Pieces of the Action

Originally published: 1970

2

  • 1919: 3/10 US citizens on farms, 1975: 1/10 on farms
    3
  • Notes that people have said before all industry seems to be in the hands of a few companies and no innovator could break their grip
  • NRA was originally National Recovery Agency
    6
  • Learning history can be valuable insofar as it can prevent mistakes but it’s not worth slavishly memorizing

7

  • Autobiography isn’t a ordered sequence of events - just things he thinks worth remarking on
  • Penicillin could have commercialized ten years before it was if enough effort was put in (p8) see The History of Pfizer and Penicillin, and Lessons for Coronavirus for more.

  • Avoided allowing science to become political in one way or another (p8)

  • Need something to be proud of
  • Lots of worry about population outgrowing ability to feed them - by year 2000 (p9)
  • Thinks that profit+advertising can have a good effect (p10)
  • Claims we are not far from the advent of general antiviral agents (p11)
  • Overall military both sucks but is quite good (p18)
  • Military full of Parkinson’s Law
  • Attributes English defeat of Spanish to superior military tech (p19)
  • Example of Louis Mountbatten as an individual taking initiative against organizational lethargy to get higher-quality guns on aircraft in WWII
  • Radar was also pushed through despite the British military system? (P30)
  • Not at peace nor in major war (p31)
  • National Defense Research Committee (NRDC) was started a year before WWII and started as a civilian organization
  • NRDC became part of the Office of Scientific and Research and Development (OSRD) when WWII started.
  • NRDC reported directly to the president
  • Cites Scientists Against Time as the official history of the OSRD
  • NRDC had objections but was the only way to get a broad program launched “at adequate scale” (p32)
  • Talks about good vigorous battles from which friends emerged (p32)
  • They decided to build the NRDC as a “pyramidal organization, with broad delegation downward and full facility for programs to move up.” (P37)
    • Emphasizes importance that they got both the best scientists and the best young military officers.
  • Important that they put all government and business relations in a totally separate org that reported straight to chairman
  • Important that they would contract directly with Universities rather than individuals in universities (p38)
  • Contracting directly with universities set a precedent for the future
  • The original goal of contracting with the university was to aggregate administration and remove burden from the lab groups
  • Claims that the innovation in funding structure stabilized relationship between government and universities. (P39)
  • Original ask for NRDC was $5m (in 1938 dollars)
  • Frank Jewitt thought there was no way they could spend $5m effectively
  • Organization was such that Chairman had nothing to do with internal affairs (p40)
  • Chairman’s job was to handle external liasoning only
  • FDR set direction, never interfered, and had Bush’s back. (P45)
  • Newton was a good leader but a bad manager (p48)
  • NDRC reviewed project in one week and the director could authorize the next day
  • Conditions for starting new project - clearly defined object, research men selected, location identified
  • OSRD had bottom-up project proposals
  • OSRD had three main operational patterns
    1. Used existing labs and groups whenever possible
    2. Sometimes created new groups (p49)
    3. Central coordination of programs happening in a large number of labs
  • CMR sometimes tested on people
  • Bush saw himself as the link between the scientists and the president, not the expert
  • Attributes the elevation of the scientist over the engineer to needing to interface with British and Military attitudes towards engineers (p54)
  • Bush opposed going to the moon because any failure would happen so publicly (p55)
  • Ultimately bush thought the moon landing like Lindbergh refocused humanity on success and striving
  • Would only keep tech in control of the group that developed it if he had a really good Liaison Officer (p56)
  • Key Fission experiments repeated within 48 hrs (p57)
  • Everybody trusted the comms structure, which allowed FDR to listen to bush even though bush was not the authority on the science and the scientists trusted bush to present their cases well (p60)
  • Alfred Loomis could have gone around Bush’s back and talked to his cousin who was Secretary of State but didn’t.
  • Set up Military Policy Committee as sort of a “board” for the Manhattan District with Wesley Groves as the “CEO” (p62)
  • MPC had no formal records
  • Boards are valuable because they ideally are sounding boards for people in lonely positions of a lot of authority
  • Science the Endless Frontier came out of deliberations to figure out what post war science looked like (p64)
  • Frank Jewitt thought that the organization system would allow the federal government to control the universities
  • Harry Truman wanted the president to be in direct control of the National Science Foundation - NSF and Bush convinced him otherwise (p65)
  • When National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics became Department of Homeland Security Laboratories it got Truman’s structure of the president in direct control with no board. (P66)
  • The form of organizations is important and the people in the organization are more important. (P68)
  • In WWI the civilian groups devoted to submarine studies could only recommend and the military commanders would not get excited about embryonic developments. (P72)
  • If there were a committee of both civilians and military in WWI they would have figured out to just put sub detectors on wooden ships and ignore the iron ships. (P74)
  • Lots of groups were trying different ways of torpedo detection without knowing about each other in WWI and some were better than Bush’s and he would have seen how they could be combined.
  • No centralizing group who could compare parallel ideas
  • US navy was stuck doing stupid anti submarine tactics because
    1. Decisions made at the top by non technical people
    2. Once decisions were made they were not reviewed or commented on
  • Three stories about antisubmarine weapons (p83)
  • Important that nobody knew or care about the inventor of a weapon
  • Nobody was looking for personal credit
  • OSRD had a central patent department
  • Thought it would be absurd for MIT to own patents
  • Patents became public (p84)
  • Notes that he is a big believer in patents
  • Patents are what allows venture capital to exist
  • Story about persistent ramming seeking torpedo
  • Examples of innovations that appeared outside the organization that found them useful (p100)
  • Civilians need enough independence to explore the bizarre (p102)
  • Dukw was one of the few military innovations that found direct civilian use (p106)
  • Proximity fuzes were basic in concept but super hard to execute (p107)
  • First proximity fuzes made five-inch antiaircraft batteries ~7x better (p109)
  • Goudsmit argues that democratic countries have a huge advantage in science because they take advantage of everybody (as opposed to Nazis kicking out all the jews) (p115)
  • Cute example of dealing with all the people sending in ideas to the OSRD (p135)
  • Sometimes you need to challenge authority and something you need to obey it - duality of command (p146)
  • Military commanders sometimes made it explicit whether they could be challenged or not by the position of their hat
  • Tyros are people who go in and muck up in a system (Vannevar bush used the term ‘Tyro’ to refer to someone who mucks up a system by breaking hierarchy)
  • We need to pioneer by creating new things (p149)
  • Industrial progress depends on the ingenuity of individuals who can generate new ideas (p150)
  • Inventions have no value by themselves
  • Orville wright invented tons of things that led to nothing
  • Many people wrongly think that formulating an idea entails an invention (p152)
  • Invented hydraulic motor with no metal-on-metal contact and nobody wanted to use it (p154)
  • In industry where everything is standardized, it’s hard to make big changes
  • Talks about blackouts (p161)
  • Describes two systems of industry - active competition and regulated monopoly (p162)
  • Many things do not need to be commercialized but sometimes the move is to commercialize it - no one size fits all rule (p175)
  • Researchers were encouraged to publish results in good industrial labs
  • Previously labs worried that if a researcher was well known they would re hired away
  • Researchers in Russian uni acted like American university students in 1927 (p177)
  • Story about Russian inventor whose people didn’t tell him he was wrong with conclusion that you can’t invent usefully without feedback. (P181)
  • Hannibal ford’s work was not well known because he didn’t travel in academic circles (p185)
    • Patent law is for the venture capitalists not the inventors (p196)
  • It should be possible to create refrigerators with the Peltier effect - no compressors (p197)
  • Idea of a patent commission that could resolve patent disputes (p203)
  • Rules out electric cars as awesome but electric batteries suck (p215)
  • Says that steam cars are possible again
  • Stirling of Stirling engine was a Scottish clergyman (p220)
  • Proposal for a hot air engine depended on light enough materials that could resist heat (p220)
    • War enabled ways of making oxygen super cheap which enabled steel to be much cheaper - possibly offset entire cost of research program (p221)
  • Gas turbines have become much better but rotes are still expensive (p223)
  • Hydrofoil craft could be useful (p227)
  • Prediction of wind-driven hydrofoil craft (p228)
  • Industries with lots of different products and the need to constantly create different products (pharmeceuticals) don’t stagnate, while industries with a single product (railroads, autos) do stagnate (p229)
  • The head of an auto company doesn’t have a lot of incentive to replace engines with a drastically better one because the delta is small and the risks are high (p230)
    • A few patents is often not enough to get a group of people to try to create a completely new alternative to an existing system. (P230)
  • Commercial system doesn’t work well when a few large companies make a single products and have no huge incentive to change.
  • Government entering the market is not the solution to the problem of a few large firms with singular products - see post office.
  • Instead government should subsidize disruptive efforts.
  • If government ordered 10,000 steam automobiles per year - it would give enough $$ to the industry.
  • New way of painting - scraping off paint around a backlit piece of glass (p232)
  • People worrying about supersonic booms (p237)
  • Case studies of actual engineering are not used enough in engineering schools (p256)
  • Education’s purpose is for one generation to pass on experience to the next (p258)
  • Education has a duality between the practical and preparation for a role as a human in the world (p270)
  • The president (and leaders in general) have a job of inspiring and trying to push other people to greatness. (P310)

Questions

  • Has science become a political football and a form of patronage?
  • Could he be right and profit + advertising could change opinions towards anything? Good or bad
  • Why did Bush think that we were close to having general antiviral agents and why don’t we have them now?
  • How do you systematize going against the system?
  • How do you know what the right scale for a program is?

  • What does it mean for something to be a “pyramidal organization, with broad delegation downward and full facility for programs to move up.”

  • Pros and cons of patents becoming public?
  • Is the increasing meaninglessness of patents making venture capital less able to fund atom land tech?
  • Why hasn’t anybody used Bush’s hydraulic motor?
  • Why don’t we seem to have unanticipated blackouts in the US anymore
  • Why don’t we have peltier effect refrigerators ?
  • What if you could encode patents in a way that they could be verified on a blockchain
  • What happened to the rurgence of steam cars
  • What makes gas turbine rotes expensive?
  • Why don’t we have hydrofoil craft? What are the constraints?

Thoughts

  • Vituperative - new word - Bitter and abrasive
  • State of “we are not now at peace nor are we engaged in a major war” seems to have been the case from 1969->2020 and feels reminiscent of Rome.
  • Dose response to programs is nonlinear
  • The change to who they gave money to was a big change and may have killed patronage (Alexey Guzey
  • Change in funding structure put universities in part on the path they’re on now - related to Bachelor’s Degrees Are The New Citizenship
  • The stabilized relationship between governments and universities has metastasized.
  • FDR was a good manager - under noted
  • Mastitis - new word - inflammation of breast tissue
  • Project spin up speed - Patrick Collison’s FAST
  • Government rarely creates new research groups - maybe in national labs
  • NRDC was an organizational/process innovation
  • Good example of Loonshots managing the transfer on p56
  • Good example of bad transfer management in WWI anti sub tech.
  • The marketplace of ideas need efficient comparisons (see anecdote about parallel sub detection efforts) one way to create this is via a centralizing group. There may be other ways.
  • Wars are the only time that everybody has a massive stake in the outcome of a huge organization (Loonshots stake v Rank)
  • Example on p102 related to Loonshots artists and soldiers
  • Commander hat position is another example of physical signaling
  • catamount - new word - medium sized wild cat like a puma
  • We’ve lost the concept of regulated monopolies
  • Cosmopolitanism has been around for a while
  • Hannibal fords story illustrates that academia could be both an amplifier (conductive layer) but then keep out people not in it
  • Bitland and atom land feeding into each other and improving
  • Lachrymose - tearful or given to weeping
  • Tons of inventors seem to be clergymen - secure well paying job with idle time that smart people go into
  • Material science enables everything
  • There are few incentives to create quantum leaps inside of existing systems
  • Government’s role should be to prop up underdogs.
  • Cites Problems in Human Engineering
  • Cites The Teaching of Human Relations by the Case Demonstration Method
  • Passing on experience is no longer seen as the primary purpose of education or even on people’s radars

Quotes

For the title of this book, I have drawn on the wealth of the vocabulary of the youth of our times. Theirs is a pungent stock of words, and action marks most of them.

That process has built us an overall governmental structure which is a monstrosity, with overlapping authority, swelled bureaucracies, agencies with no base at all, muddled lines of command.

He had to the full that loyalty which is one of the heartening characteristics of the Irish. (About John Victory)

I saw myself as a link between the president and American science and technology, and not as an oracle or an expert on all matters scientific.

This was done by a letter signed by FDR. In his book Roosevelt and Hopkins, Sherwood cites it and says “Bush probably wrote that letter himself.” Of course I did.

What, after all, is an organization? It is merely the formalization of a set of human relations among men with a common objective.

In my youth I had been taught that the most independent being in existence was a hog on ice, and I emulated a hog on ice.

For the conventional naval officer this would have been like sending a banker into an art school to see if the students knew how to paint.

Innovations are very likely to appear outside the organization which could find them useful, and there was no system for insuring that they would not simply be brushed aside.

His full story would be an epic; I hope he will write it. (On Palmer B Putnam)

They had a program to propose, a plan for bringing the idea to working form. They by no means ignored the enormous technical difficulties involved; but they had ideas on how to approach them.

Of course this hazard could be avoided by a careful youngster, but youngsters are not notably careful.

People exclaim in rapture, or its counterfeit, about a tangle of badly assembled junk, jumped pieces of metal. I raise no complaint. I find more real beauty in a well designed and fabricated crankshaft. Let them go their ways in peace.

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