Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Never Mind, We'll Do It Ourselves

The Inside Story of How a Team of Renegades Broke Rules, Shattered Barriers, and Launched a Drone Warfare Revolution by Alec Bierbauer and Col. Mark Cooter, USAF (ret) with Michael Marks.

The subtitle is a bit misleading--they weren't renegades, and the only rules broken were bureaucratic ones, and they got top cover for that. It's the story of how the Predator was modified and implemented for use in Afghanistan, first for observation and then armed.

It's a pretty upbeat tale on the whole. Just having a drone with a camera is only the start--where do you base it, how do you control it, and how do you get information to and between mutually hostile departments of the government (CIA and DoD)? And what do you do when you've found your target, but nobody wants to take responsibility for pulling the trigger? And it sounds obvious and easy to stick a rocket on the drone--but it's harder than it seems. The book's a book of problem-solving.

Of course the technology and tactics are all quite obsolete by now--the Ukraine war is a drone/counter-drone control/jamming arms race. Trent Telenko has been complaining that the US isn't taking drones or communications warfare seriously. If the book's any hint, he's probably right.

UPDATE: A man in our Bible study flew fighters in Afghanistan. He said that the initial default for a Predator was that if it lost communications signal, it should fly higher. This caused some near misses when circling fighters found an unmanned drone suddenly start climbing in front of them. The default programming got addressed, but the details had to be reviewed for each mission. "Just keep going straight" is OK for some situations, but not if Iran is a few miles over the border.

Thursday, June 13, 2024


I plead as my excuse that I was quite busy, and not speaking Portuguese or Spanish makes checking sources hard. But the story about a remote tribe getting addicted to social media when Starlink arrived didn't pass the smell test, and I didn't get around to properly vetting it. Social media are text-based/driven; is a remote tribe going to have the literacy rate to get so many caught up in it?

Tuesday, June 11, 2024


From Robbery Under Law: "In the sixteenth century human life was disordered and talent stultified by the obsession of theology; today we are plague-sticken by politics."

The parallel is closer than he suggests, for politics is a religion for many of us.

Sunday, June 09, 2024


Granddaughter high school graduation was crowded but went smoothly. A gymnast did a back flip before receiving his diploma cover, the class clown got a lot of attention, and one name got drowned out by the continued cheering/blatting for the previous recipient, but otherwise all was orderly.

The student speeches were short. As freshmen they'd had to study from home for Covid reasons, and as juniors the high school had split in two, so there was a lot of congratulation about resilience and forging new paths and whatnot, and lots of talk about potential.

"Infinite potential," according to one speaker. If any of the students think they have infinite potential, they didn't take any substantive courses. I didn't like to contemplate the matter, but high school made it pretty clear that I wasn't any good at PE or very quick at learning foreign languages—not exactly infinite potential there.

We're making graduation do duty as a coming-of-age ceremony. Close, but no cigar. The high school probably still has the short course in "on turning 18" about adult responsibilities, but getting recognized by the school board for having survived a 4-year course of miscellaneous studies isn't the same as getting recognized by the community as being an adult citizen. I wonder if we even agree on what it means to be an adult anymore—what do we expect of a man or a woman?

They probably shouldn't ask me to address the students at commencement. I'd probably annoy them by pointing out the difference, and suggesting that the graduates not try to follow their passions, but their vocations—and spend some time thinking about what sort of legacy they want to leave when they die.

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Pray to Live

by Henri J.M. Nouwen Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic

It's a short book. The first half is Nouwen's description of his life and ideas, and the second half is quotations from Merton's work that illustrate the description.

Merton could be contradictory--saying one thing one time and the apparent opposite another.

His personal journey looking for solitude left him with a more expansive idea of how to achieve it, and the conviction that solitude made him more part of the community.

He flirted with notions from Zen, noting commonalities in practice of meditation, but was alive to the radical difference between that and Christianity.

He held a "we're all sinners" approach. The quotations from My Argument with the Gestapo are less than compelling literature. I hate to say it, but Merton sounded holier-than-thou. He grew sorry for some of his earlier attitudes, perhaps this was among them.

His writing on the early civil rights movement dug in hard into the importance of white repentance and being taught and transformed by the prophetic vision of the oppressed blacks. Some of it sounds very weird over 60 years later. The intervening years haven't been kind to the nice binary he worked from.

Merton wanted to be a hermit; he sought a union with God he thought was only possible in solitude. His attitude towards solitude changed with time, but he always seemed to have the conviction that the contemplative life was superior.

I'm not sure that's quite accurate. It seems to prefer "dis-incarnation", looking behind everything in creation to find God in "pure" form. But although some contemplation seems important to keep us from getting distracted by the superficial, it isn't obvious that it is a good ultimate goal. If we were to empty ourselves of all acts and thoughts and try to apprend God in as unmediated a way as possible, we would still be as limited by our own nature as if we were singing hymns in the choir.

I've tried to puzzle through aspects of incarnation, although not to my complete satisfaction, and my tentative opinion is that God knew what He was doing when He gave us bodies and announced that it wasn't good for man to be alone. Not all the time, anyway--Jesus went off away from His friends to pray alone, so some alone time is important.

Staff protecting violent students

At La Follette high school in Madison in 2022, two staffers (elsewhere alleged to be "student advocates", though one claims to have been personal secretary to the principal) interfered with the arrest of a 16-year-old found with a stolen Glock at school (modified to shoot BBs??? I think the reporter didn't do his research.), claiming to be his guardians and berating the arresting officers.

As will not surprise the reader, the then-16 is now 18, and thus his name is publishable after getting caught again with a gun at school (Kyshawn Bankston). Whether the two interfering staffers are still employed by the MMSD two years later isn't clear from the story (I think at least one isn't), but this time "at least one of the MMSD security assistants became erratic and upset at MPD for arresting the 18-year-old with a gun in their school... he said ... 'We're supposed to protect kids here. This is the second time you've done this to Bankston.'"

I don't know the people involved, but I've heard a few possible explanations for the staff behavior. They are so focussed on advocating for and protecting the students from the consequences of their behavior that they lose sight of the big picture. They are all in on the ideology/religion that holds that criminals are really victims of society/police. They automatically close ranks whenever anyone of their tribe is threatened. They are associated with the same gangs.

None of the options speaks well of MMSD's hiring and supervision practices.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Roman exposure

The Romans, perhaps ashamed of their past, abhorred human sacrifice. According to this, burying unchaste Vestals and drowning hermaphrodite children wasn't human sacrifice—and it probably wasn't. The one was punishment for a criminal offense, a danger to the city, and the second was probably also a public safety measure (it looks human but isn't?).

But they exposed unwanted children. I was curious how the death rate from that compared with that of the explicit child sacrifice among the despised Carthaginians. Short answer: no numbers.

Rabbit hole: Exposure killed a lot of kids, but some survived and what became of them was complicated. How the child was exposed mattered--some were put where they would be quickly found, and some even had identifying trinkets--and some Roman plays involved reconnection with the original parents. But contemporary writers assumed that many would die.

The finder wasn't supposed to make a slave of a free-born baby, but in practice babies were often raised as slaves or prostitutes.

The second link is about the legal status of the children, under Roman, Jewish, and Christian rules. I'd forgotten the bit about "slaves abandoned because they were sick automatically became Roman citizens"--Claudius had some good ideas.

As you probably guessed, with the rise of Christianity, Christians rescued the exposed children they could find, and after it became lawful to have churches, those became places to leave the babies.

Monday, June 03, 2024

Minor amusement

During a boring interlude, I wondered what sequences of continuous functions you might get with $f(x)$, $f(f(x))$, $f(f(f(x)))$, etc, and when would the sequence converge? Restrict ourselves to $x \in [0,1]$, and require that the function also stay in that range. Figuring out the convergence is not a tough problem: if the sequence converges to some $f^{\infty}(x)$, there's only one function that works.

The sequence might not converge at all: For $f(x) = 1-x$ the result jumps back and forth between two graphs. I don't see why you couldn't generate longer chains of repeating graphs.

Or it might converge, but not to something continuous. If $f(x) = x^2$, the graphs get flatter and flatter, and $f^{\infty}(x)$ would be $0$ for $x \neq 1$ and $1$ for $x = 1$

If you parameterize the function and play games with the parameters, I'd bet you get chaotic behavior in there somewhere.

I used pari/gp to create the base images and gimp to create the animations. I know, all the cool kids use python.

FWIW, I noticed that the high school math classes used the same graphics calculators over the time all our kids were in school (12 year age range), and marveled that there'd been no improvements over that time. Well, there have been, and the ubiquitous cell phones can easily download an app that will do their algebra factoring etc for them. The math classes don't dare use anything more recent, or the kids would use their shortcuts and not get the hang of algebra themselves.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Despair and purpose

The hymn had the line "threatens the soul with infinite loss." When do we see that infinite loss?

Despair testifies to that loss. Nobody cares if a leaf blows. If the stakes in our lives were as trivial as that, mere chance or determinist, why would we care? If there were no purpose, if nothing mattered, winning and losing would be so much dust, of no more account that yesterday's breakfast.

But despair says that the significance of success or failure in life is greater than the life itself. Some despair that there is any purpose in life, their pain testifying to how important a purpose would be.

Despair doesn't see the whole picture, of course, and so it expedites the very infinite loss that it dreads.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Kilauea caldera collapse

A time-lapse from the USGS:

For Memorial Day

see this post on poetry and the aftermath of the Civil War. (Ambrose Bierce would have had crisp words for some Madisonians.)
While Bierce, as a veteran, urges the nation to honor all of the American dead, North and South, Melville the civilian promotes a larger reconciliation between the former antagonists, with the goal of preserving the Union.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Teaching algebra ideas in elementary school

Back in the 90's I offered to help at the local elementary school, and somebody took me up on it. They assigned me a half dozen 3rd grade TAG students and gave me a package called Hands-On Equations, in which students use marker and number manipulatives to get a feel for how to manipulate equations.

The theme of the system is a balance scale, and the balancing rules are made easy to visualize. Once you're set up, both sides of the scale always have to balance. You can add numbers to both sides, split into groups to show division, and get a feel for what it means to have a name for an unknown. The video shows a newer version, in which the cubes have actual numbers. I like the older approach better: if you want to represent 12, you count out 12 cubes onto the workpad. It makes numbers easier to visualize, and to separate into groups (divide), or to combine groups (multiply). Since you don't have to do the translations (a 10 cube is the same as a 5 and a 5), the lesson is simpler to visualize.

The kids learned the material quickly enough, and the last lesson had a sneaky problem or so that would trip up kids who were guessing their answers. I thought it was a clever approach. There was one more day than lessons, so I ended by giving them a little explanation of clock math and triangle math, not as parts of a field of study, but as examples of mathy things that didn't work like the usual counting numbers.

Advice to analysts

"What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers" by Martin Petersen: From September 2010.
During one of the most challenging times in my analytical career, I worked for the finest analyst I ever knew. In the middle of the Tiananmen Crisis in 1989—when everyone’s hair was on fire—I found him late one afternoon going through a stack of musty old reports. I asked him what he was doing. He said, “I am looking for things that did not make sense then, but do now.” He found some, and it profoundly affected our line of analysis.

The article ends with this:

The colleague who teaches the Kent School’s Art of Review Seminar with me tells a story about Abraham Lincoln, who in one of the darkest hours of the Civil War attended a Sunday service in that little church that still stands across from the White House. On his way back, he was asked by a fellow parishioner what he thought of the young reverend. Lincoln replied that he had a strong voice and clear message, but that he failed to do one thing; he failed to ask us to do something great.

It's a pity the agency deteriorated so badly. We could use some intelligence.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Kill switch

"ASML and TSMC Can Disable Chip Machines If China Invades Taiwan" "Firms can remotely shut off advanced EUV chip-making machines"

Oh joy. I assume that mainland Chinese industrial espionage made those firms a target years ago, if only to be able to duplicate the work themselves sometime. I think I'm safe in further assuming that they were largely successful. If so, what are the odds that the mainland Chinese now have the ability to shut off those machines themselves?

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Putting your processing "in the cloud" has some nice scalability features. For example, the student registration program needs only a few CPUs most of the year, but for a few weeks it's nice to have a few hundred instances running, without having to have those systems idle the rest of the year.(*)

Putting your data "in the cloud" has nice redundancy: it can be in several different datacenters. If an earthquake takes out one, there's another datacenter that has it too, or maybe a third. Yes, you pay a bit more than managing your data yourself, but the tools are there to access your data from anywhere.

Until it isn't there. It seems Google deleted the account of an Australian pension fund, and all of its records went poof. No backups--pointers to backups went poof along with the account.(**)

an inadvertent misconfiguration during provisioning of UniSuper’s Private Cloud services ultimately resulted in the deletion of UniSuper’s Private Cloud subscription. This is an isolated, ‘one-of-a-kind occurrence’ that has never before occurred with any of Google Cloud’s clients globally. This should not have happened. Google Cloud has identified the events that led to this disruption and taken measures to ensure this does not happen again.

Until it does. Luckily, at $135 billion, "UniSuper (is) a big enough company that, if something goes wrong, it gets the Google Cloud CEO on the phone instead of customer service."

Fortunately a wise planner at UniSuper spent the extra money to have a backup cloud service from an independent vendor, but for a couple of weeks they weren't able to send out pension checks. (I hope that wise planner wasn't fired for spending too much money.)

(*) You pay extra for speed. If you want your calculations done sometime this year, the CPU time is cheap. If you need to crunch a lot of numbers for results in time for the conference next week, expect to pay more.

(**) That is a security feature. If you could get access to data that used to belong to somebody else's account, you could do nasty things with that information. So, no account means no access. A new account will almost certainly not be exactly the same--I wouldn't design it like that, anyhow.