From spyplanes to Facebook

When social networks run your country's social policies

Art: The Mechanics of Flying, Arshile Gorky

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Since I generally am not a fan of business books, I’m always on the lookout for books that kind of have to do with business but also give some insights into how human economic systems work behind the scenes, aka the things they don’t tell you in business books.

Some examples I always throw out there are Shoe Dog, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Close to the Machine, The Right Stuff, The Managed Heart, and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do

For example, “Working” starts with, 

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that quote recently in the context of work during covid, particularly essential workers, but also the pressures on all of us to keep the economic machine rolling through the pandemic. 

There are often gems just like that that jump out at me from various books that give me a slightly different perspective on what work means, so I’ve been trying to read as widely as possible (given my time constraints of roughly 14 minutes per night to read.)

Skunk Works

A recent book in this vein that I really enjoyed was Skunk Works, by Ben Rich (and, ostensibly, ghost writer Leo Janos), who was the second director of, you guessed it, Skunk Works, Lockheed Martin’s super secret R&D department that built stealth planes and bombers for the American government. (Thanks to Oscar and a couple HN threads for the rec!)

There are a lot of interesting things to unpack in the book, and I highly recommend you read it if you haven’t. It does have its demerits, such as casual sexism, but I think it’s possible to read it with a critical eye and still take away a multitude of other ideas. It has lessons about the structure of the American government budget, team work, how planes fly, the mentality of pilots, how secret military projects come together, the Cold War, management, and much, much more. 

One of the overarching things that struck me the most was probably the idea that a small team of smart people, if left alone in the hands of a capable, experienced, opinionated leader with the support of the rest of the company (and a decent budget), can accomplish amazing things.

For example, they built the U-2, which is a reconnaissance plane that flies over enemy targets (*cough* Russia) and takes pictures of stuff with a really fancy camera:

“Rich, this project is so secret that you may have a six-month to one-year hole in your résumé that can never be filled in. Whatever you learn, see, and hear for as long as you work inside this building stays forever inside this building. Is that clear? You’ll tell no one about what we do or what you do—not your wife, your mother, your brother, your girlfriend, your priest, or your CPA. You got that straight?” “Yes, sure,” I replied. “Okay, first read over this briefing disclosure form which says what I’ve just said, only in governmentese. Just remember, having a big mouth will cost you twenty years in Leavenworth, minimum. Sign it and then we’ll talk.”He then continued, “I’m going to tell you what you need to know so that you can do your job. Nothing more, nothing less. We are building a very special airplane that will fly at least fifteen thousand feet higher than any Russian fighter or missile, so it will be able to fly across all of Russia, hopefully undetected, and send back beautiful picture postcards to Ike.” 

I gulped. “That’s its mission. Edwin Land, who designed the Polaroid camera, is also designing our cameras, the highest-resolution camera in the world. He’s got Jim Baker, the Harvard astronomer, doing a thirty-six-inch folded optic lens for us. We’ll be able to read license plates. And we’ve got Eastman Kodak developing a special thin film that comes in thirty-six-hundred-foot rolls, so we won’t run out.”

Rich then goes on to describe this project, how hard it was to build this thing, and how hard it was to be a pilot in one of these planes, which often had flight paths often of 10 or so hours, launching from places like Pakistan, overflying the Soviet Union, and then returning.

One of the sections that struck me the most was the first-person account from Marty Knutson. Sorry for the long excerpt, but it was just so good:

I was the first pilot selected to fly in the U-2 program and made the third flight over the Soviet Union on the morning of July 8, 1956. I was a twenty-six-year-old with a thousand hours of fighter time, who had almost died of disappointment the first time I saw the U-2. I looked in the cockpit and saw that the damn thing had a yoke, or steering wheel. The last straw. Either you flew with a stick like a self-respecting fighter jock or you were a crappy bomber driver—a goddamn disgrace—who steered with a yoke, like a damned truck driver at the steering wheel of a big rig. I wound up flying that U-2 for the CIA for the next twenty-nine years. It was a bitch to land and easy to stall out, but I fell in love.

I was just crazy enough to enjoy the danger. Now here I was flying over Russia in a fragile little airplane with a wingspan as long as the damned Brooklyn Bridge—and below I could see three hundred miles in every direction. This was enemy territory, big time. In those days especially, I had a very basic attitude about the Soviet Union—man, it was an evil empire, a forbidding, alien place and I sure as hell didn’t want to crash-land in the middle of it. I had to pinch myself that I was actually flying over the Soviet Union.

I began the day by eating a high-protein breakfast, steak and eggs, then put on the bulky pressure suit and the heavy helmet and had to lie down in a contour chair for two hours before taking off and breathe pure oxygen. The object was to purge the nitrogen out of my system to avoid getting the bends if I had to come down quick from altitude. I knew from being briefed by the two other guys who flew these missions ahead of me to expect a lot of Soviet air activity. Those bastards tracked me from the minute I took off, which was an unpleasant surprise. We thought we would be invisible to their radar at such heights. No dice.

Through my drift sight I saw fifteen Russian MiGs following me from about fifteen thousand feet below. The day before, Carmen Vito had followed the railroad tracks right into Moscow and actually saw two MiGs collide and crash while attempting to climb to his altitude. Vito had a close call. The ground crew had put his poison cyanide pill in the wrong pocket. We were issued the pill in case of capture and torture and all that good stuff, but given the option whether to use it or not. But Carmen didn’t know the cyanide was in the right breast pocket of his coveralls when he dropped in a fistful of lemon-flavored cough drops. The cyanide pill was supposed to be in an inside pocket. Vito felt his throat go dry as he approached Moscow for the first time—who could blame him? So he fished in his pocket for a cough drop and grabbed the cyanide pill instead and popped it into his mouth.

He started to suck on it. Luckily he realized his mistake in a split second and spit it out in horror before it could take effect. Had he bit down he would have died instantly and crashed right into Red Square. Just imagine the international uproar!I kept my cyanide pill in an inside pocket and prayed that I would not have an engine flameout.

There are lots of really historically interesting passages like that in the book, but the theme I keep coming back to is that the U-2 was an amazing piece of advanced technology, easily 20-30 years ahead of its time. The government still doesn’t make any new ones. And, aside from the questionable surveillance benefits of the plane, it also took important, crystal-clear images that, even today, allow us to study the effects of people on the environment and human civilization more generally.

(The photo is from this linked post about the study of Marsh Arab civilizations in Iraq, and if you don’t have ENOUGH to read yet, I cannot more strongly recommend Guests of the Sheikh and The Marsh Arabs on this topic.)

Sunk Works

What struck me is the kinds of things we can do if we really put our mind to it. (Let’s put aside the fact that these U-2 planes, and later, the Blackbird, were being built to basically Google Earth the shit out of the Soviet Union to compare nuclear arsenals.) We also were able to do The Moon Landing, ARPANET, the polio vaccine, and more. Exactly the kind of stuff mentioned in It’s Time to Build.

What used to happen is that the government did these things, and they dictated the requirements, which were at least loosely tied to what people needed. 

Now what happens is that tech companies coordinate these kinds of things, whether they realize it or not. For example, something that’s been happening recently is that parents are trying to coordinate schooling for their kids in the fall

If you are not a parent / in a moms group, you may not be aware that a kind of historic thing is going on right now.

This week, there has been a tipping point in Bay Area families looking to form homeschooling pods. Or maybe 'boiling point' might be a better term.

Sounds niche? It's actually insanely involved and completely transformational on a lot of levels.

Essentially, within the span of the last 48 hrs or so, thousands of parents (far and away mostly moms because that's how these things work) are scrambling through an absolute explosion of facebook groups, matchups, spreadsheets, etc to scramble to form homeschooling pods.

I am extremely fortunate in that I have childcare, for the moment at least for the fall. But this kind of thing has crossed my mind more than once. And what’s really happening is that there is no centralized resource for parents of schools since in America all of this policy is happening on a district-by-district basis, and those districts are tied to where you live, which is tied to how much house you can afford, and you can guess how this ends. (In poor kids getting left in the dust.)

Each district, being the CEO now, is trying to make these decisions with as much information they have, with the pressures of the entire system working on them, with rising covid case counts, with budgetary restrictions, and with their own interests at heart. 

Teachers are terrified and helpless at a system that has completely disregarded their input and provides them no funding to buy, for example, masks or sanitizer. 

Parents are stressed to both have to decide whether to return based on incomplete information, to have no childcare, and to send their kid to school whether they might have to wear masks all day or get sick and pass it on.  

Kids are anxious, lonely, and completely deprived of human contact, and in some cases, food and care, during a time when they need it most. 

One of the results, is of course, that parents who can afford to do so are trying to mitigate this with homeschooling, pods, and tutors, and of course, the kids who can’t afford it and whose parents can’t advocate for them are being left extremely behind. 

All of this calls for a solution at the national level, a small team of experts working on a single policy that they recommend to all districts, a team of experts working to hammer out a budget for this stuff. (This is, of course, alongside an administration that works to address covid, but one can only do so much dreaming in a newsletter.)

Here is another case where big tech is acting as a passive intermediary where it shouldn’t: long-time covid survivors. What we’re seeing as more people are exposed to covid is that some recover just fine, like from a cold, and some are left with horrible effects that take weeks and months to resolve: cough, lethargy, and a lot more symptoms that doctors can’t get a handle on. These survivors have created Facebook groups to discuss and figure out how to deal with these symptoms in lieu of an already-overburdened medical system putting together support and facts for them. 

But who’s handling all of this now? Volunteers in Facebook groups, and, as a result, the power to set and guide social policy, to build big things, rests with Facebook and the other large social media platforms. 

We all know that good things don’t scale, but some things you simply can’t do without scale at all, and those things include figuring out whether and how millions of kids can go to school during a pandemic, and maybe we shouldn’t be putting the onus on moms in Facebook groups to figure out how the next year is going to pan out for the kids of our country. 

Is it harder than building a single jet fighter using a team of highly technical engineers working 27-hour days backed by a ton of money from the Pentagon? Sure.  

But the stakes, to me, seem just as high as they were during the Cold War, just a lot more boring because it’s not about nuclear war but the mental and physical health of our country over the next years to come.

What I’m reading lately

  1. Normcore discussion of various trends in technology, aka “Cold Showers”

  2. Sessionization: the bane of every data scientist

  3. Domestic workers during COVID

  4. Deep learning papers history roadmap

  5. This is rough.

  6. That’s a yikes for me Instacart


The Newsletter:

This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!

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The Author:
I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.