Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Nakagin Capsule Tower is Finally Gone

One of the world's ugliest buildings is finally gone: the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa and completed in 1972, the building attracted a lot of attention and is featured in thousands of architecture books.

This monstrosity was considered the epitome of two important movements: minimalism, which was of course worldwide, and metabolism. Metabolism was a Japanese movement whose adherents thought buildings should be built in a cellular way, so that they could grow or shrink organically and failing parts could be easily replaced. The idea was that the "capsules" would be replaced as they wore out, and that the electrical systems and so on would be upgraded each time. But, in practice it was nearly impossible to replace the pods, so that didn't happen and the whole building gradually decayed.

This is one of the galling things about 20th-century modernism; the ideology of these architects was all about functionality and technology, but in practice their buildings were often badly laid out, hard to maintain, and expensive to heat and cool. Plus, their roofs leaked. So this "futuristic" building was all but useless after only 40 years.

The tower consisted of 140 self-contained "pods" connected to a steel frame. Each pod measures  2.5 m (8.2 ft) by 4.0 m (13.1 ft) with a 1.3 m (4.3 ft) diameter window at one end. They were designed as living space, but many ended up being used as offices. 


These photographs by Noritaka Minami show that some people were able to do interesting things even with these awful spaces.

But if you ask me, the world is better off without this thing in it.

Putin Follows Stalin, Again

The NY Times is reporting, based on US military sources, that Vladimir Putin is interfering more and more in battlefield decisions in Ukraine, overruling his military commanders. In particular, this has included

rejecting requests from his commanders on the ground that they be allowed to retreat from the vital southern city of Kherson.

A withdrawal from Kherson would allow the Russian military to pull back across the Dnipro River in an orderly way, preserving its equipment and saving the lives of soldiers.

But such a retreat would be another humiliating public acknowledgment of Mr. Putin’s failure in the war, and would hand a second major victory to Ukraine in one month.

As you can see on the map above, Russia holds an area measuring about 250 by 80 km on the west bank of the Dnipro River, just north of Crimea. The Dnipro is a really big river. All the bridges over the river have been destroyed by Ukrainian missile attacks, so Russian supplies have to be carried across on barges. Opinions differ as to how bad the situation is for Russian troops on the west bank. Some observers think front line units regularly run out of ammunition and are ready to crack. On the other hand they have not cracked, and Ukraine's small gains in the region have come at a heavy price.

Some of the most insidery western sources are downright gleeful about the situation, so I guess US intelligence thinks things are bad for the Russians. I have seen a few bold predictions of a major impending victory for Ukraine. If Russian commanders have actually asked to withdraw, they must also be nervous.

Putin is not having it. In his defense you might note that his commanders have performed abysmally, so maybe he is wise not to trust them. But all the precedents here are bad for Russia; I'm sure every Russian officer knows what happened to Soviet troops frozen in place by Stalin's "not one step backward" orders in 1941-42. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

RIP Hilary Mantel

Now I need a new answer to the question, "Who is the greatest living writer?" Some of my favorite lines from the Cromwell saga:

But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

Beneath every history, another history.

It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn: he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and ears for sounds others miss.

When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them. 

Here's one of many lines that make the ambitious Cromwell come alive:

It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.

For a longer and truly wonderful page on the arcane history of England, see here. 

And maybe I will close with this, the ending to "Bring Up the Bodies," my favorite ending to any book ever:

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

Fascism and Hobbits

The NY Times:

Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right leader who is likely to be the next prime minister of Italy, used to dress up as a hobbit.

As a youth activist in the post-Fascist Italian Social Movement, she and her fellowship of militants, with nicknames like Frodo and Hobbit, revered “The Lord of the Rings” and other works by the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien. They visited schools in character. They gathered at the “sounding of the horn of Boromir” for cultural chats. She attended “Hobbit Camp” and sang along with the extremist folk band Compagnia dell’Anello, or Fellowship of the Ring.

All of that might seem some youthful infatuation with a work usually associated with fantasy-fiction and big-budget epics rather than political militancy. But in Italy, “The Lord of the Rings” has for a half-century been a central pillar upon which descendants of post-Fascism reconstructed a hard-right identity, looking to a traditionalist mythic age for symbols, heroes and creation myths free of Fascist taboos.

“I think that Tolkien could say better than us what conservatives believe in,” said Ms. Meloni, 45.

As I am sure I have observed here before, my politics and my artistic tastes don't go together very well.

Grand World Phu Quoc Welcome Center by Vo Trong Nghia Architects



All bamboo. More at the firm's web site.

Links 23 September 2022

Rhyton showing a lynx catching a bird, Persia, First Century BC

Citizens are having trouble getting the police to change their behavior, but some forces have been made to change when their insurance companies threatened to pull their coverage. (Washington Post)

This twitter thread purports to explain what is going on between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but after reading it I know less than before. I guess the best explanation is the crazily shaped border, which looks designed to create misunderstanding.

In obscure but possibly portentous news, Joe Biden is asked if the US would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack and answers, "Yes." So much for strategic ambiguity.

Pope Francis: "Self-defense is not only licit but also an expression of love for the homeland. Someone who does not defend oneself, who does not defend something, does not love it." Well within mainstream Catholic thought but not exactly Franciscan.

"Shortly after New Jersey enacted a strict plastic bag ban three months ago, employees at the Aberdeen ShopRite noticed something unusual — the store’s handheld plastic shopping baskets were vanishing." They're all gone now and the store is not replacing them.

I have the impression that really smart, well-educated people have a fatal attraction to extreme political and economic views. This study finds that I am right.

The UN estimates that China's population peaked in 2021 and will decline 8% by 2050.

Nature Human Behavior publishes new guidelines saying they won't publish any research that might harm any "human population group," which opponents portray as crazed wokeism that will stifle science.

One of the stupid dodges companies and governments are now using to meet "renewable energy" targets is burning pelletized wood. After all, trees are renewable, right? And if we grow trees and then burn them, isn't that carbon neutral? No, it isn't. This claim ignores many inconventient facts: that the trees are cut with gas-powered chain saws, shipped on diesel-powered trucks to electrically-powered factories where the wood is sliced up and compressed, then transported on more trucks, trains or even across the ocean on ships to power plants where they are burned. This is gigantically inefficient and the whole industry would not exist if bureaucrats did not count it as carbon neutral, and we should change that. Ditto for ethanol, which has all the same problems.

Ukraine Links

Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin calls for a holy war against the Antichrist of the West.

Threads on Russian mobilization: Rob Lee, ChrisO, summary of a talk by Ukrainian military writer Aleksey Arestovych, summary of a group podcast with three western experts, Pwn All the Things

Interesting description of the fighting around Kherson in the south. If the Kupyansk offensive was like World War II, the offensive in the south is World War I, a creeping advance by infantry on a battlefield dominated by artillery.

There are these American military guys on Twitter who post 20-30 statement threads that look like the PowerPoints from lame Pentagon briefings. Mostly what they say is blindingly obvious to anyone who has read any military history and follows the headlines from the war. (Here is a recent one.) But they get lots of praise from readers. I think the appeal is that they project an illusion of ordered understanding that many people find compelling, especially amidst the chaos of war.

Three reasons Russians think they can win. One of them is, "The west is weak and worthless." I know Russian nationalists say things like that all the time, but I notice they haven't tried to shoot down any NATO planes. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

A Field Day in Washington, DC

Because of a series of strange events, including two of my colleagues having jury duty on the same day, I got to spend some time in the field this week. We are working in an active construction site in DC, near the new baseball stadium. When I first worked in this area, in the mid 1990s, it was a post-industrial wasteland. Now it is almost fully built out. I think every building you can see in the photo above was built within the past 20 years.

The site. The foundations you can see are from houses and a store built around 1890 and torn down in the 1930s. So, not very old or exciting, so we are doing a limited dig.


Better view of one of the houses. Two great new field techs in these photos that I enjoyed working with. 

And what that dark projection off the back looked like after excavation.

The day's most interesting find. Do you think I'm cursed?

Monday, September 19, 2022

On Studying Algebra and Geometry

As I have written here before, I used to be a math evangelist but gave it up. For me, learning math was an amazing, eye-opening experience; I remember my awe when I realized, in calculus class, how many different kinds of problems could all be reduced to the same simple equations. So for a long time I supported forcing more math on young people and scorned opposition to this as anti-intellectual weakness.

But I have now come to know many people I consider intelligent and thoughtful who never got anything out of math. They never saw any beauty or power in it, never experienced it as anything but suffering. So as part of my long-term struggle to resist imposing my personal views on others I have stopped evangelizing for more math and begun thinking about what we might teach instead of algebra.

But then there's this from Alec Wilkinson, who hated math as a kid but went back to restudy it at the age of 60 (NY Times):

Mathematics, I now see, is important because it expands the world. It is a point of entry into larger concerns. It teaches reverence. It insists one be receptive to wonder. It requires that a person play close attention. To be made to consider a problem carefully discourages scattershot and slovenly thinking and encourages systematic thought, an advantage, so far as I can tell, in all endeavors. Abraham Lincoln said he spent a year reading Euclid in order to learn to think logically.

Studying adolescent mathematics, a person is crossing territory on which footprints have been left since antiquity. Some of the trails have been made by distinguished figures, but the bulk of them have been left by ordinary people like me. As a boy, trying to follow a path in a failing light, I never saw the mysteries I was moving among, but on my second pass I began to. Nothing had changed about math, but I had changed. The person I had become was someone whom I couldn’t have imagined as an adolescent. Math was different, because I was different.

The beginner math mystery, available to anyone, concerns the origin of numbers. It’s a simple speculation: Where do numbers come from? No one knows. Were they invented by human beings? Hard to say. They appear to be embedded in the world in ways that we can’t completely comprehend. They began as measurements of quantities and grew into the means for the most precise expressions of the physical world — e = mc², for example.

The second mystery is that of prime numbers, those numbers such as 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 13 that can be divided cleanly only by one or by themselves. All numbers not prime are called composite numbers, and all composite numbers are the result of a unique arrangement of primes: 2 x 2 = 4. 2 x 3= 6. 2 x 2 x 2 = 8. 3 x 3= 9. 2 x 3 x 3 x 37 = 666. 29 x 31 = 899. 2 x 2 x 2 x 5 x 5 x 5 = 1,000. If human beings invented numbers and counting, then how is it that there are numbers such as primes that have attributes no one gave them? The grand and enfolding mystery is whether mathematics is created by human beings or exists independently of us in a territory adjacent to the actual world, the location of which no one can specify. Plato called it the non-spatiotemporal realm. It is the timeless nowhere that never has and never will exist anywhere but that nevertheless is.

Mathematics is one of the most efficient means of approaching the great secret, of considering what lies past all that we can see or presently imagine. Mathematics doesn’t describe the secret so much as it implies that there is one.

The young Lincoln's fascination with geometry is worth pausing over. Many European intellectuals shared it, because for 2200 years Euclid's geometry was how young pupils were introduced to logical proof. There are hundreds of anecdotes about young intellectuals who were captivated by this magic. I was one. So I was rather shocked to discover that the state of Maryland no longer teaches Euclid, and you can now complete geometry class without proving anything. Instead of learning how to derive the formulae from simple principles you just have to memorize them.

Anyway there is this to be said about math education: as it is it may mainly spread suffering, but if we did not force it on people then many thousands who are susceptible to this magic would never get the chance to experience it.

The Faith of the Simulator

A lot of far-out physics and math types are into the notion that our universe is a gigantic simulation being run on an unimaginable computer. I am not aware of any evidence for this, but some very smart people find it compelling.

So I have been toying with this idea. What would it mean for us to accept it?

And this has led me into daydreaming about launching a cult, the Faith of the Simulator. What would the tenets of this new religion be? What would be its symbols, its rites?

On ethics: should we maintain that since this is a simulation – an experiment, as it were – nothing really matters? Should we say that since the Simulator put us here, our mission is just to experience the simulation to its fullest, to explore it in every possible way? Or should we take the existential approach, and say that since the Simulator gave us no ethical parameters, it is up to us to make the world meaningful as best we can?

Since the Simulator filled the universe with stars and planets, should we consider this a commandment to explore them?

Or should we instead look inward, on the assumption that the secrets of the universe are somehow coded into us, and must therefore be accessible through meditation on the Simulator and its Purpose?

And how should be feel about people in our world making simulations on our small, weak computers? Should we exalt them as the humans who are closest to the creator, whose acts best honor the commandment to walk in the Creator's path? Like, What Would the Simulator Do? (WWTSD)

In the course of this it occurred to me that if a prophet appeared in the world today with the power to do miracles, many people would take this as proof that we really are in a simulation, and wonder why the Simulator was messing with us in this way.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

What Does Joe Biden Believe In? Science.

And the power of government to promote it, and use it to make life better. Ezra Klein in the NY Times:

Let’s start with Biden’s ambition. Four major bills have passed during his presidency: The American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Every one of them, at a core level, is about creating or deploying new technologies to solve ongoing problems.

The American Rescue Plan deployed vaccines and widespread testing and genomic surveillance to stifle the pandemic; the infrastructure bill is thick with ideas to make broadband access universal and develop next-generation energy and transportation technologies; CHIPS is an effort to break our reliance on Taiwanese and South Korean semiconductor manufacturing and keep ahead of China in fields of the future like artificial intelligence and quantum computing; and the Inflation Reduction Act uses tax breaks and loan guarantees to supercharge the wind and solar industries, build up advanced battery manufacturing, develop cost-effective carbon capture systems, and give the auto and home-heating industries reasons to go entirely electric.

Much attention, in recent years, has revolved around how technology can coarsen politics and denude communities. Look no further than the disinformation enabled by social media or the factories closed and towns wrecked by the communication and shipping advances that supercharged globalization. But new technologies can also create new possibilities. The politics of climate change would be impossible if solar panel costs hadn’t fallen by 89 percent and onshore wind costs by 70 percent in 10 years. California’s decision to ban the sale of cars running on internal combustion engines after 2035 would be unthinkable without the rapid advances in battery technology. Vaccination can curb the threat of disease in ways that social distancing can’t, as vaccinations can be sustained, but lockdowns become economically, politically and educationally ruinous.

You can add in the administration's push for more lithium mining, better public transit, and the new ARPA-H, which is supposed to make big, risky bets in medical technology, as DARPA does for military technology.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Who is Defending Lyman, and Why?

Above is a map of the front line in eastern Ukraine posted by a retired American officer who calls himself DefMon. The blue area is what Ukraine seized in their recent offensive. Yellow is the area currently contested. Near the southern end of that area is a town called Lyman. Ukraine has been attacking Lyman for a week, and it has been announced a couple of times that they have taken it, but as of right now it seems they still have not.

Now who, you may be wondering, is defending Lyman so stoutly? Russian paratroopers? The famous 1st Guards Tank Army? No, they all fled from the area, abandoning all their gear.

Lyman is mainly being defended by reservists from the so-called Luhansk Peoples Republic, one of the Russian puppet states in Donbas. Everyone is impressed by their determination; Russian sources call them heroes.

The question is, why? They are fighting for a state created in 2014, recognized by hardly anyone. They are constantly protesting against the miserable conditions they fight under; no pay for months, terrible food (when they get any food), drunken officers who never leave their bunkers and regularly issue them suicidal orders. The Russians give them the worst equipment; recently they have been using T-62 tanks made in the 1960s, and some of them carry World War II rifles. They are last in line for ammunition and everything else.

A story went around last week that one hospital in the LPR was releasing soldiers in their underwear. Their old uniforms were of course cut off them and burned when they came in, and the hospitals have no new clothes to give them.

One of their top leaders. Igor Girkin, is on Telegram every day saying they have been abandoned by the Russian leadership and the war is already effectively lost.

And yet there they are, repelling everything Ukraine can throw at them for day after day.

What is that about?

Is it that they have nothing left but courage? No country, no glory, no money, just grit?

Is it that they have noplace else to go?

Are they just so used to fighting by now that this is just who they are, and all they know to do?

Friday, September 16, 2022

Links 16 September 2022


Bowl from the Nazca area, Peru, depicting a horde of mice

After decades of discussion, New Jersey has purchased nine miles of old train line from Jersey City to Montclair, intending to make it a green corridor through a very densely populated part of America. (NY Times, web site of a private organization backing the project.) The project gets bonus points for crossing the Hackensack River, a name I have always loved.

Another "Native American" university professor resigns after being outed as white. She claimed that her art was based on dreams that came to her from her Anishinaabeg ancestors, but she turned out to be from an thoroughly Anglo Connecticut family. Her web site has a whole series of works she calls "Broken Treaty Quilts," which are not bad but just go on and on – one for each tear that fell on the Trail of Tears, I guess.

Is plastic making us fat? One of the weird ideas that hangs out there in the medical world, unproven and unrefuted.

Drone photograph of the year winners. And the minimalist photography awards.

Unique proteins help tardigrades survive being dried out.

Strange political musings on George Orwell's roses.

Ben Pentreath at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, lots of old steam tractors and WW I and II gear. And Brits at a country fair, a side of English life I saw none of in my time there.

The sick story of a crazy kid who was shot by a cop for refusing to get out of his car.

The discovery of 249 hieroglyphs painted on the stone walls of the Yerkapı Tunnel in the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa near modern-day Boğazkale, Turkey; that tunnel is just amazing.

A claim that this 31,000-year-old skeleton represents the oldest known surgical amputation.

European archaeologists keep excavating the large Neolithic structures known as "roundels" or "circular ditched enclosures." Nobody ever finds any evidence of what they were used for, but archaeologists keep arguing that "more research" will one day tell us. 

The ancient oracle at Claros in modern Turkey continued to be used into the 7th century AD, that is, for at least 250 years after the Roman empire became officially Christian. The archaeologists are not surprised since, as they point out, people still come to Claros in search of sacred space.

Kevin Drum wants to know if the Biden administration really brokered a last-minute compromise to avert a rail strike, or if maybe the union staged the whole thing to help their old pal Joe.

After a Covid pause and a lot of criticism from feminists, young Zulu women will once again perform the reed dance in front of their king this month.

Ukraine Links

In the south, a war of bridges: "A pontoon bridge takes about three hours to build and on average in this spot lasts about 24 hours, Ukrainian officers in Colonel Kostenko’s unit said." (NY Times)

Insane video showing a Russian tank commander thrown high into the air when his tank was struck.

History matters in war: after the defeats at Kupiansk and Izium, an argument broke out on Russian Telegram over whether this would be another Mukden (a battle that led to Russian defeat) or another Narva (a battle from which Russia recovered to win the war).

Good thread on why Russian combat air support has been ineffective.

Jokes on Chinese social media about the Russian collapse at Izium, merciless and amusing. And the government tolerates them.

Several sources are saying that both sides are getting better at anti-drone elecronic warfare, and in some zones, such as the Kherson front, it is very difficult to fly the commercial drones both sides use for scouting. 

Translation of a crazy video which purpots to show mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin of Wagner recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine. Video here.

Thread on the problem of false reporting in the Russian military, which seems to be very serious.

The German general who heads their effort to support Ukraine gives his view of the strategic situation.  He must have a frustrating job, given his superiors' tergivizations over what aid to give.

The recently discovered mass grave in Izium seems, according to this thread, to contain mainly victims of the war; there are even records listing many of their names.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Ukraine's Offensive and War in Public

The NY Times is running a weirdly detailed report on how the plan for Ukraine's recent offensive took shape. According to this piece, Zelensky put his military under a lot of pressure to win a victory before winter, and he was interested in launching a major offensive in the south. This was discussed along a bunch of channels, including regular conversations between US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, and via talks between the Ukrainian leadership and the US and British military attaches in Kyiv. 

One critical moment this summer came during a war game with U.S. and Ukrainian officials aimed at testing the success of a broad offensive across the south. The exercise, reported earlier by CNN, suggested such an offensive would fail. Armed with the American skepticism, Ukrainian military officials went back to Mr. Zelensky.

“We did do some modeling and some tabletop exercises,” Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s policy chief, said in a telephone interview. “That set of exercises suggested that certain avenues for a counteroffensive were likely to be more successful than others. We provided that advice, and then the Ukrainians internalized that and made their own decision.”

The stakes were huge. Ukraine needed to demonstrate that this was not going to become just another frozen conflict, and that it could retake territory, for the morale of its people and to shore up support of the West.

Throughout August, at the behest of Ukrainians, U.S. officials stepped up feeds of intelligence about the position of Russian forces, highlighting weaknesses in the Russian lines. The intelligence also indicated that Moscow would struggle to quickly reinforce its troops in northeast Ukraine or move troops from the south, even if it detected Ukrainian preparations for the counteroffensive. [According to other sources, Ukraine also stepped up its intelligence sharing with the US and Britain.]

“We saw the fact that the Russians actually relocated a lot of their best forces down to the south in preparation for the other counteroffensive that the Ukrainians kicked off,” Mr. Kahl said. “So we had reason to believe that because of the persistent morale challenges, and the pressure of the Ukrainians, that there might be pockets of the Russian military that are a little more brittle than they appear on paper.”

Instead of one large offensive, the Ukrainian military proposed two. One, in Kherson, would most likely take days or weeks before any dramatic results because of the concentration of Russian troops. The other was planned for near Kharkiv.

Together Britain, the United States and Ukraine conducted an assessment of the new plan, trying to war game it once more. This time officials from the three countries agreed it would work — and give Mr. Zelensky what he wanted: a big, clear victory.

Ok, that's great, but why are we already learning about it?  Is is just that the Americans can't keep themselves from bragging about the part they played? I mean, it has been a while since we came up with a good military plan. Or is there some kind of signalling going on? Yo, Putin, we're in this to win it, and we're now putting our personal reputations on the line as well? Do they want to rub it in that they have a better planning staff than the Russians?

Also, since there are rumors of a third Ukrainian offensive in the works, maybe this talk of a two-pronged attack is another ruse?

There is also an interesting tie-in to western military aid. One thing all the smart observers have figured out by now is that the demands for more aid Ukrainian leaders make in public are political acts, not necessarily having any relationship to real military needs. It seems that the actual flow of weapons and supplies is worked out between military staffs who understand the limitations of the pipeline, the actual shortages being faced by the military, and the need for training on new systems.

But the plan, according to an officer on the general staff in Kyiv, depended entirely on the size and pace of additional military aid from the United States. . . . Before the counteroffensive, Ukraine’s armed forces sent the United States a detailed list of weapons they needed to make the plan successful, according to the Ukrainian officer.

Specific weapons, like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, are having an outsize effect on the battlefield. The satellite-guided rockets fired by these launch vehicles, called GMLRS, each contain a warhead with 200 pounds of explosives and have been used in recent weeks by Ukrainian forces to destroy more than 400 Russian arms depots, command posts and other targets, American officials said.

More recently, Ukrainian forces have put American-supplied HARM air-launched missiles on Soviet-designed MiG-29 fighter jets, which no air force had ever done. The missiles have been particularly effective in destroying Russian radars.

“We are seeing real and measurable gains from Ukraine in the use of these systems,” General Milley said last week in Germany at a meeting of 50 countries that are helping Ukraine with military and humanitarian aid. “They’re having great difficulty resupplying their forces and replacing their combat losses.”

This, it seems, is what NATO planners are looking for, not laundry lists but an actual strategy for deploying weapons, training people to use them, and using them in batle. For example, HARM missiles would not have been supplied until Ukraine showed that they had figured out how to fire them from their existing aircraft. (This was quite a trick, since in NATO air forces the missiles are tightly integrated with aircraft radar and navigation systems.)

If anyone is curious. Jomini of the West has posted two of his super-detailed operational maps covering the recent Ukrainian offensive (Part 1 for September 4-10, Part II for September 10-12.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Solar + Wind is Not Enough

Ezra Klein notices something important:

The center of our decarbonization strategy is an almost unimaginably large buildup of wind and solar power. To put some numbers to that: A plausible path to decarbonization, modeled by researchers at Princeton, sees wind and solar using up to 590,000 square kilometers — which is roughly equal to the land mass of Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee put together. “The footprint is very, very large, and people don’t really understand that,” Danny Cullenward, co-author of Making Climate Policy Work, told me.

Obviously that is not going to happen. Which is why we need something else:  most likely that will eventually be nuclear and geothermal, but over the next 15 years it means natural gas. This is also an important point:

The old theory was that we would price carbon, and the market would take care of the planning for us. But we never passed a national carbon tax or cap-and-trade plan. Other countries rely on much more centralized planning by the national government, but our federal government doesn’t have that authority or that capacity. What we’re betting on now is coordination, in part greased by money. But it needs to happen at a scale and speed unlike anything in our recent history. We are already failing to build infrastructure on budget and on time. How will the fractured systems struggling to deliver those projects now begin building more projects, and building them at a far-faster pace?

What the Biden administration is trying to do is just very hard within the US system. Building long-distance transmission lines is a nightmare because there are so many possible stumbling blocks, and building solar farms is getting harder and harder because of local opposition.

More Ukraine

Russia carried out a sort of revenge attack after its recent losses, with strikes on electrical infrastructure that caused blackouts in 5 oblasts. Zelensky responded like this:

Read our lips:
Without gas or without you? Without you.
Without light or without you? Without you.
Without water or without you? Without you.
Without food or without you? Without you. . . .
Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst are not as scary and deadly for us as your 'friendship and brotherhood'.
But history will put everything in its place. And we will be with gas, light, water and food... and WITHOUT you!

Oryx count of destroyed and abandoned Russian equipment, September 8-11:

54 tanks
114 APCs, IFVs, etc.
5 towed artillery
13 self-propelled artillery
9 Grad rocket launchers
2 SAM systems
92 others
And more is still coming in this morning. Before the counting is done we will be looking at an armored division worth of equipment, most of it abandoned. Some of it was not operational; you may have seen photographs of 7 or 8 tanks just sitting around in the yard of a church, which looks to have been a sort of repair yard, since the engine of one tank was next to it on the ground. But people are frankly puzzled by the sheer number of "random" infantry fighting vehicles in particular, just parked, like the one at the top. Why didn't somebody drive these away? No fuel? Or just panic?

Worse for Russia is the large number of abandoned self-propelled artillery pieces. Lately Russia has been fighting mainly with artillery, and with two more 152mm guns we have already seen this morning, that's 15 lost in this one battle.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Putin's Situation

From Dmitri at WarTranslated, English-language Twitter's go-to translator of intercepted Russian phone calls and the like:

Putin’s in a precarious position. On the one hand, his current team can’t make anything work.

On the other, a different, more capable team would hang him at the earliest opportunity.

Conservatives, Liberals, and the Dangerous World

It is an old idea that conservates see the world as a dangerous place, while liberals see it as a safe place to explore, hence their greater openness to new ideas and less interest in militarism.

But this is a cartoon. It completely ignores the question of what dangers we are talking about. To take just one example, many liberal feminists are very worried about the danger of rape. So a serious look at the question might produce a result like this:

Decades of research suggest a correlation between belief in a dangerous world and political conservatism. However, research relied on a scale that may overemphasize certain types of dangers. Furthermore, few other world beliefs have been investigated, such that fundamental worldview differences between liberals and conservatives remain largely unknown. A preregistered study of nine samples (N = 5,461; mostly US Americans) found a negligible association between a newly improved measure of generalized dangerous world belief and conservatism, and that the original scale emphasized certain dangers more salient to conservatives (e.g., societal decline) over others most salient for liberals (e.g., injustice). Across many measures of political attitudes, other world beliefs—such as beliefs that the world is Hierarchical, Intentional, Just, and Worth Exploring—each explained several times more variance than dangerous world belief. This suggests the relevance of dangerous world belief to political attitudes has been overstated, and examining other world beliefs may yield insights.

Over the past six months I have spent a lot of time reading various miltiary thinkers and writers, some of whom are very conservative. I will say that a majority are obsessed with danger in the world: Iran-sponsored terrorism, Houthi anti-ship missiles, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. They like to stare at graphs of rising Chinese naval strength and get really mad about it. They identify strongly with Israel as a place under siege by nefarious elements who might attack at any moment, and who can only be stopped by constant armed vigilance. They share videos of crime sprees in the US. They see a world in which everything they love is under constant threat from Bad Guys.

I also follow the environmental news, so I also regularly read pieces by people who think the world is dying from climate change, acidification, toxin poisons, deforestation, and so on. 

Who is more afraid?

Some fears cut against each other. While environmentally-minded liberals are afraid of climate chage, many conservatives are afraid of an environmental tyranny that will force them to give up their cars, their houses, their lawns, and their right to have children. Maybe their fears are overblow, but it is not at all hard to find environmentalists who want to ban cars (all of them, not just gas-powered ones) and legally limit childbearing to one per family.

And then there are people like me, who are most afraid of fear itself. None of the American and British commentators I follow is more obsessed with the Ukraine war than I am. Ukraine represents dangers I fear greatly. For me, the greatest danger in the world is what we might broadly call Fascism: armed national pride, fed by a belief that the world is full of enemies who must be opposed by toughness and violence. A fear of disorder so great that it seeks to impose ever greater surveillance, ever greater unity, ever greater control; that equates freedom with chaos. Of that, I am very afraid.

All attempts to reduce political division to simple emotions fail, because the world is too complex, and we are too complex, to be understood reductively.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Needless Words

Dear Mr. —

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about [Macbeth’s] ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter.

Yrs,
E. B. White.  

From The Letters of E.B. White

Reminds me of the agents who said they wouldn't read my book because it was too long.

Ukrainian Onslaught Continues

I woke up this morning afraid to check the news from Ukraine, in case the amazing good tidings of the past two days were a mirage. But no; the advance continues. Izium, which Russia took in March after weeks of hard fighting, and even then only after a collaborationist local official handed them a plan of Ukrainian positions and suggested a way around them, was retaken with hardly a shot fired. Seeing that the whole front was collapsing around them, the Russians simply left as fast as they could.

Which was probably the right decision for them, but having to secure another city would at least have slowed Ukrainian forces a little. Instead they are simply plunging onward into the vaccum left by fleeing Russians.

Now the word is that the Russians have also abandoned Lyman, another town they fought hard to take. And still there is no sign of any force forming to stop the Ukrainian advance. There are traffic jams at the Russian border as civilians who collaborated with Russia try to cross.

The only good news for Russia is that most of their troops seem to have escaped, so far, by running faster than their pursuers. But not all; Ukraine reports "thousands" of prisoners, and we have pictures of two captured Lt. Colonels (battalion commanders). Probably hundreds more Russians are just wandering around now in areas bypassed by the fighting, and will be rounded up in coming days.

Photographs of abandoned and destroyed Russian gear are flooding the internet. And this includes high value items like radars, electronic warfare stations, surface-to-air missile launchers, and self-propelled artillery pieces. Dozens of abandoned supply dumps have also been photographed, including large ones in Balakliya and Kupyansk.

I should note that some western observers have been expecting this. They noted a couple of things: first, reports about the shortage of soldiers for the Russians, the forced recruitment of untrained old men into LPR and DNR units, etc., which, taken together with the ongoing Russian offensive in some areas, meant that they could not have enough good troops to defend their whole line; and, second, rumors of new forces being built by Ukraine, along with the fact that some weapons known to have been donated by the west had not been seen in combat, which meant Ukraine was assembling a reserve somewhere, for something. The betting was that this would be used for a major counter attack, although nobody knew where.

Russia simply tried to hold too much territory with too small a force, especially given that they had significant forces concentrated at the locations in Donbas where they were still attacking. The line was bound to crack sometime.

People are noticing that things are hardly going as Putin predicted. Already we have seen rumblings of dissent in Russia, with calls by local officials for Putin to be arrested. This collapse won't help. Here's a good observation:

To foresee literally none of the consequences of the invasion has to be called quite an achievement by Putin.

And I think this is fair:

Given the situation for his forces, Putin's silence over the past days looks rather pathetic. At least, say something to your people.

A cowardly loser.

Zelensky spoke to his people every single day even on the darkest of days. This is leadership, and this is why what is happening is indeed happening.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Links 9 September 2022

Bronze beast found in excavations at Sanxingdui, China, 150 kg

Accusations of "indoctrination" in America public schools go back to the 1840s, when there were ugly battles over whether "non-denominational" religious instruction was really anti-Catholic.

Psychedelics have some promise in the treatment of depression and other mental health problems but some worry they are being dangerously over-hyped.

Photographs of interesting human figures made from trash illegally imported into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, half art, half protest.

The "Toledo War" over the boundary between Ohio and Michigan.

Wonderfully detailed picture map of the road to Kyoto, 1690.

A visti to the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestique in Paris, one of the world's oldest pet cemeteries.

Twitter thread on the dismal arithmetic of book publishing. Most books sell very, very few copies.

And a Twitter discussion of the new labels on the art works at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, glossed by one writer as "the worst I have ever seen." What happens when the desire to be accessible crosses with wokeism.

Nearly a quarter of Hong Kong's young workers have emigrated in the past year.

Good explainer on the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi: the underlying problem is disinvestment, driven by the falling population, severe city budget crisis, and lack of interest by the state legislature in helping a majority black city. Interesting to note that when a city's population falls, all of the old water infrastructure remains in place – even the parts no longer serving anyone – becoming an ever-greater maintenance burden.

Americans are unhappy with the economy, but our GDP is doing much better than that of the big European economies, and our inflation is lower. And that's without even factoring in Europe's war-related energy price spike. (Kevin Drum)

Ancient Maya graffiti.

An argument that cell phones reduced violent crime by making it less important for drug dealers to control territory. 

Via the Silicon Tribesman, photographs of the array of Roman shoes found at Vindolanda. And more of the same.

South Korean government proposes providing parents of newborn children a subsidy of about $740/month in a desperate attempt to raise their birth rate, one of the world's lowest.

Black flight: hundreds of thousands of African Americans have moved to the suburbs, and blacks are now not much more likely than whites to live in big cities. Some people blame "gentrification" but what's really going on is that all the races are becoming more alike in terms of where people want and can afford to live.

In response to the energy crisis created by the Ukraine war, European governments are abandoning orthodox economics and ramping up their spending amidst high inflation. Some are also enacting price limits, profit taxes, and the nationalization of key firms. “Government intervention is back in vogue in a really big way,” says one consultant. People like or tolerate capitalism when things are good, but quickly move away from it in a crisis. (NY Times)

Interesting that event planners in Britain have for years been taking out insurance in case their events had to be cancelled due to the queen's death.

In the NY Times, David Brooks takes on one of the worst trends in American business, the open-plan workplace: 
For decades, research has found that open plan offices are bad for companies, bad for workers, bad for health and bad for morale. And yet they just won’t die. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need a bit of privacy — walls and a door. And yet employers, decade after decade, neglect to give workers what they need, refuse to do what’s in their own self-interest.

Ukraine Update 9 September 2022

Major news from Ukraine! In the north, east of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces broke through Russian lines and advanced nearly 40 km over the past two days. They have taken hundreds of prisoners and captured dozens of vehicles and artillery pieces. On Friday morning they reached the outskirts of the railroad junction of Kupyansk, which is a key supply node for Russian forces in the north. And they may keep going, since there doesn't seem to be anything to stop them.

The story seems to be that in order to defend Kherson in the south and maintain its own offensive in the east, Russia stripped much of its line of army troops. Defense was left to barely trained reservists from the LPR and DNR, Russian police forces, and so on. Front line men were dug in, but there were few tactical reserves behind them. 

On Tueesday morning Ukraine launched an assault at a point in the line just north of Balakliya. According to Russian bloggers, this was led by an "powerful armored fist" of 15 tanks. (Which is not really a lot of tanks; on this front in WW II an "armored fist" would have been at least 40 tanks, and both sides have hundreds of tanks in action.) The front line was overwhelmed, and with no reserves the Ukrainians simply poured through the gap and drove on through one town after another. Again according to Russian sources, the main defenders of Balakliya were Rosgvardia (police) troops whose only heavy weapons were two mortars they did not know how to fire, and who did not know how to reach artillery support on the radios they had been issued. Unsurprisingly, they surrendered or ran. According to Igor Girkin, the attack was aided by Ukrainian special forces roaming in Russian rear areas, causing trouble. There was so much chaos that Russian pilots could not tell friend from foe, so they returned from many missions without discharging their weapons, and when they did fire they sometimes attacked their own men.

Already on Thursday Ukraine had regained the road hub of Balakliya, which was a key Russian objective on the first day of the war; Ukrainian troops raised their flag over the city hall and posted a moving video in which they address their President and say, "we have executed your order." And they are threatening much more. Ukrainian troops are taking losses but they seem to be thrilled to be moving forward after months of stasis; this video shows some crazy guys charging into a Russian-held town on their Humvee, heavy machine gun blazing. With that kind of force and momentum it will take a strong defensive position manned by brave soldiers to stop them, and so far there is no sign of such a defense in this area.

Some Russian bloggers are furious at local commanders, because the bloggers had been reporting a concentration of Ukrainian forces in this area for more than a week, but nothing was done to shore up the line. This makes me suspect that the line was not shored up because there were no troops to send. Not that Russia has no more men, but many are still tied up in the slow-moving Donbas offensive, which has taken less territory in the past month that Ukraine took over the past two days. Others are resting and refitting after six months of combat, and as I said a large force has been committed to the defense of Kherson in the south.

Russian Infantry Fighting Vehicles Abandoned 
during the Retreat from Balakliya

To get an idea of the scale of the losses here, look at the Oryx lists of destroyed Russian vehicles for September 7 and 8, which total 18 tanks, 51 APCs, infantry fighting vehicles etc., 4 towed artillery pieces, 4 self-propelled 152 mm guns, 5 multiple rocket launchers, and 36 others. That's 2-3 battalions, wrecked.

As of Friday morning some observers think the offensive is still rolling and the 10,000 Russian troops at Izium (a major hub with a corps headquarters and so on) are in real danger, and bloggers are frankly begging the Kremlin to send reinforcements. Russian MOD did put out a video showing one battalion of armored infantry on the move, saying they were headed toward Kupyansk, but there's no way to verify that and since Ukraine is said to have 7,000 troops in this offensive, that won't be nearly enough. The advancing forces are pumped up by overrunning one weak Russian position after another and from being cheered by the residents in every town. The map above comes from Rybar, a pro-Russian blogger with a pretty good reputation for accuracy, but it looks worse for Russia than any other map out there. If it is correct, Russian troops will have to abandon a lot more ground in a hurry to avoid capture.

American commentator Mick Ryan says the strategic initiative has shifted decisively to Ukraine.

This could end up being a major turning point in the war. It is a huge moral victory already, lifting Ukrainian spirits and showing their European backers that they can win.

More Ukraine Links

LPR volunteer "Murz" thinks Urkaine's southern offensive will fail, but worries that the Russian leadership will believe their own reports that they have slaughtered Ukrainians and greatly weakened them and then order more suicidal attacks by under-armed and under-trained troops.

Russia has now lost at least 1,000 tanks in Ukraine since February 24, all visually confirmed.

Report from the Wagner Group-affiliated Grey Zone Telegram account on Ukrainian advances in the South.

In Kharkiv, a chimpanzee escaped from the zoo, but then it started to rain and the chimp ran to the keepers who were following it and "agreed to return to the zoo." Video here.

A Russian soldier describes what it's like to be an occupier of Kherson.

Putin seems to be betting that energy warfare will force Europe to abandon Ukraine, but this author doubts that will work. Partly this is because of the impact of Russia's war crimes; after seeing the pictures from Bucha and hearing the regular genocidal pronouncements on Russian television, European leaders are trapped and really cannot make a deal with Putin until he backs down in Ukraine. Plus, the Poles will starve and freeze before they make a deal with Russian invaders, and in the US we are doing fine, and that's really all that's needed to sustain aid to Ukraine.

Here's an interesting tweet: "Spent the day at a parking lot in Zaporizhia where Ukrainians who fled Russian-controlled territories make their first stop. One thing I did not expect: parents saying it's the prospect of their children having to study using Russian programs that finally convinced them to leave." People don't want to watch their children turned against them.

The US supplies Ukraine with the VAMPIRE missile system, which is designed to shoot down drones with missiles that don't cost far more than the drones they are fired at, a major problem with other systems.

MilitaryLand summary of the surprise Ukrainian offensive at Balakliya on September 6-7.

Long interview with a Ukrainian man who just escaped from a Russian-occupied area.

You might have heard that recruitment in the LPR is "scraping the bottom of the barrel;" here's what that means, and what happened when one of these unit found itself in the path of a Ukrainian offensive.

War and tradition: in the first six months of this year Ukraine registered a 21% increase in the number of marriages.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Pictish Symbol Stones at the Meigle Museum, Scotland

The Silicon Tribesman photographs a bunch of obscure Pictish symbol stones at the Meigle Museum in Scotland; I've never seen some of these. They mostly date to the 9th to 10th century.






And below, a very famous stone, Meigle 2, depicting Daniel in the Lions' Den.

And below, Meigle 7, one of the older stones with the symbols something are a form of writing.


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Keeping the Dead from Walking

In Poland, archaeologists have announced the latest in a long series of European "vampire burials," in which measures seem to have been taken to keep the corpse from rising from the grave and causing trouble. The burial dates to the 1600s. The belief that corpses could rise and do harm is very widespread, but it does seem that early modern Europeans had a particular fear of it; to take one example I happen to know about, ancient Babylonians and Assyrians were a lot more worried about ghosts from bodies that had never been buried at all, which they thought roamed in the desert wilderness. As a guess, the European fear of walking corpses has something to do with the Black Death, since the association of vampires with contagious disease is strong in folklore.

This Polish example is a "sickle burial," buried with a sickle across its neck. This does not, so far as I know, appear anywhere in folklore, so it is just a guess that the sickle was intended to keep the body from rising. Some archaeologists have expressed doubts. But what else would it mean? Above is another example, excavated in Poland in 2012.

The most recent example was a mature woman with a strangely placed front tooth (above), which might have inspired rumors about her. She was probably not poor, since she was buried in a silk cap. Besides the sickle, she had a padlock on her toe, which certainly looks like another means of keeping her from walking.

The sickles are only one suspected vampire-thwarting technique. Another method documented in Italy and Poland, was to wedge a brick or stone into the corpse's mouth. In Italy this goes back at least to the 6th century AD. The example above, dating to the 1400s, is known as The Vampire of Venice.

One method that is well documented in folklore, and also in travelers' accounts from the 1700s, is to separate the body from the head. And archaeologists have found several of these, for example a group of graves in Poland that were buried with their heads between their legs. On the other hand this was also sometimes done to criminals, either as a means of execution or after death, so not every headless corpse will be a suspected vampire. 

As you might imagine from modern lore, some bodies had stakes or iron rods driven through their chests to hold them down. In older folklore this is always done to corpses lying in the grave; so far as I know its use on walking vampires is a modern notion.

This area of research may actually have been helped by sensationalizing news stories about these burials. It's certainly the only reason I know about them, and I suspect that Polish and Italian archaeologists might not even know that these techniques were used in both countries if the media had not spread these accounts so widely. I did a lot of research on this sort of thing in the 1990s and at that time there were very few examples in the accessible literature, none of them as clear-cut as these.