails. The concept of productivity growth itself is an instance of productivity growth: just by having a new mental model, you can slice up your statistics on economic growth to figure out how much of it to attribute to the gradual accumulation of buildings, equipment, roads, ships, etc., to general population growth, and to the sometimes-mysterious extra factor that makes the sum of these equal more than their parts.


In the very long run, employment rates have been surprisingly stable everywhere we’re able to measure them—it’s surprising and counterintuitive that over the last two centuries of extreme technological, institutional, and cultural change, roughly 90-95% of people who want a job can find one most of the time. In many countries automation has increased formal employment when the alternatives were either agricultural work, working in the informal sector, or rent-seeking. And in a sense that’s even true of rich countries’ industrialization; the US was much more corrupt historically, and certainly the late 19th century and early 20th centuries had some egregious abuses of government power for private gain, but after a while it started to get obvious to most people that there was simply more money in positive-sum activities than in negative-sum ones—and that tolerating the negative-sum behaviors was a drag on overall growth.

That actually extended to politics, too; the relationship between labor and capital is an easier one to navigate when the question is “how fast do each of us get rich?” rather than “how can I protect my piece of the shrinking pie?”

The story of economic growth is usually a story of overlapping S-curves in adoption, and the first derivative of that S-curve, which measures the new deployment of a technology, tends to peak and decline. As long as something else is taking off when another technology peaks, that’s tolerable; it doesn’t avoid recessions, but a recession also forces people to leave declining sectors and join growing ones instead.

From a monetary perspective, World War I never really ended

Thursday, October 26th, 2023

From a monetary perspective, World War I never really ended once it began in 1914, Lyn Alden notes:

In prior wars throughout history, wars had to be funded with savings or taxes or very slow debasement of coinage. Physical coinage held by citizens could usually only be debased by their government gradually rather than diluted instantaneously, because a government couldn’t just magically change the properties of the coins that were held by households; it could only debase them over time by taxing purer coins, issuing various decrees to try to pull some of those purer coins in, and spending debased coins back out into the economy (and convincing initial recipients to accept them at the same prior value, despite the lesser precious metal content, which would only work for a time and might not even be noticed at first). However, with the widespread holding of centrally issued banknotes and bank deposits that were redeemable for specific amounts of gold, governments could change the redemptive value with the stroke of a pen or eliminate redemption all together.

This gave governments the power to instantaneously devalue a substantial part of their citizens’ savings, literally overnight, and funnel that purchasing power toward war or other government expenditures whenever they determine that the situation calls for it.

Borrowers are “locked-in” by the golden handcuffs of their cheap mortgages

Wednesday, October 25th, 2023

Construction and sales of new homes have soared, even as sales of existing homes have entered a deep freeze:

Between mid-2022 and earlier this year, existing home sales fell from an annualized rate of almost 7 million sales per month to just 4 million, a record pace of contraction and an overall drop in magnitude only slightly shy of the 2008 financial crisis. There are currently only about 600,000 homes on the market, compared to 1.5 million before the pandemic. Prices remain close to record highs, but given such thin liquidity, are virtually meaningless.

The freeze in transactions is a function of interest rates.

Homeowners borrowed and repriced about $3trn worth of mortgage debt (half of the entire outstanding amount) in 2002-22—either through purchases or refinancings—at emergency-level low interest rates. Today, one third of mortgage debt carries an interest rate below 3%.

Contrast that with the going rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage: at the time of writing, above 7%. Since existing homeowners can’t ‘port’ their mortgage to a new home, or sell it to the would-be buyers of their home (except in rare circumstances), moving houses entails losing a cheap mortgage and resetting at a much higher rate. Borrowers are “locked-in” by the golden handcuffs of their cheap mortgages.

This dynamic has always existed in the US housing market, but—given the swing from rock bottom rates to the highest borrowing costs in a generation, and in such a short amount of time—this mortgage lock-in effect has never been so strong.

A mortgage originated at a lower rate than prevailing rates is worth less than par—this is an unrealized loss to the lender and an unrealized gain to the borrower. Unsurprisingly, pandemic-era borrowers are unwilling to lose their collective $700 billion worth of these gains.


Mortgage lock-in prevents home prices from adjusting to the shock of higher financing costs. This is, in particular, a burden for the ~2 million Americans who are first time home buyers every year. Millennials are the biggest cohort of buyers these days, and in 2022, 70% of them were first time buyers.

The sprawling edifice of American intervention in the mortgage market—from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae, to Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBs)—are premised on the goal of making home ownership more widely available. But amidst rising rates, mortgage lock-in is an impediment to achieving that goal.

If the stickiness of the asset is a problem for prospective first time buyers, the inflexibility of the liability is a problem for existing owners. Aside from locking owners into their current homes, the rigidity of mortgages in the face of rising interest rates means that an increasing number of borrowers are ‘underwater’ or very close to it—they hold a mortgage that is close to, or exceeds, the value of their equity in their home.


Mortgage lock-in also has less obvious but more harmful, widespread, and long-lived effects. Not least: it exacerbates declining levels of geographic mobility. Americans are staying in their homes longer. They are evincing a declining willingness to move neighborhoods, cities, or states in order to find work that better matches their skills. By giving Americans a powerful incentive not to move, mortgage lock-in contributes to a handful of modern-day macroeconomic problems, including anemic productivity growth and neo-feudal levels of income inequality.


Mortgage lock-in doesn’t exist in Denmark because borrowers can buy back their loans at market prices in the secondary market.


In the US, banks originate mortgages but then sell them onwards to GSEs for bundling into mortgage backed securities. But Danish mortgage finance operates on the ‘balance principle’: bank lending is funded by the issuance of bonds which precisely match the cash flows of the underlying mortgages. Danish banks retain ownership of mortgages, including their credit risk. These remain on their balance sheets within ring-fenced ‘cover pools’.

Securitization of these assets is not via mortgage backed securities but instead via ‘covered bonds’. Cash flows pass directly from borrowers to covered bond investors, with the mortgage bank acting as servicer.

Covered bond investors are highly secured: they have exclusive recourse to the segregated cover pool of assets on the issuing bank’s balance sheet, and (nonexclusive) recourse to the overall assets of the issuer.

Danish mortgage banks are specialized institutions that only issue and distribute mortgages without maturity transformation (a form of narrow banking). They are barred by law from taking deposits.

The balance principle and generally tight regulation ensure a very stable market—since its creation in 1797, the Danish covered bond market has not experienced a single default in a bond series.

The allowance for repurchases below par is facilitated by the fact that Danish mortgage-backed bonds are pure pass-through securities: each specific mortgage can be traced directly to a bond that is traded in the secondary market. This means that when a mortgagor wants to terminate the loan, it is possible to identify the bond it was financed through and buy back an equivalent portion at the prevailing market price.

The emphasis was more on secure communications and tradecraft

Tuesday, October 24th, 2023

Since 2015, the Washington Post reports, the CIA has spent tens of millions of dollars to transform Ukraine’s Soviet-formed intelligence services:

The Post vetted key details with multiple sources including Western officials with access to independent streams of intelligence. The CIA declined to comment.


“We never involved our international partners in covert operations, especially behind the front lines,” a former senior Ukrainian security official said. SBU and GUR operatives were not accompanied by CIA counterparts. Ukraine avoided using weapons or equipment that could be traced to U.S. sources, and even covert funding streams were segregated.

“We had a lot of restrictions about working with the Ukrainians operationally,” said a former U.S. intelligence official. The emphasis was “more on secure communications and tradecraft,” and pursuing new streams of intelligence inside Russia “rather than ‘here’s how you blow up a mayor.’ I never got the sense that we were that involved in designing their ops.”


Ukraine’s spies developed their own lines about which operations to discuss and which to keep under wraps. “There were some things that maybe we wouldn’t talk about” with CIA counterparts, said a second Ukraine security official involved in such missions. He said crossing those boundaries would lead to a terse reply from Americans: “We don’t want any part of that.”


The initial phases of cooperation were tentative, officials said, given concerns on both sides that Ukraine’s services were still heavily penetrated by the FSB — the Russian agency that is the main successor to the KGB. To manage that security risk, the CIA worked with the SBU to create an entirely new directorate, officials said, one that would focus on so-called “active measures” operations against Russia and be insulated from other SBU departments.

The new unit was prosaically dubbed the “Fifth Directorate” to distinguish it from the four long-standing units of the SBU. A sixth directorate has since been added, officials said, to work with Britain’s MI6 spy agency.

Training sites were located outside Kyiv where handpicked recruits were instructed by CIA personnel, officials said. The plan was to form units “capable of operating behind front lines and working as covert groups,” said a Ukrainian official involved in the effort.

The agency provided secure communications gear, eavesdropping equipment that allowed Ukraine to intercept Russian phone calls and emails, and even furnished disguises and separatist uniforms enabling operatives to more easily slip into occupied towns.

The early missions focused on recruiting informants among Russia’s proxy forces as well as cyber and electronic eavesdropping measures, officials said. The SBU also began mounting sabotage operations and missions to capture separatist leaders and Ukrainian collaborators, some of whom were taken to secret detention sites.

But the operations soon took a lethal turn. Over one three-year stretch, at least half a dozen Russian operatives, high-ranking separatist commanders or collaborators were killed in violence that was often attributed to internal score-settling but in reality was the work of the SBU, Ukraine officials said.


Even while helping to build the SBU’s new directorate, the CIA embarked on a far more ambitious project with Ukraine’s military intelligence service.

With fewer than 5,000 employees, the GUR was a fraction of the size of the SBU and had a narrower focus on espionage and active measures operations against Russia. It also had a younger workforce with fewer holdovers from Soviet times, while the SBU was still perceived as penetrated by Russian intelligence.

“We calculated that GUR was a smaller and more nimble organization where we could have more impact,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who worked in Ukraine. “GUR was our little baby. We gave them all new equipment and training.” GUR officers “were young guys not Soviet-era KGB generals,” the official said, “while the SBU was too big to reform.”

Even recent developments have seemed to validate such concerns. Former SBU director Ivan Bakanov was forced out of the job last year amid criticism that the agency wasn’t moving aggressively enough against internal traitors. The SBU also discovered last year that Russian-made modems were still being used in the agency’s networks, prompting a scramble to unplug them.

From 2015 on, the CIA embarked on such an extensive transformation of the GUR that within several years “we had kind of rebuilt it from scratch,” the former U.S. intelligence official said. One of the main architects of the effort, who served as CIA station chief in Kyiv, now runs the Ukraine Task Force at CIA headquarters.

The GUR began recruiting operatives for its own new active measures department, officials said. At sites in Ukraine and, later, the United States, GUR operatives were trained on skills ranging from clandestine maneuvers behind enemy lines to weapons platforms and explosives. U.S. officials said the training was aimed at helping Ukrainian operatives protect themselves in dangerous Russian-controlled environments rather than inflicting harm on Russian targets.

Some of the GUR’s newest recruits were transfers from the SBU, officials said, drawn to a rival service flush with new authorities and resources. Among them was Vasyl Burba, who had managed SBU Fifth Directorate operations before joining the GUR and serving as agency director from 2016 to 2020. Burba became such a close ally of the CIA — and perceived Moscow target — that when he was forced from his job after President Volodymyr Zelensky’s election the agency provided him an armored vehicle, officials said. Burba declined to comment for this article.
The CIA helped the GUR acquire state-of-the-art surveillance and electronic eavesdropping systems, officials said. They included mobile equipment that could be placed along Russian-controlled lines in eastern Ukraine, but also software tools used to exploit the cellphones of Kremlin officials visiting occupied territory from Moscow. Ukrainian officers operated the systems, officials said, but everything gleaned was shared with the Americans.

Concerned that the GUR’s aging facilities were likely compromised by Russian intelligence, the CIA paid for new headquarters buildings for the GUR’s “spetsnaz” paramilitary division and a separate directorate responsible for electronic espionage.
The new capabilities were transformative, officials said.

“In one day we could intercept 250,000 to 300,000 separate communications” from Russian military and FSB units, said a former senior GUR official. “There was so much information that we couldn’t manage it ourselves.”

Troves of data were relayed through the new CIA-built facility back to Washington, where they were scrutinized by CIA and NSA analysts, officials said.

“We were giving them the ability — through us — to collect on” Russian targets, the former GUR official said. Asked about the magnitude of the CIA investments, the official said: “It was millions of dollars.”

In time, the GUR had also developed networks of sources in Russia’s security apparatus, including the FSB unit responsible for operations in Ukraine. In a measure of U.S.-Ukraine trust, officials said, the CIA was permitted to have direct contact with agents recruited and run by Ukrainian intelligence.

The resulting intelligence windfall was largely hidden from public view, with intermittent exceptions. The SBU began posting incriminating or embarrassing communications intercepts, including one in which Russian commanders were captured discussing their country’s culpability in the 2014 shoot-down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet.

Even so, officials said the intelligence obtained through the U.S.-Ukraine cooperation had its limits. The Biden administration’s prescient warnings about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to topple the Kyiv government, for example, were based primarily on separate streams of intelligence Ukraine wasn’t privy to initially.

In some ways, officials said, Ukraine’s own collection efforts fed the skepticism that Zelensky and others had about Putin’s plans because they were eavesdropping on military and FSB units that themselves were not informed until the eve of the war. “They were getting an accurate picture from people who were also in the dark,” one U.S. official said.

A weaker money won out in terms of adoption over a harder money

Tuesday, October 24th, 2023

From papyrus-based bills of exchange to double-entry booking and paper banknotes, Lyn Alden explains, the main purpose of banking was to enable transactions to move more quickly and frequently than the transportation and verification of physical gold would allow:

Banking also allowed for the usage of more extensive credit systems, by allowing a third party (a money changer or a bank) to serve as a trusted intermediary between two non-trusting entities (buyers and sellers, or creditors and debtors).

In other words, banking allowed for transactions (commerce) and settlements (money) to be separated. Transactions for individual goods and services could occur more frequently, existing for a period of time in a state of credit, until they were settled with precious metals in less frequent occurrences and in larger amounts. However, while this process of batching multiple transactions into fewer and larger settlements increased transaction efficiency and reduced the risk of theft, it couldn’t overcome a fundamental constraint: the speed of information.

For thousands of years, transactions and settlements had the same maximum speed limit: the speed of foot, horses, and ships.


However, with the invention of the telegraph, and then the telephone, the speed of transactions increased to nearly the speed of light. The first working telegraph was invented in the 1830s. Engineers then spent much of the 1840s and 1850s figuring out how to run cables over long distances, including under large bodies of water, during which time they were able to connect the various financial centers of Europe together, including London and Paris. After some failed attempts, the first long-lasting transatlantic telegraph cables were put in place in the 1860s, and the global banking system quickly became more interconnected in the decades that followed.


All around the world, people and institutions increasingly relied on interconnected bank accounts rather than coinage. And with currency units abstracted from the underlying metal, it turned currency units into an inherently political topic between creditor groups and debtor groups.


The more and more efficient the global banking system became at netting and clearing imbalances, the less and less it needed metal as a proportion of transactional volumes and saving volumes during the normal course of operation. And consumers happily went along with it as well, due to the greater ease that it provided them with. And yet this increasing efficiency is precisely what allowed it to become so unbacked and unstable at its foundation. The disinclination of most people to want to withdraw and secure the cumbersome physical metals allowed for the extreme proliferation of gold claims relative to the amount of actual gold.

By the early 20th century, thanks to this extreme degree of monetary abstraction and the associated ease of claim creation for World War I approximately four decades after Jevons’ book, the global gold standard collapsed and never recovered. In the decades after that, governments eventually dropped gold and silver backing from their financial systems entirely, and that’s how we eventually got to this world of 160 different inflationary fiat currencies — each with a local monopoly in their respective jurisdiction.


This is the only time in history where, on a global scale, a weaker money won out in terms of adoption over a harder money. And it occurred because telecommunication systems introduced speed as a new variable into the competition.

The Marines at their guard posts had been prohibited from having a round in the chamber

Monday, October 23rd, 2023

Shortly past daybreak on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, Jack Carr reminds us, a Mercedes truck tore through the concertina wire that surrounded the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon:

The truck was loaded with PETN explosive wrapped in compressed gas canisters.

Inside the four-story Battalion Landing Team headquarters and barracks — colorfully known as the “Beirut Hilton” — some 350 American troops still slumbered. It was Sunday — a day of rest.

American troops were in Lebanon to help stabilize a nation torn apart by eight years of civil war that had killed tens of thousands and devastated the once-beautiful capital of Beirut, formerly hailed as the “Paris of the Middle East.”

The driver accelerated, covering the 450 feet that separated the concertina wire from the barracks in 10 seconds.

The Marines he passed at their guard posts had been prohibited from having a round in the chamber of their rifles.

The truck crashed through the sandbags stacked in front of the barracks and came to a stop 13 feet inside the lobby.

The subsequent explosion — immortalized on a clock in the building’s basement at 6:21.26 a.m. — proved to be the largest nonnuclear explosion on record, one that equaled as much as 20,000 pounds of TNT.

The blast claimed the lives of 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers.

Another 112 were wounded.

Not since the invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945 had the Marines lost so many men in a single day. A near-simultaneous bombing a few miles north killed 58 French paratroopers.

What followed is one of the greatest rescue stories in modern history.


American intelligence immediately zeroed in on the attackers, who were Iranian-backed Shiite terrorists, part of a new group that we know today as Hezbollah.

White House infighting blocked a proposed American retaliation, but French and Israeli planes attacked terrorist training camps in the Bekaa Valley.


In the immediate aftermath, Marine Corps Commandant General Paul Kelley testified before Congress. During a moment of frustration, as he grappled with myopic lawmakers, the general asked whether it would take a suicide bomber crashing an airplane for America to wake up to the reality of this new war.

He seldom finishes anything

Monday, October 23rd, 2023

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonElon Musk was a good student, Walter Isaacson’s notes (in his biography of Elon), but not a superstar:

When he was nine and ten, he got A’s in English and Math. “He is quick to grasp new mathematical concepts,” his teacher noted. But there was a constant refrain in the report card comments: “He works extremely slowly, either because he dreams or is doing what he should not.” “He seldom finishes anything. Next year he must concentrate on his work and not daydream during class.” “His compositions show a lively imagination, but he doesn’t always finish in time.” His average grade before he got to high school was 83 out of 100.

After he was bullied and beaten in his public high school, his father moved him to a private academy, Pretoria Boys High School. Based on the English model, it featured strict rules, caning, compulsory chapel, and uniforms. There he got excellent grades in all but two subjects: Afrikaans (he got a 61 out of 100 his final year) and religious instruction (“ not extending himself,” the teacher noted). “I wasn’t really going to put a lot of effort into things I thought were meaningless,” he says. “I would rather be reading or playing video games.” He got an A in the physics part of his senior certificate exams, but somewhat surprisingly, only a B in the math part.

Lessons from the Battle of Manila

Sunday, October 22nd, 2023

With approximately 800,000 residents, Manila was one of the largest population centers encountered by American forces in any theater in World War 2:

IJA General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who commanded all Japanese troops on Luzon, did not want to defend Manila for two reasons. First, he saw its mainly flammable wooden buildings as a death trap for his troops. Second, the large civilian population would require feeding and care, something his logistically starved troops could not do. However, the IJN commander, Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi, saw himself under no obligation to listen to orders given by his rivals in the IJA, and in hopes of regaining his honor, elected to stay with his forces and fight to the death while Yamashita and the majority of the Japanese retired from the city.

The defenders’ goals were to inflict maximum casualties on the US forces, delay the use of the port of Manila by the US Navy, and make the city unusable for military, civilian, or political purposes.


The Japanese, despite their extensive preparation of the battlefield, were almost doomed to fail as soon as the Americans had encircled the city. Once isolated, as seen in other urban fights, the defenders lost the ability to resupply, and were consigned to either starving or being rooted out one by one by the advancing Americans. With a force of nearly twenty thousand men, the Japanese should have been able to mount a counterattack and break out from the encirclement of only thirty-five thousand Americans in three divisions, but the lack of coordinated Japanese counterattacks and overall static defensive strategy allowed the Americans to effectively trap the defenders and clear the city.


Within Manila, the power plant, water treatment plant, port, Novaliches Dam, and San Juan Reservoir were seen by both as critical centers of gravity. Accordingly, the Japanese planned to destroy these as part of their scorched-earth campaign, while American forces sought to secure them intact.


The IJN plan to spoil the American victory and to further ensure the destruction of Manila as a functioning city was to include not only destroying critical infrastructure but also the deliberate murder of thousands of civilians. In scenes reminiscent of Nanking, thousands of innocent men, women, and children were shot, stabbed, beheaded, skinned alive, raped, and mutilated by Japanese forces in what became known as the Manila Massacre. Thousands more were driven from their homes and left without food, shelter, and access to medical care. Response to these mass atrocities committed within Manila became an additional mission of US Army forces across Luzon. US troops were tasked with caring for displaced persons. The care of civilians displaced from the battlefield became a major concurrent mission during and after the battle.

Urban battles do not occur in sterile environments. Within Manila, more than one hundred thousand civilians were killed either deliberately by the Japanese or caught in the crossfire. Current US forces need to be prepared to address the presence of civilians on the battlefield.


The high variability of Manila’s physical terrain that American forces encountered provides further lessons for modern observers. The city was composed of everything from small, wooden houses to massive, earthquake-resistant government buildings, such as the Manila Post Office that withstood days of direct artillery and tank fire. An entire squadron of the 1st Cavalry Division was forced to clear the Rizal baseball stadium that was being used as a Japanese ammunition dump, eventually driving tanks across the field to engage defenders fortified within the dugouts. The thick, Spanish-era forts and walls of the Intramuros further provided a unique challenge to the Americans, who had to contend with assaulting structures and reducing barricades that had been made to withstand sixteenth-century siege warfare.

Today, cities throughout Asia are also full of a diverse blend of architecture dating from dozens of distinct time periods. In Bangkok during the 2010 riots, the Thai military used armored personnel carriers and thousands of troops to clear a shopping mall full of protestors, resulting in massive fires throughout the area. In the Battle of Hue in 1968, North Vietnamese forces used the ancient Hue Citadel as a fortress, stymying American and South Vietnamese forces. More recently in Ukraine, the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol turned the Azovstal steel factory into a nearly impenetrable fortress, defying the Russian invaders for months.


As in other urban battles, such as at Aachen, American tanks and artillery quickly became direct fire breaching assets that would punch holes into the thick walls of the Intramuros and government buildings, especially after MacArthur limited artillery fires in order to spare the city unnecessary destruction. Infantrymen also developed new clearing tactics, often using flamethrowers and bazookas to clear rooms and buildings. At the post office, infantry soldiers further innovated by bypassing the Japanese defenders on the heavily fortified ground floor and breaching the structure through a window on the second floor, then fighting their way downstairs.

The Germans saw in Russia that infantry actions were fought overwhelmingly at close range

Saturday, October 21st, 2023

In Africa and Sicily Anglo-American forces had seen elements of a new kind of close combat that the German army had developed in Russia, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), but on the boot of Italy they came firmly up against it:

The Germans saw in Russia that infantry actions were fought overwhelmingly at close range, 75 yards or less, and introduced the MP38 and MP40 “Schmeisser” machine pistol that fired high-velocity pistol bullets, giving heavy unaimed fire to blanket an area and suppress enemy resistance. The Russians introduced a different sort of weapon that achieved the same effect, the PPSh41 7.62-millimeter submachine gun (burp gun). Supported by fast-firing portable machine guns, the MG-34 and MG-42, the Schmeissers gave Germans mobility and high volume of fire. They never replaced all their standard medium-range bolt-action rifles (the Mauser Kar. 98k) or employed many of the next-generation automatic assault rifles (Sturmgewehr), but Schmeissers and MG-34s and MG-42s gave them high capacity to defend against attacks.

The British replaced in part their medium-range bolt-action rifle, the Enfield No. 4, with various submachine guns (“Sten guns”) that fired the same 9-millimeter pistol cartridge as the Schmeisser, coupling them with the Bren gun, a reliable light machine gun.

The Americans were slower to replace the M1 Garand semiautomatic medium-range rifle. Wherever possible they used the Thompson M1928 submachine gun, firing .45-caliber pistol ammunition, but this weapon was in short supply. Americans made do with their M1s, Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), and light machine guns. It was late 1944 before they introduced the M3 submachine gun (grease gun) in large numbers to compete with the Schmeisser.

The Germans learned to exploit the weaknesses of Americans under fire for the first time. In such cases Americans had the tendency to freeze or to seek the nearest protection. All too often American infantry merely located and fixed the enemy, and called on artillery to destroy the defenders. Only after much experience in 1943 did American infantry learn that the best way to avoid losses was to keep moving forward and to close in rapidly on the enemy.

Tanks could not be used in the mountainous terrain of Italy in massed attacks as Rommel had done in Africa. In Italy tanks largely reverted to the infantry-support role that the British had envisioned for their Matildas and other “I” tanks at the start of the war. However, American tankers and infantry had little training in this role. Infantry and tanks could not communicate with each other. Infantry could not warn tankers of antitank traps and heavy weapons, and tankers could not alert infantry to enemy positions. Consequently, infantry had a tendency to lag behind tanks, and Americans did not work out the smooth coordination of tanks, infantry, and artillery that the Germans had developed long before in their battle groups or Kampfgruppen.

Similar problems developed in the use of tank destroyers (TDs), essentially 75-millimeter guns on open-topped tank chassis. TDs were designed to break up massed German panzer attacks. The Germans no longer massed tanks, but used them as parts of Kampfgruppen. American commanders slowly changed the use of TDs to assault guns to destroy enemy tanks and defensive positions with direct fire.

Finally, the Allies did a poor job of coordinating air-ground operations. Allied fighter-bomber pilots flying at 200 mph often could not distinguish between friendly and enemy forces on the ground. The pilots could not talk to ground units, and vice versa. This resulted in many cases of Allied aircraft bombing and strafing friendly forces. Consequently, Allied troops often fired on anything that moved in the sky. Only in the spring of 1944 did the U.S. Army Air Force deploy forward air controllers (FACs), using light single-engine liaison aircraft (L-5s) that could direct radio communication to aircraft and air-ground support parties at headquarters of major ground units. It was a bit late: the Germans had employed this system in the campaign in the west in 1940 to direct Stuka attacks on enemy positions.

To expose the Chinese Communist Party and to save the world in a supernatural war against communism

Friday, October 20th, 2023

The Epoch Times — launched by Falun Gong as a free propaganda newsletter more than two decades ago to oppose the Chinese Communist Party — now boasts to be the US’s fourth-largest newspaper by subscriber count:

The nonprofit has amassed a fortune, growing its revenue by a staggering 685% in two years, to $122 million in 2021, according to the group’s most recent tax records.


Epoch Times representatives also deny an affiliation with Falun Gong, despite the two groups’ clear financial and organizational ties: The Epoch Times board members and most staff are Falun Gong practitioners. The nonprofits behind The Epoch Times and Friends of Falun Gong, the movement’s advocacy organization, share executives and provide grants and services to each other, according to tax filings. And the newspaper, along with a digital production company and the heavily advertised dance troupe Shen Yun, make up a nonprofit network that the leader of the religious movement calls “our media.”


Started in Georgia in 2000 by John Tang, a Falun Gong practitioner who remains its CEO, in essence it was a Chinese-language public relations newsletter. The group’s long-term goals were ambitious: to expose the Chinese Communist Party and to save the world in a supernatural war against communism.

Through the early aughts, The Epoch Times grew from an online effort to a weekly physical newspaper, with a home base in New York and a TV production company, New Tang Dynasty Television. It raised money from followers and was staffed by unpaid volunteers. It ran aggregated articles on international issues from Voice of America next to Thanksgiving Day explainers, dispatches from Falun Gong parades, and exposés on atrocities alleged to have been committed by the Chinese Communist Party.

By 2019, it had gone mostly digital and was spending millions of dollars on creating a network of Facebook pages and groups and running aggressive pro-Trump ad campaigns. The move toward explicit support of Republicans, despite Li’s teachings to stay away from U.S. politics, was foreshadowed by Li’s comments at a Falun Gong conference a year before.

Li said that Falun Gong’s media ought to put a “constructive” spin on the news, to advance the group’s aims. It wasn’t wrong, he said, to favorably cover a politician who shared Falun Gong’s conservative values and whose goals aligned with their own.

“If someone comes along now who can help to halt the downward spiral that the world is in, then he is truly someone extraordinary!” Li said. “He would in effect be helping us! Wouldn’t he be helping us to save people?”