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.

The cameramen were warned that it would only take the bats a few minutes to warm up and become active again

June 13th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingAn arsonist can do tremendous damage with one lighted match, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), and incendiaries may be the weapon of choice where the payload is limited:

Even a small fire can quickly spread to engulf a building, a city block, or a forest. This was how the Japanese hoped to inflict serious damage with the Fu-Go balloon bombs mentioned in Chapter 1.

The military have preferred to use incendiaries on a gigantic scale. In WWII in Europe, massed Allied bombers would attack first with high explosives to break open buildings, followed by a wave of incendiaries to start fires. In Japan the buildings were less solid, and Boeing B-29 Superfortresses carried out pure incendiary raids on Tokyo and other cities. They dropped the M-69, a hexagonal steel pipe three inches across and twenty inches long filled with a newly-invented jellied gasoline mixed with phosphorus known as napalm. The pipe was heavy enough to break through roof tiles and penetrate into the rooms below; a few seconds after impact, the M-69 threw out flaming gobbets of napalm, which stuck to anything and burned whatever they touched.


Thirty-eight M-69s were bundled together in a “cluster bomb” that split apart midair and scattered its contents over a wide area. Each B-29 carried forty clusters, making over fifteen hundred M-69s per aircraft.

The plan was to start so many fires at the same time that it would be impossible to extinguish them. It worked exactly as intended.


“We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined,” claimed General Curtis LeMay. Although not quite accurate (the atomic bombs killed over 130,000, the Tokyo firebombing about 100,000), it shows how the atomic bomb was merely an extension of existing bombing.


In the right place, even a tiny incendiary would be practically guaranteed to start a fire. One ounce of napalm could be more effective than a dozen M-69s scattered at random, just as one aimed bullet is more effective than a thousand sprayed aimlessly.

This led to one of the most bizarre plans of the war, which makes even the Fu-Go look ordinary. It all started when biologist Dr. Lytle Adams noted that the humble bat might be capable of carrying “a sufficient quantity of incendiary material to ignite a fire.”

Project X-Ray involved capturing thousands of bats and putting them into a state of hibernation by refrigeration, taking advantage of the bats’ natural tendency to sleep when the temperature drops. Each bat could then be fitted with a tiny bomb. The bats were packed into special trays which were in turn fitted into bomb casings, which would be dropped on Japanese cities. Released mid-air the bats would naturally seek refuge and roost in the eaves of houses – after which the incendiary bomb carried by each bat would burst into flames.

The researchers found that a half-ounce bat could carry a load weighing more than itself. A suitable incendiary device was devised, a celluloid capsule filled with napalm with an igniter the size of a match head. It worked in a similar fashion to the static line used by parachutists that automatically pulls the ripcord. In this case, as soon as the bat flew free from the bomb it pulled a pin, releasing a chemical that ate through a wire and triggered the napalm in fifteen minutes.


Disaster struck at Carlsbad Auxiliary Airfield in a test when the bats were not supposed to be released. The X-Ray team was filming the effects of the bat bomb indoors. Live bombs were attached to six hibernating bats. The cameramen were warned that it would only take the bats a few minutes to warm up and become active again. Unfortunately the cameramen did not realize just how active bats can be. Frantic efforts failed to net any of the six armed bats and they flew off, seeking places to roost.

At least one of the six headed for a new control tower, another for a newly-built and unoccupied barracks building. Exactly fifteen minutes after the bombs were armed, both structures burst into flames. The fire rapidly spread in the dry desert conditions, consuming hangars and offices. It was too late to save the airfield buildings, but not too late to maintain security. Baffled firefighters who arrived to tackle the blaze were turned back from the gates while the buildings continued to burn. A few days later the burned remains were bulldozed to hide the evidence.

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

June 12th, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 11th, 2024

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

Step one should be to question the requirements

June 10th, 2024

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

The cylinder is dipped in Spanish wax mixed with vinegar

June 9th, 2024

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

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