States are never more vulnerable than when they attempt to reform themselves

Sunday, March 31st, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts Alexis de Tocqueville would write that states are never more vulnerable than when they attempt to reform themselves, Andrew Roberts notes (in Napoleon: A Life), and that was certainly true of France in the autumn of 1795:

It was in the ‘Sections’, forty-eight districts of Paris established in 1790 which controlled local assemblies and the local National Guard units, that the insurrection was focused. Although only seven Sections actually rose in revolt, National Guardsmen from others joined in.


The Sections included middle-class National Guardsmen, royalists, some moderates and liberals, and ordinary Parisians who opposed the government for its corruption and domestic and international failures. The very disparate nature of the rebellion’s political make-up made any central co-ordination impossible beyond establishing a date for action, which couldn’t be kept secret from the government.


On the evening of Sunday, October 4, Napoleon was at the Feydeau Theatre watching Saurin’s play Beverley when he heard that the Sections intended to rise the following day. Very early the next morning — 13 Vendémiaire by the revolutionary calendar — Barras appointed him second-in-command of the Army of the Interior, and ordered him to use all means necessary to crush the revolt. Napoleon had impressed the most important decision-makers in his life — among them Kéralio, the du Teil brothers, Saliceti, Doppet, Dugommier, Augustin Robespierre and now Barras, who had heard of him from Saliceti after the victory at Toulon.


(He later recalled with amusement that the politician who had had least qualms about the spilling of blood at Vendémiaire had been the priest and political theorist Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès.)


From Napoleon’s reactions to the two Tuileries attacks he had witnessed in 1792, there was no doubt what he would do.

This was Napoleon’s first introduction to frontline, high-level national politics, and he found it intoxicating. He ordered Captain Joachim Murat of the 21st Chasseurs à Cheval to gallop to the Sablons military camp two miles away with one hundred cavalrymen, secure the cannon there and bring them into central Paris, and to sabre anyone who tried to prevent him. The Sections had missed a great opportunity as the Sablons cannon were at that point guarded by only fifty men.


He then spent three hours visiting each of his guns in turn. ‘Good and upstanding people must be persuaded by gentle means,’ Napoleon would later write. ‘The rabble must be moved by terror.’

Napoleon prepared to use grapeshot, the colloquial term for canister or case shot, which consists of hundreds of musket balls packed into a metal case that rips open as soon as it leaves the cannon’s muzzle, sending the lead balls flying in a relatively wide arc at an even greater velocity than the 1,760 feet per second of a musket shot. Its maximum range was roughly 600 yards, optimum 250.


‘If you treat the mob with kindness,’ he told Joseph later, ‘these creatures fancy themselves invulnerable; if you hang a few, they get tired of the game, and become as submissive and humble as they ought to be.’

Napoleon’s force consisted of 4,500 troops and about 1,500 ‘patriots’, gendarmes and veterans from Les Invalides. Opposing them was a disparate force of up to 30,000 men from the Sections, nominally under the control of General Dancian, who wasted much of the day trying to conduct negotiations. Only at 4 p.m. did the rebel columns start issuing from side streets to the north of the Tuileries. Napoleon did not open fire immediately, but as soon as the first musket shots were heard from the Sections sometime between 4.15 p.m. and 4.45 p.m. he unleashed a devastating artillery response. He also fired grapeshot at the men of the Sections attempting to cross the bridges over the Seine, who took heavy casualties and quickly fled. In most parts of Paris the attack was all over by 6 p.m., but at the church of Saint-Roch in the rue Saint-Honoré, which became the de facto headquarters of the insurrection and where the wounded were brought, snipers carried on firing from rooftops and from behind barricades. The fighting continued for many hours, until Napoleon brought his cannon to within 60 yards of the church and surrender was the only option. Around three hundred insurrectionists were killed that day, against only half a dozen of Napoleon’s men. Magnanimously by the standards of the day, the Convention executed only two Section leaders afterwards. ‘The whiff of grapeshot’ — as it became known — meant that the Paris mob played no further part in French politics for the next three decades.


Before the end of Vendémiaire, Napoleon had been promoted to général de division by Barras and soon afterwards to commander of the Army of the Interior in recognition of his service in saving the Republic and possibly preventing civil war. It was ironic that he had refused the Vendée post partly because he hadn’t wanted to kill Frenchmen, and then gained his most vertiginous promotion by doing just that. But to his mind there was a difference between a legitimate fighting force and a rabble.

For a while afterwards Napoleon was sometimes called ‘General Vendémiaire’, though not to his face. Far from being uneasy about his involvement in the deaths of so many of his compatriots, he ordered the anniversary to be celebrated once he became First Consul, and when a lady asked him how he could have fired so mercilessly on the mob he replied: ‘A soldier is only a machine to obey orders.’ He did not point out that it was he who had given the orders.

The ‘whiff of grapeshot’ advanced the Bonaparte family hugely, and overnight. Napoleon would now be paid 48,000 francs per annum, Joseph was given a job in the diplomatic service, Louis advanced through the Châlons artillery school and later became one of Napoleon’s burgeoning team of aides-de-camp, while the youngest of the Bonaparte boys, the eleven-year-old Jérôme, was sent to a better school.

It was a giant coercion machine

Friday, March 29th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhen Rob Henderson attended the two-week Warrior-Scholar program at Yale, he explains (in Troubled), he couldn’t help but apply some of the lessons he learned from eminent Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’s seminar on Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative liberty to his own life:

For long stretches of my childhood, I had an abundance of negative liberty, and it simply allowed me to make a lot of bad decisions. The military stripped me of those freedoms; it was a giant coercion machine. It demanded I conform to certain beliefs and behaviors, which, at age seventeen, was beneficial.

Berlin believed people should not be tampered with or coerced. But he went on to say that giving children total freedom means they may “suffer the worst misfortunes from nature and from men.” Therefore, he believed, kids need a higher authority who knows better than they do in order to set boundaries. Restricting some freedom is essential for children to grow up, or, in the case of my enlistment, recover from the process of growing up.

Chickenpox is now so rare in the US that doctors are misdiagnosing it half the time

Thursday, March 28th, 2024

Thanks to a successful vaccination campaign starting in 1995, chickenpox is now so rare in the US that doctors are misdiagnosing it half the time, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Health:

The country’s nationwide childhood vaccination effort reduced case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths in under 20-year-olds by more than 97 percent.


Some people who have been vaccinated against chickenpox can still get the disease, usually with milder fevers and fewer or no blisters, just red spots. This occurs more often in people who’ve only had one dose of the vaccine, not the recommended two.

Since the milder-looking ‘breakthrough’ chickenpox looks different to what doctors might be expecting of the once-rampant childhood disease, it can be difficult to diagnose just by looking at the red rash or spots.


The investigation found that of 420 patients with a suspected chickenpox infection who provided specimens to MDH’s labs between December 2016 and March 2023, only 37 percent tested positive for varicella-zoster — the virus that causes chickenpox.

One-fifth of those positive cases were examples of ‘breakthrough’ chickenpox, having received at least one dose of the chickenpox vaccine, and around half of the patients tested by MDH were fully or partially vaccinated.

More specifically, among 208 patients whose doctors suspected they had chickenpox after examining them at a medical facility, only 45 percent (or 95 people) tested positive for the disease. Another 26 people tested positive for an enterovirus, and a sole person was found to have HSV-1, a different type of herpes virus related to chickenpox.

There are already several drones that can hook up to power lines and recharge

Wednesday, March 27th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingBattery-powered drones have limited range, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), but perching on power lines opens up the possibility of recharging by stealing electricity:

There are already several drones that can hook up to power lines line and recharge. Design Research Associates has developed such a system for small drones and a spin-off known as the “Bat Hook” for Special Forces. This really does look like something Batman would use – a small, sharpened boomerang with a line attached. Toss it over a power line and the sharp edge cuts through insulation. A device on the end of the line converts the high-voltage alternating supply into a regulated direct current for charging electronics. The Bat Hook can be popped off the line so it can be removed and reused.

The chances of anyone looking for it there are slim

Tuesday, March 26th, 2024

I read and enjoyed Annie Jacobsen’s Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins, so I was paying attention when she announced her new book, Nuclear War: A Scenario, and I caught this interview, which actually meanders through all of her related books:

She mentions that most of her first book, Area 51, got much less attention than a small section on UFOs. Most of the book is a well researched summary of what we know about classified programs like the U-2, its successor the A-12, better known in its later Air Force configuration, the SR-71, and the F-117, and that small section on UFOs has to rely on much sketchier evidence:

Of the seventy-four individuals interviewed for this book with rare firsthand knowledge of the secret base, thirty-two of them lived and worked at Area 51.

Area 51 is the nation’s most secret domestic military facility. It is located in the high desert of southern Nevada, seventy-five miles north of Las Vegas. Its facilities have been constructed over the past sixty years around a flat, dry lake bed called Groom Lake. The U.S. government has never admitted it exists.

Key to understanding Area 51 is knowing that it sits inside the largest government-controlled land parcel in the United States, the Nevada Test and Training Range. Encompassing 4,687 square miles, this area is just a little smaller than the state of Connecticut—three times the size of Rhode Island, and more than twice as big as Delaware. Set inside this enormous expanse is a smaller parcel of land, 1,350 square miles, called the Nevada Test Site, the only facility like it in the continental United States.


Two early projects at Groom Lake have been declassified by the Central Intelligence Agency: the U-2 spy plane, declassified in 1998, and the A-12 Oxcart spy plane, declassified in 2007. And yet in thousands of pages of declassified memos and reports, the name Area 51 is always redacted, or blacked out. There are only two known exceptions, most likely mistakes.


According to most members of the black world who are familiar with the history of Area 51, the base opened its doors in 1955 after two CIA officers, Richard Bissell and Herbert Miller, chose the place to be the test facility for the Agency’s first spy plane, the U-2. Part of Area 51’s secret history is that the so-called Area 51 zone had been in existence for four years by the time the CIA identified it as a perfect clandestine test facility. Never before disclosed is the fact that Area 51’s first customer was not the CIA but the Atomic Energy Commission. Beginning in 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission used its parallel system of secret-keeping to conduct radical and controversial research, development, and engineering not just on aircraft but also on pilot-related projects—entirely without oversight or ethical controls.

That the Atomic Energy Commission was not an agency that characteristically had any manner of jurisdiction over aircraft and pilot projects (their business was nuclear bombs and atomic energy) speaks to the shadowy, shell-game aspect of black-world operations at Area 51. If you move a clandestine, highly controversial project into a classified agency that does not logically have anything to do with such a program, the chances of anyone looking for it there are slim.

Jacobsen contends that Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 fake-newscast adaptation of The War of the Worlds profoundly influenced authorities in the US and around the world:

“Thousands of persons believed a real invasion had been unleashed. They exhibited all the symptoms of fear, panic, determination to resist, desperation, bravery, excitement or fatalism that real war would have produced,” which in turn “shows the government will have to insist on the close co-operation of radio in any future war.” What these military men were not saying was that there was serious concern among strategists and policy makers that entire segments of the population could be so easily manipulated into thinking that something false was something true. Americans had taken very real, physical actions based on something entirely made up.


America was not the only place where government officials were impressed by how easily people could be influenced by a radio broadcast. Adolf Hitler took note as well. He referred to the Americans’ hysterical reaction to the War of the Worlds broadcast in a Berlin speech, calling it “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.” It was later revealed that in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had also been paying attention. And President Roosevelt’s top science adviser, Vannevar Bush, observed the effects of the fictional radio broadcast with a discerning eye. The public’s tendency to panic alarmed him, he would later tell W. Cameron Forbes, his colleague at the Carnegie Institution.

This leads us to Roswell, New Mexico:

During the first week of July 1947, U.S. Signal Corps engineers began tracking two objects with remarkable flying capabilities moving across the southwestern United States. What made the aircraft extraordinary was that, although they flew in a traditional, forward-moving motion, the craft—whatever they were—began to hover sporadically before continuing to fly on. This kind of technology was beyond any aerodynamic capabilities the U.S. Air Force had in development in the summer of 1947. When multiple sources began reporting the same data, it became clear that the radar wasn’t showing phantom returns, or electronic ghosts, but something real. Kirtland Army Air Force Base, just north of the White Sands Proving Ground, tracked the flying craft into its near vicinity. The commanding officer there ordered a decorated World War II pilot named Kenny Chandler into a fighter jet to locate and chase the unidentified flying craft. This fact has never before been disclosed.

Chandler never visually spotted what he’d been sent to look for. But within hours of Chandler’s sweep of the skies, one of the flying objects crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. Immediately, the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or JCS, took command and control and recovered the airframe and some propulsion equipment, including the crashed craft’s power plant, or energy source. The recovered craft looked nothing like a conventional aircraft. The vehicle had no tail and it had no wings. The fuselage was round, and there was a dome mounted on the top. In secret Army intelligence memos declassified in 1994, it would be referred to as a “flying disc.” Most alarming was a fact kept secret until now—inside the disc, there was a very earthly hallmark: Russian writing. Block letters from the Cyrillic alphabet had been stamped, or embossed, in a ring running around the inside of the craft.

In a critical moment, the American military had its worst fears realized. The Russian army must have gotten its hands on German aerospace engineers more capable than Ernst Steinhoff and Wernher Von Braun—engineers who must have developed this flying craft years before for the German air force, or Luftwaffe.

This would be a much more reasonable hypothesis, if the cutting-edge craft had crashed near Soviet-controlled territory. All of this is sourced from “Interview with EG&G engineer.” EG&G was a defense contractor out of MIT that had worked on the Manhattan Project.

The first thing they did was initiate the withdrawal of the original Roswell Army Air Field press release, the one that stated that a “flying disc… landed on a ranch near Roswell,” and then they replaced it with the second press release, the one that said that a weather balloon had crashed—nothing more.


The first order of business was to determine where the technology had come from. The Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked an elite group working under the direct orders of G-2 Army intelligence to initiate a top secret project called Operation Harass. Based on the testimony of America’s Paperclip scientists, Army intelligence officers believed that the flying disc was the brainchild of two former Third Reich airplane engineers, named Walter and Reimar Horten—now working for the Russian military. Orders were drawn up. The manhunt was on.


The brothers were the inventors of several of Hitler’s flying-wing aircraft, including one called the Horten 229 or Horten IX, a wing-shaped, tailless airplane that had been developed at a secret facility in Baden-Baden during the war. From the Paperclip scientists at Wright Field, the Army intelligence investigators learned that Hitler was rumored to have been developing a faster-flying aircraft that had been designed by the brothers and was shaped like a saucer. Maybe, the Paperclips said, there had been a later-model Horten in the works before Germany surrendered, meaning that even if Stalin didn’t have the Horten brothers themselves, he could very likely have gotten control of their blueprints and plans.


A records group of more than three hundred pages of Army intelligence documents reveals many of the details of Operation Harass. They were declassified in 1994, after a researcher named Timothy Cooper filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. One memo, called “Air Intelligence Guide for Alleged ‘Flying Saucer’ Type Aircraft,” detailed for CIC officers the parameters of the flying saucer technology the military was looking for, features which were evidenced in the craft that crashed at Roswell.

Extreme maneuverability and apparent ability to almost hover; A plan form approximating that of an oval or disc with dome shape on the surface; The ability to quickly disappear by high speed or by complete disintegration; The ability to group together very quickly in a tight formation when more than one aircraft are together; Evasive motion ability indicating possibility of being manually operated, or possibly, by electronic or remote control.


A former Messerschmitt test pilot named Fritz Wendel offered up some firsthand testimony that seemed real. The Horten brothers had indeed been working on a flying saucer–like craft in Heiligenbeil, East Prussia, right after the war, Wendel said. The airplane was ten meters long and shaped like a half-moon. It had no tail. The prototype was designed to be flown by one man lying down flat on his stomach. It reached a ceiling of twelve thousand feet. Wendel drew diagrams of this saucerlike aircraft, as did a second German informant named Professor George, who described a later-model Horten as being “very much like a round cake with a large sector cut out” and that had been developed to carry more than one crew member. The later-model Horten could travel higher and faster—up to 1,200 mph—because it was propelled by rockets rather than jet engines. Its cabin was allegedly pressurized for high-altitude flights.

Horten H.IX V2 before a test flight


The next batch of solid information came from a rocket engineer named Walter Ziegler. During the war, Ziegler had worked at the car manufacturer Bayerische Motoren Werke, or BMW, which served as a front for advanced rocket-science research. There, Ziegler had been on a team tasked with developing advanced fighter jets powered by rockets. Ziegler relayed a chilling tale that gave investigators an important clue. One night, about a year after the war, in September of 1946, four hundred men from his former rocket group at BMW had been invited by Russian military officers to a fancy dinner. The rocket scientists were wined and dined and, after a few hours, taken home. Most were drunk. Several hours later, all four hundred of the men were woken up in the middle of the night by their Russian hosts and told they were going to be taking a trip. Why Ziegler wasn’t among them was not made clear. The Germans were told to bring their wives, their children, and whatever else they needed for a long trip. Mistresses and livestock were also fine. This was not a situation to which you could say no, Ziegler explained. The scientists and their families were transported by rail to a small town outside Moscow where they had remained ever since, forced to work on secret military projects in terrible conditions.


And then, six months into the investigation, on March 12, 1948, along came abrupt news. The Horten brothers had been found. In a memo to the European command of the 970th CIC, Major Earl S. Browning Jr. explained. “The Horten Brothers have been located and interrogated by American Agencies,” Browning said. The Russians had likely found the blueprints of the flying wing after all. “It is Walter Horten’s opinion that the blueprints of the Horten IX may have been found by Russian troops at the Gotha Railroad Car Factory,” the memo read. But a second memo, entitled “Extracts on Horten, Walter,” explained a little more. Former Messerschmitt test pilot Fritz Wendel’s information about the Horten brothers’ wingless, tailless, saucerlike craft that had room for more than one crew member was confirmed. “Walter Horten’s opinion is that sufficient German types of flying wings existed in the developing or designing stages when the Russians occupied Germany, and these types may have enabled the Russians to produce the flying saucer.”

The Soviets never went on to develop a flying wing, but another superpower did.

Jacobsen summarizes the Roswell incident near the end of her book:

The flying craft that crashed in New Mexico, the myth of which has come to be known as the Roswell Incident, happened in 1947, sixty-four years before the publication of this book. Everyone directly involved in that incident—who acted on behalf of the government—is apparently dead. Like it does about Area 51, the U.S. government refuses to admit the Roswell crash ever happened, but it did—according to the seminal testimony of one man interviewed over the course of eighteen months for this book. He participated in the engineering project that came about as a result of the Roswell Incident. He was one of the elite engineers from EG&G who were tasked with the original Area 51 wicked engineering problem.

In July of 1947, Army intelligence spearheaded the efforts to retrieve the remains of the flying disc that crashed at Roswell. And as with other stories that have become the legends of Area 51, part of the conspiracy theory about Roswell has its origins in truth. The crash did reveal a disc, not a weather balloon, as has subsequently been alleged by the Air Force. And responders from the Roswell Army Air Field found not only a crashed craft, but also two crash sites, and they found bodies alongside the crashed craft. These were not aliens. Nor were they consenting airmen. They were human guinea pigs. Unusually petite for pilots, they appeared to be children. Each was under five feet tall. Physically, the bodies of the aviators revealed anatomical conundrums. They were grotesquely deformed, but each in the same manner as the others. They had unusually large heads and abnormally shaped oversize eyes. One fact was clear: these children, if that’s what they were, were not healthy humans. A second fact was shocking. Two of the child-size aviators were comatose but still alive.

Everything related to the crash site was sent to Wright Field, later called Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio, where it all remained until 1951. That is when the evidence was packed up and transported to the Nevada Test Site. It was received, physically, by the elite group of EG&G engineers. The Atomic Energy Commission, not the Air Force and not the Central Intelligence Agency, was put in charge of the Roswell crash remains. According to its unusual charter, the Atomic Energy Commission was the organization best equipped to handle a secret that could never be declassified. The Atomic Energy Commission needed engineers they could trust to handle the work that was about to begin. For this, they looked to the most powerful defense contractor in the nation that no one had ever heard of—EG&G.

The engineers with EG&G were chosen to receive the crash remains and to set up a secret facility just outside the boundary of the Nevada Test Site, sixteen miles to the northwest of Groom Lake, approximately five and a half miles north of the northernmost point where Area 12 and Area 15 meet. A facility this remote would never be visited by anyone outside a small group with a strict need-to-know and would never have to be accounted for or appear on any official Nevada Test Site map. These five men were told there was more engineering work to be done, and that they would be the only five individuals with a set of keys to the facility. The project, the men were told, was the most clandestine, most important engineering program since the Manhattan Project, which was why the man who had been in charge of that one would function as the director of this project as well.

Vannevar Bush had been President Roosevelt’s most trusted science adviser during World War II. He held engineering doctorates from both Harvard University and MIT, in addition to being the former vice president and former dean of engineering at MIT. The decisions Vannevar Bush made were ostensibly for the good of the nation; they were sound. The men from EG&G were told that the project they were about to work on was so important that it would remain black forever, meaning it would never see the light of day. The men knew that a secrecy classification inside the Atomic Energy Commission charter made this possible, because they all worked on classified engineering projects that were hidden from the rest of the world. They understood born classified meant that no one would ever have a need-to-know what Vannevar Bush was going to ask them to do. The operation would have no name, only a letter-number designation: S-4, or Sigma-Four.


There was the crashed craft that had been sent by Stalin—with its Russian writing stamped, or embossed, in a ring around the inside of the craft. So far, the EG&G engineers were told, no one working on the project when it had been headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had been able to discern what made Stalin’s craft hover and fly. Not even the German Paperclip scientists who had been assigned to assist. So the crashed craft was job number one. Reverse engineer it, Vannevar Bush said. Take it apart and put it back together again. Figure out what made it fly.

But there was the second engineering problem to solve, the one involving the child-size aviators. To understand this, the men were briefed on what it was they were dealing with. They had to be. They were told that they, and they alone, had a need-to-know about what had happened to these humans before they were put in the craft and sent aloft. They were told that seeing the bodies would be a shocking and disturbing experience. Because two of the aviators were comatose but still alive, the men would have to transfer them into a Jell-O-like substance and stand them upright in two tubular tanks, attached to a life-support system. Sometimes, their mouths opened, and this gave the appearance of their trying to speak. Remember, the engineers were told, these humans are in a comatose state. They are unconscious; their bodies would never spark back to life.

Once, the children had been healthy humans. Not anymore. They were about thirteen years old. Questions abounded. What made their heads so big? Had their bodies been surgically manipulated to appear inhuman, or did the children have genetic deformities? And what about their haunting, oversize eyes? The engineers were told that the children were rumored to have been kidnapped by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi madman who, at Auschwitz and elsewhere, was known to have performed unspeakable experimental surgical procedures mostly on children, dwarfs, and twins. The engineers learned that just before the war ended, Josef Mengele made a deal with Stalin. Stalin offered Mengele an opportunity to continue his work in eugenics—the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase desirable, heritable characteristics—in secret, in the Soviet Union after the war. The engineers were told that this deal likely occurred just before the war’s end, in the winter of 1945, when it was clear to many members of the Nazi Party, including Mengele, that Nazi Germany would lose the war and that its top commanders and doctors would be tried and hanged for war crimes.


Mengele’s victims included Jewish children, Gypsy children, and people with severe physical deformities. He removed parts of children’s craniums and replaced them with bones from larger, adult skulls. He removed and transplanted eyeballs, and injected people with chemicals that caused them to lose their hair. On Mengele’s instruction, an Auschwitz inmate, a painter named Dina Babbitt, made comparative drawings of the shapes of heads, noses, mouths, and ears of people before and after the grotesque surgeries Mengele performed. Another inmate doctor forced to work for Mengele, named Dr. Martina Puzyna, recounted how Mengele had her keep detailed measurements of the shapes and sizes of children’s body parts, casting those of crippled children—particularly their hands and heads—in plaster molds. When Mengele left Auschwitz, on January 17, 1945, he took the documentation of his medical experiments with him. According to his only son, Rolf, Mengele was still in possession of his medical research documents after the war.

The EG&G engineers were told that part of Joseph Stalin’s offer to Josef Mengele stated that if he could create a crew of grotesque, child-size aviators for Stalin, he would be given a laboratory in which to continue his work. According to what the engineers were told, Mengele held up his side of the Faustian bargain and provided Stalin with the child-size crew. Joseph Stalin did not. Mengele never took up residence in the Soviet Union. Instead, he lived for four years in Germany under an assumed name and then escaped to South America, where he lived, first in Argentina and then in Paraguay, until his death in 1979.

When Joseph Stalin sent the biologically and/or surgically reengineered children in the craft over New Mexico hoping it would land there, the engineers were told, Stalin’s plan was for the children to climb out and be mistaken for visitors from Mars. Panic would ensue, just like it did after the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. America’s early-warning radar system would be overwhelmed with sightings of other “UFOs.” Truman would see how easily a totalitarian dictator could control the masses using black propaganda. Stalin may have been behind the United States in atomic bomb technology, but when it came to manipulating the people’s perception, Stalin was the leader with the upper hand. This, says the engineer, is what he and the others in the group were told.

For months I asked the engineer why President Truman didn’t use the remains from the Roswell crash to show the world what an evil, abhorrent man Joseph Stalin was. I guessed that maybe Truman didn’t want to admit the breach of U.S. borders. For a long time, I never got an answer, just a shaking of the head. Here was the engineer who had the answer to the riddle inside the riddle that is Area 51, but he was unwilling to say more. He is the only one of the original elite group of EG&G engineers who is still alive. He said he wouldn’t tell me more, no matter how many times I asked. One day, I asked again. “Why didn’t President Truman reveal the truth in 1947?” This time he answered.

“Because we were doing the same thing,” he said. “They wanted to push science. They wanted to see how far they could go.”

Again, the small sections on UFOs are wildly different from the rest of the book.

In a recent interview with Lex Fridman, 13 years after the book came out, she doesn’t quite walk back her claims about the Roswell flying saucer being a Soviet hoax, but she reveals who that anonymous source was to explain why he was so credible. It was Al O’Donnell, the technical expert who had wired most of the atomic bombs used in atmospheric tests, right after World War 2, while that was still allowed.

That seems to be a package

Monday, March 25th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonAfter pushing Martin Eberhard out of Tesla, Musk should have realized he’s not good at sharing power, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), but he installed a Tesla investor, Michael Marks, in the CEO position:

Marks had been the CEO of Flextronics, an electronics manufacturing services company, which he turned into a highly profitable industry leader by pushing a strategy that Musk liked: vertical integration.


Musk and Marks got along well at first.


But then, Marks made the mistake of believing he could steer the company rather than just carry out Musk’s wishes.

The first clash came when Marks concluded that Musk’s devotion to reality-defying schedules meant that supplies were ordered and paid for, even though there was no chance they would be used to build a car anytime soon. “Why are we bringing all these materials in?” Marks asked at one of his first meetings. A manager replied, “Because Elon keeps insisting that we will be shipping cars in January.” The cash flow for these parts was bleeding Tesla’s coffers, so Marks canceled most of the orders.


“Elon is just not a very nice person and didn’t treat people well,” says Marks, who was appalled that Musk had not even read most of his wife Justine’s novels.


“I told him that people won’t tell him the truth, because he intimidates people,” Marks says. “He could be a bully and brutal.”


During their debates over Marks’s proposal to outsource assembly of the Tesla, Musk became increasingly angry, and he had no natural filter to restrain his responses. “That’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said at a couple of meetings. That was a line that Steve Jobs used often. So did Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Their brutal honesty could be unnerving, even offensive. It could constrict rather than encourage honest dialogue. But it was also effective, at times, in creating what Jobs called a team of A players who didn’t want to be around fuzzy thinkers.

Marks was too accomplished and proud to put up with Musk’s behavior. “He treated me like a child, and I’m not a child,” he says. “I’m older than he is. I had also run a twenty-five-billion-dollar company.” He soon left.


“I’ve come to put him in the same category as Steve Jobs, which is that some people are just assholes, but they accomplish so much that I just have to sit back and say, ‘That seems to be a package.’” Does that, I ask, excuse Musk’s behavior? “Maybe if the price the world pays for this kind of accomplishment is a real asshole doing it, well, it’s probably a price worth paying. That’s how I’ve come to think about it, anyway.” Then, after a pause, he adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be that way.”

The Topographical Bureau was a small, highly efficient organization within the war ministry

Sunday, March 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsIn August, 1795, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon got himself attached to the Topographical Department of the Committee of Public Safety for the direction of armies:

The Topographical Bureau was a small, highly efficient organization within the war ministry that has been described as ‘the most sophisticated planning organisation of its day’. Set up by Carnot and reporting directly to the Committee, it took information from the commanders-in-chief, plotted troop movements, prepared detailed operational directives and co-ordinated logistics. Under Clarke, the senior staff included Generals Jean-Girard Lacuée, César-Gabriel Berthier and Pierre-Victor Houdon, all talented and dedicated strategists. Napoleon could hardly have been better placed to learn all the necessary strands of supply, support and logistics that make up strategy (although the word entered the military lexicon only in the early nineteenth century and was not one Napoleon ever used).


The Topographical Bureau was also the best place to make his own estimations of which generals were worthwhile and which expendable.


The Topographical Bureau’s curious office hours — from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. — allowed Napoleon plenty of time to write a romantic novella entitled Clisson et Eugénie, a swansong for his unrequited love affair with Désirée. Employing the short, terse sentences of the heroic tradition, it was either consciously or unconsciously influenced by Goethe’s celebrated novel of 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Napoleon read no fewer than six times during the Egyptian campaign, and probably first when he was eighteen.

At first, they thought it was blood from one of the sperm whales

Saturday, March 23rd, 2024

During a tourist excursion in Bremer Canyon, a whale-watching hotspot off the coast between Albany and Hopetoun, scientists witnessed a pod of sperm whales forming a “rosette” — that is, forming a circle with their heads together — as orcas attacked, before unleashing their defense defecation:

They described seeing a “cloud of diarrhea” permeate the water, and this rarely seen defense mechanism seemed to help the sperm whale pod escape what could have been a fatal attack by at least 30 killer whales, ABC News Australia reported.


As the event unfolded, onlookers noticed a large, “dark bubble” pop up to the water’s surface. At first, they thought it was blood from one of the sperm whales, potentially a small calf. But when the team later reviewed footage of the plume, they realized it was actually whale poop.

“Because [a] sperm whale’s diet consists mostly of squid, they actually have this really reddish colored poo,” she said.

It tested “extremely well” with certain audience segments

Friday, March 22nd, 2024

Troubled by Rob Henderson As he browsed various online forums trying to learn about college, Rob Henderson came across a book published in 1983 with an intriguing title: Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell:

The book claimed that the criteria we use to define the tiers of the social hierarchy are in fact indicative of our own social class. For people near the bottom, Fussell wrote, social class is defined by money — in this regard, I was right in line with my peers when I was growing up. We thought a lot about money. The middle class, though, believes class is not just about the size of one’s pocketbook; equally important is education. The upper class has some additional beliefs about class, which I would later come to learn.


Kyle arranged for me to stay with his law-school friend the night before the [two-week Warrior-Scholar] program [at Yale] began. When I arrived at Michael’s residence in New Haven, he introduced me to his cat.

“His name is Learned Claw,” Michael said. “We named him after the legal scholar and judge Learned Hand.”

I’d never heard of this judge before. My mind jumped to Paul Fussell’s book about social class. He wrote that upper-middle-class people often give their cats names like Clytemnestra or Spinoza to show off their classical education. I was glad I’d read that book. Even though I didn’t know who Learned Hand was, at least now I knew that he was someone a person with a classical education should know about. I kneeled down to pet the cat, making a mental note to look the judge up later.

Billings Learned Hand had, at least as of 2004, been quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge.

Henderson befriended one of the tutors, a recent Yale graduate:

One evening, I saw him watching something on his MacBook. He told me it was The West Wing and insisted that I watch it. I had never seen this show, nor did anyone I know watch it. But when another tutor overheard him recommend The West Wing to me, she nodded vigorously, saying I had to watch it. I made a mental note to check it out once I finished the program.


As I worked my way through the first season, I had an uncomfortable realization: The West Wing is not very good.


The show had the pacing of a ’90s TV drama, and the way the characters spoke seemed strange to me (I’ve since grown to enjoy “Sorkinese”; Molly’s Game was one of my favorite movies of 2017).


In fact, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin explained in an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks that the pilot episode generally wasn’t well received. But, according to Sorkin, it tested “extremely well” with certain audience segments: households that earned more than $75,000 a year, households where there was someone with a college degree, and households that subscribed to the New York Times.

The Pentagon does not have the budget to create anything as slick and sophisticated as the latest smartphone

Wednesday, March 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingThe smartphone industry’s research budget was around $150 billion in 2014, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), dwarfing the Pentagon’s entire R&D spend of around $60 billion:

In aviation, the Pentagon is the biggest player in the game; only a handful of other countries can afford to develop fourth and fifth-generation combat aircraft like the F-22. But when it comes to small electronics, the Pentagon does not have the budget to create anything as slick and sophisticated as the latest smartphone.

The other 28 M-1s keep fighting

Tuesday, March 19th, 2024

David Axe explains how the Russians are taking out Ukraine’s M-1 Abrams tanks:

The 47th [Brigade] lost its first M-1 on or before Feb. 26, when a Russian first-person-view drone struck the tank’s ammunition compartment and sparked a fire that ultimately destroyed it. It’s possible the blast door that normally would prevent flames from entering the compartment—and cooking off the 120-millimeter main gun ammo—was open at the time of the strike, but it’s hard to say for sure.

The second Abrams got knocked out on or before March 3—this time reportedly by a Kornet laser-guided anti-tank missile that hit the relatively thinly-protected side of the tank’s hull and passed right through the attached M-19 explosive reactive armor. Kornets have tandem warheads: the first charge clears the armor; the second explodes inside the tank.

A second missile struck the turret, followed by an FPV drone, but it was the first missile—and the blaze resulting from its impact—that did in the 69-ton M-1.

The third confirmed Abrams loss, a week after the second, apparently also resulted from an anti-tank missile strike, which sparked a fire that cooked off the main gun rounds in the ammo compartment. The blast doors and the compartment’s exterior blowout panel must have failed.

A laser-detection system may have saved the two Abrams that fell victim to Kornets or similar missiles. But it wouldn’t have prevented the other loss. Nor would it prevent what’s almost certain to happen in the coming weeks and months as the war grinds on and the other 28 M-1s keep fighting: losses to mines, artillery and possibly even other tanks.

Outsourcing may save money, but it can hurt cash flow

Monday, March 18th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonA problem with the Tesla Roadster’s body panels led Musk, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), to ask Tim Watkins to sort out the entire system:

What he found was a nightmare. The process began in Japan, where the cells for the lithium-ion batteries were made. Seventy of these cells were glued together to form bricks, which were then shipped to a makeshift factory in the jungles of Thailand that once made barbecue grills. There they were assembled into a battery pack with a web of tubes as a cooling mechanism. These could not be flown by airplane, so they were shipped by boat to England and driven to the Lotus factory, where they were assembled into the Roadster chassis. The body panels came from the new supplier in France. The bodies with batteries would then be shipped across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal to the Tesla assembly facility near Palo Alto. There a team was in charge of the final assembly, including the AC Propulsion motor and drivetrain. By the time the battery cells made their way into a customer’s car, they had traveled around the world.

This presented not just a logistics nightmare but also a cash-flow problem. Each cell at the beginning of the journey cost $1.50. With labor, a full battery pack of nine thousand cells cost $15,000. Tesla had to pay for them up front, but it would be nine months before those packs made it around the world and could be sold in a car to consumers. Other parts going into the long supply process likewise burned cash. Outsourcing may save money, but it can hurt cash flow.

Compounding the problem was that the design of the car, partly because of Musk’s fiddling, had gotten too complex. “It was just a flat-out burning dumpster fire of stupidity,” Musk later admitted. The chassis had become 40 percent heavier and it had to be redesigned to fit the battery pack, which invalidated the crash testing Lotus had done. “In retrospect it would have been much smarter to start with a clean-sheet design and not try to modify the Lotus Elise,” he says. As for the drivetrain, almost none of the AC Propulsion technology turned out to be viable for a production car. “We screwed the pooch six ways to Sunday,” Musk says.

When Watkins got to Tesla’s California headquarters to sort through this mess with Eberhard, he was shocked to discover that there was no bill of materials for the production of the Roadster. In other words, there was no comprehensive record of every part that went into the car and how much Tesla was paying for each. Eberhard explained that he was trying to move to an SAP system to manage such information, but he didn’t have a chief financial officer to organize the transition. “You can’t manufacture a product without a bill of materials,” Watkins told him. “There are tens of thousands of components on a vehicle, and you are getting pecked to death by ducks.”

When Watkins pieced together the true costs, he realized that things were worse than even the most pessimistic projections. The initial Roadsters off the assembly line would cost, including overhead, at least $140,000, and it would not fall much below $120,000 even after production increased. Even if they sold the car for $100,000, they would be hemorrhaging money.

The maritime aspect of grand strategy was always one of Napoleon’s weaknesses

Sunday, March 17th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsOn March 3, 1795, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon set sail from Marseilles with 15 ships, 1,174 guns and 16,900 men to recapture Corsica from Paoli and the British:

His expedition was soon scattered by a British squadron of fifteen ships with fewer guns and half the number of men. Two French ships were captured. Napoleon wasn’t held responsible for the reverse, but neither did this quintessential landlubber learn the lessons of attempting to put to sea against a similarly sized but far more skilfully deployed force of the Royal Navy. Between 1793 and 1797, the French would lose 125 warships to Britain’s 38, including 35 capital vessels (ships-of-the-line) to Britain’s 11, most of the latter the result of fire, accidents and storms rather than French attack. The maritime aspect of grand strategy was always one of Napoleon’s weaknesses: in all his long list of victories, none was at sea.

Space radiation comes in two different flavors

Saturday, March 16th, 2024

The Orion spacecraft that is supposed to take humans on a Moon fly-by mission this year has a heavily shielded (solar) storm shelter for the crew, but shelters like that aren’t sufficient for a flight to Mars:

Space radiation comes in two different flavors. Solar events like flares or coronal mass ejections can cause very high fluxes of charged particles (mostly protons). They’re nasty when you have no shelter but are relatively easy to shield against since solar protons are mostly low energy. The majority of solar particle events flux is between 30 Mega-electronVolts to 100 MeV and could be stopped by Orion-like shelters.

Then there are galactic cosmic rays: particles coming from outside the Solar System, set in motion by faraway supernovas or neutron stars. These are relatively rare but are coming at you all the time from all directions. They also have high energies, starting at 200 MeV and going to several GeVs, which makes them extremely penetrating. Thick masses don’t provide much shielding against them. When high-energy cosmic ray particles hit thin shields, they produce many lower-energy particles—you’d be better off with no shield at all.

The particles with energies between 70 MeV and 500 MeV are responsible for 95 percent of the radiation dose that astronauts get in space. On short flights, solar storms are the main concern because they can be quite violent and do lots of damage very quickly. The longer you fly, though, GCRs become more of an issue because their dose accumulates over time, and they can go through pretty much everything we try to put in their way.

The reason nearly none of this radiation can reach us is that Earth has a natural, multi-stage shielding system. It begins with its magnetic field, which deflects most of the incoming particles toward the poles. A charged particle in a magnetic field follows a curve—the stronger the field, the tighter the curve. Earth’s magnetic field is very weak and barely bends incoming particles, but it is huge, extending thousands of kilometers into space.

Anything that makes it through the magnetic field runs into the atmosphere, which, when it comes to shielding, is the equivalent of an aluminum wall that’s 3 meters thick. Finally, there is the planet itself, which essentially cuts the radiation in half since you always have 6.5 billion trillion tons of rock shielding you from the bottom.

To put that in perspective, the Apollo crew module had on average 5 grams of mass per square centimeter standing between the crew and radiation. A typical ISS module has twice that, about 10 g/cm2. The Orion shelter has 35–45 g/cm2, depending on where you sit exactly, and it weighs 36 tons. On Earth, the atmosphere alone gives you 810 g/cm2—roughly 20 times more than our best shielded spaceships.

The two options are to add more mass—which gets expensive quickly—or to shorten the length of the mission, which isn’t always possible. So solving radiation with passive mass won’t cut it for longer missions, even using the best shielding materials like polyethylene or water. This is why making a miniaturized, portable version of the Earth’s magnetic field was on the table from the first days of space exploration. Unfortunately, we discovered it was far easier said than done.


In 1967, Richard H. Levy and Francis W. French delivered a report saying that plasma and electrostatic shields were promising, but they both needed 60 million volts to work—even by today’s standards, that number is ridiculous.


Electrostatic shields had been ignored because they required those 60 million volts that French and Levy talked about in their report. In 2008, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and ASRC Aerospace Corporation proposed an electrostatic shield based on three huge Van de Graaff generators connected to an outer ring that looked like something taken straight from a Vulcan Combat Cruiser. It was undeniably cool, but it was completely infeasible. Fry and Madzunkov had to find something more realistic, so they turned to advanced modeling software and huge GPU clusters.


events’ radiation and 15 percent of cosmic rays using just 1 million volts, not 60 million. And you no longer needed to haul a full-size power plant with you. “Using grid-like, porous structures we not only brought the weight down, but we also brought the needed power down from megawatts to 100 watts,” said Fry. Power savings that big were possible because plasmas, which normally bleed away volts, did not accumulate on these porous structures—they flew right through them.

It was an environment that would present maximal friction

Friday, March 15th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonThroughout his final year of high school, Rob Henderson thought a lot about his friends, he explains in Troubled, and where they were all going:

Cristian and John said they were going to turn it all around in community college — they both planned to get good grades and then transfer to a four-year college. When they told me this plan, I thought about how we were C-minus students at best, and now that we were nearly adults, we would soon have more freedom. The marginal adult oversight we currently had would soon be nonexistent. Which meant we would go from a little bit of friction to none at all when we felt the urge to ditch class and do something reckless. Gradually, I realized the path I was on had nothing but a tragic ending and came to believe that the military was my only lifeline. It was an environment that would present maximal friction if I felt the urge to do something stupid. And it didn’t hurt that enlisting would also provide a decent income. As I write this, I’m reminded of a quote from George Orwell: “The thought of not being poor made me very patriotic.”


As a kid, I was weighed down by instability and hopelessness. The military helped to unlock my potential, because it provided a structured environment, a sharp contrast to the drama and disorder of my youth. I was surrounded by supportive people who wanted me to succeed. In this new environment, I gradually came to realize that my childhood was anomalous, and I didn’t have to let it define the rest of my life. I’d been liberated from the mistakes of my past. I believed that the external comportment I had cultivated would allow me to control my internal demons and productively channel my restless energy.

I would probably have committed at least one felony had I not been locked in the military throughout these years. For behaviors and habits to be stable and predictable, one’s environment needs to be stable and predictable. I didn’t have discipline, mentorship, healthy camaraderie, and so on back home, but I had them now.


In a very real way, simply being confined to a schedule steered me away from misconduct. Military life consists of physical training (PT), room inspections, uniform inspections, and mandatory tasks outside of standard work hours. Every aspect of existence is tightly regulated, and this is especially true for new recruits. Your life isn’t really yours. No institution is more aware of the latent impulsivity and stupidity in young people, especially young men, than the military. It has evolved into an environment in which it is very hard to do something reckless, because the consequences of failing to meet standards are both clear and severe. Major infractions like not showing up for work or failing a random drug test result in literal jail time.

I learned that so much of success depends not on what people do, but what they don’t do. It’s about avoiding rash and reckless actions that will land us in trouble. The military presses the “fast forward” button on the worst, most aggressive, and impulsive years of a young man’s life—the time when a guy is most likely to do something catastrophically stupid. Studies have found that a man’s likelihood of committing a crime peaks at age nineteen, and then gradually declines throughout his twenties.2 This has led some psychologists to describe their larger appetite for violence, risk-taking, and competitiveness as “the young male syndrome.”


For many young people, the gap between impulsive and unwise decisions and the consequences of those decisions is large. In the military, there is almost no gap at all.

Even if a young man learns absolutely nothing during a military enlistment, that’s still four to six years he spent simply staying out of trouble and letting his brain develop; the same guy at twenty-four is rarely as reckless and impulsive as he was at eighteen. The reason my life didn’t go off the rails is because I was just self-aware enough to decide to have my choices stripped from me.


Before I joined, I’d heard that the military basically becomes your parent. I found this to be true. They teach you about finance and budgeting, and supervisors would lead new guys away from doing stupid things like blowing their savings on a brand-new sports car. Instead, they’d say to buy a sensible car. Some of the guys didn’t listen, though. New members made about thirteen hundred bucks a month. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I’d ever made before.


Many people say that to do something difficult and worthwhile, they need to be “motivated.” Or that the reason they are not sticking to their goals is because they “lack motivation.” But the military taught me that people don’t need motivation; they need self-discipline. Motivation is just a feeling. Self-discipline is: “I’m going to do this regardless of how I feel.” Seldom do people relish doing something hard. Often, what divides successful from unsuccessful people is doing what you don’t feel motivated to do. Back in basic training, our instructor announced that there are only two reasons new recruits don’t fulfill their duties: “Either you don’t know what’s expected of you, or you don’t care to do it. That’s it.”


The military asked that I put myself in the service of something higher than myself. I had a seriousness of purpose that I lacked before and experienced a new feeling about who I was and who I could be in life. But it didn’t fundamentally “transform” me. It just provided conditions that prevented me from acting out the way I had as a kid.