Locklin on science

Planning of invention 2: lessons from Sidewinder and China Lake

Posted in Book reviews, Progress by Scott Locklin on March 22, 2021

I read an interesting book about the sidewinder missile development at China Lake. The  book is hyperbolic in places, and seems to leave out the prior art in IR guided missile development; quite a lot of which was horked from the Germans,  presumably because it was a distraction from the story and theme. He also fails to mention how shitty all early guided missiles were. None the less, the sidewinder is a hugely successful decades old design, our oldest, and it’s a little known story which probably wouldn’t have been told without the author’s efforts. It also tells us much about building innovative companies and organizations.

The missile itself is quite beautiful as a technological artifact; something a space alien from a parallel universe, or one with religious prohibitions against computers might have come up with. It didn’t look real cool, but its insides are glorious, at least in the early models, and the story of its design makes one realize how damn clever it was. At the time IR guided missiles were widely seen as impossible, as there is lots of IR bouncing around due to the sun. Sure, now a days you could probably guide a missile using visual imaging, but back then, electronics was done with vacuum tubes and relays, so they were hardly in a place to do that kind of processing. The IR detector was nothing special; sticking it on a precessing gyroscope with a checker pattern for detecting differential motion of the target was an innovation (albeit one which resembled something on the Blohm & Voss missile). Also worthy of note: the steering fins in the front were the result of a design compromise where the head had to be fitted to the rocket body separately due to a limitation in navy ordinance lifter lengths. The fiddling required to make it hit a target without being distracted by reflections on clouds was the real innovation.

China Lake of that era was a classic Klein type-1 organization. It had every quality Klein listed; from use of contractors to rapid prototyping to lack of hierarchy. While there were bosses, and a genius in William McClean on the top, there was a decided lack of hierarchy. Engineers didn’t lord it over technician-slaves: engineers and technicians worked side by side, fiddling with with electronics and machine tools. It was recognized that engineers had skills and perspectives that wouldn’t occur to technicians, but it was also recognized that genius isn’t restricted to people whose ass warmed a chair in a university for a few years. Many of the technicians solved show-stopper problems and their contributions were respected and recognized and they were promoted accordingly. Another characteristic; there were basically no paper managers: technical leadership was everything. The entire effort was run like a pirate ship; funds were taken as booty from other projects. There were formal managerial structures as there are in any large organization, but there was also an informal hierarchy and rules that were more important and which were enforced by Bill McLean and his lieutenants. Bureaucrats were incapable of running the thing: on paper it didn’t really exist.

There were numerous stories of Bill McLean showing up on Friday night and working with a team until the following Monday on a problem. It sounds horrible; the big boss showing up on Friday night to shepherd a problem to solution, but … he stayed with the men, manning the soldering iron and so on. This is actually good for morale; adds a sense of urgency and shared suffering. All the best managers lead from the front on technology projects and otherwise, and you see good ones doing this all the time. Speaking of shared suffering; during the most productive era, everyone lived on base in shitty barracks. While there was after work social life; it was entirely with coworkers at China Lake. This level of social intensity solved lots of problems, and nobody was miserably socially isolated in the suburbs, or rotting in a long commute. This suggests something unpleasant about remote organizations: if you stop to think about it, most startups stop innovating when they move out of the garage. This might be OK if you don’t need to innovate after the original insights, but if you must remain a type-1 company (say, for trading a rapidly changing market), you probably want to put everyone in one place.

The lack of hierarchy in type-1 organizations bled over in other ways. If you’re building an air-to-air missile, it’s obvious (to me anyway) you need to work with pilots. It’s less obvious to modern twerps, you also need to work with the guys bolting the missiles to the planes. The pilots all had strong engineering background, and went on to do great things later; names like Wally Schirra, Tom Moorer, Tom McElmurry. Less known, but arguably more important were the friendships forged by small gestures from the China Lake guys bringing aircraft carrier technicians tools and so on. The little people have much to teach the great and the powerful (and the merely overeducated). You see this sort of thing with many successful and innovative firms; from early Ford to Edwards Demming showing the Japanese they have to listen to the peasants on the assembly line. It was more widely known and accepted pre-1950s as we had great examples of uneducated inventors like Edison to remind us that “experts” were overrated; the rise of managerialism eclipsed this knowledge. There’s the more workaday result of all this; it is insanely good for morale when end-users discuss problems and solutions with the people tasked with solving them.

The project was customer oriented, but bureaucratic customers didn’t dictate design; aka nobody asked for the sidewinder. As McLean put it “I think that a lot of the most interesting and novel solutions come when you don’t have a definite specification.” The Navy, aka the naval bureaucracy who funded it, were not consulted at all. The sailors and pilots who would use the things; they were consulted and their feedback was considered crucial, but even they didn’t exactly guide the design. It was known that such a thing as an IR air to air missile was desirable, and it was the job of the sidewinder team at China Lake to deliver one which worked. Even later in the game when the project became official, the change orders would be done as an end run around the Naval bureaucracy to solve real problems rather than imagined nonsense thought up by a paper pushing dipshit with fruit salad on his chest. I think this was absolutely crucial. Great innovation centers all did this: the U-2 and SR-71 developed by the Skunk Works weren’t designed to specific specifications. Same with the Manhattan project and both US and Soviet space programs in their innovative stages. They were simply built using the best possible path towards hitting a general mark.

Bureaucracies dictating specific crap will always include a patridge in a pear tree and you end up with nonsense science fiction garbage like the F111 or F35; planes which are good for absolutely nothing beyond dropping expensive bombs on cavemen: something a biplane could achieve more efficiently. For innovation; set goals for a smallish team, supply them with barely sufficient money, preferably cadged from non-innovative research groups and get out of the way. You might not get the thing you want, but you’re more likely to get something that actually works, possibly better than the thing you thought you wanted.

Countless videos like this of bureaucratic designed missiles you never heard of missing

One of the obvious reasons for success: the Sidewinder used various rapid prototyping techniques. One of the early ones was an old SCR-584 radar-mount pedestal which was used for IR tracking head development. You could bolt a new idea to it, see if it tracked the correct things, or was distracted by cloud cover, or if you fucked up the servo mechanism or your electronics broke something. Fast and cheap prototypes lead to rapid development. This is true across all fields, and though it is little appreciated in current year of FEA CAD developed atrocities,  this the same idea as “fail fast” from software development mapped back to the world of matter. There is some dim awareness of this in military circles with NGAD, but I have my doubts as to whether they actually understand this in their proverbial bones.

McLean also wouldn’t let engineers sperg out too long on a Platonic solution to a problem; you identify the crucial pieces you don’t know how to do, set in motion multiple groups to solve them and get multiple prototypes done and test for performance versus each other. McLean was trained as a physicist in a golden era when everyone knew the theorists were monkeys; everything important was decided by experiment. You’d rough the math out, then try experiments. All paper (and slide-rule/computer) calculations leave things out, and those things are often what drives performance. Rather than nerding out too much on mathematical models: just build a prototype and test it. Again, if it was a mission critical unsolved piece, like the tracking-head, multiple competing teams would be set in motion and even maintained late in the game: that way you’re less likely to be boxed in by over-committing to a design which later proves unsuitable, or prone to some un-thought-of weakness that shows up later in the development process.

McLean favored the simplest possible solution; also “don’t solve problems you don’t have to solve.” Too often on R&D projects people engage in yak-shaving and bike-shedding on all manner of non-critical path problems. You see this in spades with modern American weapons development; completely irrelevant or simply solved subsystems are festooned with electronics and complexity. You also see this all the time in software development. I have always hated this when I see it and kill it whenever I am able.

Speaking of software development: there wasn’t any. No computer was used at any point in the early development and successful deployment of the sidewinder. Literally every room in China Lake was a laboratory and workshop involving bits of actual matter. There were no carpets on the floors. Old timers at China Lake attributed the downfall of the place to the arrival of computers and carpets. There is something to this: for myself, if I sit in front of the damn computer too long, my brain ossifies into repetitive patterns. Sometimes those patterns are great for grinding something out, but more often, what I really need is a walk, an interrupt; maybe fiddling with some paints or my machine tools or barbells or anything else using different circuits in the brain but the ones connecting eyes to brain to keyboard/mouse. Most code monkeys interrupt themselves with slack or email or social media: this is probably the worst thing you could do. For myself the effect is so large; one of my tricks is I actually switch offices when I get stale: go to a coffee shop, go to my library, sit in the Eames instead of in front of the “big board,” grab the laptop and go sit outside. Sitting in same place doing same thing, you’re going to have same thoughts.

This is a very old problem which even religious monasteries recognized. People get weird if they sit still for too long in one place, and not weird in a good way. Chinese Buddhist monasteries invented the ultimate take you out of your head and into the world technique: boxing and martial arts. Zen Buddhists have all kinds of variants on this, including the master simply clubbing the shit out of you. Saint Benedict invented the concept of ora et labora; prayer and work. Before this, many Christian monks would do weird stuff like sit on a log and pray all day; the eremitic tradition. The Benedictines and their descendants restored Western Civilization after the Roman collapse by combining contemplation with action in the world of matter; the cenobitic tradition. Innovators outside of a few spergs doing math proofs are entirely cenobitic. They engage with each other and the wider world. I’d go so far to say that the modest successes of agile are about 90% attributable to the stand up meeting simply because it forces addle-pated software goobers to physically move. I should create a software development methodology which includes brewing beer or making birdhouses in wood shop or something: I guarantee this will not only create extra revenue for cash-poor startups, it will double usable software output. Maybe we’ll get more innovation in birdhouses or beer brewing, both of which could use some help in current year (IPA makers have ruined everything). FWIIW I have seen very successful startups deal with this problem by only hiring practicing athletes for management. Not only does it somewhat solve the mind-body problem, they’re usually better at motivating people and teamwork as well.

Speaking further of computer dudes, I’m pretty sure the Google 20% idea came from China Lake of this era, as it was in place there. People were encouraged to have hobbies. The hobbies often fed back into the project, since in those days hobbies were entirely physical in nature; people would make things. The place was even mocked for it, as “Bill McLean’s hobby shop.” I want my next company to be compared to a hobby shop; this is a sign you’re winning. It’s how I pick my hobbies too: the less sitting in front of the computer the better.

One of my key takeaways from this book was that “becoming an expert” in a topic is the time of maximum creativity. This is one of those things which I had never heard articulated before but which is almost self evidently true once it is pointed out. While you’re trying to master something, you’re using all your resources to come to grips with it. You’re drawing upon mental faculties which may or may not be useful for your efforts; trying things, discarding them, like a kid learning engineering with the erector set. You’re thinking outside the box because there is, as of yet, no box to think outside of: you’re drawing on all of your military and naval power. Once you’re an expert, the creative stage is over; you’re an expert now. You may push a subject forward as an expert, but you’re more likely to adhere to established conventions and ways of doing things rather than thinking creatively. McLean thought humans were better while they were in the process of becoming something else; took a quote from Locke “you are now what you are in the process of becoming” as his motto. One hack I’ve seen in continually innovative companies recognizing this dynamic: use a weird programming language nobody knows.

McLean didn’t come up with all this in a vacuum; he studied industrial psychology and the successes of the OSRD during WW-2. Kelly Johnson’s managerial innovations all came from the same place McLean got them, with his own personal touch. Same story with both Soviet and US space programs in their most innovative times (long ago). It was a sort of peacetime wartime mentality. People were vested in the result, and everyone was excited about building something new. The OSRD and its legacy are something that ought to be studied more carefully and used as a template for new projects; something I plan on going into more later.

http://www.donhollway.com/foxtwo/

http://www.ausairpower.net/TE-Sidewinder-94.html

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0263786313001567

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0263786313001567

How to squelch genius according to Bill McLean:

  1. Coordinate work carefully to avoid duplication: Everything new can be made to look like something we have done before, or are now doing.

  2. Keep the check reins tight; define mission clearly; follow regulations: Nothing very new will ever get a chance to be inserted.

  3. Concentrate on planning and scheduling, and insist on meeting time scales: New, interesting ideas may not work and always need extra time.

  4. Ensure full output by rigorous adherence to scheduled workday: Don’t be late. The creative man sometimes remembers his new ideas, but delay in working on them helps to dissipate them.

  5. Insist that all plans go through at least three review levels before starting work  Review weeds out and filters innovation. More levels will do it faster, but three is adequate, particularly if they are protected from exposure to the enthusiasm of innovator. Insist on only written proposals.

  6. Optimize each component to ensure that each, separately, be as near perfect as possible: This leads to a wealth of “sacred” specifications which will be supported in the mind of the creative man by the early “believe teacher” training. He will the reject any pressure to depart from his specifications.

  7. Centralize as many functions as possible: This creates more review levels and cuts down on direct contact between people.

  8. Strive to avoid mistakes: This increases the filter action of reviews.

  9. Strive for a stable, successful productive organization: This decreases the need for change and justifies the opposition to it

 

More rare McLean:

…the weapon system acquisition process is now dangerously inadequate because
1. We have forgotten the importance of a senior designer to guide development of each system
2. The need for development prototypes to demonstrate technical feasibility before the writing of military requirements has been ignored;
3. The total acquisition process reward the design of complex and expensive systems and penalize work on simpler, and therefore, less expensive ones
4. The budgetary process, I believe, has become ritual with no content, which is occupying more the 50 percent of the productive time of our best technical people at the laboratory level and the full time of large numbers of technical people in Washington.

33 Responses

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  1. Ben Gimpert said, on March 22, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    Using a weird programming language to throw the whole group out of its comfort zone has done good things for my teams in the past. Even if the language is not the cool one du jour.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 22, 2021 at 4:00 pm

      I was thinking of Marty Chavez SecDB/SLang at Goldie Stix, Kx wherever it’s used and especially OCaML at Jane Street. Figure those companies all had to keep nimble (even pre regulatory capture Goldman), and while these languages each have their little superpowers, people stretching their noggins to use them was/is probably the best benefit.

  2. Frank said, on March 22, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    “You might not get the thing you want, but you’re more likely to get something that actually works, possibly better than the thing you thought you wanted.”

    But that’s not what they want. They want the project to run forever so they can hire more people, forever avoid “underspend,” and have annual budgets renewed. This is so that they can pay down their mortgages, because they know that with their limited skills they will have a hard time finding work. That project finishing is the last thing they want. And when it does, it will most likely be a failure and swept under the carpet. But that doesn’t matter either, because they hired a contractor to manage the project and be the fall-guy.

  3. Igor Bukanov said, on March 23, 2021 at 8:47 am

    The software and hardware development are different in that hardware has much more well defined boundary conditions (no, you cannot go against conservation laws) and the invention search space is smooth, non discrete, allowing for rapid prototyping to work and discover.

    In software the boundaries are much more fuzzy and often are not perceived until a security bug are discovered or production deployments revealed a nasty scalability problem. Plus tinkering with code typically does not lead to obvious improvement in relevant production metrics. That leads to over engineering in trying to anticipate wrong problems.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 23, 2021 at 9:43 am

      Well one of the things I’m concerned with here is software thinking (which is largely deranged anyway, partially for reasons stated by you) invading hardware problems. It’s abundantly obvious by now that CAD and simulations get in the way of people creating new things.

      • Igor Bukanov said, on March 23, 2021 at 2:13 pm

        Various geological or atmospheric simulators based on sound physical models work and allow to save oil and aviation industries a lot of money. And so is modeling of electronic circuits for temperature and vibration stress. My uncle few years ago was involved in testing such software initially developed for Russian military electronics. He was very impressed by accuracy of its predictions that allowed to skip a lot of expensive prototyping when developing control boards.

        But this is rare. And even in oil industry one can sell expensive software based on completely bogus models and earn big money for years as long as that software works sometimes. So indeed too much trust in software.

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 23, 2021 at 2:18 pm

          Don’t tell oil-n-gas bros, I was thinking of selling them something. PSPICE was a lifesaver even in the old days. It’s the CAD-FEA stuff which drives me bonkers. On every little flange and washer. Go draw something on graph paper and think about how it gets made. Many bad experiences with “engineers” and CAD/CAM; even in the 90s, the CAM couldn’t always make the CAD output, and there would be extra shit like no space to put in fasteners. Also no real engineering insight compared to hogging up a prototype on a manual mill.

  4. DamnItMurray said, on March 23, 2021 at 12:19 pm

    It is well documented that the decline of physical fitness is indissoluble with the decline of cognitive power. People from my generation rarely do any kind of physical activity, let alone demanding hobbies and this has led to an increasing minority lacking the capability to decide on mundane facts like the identity of their genitals or the ambivalent pronouns they would like to be referred to by, let alone design an intricate missile system! Some of my most original thoughts have occurred when my mind was preoccupied with a 300lb. barbell trying to crush my ribs for reps.

    • anonymous said, on March 23, 2021 at 1:14 pm

      Interesting that you should mention physical fitness. My health sucks a bit these days, mostly due to migraines. I hadn’t been working out regularly since graduate school (not a lot of time to waste outside of work.) However, I’ve found a happy correspondence between some of my hobbies and the need for exercise:

      Operating a manual mill is a pretty nice workout! And it isn’t tedious, because you’re paying attention to not wrecking your part or blowing up a tool in your face, and don’t notice the repetitive hand-wheel operation.

      Hand planing wooden benches/stands/etc is also pretty aerobic.

      • Scott Locklin said, on March 23, 2021 at 2:14 pm

        It’s not wasted time; 20 minutes a day with a kettlebell will change you life. I got ideopathic stabbing headaches when I was in grad school (migraine lite); wish I could say it was from thinking too hard, but it was sulphites from cheap wine. Went away completely once I started working out in a serious way, and I can drink all the cheap wine I want.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 23, 2021 at 2:12 pm

      ‘Mirin dat neiss bench.

      Yes, people generally turning into disembodied ipotato brains, but all kinds of mental workers prey to this sort of thing by sitting still for too long. Just moving once in a while, with a purpose, gets you out of your head.

  5. Catfish Farmer said, on March 23, 2021 at 2:14 pm

    “Maybe we’ll get more innovation in birdhouses or beer brewing, both of which could use some help in current year (IPA makers have ruined everything).”

    What’s the problem with birdhouses in 2021?

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 23, 2021 at 2:46 pm

      Do you have one? If not, go get one and tell me what’s wrong with it.

      • Altitude Zero said, on March 23, 2021 at 11:59 pm

        A society is in deep sh*t when it can’t even manufacture birdhouses.

  6. Rickey said, on March 23, 2021 at 11:26 pm

    I fully attest to the benefits if getting away from your desk and walking around to clear your head and get the blood flowing. For me, five or ten minutes of walking for every hour at my desk is optimal. Going outside the building is even better since having the sun on your face and getting a blast of heat or cold is very invigorating. Persons sometime ask me how I can get my work done since they see me “walking around all the time”. I tell them after a certain point your mind and body get numb and stagnant from no variation and you are no longer productive. Unfortunately, many supervisors think one is contributing only when they are in front of their computer screen. Many employees I know play that game and have the fingers of fury constantly clicking, but they are usually on Facebook.

  7. Walt said, on March 24, 2021 at 4:49 pm

    Outstanding post. The culture you describe at China Lake sounds similar to HP during its golden era. Engineers often graduated from the technician ranks in the production line and worked closely together due to the fact that manufacturing was still here. Engineers all had hobbies and “G jobs” in which they could work on anything they wanted on Friday. The result was that many awesome products resulted from these hobby jobs, and engineers would work nights and weekends simply because it was fun and interesting. Engineering teams were made to compete against one-another on the best solution for the customer. The focus was on solutions rather than process (bureaucracy).

    Nowadays, all of this would be regarded as incredibly wasteful. Why not manufacture in Penang where labor is cheap? Why listen to technicians who don’t have a degree? Why waste money having multiple R&D teams work on competing solutions for the same problem? Why not just drive the R&D teams harder for stagnant pay rather than let them work on stuff that interests them?

    Your point about getting away from the computer is also excellent. The best thing to do is something standing with your hands.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 24, 2021 at 5:35 pm

      >The best thing to do is something standing with your hands.

      Note lack of computers here:

  8. anonymous said, on March 31, 2021 at 9:07 pm

    Re: The pessimism about technological progress in recent posts: While it would be good to live in a civilization that isn’t self-destructing and get back to making serious progress in nuclear, aerospace, manufacturing, etc technology, there is one field that seems to have undergone a revolution in just the last 10 years:

    Biotech does appear to be making significant progress. Not all the absolute nonsense about COVID testing an our lunatic response. There has been *significant* progress in understanding all the mechanisms involved in small single-celled organisms – what all the genes say, what all the genes are doing. This appears mostly to have been triggered by new techniques for reading and writing DNA. Rather than searching for genes to painstakingly force into donor cells for replication, it’s now apparently possible to write out the gene you want and mail order it from biotech companies. This allows you to more or less “program” the cells to do things.

    This seems to be real-world nanotechnology. (In fact, a lot of our ability to construct micro-devices appear to be feeding into our ability to read/write DNA: A lot of the reader/writer devices use photolithography micro-channels and vast electrode arrays, semiconductor micro-lasers, etc.)

    I’m actually a bit excited about the field, and may adopt it as a hobby. (Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone’s going to allow an ‘official’ career change this late in the game given our credentialism, but I don’t see how they can stop me from playing around with the tech.)

    • Walt said, on March 31, 2021 at 11:19 pm

      What products can I buy made that were with biotech?

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 1, 2021 at 9:15 am

      I have pals who work in biotech; they’re less excited. CRISPR is pretty neat though.

      Can you be more specific about stuff you can get made? I know people worry about looneys synthesizing smallpox or polio or whatever. No idea how realistic that worry is.

      Knowing stuff is great, but if it’s just knowing stuff, and doesn’t involve increases in human power over nature, I’m considerably less interested. I’d rather know stuff about the Byzantines or baseball statistics if we can’t make trees that produce electricity or something helpful.

      Amateur tinkering is how about 3/4 of the inventions get made, so don’t let me or anyone else discourage you.

      • Walt said, on April 1, 2021 at 2:59 pm

        The biotech market seems to be about a tenth of the consumer electronics market. It seems to be a highly-speculative play for VCs and investors that is dependent on mostly-pharmaceutical moonshots that will yield huge profits over the life of a patent if they’re not stolen by the ChiComs.

        THe last place I worked had a life sciences division that was sponsored by the electronics side. The “growth” in the life sciences side was due to acquisitions. The two sides were eventually split into separate companies to great profit for large shareholders. Before the split, the CEO of the life sciences side said he thought it would take another 50 years to have useful biotech building blocks like the electronics industry. To me, that’s the equivalent of saying it will never happen.

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 1, 2021 at 8:51 pm

          The biggest life changing thing I can think of from biotech is still Walter Gilbert’s trick of making insulin from toilet water. To give a sense of time here: Walter Gilbert thought of this when he was my (dead 3 years now) pal Marty’s thesis advisor in the 1960s at Harvard.

          Generally speaking, while new medicines may be meaningful to individuals, with the exception of antibiotics which really did change everything, they’re generally not so meaningful for entire societies. For example: all this cheap insulin just made it possible for more people to consume more grease and HFCS. To me, something important is something like inventing the telephone or the refrigerator, or finding new ways of making power from rocks or whatever.

          • Walt said, on April 1, 2021 at 10:03 pm

            Interesting you say that because 80% of the people who’ve died of COVID in the US have been obese people. Rather than have a national weight loss program and use some now-proven therapeutics like Ivermectin, we’re spending billions on some new mRNA vaccines which will enrich two companies to mitigate a virus likely leaked from a lab in the first place.

            I don’t see how we can keep finding fantastically overpriced, complex solutions for simple, easy problems.

            • Scott Locklin said, on April 2, 2021 at 9:00 am

              Apparently they’re the biggest vectors of the disease as well, which would explain the mystery of how the asian nations have managed to do pretty well; fewer ham planet super spreaders:
              https://dossier.substack.com/p/krispy-kreme-and-covid-19-studies

              To be fair, there’s no evidence that being a former fat is any better than remaining fat. Of course there’s no evidence because there’s not a lot of former fats around.

              • Walt said, on April 3, 2021 at 4:06 am

                I’m willing to bet that’s why Japan did so well: they’re thin. Germans are pretty thin compared to us as well.

                Japan also used therapeutics and generally got on with life AFAIK. Someone on YouTube did a video tour of Tokyo, including the train, and it looked the same as it always did to me.

          • anonymous said, on April 2, 2021 at 2:27 am

            There is this Canadian guy on Youtube that programmed some yeast to extrude spider-silk from their extrusion pores. He did this by figuring out what protein he wanted the ribosomes to make, writing out the DNA that does that, and sending off for the plasmids that carry it. It was impressive stuff!

            I’ve seen metal chelating fiber-network things, some sort of medium filling a tube that you can blow high-pressure air in one side and only the nitrogen comes out the other end, and one company that now makes a $1000 usb gene-sequencer that can read very long strands.

            Programming bacteria to make insulin is apprently something hobbyists can do now. (Which is good because a lot of the biotech industry seems to be a minefield of ruthlessly enforced patents and rent seeking.)

            Anyway, maybe it’ll fizzle out, but it seems like *something*. People are playing with the stuff. The atoms, like the bits in computer science, are relatively cheap. The DEA can outlaw iodine solution, but they can’t outlaw CHON.

            • Scott Locklin said, on April 2, 2021 at 9:04 am

              That’s pretty cool; the hobbyists are arguably key. At some point they were making ‘rona vaccines; was pretty funny how media goons clutched their pearls and bellowed about muh experts (I guess, I dunno, people on TV?) being needed to bless such things with holy water. I’d trust a hobbyist I knew more than the current year supply chain.

  9. ian said, on April 2, 2021 at 7:28 pm

    I am enjoying the Sidewinder book for it’s stories (though I agree it’s over the top). Do you recommend some of other books like it? I have read quite a few of the better known ones like Kelly Johnson’s biography and the Skunk works book but it looks like you have dug into more obscure ones.

    • Ian said, on April 2, 2021 at 7:30 pm

      On that note, I recommend the 4 volume “Rockets and People” by Boris Chertok on the Soviet space program. It’s a rare perspective.

      • Scott Locklin said, on April 2, 2021 at 8:15 pm

        Thanks for that. I’m going deep in history of engineering development; can’t really think of any books like this which try to get to the bottom of why a productive group was productive, other than the Ben Rich book on skunkworks.

        Funnest book on rocket science ever (maybe Chertoks is more fun, but I doubt it) is easily “Ignition” which you can download for free.

        Moon Machines is also a canonical documentary, as are all the wings of the red star and wings of Russia documentaries.

        • Ian said, on April 2, 2021 at 8:19 pm

          Oh yes! I recently read Ignition!. Like a month ago. That’s a good one.


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