The social problems, of course, were not solved

February 19th, 2021

There had been continual difficulty with the all-Negro units sent into Korea, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War):

The problem is not one of race or color, but of a minority group, anywhere, which has had much of its essential pride as human beings stripped from it. The strongest urge of any minority group, Armenians, French-Canadians, or Untouchables, is to survive. They have no other effective way of fighting.

The old jokes about the military courage of certain minority groups has some basis in fact. Turks joke about the fighting ability of Turkish Christians. The indigenous Christians that Turks know are submerged, wily folk, sharp with money, slyly sticking together against the Moslem world, absolutely uninterested in going out to fight and die for the Turkish State. They see absolutely nothing to be gained by it — nor is there.

A diplomat from Istanbul, several centuries ago, remarked it was odd that Franks in the Western kingdoms were much more like Turks than like Christians. If this Turkish gentleman had visited the medieval ghettos, he might have begun to understand.

Jews in Eastern Europe often went to the gas chambers without a protest, without lifting a hand. The young men of the same human stock raised in Israel are among the toughest, hardiest folk in the world.

[...]

The Columbia professor, and others, discussed practical means of ending the Army’s trouble. They saw only one solution: desegregation.

In front of white men, the sociologists claimed, colored soldiers would feel an urge to prove themselves, and have a chance to develop pride they could never achieve in a segregated unit. They recommended one per squad, or two, no more — because the tendencies of the persecuted are to group together against the world.

[...]

And the United States Army’s combat problem with colored troops was largely ended. Filtered through the white units, they did well. Three weeks after its fiasco on Bloody Ridge, 3/9 performed with excellence.

The social problems, of course, were not solved. A solution to these can be anticipated only when all men look alike, hold the same views, or are so apathetic that it no longer matters.

The establishment media believes that it is the world’s noble and benevolent arbiter of truth

February 18th, 2021

Fredrik deBoer Describes the recent New York Times hit piece on Scott Alexander and his blog SlateStarCodex as an expression of a constant dynamic in media and the Times in particular:

[T]he establishment media believes that it is the world’s noble and benevolent arbiter of truth, and the kind of people who work for the Times are immensely disdainful of and actively hostile to anyone who seeks to inform or persuade the public who does not write for one of a dozen dusty legacy publications and who did not go to one of 20 or so elite colleges. Scott Alexander built up a large and immensely influential readership completely on his own, writing a blog that, whatever its faults, stepped far outside of the narrow and parochial currents that Very Serious Media refuses to leave. This was a threat, a challenge to people like Cade Metz who think that it is their divine right to be the ones to tell the story. So Metz set out to destroy Alexander, with the full backing of the official paper of crossword addicts and columns about bootstraps and dynamism. I’m sure a lot of ink has been spilled about this story, and more will come. Understand: Cade Metz wrote this story because he had to punish Alexander for writing an influential publication with no backing from the important people. Whatever anyone else says, that is the reality.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and yet the country has run out of gasoline

February 18th, 2021

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and yet the country has run out of gasoline:

The socialist government has lost the capacity to extract oil from the ground or refine it into a usable form. The industry’s gradual deterioration was 18 years in the making, tracing back to then-President Hugo Chávez’s 2003 decision to fire the oil industry’s most experienced engineers in an act of petty political retribution.

The near-total collapse in the nation’s oil output in the ensuing years is a stark reminder that the most valuable commodity isn’t a natural resource, but the human expertise to put it to productive use.

[...]

“Drivers who operate gas-powered busses prefer to keep them parked so that they can suck out the gas and later resell it,” says Andrés, a public bus operator in Caracas, who asked that we only use his first name.

“[My] bus runs on diesel. It uses 16 [or] 17 gallons daily. Nowadays, we have to wait in a long line to fill up,” he said. “The gas stations even have national guards who ask for bribes before they’ll fill up the tank because the 40 liters that the government gives us isn’t enough.”

Andrés is allowed special access to fill up his tank because he provides an essential city service. But earning the equivalent of just $200 a month, he struggles to make ends meet. So he keeps his bus parked and extracts gas from the tank to resell on the black market, earning about $8 per gallon. To put that into perspective, the average Venezuelan subsists on less than $10 per day.

The little gas that is still available comes via periodic shipments from Iran. But the Venezuelan government doesn’t officially charge at most gas stations. It uses a quota system, so filling a tank can mean waiting in line for days.

David is a mechanic living in Caracas. These days he’s making a living by waiting in line to fill up his tank and then extracting the gas to resell on the black market.

“My business isn’t selling gas,” David says. “It is meeting the needs of my customers.”

“A lot of the clients from my repair shop are elderly people — people who can’t be standing in line for eight hours, or two days, or three days, or a week. I am the person who is sacrificing my time. Clearly, I have to charge for my time. We all have to make a living.”

Much more than you wanted to know about COVID and Vitamin D

February 17th, 2021

Scott Alexander shares his beliefs after doing the research on COVID and Vitamin D:

Does Vitamin D significantly decrease the risk of getting COVID?: 25% chance this is true. The Biobank and Mendelian randomization studies are strong arguments against this; the latitude, seasonal, and racial differences are only weak evidence in favor.

Does Vitamin D use at a hospital significantly improve your chances?: 25% chance this is true. I trust the large Brazilian study more than the smaller Spanish one, but aside from size and a general bias towards skepticism I can’t justify this very well.

Do the benefits of taking a Vitamin D supplement at a normal dose equal or outweigh the costs for most people?: 75% chance this is true. The risks are pretty low, and it will probably bring you closer to rather than further from a natural range if you’re a modern indoor worker (side effects are few; the most serious is probably kidney stones, so don’t take it if you have any tendency towards that). And maybe some day, after countless false leads and stupid red herrings, one of the claims people make about this substance will actually pan out. Who knows?

Men new from the States were often soft

February 17th, 2021

At Bloody Ridge, a new pattern of Korean warfare emerged, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War) — one that resembled the Western Front in World War I:

They needed flamethrowers to reduce the deep enemy bunkers, and they didn’t have them. Worse, few if any men knew how to use them. Boatner set up a school in the use of the flamethrower, and ran men through, quickly. Now, deep in hitherto safe bunkers, soldiers of the Inmun Gun died shrieking in searing flame, as American infantrymen crawled close under fire and sprayed them with newly issued weapons.

Replacements were wandering up to engaged units, and getting killed the first hour, before they could report in. Boatner ordered replacements to be kept in the replacement company at least one day, and to have five or six days’ special training before being sent into combat. Men new from the States were often soft. They were to get conditioning exercises, and it was mandatory that they zero their weapons.

[...]

“Let there be no question: it will be tough. You had better do what your N.C.O.’s tell you, if you want to stay alive. And remember three things: when you’re on the hill, if you stand up you’ll get your ass shot off; if you get off the paths, or roam, you’ll get your ass blown off by mines; and when you take a hill, you’ll be tired as hell, you’ll want to poop out, slap your buddies on the back, and take it easy — but remember, as soon as you take a hill, just as water comes out of a spigot, the mortars come in on you, and blooey! — it’s too goddam late then!”

Wood can easily be turned transparent to make energy-saving windows

February 16th, 2021

Apparently wood can easily be turned transparent to make energy-saving windows:

The standard process for making wood transparent typically involves soaking the wood in a vat of sodium chlorite — a chemical compound used in some bleaches and toothpastes — to remove a structural component of the wood called lignin. However, this takes a lot of chemicals, produces liquid waste that is tough to recycle and can weaken the wood.

Liangbing Hu at the University of Maryland and his colleagues came up with a method that modifies the lignin instead of removing it completely. It is quicker and uses fewer materials than the standard lignin-removal process, and also leaves the wood stronger.

The researchers’ method stems from the recent discovery that lignin can be made transparent by removing only the parts of its molecules that give them their colour. They brushed hydrogen peroxide, which is often used as a disinfectant, over the surface of the wood and then left it under a UV lamp designed to simulate natural sunlight. After soaking the wood in ethanol to remove any remaining gunk, they filled the pores in the wood with clear epoxy, a step that is also part of making lignin-free transparent wood.

The final product is a piece of wood that allows more than 90 per cent of light to pass through it and is more than 50 times stronger than transparent wood with the lignin completely removed. “The transparent wood is lighter and stronger than glass. It could be used for load-bearing windows and roofs,” says Hu. “It can be potentially used to make a see-through house.”

What neither Korea nor America could furnish was leadership

February 15th, 2021

Washington had authorized MacArthur to arm and train hundreds of thousands more ROKs, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War):

Men — tough, patient, hill-padding Korean peasants — there were in plenty. Surplus weapons from the big war, food, and money to pay them, America could easily furnish.

What neither Korea nor America could furnish was leadership.

[...]

The politicians in primitive societies want no generals they cannot trust. They prefer a politically reliable man at the head of a division to a competent one who may happen to belong to the wrong family or team.

[...]

Frequently when the transport of a ROK division was vitally needed to haul ammunition at the front, the trucks were back in the interior carrying firewood for soldiers’ dependents, or on private hire to build the divisional welfare fund. Gasoline disappeared regularly into the civilian economy.

KMAG fought a losing battle against five thousand years of Oriental custom. Most of them, it must be admitted, developed a frustrated respect for the Chinese Reds who overnight destroyed the “silver bullets” tradition of the Chinese Army — the old situation when Chinese generals fought not with bullets of lead, but silver, meaning they could be bought — and who delivered supplies from Canton to Mukden, and from Mukden to Korea without pilfering, tampering, or diversion to private use according to sacred custom. But the Chinese Communists, puritan like all human revolutionists, had means not available to KMAG.

In the CCF it was very easy to have a man shot.

This tokamak produces magnetic bubbles called plasmoids that move at around 20 kilometers per second

February 14th, 2021

A new type of rocket thruster proposed by a physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) would apply magnetic fields to propel plasma:

The new concept would accelerate the particles using magnetic reconnection, a process found throughout the universe, including the surface of the sun, in which magnetic field lines converge, suddenly separate, and then join together again, producing lots of energy. Reconnection also occurs inside doughnut-shaped fusion devices known as tokamaks.

“I’ve been cooking this concept for a while,” said PPPL Principal Research Physicist Fatima Ebrahimi, the concept’s inventor and author of a paper detailing the idea in the Journal of Plasma Physics. “I had the idea in 2017 while sitting on a deck and thinking about the similarities between a car’s exhaust and the high-velocity exhaust particles created by PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX),” the forerunner of the laboratory’s present flagship fusion facility. “During its operation, this tokamak produces magnetic bubbles called plasmoids that move at around 20 kilometers per second, which seemed to me a lot like thrust.”

[...]

Current plasma thrusters that use electric fields to propel the particles can only produce low specific impulse, or speed. But computer simulations performed on PPPL computers and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, showed that the new plasma thruster concept can generate exhaust with velocities of hundreds of kilometers per second, 10 times faster than those of other thrusters.

(Hat tip to Jon Jeckell.)

In the Communist armies there was no rotation

February 13th, 2021

By the summer of 1951, the American Army had changed, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), as battle-hardened troops rotated out, and green troops replaced them:

The CCF and the Inmun Gun had changed, too.

The cream of the Communist armies had been destroyed, from the Naktong to the Imjin, and from the Imjin to the Soyang.

Replacements coming down the mountains were recent inductees, impressed from rice field and village, untrained, in some cases unarmed and badly clothed.

But though they might not be expert at war, these men were used to hard work and hardship all their young lives. Their leaders set them to work, digging. From the Sea of Japan, on the east, to the Yellow Sea on the west, they burrowed into the earth. They entered mountains from the rear slope, tunneling through to make gun positions opening on the front. They dug bunkers in which a company could safely and warmly bivouac. They dug so deeply into the earth that no conventional gun or cannon could reach them.

They dug bunkers and trenches and firing steps.

And when they had dug these, they went backward and dug a new defensive line, and one beyond that, stretching into the north. They dug a line such as the world had never seen — ten times the depth of any in World War I.

They dug positions that could — and might have to, their leaders reasoned — stand against nuclear explosion.

With their mountains, hollowed out, the training of the new CCF and Inmun Gun could begin. They were taught all the tricks the older men had learned: to move and attack by night, when the terrible American air was impotent; not to rush down valleys, as the CCF had learned to its sorrow on the Imjin and across the Soyang, but again to become phantoms, lurking in the hills, never letting the enemy see them until they chose.

They learned to use their bright new weapons, carried laboriously down from the Yalu, and to load, aim, and fire the huge numbers of cannon with Cyrillic inscriptions on their tubes, now coming into Korea for the first time.

They were sent on patrol, to learn to move quietly and effectively, and to learn the taste of blood.

Over the months, beginning in the summer of 1951, the tough, squat peasant boys from China and Korea learned well.

In the Communist armies there was no rotation.

People may have extra cash to burn on big trips, fancy cocktails and Broadway shows

February 12th, 2021

Executives in industries devastated by COVID-19 clearly want investors to believe that they’re on the verge of a roaring comeback:

And some evidence suggests they may be right. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the national savings rate has jumped during the pandemic, so people may have extra cash to burn on big trips, fancy cocktails and Broadway shows. And, man, do people miss going out.

According to a recent survey by the Harris Poll, 71% of Americans say they miss socializing in restaurants and bars, 61% say they miss shopping in stores and 52% say they miss movie theaters. Growing percentages of people say they’re planning on splurging on vacations, clothes, cars and sporting events when things return to normal. Fifty-nine percent say they would take a COVID-19 vaccine in order to fly again. After news broke that COVID-19 vaccines work, stocks for airlines, cruise lines and other industries that rely on being face-to-face surged.

Places that have gotten the virus under control have already seen some impressive rebounds in travel and leisure. For example, in China, domestic airline travel came roaring back after the country ended its shutdowns. When Shanghai Disneyland reopened, tickets sold out in minutes.

The kind of lessons troops needed to fight this kind of war could be learned only in Korea

February 11th, 2021

R&R was only a stopgap measure, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), and soon there rose talk of Big R, rotation out of Korea and back to the United States:

A point system was set up. It took thirty-six points to rotate.

[...]

The point system had great merits — and great disadvantages. No man liked to risk his neck — and thirty points. The handling of high-point men was a continuing problem of commanders from this time on.

Some men, with enough points, did not rotate. James Mount, who had come to Korea a corporal, was made second lieutenant in the medical service. The promotion delayed him till November.

One colonel, who had had long and arduous service since the beginning, was ready to leave. On the eve of his departure he received his brigadier’s single star. He felt it a crowning accomplishment to his service in Korea — until he was informed that as a general officer he was on a new rotation list; he was now the general officer with the least overseas service in the Far East. Dedicated man that he was, the new brigadier’s remarks were pungent and heartfelt.

After the beginning of truce talks, the primary interest of every man in Korea was going home. It could hardly have been otherwise.

And with rotation, the complexion of the Army changed. Now the men and officers coming in were largely reservists, National Guardsmen, draftees. The percentage of regulars in most line units sank to forty or less, as more and more men were recalled from business and farm to man the line.

[...]

Worse than lack of enthusiasm, the new troops were green. The kind of lessons troops needed to fight this kind of war could be learned only in Korea.

Always make it clear that you are acting out of the goodness of your own heart, not under pressure from the opposition

February 10th, 2021

Commenter Dwarkesh proposes this hypothetical to Bryan Caplin:

If I’ve inherited control of a traumatized dictatorship, and I want to turn it into a capitalist liberal democracy, how should I go about reforming things without causing things to fall apart like they did in the Soviet Union or Iraq?

Caplin offers his best guess:

Consider it a recipe, not an endorsement.

Step 1: Purge known hard-liners en masse, without warning, Godfather style.

Step 2: Swiftly liberalize the economy and civil society from this position of strength, while unequivocally affirming your monopoly on political power.

Step 3: During the same period, open up your society to foreign business, tourism, media, NGOs, etc.

Step 4: Once you’ve had 4–6 years of strong economic growth and rising international prestige, slowly relax your monopoly on power. Always make it clear that you are acting out of the goodness of your own heart, not under pressure from the opposition.

Step 5: After 15–20 years, you’re ready for your first competitive national election. Put strong post-reform protection for your supporters into the constitution so they aren’t tempted to derail your plan.

R&R came to be known as I&I

February 9th, 2021

In any democratic society, equality of sacrifice is a cherished ideal, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), yet in war nothing is more difficult to attain:

Soldiers know that it is never possible to share the load completely. One man went to Korea; another — who equally served — never went west of San Francisco. While American units were decimated in the Far East, others went through training in the European Command, without hearing a shot fired in anger.

[...]

R&R at first worked wonders. Men came off line, away from incessant danger and hardship, for a flight to Tokyo, Yokohama, or Kyoto. They boarded planes at Seoul and elsewhere, gaunt, unshaven, some with the thousand-yard stare. Five days later they returned, new men, rested, bathed, refreshed. R&R gave the troops something to look forward to; it was a morale factor without equal.

It was only later, when the pressure in Korea was not so great, that men going to Japan turned R&R into the great debauch that came to be known as I&I — intercourse and intoxication. Men coming out of weeks and months of hard combat are too tired and beaten down to seek trouble.

Men leaving months of filthy living and screaming monotony tend to seek something else again.

It has long been criticized as viewing adventure through an imperialist lens

February 8th, 2021

Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise is about to be updated to feel more inclusive and less racially insensitive:

The Jungle Cruise, with its ties to the park’s patriarch, is likely to be viewed with a more protective lens by the company’s vast fanbase. Yet the ride has also been one under near-constant evolution since its inception. Its early influences were Disney’s own nature documentaries and the 1951 film “The African Queen,” a favorite of early Disneyland designer Harper Goff.

Its initial conception as “The Jungle Rivers of the World” leaned slightly more educational than today’s more humor-driven take. The ride’s unsavory tribal depictions, largely inspired by images from Papua New Guinea, were added in the years after its opening. These vignettes essentially depict Indigenous people as tourist attraction, attackers or cannibals.

“Horrifyingly racist” is how one of Disney’s peers in the theme park design community, the Thinkwell Group, characterized various Jungle Cruise scenes in an essay published shortly after Disney announced the changes to Splash Mountain.

A spear-waving war party was added to the Jungle Cruise in 1957, as was the “Trader Sam” character, a dark-skinned man today outfitted in straw tribal wear. Disney tiki bars — one on each coast — are named for the character that traffics in stereotypes. He’ll trade you “two of his heads for one of yours.”

[...]

As silly and overly pun-filled as the Jungle Cruise may be, it has long been criticized as viewing adventure through an imperialist lens. Non-Americans are depicted as either subservient or savages. Although the ride is meant to be a collage of Asia, Africa and South America, human figures of the regions are presented as exotic, violent and dimwitted, humor that in the 1950s and 1960s was troublesome and today reeks of racism.

It is “horrifyingly racist” to depict the natives living in the jungle as savages. Or as hostile to the imperialist colonizers.

The only thing that would not be limited were the casualties

February 7th, 2021

For all practical purposes, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), the Korean War ended when Ridgway offered to discuss truce terms:

Having eschewed the goal of victory, the United States had nothing further to gain from continued fighting. It had accomplished its original purpose in going into Korea, the salvation of the Taehan Minkuk.

The Communist World had gained no territory, wealth, or peoples — but by opposing American arms, by defying the United Nations, with some success, Red China had undoubtedly neared great-power status. Her prestige among Asian peoples, still smarting from Western humiliations, was enhanced, whatever moral questions were involved.

A nation that had been continually harassed and humiliated by all powers since 1840 had actually defied the world, and fought it to a standstill. It was this Asian feeling of solidarity with China that Americans found so hard to understand, as typified by the statement of one Captain Weh, of the Nationalist Chinese Army on Taiwan:

“We listened to the radio, and the Communists were defeating the Americans. All of us in this room were officers who had fought with the Generalissimo for many years. Most of us had fought the Communists all our adult lives. One officer had been captured and tortured by them. In a world the Communists won, there could be no place for any of us, or our families.

“It was very bad for us to have the Communists win. But we had very queer feelings, listening to the news of disaster in Korea. It was almost like a certain exaltation. I do not know how to explain it to you Americans.

“For our Colonel, who hated Communists with all his soul, kept saying: ‘The Americans are being beaten by Chinese. The Americans are being beaten by Chinese.’”

[...]

As long as China could hold a U.N. Army at bay, she stood to gain enormous prestige in Asia.

And because the United States Government took a certain naïveté and almost total lack of understanding of Asian Communism to the conference table, the Korean War, stalemated June 1951, would go on for two more years, and half as many men again as were maimed and killed in its first twelve months had yet to suffer and die.

[...]

An army in the field, in contact with the enemy, can remain idle only at its peril. Deterioration — of training, physical fitness, and morale — is immediate and progressive, despite the strongest command measures. The Frenchman who said that the one thing that cannot be done with bayonets is to sit on them spoke an eternal truth.

[...]

Their new orders seemed to read: Fight on, but don’t fight too hard. Don’t lose — but don’t win, either. Hold the line, while the diplomats muddle through.

[...]

But it was harder still for the riflemen and tankers and weapons squads dug in along the scarred, dirty hills. Now they knew less than ever why they dug their holes or why they died. Hoping for the war to end at any moment, they kept one eye on Kaesong or on Panmunjom. When they were ordered to defend a hill or to take one, they knew the action was a limited one, and they knew in their hearts, whatever brave words were said, that such action probably would not affect the outcome of the war at all.

No man likes to give up his life for an inconsequential reason, and there is no honor — only irony — to being the last man killed in a war.

[...]

As the talks droned on at Kaesong, the U.N. Command became more convinced the enemy was stalling. And U.N. commanders agreed that a little pressure, judiciously applied, might have wholesome effect. The decision was made in FECOM, but approved by Washington.

[...]

It was not an ambitious program, or an unreasonable one, in the situation. Policy was guided by restraint, and limited.

The only thing that would not be limited were the casualties.