I've forgotten where I read it, but Von Moltke (senior), after winning the Franco-Prussian War, had a flatterer compare him to Napoleon (the original Napoleon, of course, not his nephew Napoleon III whom they'd just defeated). Von Moltke demurred, saying that he had only proven his skills in advances, while Napoleon had been good at retreats, and that retreats are much harder.


"See this newspaper," he told me, picking it up from a stack of free newspapers. "It's the Weekly Worker, the Communist newspaper. They used to be the Daily Worker, but after the fall of the Soviet Union they fell on hard times.

"This article talks about socialized medicine. It says that socialized medicine is unpopular in the US, so its supporters should switch to saying 'single-payer' instead.

"You watch and wait. All the media will switch."


"If I had to make my literary Will, and my literary Acknowledgements, I would have to own that I owe more to Macaulay than to any other English writer." -- Winston Churchill to R. V. Jones, as related in Jones's book Most Secret War

"Lord Stanhope once gave me a curious little proof of the accuracy and fulness of Macaulay's memory. Many historians used often to meet at Lord Stanhope's house; and in discussing various subjects, they would sometimes differ from Macaulay, and formerly they often referred to some book to see who was right; but latterly, as Lord Stanhope noticed, no historian ever took this trouble, and whatever Macaulay said was final." -- Charles Darwin, in his autobiography

Those two endorsements were what lead me to check out Thomas Babington Macaulay's History of England. I had thought I had read good history books, but this one is on an another level entirely. It's the only book which I liked so much that I took the Project Gutenberg copy, read through it and corrected some scanning errors, and put it up on this website. Before starting it, Macaulay wrote that he was "acquainted with no history which approaches to [my] notion of what a history ought to be"; and as far as I know there is still no other work of history anywhere near as good, despite many attempts at imitation.

The Carrington Event: not something to worry about

One of the things that is widely regarded as a menace that might destroy civilization, or at least be enormously damaging, is a repeat of the "Carrington Event", the September 1859 geomagnetic storm. Back then there was hardly any electrical infrastructure, but there are stories of telegraph offices catching on fire and telegraph operators experiencing electric shocks. Now, it is said, with all our electronics, we'd be devastated. Even NASA has gotten into the act, forecasting trillions of dollars in damage from a repeat of such an event, and talking about it "disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket". But taking a hard look at the mechanism for such harm, really the danger is quite small.

Testing some expired iodine stuff

I got to looking at my "prepper" sorts of supplies recently, and found I had some well-out-of-date iodine products -- out of date enough that back when I bought them the movement was called "survivalist" rather than "prepper". So out of curiosity I decided to test them to see whether they were still any good.


5G, the "fifth generation" cell phone standard, has been in the news a lot. There are people suspecting 5G of causing the coronavirus, and even reports of some of them burning cell phone towers in the UK. But this bizarre suspicion was by no means the start of the bullshit about 5G. Indeed, it's a natural reaction to the previous over-hyping.

Detonation engines for rockets are bunk

One thing I didn't understand until recently was why there was any interest in detonation engines for rockets -- those being engines where the fuel is not burned smoothly but rather mixed and then detonated. I'd heard of the idea before, but it seemed such a bizarre concept that I didn't pay it much attention. Yet there is considerable interest in such engines; they're currently making headlines as a new, promising way to increase the specific impulse of rockets, and well-funded teams have been working on them and reporting successes. Specific impulse (\(I_{sp}\)) is the most important figure of merit there is for a rocket engine, and increases of 15% or even 25% are talked of. The concept is not really new: they've been talked about since the 1950s, and have been "promising" for all that time (and not delivering). On looking into the concept, it seems to me that even the theory is in error here, and that scarcely any improvement is in fact possible.

The futile proofs of high school

There are two math subjects taught in high school which involve the students doing a lot of proofs: geometry and trigonometry. Advocates say that it's important for students to do proofs, since they are the bulding blocks that are used to construct the whole edifice of mathematics. Though the latter is true, the former does not at all follow from it. The edifice has already been constructed; students can simply live in it, rather than being tasked with rebuilding it. And the proofs taught in those two classes are amazingly useless.

Putting a vaccine out quickly, part 2

As I argued a month ago, there's no fundamental reason that putting out a vaccine for the coronavirus should take the "more than a year" or "at least 18 months" that is commonly quoted; those numbers come from the assumption that we'd follow the usual rules. At the same time, though, there's considerable experience and wisdom incorporated into those rules; the idea shouldn't be to discard that wisdom, but rather to understand it and adapt it to the emergency.