Locklin on science

Edison was better than Tesla in every way

Posted in manhood, Progress by Scott Locklin on July 23, 2021

It’s super popular among modern tech weebs to lionize Nikola Tesla and not think about Edison at all beyond identifying him with pointy headed bosses. This is insanity. While it’s possible that Tesla was very much ignored until my teenage years, just like the 80s era Yugoslavian propaganda services said, it is certainly not the case that Tesla is getting insufficient credit in current year. He is now extremely overrated. Tesla was indeed a great electrical engineer and inventor. However he is presently overrated; Edison is now underrated. So is Westinghouse, but we’ll keep it to Edison here, especially since Edison is propped up as some kind of villain versus somehow more heroic, rather than simply more lame Tesla.

Tesla was a lone inventor mad scientist type. He had helpers, but by and large he was a one-man band. Indeed the parts of his genius which made it into production, more or less three phase motors, he was employed by Westinghouse as a single contributor. Three phase current was a work of creative genius, but it was also an obvious innovation of the time. This will make ignorant Tesla fanboys mad, but it’s absolutely the truth. Same idea was invented independently around the same time by at least four other men, none of whom had nationalistic-communist intelligence agencies doing PR for them later. Let us name them and remember their equally great deeds: John Hopkinson an Englishman of Great Britain, Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky a Russian-Pole of the Russian empire,  Galileo Ferrais a Sardinian of Italy,  and Jonas Wenstrom a dwarf of Sweden. If Tesla had never lived, there were already four other guys who basically put the same mark on the world and achieved the same thing. In fact, all four mostly forgotten men are even more praiseworthy than Tesla, both as inventors and human beings.

Tesla is given all kinds of credit for shit he didn’t really do; radio, x-rays, wireless transmission of electricity. Sure he was tinkering in his lab and came across some weird things, but as an inventor he didn’t get them right, at all. He was definitely very bright; a polyglot, allegedly photographic memory and was in possession of a great deal of personal charisma and charm. He was also great with getting media attention and moved in the high society of his day. He was decent at most things he tried (games, etc), and led a volcel abstemious  life.

But we must be honest about Tesla; he was a semi-broken weirdo who needed a Westinghouse to bring discipline to his researches and make money. While it is sort of admirable that he spent all his time in researches which pleased him, what he did was also extremely self indulgent, and was ultimately almost entirely masturbatory nonsense, none of which actually mattered. He really wasn’t ahead of his time; he was a crank. He didn’t believe in almost any of physics which we now know is true: electrons and relativity were nonsense to him and he spent a lot of time attempting to refute it. He also despised fat people and mannish females, believed in eugenics, zapping people’s brains with electricity to make them smarter,  and had many eccentric and anti-social habits we now associate with sperg-lord character defects; and yes, they are character defects. Not being able to shag JP Morgan’s daughter because she wears pearls, or hallucinating about pigeons is indicative of a pretty severe basket of character flaws.

Edison, on the other hand, was nothing like this. Edison was a much greater inventor,  a greater businessman, leader, philanthropist and human being. Things Edison invented and shipped for profitable production: telephone microphones, phonographs, motion pictures, multiplexed telegraphy, light bulbs, iron ore separators, innovations in electrical power distribution, he delivered real X-ray imaging innovations, helped invent new forms of rubber from sunflowers, invented IR detectors, the stock ticker, the nickel-iron battery, invented new processes for plastics and other chemicals, and was basically the archetypical polymath genius. He made money on all of these things, brought every one of them from idea to market, unlike Tesla who could only bring stuff to market if someone else did that work for him.

Edison also had two wives and six kids, helped with the US war effort in WW-1, was active in an important social club, was briefly a Theosophist, was a monetary reformer, also abstemious in his diet, was a man of peace who would only work on defensive weapons (Tesla by contrast was always hawking quack death rays), and there are  a dozen companies he founded which still exist and create value to this  day.  Edison didn’t exist in his own little mad scientist world; he led men and machines to build great things, which are literally used and create value 90 years after he dropped dead. By contrast, Tesla made a bucket of loot on the one important thing he did (mind you, something done independently by 4 other men) and spent it all on his own entirely worthless personal passion projects. Mind you, Edison achieved all of these marvelous things, deeply engaged with society and the real world while stone deaf. He also never went to college.

Westinghouse did win the current wars with his Tesla invented technology, and Tesla deserves credit for having the correct solution (again, something done independently by 4 other men) but Tesla wasn’t fit to spit-shine Edison’s boots. Neither as an inventor, a creator/businessman, nor even as a human being: Edison is a greater man all the way down the line. I guess it’s OK to identify with Tesla as an underdog or something if you’re having a hard time of it, but frankly, most underdogs deserve to be underdogs. The fact that Tesla worked for Edison ought to have given you the hint: this is the natural order of things.

Everyone who works in software knows some Teslas; his self-regarding, grandiose sperg-lord nature is a familiar character. Such people may have done something that made them some loot, but then they spend it doing research into some quackery, or on polyamorous midget juggling prostitutes or whatever. None of you know an Edison, or if you do know a lesser Edison, he is probably a very great man. Edison lived in the real world rather than the self-indulgent world of cranks. Edison was a leader, a deeply moral man, and a man of affairs rather than a lone weirdo laboring on things nobody cares about. If you must emulate one of the two, don’t be a Tesla, be an Edison. It really is the virgin Tesla versus the chad Edison.

Early article, I think commissioned by Yugoslav spooks, which set me on my early Tesla fanhood, and probably everyone else’s:


Why everyone should learn the slide rule

Posted in Progress, tools by Scott Locklin on June 20, 2021

The obsolescence of the slide rule is mostly un-mourned, but as with many technological obsolescences, we have lost something valuable with its demise. The type of thinking which goes along with using a slide rule is useful, and the type of thinking which goes along with using its replacement of digital calculators and computers can be deceptive and sometimes harmful. It is true that using a slide rule was onerous. Learning to use all the scales on a usefully complex rule is not easy. More complex calculations require for you to capture intermediate results, and the results are imprecise. For many calculations, this basket of drawbacks is exactly what you need.

Consider physical reality. Reality is, roughly speaking, analog. You can convert an analog world to something digital, but when this happens, it is rare to use more than 16 bits. 8-12 is more typical. In most cases, the mantissa of your “real number” only has a few actual bits of information in it. Slide rules acknowledge this fact. You can see it on the physical rules themselves, which are essentially logarithm tables. You don’t get 64 bit precision floats in your slide rule at any point in the calculation, just like in “real life.” Propagating around 64 bit results can be useful at times, particularly when running a calculation which iterates many times, but it is more the exception that you really want this extra precision, and you could fool yourself with it on a calculator/computer. You can’t make this mistake using a slide rule. The slide rule trains you to think about what numbers corresponding to physical reality means. Sure, I don’t want to do my book keeping or HFT time coordinate on a slide rule; those are basically integer problems (on a computer) where the bits all mean something important. But in roughing out the design for a wing or jet turbine blade, or even in calculating a p-value those extra bits absolutely don’t mean anything. Slide rules give 2-3 significant decimal digits of precision. When calculating things involving matter, that’s about right. You can design things made out of matter which require more significant digits, but it’s very likely a bad design if you do.

Modern “engineers” have precision neurosis. It comes from having learned about numbers by using calculators and computers rather than slide rules. If you are used to calculating things using a slide rule, there will be no such neurosis. It’s why engineers will do things like build a cantilever beam which requires finite element analysis instead of just building a fucking bridge.

The fact that slide rules are cognitively relatively expensive is also useful. The difficulty in their use  makes you think about what you are doing. You have to keep track of order of magnitude stuff and simple operations like addition. Many calculations are irrelevant. Slide rules force you to think clearly about what you are doing, rather than mindlessly pecking away at a calculator or computer. It is a bit difficult to describe how this works without waxing tedious (here’s a well written set of examples ironically by the founder of autodesk), but it is the difference between knowing how to do a complicated integral by hand, and just  feeding the integral into Maple and hoping for the best. Maple is pretty good, but you can get into all kinds of trouble this way. Ideal world, you can calculate your own damn Green’s functions, so you understand where computers can make mistakes. Same story with doing numeric calculations: know how to do it on a slide rule and all kinds of trouble can be avoided.

The history of the slide rule is more or less the history of science, mathematics and technology. Famous names such as Napier, James Watt and Newton were involved in its evolution. The greatest engineering achievements of human beings were done almost entirely on slide rules. Yes, the moon shot required digital computers, but the design of the thing was done on slide rules. I maintain from experience with engineering objects in the corporeal world that shipping the thing is strongly correlated with slide rule thinking, not digital computer thinking. For twerps who are hypnotized at their computers all day and think we’re living in a digital simulacrum, this is a near unbearable thought, but it is material and business reality.

I could make the argument that a protractor, slide rule and graph paper is more efficient and has a better user interface than a CAD system for about 90% of objects which get made on CAD systems, but some ninny will think it is only a matter of time before progress makes graph paper obsolete because murble wurble “muh Church Turing thesis.” There is very good reason to believe this, and I’ve pointed it out before. Modern design lifecycles which don’t take place on physical paper and using slide rules take longer. The B-52 is a great example; literally designed on graph paper with slide rules in 1947, they shipped one in 1951. SR-71; even more innovative and shipped even more quickly. Now, crap like commercial airliners have decade long development timescales where a bunch of dorks are fooling around with finite element analysis, more or less like dogs licking their butts: because they can. I’m not even sure modern engineers can do a seat of pants calculation or differential equation solution by hand any more. While computer design allows for a lot more predictability in outcome, it also takes a lot longer than hacking something out on graph paper and seeing if it works.

Of course, even worse if the thing you are designing has software in it. There was no software in the XB-52. That’s one of the reasons it shipped. The military in its blind, moronic way, has started to realize this: they appointed a Luddite Czar to the F-36 NGAD system to avoid creeping featurism, which very obviously don’t add to airframe capabilities.

NGAD generally though, kind of misses the point. Instead of building a super dooper fighter plane for the military, a path which has always failed, now they’re going to try a “digital century series” approach, where they only stick one innovation (giant laser, “AI pilot,” pigeon brain, whatever) in each new plane. This isn’t a bad idea, but it isn’t a good idea either; they should be concentrating on shipping a plane for a role, not shipping a shiny thing they read about in a science fiction book. Agile is being touted as a potential savior here: this is horse shit, just as it is in software development. Mostly this means they’ll ship a lot of broken code that the end user will have to sort out. Worse “Digital engineering” is being touted as  a panacea. They’re not gonna just use CAD, they’re gonna use MOAR CAD. Supposedly this is the way of the future. I’m open to the possibility that well designed and used CAD tools can shorten the design lifecycle. I’m also going to notice that it literally has never done so for any aircraft since Kitty Hawk. I am sure MOAR CAD has made design of some military subsystems …. possible, but the thing about slide-rule thinking is it slows you down and makes you think about whether or not you actually need or want the thing or subsystem you’re designing. на коленкe, not on the mousepad.

Human beings are corporeal; drawing something with your hand, and fiddling with calculation sticks, writing out a differential equation solution on paper engages different neurons than typing and dragging and dropping with a mouse. The fact that we are corporeal is something modern spergoids have forgotten; lost in the dreamy womb-like twilight consciousness that fiddling with computers brings. The man drawing a sketch of a mechanical object is an active creator; his ideas conjured from the void via the power of his mind. This kind of design requires attention and focus. CAD simply doesn’t; not in the same way. Literally the nature of your consciousness is different designing on paper and using a sliderule than it is in front of the one-eyed devil. It’s like a physical embodiment of the Moravec paradox; the man who designs with slide rule and paper on the knee is a Faustian superhero and the CAD fiddler is a dreamy cog in a giant machine. That’s also one of the reasons why modern objects are so unspeakably ugly. Beauty and truth are close relatives.

Childish NGAD gibberish where they try to look all futuristic: https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/7/Take_the_Red_Pill-Digital_Acquisition.pdf

How to use a slide rule: https://sliderulemuseum.com/SR_Course.htm


The Physicists: a history of a scientific community in modern America

Posted in Book reviews, physics, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 8, 2021

My reading on innovation in technology lead me to this book by Daniel J. Kevles. I don’t know if I can recommend the thing unless you’re trying to build a thesis on how to create Klein’s Type-1 innovative organizations. The book suffers from many flaws; its fine focus on physics with only incidental mention of astronomy probably skews the view into the history of American physics. On the other hand it is a fairly unique historical document chronicling the rise and fall of a scientific community up to the 1970s. Nothing interesting has happened in physics since the 1970s, no major figures have risen up, and the social organization remains ossified since then, so it can probably be viewed as complete.

There are a couple of striking things about the subject I was only dimly aware of. American physics didn’t exist as a social program involving multiple collaborating scientists with useful technical journals until around the turn of the century. There were a few very productive individuals, and some government organizations and advisory boards (NAS was chartered in wartime to give advice to the government, and various naval and military laboratories existed), but America was mostly a shitty frontier area with no physics to speak of until after the civil war. Two important figures in the early days: Henry Rowland and Albert Michelson. Rowland can be considered the first important physicist to have been trained in the US (at RPI) who helped create the American physics community. He founded the physics department at the newly endowed Johns Hopkins university, and, like Michelson, received some of his training in Berlin. Michelson was a particularly amusing character; like so many great physicists, of Jewish descent; he grew up as a boxing nerd in a frontier town who got his first major educational experience in Annapolis. Both of these guys were tinkering experimental physicists; inventing various forms of interferometry, optical gratings and spectroscopy, doing various forms of precision measurement. There were a couple hundred mostly academic physicists in the US in those days, but most of what they did was only vaguely recognizable as physics; these two stood out as distinctly modern and world class figures in a subject that was mostly being developed in the UK and Germany at the time. Gibbs was the first great American theorist; he was mostly ignored until Rowland created a position for him at Johns Hopkins.

Rowland was father of American physics

There were various government funded efforts around this time (1880s); weather services, the National Bureau of Standards (the first national lab that wasn’t military related), geological and coastal surveys; physicists were involved in such government scientific programs from the get go. Various factions in the government thought these efforts were a waste of money (in particular populist types of the era, which was a time of economic difficulty with the great recession), and there were the typical internal political machinations in the scientific community designed to accrue power and influence over them; just like today. The NBS is worth a few words; the shopkeeps of the country were wildly corrupt at the time, and the physicists and chemists of the NBS were a hugely popular group of consumer protection crusaders for the common people.

Michelson; uncle of American physics

Scientists of the current year who wonder why nobody respects them ought to remember this, and frankly, things like this are urgently needed in the US where everything from meat to vegetables is contaminated with disgusting chemicals, the big tech companies censor and spy on people for little reason, financial firms parasitize and dump risk on the common man, drug companies dump useless garbage on an increasingly medicated and unhealthy population and the “public health official” morons impose medical fascism on people who are in greater danger from eating too many cheeseburgers than the Wuhan coof. I mean there are obvious and enormous national health problems with …. obesity, autism, mental illness, rampant food allergies: people seem peculiarly incurious about all of these. Of course there are few scientists of the current year who could even stand up against regulatory capture of the candy industry, let alone the drug or soy industry, so I’m not holding my breath.

Contemporary with these fellows were America’s great inventors and industrialists, who were completely different people. Alexander Graham Bell, Westinghouse, Tesla, Edison: none of these guys had any sort of physics background, though eventually there was some social overlap. Similarly the great industrialists such as Stanford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller were dumping their charity money into university endowments, grad schools (the Ph.D. was a fairly recent innovation), laboratories and foundations. Around this time, the early journals were started. Still weren’t too many physicists in the country, but it was coming; demand for physics coursework was high, from new engineering students. The giants at Johns Hopkins started planting seeds in other institutions in Chicago, Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Berkeley. George Hale’s Palomar observatory bred Caltech. In the decade of the 1890s, there were a total of 54 new physics Ph.D.s, but by 1909 it was 25 a year. Two years after Michelson became the first American physics Nobelist.

If you know physics history, you know these dates are the beginning period in the greatest flowering of physics creativity in human history. Most of the theory was done by Germans, many ethnic Jewish, while the US remained more or less a hub of experimental activity (similarly Britain I think). It was also a flowering of industrial activity; as larger areas became electrified and were hooked up to the new telephone technology. Industrial labs started hiring some of the new physicists, and they immediately began producing returns; even the humble light bulb was assisted by Irving Langmuir. Aircraft became a thing; also refrigeration, automobiles, vacuum cleaners, escalators, air conditioners, motion pictures, washing machines, safety razors; inventions which changed daily human life forever in ways which were absurdly huge. Radio; very classic physicist achievement (entirely by foreigners) it is worth remembering the distance from theory of Maxwell in 1865 to demonstration by Hertz in 1886 to practical implementations by Marconi in 1896 to widespread adoption after 1900 when contemplating imaginary bugaboos like quantum computing; (Benioff in 1982, to Shor in 1994; one of them should be the QC Maxwell and there still hasn’t been a Hertz yet).

Then the cataclysm of WW-1. I’ve always said this is the great changepoint of human history. Had it never happened the world would be completely different. It was a war fought with the new industrial technologies; a war of chemicals and steel production, of submarines,  telephones and airplanes. As soon as the war started, the US had an industrial policy; if nothing else, we (meaning we Americans, sorry overseas bros) needed to replace critical items which were unavailable due to British blockades and war needs. Political operators including Palomar’s George Hale began to advocate for government funding through the National Research Council. There were various political machinations between different factions in the US technological establishment, but in the end the war happened and the physicists were utilized and found helpful. Optical glass industry had to be grown and developed at home to replace all the Zeiss optics and whatever the British were using. But the most important innovations the American physicists delivered was submarine finder technologies.

Up to this moment in time, the only great theorist the US ever had was Gibbs, and he didn’t have any noteworthy descendants. Most American physicists were experimentalists; tinkerers in the same sense that the Edisons of the world were tinkerers, except they knew stuff like how sound travels in water, how to detect the electron’s charge to mass ratio using oil droplets, or how to make nice telescopes. There were a number of very amusing characters from those days; Max Mason of U Wisconsin is one who stuck with me; a clubbable type guy with talents including chess, golf, violin and billiards; he pretty much came up with the submarine passive detection systems we used today. Another pair of characters involved in artillery range-finding was Augustus Trowbridge and Theodore Lyman, a couple of Boston Brahmin types who had to teach a bunch of roughnecks “splendid specimens …. like the big trees of their native Oregon” about differentials and hyperbolas and such while having fine wines and a mess featuring a french cook in the trenches of evenings. Lyman didn’t mind being shelled at least, he had hunted big game dontchaknow. The miniature portraits of these fellows gives a vivid picture of the old WASP elites, more or less acting like American versions of Bertie Wooster and Augustus Fink-Nottle.

Max Mason

The aftermath of WW-1 demonstrated  a lot of analogues to current year problems. Thanks to the British propaganda agencies, Germans were demonized. America used to have a large German speaking minority; WW-1 ended this. Rather astoundingly Hale and his allies in the NRC tried demonizing and bureaucratically “canceling” German scientists in Germany who had the temerity to support their own country during the war. This was completely bonkers. In addition to it being a ridiculous nationalistic thing to do, disguised, as is usual with Anglos as moralistic preening,  the Germans were literally the leading members of the physics community. Hale instead of building bridges and returning physics to the international enterprise it always had been, was attempting to burn them; trying to get physicists from neutral countries to see things the Anglo-American perfidy way. All of it was ridiculous and disgusting, and is very much like current-year cancel culture.  It went on through the dawn of modern Quantum Mechanics; Hale wouldn’t even allow his organization to cosponsor a visit to America by Einstein, who was Swiss, but spoke with a German accent.

The 20s started the real rise of colleges as a sort of US cottage industry; land grant schools, R&D research, university presidents as fund raisers; this was the birth of the whole encrusted edifice that threatens to destroy its host population. It was also the rise of PR used as a tool by scientists in fundraising, and it was very consciously deployed as such. Mind you it was mostly baloney: physics took a lot of credit from, like chemists, electrical engineers and statisticians for the recent technological evolutions; but the physicists had better PR -a pattern which continues to the present day.

The 1930s were fairly hard times for the physics community as everyone else. By this time there was a fair amount of populist religious people (mitigated by the number of high profile Christian physicists such as Millikan and Compton) and left wing rumbling against the pretensions of scientist types and their affiliation with monied interests and wealthy foundations, as well as their perceived involvement in “progress” which caused economic dislocations. As such there were, for the first time, layoffs. There were also New Deal government efforts which are the origin of most “Big Science.” Cyclotron research also got bound up in health care back then; something that always confused me (it persists to this day despite its generally dubious utility), but which seemed to be a funding scam by Lawrence. Interestingly many physicists were extremely conservative and against the New Deal due to their associations with business. This is a sort of bifurcation that persists to this day: industrial and military physics people are different from the rest of the scientific establishment, which is mostly a product of New Deal organizations. Of course, they were all united in preparations for war, for different reasons; a microcosm of what was going on in the country at large.

Vannevar Bush (despite his engineering background, or perhaps because of it) was one of the most crucial people in the development both of wartime physics and American technology in general, and the book paints a decent outline of his flinty New England “grandson of a whaling captain” character and early achievements. Interestingly he was not a New Deal man, but he saw the utility in using government agencies directly instead of going through independent bodies like the NRC as happened in WW-1 research. He was able to sell it with a single sheet of paper in front of FDR in 1940 based on already-existing NACA (aka NASA later); originally called the NDRC which was more research oriented, it later changed its name to OSRD which was more production oriented. Rather than setting up new labs as was attempted in WW-1 era, the idea was to use already existing scientific facilities as much as possible. OSRD management techniques persisted into the 50s with a few hot spots of innovation like Skunkworks and China Lake, but they’re largely extinct now. Entirely Klein type-1 organizational principles, and entirely entrepreneurial. You look at national lab operations now: it’s basically a big welfare pyramid where people continue to work on …. the same funding priorities people have literally been working on since the 1950s. No moving fast and breaking things, no innovation, no shuffling people into concentrations of excellence; just a bunch of nervous bureaucrats feathering their beds and playing bureaucratic power games with each other.

One of the characters who came up here who was of crucial importance: Alfred L. Loomis; a retired investment banker who had his own hobby physics lab; cousin of the Secretary of War, who ended up leading up the radar efforts as well as inventing LORAN (Loomis Radio Navigation), muzzle velocity chronos and a number of other things which are forgotten. He was an absolute giant, a figure who would be familiar to the Ancient Greeks representing all that was heroic and good in men of his time: he was from a first rate family, served his country as a soldier in WW-1, got a law degree, bought an investment bank, funded electrification of rural America, was an astute trader who called market top in 1928, and taught himself how to be a goddamned experimental physicist in the 1930s. There is literally nobody alive today like this: all you retired quants need to get to work in your personal laboratories.

Alfred Lee Loomis

Other figures; Lee Dubridge founded MIT’s radiation lab where much radar and electronics oriented work got done: a middle class aw-shucks methodist who went on to a career managing other scientific facilities, most notably CalTech. Edward Bowles; former fur-trapper Missouri redneck EE professor who helped manage the growing enterprise. His experience as a hunter helped him manage growing Pentagon bureaucracy. Amusingly he hated all the physicists and didn’t get along well with flinty New England Bush very well either. His management and advice changed a bunch of key research directions and made the US much more effective in warfighting. Operations Research; aka 1940’s version of “data science” was founded by pioneers like Philip Morse. Amusingly, he was one of only a few of explicitly mathematical physicists who made large contributions, presumably by keeping to very practical real-world solutions. I always knew him as being one of the “Handbook of Mathematical Functions” guys, but he continued his work of managing large scale scientific enterprises. Ultimately this famous book probably came from wartime experience where people had to go look up Bessel functions in various other tomes; books like this were of vital importance before the existence of tools like Macsyma. Arguably still more useful. Donald Trump’s uncle John was also an important figure in these days.

Oppenheimer, Fermi and the Bomb are the most famous product of OSRD; everyone knows what happened there, but one highlight: the physicists, particularly Lawrence got cocky. The Calutrons were a preposterous waste of time and resources in hindsight. Because it was OSRD, they did have multiple approaches to deliver the final product, but it’s absolutely staggering how many resources were wasted in this efforts. It’s also hilarious redneck Ozarks ladies were more productive than physicists on similar equipment. Of course, plutonium chemistry at Hanford and the Gas diffusion efforts at Oak Ridge delivered the real product (the latter, further enriched by absurdly wasteful Calutrons). This is a great historical example to bring up when physicists try to get too fancy or egotistical about their ability to deliver some complicated atrocity where simpler techniques would do; humble chemists did most of the real work and other than a few guys like Seaborg (often mistaken for a physicist) got little of the credit. FWIIW Kevles just presented the facts; this is entirely my emphasis and interpretation of what happened. Similarly for subsequent comments.

Virgin physicists versus Chad Calutron Girls

Postwar physics, like postwar everything else, was a completely different civilization. It had almost nothing to do with what came before and the first decade after Bush’s 1945 “Science the endless frontier” define the field to this day. Bush opened the government funded research chuckwagon. It also did away with the OSRD practicality and urgency. Bush basically opened the funding trough as an ongoing national investment with zero expectation of return. And zero returns is basically what we’ve gotten. The high energy physics of the 1940s were the nuclear guys; they kept the highest prestige and funding, getting bigger and bigger particle accelerators, and more and more seats in the physics departments. WW-2 put a crimp in the supply of new physicists; they weren’t going to get any more European braniacs, and the war had stopped the Ph.D. pipeline. 1946 was probably peak year for power and prestige of the American physics community. There weren’t enough of them, they were well paid and actually had significant political power; enough to put the Atomic Energy Commission under their civilian control. It’s also very obviously been downhill since then. The 50s and early 60s saw some interesting if wildly impractical results; the field has plummeted since then, to the point where it is best known for inventing glass-bead games for imaginary computers.

People on college campuses resented the expensive physicists of the postwar era, and it was extremely obvious the field became a sort of cargo-cult prestige scam over time. Quoting Kevles:

The younger physicists seemed interested too little in physics and accomplishment, too much in pay scales and security. They also expected a remarkable degree of luxury in the conditions of re­search. At Brookhaven, everyone seemed to want a new $3,500 (1953 dollars) oscillo­scope. “Someone walked into my office the other day,” reported Samuel Goudsmit, who headed the laboratory physics department, “and complained that he had to share the one we’d got for him with another re­searcher.” The new recruits also seemed disturbingly content to submerge themselves in team research, publish papers jointly, often with as many as twenty other authors (lol; try 2000 now a days) — to become, in short, organization men.

We all know by now that the research program of the last two generations of high energy physicists have been an abject failure. It is little acknowledged when the sweet smelling putrefaction set in, not at some nebulous later date: post-WW-2 physics was largely a failure. By mid-1950s there were 21,000 practicing physicists in the US. These days the APS is about 60,000 people. In 1930 when things were actually happening there was 3,000. Even if we don’t think 60,000 physicists is too many for a country of 330 million, it’s abundantly obvious via the output (which is entirely …. papers) that the vast majority of these people are not engaged in any kind of useful work. While these people either loaf in some leafy ivory tower or scramble in some CERN slave factory horror show: even assuming they’re capable or hard headed enough to do useful work, they’re not mobilized to do so.

It’s a weird sort of irony that Vannevar Bush mobilized one of the great technological and scientific leaps forward in history, then killed physics with welfare cheese because he … more or less forgot how the Promethean fire was created. He remembered the money part, but that was only useful for certain kinds of problems, and only with the correct management, correct social structure and correct people. These days you can’t even get the correct people, and people labor away LARPing as Einsteins or Oppenheimers. The rest of the book goes into the various hippy protests against physicists and grubby rooting around for new sources of funding.

Assuming the US continues as an identifiable polity in 100 years, I’m pretty sure “physics as scam” rather than “physics as a study of nature and how it may be put to use by humanity” will continue. They’ll continue screwing around with particle accelerators because Livermore did. They’ll continue ridiculous mathemagical nonsense like noodle theory because they don’t know how to do anything else, other than live action role play they’re Einstein. The only way I could see it changing for the better is a geopolitical upheaval which would effectively end what remains of the post WW-2 order and the current reign of corrupt imbeciles running the US.  Most of the West basically does what the US does. I suppose there could be new progress in China, Japan or Russia, but I don’t see much happening here for the next 50 or 100 years on the present trajectory.

Anyway, good book; depressing, but good.

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.





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.