As the pressure in the tank reached 6,500 psi, there was a sudden roar

Wednesday, June 12th, 2024

Back in 2016, a 3-foot scale model of OceanGate’s Cyclops 2 submersible underwent high-pressure testing:

Engineers carefully lowered the Cyclops 2 model into the testing tank nose-first, like a bomb being loaded into a silo, and then screwed on the tank’s 3,600-pound lid. Then they began pumping in water, increasing the pressure to mimic a submersible’s dive. If you’re hanging out at sea level, the weight of the atmosphere above you exerts 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi). The deeper you go, the stronger that pressure; at the Titanic’s depth, the pressure is about 6,500 psi. Soon, the pressure gauge on UW’s test tank read 1,000 psi, and it kept ticking up—2,000 psi, 5,000 psi. At about the 73-minute mark, as the pressure in the tank reached 6,500 psi, there was a sudden roar and the tank shuddered violently.

“I felt it in my body,” an OceanGate employee wrote in an email later that night. “The building rocked, and my ears rang for a long time.”

“Scared the shit out of everyone,” he added.

The model had imploded thousands of meters short of the safety margin OceanGate had designed for.

In the high-stakes, high-cost world of crewed submersibles, most engineering teams would have gone back to the drawing board, or at least ordered more models to test. Rush’s company didn’t do either of those things. Instead, within months, OceanGate began building a full-scale Cyclops 2 based on the imploded model.

This design, later renamed Titan, made it down to the Titanic in 2021:

It even returned to the site for expeditions the next two years. But nearly one year ago, on June 18, 2023, Titan dove to the infamous wreck and imploded, instantly killing all five people onboard, including Rush himself.

Flying at seventy thousand feet meant the sky above him was pitch-black

Tuesday, June 11th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenWhile the US was developing its aerial reconnaissance technology, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the Russians were developing their surface-to-air-missile technology:

It was sweltering hot in the ancient city of Peshawar, Pakistan, and Powers had spent the night on a cot in an aircraft hangar inside the CIA’s secret facility there.


The Agency had never attempted to fly all the way across the Soviet Union before, from the southern border near Pakistan to the northern border near the Arctic Circle. From there, Powers would fly his U-2 to a secret CIA base in Norway and land. No Agency pilot had ever taken off and landed at two different bases in a U-2.

This overflight was particularly important to the CIA. Powers would gather valuable photographic information on two key sites. The first was the Tyuratam Cosmodrome, the Soviets’ busiest missile launch base. Tyuratam was Russia’s Cape Canaveral, the place from where Sputnik had been launched. For years the CIA was aware of only one launchpad at Tyuratam. Now there were rumored to be two, and a U-2 overflight in April revealed preparations for an upcoming launch—of what exactly, the CIA wanted to know. After Tyuratam, Powers would fly across Siberia and head up to a facility at Plesetsk, 186 miles south of the city of Archangelsk, in the Arctic Circle. Plesetsk was alleged to be the Soviet’s newest missile-launch facility. Powers’s flight would cover a record 3,800 miles, 2,900 of which would be inside the Soviet Union. He would spend nine nerve-racking hours over enemy territory.


The reverse would have been unthinkable. Imagine a Russian spy plane flying unmolested over the entire United States, from the East Coast to the West, snapping photographs that could provide details at two-and-a-half-foot increments from seventy thousand feet up.


Mother Nature always had the final say. For Powers, a slight wind change meant the schedule for his mission flight that morning was disrupted yet again. Not enough to cancel the mission, but enough so that his navigational maps had to be quickly corrected. The waiting was agonizing. It was also necessary. If his photographic targets were covered in clouds, images from the U-2’s camera would be useless. The navigators needed to calculate when and if the weather would clear.

As Powers sat waiting it out, his commanding officer, Colonel Shelton, crossed the cement floor and indicated he wanted to speak with him.

Colonel Shelton extended his hand and opened his palm. At the center was a large silver coin. “Do you want the silver dollar?” the colonel asked Powers. What Shelton was offering was no ordinary American coin. It was a CIA suicide gadget, designed to conceal a tiny poison pin hidden inside. The pin, which the pilot could find in his pocket by rubbing a finger gently around the coin’s edge, was coated with a sticky brown substance called curare, the paralytic poison found in lethal Amazonian blowpipes. One prick of the poison pin and a pilot would be dead in seconds.

Gary Powers was one of the Agency’s most accomplished U-2 pilots. He had flown a total of twenty-seven missions, including ones over China. He had once suffered a potentially fatal flameout over the Soviet Union and managed to survive. On many occasions he had been offered the suicide pill, and on each previous mission he had said no. But on May 1, 1960, Powers unexpectedly accepted the pin from Colonel Shelton, then slid it into the pocket of his flight suit. Later, Powers would wonder if he’d had a premonition of what was to come.


Pilots knew never to use their radio while flying over denied territory, but they listened carefully for click codes being sent to them. A single click meant proceed. Three clicks meant turn around and head back to base.


Powers settled in for what was supposed to be a total of thirteen hours of flying time.


In Moscow, two thousand miles away to the west, it was still dark outside when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sat upright in bed, awakened by a ringing telephone. Defense minister Marshal Malinovsky was on the line. A high-flying aircraft had crossed the border over Afghanistan and was headed toward central Russia, Malinovsky said. Khrushchev became enraged. Today of all days. May 1 was Russia’s national holiday. The streets were festooned with banners and ribbons for the May Day parade. This could mean only one thing, Khrushchev later told his son, Sergei. Eisenhower was ridiculing him again. The Soviet premier’s Achilles’ heel was his lack of formal education; he’d dropped out of school to work in the coal mines after the fourth grade. With his poor reading and writing skills, Khrushchev hated feeling that a more educated world leader was trying to make him appear the fool.

The Americans were especially duplicitous regarding holidays, Khrushchev believed. Four years earlier, on the Fourth of July, the Americans had double-crossed him with their first overflight of the U-2. If that overflight was a kick in the ribs, today’s overflight was a sharp poke in the eye.


“In other words, at a time when a major parade aimed at demonstrating Soviet military prowess was about to begin, a not-yet-identified foreign aircraft was flying over the heart of the country and Soviet air defenses appeared unable to shoot it down.”

Not if Khrushchev had his way. “Shoot down the plane by whatever means,” he shouted back at his defense minister. All across the country, the Soviet Air Force went on alert. Generals scrambled their fighter jets to go after Powers. In Siberia, officers from Soviet Air Defense Forces were summoned to their command posts with orders to shoot down the American spy. It was a matter of national pride. The orders came from Nikita Khrushchev himself.


Flying at seventy thousand feet meant the sky above him was pitch-black. Under normal circumstances he would have used the stars to determine where on the globe he was, but today his celestial navigation computations were unreliable—they’d been laid out for a 6:00 a.m. departure, not a 6:26 a.m. one. And so, with only a compass and sextant to keep him on track, Powers flew on. Spotting a break in the clouds, he determined his location to be just southeast of the Aral Sea, high above present-day Uzbekistan. Thirty miles to the north lay Powers’s first target: the Tyuratam Cosmodrome.

Realizing he was slightly off course, Powers was correcting back when suddenly he spotted the condensation trail of a jet aircraft below him. “It was moving fast, at supersonic speed, paralleling my course, though in the opposite direction,” Powers explained in his memoir Operation Overflight, published in 1970. Five minutes passed and now he knew at least one MiG was on his tail. Then he spotted another aircraft flying in the same direction as he was. “I was sure now they were tracking me on radar, vectoring in and relaying my headings to the aircraft” below him. But the MiG was so far below his U-2, it did not pose a real threat. Protected by height, Powers flew on. He felt confident he was out of harm’s way.

First he passed over the Ural Mountains, once considered the natural boundary between the East and the West. He headed on toward Sverdlovsk, which was situated thirteen hundred miles inside Russia. Before the Communists took over, Sverdlovsk was called Yekaterinburg. It was there in 1918 that Czar Nicholas II and his family were lined up against a kitchen wall and shot. To the Communists, the city of Sverdlovsk played an important role in the Soviet military-industrial complex, a place where tanks and rockets were built. It was also home to the Soviets’ secret bioweapons program, which on the date of Powers’s flight was not yet known to the CIA.

Nearing Sverdlovsk, Powers made a ninety-degree turn. He headed toward what appeared to be an airfield not marked on his map. Suddenly, large thunderclouds appeared, obscuring his view. He switched his cameras on. Powers had no idea that he was about to photograph a secret facility called Kyshtym 40, which produced nuclear material and also assembled weapons. Kyshtym 40 was as valuable to Russia as Los Alamos and Sandia combined were to the Americans.

On the ground, a surface-to-air missile battalion tasked with guarding Kyshtym 40 had been tracking Powers’s flight. At exactly 8:53 local time, the air defense battalion commander there gave the official word. “Destroy target,” the commander said. A missile from an SA-2 fired into the air at Mach 3. Inside his airplane, Gary Powers was making notes for the official record—altitude, time, instrument readings—when he suddenly felt a dull thump. All around him, his plane became engulfed in a bright orange flash of light. “A violent movement shook the plane, flinging me all over the cockpit,” Powers later wrote. “I assumed both wings had come off. What was left of the plane began spinning, only upside down, the nose pointing upward toward the sky.” As the U-2 spun out of control, Powers’s pressure suit inflated, wedging him into the nose of the airplane. The U-2 was crashing. He needed to get out. Thrown forward as he was, if he pushed the button to engage the ejection seat, both of his legs would be severed. Powers struggled, impossibly, against g-forces. He needed to get out of the airplane and he needed to hit the button that would trigger an explosion to destroy the airplane once he was gone, but he was acutely aware that he couldn’t get out of the airplane without cutting off his own legs. For a man who rarely felt fear, Gary Powers was on the edge of panic.

Suddenly, out of the chaos, three words came to him: Stop and think. An old pilot friend had once said that if he ever got in a jam, all he had to remember was to “stop and think.” His thoughts traveled back to his old training days at Area 51, back when the U-2 didn’t have an ejection seat. Back when escaping from the U-2 was the pilot’s job, not a mechanical one. Reaching up, Powers unlocked the airplane canopy. It flew off and sailed into the darkness. Instantly, the centrifugal force of the spinning airplane sucked him out into the atmosphere. He was free at last; all he needed to do was deploy his parachute. Then, to his horror, he realized that he was still attached to the airplane by his oxygen hoses. Powers tried to think through his options, but the g-forces were too great. There was nothing he could do anymore. His fate was out of his hands. He blacked out.

Nearly two thousand miles away, at a National Security Agency listening post in Turkey, NSA operators eavesdropped on Soviet radar operators at Kyshtym 40 as operators there tried to shoot Gary Powers’s U-2 out of the sky. The NSA had participated in many U-2 missions before. It was their job to equip CIA planes with listening systems, special recorders that gathered electronic intelligence, or ELINT. The NSA operators knew something was wrong the moment they heard a Soviet MiG pilot, the one who was chasing Powers from below, talking to the missile operators at Kyshtym 40. “He’s turning left,” the MiG pilot said, helping the missile operator to target Powers’s exact location. Just a few moments later, NSA operators heard Kyshtym 40 say that Powers’s U-2 had disappeared from their radar screens.


“Bill Bailey did not come home” was how Richard Bissell learned of the incident, in code.


As Powers floated down toward Earth, he noticed a small car driving down a dirt road alongside him, as if following his course. Finally, he made contact with the ground. The car stopped and men were helping him. One assisted with his chute. Another man helped him to his feet. A third man reached over to Powers’s survival pack and took his pistol. A crowd of approximately fifty people had gathered around. The men motioned for Powers to follow them. They loaded him into the front seat of a truck and began driving.


With the U-2 spy plane and the SA-2 missile system, the Americans and the Soviets had been playing a game of cat and mouse: constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes. Now that game was over. Powers, like the mouse, had been caught. But there was a second, even greater catastrophe in the works. When the White House staff learned Powers’s U-2 had been shot down, they assumed he was dead. This was an assumption based on CIA “facts.” Richard Bissell had personally assured the president that in the unlikely event that an SA-2 missile was able to reach a U-2 and shoot it down, the pilot would not survive. “We believed that if a U-2 was shot down over Soviet territory, all the Russians would have was the wreckage of an aircraft,” Bissell later explained. And so, believing Gary Powers was dead, the White House denied that the airplane was on any kind of espionage mission, in opposition to Khrushchev’s very public accusation. For five days, the White House claimed that Gary Powers had been gathering high-altitude weather data for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA.


The United States has been making a fool of Mother Russia, Khrushchev declared. The Americans had been sending spy planes over the Soviet Union for nearly four years. To underscore the significance of what had happened, Khrushchev gave a bold analogy. “Just imagine what would have happened had a Soviet aircraft appeared over New York, Chicago or Detroit? That would mean the outbreak of war!” Amid gasps of horror, Khrushchev explained how the Soviet Union had first used diplomatic channels to protest the spy flights. That he had called upon the U.N. Security Council to take action, but nothing was done. Just four days earlier, Khrushchev explained, on May 1, yet another illegal espionage mission had occurred. Only this time the Soviets had succeeded in shooting down the spy plane. The audience broke into wild cheers. Then came the heart of the matter in the form of a question. It was also Khrushchev’s bait. “Who sent this aircraft across the Soviet frontier?” he asked. “Was it the American Commander-in-Chief who, as everyone knows, is the president? Or was this aggressive act performed by Pentagon militarists without the president’s knowledge? If American military men can take such action on their own, the world should be greatly concerned.” By now, Khrushchev’s audience members were stomping their feet.


Khrushchev had laid a dangerous trap, one in which President Eisenhower got caught. The White House sent its press officer Walter Bonney to the press room to greet journalists and to tell the nation a lie. Gary Powers’s weather-sampling airplane was supposed to be flying over Turkey. Instead, it had gone astray. Two days later, on May 7, Khrushchev sprung his trap. “Comrades,” he told the parliament, who’d been gathered for a second revelatory speech. “I must let you in on a secret.” He smiled. “When I made my report two days ago I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the remains of the plane and we also have the pilot who is quite alive and kicking,” Khrushchev said. For the United States, it was a diplomatic disaster of the worst order.

The president was trapped. Were he to deny knowing what his “militarists” were up to, he would appear uninformed by his own military. Were he to admit that he had in fact personally authorized Powers’s flight, it would become clear he’d lied earlier when he claimed the downed airplane had been conducting weather research, not espionage. So despondent was the commander in chief about his untenable position that when he walked into the Oval Office two days later, he told his secretary Ann Whitman, “I would like to resign.” Spying on Russia and defying Soviet airspace was one thing; lying about it after being caught red-handed made the president look like a liar in the eyes of the world. In 1960, American presidents were expected to be truth tellers; there was no public precedent for lying.

Khrushchev demanded an apology from his nemesis. Eisenhower wouldn’t bow. Apologizing would only open Pandora’s box. There were too many overflights to make them transparent. There had been at least twenty-four U-2 flights over Russia and hundreds more bomber overflights by General LeMay. To reveal the dangerous game of cat and mouse that had been going on in secret—at a time when thermonuclear weapons on both sides were ready to fly—would likely shock and frighten people more than having a president who lied. A national poll revealed that more than half of adult Americans believed they were more likely to die in a thermonuclear war with the Russians than of old age. So Eisenhower made the decision to keep the focus on Gary Powers’s flight only and admit that he personally had authorized it. This was “the first time any nation had publicly admitted it was engaged in espionage,” noted Eisenhower’s lead U-2 photo interpreter at the time, Dino Brugioni.

Khrushchev could play the game too. And he did so by making a dangerous, offensive move. By the summer of 1960, he had authorized a Soviet military base to be set up in Cuba. The island, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, was in America’s backyard. Khrushchev’s plan was to put nuclear warheads in striking distance of Washington, DC. In this way, Soviet missiles could be launched from Havana and obliterate the nation’s capital in just twenty-five minutes’ time. Khrushchev was showing Eisenhower that he could play cat and mouse too.


Powers was sentenced to ten years in prison. President Eisenhower was judged to be a “follower of Hitler,” the lowest insult in the Russian lexicon. Hitler had double-crossed Khrushchev’s predecessor, Joseph Stalin, in 1941, and the result of that double cross was twenty million Russians dead. In comparing Eisenhower to Hitler, Khrushchev was sending a clear message: diplomacy was off the table. The upcoming east-west summit in Paris was canceled.

Step one should be to question the requirements

Monday, June 10th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonReaching five thousand cars per week would be a huge challenge for Tesla, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

By the end of 2017, Tesla was making cars at only half that rate. Musk decided he had to move himself, literally, to the factory floors and lead an all-in surge. It was a tactic — personally surging into the breach 24/7 with an all-hands-on-deck cadre of fellow fanatics — that came to define the maniacal intensity that he demanded at his companies.

He began with the Gigafactory in Nevada, where Tesla made batteries. The person who designed the line there told Musk that making five thousand battery packs a week was insane. At most they could make eighteen hundred. “If you’re right, Tesla is dead,” Musk told him. “We either have five thousand cars a week or we can’t cover our costs.” Building more lines would take another year, the executive said. Musk moved him out and brought in a new captain, Brian Dow, who had the gung-ho mentality Musk liked.


At one point Musk noticed that the assembly line was being slowed at a station where strips of fiberglass were glued to the battery packs by an expensive but slow robot. The robot’s suction cups kept dropping the strip and it applied too much glue. “I realized that the first error was trying to automate the process, which was my fault because I pushed for a lot of automation,” he says.

After much frustration, Musk finally asked a basic question: “What the hell are these strips for?” He was trying to visualize why fiberglass pieces were needed between the battery and the floor pan. The engineering team told him that it had been specified by the noise reduction team to cut down on vibration. So he called the noise reduction team, which told him that the specification came from the engineering team to reduce the risk of fire. “It was like being in a Dilbert cartoon,” Musk says. So he ordered them to record the sound inside a car without the fiberglass and then with the fiberglass. “See if you can tell the difference,” he told them. They couldn’t.

“Step one should be to question the requirements,” he says. “Make them less wrong and dumb, because all requirements are somewhat wrong and dumb. And then delete, delete, delete.”

The same approach worked even on the smallest details. For example, when the battery packs were completed in Nevada, little plastic caps were put on the prongs that would plug it into the car. When the battery got to the Fremont car-assembly factory, the plastic caps were removed and discarded. Sometimes, they would run out of caps in Nevada and have to hold up shipment of the batteries. When Musk asked why the caps existed, he was told they had been specified to make sure the pins did not get bent. “Who specified that requirement?” he asked. The factory team scrambled to find out, but they weren’t able to come up with a name. “So delete them,” Musk said. They did, and it turned out they never had a problem with bent pins.


At 10 p.m. one Saturday, he became angry about a robotic arm that installed a cooling tube into a battery. The robot’s alignment was off, which was holding up the process. A young manufacturing engineer named Gage Coffin was summoned. He was excited about the chance to meet Musk. He had been working for Tesla for two years and had spent the previous eleven months living out of a suitcase and working seven days a week at the factory. It was his first full-time job, and he loved it. When he arrived, Musk barked, “Hey, this doesn’t line up. Did you do this?” Coffin responded haltingly by asking Musk what he was referring to. The coding? The design? The tooling? Musk kept asking, “Did you fucking do this?” Coffin, flummoxed and frightened, kept fumbling to figure out the question. That made Musk even more combative. “You’re an idiot,” he said. “Get the hell out and don’t come back.” His project manager pulled him aside a few minutes later and told him that Musk had ordered him fired. He received his termination papers that Monday. “My manager was fired a week after me, and his manager the week after that,” Coffin says. “At least Elon knew their names.”

“When Elon gets upset, he lashes out, often at junior people,” says Jon McNeill. “Gage’s story was fairly typical of his behavior where he just couldn’t really process his frustration in a productive way.” JB Straubel, Musk’s kinder and gentler cofounder, cringed at Musk’s behavior. “In retrospect it may seem like great war stories,” he says, “but in the middle of it, it was absolutely horrific. He was making us fire people who had been personal friends for a very long time, which was super painful.”


One night, Musk was walking through the Nevada battery pack factory with his posse — Afshar, Antonio Gracias, and Tim Watkins — and they noticed a delay at a workstation where a robotic arm was sticking cells to a tube. The machine had a problem gripping the material and getting aligned. Watkins and Gracias went over to a table and tried to do the process by hand. They could do it more reliably. They called Musk over and calculated how many humans it would take to get rid of the machine. Workers were hired to replace the robot, and the assembly line moved more quickly.

Musk flipped from being an apostle of automation to a new mission he pursued with similar zeal: find any part of the line where there was a holdup and see if de-automation would make it go faster.


“We put a hole in the side of the building just to remove all that equipment,” Musk says.


Always wait until the end of designing a process — after you have questioned all the requirements and deleted unnecessary parts — before you introduce automation.

The cylinder is dipped in Spanish wax mixed with vinegar

Sunday, June 9th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsIn one of Napoleon’s letters back to the Directory from Milan, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), he said he had captured an Austrian spy who had carried a letter for Emperor Francis in a cylinder in his stomach:

‘If they have diarrhoea,’ Napoleon added helpfully, ‘they make sure to take the little cylinder, soak it in liqueur and swallow it again. The cylinder is dipped in Spanish wax mixed with vinegar.’

We know the ACT scores of all public-university students who applied to UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State during the test-waiver period

Saturday, June 8th, 2024

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors made admissions effectively test optional — but North Carolina public school students still take the ACT in 11th grade; it’s required by North Carolina law:

This set up an interesting natural experiment, since the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction collected these ACT scores from high schools and shared them with the UNC System. Therefore, we know the ACT scores of all public-university students who applied to UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State during the test-waiver period, regardless of whether they submitted those scores for use in the admissions process.

North Carolina ACT Scores

At both NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill, the test scores of students who chose to submit them as part of the admissions process were significantly higher than those of non-submitters.

And these discrepancies persist among admitted students. In 2022 (the year for which the best data exist), among admitted UNC-Chapel Hill freshmen, test submitters had a median ACT score of 29. Non-submitters had a median ACT score of 25. At NC State, the respective scores in the same year were 27 and 22. These are meaningful differences.

China has not cracked (yet) and the European Union is still with us (for now)

Friday, June 7th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanThe version of Peter Zeihan’s Accidental Superpower that I (metaphorically) picked up was subtitled Ten Years On:

The trends of de­globalization, de­population, and American disinterest that were once on the horizon are now embedded firmly in the here and now.


There’s no way you kick out a 350-page book that is three-quarters forecast and you get it all dead-on. The biggest bitch is always timing. Inevitable is not a synonym for imminent.


It is undeniable that China has not cracked (yet) and the European Union is still with us (for now).


Two years after Accidental I published The Absent Superpower, a book that brought America’s shale revolution into focus both in terms of its transformation of the American industrial experience and its impact upon the broader global geopolitic. As part of Absent I predicted that the 2020s would serve as the backdrop of three major international wars. The first of these, the Ukraine War, is now in full swing. Two to go.

Body armor and sandbags offer no protection from this sort of damage

Thursday, June 6th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingConventional explosives, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), are composed of large molecules that break down and release energy:

Those bonds are unstable, and when they are broken, the explosive detonates with a velocity of more than eight thousand meters a second.

By contrast, thermobarics do not explode at all; technically, they just burn very fast. Some types have their own oxidizer, but some simply react with oxygen in the air. In its simplest form, enhanced blast can be achieved simply by adding finely powdered metal such as aluminum to an explosive charge. More sophisticated versions consist of nothing but powdered metal and oxidizer; the explosive is released into a cloud, which is then set off with devastating effects.

Thermobarics are typically several times as powerful as TNT by weight because the oxidation reaction is more energetic than the breakdown of an explosive molecule. However, what is more surprising is that thermobarics are so far more destructive than condensed explosives with the same power. This is because the blast from an expanding thermobaric fireball goes on for longer than a normal blast. It still only lasts a matter of milliseconds, but the increased duration makes it more effective at bringing down walls.


Known as the SMAW-NE (for Novel Explosive) , the new warhead contains four pounds of a mixture known as PBXIH-135, which combines a standard plastic explosive (PBX – Plastic Bonded eXplosive) with a precisely calibrated amount of finely powdered aluminum.


One limitation was that the new SMAW round was far more effective inside a building than in the open air. Marines started using a two-stage approach: firing one of the old high-explosive SMAW rounds to make a hole in a wall, then firing a thermobaric round through the hole into the interior.


You might survive a blast of forty pounds per square inch from a condensed explosive, but just ten pounds per square inch for a few milliseconds longer from a thermobaric blast will pulverize your lungs. Body armor and sandbags offer no protection from this sort of damage.


In particular, the technology for producing nanoscale particles of aluminum, and storing them safely, has progressed


Unclassified results from one Canadian research group suggest that it should be feasible to make warheads around five times as powerful as existing munitions without changing the ingredients.

The satellite-guided bombs range as far as 40 miles

Wednesday, June 5th, 2024

The Russian air force lobs as many as 3,000 glide bombs at Ukraine each month:

The satellite-guided bombs range as far as 40 miles, meaning Russian fighter-bombers — Sukhoi Su-30s, Su-34s and Su-35s — can release their bombs from beyond the reach of all but the best, and rarest, Ukrainian air defenses.

The 1,100- and 2,200-pound KAB glide bombs are a “miracle weapon” for the Russians, the Ukrainian Deep State analysis group noted. And the Ukrainians have “practically no countermeasures.”


To that end, the Ukrainian air force is transforming its 40 or 50 surviving Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters, and possibly also its dozens of remaining Sukhoi Su-27 fighters, into precision glide bombersr — by arming them with American-made Small Diameter Bombs hanging on improvised pylons.


No one outside of the Pentagon and the Ukrainian air force knew the Ukrainians had the 290-pound SDBs — which range 69 miles under satellite guidance on pop-out wings — until photos appeared online late last month depicting a MiG-29 with six of the diminutive bombs under its wings.


Last year, American, French and Ukrainian technicians worked together to arm Ukrainian MiG-29s and Su-27s with the U.S.-made Joint Direct Attack Munition-Extended Range glide bomb and the French-made Armement Air-Sol Modulaire glide bomb. The JDAM-ER and AASM both weigh around 500 pounds.

The SDB has the advantage of being smaller — and may also boast greater range than either the JDAM-ER and AASM, both of which range around 40 miles under the best conditions. A single MiG or Sukhoi armed with SDSs could strike six targets in a single sortie, and do it from farther away — thus reducing the risk from Russian air defenses.

Equally importantly, the SDB costs just $40,000 per bomb. That’s around the same cost as a JDAM-ER, but a fifth the cost of an AASM.

The Russians took great delight in rubbing what they learned in the face of the State Department

Tuesday, June 4th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenWhile developing the A-12 Oxcart, which would evolve into the SR-71, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA feared the Russians were watching from space:

Across the world, at NII-88, Sergei Korolev had designed a Soviet spy satellite called Object D, but the CIA did not know what exactly it was capable of. Also under way was a follow-on espionage platform called Zenit, a modified version of the Vostok spacecraft that had been equipped with cameras to photograph American military installations from space. The Russians took great delight in rubbing what they learned in the face of the State Department. Once, using diplomatic channels, they passed a simple sketch of the exact shape of Lockheed’s top secret airplane to the CIA, whose employees were baffled as to how the enemy could have known such a thing, in view of the fact that operations personnel had been very careful to avoid the orbiting Soviet snoopers. Was there a double agent among them? The CIA, ever paranoid about KGB infiltration, worried in private that there could be a spy inside Area 51. Lovick finally figured it out: the Russians were using infrared satellites. In the desert heat, which could reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the mock-up of the aircraft left a heat signature as it sat on the tarmac while technicians were waiting to hoist it up on the test pole. The sketch reflected that.

Like many techies, he was liberal on social issues but with a dollop of libertarian resistance to regulations and political correctness

Monday, June 3rd, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk had never been very political, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

Like many techies, he was liberal on social issues but with a dollop of libertarian resistance to regulations and political correctness. He contributed to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, and he was a vocal critic of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. “He doesn’t seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States,” he told CNBC.

But after Trump won, Musk became cautiously optimistic that he might govern as a renegade independent rather than a resentful right-winger. “I thought that maybe some of the crazier stuff he said during the campaign was just a performance and he would land in a more sensible place,” he says.


“Trump might be one of the world’s best bullshitters ever,” he says. “Like my dad. Bullshitting can sometimes baffle the brain. If you just think of Trump as sort of a con-man performance, then his behavior sort of makes sense.”

Grenadiers, come and seek your colour

Sunday, June 2nd, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon arrived at the bridge at Arcole, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), just as Augereau’s attempt to capture it had been beaten off:

He ordered another attack, which stalled under heavy fire. Augereau then seized a flag and walked out fifteen paces in front of his skirmishers, saying, ‘Grenadiers, come and seek your colour.’ At that point Napoleon, surrounded by his aides-de-camp and bodyguard, grasped another flag and led the charge himself, haranguing the troops about their heroism at Lodi. For all his statements to the Directory two days earlier about not exposing himself to danger, he certainly did at Arcole. Yet it failed — the men displayed ‘extraordinary cowardice’ according to Sulkowski — and they didn’t rush the body-strewn bridge, although his aide-de-camp Colonel Muiron and others were killed on it at Napoleon’s side. During an Austrian counter-attack, Napoleon had to be bundled back into the marshy ground behind the bridge and was saved only by a charge of grenadiers. He was a brave man, but there was only so much anyone could do in the face of concentrated fire being directed by a stalwart Austrian resistance, which would continue for two more days.


The bridge at Arcole wouldn’t be captured for another two days, by Augereau and Masséna, who returned there on the 17th, and Napoleon wasn’t present when it fell.