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.

The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows

Friday, February 9th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonKay S. Hymowitz reviews Rob Henderson’s Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:

In Rob Henderson’s first recounted memory in his new memoir, Troubled, he is three years old, screaming in terror and clinging to his mother as two policemen wrestle handcuffs onto her wrists. He had no idea why this was happening, of course; the scuffle likely had something to do with his mother’s incorrigible drug addiction. A Korean-born college dropout, she relied on prostitution to support her habit. When she and Rob weren’t living in a car, she would tie him to a chair in the apartment to attend to her customers. Her other two boys, Rob’s brothers, had different fathers; Rob would never know them or learn what became of them.


His life took a turn for the better when, lacking alternatives, he enlisted in the Air Force. Conventional wisdom has it that boys like Rob learn self-discipline and responsibility from military life, but Henderson has a different take. The military didn’t “transform” him, he argued — it merely stopped him from becoming a self-destructive basket case. Most kids with his background are not so lucky.


Later, he was accepted at Yale University. For all elite universities’ problems — Henderson spotted them quickly — Yale was rocket fuel for his under-exercised brain. Henderson sounded like the kind of student that professors pray for but rarely see: mature, mindful, and hungry for knowledge. He didn’t just “do the reading;” he tested the ideas he encountered against own experiences and observations.

Class by Paul Fussell

Henderson’s restless mind had been particularly stimulated by a 1983 book called Class: A Guide Through America’s Status System by the iconoclastic historian-critic Paul Fussell. Class opens Henderson’s eyes to the distance between forlorn places like Red Bluff and the towns of his Yale classmates’ upper middle-class upbringings. He noticed more than the obvious markers of privilege, like the students in $900 Canadian Goose jackets who strode around campus; he discovered the more subtle ways people like him were kept from moving up. Voguish words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender,” for instance, signaled that the speaker was a member of the educated class. Fussell had remarked that upper-class people often name their pets after literary or historical figures to flaunt their education. Sure enough, one of the first Yalies Henderson met had a pet cat named “Learned Claw,” a play on the name of jurist Learned Hand.

Henderson became fascinated by “class divides and social hierarchies,” adding Pierre Bourdeau, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen to his reading list. His primary source, however, was Yale itself. In Red Bluff, hardly anyone went to college or even aspired to go; at Yale, he watched The Sopranos and was struck by Carmella’s dedication to getting daughter Meadow into Columbia. College, he realized, was the most powerful class signifier of all.

Troubled’s penultimate chapter, which might be subtitled “What I Learned at Yale,” is a tour de force that in a more rational world would be required reading for all incoming college students at elite schools. In it, Henderson developed his now widely cited concept of “luxury beliefs.” Yale students, appearing aware of their own advantages and compassionate to the downtrodden, would proudly repeat ideas that the boy from Red Bluff knew would harm the marginalized. Many of the parents of his childhood friends were drug addicts, yet his college peers cheered on drug liberalization, for example. And why not? It seemed enlightened and cost people like them nothing.

For Henderson, the most painful luxury beliefs were those that undermined families and the childhood stability he had so desperately craved. “Monogamy is kind of outdated,” a Yale graduate announced. She admitted that she had grown up with both parents and hoped someday to marry — monogamously, of course. In such people’s minds, to acknowledge the benefits of two-parent families and the stability that they are more likely to confer is to be insensitive to less fortunate families with different family structures. This attitude gets things backward, Henderson writes: “It’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision—like young children.” Luxury believers pay no price for ignoring the harms they endorse. In fact, it’s the opposite — they gain social currency at places like Yale. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” Henderson said.

It will not be feasible to match China fighter for fighter and missile for missile

Thursday, February 8th, 2024

During a July 2023 wargame, the Mitchell Institute tasked experienced operators, technologists, and engineers from the Air Force and defense industry to assess how a mix of uncrewed CCA (collaborative combat aircraft) and crewed combat aircraft could achieve air superiority over a peer aggressor (China):

One of the most important insights is the potential to use CCA as lead forces to help disrupt and suppress China’s advanced integrated air defense system (IADS), improve the lethality and survivability of the Air Force’s counterair forces, and magnify the service’s capacity to project combat mass into highly contested battlespaces. Experts agreed it will not be feasible to match China fighter for fighter and missile for missile in today’s battlespace, given the Air Force’s fighter force is now less than half the size it was in 1991. Accordingly, all three wargame teams proposed CONOPS that initially used CCA at scale to disrupt China’s IADS and level the playing field against the PLAAF.


All three wargame teams also chose to use a mix of CCA variants designed as airborne sensors, decoys, jammers, or weapon launchers to disrupt and stimulate the PLA’s IADS, locate its critical nodes, and begin to attrit threats to support crewed aircraft operations. Dispersing these functions across a mix of CCA would improve the Air Force’s operational resiliency and increase the number of airborne targets an adversary’s forces must attack. By design, lower-cost CCA may lack the mission systems and full functionalities of 5th generation fighters. However, an adversary has no reliable way of differentiating between how CCA are equipped and must address them all as threats. The key is understanding that CCA — in the same way remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) sensor-shooters pioneered a new way of conducting precision strikes — will be more than intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) information gatherers.

Another insight is that CCA could increase the Air Force’s capacity to generate lethal mass for counterair operations. Appropriately equipped CCA can perform as force multipliers that increase the number of sensors and weapons the Air Force can project into contested battlespaces. CCA could also extend the sensor and weapon ranges of stealthy crewed aircraft they team with, increasing their lethality and survivability. This will require designing CCA with enough survivability to ensure they can reach their air-to-air weapons launch points in contested environments. Using CCA to reduce attrition of Air Force fighters and their crews would also have a major force multiplying effect over the course of a campaign — a key consideration given that DOD-mandated force cuts over the last 30 years caused the Air Force to divest its combat attrition reserves.


CCA could multiply the Air Force’s diminished combat inventory in another way: by enabling some of its non-stealthy combat aircraft to engage in the fight for air superiority in highly contested environments. For instance, notional CCA designs available to Mitchell Institute’s wargame experts included a long-range, air-launched design that carried two air-to-air weapons or four 250-pound class Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs). The experts used 4th generation F-15EXs and B-52 bombers operating outside the range of China’s IADS to launch these counterair CCA into contested area

Experts participating in Mitchell’s wargame also preferred to use a mix of lower-cost CCA they classified as expendable systems and more capable, moderate-cost CCA that can be recovered and regenerated for additional sorties or attritted if mission needs require in highly contested battlespaces. Experts chose to use expendable CCA in significant numbers during the first few days of their campaigns as airborne decoys, jammers, active emitters, and other ways that risked their loss in highly contested environments. And since these notional CCA could be ground-launched by rockets without the need to use runways, wargame experts chose to pre-position them at dispersed locations in the Philippines and Ryukyu Islands to improve the resiliency of the Air Force’s combat sortie generation operations. As their campaigns progressed, experts shifted toward using a larger number of moderate-cost recoverable/attritable CCA that carried larger payloads of weapons and could return to their forward operating locations to regenerate for additional sorties.

Finally, wargame experts suggested there is a need to develop concepts for operating CCA with other uncrewed aerial vehicles for counterair missions rather than solely using them as adjuncts for crewed aircraft. Of note, operating CCA in this way would require providing them with more advanced autonomy and other technologies that add to their cost.

It is a perfect target for digital destruction

Wednesday, February 7th, 2024

Burn Book by Kara SwisherKara Swisher was a reporter at the Washington Post in the early 1990s, where, at age 30, she was the “young” person in the newsroom, so she had to cover digital media:

During that period, I made one prediction that started coming true much more quickly than even I expected. This was about the end of old media, starting with the destruction of one of its most important economic pillars: the classified ads in newspapers.

In 1995, a quirky programmer in San Francisco named Craig Newmark started emailing friends a list of local events, job opportunities, and things for sale. The next year, he turned Craigslist into a web-based service and eventually started expanding it all over the country and the world.

It was clear this list was a giant killer, and I told everyone who would listen to me at the Post that we needed to put all the money, all the people, and all the incentives into digital. I insisted that the bosses had to make readers feel like digital was the most important thing. But the bosses never did because the business they knew was the physical paper. I relayed my worries about the turtle pace of digital change many times to the Washington Post Company’s affable CEO, Don Graham, the son of legendary publisher and surprisingly entertaining badass Katharine Graham. Don Graham was inexplicably humble and even sheepish about his power. The very worst thing that Graham — always apologetic for having interrupted me, as I strafed big retail advertisers in my stories about the sector’s decline locally — would say to me was “Ouch.” Then he would saunter away from my desk with a jaunty wave. And while Graham was interested when I talked about what Newmark was doing, he laughed when I told him that Craigslist would wipe out his classifieds business.

“You charge too much, the customer service sucks, it’s static, and most of all, it doesn’t work,” I lectured him about this business, which was crucial to his bottom line. “It will disappear as an analog product, since it is a perfect target for digital destruction. You’re going to die by the cell and not even know it until it’s over and you’re dead on the ground.”

Don smiled at me with a kindness I certainly did not deserve at that moment. “Ouch,” he said.

The Post, of course, is now owned by a tech mogul, Jeff Bezos, and other Silicon Valley machers have taken over or invested heavily in legacy media, but they have not prevented its relentless decline, or the hemorrhaging of thousands of jobs from the industry in just the past few years, as the digital world has both sucked up and diminished print business models.

More missiles have been fired at known SIM cards than at recognized individuals

Tuesday, February 6th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingInsurgents may be tracked and targeted by their mobile phones, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers):

It has been suggested that more missiles have been fired at known SIM cards than at recognized individuals. In recent years agents in the field have marked targets for drone strikes with miniature radio beacons. A mobile phone left under a seat can perform the same function. The Taliban in Afghanistan have executed alleged spies who left electronic devices concealed in empty cigarette packets. Taliban commanders now know to leave their vehicles guarded at all times to prevent tracking devices from being attached.


Other types of tagging are passive. One approach is to shower the target with a fine dust of “quantum dots”, tiny specks of semiconducting crystal. These are invisible to the naked eye but can be detected from long range with the aid of an infrared laser illuminator. Different batches of dots can be given specific codes, so a tagged individual or vehicle can be identified days later from long range.

Other tagging technologies include dyes and inks visible only through special viewers. One DARPA document even suggested that an additive could be introduced to the target’s shampoo so they could be identified and tracked. It is not clear whether this idea was ever developed.

We can read the scrolls

Monday, February 5th, 2024

Vesuvius ChallengeOn March 15th, 2023, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, and Brent Seales launched the Vesuvius Challenge, and now they are announcing the Grand Prize winners:

Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption buried an ancient library of papyrus scrolls now known as the Herculaneum Papyri.

In the 18th century the scrolls were discovered. More than 800 of them are now stored in a library in Naples, Italy; these lumps of carbonized ash cannot be opened without severely damaging them. But how can we read them if they remain rolled up?


Scrolls from the Institut de France were imaged at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator near Oxford. We released these high-resolution CT scans of the scrolls, and we offered more than $1M in prizes, put forward by many generous donors.


Our team of eminent papyrologists worked day and night to review 15 columns of text in anonymized submissions, while the technical team audited and reproduced the submitted code and methods.

There was one submission that stood out clearly from the rest. Working independently, each member of our team of papyrologists recovered more text from this submission than any other. Remarkably, the entry achieved the criteria we set when announcing the Vesuvius Challenge in March: 4 passages of 140 characters each, with at least 85% of characters recoverable. This was not a given: most of us on the organizing team assigned a less than 30% probability of success when we announced these criteria! And in addition, the submission includes another 11 (!) columns of text — more than 2000 characters total.

The results of this review were clear and unanimous: the Vesuvius Challenge Grand Prize of $700,000 is awarded to a team of three for their excellent submission. Congratulations to Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schilliger!


Scholars might call it a philosophical treatise. But it seems familiar to us, and we can’t escape the feeling that the first text we’ve uncovered is a 2000-year-old blog post about how to enjoy life.

Maybe fire forces growth, and stabbing them only stuns them

Monday, February 5th, 2024

Back in August, 1979, issue #29 of Dragon magazine included a game called The Awful Green Things From Outer Space. I never played it, so I didn’t realize it included this interesting game mechanic:

Scattered around the ship are various weapons. However, alien physiology is weird. Maybe fire forces growth, and stabbing them only stuns them.

At the start of each game, the Weapons Display is empty, but the first time a weapon is used, a token is drawn to determine its effect on the aliens for the remainder of the game.

This is a silly sci-fi game, but a similar concept was used by the Naval War College in the years before World War 2, so officers could learn how to learn to fight the expected war against the Japanese:

Naval War College students certainly wanted to win their big “capstone” wargame at the end of their school year. As students have always done, they asked those who graduated before them for advice, or in the vernacular of the US military, “gouge.” Graduates were happy to provide advice: “Try to engage the Japanese at night, they are blind; watch out for their torpedoes though, they are killers; fortunately, though, their ships sink like rocks after the lightest of battering.” However, when they talked to someone who graduated in a different year, they learned “Avoid night engagements, the Japs are incredible; and their ships are so rugged they can really close in and slug it out; at least you don’t have to worry about their tinker toy torpedoes.” Slowly it dawned on the students — the faculty was giving the Japanese different strengths and weaknesses in each wargame!

Rockets had an extremely high idiot index

Sunday, February 4th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson“I was pretty mad,” Elon Musk said about his failed attempt to buy Russian rockets, “and when I get mad I try to reframe the problem.” Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon) how Musk employed first-principles thinking:

This led him to develop what he called an “idiot index,” which calculated how much more costly a finished product was than the cost of its basic materials. If a product had a high idiot index, its cost could be reduced significantly by devising more efficient manufacturing techniques.

Rockets had an extremely high idiot index. Musk began calculating the cost of carbon fiber, metal, fuel, and other materials that went into them. The finished product, using the current manufacturing methods, cost at least fifty times more than that.


So on the flight home, he pulled out his computer and started making spreadsheets that detailed all of the materials and costs for building a midsize rocket.


“Hey, guys,” he said, showing them the spreadsheet, “I think we can build this rocket ourselves.” When Cantrell looked at the numbers, he said to himself, “I’ll be damned — that’s why he’s been borrowing all my books.”

He was the first Corsican to attend the École Royale Militaire

Saturday, February 3rd, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts Napoleon’s education in France made him French, Andrew Roberts explains (in his biography of the Emperor of the French):

His bursary grant (the equivalent of a curate’s stipend) was dated December 31, 1778, and he started at the ecclesiastical seminary run by the bishop of Autun the next day. He wasn’t to see Corsica again for almost eight years. His name appeared in the school registry as ‘M. Neapoleonne de Bonnaparte’. His headmaster, the Abbé Chardon, recalled him as ‘a thoughtful and gloomy character. He had no playmate and walked about by himself … He had ability and learned quickly … If I scolded him, he answered in a cold, almost imperious tone: “Sir, I know it.” It took Chardon only three months to teach this intelligent and determined lad, with a will to learn, to speak and read French, and even to write short passages.

Having mastered the requisite French at Autun, in April 1779, four months shy of his tenth birthday, Napoleon was admitted to the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Château, near Troyes in the Champagne region. His father left the next day, and as there were no school holidays they were not to see each other again for three years. Napoleon was taught by the Minim order of Franciscan friars as one of fifty royal scholars among 110 pupils. Despite being a military academy, Brienne was administered by the monks, although the martial side of studies were conducted by outside instructors. Conditions were spartan: students had a straw mattress and one blanket each, though they weren’t beaten.


His eight hours of study a day included mathematics, Latin, history, French, German, geography, physics, fortifications, weaponry, fencing, dancing and music (the last three an indication that Brienne was also in part a finishing school for the noblesse). Physically tough and intellectually demanding, the school turned out a number of very distinguished generals besides Napoleon, including Louis-Nicolas Davout, Étienne Nansouty, Antoine Phélippeaux and Jean-Joseph d’Hautpoul. Charles Pichegru, the future conqueror of Holland and royalist plotter, was one of the school’s instructors.

Napoleon excelled at mathematics. ‘To be a good general you must know mathematics,’ he later observed, ‘it serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances.’ He was helped by his prodigious memory. ‘A singular thing about me is my memory,’ he once boasted. ‘As a boy I knew the logarithms of thirty or forty numbers.’ Napoleon was given permission to take maths classes earlier than the prescribed age of twelve, and soon mastered geometry, algebra and trigonometry. His weakest subject was German, which he never mastered; another weak subject, surprisingly for someone who so adored ancient history, was Latin. (He was fortunate not to be examined in Latin until after 1780, by which time it was clear that he would be going into the army or navy and not the Church.) Napoleon also excelled at geography. On the very last page of his school exercise book, following a long list of British imperial possessions, he noted: ‘Sainte-Hélène: petite île.’


Napoleon borrowed many biographies and history books from the school library, devouring Plutarch’s tales of heroism, patriotism and republican virtue. He also read Caesar, Cicero, Voltaire, Diderot and the Abbé Raynal, as well as Erasmus, Eutropius, Livy, Phaedrus, Sallust, Virgil and the first century BC Cornelius Nepos’ Lives of the Great Captains, which included chapters on Themistocles, Lysander, Alcibiades and Hannibal. One of his school nicknames — ‘the Spartan’ — might have been accorded him because of his pronounced admiration for that city-state rather than for any asceticism of character. He could recite in French whole passages from Virgil, and in class he naturally took the side of his hero Caesar against Pompey.


A contemporary recalled Napoleon withdrawing to the school library to read Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian (‘with great delight’) and Quintus Curtius Rufus (for which he had ‘little taste’).


In 1781, Napoleon received an outstanding school report from the Chevalier de Kéralio, the under-inspector of military schools who, two years later, recommended him for the prestigious École Militaire in Paris with the words, ‘Excellent health, docile expression, mild, straightforward, thoughtful. Conduct most satisfactory; has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics … This boy would make an excellent sailor.’ His clear intellectual superiority is unlikely to have helped his popularity with his classmates, who nicknamed him La Paille-au-Nez (‘straw up the nose’), which rhymed with ‘Napoleone’ in Corsican. He was teased for not speaking refined French, for having a father who had had to certify to his nobility, for coming from a conquered nation, for having a relatively large head on a thin frame and for being poorer than most of his school contemporaries. ‘I was the poorest of my classmates,’ he told a courtier in 1811, ‘they had pocket-money, I never had any. I was proud, I was careful not to show it … I didn’t know how to smile or play like the others.’ When he spoke in later life about his schooldays, he remembered individual teachers he had liked, but few fellow pupils.


Napoleon took his final exams at Brienne on September 15, 1784. He passed easily, and late the following month he entered the École Royale Militaire in Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. This was a far more socially elevated institution than Brienne. There were three changes of linen a week, good meals and more than twice as many servants, teachers and staff — including wigmakers — as students. There were also three chapel services a day, starting with 6 a.m. Mass. Although strangely the history of warfare and strategy weren’t taught, the syllabus covered much the same subjects as at Brienne, as well as musketry, military drills and horsemanship. It was in fact one of the best riding schools in Europe.


Of the 202 candidates from all of France’s military schools in 1784, a total of 136 passed their final exams and only 14 of these were invited to enter the artillery, so Napoleon had been selected for an elite group. He was the first Corsican to attend the École Royale Militaire,


Napoleon took classes from the distinguished trio of Louis Monge (brother of the mathematician-chemist Gaspard), the Marquis de Laplace, who later became Napoleon’s interior minister, and Louis Domairon, who taught him the value of ‘haranguing’ troops before battles. (Shorn of its English meaning, which implies a prolonged rant, a French harangue could mean an inspiring speech, such as Shakespeare puts in Henry V’s mouth or Thucydides in the mouth of Pericles, a skill at which Napoleon was to excel on the battlefield, but not always in public assemblies.) At the École, Napoleon encountered the new thinking in French artillery practice introduced by Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval after the Seven Years War. (Defeat had been, as it is so often in history, the mother of reform.) He also studied General Comte Jacques de Guibert’s revolutionary Essai général de tactique (1770): ‘The standing armies, a burden on the people, are inadequate for the achievement of great and decisive results in war, and meanwhile the mass of the people, untrained in arms, degenerates … The hegemony over Europe will fall to that nation which becomes possessed of manly virtues and creates a national army.’ Guibert preached the importance of speed, surprise and mobility in warfare, and of abandoning large supply depots in walled cities in favour of living off the land. Another of Guibert’s principles was that high morale — esprit de corps — could overcome most problems.


He took his final examinations early, coming forty-second out of fifty-eight candidates — not so poor a result as it may seem given that he sat the exams after only one year rather than the normal two or three. He could now dedicate himself to his military career, and to the serious financial problems Carlo had left. Napoleon later admitted that these ‘influenced my state of mind and made me grave before my time’.


At sixteen he was one of the youngest officers, and the only Corsican to hold an artillery commission in the French army. Napoleon always recalled his years at Valence as impecunious — his room had only a bed, table and armchair — and sometimes he had to skip meals in order to afford books, which he continued to read with the same voracious appetite as before.


By late May 1788 Napoleon was stationed at the School of Artillery at Auxonne in eastern France, not far from Dijon. Here, as when he was stationed with his regiment at Valence, he ate only once a day, at 3 p.m., thereby saving enough money from his officer’s salary to send some home to his mother; the rest he spent on books. He changed his clothes once every eight days. He was determined to continue his exhaustive autodidactic reading programme and his voluminous notebooks from Auxonne are full of the history, geography, religion and customs of all the most prominent peoples of the ancient world, including the Athenians, Spartans, Persians, Egyptians and Carthaginians. They cover modern artillery improvements and regimental discipline, but also mention Plato’s Republic, Achilles and (inevitably) Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Four nuclear-powered merchant ships have been built so far

Friday, February 2nd, 2024

Today, 200 nuclear reactors are operating on 160 vessels, mostly naval ships and submarines, but soon they could run on cargo ships, too:

Four nuclear-powered merchant ships have been built so far, all of them government-led projects begun mostly for developmental and testing reasons rather than purely commercial ones. The first was the American NS Savannah, built in the late 1950s at a cost of $46.9 million (an eye-popping $495 million today). It was in service from 1962 to 1972, but its pressurized light-water reactor (LWR) proved too complex and expensive for the ship to operate profitably. The Russian cargo vessel Sevmorput, commissioned in 1988, is the only nuclear-powered merchant ship still in operation as of early 2024. The other two ships, the Japanese Mutsu (1970) and the German Otto Hahn (1968), were both refitted with diesel engines partway through their service lives.

Nuclear power has been more successfully applied on submarines and ice-breaking vessels. The very first nuclear-powered vessel was the attack submarine USS Nautilus, in 1954, amid the 1950s heyday of nuclear-power research. Hundreds of nuclear reactors have since been used on ships and submarines. Russia currently operates seven nuclear-powered icebreakers.


“Engines in ordinary ships are the size of houses,” says Emblemsvåg, who is leading NuProShip. And a great deal of space is taken up by fuel: “A container vessel going from Amsterdam to Shanghai requires roughly 4,000 tonnes of fuel.”

An SMR would be much more compact and lightweight. According to Emblemsvåg, a molten-salt reactor — which uses a mixture of thorium and hot liquid salts as both fuel and coolant — would also save about $70 million over the lifetime of a ship, compared with a similar vessel powered by engines that burn diesel fuel (or, more precisely, heavy fuel oil). Another plus for nuclear-propelled ships is easy access to an endless supply of cooling water.


For ship propulsion, engineers have used pressurized-water reactors because they can produce higher power for a given mass compared with the other kind of light-water reactor, the boiling-water reactor. However, the technology comes with major challenges. They depend on complex control systems that need a technically trained operating crew, and they run on solid fuel rods that need to be replaced every 18 months. There’s also a risk, however slight, that the pressure vessel could explode.

Fourth-generation SMRs avoid all that. Emblemsvåg and the NuProShip team picked three reactor designs after analyzing 93 concepts in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s SMR handbook. One is a thorium-fueled molten-salt reactor. The second is a lead-cooled fast reactor, which replaces the water coolant of traditional reactors with molten lead. The third option, likely closest to market, is a helium gas-cooled reactor that uses a type of fuel called tristructural isotropic (TRISO), consisting of uranium particles encased in ultratough carbide and carbon layers that can handle temperatures above 2,000 °C.

Why are so many NFL quarterbacks blue-eyed?

Thursday, February 1st, 2024

I knew that Steve Sailer had asked, “Why are so many NFL quarterbacks blue-eyed?” but I hadn’t looked into it, until Razib Khan linked to a 2014 piece:

Intrigued, I did a little research with the help of Google and, and it turns out that over 80% of Superbowls have been won by Quarterback with blue eyes, a ratio of over 4 to 1. What’s more, of the twenty-three modern era quarterbacks in the NFL Hall of Fame, twenty-one have light colored eyes. That is not a misprint. That is over 90%. If you were to include guaranteed first ballot HOFer’s Peyton Manning, Bret Favre and Tom Brady, it climbs to an astounding twenty four of twenty six. (In 2014, no quarterbacks were voted as HOF semifinalist; however, of the six quarterbacks eligible, only sky blue-eyed Phil Simms has won a Superbowl, setting a record for completion percentage in the game and winning the Superbowl MVP award).

Only two Hall of Fame quarterbacks have brown eyes, Warren Moon and Otto Graham. For any coach in the NFL (or vegas bookie), this should be a stunning revelation. According to a New York Times article by Douglas Belkin, blue eyes make up less than twenty percent of the people born in the U.S. today, about 1 in 6. Even when you concede the fact that racism played a large part in the earlier days of the NFL (and some would say even now), and therefore use only statics from the population of Caucasian Americans for comparison, blue eyes are still only found at a rate of approximately 34%, or 1 in 3. Only in Estonia and some Scandinavian countries does the percentage of blue eyes even approach that of the NFL Hall of Fame’s 90+%.


According to my wife, (a certified retinal angiographer who has worked with America’s top retinal surgeons), it is well known amongst eye surgeons and ophthalmologists that there are dramatic physiological differences between light and dark colored eyes. In fact, light eyes, or those with less melanin present, are at a greater risk for macular degeneration as well as reacting very differently to certain stimuli than dark colored eyes. For example, when given dilation drops before an exam or surgery, it is common knowledge that brown eyes require more medication, sometimes up to twice as much, take longer to dilate and stay dilated for a shorter period of time than their lighter colored counterparts. If eye color accounts for this diverse a reaction to a temporary medication like dilation drops, it stands to reason that they would react differently to other stimuli as well, like air temperature or perhaps even the bluish tint of the winter sun. This concept has largely been ignored by the athletic community.


If any other occupation required a similar visual skill as the NFL quarterback, the men often admiringly referred to as gunslingers, then perhaps actual sharp shooters, or what we might call a sniper today, is a good place to look for validation. As it turns out, it was once common knowledge that the best sharp shooters possessed light colored eyes. In a famous 1890 short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the author writes, “He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them.” In reality, it was so well known light colored eyes made for the best snipers that the Canadian military conducted tests in the late 1800’s on the very subject. They not only found lighter eyes seem to perform better as snipers, but certain colors can be seen at great distances better than others resulting in a change of their infantry’s uniform color from red to grey, the very first official camouflage and, what would suddenly appear to be a huge advantage for the Oakland Raiders. (Jim Plunkett finally comes into focus).