It was both correct and costly

Sunday, February 25th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson “We only get to release our first car once,” Musk told Eberhard, Tesla’s CEO at the time, “so we want it to be as good as it can be.” Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), how this played out:

One major design revision that Musk made was to insist that the door of the Roadster be enlarged. “In order to get in the car, you had to be a dwarf mountain climber or a master contortionist,” he says. “It was insane, farcical.” The six-foot-two-inch Musk found he had to swing his rather large butt into the seat, fold himself into nearly a fetal position, then try to swing his legs in. “If you’re going on a date, how is a woman even going to get in the car?” he asked. So he ordered that the bottom of the door’s frame be lowered three inches. The resulting redesign of the chassis meant that Tesla could not use the crash-test certification that Lotus had, which added $2 million to the production costs. Like many of Musk’s revisions, it was both correct and costly.

Musk also ordered that the seats be made wider. “My original idea was to use the same seat structures that Lotus used,” Eberhard says. “Otherwise, we would have to redo all the testing. But Elon felt that the seats were too narrow for his wife’s butt or something. I got a skinny butt, and I kind of miss the narrow seats.”

Musk also decided that the original Lotus headlights were ugly because they had no cover or shield. “It made the car look bug-eyed,” he says. “The lights are like the eyes of a car, and you have to have beautiful eyes.” That change would add another $ 500,000 to the production costs, he was told. But he was adamant. “If you’re buying a sports car, you’re buying it because it’s beautiful,” he told the team. “So this is not a small deal.”

Instead of the fiberglass composite material that Lotus used, Musk decided that the Roadster body should be made from stronger carbon fiber. That made it costlier to paint, but it also made it lighter while feeling more solid.

[…]

No detail was too small to escape Musk’s meddling. The Roadster originally had ordinary door handles, the kind that click open a latch. Musk insisted on electric handles that would operate with a simple touch. “Somebody who’s buying a Tesla Roadster will buy it whether it has ordinary door latches or electric ones,” Eberhard argued. “It’s not going to add a single unit to our sales.”

[…]

Eberhard finally got pushed to despair when, near the end of the design process, Musk decided that the dashboard was ugly. “This is a major issue and I’m deeply concerned that you do not recognize it as such,” Musk wrote. Eberhard tried to put him off, begging that they deal with the issue later. “I just don’t see a path — any path at all — to fixing it prior to start of production without a significant cost and schedule hit,” he wrote. “I stay up at night worrying about simply getting the car into production sometime in 2007…. For my own sanity’s sake and for the sanity of my team, I am not spending a lot of cycles thinking about the dashboard.”

[…]

By modifying so many elements, Tesla lost the cost advantages that came from simply using a crash-tested Lotus Elise body. It also added to the supply-chain complexity. Instead of being able to rely on Lotus’s existing suppliers, Tesla became responsible for finding new sources for hundreds of components, from the carbon fiber panels to the headlights. “I was driving the Lotus people crazy,” Musk says. “They kept asking me why I was being so hardcore about every little curve of this car. And what I told them was, ‘Because we have to make it beautiful.’”

Despite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Napoleon welcomed the Revolution

Saturday, February 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsDespite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon welcomed the Revolution:

At least in its early stages it accorded well with the Enlightenment ideals he had ingested from his reading of Rousseau and Voltaire. He embraced its anti-clericalism and did not mind the weakening of a monarchy for which he had no particular respect. Beyond that, it seemed to offer Corsica prospects of greater independence, and far better career opportunities for an ambitious young outsider without money or connections. Napoleon believed that the new social order it promised to usher in would destroy both of these disadvantages and would be built on logic and reason, which the Enlightenment philosophes saw as the only true foundations for authority.

[…]

Although Napoleon faithfully carried out his military duties, putting down food riots in Valence and Auxonne — where some men from his own regiment mutinied and joined the rioters — he was an early adherent of the local branch of the revolutionary Society of the Friends of the Constitution.

[…]

Napoleon was unimpressed by what he found in Paris. ‘The men at the head of the Revolution are a poor lot,’ he wrote to Joseph. ‘Everyone pursues his own interest, and searches to gain his own ends by dint of all sorts of crimes; people intrigue as basely as ever. All this destroys ambition. One pities those who have the misfortune to play a part in public affairs.’

[…]

Napoleon was in Paris on June 20, 1792 when the mob invaded the Tuileries, captured Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and forced the king to wear a red cap of liberty on the palace balcony. Bourrienne had met him at a restaurant on the rue Saint-Honoré, and when they saw a heavily armed crowd marching towards the palace, he claims that Napoleon said, ‘Let’s follow the rabble.’ Taking their place on the riverside terrace, they then watched with (presumably well-disguised) ‘surprise and indignation’ the historic scenes that followed.

[…]

Bourrienne later reported that Napoleon remarked: ‘What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with cannon? Then the rest would take themselves off very quickly.’ The humiliation of the royal family on that occasion further lowered the monarchy in Napoleon’s estimation. He supported the toppling of the king but could not understand why Louis XVI had meekly allowed himself to be humiliated. As it was, the royal couple had less than two months of this hazardous liberty left to them.

[…]

Napoleon’s contempt for the pusillanimity of the Bourbons was again made clear on August 10, when the mob returned to arrest the king and queen and massacred their Swiss Guards.

[…]

Che coglione!’ (‘What asses!’) he exclaimed in Italian when, from an upstairs window, he saw the Swiss Guards refrain from firing on the mob, at what turned out to be the cost of their lives.

[…]

Napoleon didn’t deny his own Jacobin past when he ruled France, saying, ‘At one time every man of spirit was bound to be one’, and he gave two of Robespierre’s female relatives annual pensions of 7,200 francs and 1,800 francs respectively.

[…]

By mid-October Napoleon was back in Ajaccio promoting the Jacobin cause, returning to his lieutenant-colonelcy of the Corsican National Guard rather than taking up the captaincy of the 4th Regiment of Artillery in France’s regular army. He found the island far more anti-French than it had been when he left, especially after the September Massacres and the declaration of the Republic. Yet he remained, as he put it, ‘persuaded that the best thing Corsica could do was to become a province of France’.

[…]

‘Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death,’ he later opined, ‘all Europe would have been revolutionized: the war saved England.

Training doctrines, levels of violent crime, and public scrutiny were very different back in the mid-1990s

Friday, February 23rd, 2024

In his 25-year police career, Greg Ellifritz pointed guns at lots of people:

Admittedly, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have pointed guns at all of those folks.

In my defense, training doctrines, levels of violent crime, and public scrutiny were very different back in the mid-1990s as compared to our modern age. We were taught to point guns directly at any felony suspect regardless of the level of danger they posed to us. It was just the way things were done. Back in the day, very few cops would have ever considered using a position like “low ready” to confront a potentially armed suspect. We took people down “at gunpoint.” That meant pointing a gun at the suspects’ chests and faces while demanding compliance.

Things have changed.

Most likely due to the fact that most cops now record every criminal arrest on body cameras, police administrators have demanded changes to use of force policies. Cops were pointing guns at too many people without a reasonable cause to do so. Sticking a gun in the face of an unarmed teenage kid in a stolen car looks bad when the bosses review the body cam footage.

The police bosses started cracking down on excessive gun play. Pointing a gun at someone was once considered a “threat” of force generally equivalent to harsh verbal language. At some point during the last decade or so, pointing a gun directly at another human being changed from a low consequence “threat of force” to a serious ”use of force” that was documented and investigated.

While some changes were certainly needed, I fear we might have gone too far.

[…]

Police bosses will argue “pointing a gun at someone meets the elements of the crime of aggravated assault.” That’s correct, in some cases. Putting someone in a painful wrist lock or throwing a person to the ground meets the statutory definitions for assault as well, yet cops do that all the time without issue. Handcuffing someone without their consent meets the statutory definition of “kidnapping” or “unlawful restraint.” Does that mean that cops shouldn’t handcuff people? That’s silly. Society recognizes that cops can legally use force to affect a lawful arrest so long as it is objectively reasonable to do so. I would argue that there are lots of scenarios cops face where it is reasonable to point a gun at someone even if it isn’t (yet) reasonable to shoot that person.

[…]

The thing that many police bosses fail to realize is that sometimes pointing a gun at someone compels compliance when all other tactics don’t work. Cops generally aren’t pointing guns at suspects just for fun. They often point guns as a last resort when all other tactics have failed. When an officer appears competent and points a gun at a suspect, that threat of lethal force often convinces the bad guy to go along with the program. The officer doesn’t have to physically hurt the suspect.

The whole thing includes some illustrative stories.

British tests of Trident missiles are rare

Thursday, February 22nd, 2024

The test firing of a Trident missile from a Royal Navy submarine has failed, for the second time in a row:

The latest test of the UK’s nuclear deterrent was from HMS Vanguard and was seen by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps.

The missile’s booster rockets failed and it landed in the sea close to the launch site, according to the Sun, which first reported the malfunction.

Mr Shapps said he has “absolute confidence” in Trident’s submarines, missiles and nuclear warheads.

This is highly embarrassing for both the UK and the US manufacturer of the Trident missile.

British tests of Trident missiles are rare, not least because of the cost. Each missile is worth around £17m and the last test in 2016 also ended in failure when the missile veered off course. Test-fired missiles are not armed with their nuclear warheads.

[…]

The missile was supposed to have flown several thousand miles before landing harmlessly in the Atlantic between Brazil and West Africa. Instead, it dropped into the ocean near to where it was launched.

[…]

The missiles the UK uses are drawn from a common pool that the US and UK both use, and the US has conducted multiple tests without these kind of problems.

XTEND say that operators can fly one of their drones like a pro within a few minutes of trying it out

Wednesday, February 21st, 2024

Skilled FPV drone operators are becoming the most feared opponents in the war in Ukraine, David Hambling notes:

When a Ukrainian drone strike team recently took out the Russian FPV operator known as Moisey it was seen as a big success. Moisey was personally credited with destroying dozens of vehicles and killing almost 400 Ukrainian soldiers.

Standard consumer quadcopters like the ubiquitous DJI Mavic series are designed to be flown out of the box by an untrained user. The operator does not exactly fly the drone so much as tell it where to go, with the drone doing all the piloting and preventing crashes. The drone will auto-hover at a fixed point even in gusty winds and, thanks to sonar and other sensors, avoid obstacles.

[…]

FPVs by contrast are stripped-down racing machines without any of the piloting aides on standard quadcopters. This is partly a matter of cost, but mainly to do with speed — a drone switched to manual mode with all the obstacle avoidance turned off is faster than one in normal mode where speed is automatically limited to how fast it can fly safely.

This is why FPV pilots wear VR-style goggles: they need to have good situational awareness, to look ahead and plan their path to avoid flying into things. FPV cameras have a wide field of view so the operator does not make a sharp turn and find a wall in front of them.

[…]

Russia’s Academy BAS says its combat FPV operator course takes a month, working 12 hour days with no days off. The equivalent training at Ukraine’s Victory Drones takes 33 days, and participants are expected to have 20 hours practice on a simulator before they start. The pass rate on FPV courses can be as low as 60%, compared to up to 95% for regular drones.

The average hit rate for FPV drones is sometimes quoted at 10% whereas highly skilled operators may succeed with 70% or more of their attacks.

[…]

XTEND say that operators can fly one of their drones like a pro within a few minutes of trying it out. This includes carrying out tricky maneuvers like flying through doorways or windows, which is exactly the kind of skill needed by an FPV kamikaze operator, or even flying around inside buildings or tunnels.

The intelligence provided by XTEND also solves one of the big issues with current FPVs, that of losing communication in the last second of flight as the drone drops below the radio horizon.

“Our XOS operating system enables a drone to have several ‘state’ solutions to determine what happens during comms-failure, including: hover, continue to target, return to home, patrol, and more,” says Shapira.

This effectively allows the operator to ‘lock on’ to a target as soon as they identify it, so the drone will find a target even if it is evading rapidly, or the signal is lost due to jamming or other causes. In principle XOS could be trained to aim at the weak spot on a target, such as the turret rear of Russian tanks where an FPV hit often results in instant destruction.

[…]

Last year, XTEND signed a contract to supply Israel’s Ministry of Defence with a multi-drone operating system enabling an operator to control “dozens of human-guided semi-autonomous drones simultaneously.”

That might seem like a lot of money for a radio-controlled model aircraft

Tuesday, February 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling”Like mammals evolving beneath the feet of lumbering dinosaurs,“ David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), “a very different type of drone has been proliferating close to the ground”:

These are little craft that do not compete with the lofty lords of the air. And while the big drones are in decline, their miniature cousins have been preparing to inherit the earth.

[…]

As of 2015 the Pentagon has around ten thousand drones, and nine thousand of them are small, hand-launched craft made by AeroVironment Inc of California

[…]

It may look like a toy aircraft with a four-foot wingspan, but it puts air power in the hands of the foot soldier.

[…]

Big drones compete with the manned aircraft that they resemble, but for once, looking like a toy may be an advantage.

[…]

Raven’s built-in GPS meant it could fly a mission via a series of programmed waypoints with no human intervention, so it could take pictures of a building or installation even if it was out of radio range. Endurance was tripled to an hour, and a new modular design meant changing sensors (say, switching between day cameras and infrared night vision) was a matter of “plug and play”.

[…]

Unlike the Predator, which requires pilot’s qualifications to fly, Raven operation can be learned in about three days.

[…]

The controller comes with a shrouded “viewing hood” to make the screen easier to see in bright sunlight — an echo of the black cloth that the TDR-1 operators covered themselves with in WWII.

The ground control unit can run training software, known as the Visualization and Mission Planning Integrated Rehearsal Environment or VAMPIRE. With VAMPIRE, an operator can practice flying virtual missions without needing to launch anything; it is like playing a handheld video game. An enhanced version can download sensor feeds from actual missions; this add-on is known as the Bidirectional Advanced Trainer (yes, that’s VAMPIRE BAT).

[…]

The video feed was originally recorded on a consumer eight-millimetre video recorder, a Sony Handycam, which allowed the user to freeze-frame or look back through the flight; it is now recorded digitally. The other piece of hardware is a ruggedized laptop, a Panasonic Toughbook computer. This provides a moving map display via Army software called FalconView.

[…]

In 2012 a complete system with two ground control stations, three RQ-11B air vehicles, plus all the sensors, spares, and carry cases, can cost the US military $100-$200,000. A single air vehicle on its own costs around $34,000. It is the sensor package, especially the thermal imaging, that pushes the price up.

To civilians that might seem like a lot of money for a radio-controlled model aircraft, but it needs to be put in context. In the conflict in Afghanistan, soldiers have on occasion used shoulder-launched Javelin anti-tank missiles costing $70,000 against individual insurgents behind cover. The mine-resistant MRAP armored trucks, hastily purchased to give protection against IEDs, cost about $600,000.

[…]

It’s certainly a low-cost option compared to $14 million for a Reaper. The Reaper also costs about $4,000 an hour to fly, so one ten-hour flight costs as much as a Raven. The F-22 Raptor costs $50,000 an hour to fly, the F-35 over $30,000, making Reaper cheap by Air Force standards.

Cheap drones were clearly a thing nine years ago, but super-cheap FPV quadcopters with 40-mm grenades or RPG warheads were still in the future.

All requirements should be treated as recommendations

Sunday, February 18th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonWhenever one of Musk’s engineers cited “a requirement” as a reason for doing something, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), Musk would grill them:

Who made that requirement? And answering “The military” or “The legal department” was not good enough. Musk would insist that they know the name of the actual person who made the requirement. “We would talk about how we were going to qualify an engine or certify a fuel tank, and he would ask, ‘Why do we have to do that?’ ” says Tim Buzza, a refugee from Boeing who would become SpaceX’s vice president of launch and testing. “And we would say, ‘There is a military specification that says it’s a requirement.’ And he’d reply, ‘Who wrote that? Why does it make sense?’ ” All requirements should be treated as recommendations, he repeatedly instructed. The only immutable ones were those decreed by the laws of physics.

When Mueller was working on the Merlin engines, he presented an aggressive schedule for completing one of the versions. It wasn’t aggressive enough for Musk. “How the fuck can it take so long?” he asked. “This is stupid. Cut it in half.”

Mueller balked. “You can’t just take a schedule that we already cut in half and then cut it in half again,” he said. Musk looked at him coldly and told him to stay behind after the meeting. When they were alone, he asked Mueller whether he wanted to remain in charge of engines. When Mueller said he did, Musk replied, “Then when I ask for something, you fucking give it to me.”

Mueller agreed and arbitrarily cut the schedule in half. “And guess what?” he says. “We ended up developing it in about the time that we had put in that original schedule.” Sometimes Musk’s insane schedules produced the impossible, sometimes they didn’t. “I learned never to tell him no,” Mueller says. “Just say you’re going to try, then later explain why if it doesn’t work out.”

[…]

The sense of urgency was good for its own sake. It made his engineers engage in first-principles thinking. But as Mueller points out, it was also corrosive. “If you set an aggressive schedule that people think they might be able to make, they will try to put out extra effort,” he says. “But if you give them a schedule that’s physically impossible, engineers aren’t stupid. You’ve demoralized them. It’s Elon’s biggest weakness.”

Steve Jobs did something similar. His colleagues called it his reality-distortion field. He set unrealistic deadlines, and when people balked, he would stare at them without blinking and say, “Don’t be afraid, you can do it.” Although the practice demoralized people, they ended up accomplishing things that other companies couldn’t. “Even though we failed to meet most schedules or cost targets that Elon laid out, we still beat all of our peers,” Mueller admits. “We developed the lowest-cost, most awesome rockets in history, and we would end up feeling pretty good about it, even if Dad wasn’t always happy with us.”

It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst

Saturday, February 17th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon was a writer manqué, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), penning around sixty essays, novellas, philosophical pieces, histories, treatises, pamphlets and open letters before the age of twenty-six:

In early May 1786, aged sixteen, Napoleon wrote a two-page essay entitled ‘On Suicide’ which mixed the anguished cry of a romantic nationalist with an exercise in classical oratory. ‘Always alone and in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy,’ he wrote. ‘In which direction are my thoughts turned today? Toward death.’

[…]

A few days after the successful conclusion of the shell-testing project, Napoleon wrote the first paragraph of his ‘Dissertation sur l’Autorité Royale’, which argued that military rule was a better system of government than tyranny and concluded, unambiguously: ‘There are very few kings who would not deserve to be dethroned.’

[…]

Luckily, just as he was about to send his ‘Dissertation’ to a publisher, the news arrived that Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Louis XVI’s finance minister, to whom the essay was dedicated, had been dismissed. Napoleon quickly rescinded publication.

His writing mania extended to drafting the regulations for his officers’ mess, which he somehow turned into a 4,500-word document full of literary orotundities such as: ‘Night can hold no gloom for he who overlooks nothing that might in any way compromise his rank or his uniform. The penetrating eyes of the eagle and the hundred heads of Argus would barely suffice to fulfil the obligations and duties of his mandate.’

In January 1789 he wrote a Romantic melodrama, ‘The Earl of Essex: An English Story’, not his finest literary endeavour. ‘The fingers of the Countess sank into gaping wounds,’ begins one paragraph. ‘Her fingers dripped with blood. She cried out, hid her face, but looking up again could see nothing. Terrified, trembling, aghast, cut to the very quick by these terrible forebodings, the Countess got into a carriage and arrived at the Tower.’ The story includes assassination plots, love, murder, premonitions, and the overthrow of King James II.

Continuing in this melodramatic style, in March 1789 Napoleon wrote a two-page short story called ‘The Mask of the Prophet’, about a handsome and charismatic Arab soldier-prophet, Hakem, who has to wear a silver mask because he has been disfigured by illness. Having fallen out with the local prince, Mahadi, Hakem has his disciples dig lime-filled pits, supposedly for their enemies, but he poisons his own followers, throws their bodies into the pits and finally immolates himself. It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst.

Dispersing energy on impact rather than shattering

Friday, February 16th, 2024

The Army has officially started fielding its newest combat helmet, the Next-Generation Integrated Head Protection System:

According to service officials, the NG-IHPS will provide soldiers with “increased ballistic and fragmentation protection” in a 40% lighter package compared to the earlier Integrated Head Protection System, which was first fielded in 2018 to replace the Advanced Combat Helmet and Enhanced Combat Helmet.

The first NG-IHPS units were fielded to around 2,000 soldiers assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, on Monday, the service said.

[…]

Speaking to Army Times, Head Protection Team lead engineer Alex de Groot attributed enhanced protection of the NG-IHPS to the use of lightweight polyethylene instead of rigid and inflexible Kevlar material in the helmet’s construction, with the former dispersing energy on impact rather than shattering like the latter.

Garand Thumb took a look:

It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights

Thursday, February 15th, 2024

In Europe and Asia, many cars offer adaptive driving beam headlights that can bath the road ahead in bright light without ever blinding other drivers:

ADB is a lighting technology that has been available for many years in other parts of the world including Europe, China and Canada, but not in the United States.

It can actually shape the light coming from headlights rather than scattering it all over the road. If there’s a car coming in the other direction, or one driving ahead in the same lane, the light stays precisely away from that vehicle. The rest of the road is still covered in bright light with just a pocket of dimmer light around the other vehicles. This way a deer, pedestrian or bicyclist by the side of the road can still be seen clearly while other drivers sharing the road can see, too.

In America, the closest we can get to that today are automatic high beams, a feature available on many new cars that automatically flicks off the high beams if another vehicle is detected ahead. But that still means driving much — or most — of the time using only low beam headlights that don’t reach very far. That can be dangerous.

US auto safety regulations enacted in 2022 were supposed to finally allow ADB headlight, something for which the auto industry and safety groups had long been asking for. But, according to automakers and safety advocates, the new rules make it difficult for automakers to add the feature. That means it will probably be years before ADB headlights are widely available in the US.

ADB-enabled headlights already are sold on some luxury cars in America. They just lack the software to perform the way they were designed to. Some American Mercedes drivers can enjoy a dazzling light display as they start up or shut off their cars at night. Moving streaks of light wash across the pavement or walls in front of the car like a glittering snowstorm. But, while driving, the lights work just like standard high beam, low beam headlights. Their adaptive capabilities aren’t enabled here because they still don’t meet US rules.

Some ADB headlights work like digital projectors, using a million or more LED pixels to project light patterns on the road. Even in the US, some Mercedes vehicles can project symbols like arrows or lines on the road to guide drivers. Less expensive systems in Europe and Asia use several thousand or even fewer light emitters, reflectors or shutter systems to create adaptive beams,

Until two years ago, US auto safety regulations, written for traditional headlights, simply didn’t allow for adaptive headlight technology at all. Light beams wrapping around other vehicles just wasn’t something the regulations could encompass so the technology wasn’t allowed here by default.

That changed in early 2022 when, after a decade of work on it, America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized regulations for adaptive beam headlights. But because the US regulations are so different from those in other countries, with requirements so difficult to meet, automakers still can’t offer it here. It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights that meet the standards, auto industry sources say.

[…]

NHTSA’s rules require the ADB headlights to respond extremely swiftly after detecting another vehicle within reach of the lights, much faster than other standards require in the EU and Canada. Also much faster than a human could switch off an ordinary high beam headlight. They also dictate extreme narrow lines between bright and dark regions.

Valentine’s Day is an odd holiday

Wednesday, February 14th, 2024

As I’ve noted before, Valentine’s Day is an odd holiday. Saint Valentine is the name of fourteen different martyred saints — and the one whose feast falls on February 14? We don’t know anything about him, beyond his name, except that he was born on April 16 and died on February 14. And he was removed from the Catholic calendar of saints in 1969.

In fact, it doesn’t look like Saint Valentine was associated with romantic love at all until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Parliament of Fowls in 1382 in honor of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia:

For this was Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

And that reference probably was not to February 14 — mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England — and Chaucer appears to be making up a fictional tradition that never existed.

The notion caught on though, and we see it mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Donne’s Epithalamion a couple hundred years later.

Around that time Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene gave us a rhyme that should sound familiar:

She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

It inspired the modern cliche Valentine’s Day poem, which appeared in Gammer Gurton’s Garland in 1784:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.

Rather than developing smaller, smarter weapons, the Air Force decided it wanted a bigger aircraft

Tuesday, February 13th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingThe Hellfire is not an ideal fit for the Predator, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), which struggles to carry two of them:

Rather than developing smaller, smarter weapons, the Air Force decided it wanted a bigger aircraft. General Atomics anticipated this and the company funded development of “Predator B.”

[…]

When it went into service in Afghanistan in 2007, the Predator B was renamed the “MQ-9B Hunter-Killer” or “Reaper.”

[…]

It is four times as heavy; the turboprop engine is six times as powerful and doubles to speed to around 200 mph.

[….]

A Reaper can carry fourteen Hellfire missiles, or four missiles and a pair of laser-guided 500-pound bombs.

[…]

The flyaway price for Reaper is around $14 million for the basic model, or $20 million with all the trimmings, compared to $4 million for a Predator.

[…]

So instead of a cheap, ultra-long endurance, expendable drone, the Reaper resembles a manned aircraft. Predator operator Matt Martin describes the Reaper as “a longer-duration, lightly-armed (and much less survivable) version of the F-16.” Without the duration and price advantages, the Reaper comes perilously close to being in competition with the manned jets. As we have seen, this is often a fatal situation for a drone in the Air Force.

First-generation biofuel operations use food crops like corn, soy, and sugarcane as raw materials, or feedstocks

Monday, February 12th, 2024

Introducing a simple, renewable chemical to the pretreatment step can finally make biofuel production both cost-effective and carbon neutral:

Lignin is one of the main components of plant cell walls. It provides plants with greater structural integrity and resiliency from microbial attacks. However, these natural properties of lignin also make it difficult to extract and utilize from the plant matter, also known as biomass.

[…]

To overcome the lignin hurdle, [UC Riverside Associate Research Professor Charles] Cai invented CELF, which stands for co-solvent enhanced lignocellulosic fractionation. It is an innovative biomass pretreatment technology.

“CELF uses tetrahydrofuran or THF to supplement water and dilute acid during biomass pretreatment. It improves overall efficiency and adds lignin extraction capabilities,” Cai said. “Best of all, THF itself can be made from biomass sugars.”

[…]

First-generation biofuel operations use food crops like corn, soy, and sugarcane as raw materials, or feedstocks. Because these feedstocks divert land and water away from food production, using them for biofuels is not ideal.

Second-generation operations use non-edible plant biomass as feedstocks. An example of biomass feedstocks includes wood residues from milling operations, sugarcane bagasse, or corn stover, all of which are abundant low-cost byproducts of forestry and agricultural operations.

According to the Department of Energy, up to a billion tons per year of biomass could be made available for the manufacture of biofuels and bioproducts in the US alone, capable of displacing 30% of our petroleum consumption while also creating new domestic jobs.

Because a CELF biorefinery can more fully utilize plant matter than earlier second-generation methods, the researchers found that a heavier, denser feedstock like hardwood poplar is preferable over less carbon-dense corn stover for yielding greater economic and environmental benefits.

Using poplar in a CELF biorefinery, the researchers demonstrate that sustainable aviation fuel could be made at a break-even price as low as $3.15 per gallon of gasoline equivalent. The current average cost for a gallon of jet fuel in the U.S. is $5.96.

After a few years, SpaceX was making in-house 70 percent of the components of its rockets.

Sunday, February 11th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk was laser-focused on costs, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

He challenged the prices that aerospace suppliers charged for components, which were usually ten times higher than similar parts in the auto industry.

His focus on cost, as well as his natural controlling instincts, led him to want to manufacture as many components as possible in-house, rather than buy them from suppliers, which was then the standard practice in the rocket and car industries. At one point SpaceX needed a valve, Mueller recalls, and the supplier said it would cost $ 250,000. Musk declared that insane and told Mueller they should make it themselves. They were able to do so in months at a fraction of the cost. Another supplier quoted a price of $ 120,000 for an actuator that would swivel the nozzle of the upper-stage engines. Musk declared it was not more complicated than a garage door opener, and he told one of his engineers to make it for $ 5,000. Jeremy Hollman, one of the young engineers working for Mueller, discovered that a valve that was used to mix liquids in a car wash system could be modified to work with rocket fuel.

After a supplier delivered some aluminum domes that go on top of the fuel tanks, it jacked up the price for the next batch. “It was like a painter who paints half your house for one price, then wants three times that for the rest,” says Mark Juncosa, who became Musk’s closest colleague at SpaceX. “That didn’t make Elon too enthusiastic.” Musk referred to it as “going Russian” on him, as the rocket hucksters in Moscow had done. “Let’s go do this ourselves,” he told Juncosa. So a new part of the assembly facility was added to build domes. After a few years, SpaceX was making in-house 70 percent of the components of its rockets.

He had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism

Saturday, February 10th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsBy the time Napoleon had spent five years at Brienne and one at the École Militaire, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), he was thoroughly imbued with the military ethos:

His acceptance of the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, rational government, meritocracy, efficiency and aggressive nationalism fit in well with this ethos but he had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism, all of which, to his mind, did not. Napoleon’s upbringing imbued him with a reverence for social hierarchy, law and order, and a strong belief in reward for merit and courage, but also a dislike of politicians, lawyers, journalists and Britain.

As Claude-François de Méneval, the private secretary who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, was later to write, Napoleon left school with ‘pride, and a sentiment of dignity, a warlike instinct, a genius for form, a love of order and of discipline’. These were all part of the officer’s code, and made him into a profound social conservative. As an army officer, Napoleon believed in centralized control within a recognized hierarchical chain of command and the importance of maintaining high morale. Order in matters of administration and education was vital. He had a deep, instinctive distaste for anything which looked like a mutinous canaille (mob). None of these feelings was to change much during the French Revolution, or, indeed, for the rest of his life.