Just don’t be confident and wrong

July 1st, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonAt any given production meeting, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), whether at Tesla or SpaceX, there is a nontrivial chance that Musk will intone, like a mantra, what he calls “the algorithm”:

Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from “the legal department” or “the safety department.” You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.

Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.

Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.

Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.

Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.

The algorithm has some corollaries:

All technical managers must have hands-on experience. For example, managers of software teams must spend at least 20% of their time coding. Solar roof managers must spend time on the roofs doing installations. Otherwise, they are like a cavalry leader who can’t ride a horse or a general who can’t use a sword.

Comradery is dangerous. It makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.

It’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.

Never ask your troops to do something you’re not willing to do.

Whenever there are problems to solve, don’t just meet with your managers. Do a skip level, where you meet with the level right below your managers.

When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.

A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.

The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.

He rarely gives advice, but can make others talk

June 30th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsOn July 17, 1797, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand became foreign minister, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), for the first of his four terms in the post:

Clever, lazy, subtle, well travelled, club footed, a voluptuary and bishop of Autun (a bishopric he never visited) before he was excommunicated in 1791, Talleyrand could trace his ancestry back (at least to his own satisfaction) to the ninth-century sovereign counts of Angoulême and Périgord. He had contributed to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and had been forced into exile, which he spent in England and the United States between 1792 and 1796. Insofar as he had a guiding principle it was a soi-disant affection for the English constitution, though he would never have imperilled his own career or comforts for one moment in order to promote that or any other.

For many years Napoleon held a seemingly unbounded admiration for him, writing to him often and confidentially and calling him ‘the King of European conversation’, although by the end of his life he had seen through him completely, saying, ‘He rarely gives advice, but can make others talk … I never knew anyone so entirely indifferent to right and wrong.’

Talleyrand betrayed Napoleon in due course, as he did everyone else, and Napoleon took it very personally. The likelihood that he would die peacefully in his bed was proof for Napoleon later in life ‘that there can be no God who metes out punishment’.

The trichomes stay in the skin for up to a year

June 29th, 2024

Back before he came up with the easier-to-film Survivor, Mark Burnett produced the Eco-Challenge adventure race, based on Gerald Fusil’s Raid Gauloises adventure race in Costa Rica:

The teams raced non-stop, 24 hours a day, over a rugged 300-mile (500 km) course, participating in such disciplines as trekking, whitewater canoeing, horseback riding, sea kayaking, scuba diving, mountaineering, camel-back riding, and mountain biking. Teams originally consisted of five members, but the team size was reduced to four members early in the event’s history. A feature of the race is the mandatory mix of men and women for all participating teams.

I vividly remember watching the 1997 Australia race, when a bickering team mountain-biking through the rainforest at night, with headlamps on, stopped, because one of the guys screamed out in pain. He didn’t know what had happened, but his best guess was that a snake had bit him, or perhaps some other venomous creature. The team asked if he could go on, because he wasn’t going to get any help until they reached the aid station.

When they got to the aid station, the medic took a look and found no bite, but he did find some nettles from the gympie-gympie bush. What could they do about the excruciating pain? Nothing. How long would the pain last? Months.

Everything in Australia is trying to kill you.

He kept racing.

Other people have not kept going:

North Queensland road surveyor A.C. Macmillan was among the first to document the effects of a stinging tree, reporting to his boss in 1866 that his packhorse “was stung, got mad, and died within two hours”. Similar tales abound in local folklore of horses jumping in agony off cliffs and forestry workers drinking themselves silly to dull the intractable pain.

Writing to Marina in 1994, Australian ex-serviceman Cyril Bromley described falling into a stinging tree during military training on the tableland in World War II. Strapped to a hospital bed for three weeks and administered all manner of unsuccessful treatments, he was sent “as mad as a cut snake” by the pain. Cyril also told of an officer shooting himself after using a stinging-tree leaf for “toilet purposes”.

He’s had too many stings to count but Ernie Rider will never forget the day in 1963 that he was slapped in the face, arms and chest by a stinging tree. “I remember it feeling like there were giant hands trying to squash my chest,” he said. “For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn’t work or sleep, then it was pretty bad pain for another fortnight or so. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower.”

Now a senior conservation officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Ernie said he’s not experienced anything like the pain during 44 years work in the bush. “There’s nothing to rival it; it’s 10 times worse than anything else – scrub ticks, scrub itch and itchy-jack sting included. Stinging trees are a real and present danger.”

So swollen was Les Moore after being stung across the face several years ago that he said he resembled Mr Potato Head.

“I think I went into anaphylactic shock and it took days for my sight to recover,” said Les, a scientific officer with the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Queensland, who was near Bartle Frere (North Peak) studying cassowaries when disaster struck.

“Within minutes the initial stinging and burning intensified and the pain in my eyes was like someone had poured acid on them. My mouth and tongue swelled up so much that I had trouble breathing. It was debilitating and I had to blunder my way out of the bush.”

Wikipedia explains the mechanism:

Very fine, brittle hairs called trichomes are loaded with toxins and cover the entire plant; even the slightest touch will embed them in the skin. Electron micrograph images show that they are similar to a hypodermic needle in being very sharp-pointed and hollow. Additionally, it has been shown that there is a structurally weak point near the tip of the hair, which acts as a pre-set fracture line. When it enters the skin the hair fractures at this point, allowing the contents of the trichome to be injected into the victim’s tissues.

The trichomes stay in the skin for up to a year, and release the toxin cocktail into the body during triggering events such as touching the affected area, contact with water, or temperature changes.

I was reminded of this by the recent story of a hiker who suddenly lost feeling in her legs from a mysterious attacker in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains:

The woman had stopped around 6:30 p.m. to fetch water from a creek along the park’s Taboose Pass when she felt a sting that she thought was a spider bite.

“Afterwards, she was unable to feel the skin on her legs and could not continue her hike down,” Inyo County Search & Rescue officials said in a statement.

The unidentified woman used the last of her phone battery’s juice to call for help. She relayed her coordinates just before the device died.

The Inyo County Search & Rescue pushed a wheeled litter the 1.75 miles between the trailhead and the immobilized hiker — but came just a quarter mile short of the victim when the trail became too rough.

The team stashed the litter and forged ahead until they found the paralyzed woman, who they “slowly walked down the tricky section of the trail while ensuring her safety with ropes.”

The entire rescue operation took more than five hours.

In the days after the scary encounter, medical officials ruled that the bite wasn’t from a spider at all — nor was it even a bite.

“Rescuers believe that the individual who needed rescuing was stung by stinging nettles located on the overgrown trail,” Lindsey Stine of the county sheriff’s office told The Post.

Fortunately, the symptoms from California’s stinging nettles don’t last longer than 24 hours.

All of the global cities that we think of as epic took up less than eight square miles

June 28th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanIn The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan reminds us that moving things around is hard:

Anyone who has ever rowed a boat or paddled a canoe in a place where he had to make a portage can (quite en­thusiastically) tell you how much easier it is to move stuff around on water than on land, but have you ever thought about just how much easier it is?


Modern container ships can transport goods for about net 17 cents per container-mile, compared to semi-trailer trucks that do it for net $2.40, including the cost of the locomotion mode as well as operating costs in both instances.

But even this incredible disparity in cost assumes access to an American-style multilane highway, the sort that simply doesn’t exist in some 95 percent of the planet. It also assumes that the road cargo is all transported by semi rather than less efficient vehicles, like those UPS trucks that probably brought you this book. It certainly ignores your family car. It also does not consider the cost and maintenance of the medium of transport itself. The U.S. interstate highway system, for example, responsible for “only” one-quarter of the United States’ road traffic by miles driven, has an annual maintenance cost of $160 billion. By contrast, the Army Corps of Engineers’ 2014 budget for all U.S. waterways maintenance is only $2.7 billion, while the oceans are flat-out free. Toss in associated costs — ranging from the $100 billion Americans spend annually on car insurance, to the $130 billion needed to build America’s 110,000 service stations, to the global supply chain needed to manufacture and service road vehicles — and the practical ratio of road to water transport inflates to anywhere from 40:1 in populated flatlands to in excess of 70:1 in sparsely populated highlands.

Cheap, easy transport does two things for you. First, it makes you a lot of money. Cheap transport means you can send your goods farther away in search of more profitable markets. Historically that’s been not only a primary means of capital generation, but also a method of making money wholly independent of government policy or whatever the new economic fad happens to be; it works with oil, grain, people, and widgets. In business terms, it’s a reliable perennial. Second, if it is easy to shuttle goods and people around, goods and people will get shuttled around quite a bit. Cheap riverine transport grants loads of personal exposure to the concerns of others in the system, helping to ensure that everyone on the waterway network sees themselves as all in the same boat (often literally). That constant interaction helps a country solidify its identity and political unity in a way that no other geographic feature can.


In the era before refrigeration and preservatives, hauling foodstuffs more than a few miles would have been an exercise in futility. Even armies didn’t have much in the way of self-managed supply chains right up into the eighteenth century. Instead militaries relied on the kindness — or lack of defenses — of strangers for provisions.

This kept cities small. Very small. In fact, up until the very beginning of the industrial era in the early 1600s, all of the global cities that we think of as epic — New York City, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Shanghai — took up less than eight square miles. That’s a square less than three miles on a side, about the distance that someone carrying a heavy load can cover in two hours, far smaller than most modern airports. If the cities had been any bigger, people wouldn’t have been able to get their food home and still have sufficient time to do anything else. The surrounding farms couldn’t have generated enough surplus food to keep the city from starving, even in times of peace.


This smallness is why it took humanity millennia to evolve into what we now think of as the modern world. Nearly all of the population had to be involved in agriculture simply to feed itself. The minority was nonsedentary peoples (history calls them barbarians), who discovered that one of the few ways to avoid needing to spend your entire day growing food was to spend your entire day stealing other people’s.

It produces enough glare inside the eye so that it is impossible to see far enough ahead to drive safely

June 27th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingLaser dazzlers or “ocular interrupters”, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), are a good fit with drone capabilities:

They were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan as non-lethal weapons, especially for dealing with drivers. Shining the brilliant green light on a car windscreen signaled to a driver approaching a checkpoint that they need to stop; and when you cannot see, you cannot drive. It does not cause flash blindness, but produces enough glare inside the eye so that it is impossible to see far enough ahead to drive safely. The exact effect depends on conditions, but typically a driver would only be able to progress at 20 mph at best. The dazzling laser also prevents the target from effectively aiming a weapon at the source.

The GLARE MOUT made by B E Meyers has been used extensively by US forces in Iraq and elsewhere. It weighs under ten ounces and is normally clipped on the underside of a rifle; effective range is four hundred meters at night and perhaps half that in daytime, even though the output is barely one-eighth of a watt. Aiming it is as simple as pointing a flashlight, and it would be simple enough to link it to a drone’s camera.


Drones with laser dazzlers could close a road by dazzling drivers, or spread havoc by flying down a freeway and dazzling at random.

Tasers are also a good fit:

Modern Taser-type weapons require very little power. Early Tasers used several AA batteries, but the latest versions only need a couple of lithium batteries to give repeated five-second shocks. A drone equipped with this type of weapon can disable a human target for as long as necessary, for example to keep them out of action while the rest of the swarm completes an attack.

Curiously, the book was out of print

June 26th, 2024

Fourth Protocol by Frederick ForsythLarry Taunton downloaded Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol from Audible during the pandemic and listened to it while bouncing through the fields of his ranch on a tractor during breaks in his own writing. The novel contains fictitious letters from the very real English traitor Kim Philby, in which he explains to his communist hosts how British democracy might be subverted from within via a classic “march through the institutions”:

…all history teaches that soundly based democracies can only be toppled by mass action in the streets when the police and armed forces have been sufficiently penetrated by the revolutionaries that large numbers of them can be expected to refuse to obey the orders of their officers and side instead with the demonstrators….

Our friends have done what they can. Since taking control of numerous large metropolitan authorities, through the press and the media, at every level high and low, they have either themselves, or using wild young people of the Trotskyite [i.e., communist] splinter factions as shock troops, carried out an unrelenting campaign to denigrate, vilify and undermine the British police. The aim, of course, is to vitiate or destroy the confidence of the British public in their police, which unfortunately remains the most affable and disciplined in the world….

I have narrated all of this only to substantiate one argument … that the path [to socialism] now lies though … the largely successful campaign of the Hard Left to take over the Labour Party from inside…

He decided to order a hard copy of the book to inspect those passages more closely:

Curiously, the book was out of print.

How could this be? It was, after all, a major (if somewhat mediocre) movie starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan. Forsyth’s other books remain in print, so why not this one? From the seat of my tractor, I instead purchased a copy of the 1995 Bantam Books (US) edition from an online used book dealer. A few days later, it arrived.

These paragraphs were missing.

This was more than a little strange. Going still deeper into the warren of tunnels, I ordered a copy of the 1994 Viking (US) edition.

Again, not there.

Finally, I ordered the Hutchinson & Company (UK) first edition. Somehow, this was the one Audible had used. Comparing this original text with the Bantam and Viking editions, I found that it contained 24 chapters while the others contained only 23. This was because chapters three and four were combined in the North American editions. But that’s not all that was going on here. Someone had removed select paragraphs in chapters three and four and altogether rewritten portions of them, altering facts, dates, and removing 15 of 20 points enumerated in a Marxist strategy to seize the institutions of political power.

All of this, and yet the publisher’s page of the Bantam Books edition reads:

This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.

The capitalization is not mine; it is the publisher’s. And, of course, it’s not true. Whole pages had been omitted from the original hardback.

He actually visits Forsyth:

“Did you know that select passages have been removed from The Fourth Protocol?”

His eyebrows shot up. “I did not.”

I explained the missing passages, the total rewrites, and the rabbit hole that had brought me to him. I wasn’t sure which had surprised him more: that the book had been edited without his knowledge or the manner in which I had discovered it. I sensed that I was now being recategorized from groupie to something that intrigued him much more.

“I’ve been bowdlerized!” he exclaimed.


“I suppose someone,” Forsyth speculated, “decided the details about how to build a nuclear bomb were too dangerous, so they took them out.”

“Those aren’t the missing passages.”

He again looked surprised.

“Besides,” I continued, “Clancy did something very similar in The Sum of All Fears, and those parts weren’t removed either.”


“No, it’s not the parts about building a bomb. It’s the parts about how Marxists penetrate the government, the police, and the army especially, and capture them from within.”

He looked thoughtful. After a moment’s reflection, he offered a theory:

If you think about it, my earlier works can be read as history. They were all telling a fictitious story of something that had happened: an attempt on de Gaulle’s life; a hunt for a Nazi war criminal; a group of mercenaries overthrowing an African government. But Protocol is different. You don’t have to read it as history, but as something that might happen. Read that way, it could be deemed a dangerous “how-to” manual.

This made sense. The Fourth Protocol is a “what if.” What if a foreign government or terrorists smuggled parts for a nuclear bomb into Britain or the United States, assembled it, and detonated it? What if Marxists were able to penetrate a major political party in Britain or America, radicalize it, and slowly weaponize government agencies and offices, purging them of their conservative and democratic elements? Of the two scenarios, whoever edited the book thought the latter more unsettling.

The job proved too psychologically challenging for him

June 25th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAfter Khrushchev denied American claims that it was setting up missiles in Cuba, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA convened its Special Group and concluded that Castro had to be deposed:

The man in charge of making sure this happened was Richard Bissell.


Bissell’s official title was now deputy director of plans. As innocuous as it sounded, DDP was in fact a euphemism for chief of covert operations for the CIA. This meant Bissell was in charge of the Agency’s clandestine service, its paramilitary operations. The office had previously been known as the Office of Policy Coordination, or OPC.

The man he replaced was Frank Wisner, who had first introduced Bissell to the CIA:

It was Frank Wisner who’d knocked on Bissell’s door unannounced and then spent a fireside evening in Bissell’s Washington, DC, parlor eleven years before. It was Wisner who had originally asked Bissell to siphon off funds from the Marshall Plan and hand them over to the CIA, no questions asked. Wisner had served the Agency as deputy director of plans from August 1951 to January 1959, but by the end of the summer of 1958, the job proved too psychologically challenging for him — Frank Wisner had begun displaying the first signs of madness. The diagnosis was psychotic mania, according to author Tim Weiner. Doctors and drugs did not help. Next came the electroshock treatment: “For six months, his head was clamped into a vise and shot through with a current sufficient to fire a hundred-watt light bulb.” Frank Wisner emerged from the insane asylum zombielike and went on to serve as the CIA’s London station chief. A broken man, Wisner did not last long overseas. He shuffled in and out of madhouses for years until finally forced to retire in 1962: “He’d been raving about Adolf Hitler, seeing things, hearing voices. He knew he would never be well.” Tragically, on October 29, 1965, Wisner was getting ready to go hunting with his old CIA friend Joe Bryan at his country estate when he took a shotgun out of his gun cabinet and committed suicide.

Napoleon instinctively understood what soldiers wanted, and he gave it to them

June 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon believed above all, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), in the maintenance of strong esprit de corps:

‘Remember it takes ten campaigns to create esprit de corps,’ he was to tell Joseph in 1807, ‘which can be destroyed in an instant.’ He had formulated a number of ways to raise and maintain morale, some taken from his reading of ancient history, others specific to his own leadership style and developed on campaign. One was to foster a soldier’s strong sense of identification with his regiment. In March 1797, Napoleon approved the right of one, the 57th, to stitch onto its colours the words ‘Le Terrible 57ème demi-brigade que rien n’arrête’ (The Terrible 57th demi-brigade which nothing can stop), in recognition of its courage at the battles of Rivoli and La Favorita. It joined other heroic regiments known by their soubriquets such as ‘Les Braves’ (18th Line), ‘Les Incomparables’ (9th Légère) and ‘Un Contre Dix’ (One Against Ten) (84th Line) and showed how well Napoleon understood the psychology of the ordinary soldier and the power of regimental pride. Plays, songs, operatic arias, proclamations, festivals, ceremonies, symbols, standards, medals: Napoleon instinctively understood what soldiers wanted, and he gave it to them.


On campaign Napoleon demonstrated an approachability that endeared him to his men. They were permitted to put their cases forward for being awarded medals, promotions and even pensions, after which, once he had checked the veracity of their claims with their commanding officer, the matter was quickly settled. He personally read petitions from the ranks, and granted as many as he could. Baron Louis de Bausset-Roquefort, who served him on many campaigns, recalled that Napoleon ‘heard, interrogated, and decided at once; if it was a refusal, the reasons were explained in a manner which softened the disappointment’. Such accessibility to the commander-in-chief is impossible to conceive in the British army of the Duke of Wellington or in the Austrian army of Archduke Charles, but in republican France it was an invaluable means of keeping in touch with the needs and concerns of his men. Soldiers who shouted good-naturedly from the ranks would often be rewarded with a quip: when, during the Italian campaign, one called out a request for a new uniform, pointing to his ragged coat, Napoleon replied: ‘Oh no, that would never do. It will hinder your wounds from being seen.’


He would later on occasion take off his own cross of the Légion d’Honneur to give to a soldier whose bravery he’d witnessed.


Napoleon genuinely enjoyed spending time with his soldiers; he squeezed their earlobes, joked with them and singled out old grognards (literally ‘grumblers’, but also translatable as ‘veterans’), reminiscing about past battles and peppering them with questions.


He also ensured that wine from his dinner table was always given to his sentries.


His constant references to the ancient world had the intended effect of giving ordinary soldiers a sense that their lives – and, should it come to that, their deaths in battle – mattered, that they were an integral part of a larger whole that would resonate through French history.


Napoleon taught ordinary people that they could make history, and convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment, an epic whose splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries to come.

During military reviews, which could last up to five hours, Napoleon cross-examined his soldiers about their food, uniforms, shoes, general health, amusements and regularity of pay, and he expected to be told the truth. ‘Conceal from me none of your wants,’ he told the 17th Demi-Brigade, ‘suppress no complaints you have to make of your superiors. I am here to do justice to all, and the weaker party is especially entitled to my protection.’ The notion that le petit caporal was on their side against les gros bonnets (‘big-hats’) was generally held throughout the army.


Napoleon learned many essential leadership lessons from Julius Caesar, especially his practice of admonishing troops he considered to have fallen below expectations, as at Rivoli in November 1796.


Far more often, of course, he lavished praise: ‘Your three battalions could be as six in my eyes,’ he called to the 44th Line in the Eylau campaign. ‘And we shall prove it!’ they shouted back.


Napoleon’s rhetorical inspiration came mostly from the ancient world, but Shakespeare’s St Crispin Day’s speech from Henry V can also be detected in such lines as ‘Your countrymen will say as they point you out, “He belonged to the Army of Italy.” The avalanche of praise he generally lavished on his troops was in sharp contrast to the acerbic tone he adopted towards generals, ambassadors, councillors, ministers and indeed his own family in private correspondence. ‘Severe to the officers,’ was his stated mantra, ‘kindly to the men.’

Efficient staff-work helped Napoleon to ‘recognize’ old soldiers from the ranks, but he also had a phenomenal memory. ‘I introduced three deputies of the Valais to him,’ recalled an interior minister, ‘he asked one of them about his two little girls. This deputy told me that he had only seen Napoleon once before, at the foot of the Alps, as he was on his way to Marengo. “Problems with the artillery forced him to stop for a moment in front of my house,” added the deputy, “he petted my two children, mounted his horse, and since then I had not seen him again.” ’94 The encounter had taken place ten years earlier.

The root of American power is geographic

June 21st, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanIn The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan explains how place matters:

The first I call the balance of transport. Successful countries find it easy to move people and goods within their territories: Egypt has the Nile, France has the Seine and Loire, the Roman and Inca Empires had their roads. Such easy movement promotes internal trade and development. Trade encourages specialization and moves an economy up the value-added scale, increasing local incomes and generating capital that can be used for everything from building schools and institutions to operating a navy. Such constant interconnections are the most important factors for knitting a people into a nation. Such commonality of interests forms the bedrock of political and cultural unity. With a very, very few exceptions, every successful culture in human history has been based on a culture of robust internal economic interactions, and that almost invariably comes from easy transport.


Countries also have to be able to protect themselves. Just as internal trade requires more than a little help from geography — well-rivered plains preferably — so too does defense. Successful countries also have borders that are easy to protect.


It is this balance — easy transport within, difficult transport beyond — that is the magic ingredient for success.


In all three cases — the balance of transport, deepwater navigation, and industrialization — the United States enjoys the physical geography most favorable to their application. Two facts stand out. First, since the root of American power is geographic and not the result of any particular plan or ideology, American power is incidental. Even accidental.

Second, the United States wasn’t the point of origin for any of the respective technologies that created the modern world.

One soldier compares it to firing a bullet through a car

June 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling A hand grenade will do little damage to a vehicle protected by an inch of steel plate, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), but high precision and intelligent targeting make an effective substitute for brute force:

In the 1991 Gulf War, laser-guided Mk 82 bombs weighing five hundred pounds were used for “tank plinking” attacks against individual Iraqi tanks. Unlike in previous wars when dozens of bombs were needed to guarantee a hit on such a small target, laser guidance meant that a pilot could score four kills with four bombs. The bombs were accurate enough, and a bomb of this size was overkill even against heavily-armored Russian-made T-72 battle tank.

In the 2003 war in Iraq, the Hellfire missile weighing a fifth as much proved just as efficient at destroying tanks. Laser guidance meant that every shot was likely to find its mark.


The T-72 has frontal armor more than eighteen inches thick, and the Hellfire can punch through it. But tank armor is not distributed evenly.


The AT4’s warhead weighs just under a pound, and it is capable of penetrating an impressive fifteen inches of armor compared to three inches for the original bazooka. This is still not enough to take a T-72 head on — tank armor is specifically intended to defeat this sort of threat — but it means the soldier can tackle anything else on the battlefield.


From above, the T-72 is a much easier prospect. The large, flat surface of the top of the tank has comparatively thin armor; if it was as thick as the front, the tank would be too heavy to move. The top armor on the T-72 is around two inches thick, and there are spots where it is even weaker.

While a small charge can breach the armor, the damage it does — the “behind armor effect” — is limited. One soldier compares it to firing a bullet through a car — alarming for the people inside but not likely to cause real damage. The high-speed jet of metal will injure anyone it hits and may set off fuel or explosives, but in a vehicle the size of the T-72, most shots will do little harm. That happens when the shot placement is more or less random, as it is likely to be in battle using an unguided weapon like the AT-4, often at long range against a target that may be moving. In practice it usually takes multiple hits from this sort of weapon to stop a tank.


Current guided weapons sense a target and tend to aim approximately at its center of mass. (A major exception is heat-seeking missiles, which home in on hot exhaust pipes). As we have seen, a small drone has enough computing power to do something much more sophisticated.

The CIA learned what the Soviets could and could not see on their radars

June 18th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAfter Gary Powers’ U-2 got shot down, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA and the Air Force were anxious to get its Mach-3 replacement flying:

At Lockheed, each Mach 3 aircraft was literally being hand forged, part by part, one airplane at a time. The production of the aircraft, according to Richard Bissell, “spawned its own industrial base. Special tools had to be developed, along with new paints, chemicals, wires, oils, engines, fuel, even special titanium screws. By the time Lockheed finished building the A-12, they themselves had developed and manufactured thirteen million different parts.” It was the titanium that first held everything up. Titanium was the only metal strong enough to handle the kind of heat the Mach 3 aircraft would have to endure: 500-to 600-degree temperatures on the fuselage’s skin and nearly 1,000 degrees in places close to the engines. This meant the titanium alloy had to be pure; nearly 95 percent of what Lockheed initially received had to be rejected. Titanium was also critically sensitive to the chemical chlorine, a fact Lockheed engineers did not realize at first. During the summer, when chlorine levels in the Burbank water system were elevated to fight algae, inside the Skunk Works, airplane pieces started to mysteriously corrode. Eventually, the problem was discovered, and the entire Skunk Works crew had to switch over to distilled water. Next it was discovered that titanium was also sensitive to cadmium, which was what most of Lockheed’s tools were plated with. Hundreds of toolboxes had to be reconfigured, thousands of tools tossed out. The next problem was power related. Wind-tunnel testing in Burbank was draining too much electricity off the local grid. If a reporter found out about the electricity drain, it could lead to unwanted questions. NASA offered Kelly Johnson an alternative wind-tunnel test facility up in Northern California, near the Mojave, which was where Lockheed engineers ended up—performing their tests late at night under cover of darkness. The complicated nature of all things Oxcart pushed the new spy plane further and further behind the schedule.


Russia was spending billions of rubles on surface-to-air missile technology and the CIA soon learned that the Oxcart’s new nemesis was a system called Tall King. Getting hard data on Tall King’s exact capabilities before the Oxcart went anywhere near it was now a top priority for the CIA.


In 1960, “there were many CIA officers who thought ELINT was a dirty word,” recalls Gene Poteat, the engineer in charge of Project Palladium, which originated with the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence.


“We needed to know the sensitivity of Soviet radar receivers and the proficiency of its operators,” Poteat explains. With Khrushchev using Cuba as a military base in the Western Hemisphere, the CIA saw an opportunity. “When the Soviets moved into Cuba with their missiles and associated radar, we were presented with a golden opportunity to measure the system sensitivity of the SA-2 aircraft missile radar,” says Poteat.


Thornton “T.D.” Barnes was a CIA asset at an age when most men hadn’t graduated from college yet. Married at seventeen to his high-school sweetheart, Doris, Barnes became a self-taught electronics wizard, buying broken television sets, fixing them up, and reselling them for five times the amount. In doing so, he went from bitter poverty—raised on a Texas Panhandle ranch with no electricity or running water—to buying his new bride a dream home before he was old enough to vote. Barnes credited his mother for his becoming one of the CIA’s most important radar countermeasure experts. “My mom saw an article on radar in Life magazine when I was no more than nine or ten. She said I should write a school report on the subject and so I did. That’s when I got bit with the radar bug.”

At age seventeen, Barnes lied about his age to join the National Guard so he could go fight in Korea. He dreamed of one day being an Army officer. Two years later he was deployed to the 38th Parallel to defend the region alongside a British and a Turkish infantry company. It was in Korea that Barnes began his intelligence career at the bottom of the chain of command. “I was the guy who sat on the top of the hill and looked for enemy soldiers. If I saw ’em coming, it was my job to radio the information back to base,” Barnes recalls. He loved the Army. The things he learned there stayed with him all his life: “Never waste a moment. Shine your boots when you’re sitting on the pot. Always go to funerals. Look out for your men.” Once, in Korea, a wounded soldier was rushed onto the base. Barnes overheard that the man needed to be driven to the hospital, but because gas was scarce, all vehicles had to be signed out by a superior. With no superior around, Barnes worried the man might die if he didn’t get help fast, so he signed his superior’s name on the order. “I was willing to take the demerit,” Barnes explains. His actions caught the attention of the highest-ranking officer on the base, Major General Carl Jark, and later earned him a meritorious award. When the war was over General Jark pointed Barnes in the direction of radar and electronics. “He suggested I go to Fort Bliss and get myself an education there,” Barnes explains. So T.D. and Doris Barnes headed to Texas. There, Barnes’s whole world would change. And it didn’t take long for his exceptional talents to come to the attention of the CIA.

Barnes loved learning. At Fort Bliss, he attended classes for Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules missile school by day and classes at Texas Western University by night for the next fifty-four months. These were the missiles that had been developed a decade earlier by the Paperclip scientists, born originally of the German V-2 rocket. At Fort Bliss, Barnes read technical papers authored by former Nazi scientists. Sometimes the Paperclip scientists taught class. “No one really thought of them as former Nazis,” says Barnes. “They were the experts. They worked for us now and we learned from them.” By early 1960, Barnes was a bona fide missile expert. Sometimes, when a missile misfired over at the White Sands Missile Range, it was T.D. Barnes who was dispatched to disarm the missile sitting on the test stand. “I’d march up to the missile, take off the panel, and disconnect the wires from the igniter,” Barnes recalls. “When you are young, it doesn’t occur to you how dangerous something is.” Between the academics and the hands-on experience, Barnes developed an unusual aptitude in an esoteric field that the CIA was just getting involved in: ELINT. Which was how at the age of twenty-three, T. D. Barnes was recruited by the CIA to participate in a top secret game of chicken with the Russians that was part of Project Palladium. Although Barnes didn’t know it then, the work he was doing was for the electronic countermeasure systems that would later be installed on the A-12 Oxcart and on the ground at Area 51.


The plan was for the airplane to fly right up to the edge of Cuban airspace but not into it. Moments before the airplane crossed into Cuban airspace, the pilot would quickly turn around and head home. By then, the Russian radar experts working the Cuban radar sites would have turned on their systems to track the U.S. airplane. Russian MiG fighter jets would be sent aloft to respond. The job of Project Palladium was to gather the electronic intelligence being sent out by the radar stations and the MiGs.


“At the time, ECM [electronic countermeasure] and ECCM [electronic counter-countermeasure] technology were still new to both the plane and the missile. We’d transmit a Doppler signal from a radar simulator which told their MiG pilots that a missile had locked on them. When the Soviet pilots engaged their ECM against us, my job was to sit there and watch how our missile’s ECCM responded. If the Soviet signal jammed our missile and made it drift off target, I’d tweak my missile’s ECCM electronics to determine what would override a Soviet ECM signal.”


“Inside the airplane, we’d record the frequencies to be replayed back at Fort Bliss for training and design. Once we got what we wanted we hauled ass out of the area to avoid actual contact with Soviet planes.”


Back at Fort Bliss, Barnes and the others would interpret what NSA had captured from the Soviet/Cuban ECM transmissions that they had recorded during the flight. In listening to the decrypted Soviet responses to the antagonistic moves, the CIA learned what the Soviets could and could not see on their radars. This technology became a major component in further developing stealth technology and electronic countermeasures and was why Barnes was later placed by the CIA to work at Area 51.

If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible, then unconventional thinking is necessary

June 17th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson Musk calculated that on a good day he made a hundred command decisions as he walked the floor of his Tesla factory, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

“At least twenty percent are going to be wrong, and we’re going to alter them later,” he said. “But if I don’t make decisions, we die.”

One day Lars Moravy, a valued top executive, was working at Tesla’s executive headquarters a few miles away in Palo Alto. He got an urgent call from Omead Afshar asking him to come to the factory. There he found Musk sitting cross-legged underneath the elevated conveyor moving car bodies down the line. Again he was struck by the number of bolts that had been specified. “Why are there six here?” he asked, pointing.

“To make it stable in a crash,” Moravy replied.

“No, the main crash load would come through this rail,” Musk explained. He had visualized where all the pressure points would be and started rattling off the tolerance numbers at each spot. Moravy sent it back to the engineers to be redesigned and tested.

At another of the stations, the partially completed auto bodies were bolted to a skid that moved them through the final assembly process. The robotic arms tightening the bolts were, Musk thought, moving too slowly. “Even I could do it faster,” he said. He told the workers to see what the settings were for the bolt drivers. But nobody knew how to open the control console. “Okay,” he said, “I’m just going to just stand here until we find someone who can bring up that console.” Finally a technician was found who knew how to access the robot’s controls. Musk discovered that the robot was set to 20 percent of its maximum speed and that the default settings instructed the arm to turn the bolt backward twice before spinning it forward to tighten. “Factory settings are always idiotic,” he said. So he quickly rewrote the code to delete the backward turns. Then he set the speed to 100 percent capacity. That started to strip the threads, so he dialed it back to 70 percent. It worked fine and cut the time it took to bolt the cars to the skids by more than half.

One part of the painting process, an electrocoat bath, involved dipping the shell of the car into a tank. Areas of the car shell have small holes so that the cavities will drain after the dipping. These holes are then plugged with patches made of synthetic rubber, known as butyl patches. “Why are we applying these?” Musk asked one of the line managers, who replied that it had been specified by the vehicle structures department. So Musk summoned the head of that department. “What the hell are these for?” he demanded. “They’re slowing the whole damn line.” He was told that in a flood, if the water is higher than the floorboards, the butyl patches help prevent the floor from getting too wet. “That’s insane,” Musk responded. “Once in ten years there will be such a flood. When it happens, the floor mats can get wet.” The patches were deleted.

The production lines often halted when safety sensors were triggered. Musk decided they were too sensitive, tripping when there was no real problem. He tested some of them to see if something small like a piece of paper falling past the sensor could trigger a stoppage. This led to a crusade to weed out sensors in both Tesla cars and SpaceX rockets. “Unless a sensor is absolutely needed to start an engine or safely stop an engine before it explodes, it must be deleted,” he wrote in an email to SpaceX engineers. “Going forward, anyone who puts a sensor (or anything) on the engine that isn’t obviously critical will be asked to leave.”


Near the end of the final assembly line were robotic arms trying to adjust the little seals around the windows. They were having a hard time. One day, after standing silently in front of the balky robotics for a few minutes, Musk tried doing the task with his own hands. It was easy for a human. He issued an order, similar to the one he had given in Nevada. “You have seventy-two hours to remove every unnecessary machine,” he declared.

The robot removal started grimly. People had a lot vested in the machines. But then it became like a game. Musk started walking down the conveyor line, wielding a can of orange spray paint. “Go or stay?” he would ask Nick Kalayjian, his vice president for engineering, or others. If the answer was “go,” the piece would be marked with an orange X, and workers would tear it off the line. “Soon he was laughing, like with childlike humor,” Kalayjian says.


“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he tweeted. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

After the de-automation and other improvements, the juiced-up Fremont plant was churning out thirty-five hundred Model 3 sedans per week by late May 2018.


At a meeting at the Fremont factory on May 22, he recounted a story about World War II. When the government needed to rush the making of bombers, it set up production lines in the parking lots of the aerospace companies in California.


There was a provision in the Fremont zoning code for something called “a temporary vehicle repair facility.” It was intended to allow gas stations to set up tents where they could change tires or mufflers. But the regulations did not specify a maximum size. “Get one of those permits and start building a huge tent,” he told Guillen. “We’ll have to pay a fine later.”

That afternoon, Tesla workers began clearing away the rubble that covered an old parking lot behind the factory. There was not time to pave over the cracked concrete, so they simply paved a long strip and began erecting a tent around it.


In two weeks, they were able to complete a tented facility that was 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, big enough to accommodate a makeshift assembly line. Instead of robots, there were humans at each station.

One problem was that they did not have a conveyor belt to move the unfinished cars through the tent. All they had was an old system for moving parts, but it was not powerful enough to move car bodies. “So we put it on a slight slope, and gravity meant it had enough power to move the cars at the right speed,” Musk says.


“If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible,” Musk told him, “then unconventional thinking is necessary.”


June 30, the deadline Musk had promised for reaching the goal of five thousand cars per week, was a Saturday, and when Musk woke up on the conference room couch that morning and looked at the monitors, he realized they would succeed. He worked for a few hours on the paint line, then rushed from the factory, still wearing protective sleeves, to his airplane to make it to Spain in time to be the best man at Kimbal’s wedding in a medieval Catalonian village.

We have them now

June 16th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon arrived at 2 a.m. on Saturday, January 14 1797, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), at the plateau above the gorges of Rivoli, which would be the key deciding place — the point d’appui or Schwerpunkt — of the coming battle:

It was a clear, very cold, brightly moonlit night and he interpreted the number and positions of the campfires as meaning that the Marquis de Lusignan, an energetic, Spanish-born Austrian general, was too far off to engage until mid-morning. He knew the area intimately, having ridden across it often over the previous four months. If he could retain the Osteria gorge and the slope containing the chapel of San Marco on the eastern side of the battlefield, he believed he could hold off the main attack relatively easily. He needed to let Masséna’s division rest and to buy time for Rey to arrive, so he decided on a spoiling attack to concentrate Alvinczi’s attention. Joubert was ordered to march back onto the Rivoli plateau and send one brigade to Osteria before attacking in the centre, covered by all the French guns on the plateau. Meanwhile Masséna was told to send one brigade to hold Lusignan off for as long as possible.


11 a.m. Lusignan had arrived with 5,000 men. He had driven off Masséna’s detached brigade, and penetrated deep into the French left-rear near Affi, preventing any reinforcements from arriving. Napoleon was only just holding his centre, was under huge pressure on his right flank and Lusignan had turned his left. He had only one brigade in reserve and Rey was still an hour away. When the news arrived that Lusignan had got behind him, staff officers looked anxiously at the preternaturally calm Napoleon, who simply remarked: ‘We have them now.’


When the dense Austrian columns, covered by artillery, assailed the gorge and reached the plateau, they were struck by French artillery firing canister shot into their close ranks from all sides, then bayonet-charged by an infantry column, and then attacked by all the French cavalry available. As they recoiled into the gorge, a lucky shot hit an ammunition wagon — all the more devastating in the narrow space — whereupon Quasdanovich ordered the attack aborted.

Napoleon immediately shifted his own attack to the centre, where the Austrians had next to no artillery or cavalry. Having gained the plateau at great cost, all three Austrian columns were driven off it. Lusignan was checked on his arrival on the battlefield, just as Rey suddenly appeared to his rear.


Since the campaign had begun a year earlier, Napoleon had crossed the Apennines and the Alps, defeated a Sardinian army and no fewer than six Austrian armies, and killed, wounded or captured 120,000 Austrian soldiers. All this he had done before his twenty-eighth birthday. Eighteen months earlier he had been an unknown, moody soldier writing essays on suicide; now he was famous across Europe, having defeated mighty Austria, wrung peace treaties from the Pope and the kings of Piedmont and Naples, abolished the medieval dukedom of Modena, and defeated in every conceivable set of military circumstances most of Austria’s most celebrated generals — Beaulieu, Wurmser, Provera, Quasdanovich, Alvinczi, Davidovich — and outwitted the Archduke Charles.

Napoleon had fought against Austrian forces that were invariably superior in number, but which he had often outnumbered on the field of battle thanks to his repeated strategy of the central position. A profound study of the history and geography of Italy before he ever set foot there had proved extremely helpful, as had his willingness to experiment with others’ ideas, most notably the bataillon carré and the ordre mixte, and his minute calculations of logistics, for which his prodigious memory was invaluable. Because he kept his divisions within one day’s march of each other, he was able to concentrate them for battle and, once joined, he showed great calmness under pressure.

The fact that the Army of Italy was in a position to fight at all, considering the privations from which it was suffering when Napoleon took over its command, was another testament to his energy and organizational abilities. His leadership qualities — acting with harshness when he thought it deserved, but bestowing high praise on other occasions — produced the esprit de corps so necessary to victory. ‘In war,’ he was to say in 1808, ‘moral factors account for three-quarters of the whole; relative material strength accounts for only one-quarter.’


Of course he was hugely helped by the fact that the Austrians kept sending septuagenarian commanders against him who continually split their forces and moved at around half the speed of the French.

You can’t just run people over if they are in the road

June 15th, 2024

Greg Ellifritz looks back at the “protests” of 2020 and offers his advice for surviving mob attacks on your vehicle:

One scenario that played out over and over again was when a mass of protesters blocked a road or highway. Those “protesters” would occasionally attack people in the cars that were stopped on the roadway. Others used the opportunity to carjack the victims and steal their cars. In one such carjacking attempt, an elderly man was dragged from his car by carjackers and beaten with his own oxygen tank.


Avoidance is key. Many protests and riots are either predictable or planned in advance. Stay away from the riots if you want to avoid being victimized. When you see masses of people blocking the roadways, STOP. Don’t go any farther. Do whatever necessary to change directions and get out of the area.


You can’t just run people over if they are in the road. The safest thing to do in a situation like this is to keep moving, bumping people out of the way with your car. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t legal. It’s considered vehicular assault. Even if people are illegally blocking the road, you will likely go to jail if you run them down absent a legitimate threat to your life.


The situation changes, however, once the rioters attack you or your vehicle. With your vehicle surrounded in a manner that you can’t escape and your attackers trying to burn your car, flip it over, or drag you out, it is reasonable to assume that you will suffer serious injury or death. That’s when you can start striking people with your car.


Doors locked and seat belt OFF. It should go without saying that your doors should be locked when driving.


You may not have enough time to do it, but cracking your windows and turning off your ventilation system would also be a good idea when driving in areas where crowds may gather. Windows that are down approximately 1/2” are actually harder to break than windows that are tightly closed. You want to turn off the ventilation system so you don’t get overcome by any smoke or tear gas that is in the air where you are driving. Your seat belt should be off. Seat belts will reduce your ability to draw a firearm. They will also prohibit you from making a speedy escape should your vehicle be set on fire or overturned. In general, it’s safer to stay inside the car in a crowd. If Molotov cocktails hit your car, drive quickly away. The wind will likely extinguish the burning liquid before you are hurt. If the car is disabled, and under fire attack, get out. It’s best to take your chances on foot than be trapped inside and burned alive.


Beware of other forms of roadblocks. The roadblocks designed to make you stop, may not take the form of people. The rioters will steal cars and then purposely abandon them in the middle of roadways. It causes you to stop and also prevents police/fire vehicles from getting to the scene. It’s a common occurrence around the world. Even more nefarious are homemade caltrops. A bunch of those strewn across the roadway would cause all kinds of havoc.

We’re not witnessing the beginning of the end of American power, but the end of its beginning

June 14th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanIn The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan traces a lot back to Bretton Woods:

On July 1, 1944, 730 delegates from the forty-four Allied nations and their respective colonial outposts convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in the skiing village of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, with a mission to do nothing less than decide the fate of the postwar world.


Many of the rooms lacked running, potable water; there wasn’t enough ice or Coca-Cola to go around; staffing was so thin that some nearby Boy Scouts had to be drafted; and the establishment’s manager locked himself in his office with a case of whiskey and refused to come out.


But despite this inauspicious beginning, the delegates set to work on the agenda White and Keynes had laid out and over the next three weeks engaged in multilateral negotiations that were responsible for creating the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development: the institutions that helped knit devastated Europe back together and that hammered out the foundations of the free-trade-dominated global economic system that endures to this day.


The attendees had arrived in Bretton Woods knowing that they had no real leverage to negotiate or bargain with the United States; they had mainly come to hear what White and the other Americans had to say. And what the Americans had to say shocked them all.


Everything from Sicily to Saipan was in essence an American effort fought with American equipment and American fuel. Even in terms of manpower the fronts were largely American affairs, with American troops tending to outnumber all other combatants, Allied and Axis combined, by a two-to-one margin. Only grand affairs such as the Normandy landings featured the sort of multinational resolve the propaganda lauded.


Until that point there really hadn’t been a “global system” in an economic sense. Instead, various European nations maintained separate trade networks stemming from their earlier imperial ventures, in which their colonies served as resource providers and captive markets while mother countries produced finished goods. What interempire trading that occurred was largely limited to goods, whether raw materials or specific manufactures, that could not be sourced within the respective “closed” systems. Most of this cross-empire trade flowed through enterprising peoples like the Dutch who excelled at brokering deals among imperial leaders. Protecting each empire’s trade were its national naval forces, and the use of navies to guard national commerce and raid the commerce of competitors was as old an industry as the use of sail and oar.


Building a navy is one of the most expensive and time-consuming projects a nation can undertake in the best of times, and it wasn’t something that a country emerging from rubble and occupation could even consider.


There was about to be only one navy.


White and the American team didn’t let the others sweat it out for long, and they presented their two-part plan with all the kindness and amused patience that comes from a position of unassailable strength. The first part alone likely stunned the conference into baffled silence: The Americans had no intention of imposing a Pax. They didn’t plan to occupy key transshipment or distribution nodes. There would be no imperial tariff on incomes or trade or property. There would be no governors-general stationed in each of the Americans’ new imperial outposts. No clearinghouses. No customs restrictions. No quotas.

Instead, the Americans said that they would open their markets. Anyone who wanted to export goods into the United States could do so. The Americans acknowledged that devastated Europe was in no condition to compete with American industry, which hadn’t been touched by the scourge of war, so this market openness would be largely one-way. The Americans suggested ideas about a new global system to reduce tariffs, but that was to be negotiated separately and later.

As startling and unexpected as part one of the plan was, part two must have rolled the Europeans in particular back on their heels. The Americans offered to use their navy to protect all maritime trade, regardless of who was buying or selling the cargoes. Even trade that had nothing to do with the United States would be guaranteed by the overwhelming strength of the American navy. Far from proposing a Pax that would fill their coffers to overflowing with trade duties, levies, and tariffs, the Americans were instituting the opposite: a global trading system in which they would provide full security for all maritime trade at their own cost, full access to the largest consumer market in human history, and at most a limited and hedged expectation that participants might open their markets to American goods. They were promising to do nothing less than indirectly subsidize the economy of every country represented at the conference.


While American aid helped get Western Europe back on its feet, it was American markets’ absorption of every bolt, table, and car that the Western Europeans could produce that proved to be the determining factor in resuscitating their fortunes. The American economy, never touched by the bombs that devastated Europe, was larger than any that the Europeans had ever had entry to, and the ability to access that market allowed the Europeans to export their way back to affluence.


As the Cold War ended and entire swaths of the globe changed economic and political orientations, the price grew, and as years turned to decades, the system expanded ever outward, until nearly the entire world had acceded to this American-guaranteed network. In fact, the Bretton Woods agreements are the single most important factor behind the Japanese and Korean miracles, the European Economic Community and its successor the European Union, the rise of China… and the statistical monster that is the U.S. trade deficit.


At Bretton Woods the United States produced about one-quarter of global GDP, about the same proportion as it does in 2014. At Bretton Woods the United States was responsible for nearly half of global defense outlays, about the same proportion as in 2014. At Bretton Woods the American military controlled half of global naval tonnage, about the same proportion as it does in 2014. At Bretton Woods the United States was the only country that for the past eighty years had exited every decade with an economy larger than when it had entered, a record of the modern age that the Americans have since extended to 150 years.


In 2014, we’re not witnessing the beginning of the end of American power, but the end of its beginning.