These ideas depend on unusual people

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

The biggest problem for governments with new technologies is that the limiting factor on applying new technologies is not the technology but management and operational ideas which are extremely hard to change fast, Dominic Cummings says:

Project Maven shows recurring lessons from history. Speed and adaptability are crucial to success in conflict and can be helped by new technologies. So is the capacity for new operational ideas about using new technologies. These ideas depend on unusual people. Bureaucracies naturally slow things down (for some good but mostly bad reasons), crush new ideas, and exclude unusual people in order to defend established interests. The limiting factor for the Pentagon in deploying advanced technology to conflict in a useful time period was not new technical ideas — overcoming its own bureaucracy was harder than overcoming enemy action. This is absolutely normal in conflict (e.g it was true of the 2016 referendum where dealing with internal problems was at least an order of magnitude harder and more costly than dealing with Cameron).

As Colonel Boyd used to shout to military audiences, ‘People, ideas, machines — in that order!’

The Project Maven experience is similar to the famous example of the tank. Everybody could see tanks were possible from the end of World War I but over 20 years Britain and France were hampered by their own bureaucracies in thinking about the operational implications and how to use them most effectively. Some in Britain and France did point out the possibilities but the possibilities were not absorbed into official planning. Powerful bureaucratic interests reinforced the normal sort of blindness to new possibilities. Innovative thinking flourished, relatively, in Germany where people like Guderian and von Manstein could see the possibilities for a very big increase in speed turning into a huge nonlinear advantage — possibilities applied to the ‘von Manstein plan’ that shocked the world in 1940. This was partly because the destruction of German forces after 1918 meant everything had to be built from scratch and this connects to another lesson about successful innovation: in the military, as in business, it is more likely if a new entity is given the job, as with the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons. The consequences were devastating for the world in 1940 but, lucky for us, the nature of the Nazi regime meant that it made very similar errors itself, e.g regarding the importance of air power in general and long range bombers in particular. (This history is obviously very complex but this crude summary is roughly right about the main point)

There was a similar story with the technological developments mainly sparked by DARPA in the 1970s including stealth (developed in a classified program by the legendary ‘Skunk Works’, tested at ‘Area 51’), global positioning system (GPS), ‘precision strike’ long-range conventional weapons, drones, advanced wide-area sensors, computerised command and control (C2), and new intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities (ISR). The hope was that together these capabilities could automate the location and destruction of long-range targets and greatly improve simultaneously the precision, destructiveness, and speed of operations.

The approach became known in America as ‘deep-strike architectures’ (DSA) and in the Soviet Union as ‘reconnaissance-strike complexes’ (RUK). The Soviet Marshal Ogarkov realised that these developments, based on America’s superior ability to develop micro-electronics and computers, constituted what he called a ‘Military-Technical Revolution’ (MTR) and was an existential threat to the Soviet Union. He wrote about them from the late 1970s. (The KGB successfully stole much of the technology but the Soviet system still could not compete.) His writings were analysed in America particularly by Andy Marshall at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) and others. ONA’s analyses of what they started calling the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in turn affected Pentagon decisions. In 1991 the Gulf War demonstrated some of these technologies just as the Soviet Union was imploding. In 1992 the ONA wrote a very influential report (The Military-Technical Revolution) which, unusually, they made public (almost all ONA documents remain classified).

In many ways Marshal Ogarkov thought more deeply about how to develop the Pentagon’s own technologies than the Pentagon did, hampered by the normal problems that the operationalising of new ideas threatened established bureaucratic interests, including the Pentagon’s procurement system. These problems have continued. It is hard to overstate the scale of waste and corruption in the Pentagon’s horrific procurement system (see below).

China has studied this episode intensely. It has integrated lessons into their ‘anti-access / area denial’ (A2/AD) efforts to limit American power projection in East Asia. America’s response to A2/AD is the ‘Air-Sea Battle’ concept. As Marshal Ogarkov predicted in the 1970s the ‘revolution’ has evolved into opposing ‘reconnaissance-strike complexes’ facing each other with each side striving to deploy near-nuclear force using extremely precise conventional weapons from far away, all increasingly complicated by possibilities for cyberwar to destroy the infrastructure on which all this depends and information operations to alter the enemy population’s perception (very Sun Tzu!).

Every kilogram of hydrogen needs nine kilograms of tank to hold it

Tuesday, May 10th, 2022

An ultra-light liquid hydrogen tank design promises to boost the range of hydrogen-powered aircraft to the point where they could fly farther than ordinary kerosene-fueled planes:

Tennessee company Gloyer-Taylor Laboratories (GTL) has been working for many years now on developing ultra-lightweight cryogenic tanks made from graphite fiber composites, among other materials.

GTL claims it’s built and tested several cryogenic tanks demonstrating an enormous 75 percent mass reduction as compared with “state-of-the-art aerospace cryotanks (metal or composite).” The company says they’ve tested leak-tight, even through several cryo-thermal pressure cycles, and that these tanks are at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 6+, where TRL 6 represents a technology that’s been verified at a beta prototype level in an operational environment.

This kind of weight reduction makes an enormous difference when you’re dealing with a fuel like liquid hydrogen, which weighs so little in its own right. To put this in context, ZeroAvia’s Val Miftakhov told us in 2020 that for a typical compressed-gas hydrogen tank, the typical mass fraction (how much the fuel contributes to the weight of a full tank) was only 10-11 percent. Every kilogram of hydrogen, in other words, needs about 9 kg of tank hauling it about.

Liquid hydrogen, said Miftakhov at the time, could conceivably allow hydrogen planes to beat regular kerosene jets on range.

“Even at a 30-percent mass fraction, which is relatively achievable in liquid hydrogen storage, you’d have the utility of a hydrogen system higher than a jet fuel system on a per-kilogram basis,” he said.

GTL claims the 2.4-m-long, 1.2-m-diameter (7.9-ft-long, 3.9-ft-diameter) cryotank pictured at the top of this article weighs just 12 kg (26.5 lb). With a skirt and “vacuum dewar shell” added, the total weight is 67 kg (148 lb). And it can hold over 150 kg (331 lb) of hydrogen. That’s a mass fraction of nearly 70 percent, leaving plenty of spare weight for cryo-cooling gear, pumps and whatnot even while maintaining a total system mass fraction over 50 percent.

If it does what it says on the tin, this promises to be massively disruptive. At a mass fraction of over 50 percent, HyPoint says it will enable clean aircraft to fly four times as far as a comparable aircraft running on jet fuel, while cutting operating costs by an estimated 50 percent on a dollar-per-passenger-mile basis — and completely eliminating carbon emissions.

Hydrogen has an energy density of 140 MJ/kg. Jet fuel (kerosene) has an energy density of 43 MJ/kg.

The Party-state had added the artificial constraints of an information ecosystem sealed off from the rest of humankind

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well,” T. Greer explains, but outside of its own borders, post-Deng China has a poor record selling the intangible:

Most observers place fault exactly where Dan does: the claustrophobic cultural environment of enforced political orthodoxy. A common ancillary argument is that party-state calls for innovative cultural production are themselves the problem. Cultural innovation happens at the level of the individual artist, this argument goes. Steven Speilbergs cannot be produced on demand.

I do not find this logic totally convincing. After all, China’s neighbors have done the exact thing Western critics and artists claim cannot be done.

Consider the “Korean wave.” What Ford was to the automobile, the Korean companies SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment are to pop. The stars and starlets of Korean popdom are selected, trained, choreographed, and publicized with a Tayloresque efficiency that would make the manager of any Amazon warehouse proud. The founder of the first of these companies famously declared that “S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology.” In the ‘90s he reversed engineered this technology with methods that mirror Korea’s famous chaebol: he began by consciously breaking down the constituent parts of successful American and Japanese pop hits, simplified these parts into scripts that could be easily replicated, hired foreign expertise to shepherd the design process, and then secured government funding to jump start his new export industry. From the beginning, South Korea’s pop record labels positioned themselves as “national champions” of the same mold and make as Samsung and Hyundai.

The success of K-pop hinged on two connecting tissues that bound together the South Korean music industry with Japan and the West.


To replicate the success of Michael Jackson, SM Entertainment hired a producer of a Michael Jackson’s albums to work with their stars! This was standard during the genre’s rise: throughout the aughts and early 2010s, the most famous K-pop performances were arranged, composed, choreographed, and produced by Western composers, mixers, choreographers, producers, and videographers.

K-pop was not entirely the work of foreigners: after delivering a new composition or developing a new choreographic routine, the Western expert would retreat to the background. Record executives would then review songs beat by beat, dance move by dance moves, making adjustments and reworking material until they were satisfied they had created something the masses would clamor for. K-pop was thus not just a self conscious appropriation of foreign music styles, but an attempt to create the next iteration of those very styles. If art can be thought of as a conversation, K-pop succeeded in part because its creators presented their music as the next turn in an existing dialogue.


My two younger sisters became K-pop fanatics in their middle school years. Day after day I would walk in the front door and see the two of them flopping about in front a computer screen, mimicking the choreography of their favorite bands. As with “Gagnam Style’s” viral rise, YouTube was the main mechanism of transmission.

These are not anomalous anecdotes. K-pop was the first musical genre to intentionally embrace streaming. From the beginning, K-pop labels sought to save on costs and circle around foreign gate keepers by bringing their product straight to Youtube. The website was popular in Korea early; as users of Youtube themselves, the executives at the big three record labels quickly realized that it was the shortest route to the foreign mass consumer. The Korean Wave would not have been possible without American social media. Silicon Valley built the highway that connects Korean producers and fans with audiences abroad.

This gets to heart of China’s problems—and these are not problems of cultural sterility. In my experience, Chinese intellectual life is often more vital and vibrant than what I see in the West.


My sisters became K-pop fanatics under the swayof Youtube channels and Facebook groups. Where are the center points of Chinese fandoms? Websites like Bilibili, Tieba, and WeChat. There are few bridges to link these Chinese sites with their counterparts in the West.

To the natural obstacle facing any logographic language in a latinate world, the Party-state had added the artificial constraints of an information ecosystem sealed off from the rest of humankind. The seal is permeable. In fact, it is breached every day — but these breaches are not free. The transaction costs of jumping the firewall and moving between platforms put Chinese producers at a disadvantage. The cyber infrastructure of the global commons is simply not as intuitive to Chinese executives and artists as it was to the Koreans who engineered the Korean Wave. Even most of the Chinese who live abroad interact with it surprisingly little; they bring the homegrown ecosystem with them in their pockets, and have no reason to leave it.

This is the first, and probably most important, challenge to building sustainable cultural hegemony. The Party-state’s decision to strengthen its hold on the discourse inside China came at the direct expense of its own discourse power abroad.

What couldn’t von Neumann do?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Reading The Man From the Future, Steve Sailer notes, it’s hard not to acknowledge mathematics as the king of the disciplines:

Von Neumann was first and foremost a mathematician, a protégé of David Hilbert, the most influential mathematician of the early 20th century. He delighted Hilbert by offering, as a teenager, a response to Bertrand Russell’s Paradox that was undermining confidence in Hilbert’s program for mathematical progress.

From von Neumann’s position of strength on the intellectual high ground of math, the adult prodigy then conducted a series of lightning raids on lesser fields:

Physics (helping reconcile the seemingly conflicting quantum-mechanics approaches of Heisenberg and Schrödinger).

Engineering (leading the design of the implosion device for triggering the first-ever atomic bomb, which was exploded at Trinity, New Mexico, in July 1945).

Economics (more or less inventing the subject of game theory and coining the useful term “zero-sum game”).

Computer science (articulating in 1945 the von Neumann architecture that instantly became the standard way to design general-purpose computers; note that he didn’t invent the computer, but his clarity of mind and prestige helped get the American computer industry off to a quick start on the right foot).

Nuclear war strategy (hanging out at the early RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, von Neumann offered ideas for dealing with the Soviets that tended to be less Dr. Strangelove than Gen. Buck Turgidson. Like the leftist pacifist Russell in the late 1940s, von Neumann kicked around the idea of nuking the Soviets before they got the Bomb and could retaliate).

Psychology (writing a book on the subject while dying of cancer).

What couldn’t von Neumann do? Bhattacharya lists a few of the great man’s shortcomings: He hated sports and anything else you couldn’t do in a well-tailored business suit, was a bad driver, had little musical ability, was not terribly interested in hearing about the feelings of the women in his life, and was an enthusiastic but mediocre chess player. Fascinatingly, an endnote mentions that the inventor of game theory was a notoriously poor poker player.

The missile attempts to keep itself inside the beam

Thursday, April 21st, 2022

Most MANPADS fire heat-seeking missiles, but the British Starstreak does not, as I mentioned when they started shipping them to Ukraine:

In contrast, the Starstreak uses laser-beam-riding guidance, in which the operator fires the missile as soon as a target is detected in the optically stabilized sight. Line-of-sight is then maintained throughout the engagement process. The aiming unit projects two laser beams onto the target, with sensors on the missile calculating the relative positions until impact. The intensity of these laser beams is low enough that, the manufacturer claims, the targeted aircraft won’t be able to detect them.

Overall, this guidance method is more accurate than traditional laser guidance, in which the target is ‘painted’ with a single beam. The twin-laser approach is more resistant to maneuvering targets that could otherwise break the laser lock. At the same time, unlike infrared-guided MANPADS, the Starstreak cannot be spoofed by flares or other heat sources. Unlike most air defense missiles, it’s effectively immune to countermeasures, including the latest L-370 Vitebsk (exported as the President-S) directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) found on many Russian Aerospace Forces helicopters.

Another advantage is that smaller targets can be engaged (as long as the operator can see them through the sight), including those with infrared signatures that might be insufficient for a heat-seeking missile to track.

Its laser-beam-riding guidance evolved from earlier radar beam-riding guidance:

Beam riding is based on a signal that is pointed towards the target. The signal does not have to be powerful, as it is not necessary to use it for tracking as well. The main use of this kind of system is to destroy airplanes or tanks. First, an aiming station (possibly mounted on a vehicle) in the launching area directs a narrow radar or laser beam at the enemy aircraft or tank. Then, the missile is launched and at some point after launch is “gathered” by the radar or laser beam when it flies into it. From this stage onwards, the missile attempts to keep itself inside the beam, while the aiming station keeps the beam pointing at the target. The missile, controlled by a computer inside it, “rides” the beam to the target.


By placing receiver antennas on the rear of the missile, the onboard electronics can compare the strength of the signal from different points on the missile body and use this to create a control signal to steer it back into the center of the beam. When used with conical scanning, the comparison can use several sets of paired antennas, typically two pairs, to keep itself centered in both axes. This system has the advantage of offloading the tracking to the ground radar; as long as the radar can keep itself accurately pointed at the target, the missile will keep itself along the same line using very simple electronics.

The inherent disadvantage of the radar beam riding system is that the beam spreads as it travels outward from the broadcaster (see inverse square law). As the missile flies towards the target, it, therefore, becomes increasingly inaccurate.


Another issue is the guidance path of the missile is essentially a straight line to the target. This is useful for missiles with a great speed advantage over their target, or where flight times are short, but for long-range engagements against high-performance targets the missile will need to “lead” the target in order to arrive with enough energy to do terminal manoeuvres.


Beam riding guidance became more popular again in the 1980s and 90s with the introduction of low-cost and highly portable laser designators. A laser beam can be made much narrower than a radar beam while not increasing the size of the broadcaster.

They are difficult to defend against due to their speed, maneuverability, and flight path

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

Iain Boyd, University of Colorado Boulder, explains how hypersonic missiles work:

These new systems pose an important challenge due to their maneuverability all along their trajectory. Because their flight paths can change as they travel, these missiles must be tracked throughout their flight.

A second important challenge stems from the fact that they operate in a different region of the atmosphere from other existing threats. The new hypersonic weapons fly much higher than slower subsonic missiles but much lower than intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. and its allies do not have good tracking coverage for this in-between region, nor does Russia or China.


Describing a vehicle as hypersonic means that it flies much faster than the speed of sound, which is 761 miles per hour (1,225 kilometers per hour) at sea level and 663 mph (1,067 kph) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) where passenger jets fly. Passenger jets travel at just under 600 mph (966 kph), whereas hypersonic systems operate at speeds of 3,500 mph (5,633 kph) — about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) per second — and higher.


All of the intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world’s nuclear arsenals are hypersonic, reaching about 15,000 mph (24,140 kph), or about 4 miles (6.4 km) per second at their maximum velocity.

ICBMs are launched on large rockets and then fly on a predictable trajectory that takes them out of the atmosphere into space and then back into the atmosphere again. The new generation of hypersonic missiles fly very fast, but not as fast as ICBMs. They are launched on smaller rockets that keep them within the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

Three types of hypersonic missiles

There are three different types of non-ICBM hypersonic weapons: aero-ballistic, glide vehicles and cruise missiles. A hypersonic aero-ballistic system is dropped from an aircraft, accelerated to hypersonic speed using a rocket and then follows a ballistic, meaning unpowered, trajectory. The system Russian forces used to attack Ukraine, the Kinzhal, is an aero-ballistic missile. The technology has been around since about 1980.

A hypersonic glide vehicle is boosted on a rocket to high altitude and then glides to its target, maneuvering along the way. Examples of hypersonic glide vehicles include China’s Dongfeng-17, Russia’s Avangard and the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system. U.S. officials have expressed concern that China’s hypersonic glide vehicle technology is further advanced than the U.S. system.

A hypersonic cruise missile is boosted by a rocket to hypersonic speed and then uses an air-breathing engine called a scramjet to sustain that speed. Because they ingest air into their engines, hypersonic cruise missiles require smaller launch rockets than hypersonic glide vehicles, which means they can cost less and be launched from more places. Hypersonic cruise missiles are under development by China and the U.S. The U.S. reportedly conducted a test flight of a scramjet hypersonic missile in March 2020.

The primary reason nations are developing these next-generation hypersonic weapons is how difficult they are to defend against due to their speed, maneuverability and flight path.

Hiding will be harder than ever and finding will be easier than ever

Monday, April 11th, 2022

As sensors of all kinds become ubiquitous, Christian Brose notes (in The Kill Chain), hiding will be harder than ever and finding will be easier than ever, making it more difficult and riskier to penetrate another country’s territory:

In 2014, for example, the Russian government emphatically denied what most of the world knew to be true: that Russia’s Little Green Men had actively intervened in Ukraine. What revealed the truth (though Moscow never admitted it) was a flurry of pictures and videos of Russian forces and equipment that had been captured and shared on social media, including by Russian soldiers posing for selfies.

This was also how it was revealed that Russia had supplied Ukrainian separatists with the surface-to-air missile system that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. Civilians with smartphones captured the weapon moving away from the scene of the crime, which revealed its Russian military markings, and then they photographed the same system on its way back toward the border of Russia.

Similarly, when the Chinese government denied in 2016 that it was installing military capabilities on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, commercial satellite imagery showed the truth in high resolution.

Militaries in the future will have little hope of hiding large traditional ships, aircraft, or ground force movements.

What Bloch foresaw with stunning prescience was a future battlefield that would be far more lethal than most of his contemporaries imagined

Saturday, April 9th, 2022

In The Kill Chain, Christian Brose tells the story of Jan Bloch:

Jan Bloch was not a soldier. He was a banker who was born into poverty in Warsaw in 1836 but worked his way up to become a wealthy railroad financier in Russian-controlled Poland. He never served a day of his life in uniform. But he was passionate about military issues and for years obsessively studied how the new technologies of his era would change warfare.

Bloch examined the introduction of the machine gun, smokeless gunpowder, long-range artillery, new types of explosives, railroads, telegraphs, steamships, and other innovations. And he traced their increasingly devastating effects from the Crimean War in the 1850s through the American Civil War a decade later, the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Russo-Turkish War that began in 1877, and the start of the Boer Wars in 1880. He poured the results of his lifelong study of technology and warfare into a six-volume doorstop of a book that he published in 1898, four years before his death. He called it The Future of War.

What Bloch foresaw with stunning prescience was a future battlefield that would be far more lethal than most of his contemporaries imagined. The invention of smokeless gunpowder would literally lift the fog of war that had hung thick over past conflicts so that, unlike in previous skirmishes, opposing armies would remain dangerously exposed after the initial volleys of gunfire. Rifles could shoot farther, faster, and more accurately than ever. For centuries, the best professional soldiers could fire a few accurate shots per minute. At the end of the nineteenth century, average conscripts could fire dozens of accurate shots per second. And because bullets had become smaller, soldiers could carry more of them into combat.

Modern fast-loading artillery, equipped with range finders and high-explosive shells, were 116 times deadlier, by Bloch’s calculation, than guns from just a few decades prior.


For Bloch, this meant that battlefields would become killing fields, where combatants would never “get within one hundred yards of one another.” War would cease to be “a hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority.” Instead, Bloch predicted, “the next war will be a great war of entrenchments.”


Much of the war was waged with modern technology but antiquated doctrine.


Another factor that made the war so calamitous was the military technological parity that existed between the great powers.

How is China turning deserts into arable lands?

Friday, April 8th, 2022

China has a total land area of 3.5 million square miles, but only 12% of that land is arable. Researchers there claim to have developed a novel technology that can convert desert to arable land:

The technology developed by the researchers at Chongqing Jiaotong University involves a paste made from plant cellulose, that can greatly improve the ability of desert sands to hold water, minerals, air, microbes, and nutrients essential for plant growth.

This paste was applied to a sandy 1.6-hectare plot in the Ulan Buh Desert, in the Mongolian Autonomous Region. Over time, the plot was transformed into fertile cropland capable of producing tomatoes, rice, watermelon, sunflowers, and corn.

Professor Yang Qingguo, of Jiaotong University, explained that “The costs of artificial materials and machines for transforming sand into the soil is lower compared with controlled environmental agriculture and reclamation”

According to the Chinese researchers, the plants grown in the sandy plot delivered higher crop yields, using the same amount of water needed for growing crops in normally arable soils. Moreover, the amount of fertilizer needed to produce the crops was lower than what is generally required for the growth of vegetables in other soils.

Lethal autonomous weapons have existed for a long time

Thursday, April 7th, 2022

Lethal autonomous weapons have existed for a long time, Christian Brose explains (in The Kill Chain):

Such systems, with varying degrees of capability, are currently in use by at least thirty different states. The US Navy, for example, has used the Phalanx gun and Aegis missile defense systems to defend its ships for decades. Though far less capable than the intelligent machines of today and tomorrow, these systems can be switched into a fully automatic mode that enables them to close the kill chain against incoming missiles without human involvement. The decision to trust those machines to do so was born of necessity: it was unlikely humans could respond fast enough to counter incoming missiles. That inability was deemed a greater danger than the option of turning the kill chain over to a machine that could shoot down missiles in time-sensitive situations more effectively than humans could.

Both militaries had tanks, radios, and airplanes

Tuesday, April 5th, 2022

History is replete with examples of military rivals that had the same technologies, and what set them apart is how they used them, Christian Brose explains (in The Kill Chain):

The archetypal case is that of France and Germany in the 1930s. Both militaries had tanks, radios, and airplanes. But whereas the French chose to employ those technologies as part of their effort to build better versions of the fortifications they had relied upon in World War I, Germany combined those capabilities into a new concept called blitzkrieg, which enabled the German army to maneuver rapidly through France’s defensive positions, capturing Paris in roughly one month in 1940.

The Psychology of Your Scrolling Addiction

Monday, April 4th, 2022

To better understand why people fall into (metaphorical) rabbit holes, researchers conducted a series of studies with a total of 6,445 U.S.-based students and working adults:

Through this research, we identified three factors that influence whether people choose to continue viewing photos and videos rather than switch to another activity: the amount of media the person has already viewed, the similarity of the media they’ve viewed, and the manner in which they viewed the media.

In the first part of our research, we were interested in exploring whether the pull of the rabbit hole would grow stronger or weaker once people had already viewed several videos. We had participants view either five different music videos or just one music video, and then we asked them if they’d rather watch another video or complete a work-related task. In theory, one might expect that people would get tired of watching music videos after watching five in a row, reducing their desire to watch more of them. But in fact, we found that the opposite was true: Watching five videos made people 10% more likely to choose to watch an additional music video than if they only watched one video.

Next, we examined the impact of framing the videos people watched as similar to one another. We showed participants the same two videos, but for half of the participants, we explicitly labelled the videos with the same category label (“educational videos”), while for the other half of the participants, we didn’t include a category label. We found that simply framing the videos as more similar via the category label made people 21% more likely to choose to watch another related video.

Finally, we looked at how people acted after watching several videos consecutively, versus when they watched the same number of videos with some interruptions. We had one group of participants complete two work tasks and then watch two similar videos, while the other group completed the same four tasks, but alternated between them (i.e., work, video, work, video). Despite having done exactly the same activities, the order made a big difference: The participants whose video consumption was uninterrupted were 22% more likely to choose to watch another video than those who alternated between work tasks and videos.

The information that most US military machines collect is not actually processed onboard the machine itself

Sunday, April 3rd, 2022

The information that most US military machines collect is not actually processed onboard the machine itself, Christian Brose explains (in The Kill Chain):

It is either stored on the system and then processed hours or even days later when the machine returns from its mission. Or it is streamed back to an operations center in real time, terabyte by terabyte, which places a huge burden on military communications networks.

Either way, it is the job of humans, not machines, to comb through most of that data and find the relevant bits of information. In 2020, that is the full-time job of literally tens of thousands of members of the US military.


In reality, these supposedly “unmanned” systems require dozens of people to pilot each one remotely, steer its sensors, maintain it on the ground, and analyze the information that it collects, much of which is discarded because there are simply not enough people to process all of it.

Indeed, for years, the US military has supplied only a fraction of the drone missions that its commanders in combat have demanded. The problem has not been a lack of drones, but a lack of people.


In the absence of machines that can share information directly with other machines, this is how the United States connects its battle networks: a lot of people sitting in a lot of large rooms.


More often they use a computer-based instant messaging program called mIRC chat. I have watched individual servicemembers juggling a dozen separate chat windows, which can often involve taking information generated by one machine and manually transferring it to another machine. They call it “hand jamming” or “fat fingering.” It is slow and prone to human error.

A friend of mine who recently did targeting in the US military told me that the best way his unit could get on one page in identifying a target was with Google Maps. They had to gather up all of their different streams of information about the target from their assorted sensor platforms, come to a time-consuming decision on where the target actually was located, and literally drop a pin in Google Maps to direct their shooters where on earth to fire their weapons.

This shows up as a stripe of interference perpendicular to the orbital path of the satellite

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

While most satellite imagery is optical, meaning it captures sunlight reflected by the earth’s surface, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites such as Sentinel-1 work by emitting pulses of radio waves and measuring how much of the signal is reflected back:

Coincidentally, the radars on some missile defence batteries and other military radars operate using frequencies in the NATO G-band (4,000 to 6,000 Gigahertz) which overlaps with the civilian C-band (4,000, to 8,000 Gigahertz), commonly used by open source SAR satellites.

In the simplest terms, this means that when the radar on the likes of a Patriot battery is turned on, Sentinel-1 picks up both the echo from its own pulse of radio waves, as well as a powerful blast of radio waves from the ground-based radar. This shows up as a stripe of interference perpendicular to the orbital path of the satellite.

Patriot missiles are not the only system that create this type of interference. Other military radars that operate on the same C-band frequency include naval radars such as the Japanese FCS-3, the Chinese Type-381 and the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. All should be detectable when switched on and in view of Sentinel-1.

Dan confirmed the site of the radars he discovered during his initial research by using other open sources such as imagery on Google Maps and even data from the Strava running app.

He also highlighted other interesting missile battery locations, such as the Swedish STRIL array which acts as the country’s early warning system against Russian aircraft and missiles.

This was how America acted when it was serious

Friday, April 1st, 2022

It is difficult to overstate the all-encompassing sense of urgency that Washington felt in the early years of the Cold War, Christian Brose explains (in The Kill Chain):

The way Eisenhower saw it, Washington’s primary role was to get the big things right. That started with picking the right people—not necessarily good people or nice people, but exceptional people, the kinds of people who might today be called “founders.” Eisenhower believed in empowering these founders by giving them broad authority to solve clearly defined problems, providing them all of the resources and support they needed to be successful, and then holding them strictly accountable for delivering results. In short, it was a strategy of concentration—of priorities, money, effort, and, most importantly, people.


He awarded gigantic contracts with fat margins to companies and technologists and integrated them into one military-industrial team. He scraped a space launch center out of a boggy stretch of Florida wetland called Cape Canaveral. He repeatedly blew up rocket engines and missile prototypes on the launchpad. But along the way, Eisenhower defended Schriever, got him more money when he needed it, and protected him from bureaucrats and staunch rivals, such as fellow Air Force general Curtis LeMay, who tried to kill the project at every turn…

Eventually, Schriever and his team did the impossible: they developed the Thor, Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons to precise locations on the other side of the planet in minutes.


This was how America acted when it was serious. The paramount concern was picking winners: the priorities that were more important than anything else, the people who could succeed where others could not, and the industrialists who could quickly build amazing technology that worked.


This is how Silicon Valley originated: as a start-up incubated by the Department of Defense. Margaret O’Mara, a historian and former staffer for Vice President Al Gore, has observed, “Defense contracts during and after World War II turned Silicon Valley from a somnolent landscape of fruit orchards into a hub of electronics production and innovations ranging from mainframes to microprocessors to the internet.”


A sprawling bureaucracy materialized in the 1960s to administer and discipline the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower’s more personalized approach to military acquisition and innovation, which was based on picking winners and holding them accountable, became bureaucratized amid the broader adoption of the industrial age management practices that had come into vogue in leading companies.

No one did more to further this trend than Robert McNamara, a veteran of Ford Motor Company who ran the Pentagon for much of the 1960s. Under his tenure, in the spirit of improving efficiency, new layers of oversight, analysis, and management were added, and these grew and began choking off the ability to develop breakthrough technologies quickly.


The result was that the process of developing military technology became harder, slower, and less creative. This outcome only intensified in the early 1970s, when many engineers in Silicon Valley began growing uncomfortable working for the US government as the Vietnam War grew more divisive.