2001  

January 2001

Goldsmith, Donald. The Runaway Universe. New York: Perseus Books, 2000. ISBN 0-7382-0068-9.

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Rees, Martin. Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe. New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-03672-4.

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Doran, Jamie and Piers Bizony. Starman: the Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. London: Bloomsbury, 1998. ISBN 0-7475-3688-0.

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Hitchens, Christopher. No One Left to Lie To. London: Verso, 2000. ISBN 1-85984-284-4.

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February 2001

Ward, Peter D. and Donald Brownlee. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. New York: Copernicus, 2000. ISBN 0-387-98701-0.

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Godwin, Robert ed. Gemini 6: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 2000. ISBN 1-896522-61-0.

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Knuth, Donald E. Literate Programming. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1992. ISBN 0-937073-80-6.

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Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education. New York: Free Press, 1993. ISBN 0-02-930330-3.

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Guderian, Heinz. Panzer Leader. New York, Da Capo Press, 1996. ISBN 0-306-80689-4.

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Krauss, Lawrence. Quintessence: The Mystery of Missing Mass in the Universe. New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-03740-2.

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March 2001

Gold, Thomas. The Deep Hot Biosphere. New York: Copernicus, 1999. ISBN 0-387-98546-8.

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Lee, Henry and Jerry Labriola. Famous Crimes Revisited. Southington CT: Strong Books, 2001. ISBN 1-928782-14-0.

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Rucker, Rudy. The Hollow Earth. New York: Avon, 1990. ISBN 0-380-75535-1.

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Hoyle, Fred, Geoffrey Burbridge, and Jayant V. Narlikar. A Different Approach to Cosmology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-66223-0.

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Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast. New York: Signet, [1840, 1869] 2000. ISBN 0-451-52759-3.

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April 2001

Adams, Fred and Greg Laughlin. The Five Ages of the Universe. New York: The Free Press, 1999. ISBN 0-684-85422-8.

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Cassutt, Michael. Red Moon. New York: Tor, 2001. ISBN 0-312-87440-5.

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Kane, Gordon. Supersymmetry. New York: Perseus Publishing, 2000. ISBN 0-7382-0203-7.

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Knuth, Donald E. and Silvio Levy. The CWEB System of Structured Documentation. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994. ISBN 0-201-57569-8.

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Robinson, Kim Stanley. Green Mars. London: HarperCollins, 1994. ISBN 0-586-21390-2.

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Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. ISBN 0-7432-0079-9.

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May 2001

Gott, J. Richard III. Time Travel in Einstein's Universe. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. ISBN 0-395-95563-7.

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Kraft, Christopher C. Flight: My Life in Mission Control. New York: Dutton, 2001. ISBN 0-525-94571-7.

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Barrow, John D. The Book of Nothing. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. ISBN 0-375-42099-1.

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Schildt, Herbert. STL Programming from the Ground Up. Berkeley: Osborne, 1999. ISBN 0-07-882507-5.

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Bovard, James. Feeling Your Pain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. ISBN 0-312-23082-6.

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Cassutt, Michael. Missing Man. New York: Tor, 1998. ISBN 0-812-57786-8.

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Scheider, Walter. A Serious But Not Ponderous Book About Nuclear Energy. Ann Arbor MI: Cavendish Press, 2001. ISBN 0-9676944-2-6.

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June 2001

Callender, Craig and Nick Huggett, eds. Physics Meets Philosophy at the Planck Scale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-521-66445-4.

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Duesberg, Peter H. Inventing the AIDS Virus. Washington: Regnery, 1996. ISBN 0-89526-470-6.

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Sammon, Bill. At Any Cost. New York: Regnery Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-89526-227-4.

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Douglas, John and Mark Olshaker. The Cases that Haunt Us. New York: Scribner, 2000. ISBN 0-684-84600-4.

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Peron, Jim. Zimbabwe: the Death of a Dream. Johannesburg: Amagi Books, 2000. ISBN 0-620-26191-9.

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Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Touchstone Books, 1988. ISBN 0-671-65715-1.

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July 2001

Smith, Michael. Station X. New York: TV Books, 1999. ISBN 1-57500-094-6.

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Benford, Gregory. Timescape. New York: Bantam Books, 1980. ISBN 0-553-29709-0.

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Radosh, Ronald. Commies. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001. ISBN 1-893554-05-8.

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Einstein, Albert. Autobiographical Notes. Translated and edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, [1949] 1996. ISBN 0-8126-9179-2.

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Erdman, Paul. The Set-Up. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. ISBN 0-312-96805-1.

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Pinnock, Don. Gangs, Rituals and Rites of Passage. Cape Town: African Sun Press, 1997. ISBN 1-874915-08-3.

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Aczel, Amir D. The Mystery of the Aleph. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000. ISBN 1-58658-105-X.

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August 2001

Gray, Jeremy J. The Hilbert Challenge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-850651-1.

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Grisham, John. The Brethren. New York: Island Books, 2001. ISBN 0-440-23667-3.

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Pellegrino, Charles. Ghosts of the Titanic. New York: Avon, 2000. ISBN 0-380-72472-3.

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Verne, Jules. Autour de la lune. Paris: Poche, [1870] 1974. ISBN 2-253-00587-8.
Now available online at this site.

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Forsyth, Frederick. The Fourth Protocol. New York: Bantam Books, 1985. ISBN 0-553-25113-9.

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Smith, Michael. The Emperor's Codes. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000. ISBN 1-55970-568-X.

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September 2001

Burkett, B.G. and Glenna Whitley. Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. Dallas: Verity Press, 1998. ISBN 1-56530-284-2.

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Wade, Wyn Craig. The Titanic: End of a Dream. New York: Penguin, 1986. ISBN 0-14-016691-2.

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Aratus of Soli. Phænomena. Edited, with introduction, translation, and commentary by Douglas Kidd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [c. 275 B.C.] 1997. ISBN 0-521-58230-X.

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Barks, Carl. A Cold Bargain. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1957, 1960] 1989. ISBN 0-944599-24-9.

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Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-691-02832-X.

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Hall, Eldon C. Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer. Reston, VA: AIAA, 1996. ISBN 1-56347-185-X.

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October 2001

Ferro, Marc. Suez — 1956. Bruxelles: Éditions Complexe, 1982. ISBN 2-87027-101-8.

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Pickover, Clifford A. Surfing through Hyperspace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-514241-1.

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Hergé [Georges Remi]. Les aventures de Tintin au pays des Soviets. Bruxelles: Casterman, [1930] 1999. ISBN 2-203-00100-3.

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Mauldin, Bill. Back Home. Mattituck, New York: Amereon House, 1947. ISBN 0-89190-856-0.

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Pickover, Clifford A. Black Holes: A Traveler's Guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. ISBN 0-471-19704-1.

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Churchill, Winston S. and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Churchill-Eisenhower Correspondence, 1953–1955. Edited by Peter G. Boyle. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. ISBN 0-8078-4951-0.

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Hart-Davis, Adam. Eureakaaargh! A Spectacular Collection of Inventions that Nearly Worked. London: Michael O'Mara Books, 1999. ISBN 1-85479-484-1.

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Darling, David J. Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0-465-01563-8.

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November 2001

Rogers, Lesley. Sexing the Brain. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-231-12010-9.

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Roberts, Russell. The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. ISBN 0-262-18210-6.

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Linenger, Jerry M. Off the Planet. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. ISBN 0-07-137230-X.

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Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. ISBN 0-385-47705-8.

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Aron, Leon. Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. ISBN 0-312-25185-8.

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Pratchett, Terry and Gray Jolliffe. The Unadulterated Cat. London: Orion Books, 1989. ISBN 0-75283-715-X.

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December 2001

Hersh, Seymour M. The Samson Option. London: Faber and Faber, 1991, 1993. ISBN 0-571-16189-1.

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Wendt, Guenter and Russell Still. The Unbroken Chain. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2001. ISBN 1-896522-84-X.

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Hicks, Roger and Frances Schultz. Medium and Large Format Photography. New York: Amphoto Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8174-4557-9.

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De-la-Noy, Michael. Scott of the Antarctic. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0-7509-1512-9.

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Barnum, Phineas T. Art of Money Getting. Bedford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, [1880] 1999. ISBN 1-55709-494-2.
Now available online at this site.

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Morgan, Elaine. The Scars of Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1990] 1994. ISBN 0-19-509431-X.

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Smith, L. Neil. The WarDove. Culver City, California: Pulpless.Com, [1986] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-027-4.

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Mauldin, Bill. Up Front. New York: W. W. Norton, [1945] 2000. ISBN 0-393-05031-9.

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Bjornson, Adrian. A Universe that We Can Believe. Woburn, Massachusetts: Addison Press, 2000. ISBN 09703231-0-7.

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  2002  

January 2002

Rhodes, Richard. Why They Kill. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. ISBN 0-375-70248-2.

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Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. ISBN 0-14-029647-6.

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Jones, Peter. The 1848 Revolutions. 2nd ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 1991. ISBN 0-582-06106-7.

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Goldberg, Bernard. Bias. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-190-1.

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Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. New York: Bantam Books, 2001. ISBN 0-553-80202-X.

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Buchanan, Patrick J. The Death of the West. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002. ISBN 0-312-28548-5.

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Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-19-507132-8.

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February 2002

Ricks, Thomas E. Making the Corps. New York: Touchstone Books, 1998. ISBN 0-684-84817-1.

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Warraq, Ibn [pseud.]. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995. ISBN 0-87975-984-4.

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Smith, L. Neil. The American Zone. New York: Tor Books, 2001. ISBN 0-312-87369-7.

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Adams, Scott. God's Debris: A Thought Experiment. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2001. ISBN 0-7407-2190-9.

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Maor, Eli. e: The Story of a Number. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1994] 1998. ISBN 0-691-05854-7.

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Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture. New York: Doubleday, 2001. ISBN 0-385-50052-1.

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March 2002

Noonan, Peggy. When Character Was King. New York: Viking, 2001. ISBN 0-670-88235-6.

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Behe, Michael J., William A. Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer. Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. ISBN 0-89870-809-5.

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Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Eos Books, [1921] 1999. ISBN 0-380-63313-2.

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Yates, Raymond F. A Boy and a Battery. rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1959. ISBN 0-060-26651-1.

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Shull, Jim. The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography. Buffalo, NY: Amherst Media, 1999. ISBN 0-936262-70-2.

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Zelman, Aaron and L. Neil Smith. Hope. Hartford, WI: Mazel Freedom Press, 2001. ISBN 0-9642304-5-3.

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Chomsky, Noam. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. Boston: South End Press, 1993. ISBN 0-89608-444-2.

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Smith, L. Neil. Lever Action. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2001. ISBN 0-9670259-1-5.

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Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. ISBN 0-8212-1750-X.

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Webb, James. Fields of Fire. New York: Bantam Books, [1978] 2001. ISBN 0-553-58385-9.

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April 2002

McConnell, Brian. Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2001. ISBN 0-596-00037-5.

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Barks, Carl. The Sunken City and Luck of the North. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1949, 1954] 1989. ISBN 0-944599-27-3.

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Yates, Raymond F. Atomic Experiments for Boys. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952. LCCN 52-007879.
This book is out of print. You may be able to locate a copy through abebooks.com; that's where I found mine.

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Lamb, David. The Africans. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. ISBN 0-394-75308-9.

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Koman, Victor. Kings of the High Frontier. Centreville, VA: Final Frontier, 1998. ISBN 0-9665662-0-3.

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Simmons, Steve. Using the View Camera. rev. ed. New York: AMPHOTO, 1992. ISBN 0-8174-6353-4.

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Bastiat, Frédéric. The Law. 2nd. ed. Translated by Dean Russell. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, [1850, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-57246-073-3.
You may be able to obtain this book more rapidly directly from the publisher. The original French text, this English translation, and a Spanish translation are available online.

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Clarke, Arthur C. and Michael Kube-McDowell. The Trigger. New York: Bantam Books, [1999] 2000. ISBN 0-553-57620-8.

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Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Grove Press, [1982] 1987. ISBN 0-802-13020-8.

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May 2002

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8133-6699-2.

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Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1944] 1994. ISBN 0-226-32061-8.

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Pickover, Clifford A. Time: A Traveler's Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-513096-0.

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Satter, David. Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1996] 2001. ISBN 0-300-08705-5.

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Stewart, Ian. Flatterland. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-7382-0442-0.

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Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. London: Everyman, [1895, 1935] 1995. ISBN 0-460-87735-6.
Now available online at this site.

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Stumpf, David K. Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2000. ISBN 1-55728-601-9.

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June 2002

Lamb, David. The Arabs. 2nd. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. ISBN 1-4000-3041-2.

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Harris, Robert. Fatherland. New York: Harper, [1992] 1995. ISBN 0-061-00662-9.

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Visser, Matt. Lorentzian Wormholes: From Einstein to Hawking. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1996. ISBN 1-56396-653-0.

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Charpak, Georges et Henri Broch. Devenez sorciers, devenez savants. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002. ISBN 2-7381-1093-2.

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Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. Democracy: The God That Failed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0-7658-0868-4.
As of June 2002, the paperback edition of this book cited above is in short supply. The hardcover, ISBN 0-7658-0088-8, remains generally available.

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Nugent, Ted and Shemane Nugent. Kill It and Grill It. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-164-2.

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Fallaci, Oriana. La rage et l'orgueil. Paris: Plon, 2002. ISBN 2-259-19712-4.
An English translation of this book was published in October 2002.

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July 2002

Dyson, George. Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. ISBN 0-8050-5985-7.

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LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Left Behind. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1995. ISBN 0-8423-2912-9.

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Light, Michael and Andrew Chaikin. Full Moon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. ISBN 0-375-40634-4.

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Baer, Robert. See No Evil. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-609-60987-4.

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Lips, Ferdinand. Gold Wars. New York: FAME, 2001. ISBN 0-9710380-0-7.

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LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tribulation Force. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996. ISBN 0-8423-2921-8.

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Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998. ISBN 1-57392-247-1.

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Adams, Ansel. Singular Images. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan & Morgan, 1974. ISBN 0-87100-046-6.

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Brink, Anthony. Debating AZT: Mbeki and the AIDS Drug Controversy. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Open Books, 2000. ISBN 0-620-26177-3.
I bought this volume in a bookshop in South Africa; none of the principal on-line booksellers have ever heard of it. The complete book is now available on the Web.

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Meyssan, Thierry. L'effroyable imposture. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-44-X.
An English translation of this book was published in August 2002.

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Deary, Terry. The Cut-Throat Celts. London: Hippo, 1997. ISBN 0-590-13972-X.

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August 2002

DiLorenzo, Thomas J. The Real Lincoln. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-7615-3641-8.

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Caldwell, Brian. We All Fall Down. Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing.Com, 2001. ISBN 0-7414-0499-0.

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Thompson, Milton O. and Curtis Peebles. Flying Without Wings: NASA Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. ISBN 1-56098-832-0.

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Pratchett, Terry. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-001233-1.

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Radosh, Ronald and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File. 2nd. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-300-07205-8.

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Smith, Edward E. The Skylark of Space. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, [1928, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1958] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-9286-4.
“Doc” Smith revised the original 1928 edition of this book for each of four subsequent editions. This “Commemorative Edition” is a reprint of the most recent (1958) revision. It contains a variety of words: “fission”, “fusion”, “megaton”, "neutron", etc., which did not figure in the English language when the novel was completed in 1920 (it was not published until 1928). Earlier editions may have more of a “golden age” feel, but this was Smith's last word on the story. The original illustrations by O.G. Estes Jr. are reproduced, along with an introduction by Vernor Vinge which manages to misspell protagonist Richard Seaton's name throughout.

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Wolfram, Stephen. A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002. ISBN 1-57955-008-8.
The full text of this book may now be read online.

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September 2002

Hey, Anthony J.G. ed. Feynman and Computation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8133-4039-X.

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Prechter, Robert R., Jr. Conquer the Crash. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. ISBN 0-470-84982-7.

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Hackworth, David H. and Eilhys England. Steel My Soldiers' Hearts. New York: Rugged Land, 2002. ISBN 1-59071-002-9.

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Dalrymple, Theodore. Life at the Bottom. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. ISBN 1-56663-382-6.

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Kyne, Peter B. The Go-Getter. New York: Henry Holt, 1921. ISBN 0-8050-0548-X.

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Veeck, Bill and Ed Lynn. Thirty Tons a Day. New York: Viking, 1972. ISBN 0-670-70157-2.
This book is out of print. Used copies are generally available at Amazon.com.

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Wells, H. G. The Last War. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, [1914] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-9820-X.
This novel was originally published in 1914 as The World Set Free. Only the title has been changed in this edition.

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Yates, Raymond F. A Boy and a Motor. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944. LCCN  44-002179; ASIN 0-060-26666-X.
This book is out of print and used copies are not abundant. The enterprising young electrician who comes up empty handed at the link above is encouraged to also check abebooks.com.

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Brimelow, Peter. Alien Nation. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. ISBN 0-06-097691-8.

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October 2002

Verne, Jules. La chasse au météore. Version d'origine. Paris: Éditions de l'Archipel, [1901, 1986] 2002. ISBN 2-84187-384-6.
This novel, one of three written by Verne in 1901, remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1905. At the behest of Verne's publisher, Jules Hetzel, Verne's son Michel “revised” the text in an attempt to recast what Verne intended as satirical work into the mold of an “Extraordinary Adventure”, butchering it in the opinion of many Verne scholars. In 1978 the original handwritten manuscript was discovered among a collection of Verne's papers. This edition, published under the direction of the Société Jules Verne, reproduces that text, and is the sole authentic edition. As of this writing, no English translation is available—all existing English editions are based upon the Michel Verne “revision”.

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Heimann, Jim ed. Future Perfect. Köln, Germany: TASCHEN, 2002. ISBN 3-8228-1566-7.

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Coulter, Ann. Slander. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002. ISBN 1-4000-4661-0.

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Ferro, Marc. Le choc de l'Islam. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002. ISBN 2-7381-1146-7.

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Gertz, Bill. Breakdown. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-148-0.

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Clancy, Tom. Red Rabbit. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002. ISBN 0-399-14870-1.

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Bussjaeger, Carl. Net Assets. Internet: North American Samizdat, 2002.
Net Assets is published as an electronic book which can be purchased on-line and downloaded in a variety of formats. Befitting its anarcho-libertarian theme, you can even pay for it with real money.

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Fingleton, Eamonn. In Praise of Hard Industries. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. ISBN 0-395-89968-0.
On page 39, Autodesk is cited as an example of a non-hard industry undeserving of praise. Dunno—didn't seem all that damned easy to me at the time.

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Stafford, Thomas P. with Michael Cassutt. We Have Capture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58834-070-8.

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November 2002

Muravchik, Joshua. Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-45-7.

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Koman, Victor. Solomon's Knife. Mill Valley, CA: Pulpless.Com, [1989] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-072-X.

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Shayler, David J. Apollo: The Lost and Forgotten Missions. London: Springer-Praxis, 2002. ISBN 1-85233-575-0.
Space history buffs will find this well-documented volume fully as fascinating as the title suggests. For a Springer publication, there are a dismaying number of copyediting errors, but I noted only a few errors of fact.

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Guderian, Heinz. Achtung—Panzer!. Translated by Christopher Duffy. London: Arms & Armour Press, [1937] 1995. ISBN 1-85409-282-0.
This edition is presently out of print in the U.S., but used copies are generally available. The U.K. edition, ISBN 0-304-35285-3, identical except for the cover, remains in print.

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Todd, Emmanuel. Après l'empire. Paris: Gallimard, 2002. ISBN 2-07-076710-8.
An English translation is scheduled to be published in January 2004.

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December 2002

Rucker, Rudy. As Above, So Below. New York: Forge, 2002. ISBN 0-765-30403-1.
If you enjoy this novel as much as I did, you'll probably also want to read Rudy's notes on the book.

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Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. ISBN 0-316-31696-2.

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Parker, Ian. Complete Rollei TLR User's Manual. Faringdon, England: Hove Foto Books, 1994. ISBN 1-874031-96-7.

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Edmonds, David and John Eidinow. Wittgenstein's Poker. London: Faber and Faber, 2001. ISBN 0-571-20909-2.
A U.S. edition of this book, ISBN 0-060936-64-9, was published in September 2002.

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Dornberger, Walter. V-2. Translated by James Cleugh and Geoffrey Halliday. New York: Ballantine Books, [1952] 1954. LCCN 54-007830.
This book has been out of print for more than forty years. Used copies are generally available via abebooks.com, but the original Viking Press hardcover can be quite expensive. It's wisest to opt for the mass-market Ballantine paperback reprint; copies in perfectly readable condition can usually be had for about US$5.

Dornberger's account is an insider's view of Peenemünde. For an historical treatment with more technical detail plus a description of postwar research using the V-2, see Ordway and Sharpe's 1979 The Rocket Team, ISBN 0-262-65013-4, also out of print but readily available used.

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Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002. ISBN 0-465-03049-1.

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Burkett, Elinor. Another Planet. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-050585-0.

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Smith, Edward E. Skylark Three. New York: Pyramid Books, [1930, 1948] 1963. ISBN 0-515-02233-0.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used paperback copies, which are cheap and abundant. An illustrated reprint edition is scheduled for publication in 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press as ISBN 0-8032-9303-8.

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Graham, Kathryn A. Flight from Eden. Lincoln, NE: Writer's Showcase, 2001. ISBN 0-595-19940-2.

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Trefil, James. Are We Unique?. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. ISBN 0-471-24946-7.

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  2003  

January 2003

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Translated by Florence Wischnewetzky; edited with a foreword by Victor Kiernan. London: Penguin Books, [1845, 1886, 1892] 1987. ISBN 0-14-044486-6.
A Web edition of this title is available online.

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How, Edith A. People of Africa. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1921.
This book was found in a Cairo bookbinder's shop; I know of no source for printed copies, but an electronic edition is now available online at this site.

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Kelly, Thomas J. Moon Lander. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. ISBN 1-56098-998-X.

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Leeson, Nick with Edward Whitley. Rogue Trader. London: Warner Books, 1996. ISBN 0-7515-1708-9.

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Crichton, Michael. Prey. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. ISBN 0-06-621412-2.

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Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Translated, with an introduction and commentary by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1511, 1532] 1979. ISBN 0-300-02373-1.
This edition translates the Moriae Encomium into very colloquial American English. The effect is doubtless comparable to the original Latin on a contemporary reader (one, that is, who grasped the thousands of classical and scriptural allusions in the text, all nicely annotated here), but still it's somewhat jarring to hear Erasmus spout phrases such as “fit as a fiddle”, “bull [in] a chinashop”, and “x-ray vision”. If you prefer a little more gravitas in your Erasmus, check out the 1688 English translation and the original Latin text available online at the Erasmus Text Project. After the first unauthorised edition was published in 1511, Erasmus revised the text for each of seven editions published between 1512 and 1532; the bulk of the changes were in the 1514 and 1516 editions. This translation is based on the 1532 edition published at Basel, and identifies the changes since 1511, giving the date of each.

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Magueijo, João. Faster Than the Speed of Light. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 2003. ISBN 0-7382-0525-7.

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Gordon, Deborah M. Ants at Work. New York: The Free Press, 1999. ISBN 0-684-85733-2.

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Liddy, G. Gordon. When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-175-8.

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Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, [1938, 1952] 1987. ISBN 0-15-642117-8.
The orwell.ru site makes available electronic editions of this work in both English and Русский which you can read online or download to read at your leisure. All of Orwell's works are in the public domain under Russia's 50 year copyright law.

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Christensen, Mark. Build the Perfect Beast. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. ISBN 0-312-26873-4.
Here's the concept: a bunch of Southern California morons set out to reinvent the automobile in the 1990's. This would be far more amusing were it not written by one of them, who remains, after all the misadventures recounted in the text, fully as clueless as at the get-go, and enormously less irritating had his editor at St. Martin's Press—a usually respectable house—construed their mandate to extend beyond running the manuscript through a spelling checker. Three and four letter words are misspelled; technical terms are rendered phonetically (“Nacca-duct”, p. 314; “tinsel strength”, p. 369), factual howlers of all kinds litter the pages, and even the spelling of principal characters varies from page to page—on page 6 one person's name is spelled two different ways within five lines. This may be the only book ever issued by a major publisher which manages to misspell “Popsicle” in two entirely different ways (pp. 234, 350). When you fork out US$26.95 for a book, you deserve something better than a first draft manuscript between hard covers. I've fact-checked many a manuscript with fewer errors than this book.

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February 2003

Orizio, Riccardo. Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators. Translated by Avril Bardoni. London: Secker & Warburg, 2003. ISBN 0-436-20999-3.
A U.S. edition was published in April 2003.

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Scully, Matthew. Dominion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0-312-26147-0.

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Ward, Peter D. and Donald Brownlee. The Life and Death of Planet Earth. New York: Times Books, 2003. ISBN 0-8050-6781-7.

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Rose, Michael S. Goodbye, Good Men. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-144-8.

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Rosen, Milton W. The Viking Rocket Story. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955. LCCN 55-006592.
This book is out of print. You can generally find used copies at abebooks.com.

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Spencer, Robert. Islam Unveiled. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-58-9.

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Harris, Robert. Archangel. London: Arrow Books, 1999. ISBN 0-09-928241-0.
A U.S. edition is also in print.

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Heinlein, Robert A. Have Space Suit—Will Travel. New York: Del Rey, [1958] 1977. ISBN 0-345-32441-2.

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Hester, Elliott. Plane Insanity. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0-312-26958-7.

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Hagen, Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen. Bruegel: The Complete Paintings. Translated by Michael Claridge. Köln, Germany: TASCHEN, 2000. ISBN 3-8228-5991-5.

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March 2003

Chancellor, Henry. Colditz. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-001252-8.

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Gémignani, Anne-Marie. Une femme au royaume des interdits. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 2003. ISBN 2-85616-888-4.

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Carter, Bill and Merri Sue Carter. Latitude. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002. ISBN 1-55750-016-9.
Although I bought this book from Amazon, recently it's shown there as “out of stock”; you may want to order it directly from the publisher. Naturally, you'll also want to read Dava Sobel's 1995 Longitude, which I read before I began keeping this list.

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Postrel, Virginia. The Future and Its Enemies. New York: Touchstone Books, 1998. ISBN 0-684-86269-7.
Additional references, updates, and a worth-visiting blog related to the topics discussed in this book are available at the author's Web site, www.dynamist.com.

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Smith, Edward E. Skylark of Valeron. New York: Pyramid Books, [1934, 1935, 1949] 1963. LCCN  49-008714.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used copies. Paperbacks published in the 1960s and 70s are available in perfectly readable condition at modest cost—compare the offers, however, since some sellers quote outrageous prices for these mass-market paperbacks. University of Nebraska Press are in the process of re-issuing “Doc” Smith's Skylark novels, but they haven't yet gotten to this one.

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Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-684-87323-0.
Autodesk old-timers who recall the IPO era will find the story recounted on pages 153–157 amusing, particularly those also present at the first encounter.

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Furland, Gerald K. Transfer. Chattanooga, TN: Intech Media, 1999. ISBN 0-9675322-0-5.
This novel is set in the U.S. during the implementation of technology similar to that described in my 1994 Unicard paper. This is one of those self-published, print-on-demand jobs: better than most. It reads like the first volume of a trilogy of which the balance has yet to appear. The cover price of US$19.95 is outrageous; Amazon sell it for US$9.99. What is the difficulty these authors have correctly employing the possessive case?

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Hitchens, Christopher. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. London: Verso, 1995. ISBN 1-85984-054-X.

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Ekers, Ronald D. et al., eds. SETI 2020. Mountain View, CA: SETI Institute, 2002. ISBN 0-9666335-3-9.

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Allin, Michael. Zarafa. New York: Walker and Company, 1998. ISBN 0-3853-3411-7.

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April 2003

Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. ISBN 0-393-32169-X.

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Williams, Jonathan, Joe Cribb, and Elizabeth Errington, eds. Money: A History. London: British Museum Press, 1997. ISBN 0-312-21212-7.

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Schneider, Ben Ross, Jr. Travels in Computerland. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1974. ISBN 0-201-06737-4.
It's been almost thirty years since I first read this delightful little book, which is now sadly out of print. It's well worth the effort of tracking down a used copy. You can generally find one in readable condition for a reasonable price through the link above or through abebooks.com. If you're too young to have experienced the mainframe computer era, here's an illuminating and entertaining view of just how difficult it was to accomplish anything back then; for those of us who endured the iron age of computing, it is a superb antidote to nostalgia. The insights into organising and managing a decentralised, multidisciplinary project under budget and deadline constraints in an era of technological change are as valid today as they were in the 1970s. The glimpse of the embryonic Internet on pages 241–242 is a gem.

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Greene, Graham. The Comedians. New York: Penguin Books, 1965. ISBN 0-14-018494-5.

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Vertosick, Frank T., Jr. The Genius Within. New York: Harcourt, 2002. ISBN 0-15-100551-6.

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Ferro, Marc. Les tabous de l'histoire. Paris: NiL, 2002. ISBN 2-84111-147-4.

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Waugh, Auberon. Will This Do? New York: Carroll & Graf 1991. ISBN 0-7867-0639-2.
This is about the coolest title for an autobiography I've yet to encounter.

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Begleiter, Steven H. The Art of Color Infrared Photography. Buffalo, NY: Amherst Media, 2002. ISBN 1-58428-065-4.

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Warraq, Ibn [pseud.] ed. What the Koran Really Says. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002. ISBN 1-57392-945-X.
This is a survey and reader of Western Koranic studies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A wide variety of mutually conflicting interpretations are presented and no conclusions are drawn. The degree of detail may be more than some readers have bargained for: thirty-five pages (pp. 436–464, 472–479) discuss a single word. For a scholarly text there are a surprising number of typographical errors, many of which would have been found by a spelling checker.

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LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Nicolae. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1997. ISBN 0-8423-2924-2.

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Buckley, William F. The Redhunter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999. ISBN 0-316-11589-4.
It's not often one spots an anachronism in one of WFB's historical novels. On page 330, two characters imitate “NBC superstar nightly newsers Chet Huntley and David Brinkley” in a scene set in late 1953. Huntley and Brinkley did not, in fact, begin their storied NBC broadcasts until October 29th, 1956.

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May 2003

Minc, Alain. Épîtres à nos nouveaux maîtres. Paris: Grasset, 2002. ISBN 2-24-661981-5.

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Williams, Andrew. The Battle of the Atlantic. New York: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN 0-465-09153-9.

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Fussell, Paul. BAD. New York: Summit Books, 1991. ISBN 0-671-67652-0.

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Feynman, Richard P. Feynman Lectures on Computation. Edited by Anthony J.G. Hey and Robin W. Allen. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996. ISBN 0-201-48991-0.
This book is derived from Feynman's lectures on the physics of computation in the mid 1980s at CalTech. A companion volume, Feynman and Computation (see September 2002), contains updated versions of presentations by guest lecturers in this course.

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Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995. ISBN 0-679-76489-5.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology has a Web site now!

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Smith, Edward E. Skylark DuQuesne. New York: Pyramid Books, 1965. ISBN 0-515-03050-3.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used copies. Paperbacks are readily available in readable condition at modest cost. The ISBN given here is for a hardback dumped on the market at a comparable price by a library with no appreciation of the classics of science fiction. Unless you have the luck I did in finding such a copy, you're probably better off looking for a paperback.

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Ray, Erik T. and Jason McIntosh. Perl and XML. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2002. ISBN 0-596-00205-X.

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Buckley, William F. Getting It Right. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-89526-138-3.

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Manly, Peter L. Unusual Telescopes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-521-48393-X.

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Lindenberg, Daniel. Le rappel à l'ordre. Paris: Seuil, 2002. ISBN 2-02-055816-5.

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Fussell, Paul. Uniforms. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. ISBN 0-618-06746-9.

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June 2003

Derbyshire, John. Prime Obsession. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2003. ISBN 0-309-08549-7.
This is simply the finest popular mathematics book I have ever read.

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Adams, Scott. The Dilbert Future. New York: HarperBusiness, 1997. ISBN 0-88730-910-0.
Uh oh. He's on to the secret about Switzerland (chapter 4).

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Wright, Robert. Nonzero. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. ISBN 0-679-44252-9.
Yuck. Four hundred plus pages of fuzzy thinking, tangled logic, and prose which manages to be simultaneously tortured and jarringly colloquial ends up concluding that globalisation and the attendant extinction of liberty and privacy are not only good things, but possibly Divine (chapter 22). Appendix 1 contains the lamest description of the iterated prisoner's dilemma I have ever read, and the key results table on 341 is wrong (top right entry, at least in the hardback). Bill Clinton loved this book. A paperback edition is now available.

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Fenton, James. An Introduction to English Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0-374-10464-6.

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Barrow, John D. The Constants of Nature. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. ISBN 0-375-42221-8.
This main body copy in this book is set in a type font in which the digit “1” is almost indistinguishable from the capital letter “I”. Almost—look closely at the top serif on the “1” and you'll note that it rises toward the right while the “I” has a horizontal top serif. This struck my eye as ugly and antiquated, but I figured I'd quickly get used to it. Nope: it looked just as awful on the last page as in the first chapter. Oddly, the numbers on pages 73 and 74 use a proper digit “1”, as do numbers within block quotations.

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King, David. The Commissar Vanishes. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. ISBN 0-8050-5295-X.

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Kagan, Robert. Of Paradise and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 1-4000-4093-0.

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Carpenter, [Malcolm] Scott and Kris Stoever. For Spacious Skies. New York: Harcourt, 2002. ISBN 0-15-100467-6.
This is the most detailed, candid, and well-documented astronaut memoir I've read (Collins' Carrying the Fire is a close second). Included is a pointed riposte to “the man malfunctioned” interpretation of Carpenter's MA-7 mission given in Chris Kraft's autobiography Flight (May 2001). Co-author Stoever is Carpenter's daughter.

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Arkes, Hadley. Natural Rights and the Right to Choose. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-81218-6.

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July 2003

Thomas, Dominique. Le Londonistan. Paris: Éditions Michalon, 2003. ISBN 2-84186-195-3.

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Rees, Martin. Our Final Hour. New York: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN 0-465-06862-6.
Rees, the English Astronomer Royal, writes with a literary tic one has become accustomed to in ideologically biased news reporting. Almost every person he names is labeled to indicate Rees' approbation or disdain for that individual's viewpoint. Freeman Dyson—Freeman Dyson!—is dismissed as a “futurist”, Ray Kurzweil and Esther Dyson as “gurus”, and Bjørn Lomborg as an “anti-gloom environmental propagandist”, while those he approves of such as Kurt Gödel (“great logician”), Arnold Schwarzenegger (“greatest Austrian-American body”), Luis Alvarez (“Nobel physicist”), and Bill Joy (“co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and the inventor of the Java computer language”) get off easier. (“Inventor of Java” is perhaps a tad overstated: while Joy certainly played a key rôle in the development of Java, the programming language was principally designed by James Gosling. But that's nothing compared to note 152 on page 204, where the value given for the approximate number of nucleons in the human body is understated by fifty-six orders of magnitude.) The U.K. edition bears the marginally more optimistic title, Our Final Century. but then everything takes longer in Britain.

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Goldstuck, Arthur. The Aardvark and the Caravan: South Africa's Greatest Urban Legends. Johannesburg: Penguin Books, 1999. ISBN 0-140-29026-5.
This book is out of print. I bought my copy in a bookshop in South Africa during our 2001 solar eclipse expedition, but didn't get around to reading it until now. You can occasionally find used copies on abebooks.com, but the prices quoted are often more than I'd be willing to pay for this amusing but rather lightweight book.

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Graham, Richard H. SR-71 Revealed. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1996. ISBN 0-7603-0122-0.
The author, who piloted SR-71's for seven years and later commanded the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, provides a view from the cockpit, including descriptions of long-classified operational missions. There's relatively little discussion of the plane's development history, engineering details, or sensors; if that's what you're looking for, Dennis Jenkins' Lockheed SR-71/YF-12 Blackbirds may be more to your liking. Colonel Graham is inordinately fond of the word “unique”, so much so that each time he uses it he places it in quotes as I have (correctly) done here.

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Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. ISBN 0-393-04764-4.
The discussion of the merits of the European Union bureaucracy and World Trade Organisation on pages 241–248 will get you thinking. For a treatment of many of the same issues from a hard libertarian perspective, see Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: The God That Failed (June 2002).

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Benford, Gregory ed. Far Futures. New York: Tor, 1995. ISBN 0-312-86379-9.

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Wells, H. G. Mind at the End of Its Tether and The Happy Turning. New York: Didier, 1946. LCCN 47-002117.
This thin volume, published in the year of the author's death, contains Wells' final essay, Mind at the End of Its Tether, along with The Happy Turning, his dreamland escape from grim, wartime England. If you've a low tolerance for blasphemy, you'd best give the latter a pass. The unrelenting pessimism of the former limited its appeal; press runs were small and it has rarely been reprinted. The link above will find all editions containing the main work, Mind at the End of Its Tether. Bear in mind when pricing used copies that both essays together are less than 90 pages, with Mind alone a mere 34.

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O'Leary, Brian. The Making of an Ex-Astronaut. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. LCCN 70-112277.
This book is out of print. The link above will search for used copies at abebooks.com.

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August 2003

Wood, Peter. Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-62-7.

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Jenkins, Dennis R. Magnesium Overcast: The Story of the Convair B-36. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, [2001] 2002. ISBN 1-58007-042-6.
As alluded to by its nickname, the B-36, which first flew in 1946, was one big airplane. Its 70 metre wingspan is five metres more than the present-day 747-400 (64.4 m), although the fuselage, at 49 metres, is shorter than the 70 metre 747. Later versions, starting in 1950, were powered by ten engines: six piston engines (with 28 cylinders each) driving propellers, and four J47 jet engines, modified to run on the same high-octane aviation gasoline as the piston engines. It could carry a bomb load of 39,000 kg—no subsequent U.S. bomber came close to this figure, which is the weight of an entire F-15E with maximum fuel and weapons load. Depending on winds and mission profile, a B-36 could stay aloft for more than 48 hours without refueling (for which it was not equipped), and 30 hour missions were routinely flown.

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Milton, Julie and Richard Wiseman. Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1997. ISBN 0-900458-74-7.

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Pickover, Clifford A. The Science of Aliens. New York: Basic Books, 1998. ISBN 0-465-07315-8.

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Breslin, Jimmy. Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1963] 2003. ISBN 1-56663-488-1.

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Barnouw, Erik. Handbook of Radio Writing. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939. LCCN  39-030193.
This book is out of print. The link above will search for used copies which, while not abundant, when available are generally comparable in price to current hardbacks of similar length. The copy I read is the 1939 first edition. A second edition was published in 1945; I haven't seen one and don't know how it may differ.

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Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve. New York: The Free Press, [1994] 1996. ISBN 0-684-82429-9.

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Hitchens, Christopher. A Long Short War. New York: Plume, 2003. ISBN 0-452-28498-8.

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Hanson, Victor Davis. Mexifornia. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-73-2.

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September 2003

Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Washington: Regnery Publishing, [1952] 2002. ISBN 0-89526-789-6.

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Jenkins, Dennis R. and Tony Landis. North American XB-70A Valkyrie. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58007-056-6.

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Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet. New York: Berkley, 1998. ISBN 0-425-17169-8.

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Moorcock, Michael. Behold the Man. London: Gollancz, [1969] 1999. ISBN 1-857-98848-5.
The link above is to the 1999 U.K. reprint, the only in-print edition as of this writing. I actually read a 1980 mass market paperback found at abebooks.com, where numerous inexpensive copies are offered.

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Havil, Julian. Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-691-09983-9.

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Fleming, Thomas. The New Dealers' War. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ISBN 0-465-02464-5.

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Dyson, Freeman J. The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-513922-4.
The text in this book is set in a hideous flavour of the Adobe Caslon font in which little curlicue ligatures connect the letter pairs “ct” and “st” and, in addition, the “ligatures” for “ff”, “fi”, “fl”, and “ft” lop off most of the bar of the “f”, leaving it looking like a droopy “l”. This might have been elegant for chapter titles, but it's way over the top for body copy. Dyson's writing, of course, more than redeems the bad typography, but you gotta wonder why we couldn't have had the former without the latter.

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Large, Christine. Hijacking Enigma. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 0-470-86346-3.
The author, Director of the Bletchley Park Trust, recounts the story of the April 2000 theft and eventual recovery of Bletchley's rare Abwehr Engima cipher machine, interleaved with a history of Bletchley's World War II exploits in solving the Engima and its significance in the war. If the latter is your primary interest, you'll probably prefer Michael Smith's Station X (July 2001), which provides much more technical and historical detail. Readers who didn't follow the Enigma theft as it played out and aren't familiar with the names of prominent British news media figures may feel a bit at sea in places. A Web site devoted to the book is now available, and a U.S. edition is scheduled for publication later in 2003.

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Gardner, Martin. How Not to Test a Psychic. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989. ISBN 0-87975-512-1.

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October 2003

Sowell, Thomas. The Quest for Cosmic Justice. New York: Touchstone Books, 1999. ISBN 0-684-86463-0.

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Spotts, Frederic. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58567-345-5.
A paperback edition is scheduled to be published in February 2004.

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Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-513624-1.
Of the approximately 6000 languages in use in the world today, nearly 85 percent have fewer than 100,000 speakers—half fewer than 6000 speakers. Development and globalisation imperil the survival of up to 90% of these minority languages—many are already no longer spoken by children, which virtually guarantees their extinction. Few details are known of many of these vanishing languages; their disappearance will forever foreclose whatever insights they hold to the evolution and structure of human languages, the cultures of those who speak them, and the environments which shaped them. Somebody ought to write a book about this. Regrettably, these authors didn't. Instead, they sprinkle interesting factoids about endangered languages here and there amid a Chomsky-style post-colonial rant which attempts to conflate language diversity with biodiversity through an argument which, in the absence of evidence, relies on “proof through repeated assertion,” while simultaneously denying that proliferation and extinction of languages might be a process akin to Darwinian evolution rather than the more fashionable doctrines of oppression and exploitation. One can only shake one's head upon reading, “The same is true for Spanish, which is secure in Spain, but threatened in the United States.” (p. 48) or “Any language can, in fact, be turned to any purpose, perhaps by the simple incorporation of a few new words.” (p. 129). A paperback edition is now available.

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Haig, Matt. Brand Failures. London: Kogan Page, 2003. ISBN 0-7494-3927-0.

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Rousmaniere, John. Fastnet, Force 10. New York: W. W. Norton, [1980] 2000. ISBN 0-393-30865-0.

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Webb, Stephen. If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where Is Everybody?. New York: Copernicus, 2002. ISBN 0-387-95501-1.

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Wilson, Robin. Four Colors Suffice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-691-11533-8.

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Rabinowitz, Dorothy. No Crueler Tyrannies. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-2834-0.

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Brin, David. The Transparent Society. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1998. ISBN 0-7382-0144-8.
Having since spent some time pondering The Digital Imprimatur, I find the alternative Brin presents here rather more difficult to dismiss out of hand than when I first encountered it.

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November 2003

Wodehouse, P. G. Psmith in the City. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, [1910] 2003. ISBN 1-58567-478-8.
The link above is to the only edition presently in print in the U.S., a hardcover which is rather pricey for such a thin volume. I actually read a 15 year old mass market paperback; you can often find such copies at attractive prices on abebooks.com. If you're up for a larger dose of Psmith, you might consider The World of Psmith paperback published by Penguin in the U.K., which includes Psmith Journalist and Leave It to Psmith along with this novel.

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Stepczynski, Marian. Dollar: Histoire, actualité et avenir de la monnaie impériale. Lausanne: Éditions Favre, 2003. ISBN 2-8289-0730-9.
In the final paragraph on page 81, in the sentence which begins «À fin septembre 1972», 2002 is intended, not 1972.

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LaHaye, Tim and Jerry B. Jenkins. Soul Harvest. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1998. ISBN 0-8423-2925-0.
This is what happens when trilogies go bad. Paraphrasing the eternal programming language COBOL, “04 FILLER SIZE IS 90%”. According to the lumpen eschatology in which the Left Behind series (of which this is volume four) is grounded, the world will come to an end in a seven-year series of cataclysms and miracles loosely based on the book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Okay, as a fictional premise, that works for me. The problem here is that while Saint John the Divine managed to recount this story in fewer than 1600 words, these authors have to date filled twelve volumes, with Tetragrammaton knows how many more yet to come, stringing readers of the series along for more years than the entire apocalypse is supposed to take to go down. It is an accomplishment of sorts to start with the very archetypal account of fire and brimstone, wormwood and rivers running with blood, and make it boring. Precisely one paragraph—half a page in this 425 page tome—is devoted to describing the impact of of a “thousand mile square” asteroid in the the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, while dozens, nay hundreds, of pages are filled with dialogue which, given the apparent attention span of the characters (or perhaps the authors, the target audience, or all of the above), recaps the current situation and recent events every five pages or so. I decided to read the first volume of the series, Left Behind (July 2002), after reading a magazine article about the social and political impact of the large number of people (more than fifty million copies of these books have been sold to date) who consider this stuff something more than fantasy. I opted for a “bargain box” of the first four volumes instead of just volume one and so, their having already got my money, decided to slog through all four. This was illogical—I should have reasoned, “I've already wasted my money; I'm not going to waste my time as well”—but I doubt many Vulcans buy these books in the first place. Time and again, whilst wading through endless snowdrifts of dialogue, I kept thinking, “This is like a comic book.” In this, as in size of their audience, the authors were way ahead of me.

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Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2001. ISBN 1-56097-432-X.

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Lime, Jean-Hugues. Le roi de Clipperton. Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2002. ISBN 2-86274-947-8.
This fascinating novel, reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, is based on events which actually occurred during the Mexican occupation of Clipperton Island from 1910 through 1917. (After World War I, the island returned to French possession, as it remains today; it has been uninhabited since 1917.) There is one instance of bad astronomy here: in chapter 4, set on the evening of November 30th, 1910, the Moon is described as «…très lumineuse…. On y voyait comme en plein jour.» (“…very luminous;…. One could see like in broad daylight” [my translation]). But on that night, the Moon was not visible at all! Here is the sky above Clipperton at about 21:00 local time courtesy of Your Sky. (Note that in Universal time it's already the morning of December 1st, and that I have supplied the actual latitude of Clipperton, which is shown as one minute of latitude too far North in the map on page 8.) In fact, the Moon was only 17 hours before new as shown by Earth and Moon Viewer, and hence wasn't visible from anywhere on Earth on that night. Special thanks to the person who recommended this book using the recommendation form! This was an excellent read which I'd otherwise never have discovered.

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Hazlitt, Henry. Economics in One Lesson. New York: Three Rivers Press, [1946, 1962] 1979. ISBN 0-517-54823-2.

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Cahill, Thomas. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-49553-6.

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Ferguson, Niels and Bruce Schneier. Practical Cryptography. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-471-22357-3.
This is one of the best technical books I have read in the last decade. Those who dismiss this volume as Applied Cryptography Lite” are missing the point. While the latter provides in-depth information on a long list of cryptographic systems (as of its 1996 publication date), Practical Cryptography provides specific recommendations to engineers charged with implementing secure systems based on the state of the art in 2003, backed up with theoretical justification and real-world experience. The book is particularly effective in conveying just how difficult it is to build secure systems, and how “optimisation”, “features”, and failure to adopt a completely paranoid attitude when evaluating potential attacks on the system can lead directly to the bull's eye of disaster. Often-overlooked details such as entropy collection to seed pseudorandom sequence generators, difficulties in erasing sensitive information in systems which cache data, and vulnerabilities of systems to timing-based attacks are well covered here.

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Vazsonyi, Balint. America's Thirty Years War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-89526-354-8.

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December 2003

von Dach, Hans. Total Resistance. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, [1958] 1965. ISBN 0-87364-021-7.
This is an English translation of Swiss Army Major von Dach's Der totale Widerstand — Kleinkriegsanleitung für jedermann, published in 1958 by the Swiss Non-commissioned Officers' Association. It remains one of the best manuals for guerrilla warfare and civilian resistance to enemy occupation in developed countries. This is not a book for the faint-hearted: von Dach does not shrink from practical advice such as, “Fire upon the driver and the assistant driver with an air rifle. …the force of the projectile is great enough to wound them so that you can dispose of them right afterward with a bayonet.” and “The simplest and surest way to dispose of guards noiselessly is to kill them with an ax. Do not use the sharp edge but the blunt end of the ax.” There is strategic wisdom as well—making the case for a general public uprising when the enemy is near defeat, he observes, “This way you can also prevent your country from being occupied again even though by friendly forces. Past experience shows that even ‘allies’ and ‘liberators’ cannot be removed so easily. At least, it's harder to get them to leave than to enter.”

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Seuss, Dr. [Theodor Seuss Geisel]. Horton Hears a Who! New York: Random House, 1954. ISBN 0-679-80003-4.

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Ross, John F. Unintended Consequences. St. Louis: Accurate Press, 1996. ISBN 1-888118-04-0.
I don't know about you, but when I hear the phrases “first novel” and “small press” applied to the same book, I'm apt to emit an involuntary groan, followed by a wince upon hearing said volume is more than 860 pages in length. John Ross has created the rarest of exceptions to this prejudice. This is a big, sprawling, complicated novel with a multitude of characters (real and fictional) and a plot which spans most of the 20th century, and it works. What's even more astonishing is that it describes an armed insurrection against the United States government which is almost plausible. The information age has changed warfare at the national level beyond recognition; Ross explores what civil war might look like in the 21st century. The book is virtually free of typographical errors and I only noted a few factual errors—few bestsellers from the largest publishers manifest such attention to detail. Some readers may find this novel intensely offensive—the philosophy, morality, and tolerance for violence may be deemed “out of the mainstream” and some of the characterisations in the last 200 pages may be taken as embodying racial stereotypes—you have been warned.

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Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: Henry Holt, [1996] 1998. ISBN 0-8050-5668-8.

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Hirshfeld, Alan W. Parallax. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. ISBN 0-8050-7133-4.

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Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato. 5th ed., rev. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1945, 1950, 1952, 1957, 1962] 1966. ISBN 0-691-01968-1.
The two hundred intricately-argued pages of main text are accompanied by more than a hundred pages of notes in small type. Popper states that “The text of the book is self-contained and may be read without these Notes. However, a considerable amount of material which is likely to interest all readers of the book will be found here, as well as some references and controversies which may not be of general interest.” My recommendation? Read the notes. If you skip them, you'll miss Popper's characterisation of Plato as the first philosopher to adopt a geometrical (as opposed to arithmetic) model of the world along with his speculations based on the sum of the square roots of 2 and 3 (known to Plato) differing from π by less than 1.5 parts per thousand (Note 9 to Chapter 6), or the exquisitely lucid exposition (written in 1942!) of why international law and institutions must ultimately defend the rights of human individuals as opposed to the sovereignty of nation states (Note 7 to Chapter 9). The second volume, which dissects the theories of Hegel and Marx, is currently out of print in the U.S. but a U.K. edition is available.

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Carlos [Ilich Ramírez Sánchez]. L'Islam révolutionnaire. Textes et propos recueillis, rassemblés et présentés par Jean-Michel Vernochet. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04433-5.
Prior to his capture in Sudan in 1994 and “exfiltration” to a prison in France by the French DST, Carlos (“the Jackal”), nom de guerre of Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a true red diaper baby, his brothers were named “Vladimir” and “Lenin”) was one of the most notorious and elusive terrorists of the latter part of the twentieth century. This is a collection of his writings and interviews from prison, mostly dating from the early months of 2003. I didn't plan it that way, but I found reading Carlos immediately after Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies (above) extremely enlightening, particularly in explaining the rather mysterious emerging informal alliance among Western leftists and intellectuals, the political wing of Islam, the remaining dribs and drabs of Marxism, and third world kleptocratic and theocratic dictators. Unlike some Western news media, Carlos doesn't shrink from the word “terrorism”, although he prefers to be referred to as a “militant revolutionary”, but this is in many ways a deeply conservative book. Carlos decries Western popular culture and its assault on traditional morality and family values in words which wouldn't seem out of place in a Heritage Foundation white paper. A convert to Islam in 1975, he admits he paid little attention to the duties and restrictions of his new religion until much later. He now believes that only Islam provides the framework to resist what he describes as U.S. totalitarian imperialism. Essentially, he's exchanged utopian Marxism for Islam as a comprehensive belief system. Now consider Popper: the essence of what he terms the open society, dating back to the Athens of Pericles, is the absence of any utopian vision, or plan, or theory of historical inevitability, religious or otherwise. Open societies have learned to distinguish physical laws (discovered through the scientific method) from social laws (or conventions), which are made by fallible humans and evolve as societies do. The sense of uncertainty and requirement for personal responsibility which come with an open society, replacing the certainties of tribal life and taboos which humans evolved with, induce what Popper calls the “strain of civilisation”, motivating utopian social engineers from Plato through Marx to attempt to create an ideal society, an endpoint of human social evolution, forever frozen in time. Look at Carlos; he finds the open-ended, make your own rules, everything's open to revision outlook of Western civilisation repellent. Communism having failed, he seizes upon Islam as a replacement. Now consider the motley anti-Western alliance I mentioned earlier. What unifies them is simply that they're anti-Western: Popper's enemies of the open society. All have a vision of a utopian society (albeit very different from one another), and all share a visceral disdain for Western civilisation, which doesn't need no steenkin' utopias but rather proceeds incrementally toward its goals, in a massively parallel trial and error fashion, precisely as the free market drives improvements in products and services.

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McMath, Robert M. and Thom Forbes. What Were They Thinking?. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998. ISBN 0-812-93203-X.

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  2004  

January 2004

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. London: Profile Books, 2003. ISBN 1-86197-612-7.
A U.S edition is now available.

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O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Third Policeman. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1967] 1999. ISBN 1-56478-214-X.
This novel, one of the most frequently recommended books by visitors to this page, was completed in 1940 but not published until 1967, a year after the author's death. Perhaps the world was insufficiently weird before the High Sixties! This is one strange book; in some ways it anticipates surreal new wave science fiction such as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and The Jagged Orbit, but O'Brien is doing something quite different here which I'll refrain from giving away. Don't read the (excellent) Introduction before you read the novel—there is one big, ugly spoiler therein.

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Wellum, Geoffrey. First Light. London: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-141-00814-8.
A U.S edition is available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

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Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. ISBN 0-374-52221-9.

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Bolton, Andrew. Bravehearts: Men in Skirts. London: V&A Publications, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-6558-5.

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Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-0446-8.

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Drosnin, Michael. The Bible Code 2. New York: Penguin Books, [2002] 2003. ISBN 0-14-200350-6.
What can you say about a book, published by Viking and Penguin as non-fiction, which claims the Hebrew Bible contains coded references to events in the present and future, put there by space aliens whose spacecraft remains buried under a peninsula on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea? Well, actually a number of adjectives come to mind, most of them rather pithy. The astonishing and somewhat disturbing thing, if the author is to believed, is that he has managed to pitch this theory and the apocalyptic near-term prophecies he derives from it to major players on the world stage including Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat, Clinton's chief of staff John Podesta in a White House meeting in 2000, and in a 2003 briefing at the Pentagon, to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and other senior figures at the invitation of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. If this is the kind of input that's informing decisions about the Middle East, it's difficult to be optimistic about the future. When predicting an “atomic holocaust” for 2006 in The Bible Code 2, Drosnin neglects to mention that in chapter 6 of his original 1997 The Bible Code, he predicted it for either 2000 or 2006, but I suppose that's standard operating procedure in the prophecy biz.

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Guéhenno, Jean-Marie. La fin de la démocratie. Paris: Flammarion, 1993. ISBN 2-08-081322-6.
This book, written over a decade ago, provides a unique take on what is now called “globalisation” and the evolution of transnational institutions. It has been remarkably prophetic in the years since its publication and a useful model for thinking about such issues today. Guéhenno argues that the concept of the nation-state emerged in Europe and North America due to their common history. The inviolability of borders, parliamentary democracy as a guarantor of liberty, and the concept of shared goals for the people of a nation are all linked to this peculiar history and consequently non-portable to regions with different histories and cultural heritages. He interprets most of disastrous post-colonial history of the third world as a mistaken attempt to implant the European nation-state model where the precursors and prerequisites for it do not exist. The process of globalisation and the consequent transformation of hierarchical power structures, both political and economic, into self-organising and dynamic networks is seen as rendering the nation-state obsolete even in the West, bringing to a close a form of organisation dating from the Enlightenment, replacing democratic rule with a system of administrative rules and regulations similar to the laws of the Roman Empire. While offering hope of eliminating the causes of the large-scale conflicts which characterised the 20th century, this scenario has distinct downsides: an increased homogenisation of global cultures and people into conformist “interchangeable parts”, a growing sense that while the system works, it lacks a purpose, erosion of social solidarity in favour of insecurity at all levels, pervasive corruption of public officials, and the emergence of diffuse violence which, while less extreme than 20th century wars, is also far more common and difficult to deter. That's a pretty good description of the last decade as I saw it, and an excellent list of things to ponder in the years to come. An English translation, The End of the Nation-State, is now available; I've not read it.

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Robinson, Kim Stanley. Blue Mars. New York: Bantam Books, 1996. ISBN 0-553-57335-7.
This is the third volume in Robinson's Mars Trilogy: the first two volumes are Red Mars and Green Mars (April 2001). The three volumes in the trilogy tell one continuous story and should be read in order; if you start with Green or Blue, you'll be totally lost as to the identities of characters introduced in Red or events which occurred in prior volumes. When I read Red Mars in the mid 1990s, I considered it to be one of the very best science fiction novels I'd ever read, and I've read all of the works of the grand masters. Green Mars didn't quite meet this standard, but was still a superb and thought-provoking read. By contrast, I found Blue Mars a tremendous disappointment—tedious and difficult to finish. It almost seems like Robinson ran out of ideas before filling the contracted number of pages. There are hundreds of pages of essentially plot-free pastoral descriptions of landscapes on terraformed Mars; if you like that kind of stuff, you may enjoy this book, but I prefer stories in which things happen and characters develop and interact in interesting ways, and there's precious little of that here. In part, I think the novel suffers from the inherent difficulty of writing about an epoch in which human technological capability permits doing essentially anything whatsoever—it's difficult to pose challenges which characters have to surmount once they can simply tell their AIs to set the robots to work, then sit around drinking kavajava until the job is done. The politics and economics in these books has never seemed particularly plausible to me, and in Blue Mars it struck me as even more naïve, but perhaps that's just because there's so little else going on. I can't make any sense at all of the immigration and population figures Robinson gives. On page 338 (mass-market paperback edition) the population of Mars is given as 15 million and Earth's population more than 15 billion in 2129, when Mars agrees to accept “at least ten percent of its population in immigrants every year”. Since Earth pressed for far more immigration while Mars wished to restrict it, presumably this compromise rate is within the capability of the interplanetary transportation system. Now there's two ways to interpret the “ten percent”. If every year Mars accepts 10% of its current population, including immigrants from previous years, the Mars population runs away geometrically, exploding to more than two billion by 2181. But on page 479, set in that year, the population of Mars is given as just 18 million, still a thousandth of Earth's, which has grown to 18 billion. Okay, let's assume the agreement between Earth and Mars meant that Mars was only to accept 10% of its present population as of the date of the agreement, 2129. Well, if that's the case, then you have immigration of 1.5 million per year, which leaves us with a Mars population of 93 million by 2181 (see the spreadsheet I used to perform these calculations for details). And these figures assume that neither the Mars natives nor the immigrants have any children at all, which is contradicted many times in the story. In fact, to get from a population of 15 million in 2129 to only 18 million in 2181 requires a compounded growth rate of less than 0.4%, an unprecedentedly low rate for frontier civilisations without any immigration at all.

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Buckley, Reid. USA Today: The Stunning Incoherence of American Civilization. Camden, SC: P.E.N. Press, 2002. ISBN 0-972-1000-0-8.

The author, brother of William F. Buckley, is founder of a school of public speaking and author of several books on public speaking and two novels. Here, however, we have Buckley's impassioned, idiosyncratic, and (as far as I can tell) self-published rant against the iniquities of contemporary U.S. morals, politics, and culture. Bottom line: he doesn't like it—the last two sentences are “The supine and swinish American public is the reason why our society has become so vile. We are vile.” This book would have been well served had the author enlisted brother Bill or his editor to red-pencil the manuscript. How the humble apostrophe causes self-published authors to stumble! On page 342 we trip over the “biography of John Quincy Adam's” among numerous other exemplars of proletarian mispunctuation. On page 395, Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box has his name given as “Rehe” (and in the index too). On page 143, he misquotes Alan Guth's Inflationary Universe as saying the grand unification energy is “1016 GeV”, thereby getting it wrong by thirteen orders of magnitude compared to the 1016 GeV a sharp-eyed proofreader would have caught. All of this, and Buckley's meandering off into anecdotes of his beloved hometown of Camden, South Carolina and philosophical disquisitions distract from the central question posed in the book which is both profound and disturbing: can a self-governing republic survive without a consensus moral code shared by a large majority of its citizens? This is a question stalwarts of Western civilisation need to be asking themselves in this non-judgemental, multi-cultural age, and I wish Buckley had posed it more clearly in this book, which despite the title, has nothing whatsoever to do with that regrettable yet prefixally-eponymous McNewspaper.

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February 2004

Ferry, Georgina. A Computer Called LEO. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. ISBN 1-84115-185-8.
I'm somewhat of a computer history buff (see my Babbage and UNIVAC pages), but I knew absolutely nothing about the world's first office computer before reading this delightful book. On November 29, 1951 the first commercial computer application went into production on the LEO computer, a vacuum tube machine with mercury delay line memory custom designed and built by—(UNIVAC? IBM?)—nope: J. Lyons & Co. Ltd. of London, a catering company which operated the Lyons Teashops all over Britain. LEO was based on the design of the Cambridge EDSAC, but with additional memory and modifications for commercial work. Many present-day disasters in computerisation projects could be averted from the lessons of Lyons, who not only designed, built, and programmed the first commercial computer from scratch but understood from the outset that the computer must fit the needs and operations of the business, not the other way around, and managed thereby to succeed on the very first try. LEO remained on the job for Lyons until January 1965. (How many present-day computers will still be running 14 years after they're installed?) A total of 72 LEO II and III computers, derived from the original design, were built, and some remained in service as late as 1981. The LEO Computers Society maintains an excellent Web site with many photographs and historical details.

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Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radicals. New York: Random House, 1971. ISBN 0-679-72113-4.
Ignore the title. Apart from the last two chapters, which are dated, there is remarkably little ideology here and a wealth of wisdom directly applicable to anybody trying to accomplish something in the real world, entrepreneurs and Open Source software project leaders as well as social and political activists. Alinsky's unrelenting pragmatism and opportunism are a healthy antidote to the compulsive quest for purity which so often ensnares the idealistic in such endeavours.

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Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, The Living. New York: Scribner, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-5998-X.
I was ambivalent about reading this book, knowing that Robert and Virginia Heinlein destroyed what they believed to be all copies of the manuscript shortly before the author's death in 1988, and that Virginia Heinlein died in 2003 before being informed of the discovery of a long-lost copy. Hence, neither ever gave their permission that it be published. This is Heinlein's first novel, written in 1938–1939. After rejection by Macmillan and then Random House, he put the manuscript aside in June 1939 and never attempted to publish it subsequently. His first fiction sale, the classic short story “Life-Line”, to John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction later in 1939 launched Heinlein's fifty year writing career. Having read almost every word Heinlein wrote, I decided to go ahead and see how it all began, and I don't regret that decision. Certainly nobody should read this as an introduction to Heinlein—it's clear why it was rejected in 1939—but Heinlein fans will find here, in embryonic form, many of the ideas and themes expressed in Heinlein's subsequent works. It also provides a glimpse at the political radical Heinlein (he'd run unsuccessfully for the California State Assembly in 1938 as a Democrat committed to Upton Sinclair's Social Credit policies), with the libertarian outlook of his later years already beginning to emerge. Much of the book is thinly—often very thinly—disguised lectures on Heinlein's political, social, moral, and economic views, but occasionally you'll see the great storyteller beginning to flex his muscles.

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Schulman, J. Neil. Stopping Power. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1994] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-057-6.
The paperback edition is immediately available from the link above. This and most of the author's other works are supposed to be available in electronic form for online purchase and download from his Web site, but the ordering links appear to be broken at the moment. Note that the 1999 paperback contains some material added since the original 1994 hardcover edition.

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Jenkins, Roy. Churchill: A Biography. New York: Plume, 2001. ISBN 0-452-28352-3.
This is a splendid biography of Churchill. The author, whose 39 year parliamentary career overlapped 16 of Churchill's almost 64 years in the House of Commons, focuses more on the political aspects of Churchill's career, as opposed to William Manchester's The Last Lion (in two volumes: Visions of Glory and Alone) which delves deeper into the British and world historical context of Churchill's life. Due to illness, Manchester abandoned plans for the third volume of The Last Lion, so his biography regrettably leaves the story in 1940. Jenkins covers Churchill's entire life in one volume (although at 1001 pages including end notes, it could easily have been two) and occasionally assumes familiarity with British history and political figures which may send readers not well versed in twentieth century British history, particularly the Edwardian era, scurrying to other references. Having read both Manchester and Jenkins, I find they complement each other well. If I were going to re-read them, I'd probably start with Manchester.

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Szpiro, George G. Kepler's Conjecture. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 0-471-08601-0.
In 1611, Johannes Kepler conjectured that no denser arrangement of spheres existed than the way grocers stack oranges and artillerymen cannonballs. For more than 385 years this conjecture, something “many mathematicians believe, and all physicists know”, defied proof. Over the centuries, many distinguished mathematicians assaulted the problem to no avail. Then, in 1998, Thomas C. Hales, assisted by Samuel P. Ferguson, announced a massive computer proof of Kepler's conjecture in which, to date, no flaw has been found. Who would have imagined that a fundamental theorem in three-dimensional geometry would be proved by reducing it to a linear programming problem? This book sketches the history of Kepler's conjecture and those who have assaulted it over the centuries, and explains, in layman's language, the essentials of the proof. I found the organisation of the book less than ideal. The author works up to Kepler's general conjecture by treating the history of lattice packing and general packing in two dimensions, then the kissing and lattice packing problems in three dimensions, each in a separate chapter. Many of the same people occupied themselves with these problems over a long span of time, so there is quite a bit of duplication among these chapters and one has to make an effort not to lose track of the chronology, which keeps resetting at chapter boundaries. To avoid frightening general readers, the main text interleaves narrative and more technical sections set in a different type font and, in addition, most equations are relegated to appendices at the end of the book. There's also the irritating convention that numerical approximations are, for the most part, given to three or four significant digits without ellipses or any other indication they are not precise values. (The reader is warned of this in the preface, but it still stinks.) Finally, there are a number of factual errors in historical details. Quibbles aside, this is a worthwhile survey of the history and eventual conquest of one of the most easily stated, difficult to prove, and longest standing problems in mathematics. The proof of Kepler's conjecture and all the programs used in it are available on Thomas C. Hales' home page.

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Zubrin, Robert. The Holy Land. Lakewood, CO: Polaris Books, 2003. ISBN 0-9741443-0-4.
Did somebody say science fiction doesn't do hard-hitting social satire any more? Here, Robert Zubrin, best known for his Mars Direct mission design (see The Case for Mars) turns his acid pen (caustic keyboard?) toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with plenty of barbs left over for the absurdities and platitudes of the War on Terrorism (or whatever). This is a novel which will have you laughing out loud while thinking beyond the bumper-sticker slogans mouthed by politicians into the media echo chamber.

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Haynes, John Earl and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-08462-5.
Messages encrypted with a one-time pad are absolutely secure unless the adversary obtains a copy of the pad or discovers some non-randomness in the means used to prepare it. Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic used one-time pads extensively, avoiding the vulnerabilities of machine ciphers which permitted World War II codebreakers to read German and Japanese traffic. The disadvantage of one-time pads is key distribution: since every message consumes as many groups from the one-time pad as its own length and pads are never reused (hence the name), embassies and agents in the field require a steady supply of new one-time pads, which can be a logistical nightmare in wartime and risk to covert operations. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 caused Soviet diplomatic and intelligence traffic to explode in volume, surpassing the ability of Soviet cryptographers to produce and distribute new one-time pads. Apparently believing the risk to be minimal, they reacted by re-using one-time pad pages, shuffling them into a different order and sending them to other posts around the world. Bad idea! In fact, reusing one-time pad pages opened up a crack in security sufficiently wide to permit U.S. cryptanalysts, working from 1943 through 1980, to decode more than five thousand pages (some only partially) of Soviet cables from the wartime era. The existence of this effort, later codenamed Project VENONA, and all the decoded material remained secret until 1995 when it was declassified. The most-requested VENONA decrypts may be viewed on-line at the NSA Web site. (A few months ago, there was a great deal of additional historical information on VENONA at the NSA site, but at this writing the links appear to be broken.) This book has relatively little to say about the cryptanalysis of the VENONA traffic. It is essentially a history of Soviet espionage in the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s as documented by the VENONA decrypts. Some readers may be surprised at how little new information is presented here. In essence, VENONA messages completely confirmed what Whittaker Chambers (Witness, September 2003) and Elizabeth Bentley testified to in the late 1940s, and FBI counter-intelligence uncovered. The apparent mystery of why so many who spied for the Soviets escaped prosecution and/or conviction is now explained by the unwillingness of the U.S. government to disclose the existence of VENONA by using material from it in espionage cases. The decades long controversy over the guilt of the Rosenbergs (The Rosenberg File, August 2002) has been definitively resolved by disclosure of VENONA—incontrovertible evidence of their guilt remained secret, out of reach to historians, for fifty years after their crimes. This is a meticulously-documented work of scholarly history, not a page-turning espionage thriller; it is probably best absorbed in small doses rather than one cover to cover gulp.

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March 2004

Grisham, John. The King of Torts. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-50804-2.
A mass market paperback edition is now available.

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Lynn, Richard and Tatu Vanhanen. IQ and the Wealth of Nations. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. ISBN 0-275-97510-X.
Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, said in April 2000 that intelligence “is one commodity equally distributed among the world's people”. But is this actually the case? Numerous studies of the IQ of the populations of various countries have been performed from the 1930s to the present and with few exceptions, large variations have been found in the mean IQs of countries—more than two standard deviations between the extremes—while different studies of the same population show remarkable consistency, and countries with similar populations in the same region of the world tend to have roughly the same mean IQ. Many social scientists believe that these results are attributable to cultural bias in IQ tests, or argue that IQ tests measure not intelligence, but rather proficiency in taking IQ tests, which various educational systems and environments develop to different degrees. The authors of this book accept the IQ test results at face value and pose the question, “Whatever IQ measures, how accurately does the average IQ of a country's population correlate with its economic success, measured both by per capita income and rate of growth over various historical periods?” From regression studies of 81 countries whose mean population IQ is known and 185 countries where IQ is known or estimated based on neighbouring countries, they find that IQ correlates with economic development better than any other single factor advanced in prior studies. IQ, in conjunction with a market economy and, to a lesser extent, democratic governance “explains” (in the strict sense of the square of the correlation coefficient) more than 50% of the variation in GDP per capita and other measures of economic development (of course, IQ, economic freedom, and democracy may not be independent variables). Now, correlation is not causation, but the evidence that IQ stabilises early in childhood and remains largely constant afterward allows one to rule out many potential kinds of influence by economic development on IQ, strengthening the argument for causation. If this is the case, the consequences for economic assistance are profound. For example, providing adequate nutrition during pregnancy and for children, which is known to substantially increase IQ, may not only be the humanitarian thing to do but could potentially promote economic progress more than traditional forms of development assistance. Estimating IQ and economic development for a large collection of disparate countries is a formidable challenge, and this work contains more correction, normalisation, and adjustment factors than a library full of physics research—close to half the book is data tables and source documentation, and non-expert readers cannot be certain that source data might not have been selected which tend to confirm the hypothesis and others excluded. But this is a hypothesis which can be falsified by further research, which would seem well-warranted. Scientists and policy makers must live in the real world and are ill advised to ignore aspects of it which make them uncomfortable. (If these comments move you to recommend Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, you needn't—I've read it twice before I started keeping this list, and found it well-argued. But you may also want to weigh the points raised in J. Philippe Rushton's critique of Gould's book.)

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Lewis, Sinclair. It Can't Happen Here. New York: Signet, [1935] 1993. ISBN 0-451-52582-5.
Just when you need it, this classic goes out of print. Second-hand copies at reasonable prices are available from the link above or through abebooks.com. I wonder to what extent this novel might have motivated Heinlein to write For Us, The Living (February 2004) a few years later. There are interesting parallels between Lewis's authoritarian dystopia and the 1944–1950 dictatorial interregnum in Heinlein's novel. Further, one of the utopian reformers Lewis mocks is Upton Sinclair, of whom Heinlein was a committed follower at the time, devoting much of the latter part of For Us, The Living to an exposition of Sinclair's economic system.

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Sacks, David. Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. ISBN 0-7679-1172-5.
Whaddya gonna do? The hardcover is out of print and the paperback isn't scheduled for publication until August 2004. The U.K. hardback edition, simply titled The Alphabet, is currently available.

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Stöhlker, Klaus J. Adieu la Suisse—Good Morning Switzerland. Le Mont-sur-Lausanne: Éditions LEP, 2003. ISBN 2-606-01086-8.
This is a French translation of the original German edition, which has the same French-and-English title. The French edition can be found in almost any bookshop in la Suisse romande, but I know of no online source.

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McGivern, Ed. Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Clinton, NJ: New Win Publishing, [1938] 1975. ISBN 0-8329-0557-7.
This is a facsimile of the 1938 first edition, published to commemorate the centenary of the author's birth in 1874. Earlier facsimile editions of this classic were published in 1945, 1957, and 1965; copies of these as well as the first edition may be found at abebooks.com, but most are substantially more expensive than new copies of the 1975 reprint. Imagine trying to publish a book today which includes advice (pp. 461–462) on shooting targets off an assistant's head!

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Jenkins, Dennis R. and Tony R. Landis. Hypersonic: The Story of the North American X-15. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-068-X.
Specialty Press have drastically raised the bar in aviation history publishing. This volume, like the B-36 (August 2003) and XB-70A (September 2003) books mentioned previously here, combines coffee-table book production values, comprehensive historical coverage, and abundant technical details. Virtually absent are the typographical errors, mis-captioned photographs, and poorly reproduced colour photos which too often mar well-intended aviation books from other publishers. In their research, the authors located many more historical photographs than they could include in this book (which has more than 550). The companion X-15 Photo Scrapbook includes 400 additional significant photos, many never before published.

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Dyson, Freeman J. Origins of Life. 2nd. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-62668-4.
The years which followed Freeman Dyson's 1985 Tarner lectures, published in the first edition of Origins of Life that year, saw tremendous progress in molecular biology, including the determination of the complete nucleotide sequences of organisms ranging from E. coli to H. sapiens, and a variety of evidence indicating the importance of Archaea and the deep, hot biosphere to theories of the origin of life. In this extensively revised second edition, Dyson incorporates subsequent work relevant to his double-origin (metabolism first, replication later) hypothesis. It's perhaps indicative of how difficult the problem of the origin of life is that none of the multitude of experiments done in the almost 20 years since Dyson's original lectures has substantially confirmed or denied his theory nor answered any of the explicit questions he posed as challenges to experimenters.

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April 2004

Weightman, Gavin. The Frozen-Water Trade. New York: Hyperion, 2003. ISBN 0-7868-8640-4.
Those who scoff at the prospect of mining lunar Helium-3 as fuel for Earth-based fusion power plants might ponder the fact that, starting in 1833, British colonists in India beat the sweltering heat of the subcontinent with a steady, year-round supply of ice cut in the winter from ponds and rivers in Massachusetts and Maine and shipped in the holds of wooden sailing ships—a voyage of some 25,000 kilometres and 130 days. In 1870 alone, 17,000 tons of ice were imported by India in ships sailing from Boston. Frederic Tudor, who first conceived the idea of shipping winter ice, previously considered worthless, to the tropics, was essentially single-handedly responsible for ice and refrigeration becoming a fixture of daily life in Western communities around the world. Tudor found fortune and fame in creating an industry based on commodity which beforehand simply melted away every spring. No technological breakthrough was required or responsible—this is a classic case of creating a market by filling a need of which customers were previously unaware. In the process, Tudor suffered just about every adversity one can imagine and never gave up, an excellent illustration that the one essential ingredient of entrepreneurial success is the ability to “take a whacking and keep on hacking”.

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Olson, Walter K. The Rule of Lawyers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003. ISBN 0-312-28085-8.
The author operates the valuable Overlawyered.com Web site. Those who've observed that individuals with a clue are under-represented on juries in the United States will be delighted to read on page 217 of the Copiah County, Mississippi jury which found for the plaintiff and awarded US$75 billion in damages. When asked why, jurors said they'd intended to award “only” US$75 million, but nobody knew how many zeroes to write down for a million, and they'd guessed nine.

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Walsh, Jill Paton and Dorothy L. Sayers. A Presumption of Death. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0-312-29100-0.
This is an entirely new Lord Peter Wimsey mystery written by Jill Paton Walsh, based upon the “Wimsey Papers”—mock wartime letters among members of the Wimsey family by Dorothy L. Sayers, published in the London Spectator in 1939 and 1940. Although the hardcover edition is 378 pages long, the type is so large that this is almost a novella in length, and the plot is less intricate, it seems to me, than the genuine article. Walsh, who was three years old at the period in which the story is set, did her research well: I thought I'd found half a dozen anachronisms, but on each occasion investigation revealed the error to be mine. But please, RAF pilots do not “bale” out of their Spitfires—they bail out!

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Muirden, James. A Rhyming History of Britain: 55 B.C.A.D. 1966. Illustrated by David Eccles. New York: Walker and Company, 2003. ISBN 0-8027-7680-9.

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Rucker, Rudy. Frek and the Elixir. New York: Tor, 2004. ISBN 0-765-31058-9.
Phrase comments in dialect of Unipusk aliens in novel. Congratulate author's hitting sweet spot combining Heinlein juvenile adventure, Rucker zany imagination, and Joseph Campbell hero myth. Assert suitable for all ages. Direct readers to extensive (145 page) working notes for the book, and book's Web site, with two original oil paintings illustrating scenes. Commend author for attention to detail: two precise dates in the years 3003 and 3004 appear in the story, and the days of the week are correct! Show esteemed author and humble self visiting Unipusk saucer base in July 2002.

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Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1918, 1922, 1932, 1959, 1961] 1991. ISBN 0-19-506634-0.
Only rarely do I read abridged editions. I chose this volume simply because it was the only readily-available English translation of the work. In retrospect, I don't think I could have handled much more Spengler, at least in one dose. Even in English, reading Spengler conjures up images of great mountain ranges of polysyllabic German philosophical prose. For example, chapter 21 begins with the following paragraph. “Technique is as old as free-moving life itself. The original relation between a waking-microcosm and its macrocosm—‘Nature’—consists in a mental sensation which rises from mere sense-impressions to sense-judgement, so that already it works critically (that is, separatingly) or, what comes to the same thing, causal-analytically”. In this abridged edition the reader need cope only with a mere 415 pages of such text. It is striking the extent to which today's postmodern nostrums of cultural relativism were anticipated by Spengler.

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Lileks, James. The Gallery of Regrettable Food. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0-609-60782-0.
The author is a syndicated columnist and pioneer blogger. Much of the source material for this book and a wealth of other works in progress are available on the author's Web site.

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Verne, Jules. Voyage au centre de la terre. Paris: Gallimard, [1864] 1998. ISBN 2-07-051437-4.
A free electronic edition of this text is available from Project Gutenberg. This classic adventure is endlessly adaptable: you may prefer a translation in English, German, or Spanish. The 1959 movie with James Mason and Pat Boone is a fine flick but substantially departs from Verne's story in many ways: of the three principal characters in the novel, two are rather unsympathetic and the third taciturn in the extreme—while Verne was just having his usual fun with Teutonic and Nordic stereotypes, one can see that this wouldn't work for Hollywood. Rick Wakeman's musical edition is, however, remarkably faithful to the original.

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May 2004

Spufford, Francis. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. ISBN 0-571-21496-7.
It is rare to encounter a book about technology and technologists which even attempts to delve into the messy real-world arena where science, engineering, entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, and government policy intersect, yet it is there, not solely in the technological domain, that the roots of both great successes and calamitous failures lie. Backroom Boys does just this and pulls it off splendidly, covering projects as disparate as the Black Arrow rocket, Concorde, mid 1980s computer games, mobile telephony, and sequencing the human genome. The discussion on pages 99 and 100 of the dynamics of new product development in the software business is as clear and concise a statement I've seen of the philosophy that's guided my own activities for the past 25 years. While celebrating the technological renaissance of post-industrial Britain, the author retains the characteristic British intellectual's disdain for private enterprise and economic liberty. In chapter 4, he describes Vodaphone's development of the mobile phone market: “It produced a blind, unplanned, self-interested search strategy, capitalism's classic method for exploring a new space in the market where profit may be found.” Well…yes…indeed, but that isn't just “capitalism's” classic method, but the very one employed with great success by life on Earth lo these four and a half billion years (see The Genius Within, April 2003). The wheels fall off in chapter 5. Whatever your position may have been in the battle between Celera and the public Human Genome Project, Spufford's collectivist bias and ignorance of economics (simply correcting the noncontroversial errors in basic economics in this chapter would require more pages than it fills) gets in the way of telling the story of how the human genome came to be sequenced five years before the original estimated date. A truly repugnant passage on page 173 describes “how science should be done”. Taxpayer-funded researchers, a fine summer evening, “floated back downstream carousing, with stubs of candle stuck to the prows, … and the voices calling to and fro across the water as the punts drifted home under the overhanging trees in the green, green, night.“ Back to the taxpayer-funded lab early next morning, to be sure, collecting their taxpayer-funded salaries doing the work they love to advance their careers. Nary a word here of the cab drivers, sales clerks, construction workers and, yes, managers of biotech start-ups, all taxed to fund this scientific utopia, who lack the money and free time to pass their own summer evenings so sublimely. And on the previous page, the number of cells in the adult body of C. elegans is twice given as 550. Gimme a break—everybody knows there are 959 somatic cells in the adult hermaphrodite, 1031 in the male; he's confusing adults with 558-cell newly-hatched L1 larvæ.

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Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly. New York: Crown Forum, 2003. ISBN 0-7615-0165-7.

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Vallee, Jacques. The Heart of the Internet. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2003. ISBN 1-57174-369-3.
The author (yes, that Jacques Vallee) recounts the history of the Internet from an insider's perspective: first as a member of Doug Engelbart's Augmentation group at SRI from 1971, and later as a developer of the pioneering Planet conferencing system at the Institute for the Future and co-founder of the 1976 spin-off InfoMedia. He does an excellent job both of sketching Engelbart's still unrealised vision of computer networks as a means of connecting human minds in new ways, and in describing how it, like any top-down system design, was doomed to fail in the real world populated by idiosyncratic and innovative human beings. He celebrates the organic, unplanned growth of the Internet so far and urges that it be allowed to continue, free of government and commercial constraints. The present-day state of the Internet worries him as it worries me; he eloquently expresses the risk as follows (p. 162): “As a venture capitalist who invests in high tech, I have to worry that the web will be perceived as an increasingly corrupt police state overlying a maze of dark alleys and unsafe practices outside the rule of law. The public and many corporations will be reluctant to embrace a technology fraught with such problems. The Internet economy will continue to grow, but it will do so at a much slower pace than forecast by industry analysts.” This is precisely the scenario I have come to call “the Internet slum”. The description of the present-day Internet and what individuals can do to protect their privacy and defend their freedom in the future is sketchy and not entirely reliable. For example, on page 178, “And who has time to keep complete backup files anyway?”, which rhetorical question I would answer, “Well, anybody who isn't a complete idiot.” His description of the “Mesh” in chapter 8 is precisely what I've been describing to gales of laughter since 1992 as “Gizmos”—a world in which everything has its own IPv6 address—each button on your VCR, for example—and all connections are networked and may be redefined at will. This is laid out in more detail in the Unicard Ubiquitous section of my 1994 Unicard paper.

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Solé, Robert. Le grand voyage de l'obélisque. Paris: Seuil, 2004. ISBN 2-02-039279-8.
No, this is not an Astérix book—it's “obélisque”, not “Obélix”! This is the story of how an obelisk of Ramses II happened to end up in the middle of la Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moving a 22 metre, 220 metric ton chunk of granite from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Seine in the 1830s was not a simple task—it involved a purpose-built ship, an expedition of more than two and a half years with a crew of 121, twelve of whom died in Egypt from cholera and dysentery, and the combined muscle power of 350 artillerymen in Paris to erect the obelisk where it stands today. One has to be impressed with the ancient Egyptians, who managed much the same more than thirty centuries earlier. The book includes a complete transcription and translation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions—Ramses II must have set the all-time record for effort expended in publishing banal text.

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Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Liberty. London: Atlantic Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-84354-149-1.
This is a revised edition of the hardcover published in 2003 as A Brief History of Crime. Unlike the police of most other countries (including most of the U.S.), since the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, police in England and Wales focused primarily on the prevention of crime through a regular, visible presence and constant contact with the community, as opposed to responding after the commission of a crime to investigate and apprehend those responsible. Certainly, detection was among the missions of the police, but crime was viewed as a failure of policing, not an inevitable circumstance to which one could only react. Hitchens argues that it is this approach which, for more than a century, made these lands among the safest, civil, and free on Earth, with police integrated in the society as uniformed citizens, not a privileged arm of the state set above the people. Starting in the 1960s, all of this began to change, motivated by a mix of utopian visions and the hope of cutting costs. The bobby on the beat was replaced by police in squad cars with sirens and flashing lights, inevitably arriving after a crime was committed and able to do little more than comfort the victims and report yet another crime unlikely to be solved. Predictably, crime in Britain exploded to the upside, with far more police and police spending per capita than before the “reforms” unable to even reduce its rate of growth. The response of the government elite has not been to return to preventive policing, but rather to progressively infringe the fundamental liberties of citizens, trending toward the third world model of a police state with high crime. None of this would have surprised Hayek, who foresaw it all The Road to Serfdom (May 2002). Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom (September 2002) provides a view from the streets surrendered to savagery, and the prisons and hospitals occupied by the perpetrators and their victims. In this edition, Hitchens deleted two chapters from the hardcover which questioned Britain's abolition of capital punishment and fanatic program of victim disarmament (“gun control”). He did so “with some sadness” because “the only way to affect politics in this country is to influence the left”, and these issues are “articles of faith with the modern left”. As “People do not like to be made to think about their faith”, he felt the case better put by their exclusion. I have cited these quotes from pp. xi–xii of the Preface without ellipses but, I believe, fairly.

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Cellan-Jones, Rory. Dot.bomb: The Strange Death of Dot.com Britain. London: Aurum Press, [2001] 2003. ISBN 1-85410-952-9.
The dot.com bubble in Britain was shorter and more intense than in the U.S.—the mania didn't really begin until mid-1999 with the public share flotation of Freeserve, then collapsed along with the NASDAQ in the spring of 2000, days after the IPO of evocatively named lastminute.com (a rare survivor). You're probably aware of the much-hyped rise, profligate peak, and ugly demise of boo.com, poster child of the excesses of dot.com Britain, but how about First Tuesday, which almost succeeded in raising US$15 million from two venture funds, putting a valuation of US$62 million on what amounted to a cocktail party? The babe on the back cover beside the author's biography isn't the author (who is male), but British sitcom celeb Joanna Lumley, erstwhile spokesblonde for ephemeral on-line health food peddler Clickmango.com.

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Miranda, Eduardo Reck. Composing Music with Computers. Oxford: Focal Press, 2001. ISBN 0-240-51567-6.

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June 2004

Hutchinson, Robert. Weapons of Mass Destruction. London: Cassell, 2003. ISBN 0-304-36653-6.
This book provides a history and survey of present-day deployment of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The author, a former journalist with Jane's, writes from a British perspective and discusses the evolution of British nuclear forces in some detail. The focus is very much on nuclear weapons—of the 260 pages of text, a total of 196 are devoted to nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Two chapters at the end cover chemical and biological weapons adequately but less thoroughly. Several glaring technical errors make one worry about the reliability of the information on deployments and policy. The discussion of how fission and fusion weapons function is complete gibberish; if that's what interests you, the Nuclear Weapons Frequently-Asked Questions available on the Nuclear Weapons Archive is the place to go. There is one anecdote I don't recall encountering before. The British had so much difficulty getting their staged implosion thermonuclear weapon to work (this was during the years when the McMahon Act denied the British access to U.S. weapon design information) that they actually deployed a 500 kT pure fission weapon, similar to Ted Taylor's “Super Oralloy Bomb” tested in the Ivy King shot in 1952. The British bomb contained 70 kg of highly enriched uranium, far more than the 52 kg unreflected critical mass of U-235. To keep this contraption from going off accidentally in an aircraft accident, the uranium masses were separated by 450 kg of steel balls (I'll bet, alloyed with boron, but Hutchinson is silent on this detail) which were jettisoned right before the bomb was to be dropped. Unfortunately, once armed, the weapon could not be disarmed, so you had to be awfully certain you intended to drop the bomb before letting the ball bearings out.

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Walsh, Jill Paton and Dorothy L. Sayers. Thrones, Dominations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN 0-312-96830-2.
This is the first of the Sayers/Walsh posthumous collaborations extending the Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane mysteries beyond Busman's Honeymoon. (The second is A Presumption of Death, April 2004.) A Wimsey insider informs me the splice between Sayers and Walsh occurs at the end of chapter 6. It was undetectable to this Wimsey fan, who found this whodunit delightful.

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Jenkins, Dennis R., Mike Moore, and Don Pyeatt. B-36 Photo Scrapbook. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-075-2.
After completing his definitive history of the B-36, Magnesium Overcast (August 2003), Dennis Jenkins wound up with more than 300 historical photographs which didn't fit in the book. This companion volume includes them all, with captions putting each into context. Many of these photos won't make much sense unless you've read Magnesium Overcast, but if you have and still hanker for more humongous bomber shots, here's your book. On page 48 there's a photo of a New York Central train car to which the twin J47 jet pod from a retired B-36 was attached “to see what would happen”. Well, on a 38.5 km section of straight track, it went 295 km/hour. Amazing, the things they did in the U.S. before the safety fascists took over!

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Haigh, Gideon. Bad Company: The Strange Cult of the CEO. London: Aurum Press, 2004. ISBN 1-85410-969-3.
In this small and quirky book, Haigh puts his finger precisely on the problem with today's celebrity CEOs. It isn't just that they're paid obscenely out of proportion to their contribution to the company, it's that for the most part they don't know all that much about the company's products, customers, and industry. Instead, skilled only in management, they attempt to analyse and operate the company by examining and manipulating financial aggregates. While this may be an effective way to cut costs and improve short-term operating results through consolidation, outsourcing and offshoring, cutting research and development, and reducing the level of customer service, all these things tend to injure the prospects of the company over the long haul. But CEOs are mostly compensated based on current financial results and share price. With length of tenure at the top becoming ever shorter as executives increasingly job hop among companies, the decisions a CEO makes today may have consequences which manifest themselves only after the stock options are cashed in and his successor is left to sort out the mess. Certainly there are exceptions, usually entrepreneurs who remain at the helm of the companies they've founded, but the nature of the CEO rôle in today's publicly traded company tends to drive such people out of the job, a phenomenon with which I have had some experience. I call the book “quirky” because the author draws examples not just from well known corporate calamities, but also films and works of fiction. He is fond of literary allusions and foreign phrases, which readers are expected to figure out on their own. Still, the message gets across, at least to readers with attention spans longer than the 10 to 30 minute time slices which characterise most CEOs. The ISBN on the copyright page is wrong; I've given the correct one here.

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Sarich, Vincent and Frank Miele. Race: The Reality of Human Differences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8133-4086-1.
This book tackles the puzzle posed by the apparent contradiction between the remarkable genetic homogeneity of humans compared to other species, while physical differences between human races (non-controversial measures such as cranial morphology, height, and body build) actually exceed those between other primate species and subspecies. Vincent Sarich, emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, pioneer in the development of the “molecular clock”, recounts this scientific adventure and the resulting revolution in the human evolutionary tree and timescale. Miele (editor of Skeptic magazine) and Sarich then argue that the present-day dogma among physical anthropologists and social scientists that “race does not exist”, if taken to its logical conclusion, amounts to rejecting Darwinian evolution, which occurs through variation and selection. Consequently variation among groups is an inevitable consequence, recognised as a matter of course in other species. Throughout, the authors stress that variation of characteristics among individual humans greatly exceeds mean racial variation, which makes racial prejudice and discrimination not only morally abhorrent but stupid from the scientific standpoint. At the same time, small differences in the mean of a set of standard distributions causes large changes in their representation in the aggregate tail representing extremes of performance. This is why one should be neither surprised nor dismayed to find a “disproportionate” number of Kenyans among cross-country running champions, Polynesians in American professional football, or east Asians in mathematical research. A person who comprehends this basic statistical fact should be able to treat individuals on their own merit without denying the reality of differences among sub-populations of the human species. Due to the broad overlap among groups, members of every group, if given the opportunity, will be represented at the highest levels of performance in each field, and no individual should feel deterred nor be excluded from aspiring to such achievement due to group membership. For the argument against the biological reality of race, see the Web site for the United States Public Broadcasting Service documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion. This book attempts to rebut each of the assertions in that documentary.

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Meyssan, Thierry ed. Le Pentagate. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-77-6.
This book is available online in both Web and PDF editions from the book's Web site. An English translation is available, but only in a print edition, not online.

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Hofschröer, Peter. Wellington's Smallest Victory. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. ISBN 0-571-21768-0.
Wellington's victory over Napoléon at Waterloo in 1815 not only inspired Beethoven's worst musical composition, but a veritable industry of histories, exhibitions, and re-enactments in Britain. The most spectacular of these was the model of the battlefield which William Siborne, career officer and author of two books on military surveying, was commissioned to build in 1830. Siborne was an assiduous researcher; after surveying the battlefield in person, he wrote to most of the surviving officers in the battle: British, Prussian, and French, to determine the precise position of their troops at the “crisis of the battle” he had chosen to depict: 19:00 on June 18th, 1815. The responses he received indicated that Wellington's Waterloo Despatch, the after-action report penned the day after the battle was, shall we say, at substantial variance with the facts, particularly as regards the extent to which Prussian troops contributed to the victory and the time at which Wellington was notified of Napoléon's attack. Siborne stuck with the facts, and his model, first exhibited in London in 1838, showed the Prussian troops fully engaged with the French at the moment the tide of battle turned. Wellington was not amused and, being not only a national hero but former Prime Minister, was a poor choice as enemy. For the rest of Siborne's life, Wellington waged a war of attrition against Siborne's (accurate) version of the events at Waterloo, with such success that most contemporary histories take Wellington's side, even if it requires believing in spyglasses capable of seeing on the other side of hills. But truth will out. Siborne's companion History of the Waterloo Campaign remains in print 150 years after its publication, and his model of the battlefield (albeit with 40,000 figures of Prussian soldiers removed) may be seen at the National Army Museum in London.

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Smith, Edward E. Triplanetary. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1948] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-09-3.
Summer's here (though you'd never guess from the thermometer), and the time is right for some light reading, so I've begun my fourth lifetime traverse of Doc Smith's Lensman series, which now, by Klono's gadolinium guts, has been re-issued by Old Earth Books in trade paperback facsimiles of the original Fantasy Press editions, complete with all illustrations. The snarky foreword, where John Clute, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, shows off his pretentious post-modern vocabulary and scorn for the sensibilities of an author born in 1890, is best skipped.

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July 2004

Barrow, John D., Paul C.W. Davies, and Charles L. Harper, Jr., eds. Science and Ultimate Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83113-X.
These are the proceedings of the festschrift at Princeton in March 2002 in honour of John Archibald Wheeler's 90th year within our light-cone. This volume brings together the all-stars of speculative physics, addressing what Wheeler describes as the “big questions.” You will spend a lot of time working your way through this almost 700 page tome (which is why entries in this reading list will be uncharacteristically sparse this month), but it will be well worth the effort. Here we have Freeman Dyson posing thought-experiments which purport to show limits to the applicability of quantum theory and the uncertainty principle, then we have Max Tegmark on parallel universes, arguing that the most conservative model of cosmology has infinite copies of yourself within the multiverse, each choosing either to read on here or click another link. Hideo Mabuchi's chapter begins with an introductory section which is lyrical prose poetry up to the standard set by Wheeler, and if Shou-Cheng Zhang's final chapter doesn't make you re-think where the bottom of reality really lies, you're either didn't get it or have been spending way too much time reading preprints on ArXiv. I don't mean to disparage any of the other contributors by not mentioning them—every chapter of this book is worth reading, then re-reading carefully. This is the collected works of the 21th century equivalent of the savants who attended the Solvay Congresses in the early 20th century. Take your time, reread difficult material as necessary, and look up the references. You'll close this book in awe of what we've learned in the last 20 years, and in wonder of what we'll discover and accomplish the the rest of this century and beyond.

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Neisser, Ulric, ed. The Rising Curve: Long-Term Gains in IQ and Related Measures. Washington: American Psychological Association, 1998. ISBN 1-55798-503-0.
One of the most baffling phenomena in the social sciences is the “Flynn Effect”. Political scientist James Flynn was among the first to recognise the magnitude of increasing IQ scores over time and thoroughly document that increase in more than a dozen nations around the world. The size of the effect is nothing less than stunning: on tests of “fluid intelligence” or g (problem-solving ability, as opposed to acquired knowledge, vocabulary, etc.), Flynn's research shows scores rising at least 3 IQ points per decade ever since testing began—as much as one 15 point standard deviation per generation. If you take these figures at face value and believe that IQ measures what we perceive as intelligence in individuals, you arrive at any number of absurdities: our grandparents' generation having a mean IQ of 70 (the threshold of retardation), an expectation that Einstein-level intellect would be 10,000 times more common per capita today than in his birth cohort, and that veteran teachers would perceive sons and daughters of the students they taught at the start of their careers as gifted to the extent of an IQ 115 student compared to a classmate with an IQ of 100. Obviously, none of these are the case, and yet the evidence for Flynn effect is overwhelming—the only reason few outside the psychometric community are aware of it is that makers of IQ tests periodically “re-standardise” their tests (in other words, make them more difficult) in order to keep the mean score at 100. Something is terribly wrong here: either IQ is a bogus measure (as some argue), or it doesn't correlate with real-world intelligence, or some environmental factor is increasing IQ test performance but not potential for achievement or … well, who knows? These are among the many theories advanced to explain this conundrum, most of which are discussed in this volume, a collection of papers by participants in a 1996 conference at Emory University on the evidence for and possible causes of the Flynn effect, and its consequences for long-term trends in human intelligence. My conclusions from these papers are threefold. First, the Flynn effect is real, having been demonstrated as conclusively as almost any phenomenon in the social sciences. Second, nobody has the slightest idea what is going on—theories abound, but available data are insufficient to exclude any of numerous plausible theories. Third, this is because raw data relating to these questions is sparse and poorly suited to answering the questions with which the Flynn effect confronts us. Almost every chapter laments the shortcomings of the data set on which it was based or exhorts “somebody” to collect data better suited to exploring details of the Flynn effect and its possible causes. If human intelligence is indeed increasing by one standard deviation per generation, this is one of the most significant phenomena presently underway on our planet. If IQ scores are increasing at this rate, but intelligence isn't, then there's something very wrong with IQ tests or something terribly pernicious which is negating the effects of the problem-solving capability they claim to measure. Given the extent to which IQ tests (or their close relatives: achievement tests such as the SAT, GRE, etc.) determine the destiny of individuals, if there's something wrong with these tests, it would be best to find out what's wrong sooner rather than later.

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Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. London: Fourth Estate, 2004. ISBN 0-00-714096-7.
I picked up this book in an airport bookshop, expecting a survey of contemporary lunacy along the lines of Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds or Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Instead, what we have is 312 pages of hateful, sneering political rant indiscriminately sprayed at more or less every target in sight. Mr Wheen doesn't think very much of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher (who he likens repeatedly to the Ayatollah Khomeini). Well, that's to be expected, I suppose, in a columnist for the Guardian, but there's no reason they need to be clobbered over and over, for the same things and in almost the same words, every three pages or so throughout this tedious, ill-organised, and repetitive book. Neither does the author particularly fancy Tony Blair, who comes in for the same whack-a-mole treatment. A glance at the index (which is not exhaustive) shows that between them, Blair, Thatcher, and Reagan appear on 85 pages equally sprinkled throughout the text. In fact, Mr Wheen isn't very keen on almost anybody or anything dating from about 1980 to the present; one senses an all-consuming nostalgia for that resplendent utopia which was Britain in the 1970s. Now, the crusty curmudgeon is a traditional British literary figure, but masters of the genre leaven their scorn with humour and good will which are completely absent here. What comes through instead is simply hate: the world leaders who dismantled failed socialist experiments are not, as a man of the left might argue, misguided but rather Mrs Thatcher's “drooling epigones” (p. 263). For some months, I've been pondering a phenomenon in today's twenty-something generation which I call “hate kiddies.” These are people, indoctrinated in academia by ideologues of the Sixties generation to hate their country, culture, and all of its achievements—supplanting the pride which previous generations felt with an all-consuming guilt. This seems, in many otherwise gifted and productive people, to metastasise in adulthood into an all-consuming disdain and hate for everything; it's like the end point of cultural relativism is the belief that everything is evil. I asked an exemplar of this generation once whether he could name any association of five or more people anywhere on Earth which was not evil: nope. Detesting his “evil” country and government, I asked whether he could name any other country which was less evil or even somewhat good: none came to mind. (If you want to get a taste of this foul and poisonous weltanschauung, visit the Slashdot site and read the comments posted for almost any article. This site is not a parody—this is how the young technological elite really think, or rather, can't think.) In Francis Wheen, the hate kiddies have found their elder statesman.

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Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Ronald Reagan: An American Hero. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001. ISBN 0-7894-7992-3.
This is basically a coffee-table book. There are a multitude of pictures, many you're unlikely to have seen before, but the text is sparse and lightweight. If you're looking for a narrative, try Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King (March 2002).

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Sullivan, Scott P. Virtual Apollo. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2002. ISBN 1-896522-94-7.
Every time I see an Apollo command module in a museum, I find myself marveling, “How did they cram all that stuff into that tiny little spacecraft?”. Think about it—the Apollo command and service modules provided everything three men needed to spend two weeks in space, navigate autonomously from the Earth to the Moon and back, dock with other spacecraft, enter and leave lunar orbit, re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at interplanetary speed, fly to a precision splash-down, then serve as a boat until the Navy arrived. And if that wasn't enough, most of the subsystems were doubly or triply redundant, so even in the event of failure, the ship could still get the crew back home, which it did on every single flight, even the dicey Apollo 13. And this amazing flying machine was designed on drawing boards in an era before computer-aided interactive solid modeling was even a concept. Virtual Apollo uses computer aided design to help you appreciate the work of genius which was the Apollo spacecraft. The author created more than 200 painstakingly researched and highly detailed solid models of the command and service modules, which were used to produce the renderings in this book. Ever wondered how the Block II outward-opening crew hatch worked? See pages 41–43. How the devil did they make the docking probe removable? Pages 47–49. Regrettably, the attention to detail which went into production of the models and images didn't follow through to the captions and text, which have apparently been spell-checked but never carefully proofread and contain almost a complete set of nerdish stumbles: its/it's, lose/loose, principal/principle, etc. Let's hope these are remedied in a subsequent edition, and especially that the author or somebody equally talented extends this labour of love to include the lunar module as well.

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Royce, Kenneth W. Hologram of Liberty. Ignacio, CO: Javelin Press, 1997. ISBN 1-888766-03-4.
The author, who also uses the nom de plume “Boston T. Party”, provides a survey of the tawdry machinations which accompanied the drafting and adoption of the United States Constitution, making the case that the document was deliberately designed to permit arbitrary expansion of federal power, with cosmetic limitations of power to persuade the states to ratify it. It is striking the extent to which not just vocal anti-federalists like Patrick Henry, but also Thomas Jefferson, anticipated precisely how the federal government would slip its bonds—through judiciary power and the creation of debt, both of which were promptly put into effect by John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. Writing on this topic seems to have, as an occupational hazard, a tendency to rant. While Royce never ascends to the coruscating rhetoric of Lysander Spooner's No Treason, there is a great deal of bold type here, as well as some rather curious conspiracy theories (which are, in all fairness, presented for the reader's consideration, not endorsed by the author). Oddly, although chapter 11 discusses the 27th amendment (Congressional Pay Limitation)—proposed in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights, but not ratified until 1992—it is missing from the text of the Constitution in appendix C.

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Malmsten, Ernst, Erik Portanger, and Charles Drazin. Boo Hoo. London: Arrow Books, 2001. ISBN 0-09-941837-1.
In the last few years of the twentieth century, a collective madness seized the investment community, who stumbled over one another to throw money at companies with no sales, profits, assets, or credible plans, simply because they appended “.com” to their name and identified themselves in some way with the Internet. Here's an insider's story of one of the highest fliers, boo.com, which was one of the first to fall when sanity began to return in early 2000. Ernst Malmsten, co-founder and CEO of boo, and his co-authors trace its trajectory from birth to bankruptcy. On page 24, Malmsten describes what was to make boo different: “This was still a pretty new idea. Most of the early American internet companies had sprung from the minds of technologists. All they cared about was functionality and cost.” Well, what happens when you start a technology-based business and don't care about functionality and cost? About what you'd expect: boo managed to burn through about US$135 million of other peoples' money in 18 months, generating total sales of less than US$2 million. A list of subjects about which the founders were clueless includes technology, management, corporate finance, accounting, their target customers, suppliers, and competition. “Market research? That was something Colgate did before it launched a new toothpaste. The internet was something you had to feel in your fingertips.” (page 47). Armed with exquisitely sensitive fingertips and empty heads, they hired the usual “experts” to help them out: J.P. Morgan, Skadden Arps, Leagas Delaney, Hill & Knowlton, Heidrick & Struggles, and the Boston Consulting Group, demonstrating once again that the only way to screw up quicker and more expensively than ignorance alone is to enlist professional help. But they did have style: every ritzy restaurant, exclusive disco, Concorde day-trip to New York, and lavish party for the staff is chronicled in detail, leaving one to wonder if there was a single adult in the company thinking about how quickly the investors' money was going down the drain. They spent more than US$22 million on advertising and PR before their Web site was working which, when it finally did open to the public, took dial-up users four minutes to download the Flash-based home page and didn't accept orders at all from Macintosh users. But these are mere matters of “functionality and cost” which obsess nerdy technologists and green eyeshade entrepreneurs like myself.

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August 2004

Halperin, James L. The First Immortal. New York: Del Rey, 1998. ISBN 0-345-542182-5.
As Yogi Berra said, “It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” In this novel, the author tackles one of the most daunting challenges in science fiction: the multi-generation saga which spans its publication date. There are really only two ways to approach this problem: show the near future in soft focus, concentrating on characters and avoiding any mention of news and current events, or boldly predict and take your lumps when you inevitably get it wrong. Hey, even if you do, odds are the books will either be on readers' shelves or in the remainder bins by the time reality diverges too far from the story line. Halperin opts for the latter approach. Preachy novels with an agenda have a tendency to sit on my shelf quite a while until I get around to them—in this case six years. (The hardcover I bought in 1998 is out of print, so I've linked to the paperback which remains available.) The agenda here is cryonics, the resurrection myth of the secular humanists, presented in full dogmatic form: vitrification, cryogenic storage of the dead (or their heads, for the budget-conscious), nanotechnological restoration of damage due to freezing, repair of disease damage and genetic defects, reversal of aging, organ and eventually full body cloning, brain state backup and uploading, etc.—the full mambo chicken meme-bag. The book gets just about everything predicted for the years after its publication as wrong as possible: Xanadu-style back-links in Netscape, the Gore administration, etc. Fine—all were reasonable extrapolations when the first draft was written in 1996. My problem is that the further-out stuff seems, if anything, even less plausible than the near term predictions have proved to be. How likely is it that artificial intelligences with a hundred times the power of the human brain will remain subservient, obedient slaves of their creators? Or that a society with full-on Drexler nanotechnology and space stations outside the orbit of Pluto would be gripped by mass hysteria upon learning of a rain of comets due a hundred years hence? Or that a quasi-socialist U.N. style World Government would spontaneously devolve freedom to its subjects and reduce tax rates to 9.5%? And doesn't the requirement that individuals brought back from the freezer be sponsored by a living person (and hence remain on ice indefinitely if nobody steps up as a sponsor) represent an immoral inter-generational breach of contract with those who paid to be frozen and brought back to life under circumstances they prescribed? The novel is well-written and presents the views of the cryonicists faithfully and effectively. Still, you're left with the sense of having read an advocacy document where story and characters are subordinate to the pitch.

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Novak, David P. DownTime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration. Vancouver, WA: Davrie Communications, 2002. ISBN 0-9710306-0-X.
I read this book in the interest of research, not career planning, although in these days when simply looking askance at some badge-wearing pithecanthropoid thug in a U.S. airport can land you in Club Fed, it's information those travelling to that country might be wise to take on board before getting on board. This is a 170 page letter-size comb bound book whose camera-ready copy appears to have been printed on a daisy wheel printer. I bought my copy through Amazon, but the publisher appears to have removed the book from the general distribution channels; you can order it directly from the publisher. My comments are based upon the March 2002 edition. According to the publisher's Web site, the book was completely rewritten in January 2004, which edition I've not seen.

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Beckerman, Marty. Generation S.L.U.T.. New York: MTV Books, 2004. ISBN 0-7434-7109-1.
I bought this book based on a recommendation by Hunter S. Thompson. I don't know what the good doctor was smoking—he rarely knows what he's smoking—but this is one messed up, incoherent, choppy, gratuitously obscene, utterly amoral mix of fiction, autobiography, cartoons, newspaper clippings, and statistical factoids seemingly aimed at an audience with an attention span measured in seconds. All together now, “Well, what did you expect from something published by MTV Books?” The “S.L.U.T.” in the title stands for “Sexually Liberated Urban Teens”, and the book purports to be a view from the inside (the author turned 20 while writing the book) of contemporary teenage culture in the United States. One can only consider the word “Liberated” here in a Newspeak sense—the picture painted is of a generation enslaved to hormones and hedonism so banal it brings no pleasure to those who so mindlessly pursue it. The cartoons which break up the fictional thread into blocks of text short enough for MTV zombies are cheaply produced—they re-use a few line drawings of the characters, scaled, mirrored, and with different backgrounds, changing only the text in the balloon. The Addendum by the author is a straight rip-off of Hunter Thompson's style, right down the signature capitalisation of nouns for emphasis. The reader is bludgeoned with a relentless vulgarity which ultimately leaves one numb (and I say this as a fan of both Thompson and South Park). I found myself saying, again and again, “Teenagers in the U.S. can't possibly be this vapid, dissolute, and depraved, can they? Can they?” Er, maybe so, if this Teenwire site, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is any indication. (You may be shocked, dismayed, and disgusted by the content of this site. I would not normally link to such material, but seeing as how it's deliberately directed at teenagers, I do so in the interest of showing parents how their kids are are being indoctrinated. Note how the welcome page takes you into the main site even if you don't click “Enter”, and that there is no disclaimer whatsoever regarding the site's suitability for children of any age.)

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Carr, Nicholas G. Does IT Matter? Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. ISBN 1-59139-444-9.
This is an expanded version of the author's May 2003 Harvard Business Review paper titled “IT Doesn't Matter”, which sparked a vituperous ongoing debate about the rôle of information technology (IT) in modern business and its potential for further increases in productivity and competitive advantage for companies who aggressively adopt and deploy it. In this book, he provides additional historical context, attempts to clear up common misperceptions of readers of the original article, and responds to its critics. The essence of Carr's argument is that information technology (computer hardware, software, and networks) will follow the same trajectory as other technologies which transformed business in the past: railroads, machine tools, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, and air transport. Each of these technologies combined high risk with the potential for great near-term competitive advantage for their early adopters, but eventually became standardised “commodity inputs” which all participants in the market employ in much the same manner. Each saw a furious initial period of innovation, emergence of standards to permit interoperability (which, at the same time, made suppliers interchangeable and the commodity fungible), followed by a rapid “build-out” of the technological infrastructure, usually accompanied by over-optimistic hype from its boosters and an investment bubble and the inevitable crash. Eventually, the infrastructure is in place, standards have been set, and a consensus reached as to how best to use the technology in each industry, at which point it's unlikely any player in the market will be able to gain advantage over another by, say, finding a clever new way to use railroads, electricity, or telephones. At this point the technology becomes a commodity input to all businesses, and largely disappears off the strategic planning agenda. Carr believes that with the emergence of low-cost commodity computers adequate for the overwhelming majority of business needs, and the widespread adoption of standard vendor-supplied software such as office suites, enterprise resource planning (ERP), and customer relationship management (CRM) packages, corporate information technology has reached this level of maturity, where senior management should focus on cost-cutting, security, and maintainability rather than seeking competitive advantage through innovation. Increasingly, companies adapt their own operations to fit the ERP software they run, as opposed to customising the software for their particular needs. While such procrusteanism was decried in the IBM mainframe era, today it's touted as deploying “industry best practices” throughout the economy, tidily packaged as a “company in a box”. (Still, one worries about the consequences for innovation.) My reaction to Carr's argument is, “How can anybody find this remotely controversial?” Not only do we have a dozen or so historical examples of the adoption of new technologies, the evidence for the maturity of corporate information technology is there for anybody to see. In fact, in February 1997, I predicted that Microsoft's ability to grow by adding functionality to its products was about to reach the limit, and looking back, it was with Office 97 that customers started to push back, feeling the added “features” (such as the notorious talking paper clip) and initial lack of downward compatibility with earlier versions was for Microsoft's benefit, not their own. How can one view Microsoft's giving back half its cash hoard to shareholders in a special dividend in 2004 (and doubling its regular dividend, along with massive stock buybacks), as anything other than acknowledgement of this reality. You only give your cash back to the investors (or buy your own stock), when you can't think of anything else to do with it which will generate a better return. So, if there's to be a a “next big thing”, Microsoft do not anticipate it coming from them.

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Ryn, Claes G. America the Virtuous. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7658-0219-8.
If you've been following political commentary of the more cerebral kind recently, you may have come across the term “neo-Jacobin” and thought “Whuzzat? I thought those guys went out with the tumbrels and guillotines.” Claes Ryn coined the term “neo-Jacobin” more than decade ago, and in this book explains the philosophical foundation, historical evolution, and potential consequences of that tendency for the U.S. and other Western societies. A neo-Jacobin is one who believes that present-day Western civilisation is based on abstract principles, knowable through pure reason, which are virtuous, right, and applicable to all societies at all times. This is precisely what the original Jacobins believed, with Jacobins old and new drawing their inspiration from Rousseau and John Locke. The claim of superiority of Western civilisation makes the neo-Jacobin position superficially attractive to conservatives, who find it more congenial than post-modernist villification of Western civilisation as the source of all evil in the world. But true conservatism, and the philosophy shared by most of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, rejects abstract theories and utopian promises in favour of time-proven solutions which take into account the imperfections of human beings and the institutions they create. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 6, “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape.” Sadly, we have not, and are unlikely to ever see the end of such theories as long as pointy-heads with no practical experience, but armed with intimidating prose, are able to persuade true believers they've come up with something better than the collective experience of every human who's ever lived on this planet before them. The French Revolution was the first modern attempt to discard history and remake the world based on rationality, but its lessons failed to deter numerous subsequent attempts, at an enormous cost in human life and misery, the most recently concluded such experiment being Soviet Communism. They all end badly. Ryn believes the United States is embarking on the next such foredoomed adventure, declaring its “universal values” (however much at variance with those of its founders) to be applicable everywhere, and increasingly willing to impose them by the sword “in the interest of the people” where persuasion proves inadequate. Although there is some mention of contemporary political figures, this is not at all a partisan argument, nor does it advocate (nor even present) an alternative agenda. Ryn believes the neo-Jacobin viewpoint so deeply entrenched in both U.S. political parties, media, think tanks, and academia that the choice of a candidate or outcome of an election is unlikely to make much difference. Although the focus is primarily on the U.S. (and rightly so, because only in the U.S. do the neo-Jacobins have access to the military might to impose their will on the rest of the world), precisely the same philosophy can be seen in the ongoing process of “European integration”, where a small group of unelected elite theorists are positioning themselves to dictate the “one best way” hundreds of millions of people in dozens of diverse cultures with thousands of years of history should live their lives. For example, take a look at the hideous draft “constitution” (PDF) for the European Union: such a charter of liberty and democracy that those attemping to put it into effect are doing everything in their power to deprive those who will be its subjects the chance to vote upon it. As Michael Müller, Social Democrat member of parliament in Germany said, “Sometimes the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.” The original Jacobins had their ways, as well.

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Winchester, Simon. The Map that Changed the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-093180-9.
This is the story of William Smith, the son of an Oxfordshire blacksmith, who, with almost no formal education but keen powers of observation and deduction, essentially single-handedly created the modern science of geology in the last years of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, culminating in the 1815 publication of Smith's masterwork: a large scale map of the stratigraphy of England, Wales, and part of Scotland, which is virtually identical to the most modern geological maps. Although fossil collecting was a passion of the aristocracy in his time, Smith was the first to observe that particular fossil species were always associated with the same stratum of rock and hence, conversely, that rock containing the same population of fossils was the same stratum, wherever it was found. This permitted him to decode the layering of strata and their relative ages, and predict where coal and other minerals were likely to be found, which was a matter of great importance at the dawn of the industrial revolution. In his long life, in addition to inventing modern geology (he coined the word “stratigraphical”), he surveyed mines, built canals, operated a quarry, was the victim of plagiarism, designed a museum, served time in debtor's prison, was denied membership in the newly-formed Geological Society of London due to his humble origins, yet years later was the first recipient of its highest award, the Wollaston Medal, presented to him as the “Father of English Geology”. Smith's work transformed geology from a pastime for fossil collectors and spinners of fanciful theories to a rigorous empirical science and laid the bedrock (if you'll excuse the term) for Darwin and the modern picture of the history of the Earth. The author is very fond of superlatives. While Smith's discoveries, adventures, and misadventures certainly merit them, they get a little tedious after a hundred pages or so. Winchester seems to have been traumatised by his childhood experiences in a convent boarding-school (chapter 11), and he avails himself of every possible opportunity to express his disdain for religion, the religious, and those (the overwhelming majority of learned people in Smith's time) who believed in the Biblical account of creation and the flood. This is irrelevant to and a distraction from the story. Smith's career marked the very beginning of scientific investigation of natural history; when Smith's great geological map was published in 1815, Charles Darwin was six years old. Smith never suffered any kind of religious persecution or opposition to his work, and several of his colleagues in the dawning days of earth science were clergymen. Simon Winchester is also the author of The Professor and the Madman, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Scott, David and Alexei Leonov with Christine Toomey. Two Sides of the Moon. London: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-3162-7.
Astronaut David Scott flew on the Gemini 8 mission which performed the first docking in space, Apollo 9, the first manned test of the Lunar Module, and commanded the Apollo 15 lunar landing, the first serious scientific exploration of the Moon (earlier Apollo landing missions had far less stay time and, with no lunar rover, limited mobility, and hence were much more “land, grab some rocks, and scoot” exercises). Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first to walk in space on Voskhod 2, led the training of cosmonauts for lunar missions and later the Salyut space station program, and commanded the Soviet side of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Had the Soviet Union won the Moon race, Leonov might well have been first to walk on the Moon. This book recounts the history of the space race as interleaved autobiographies of two participants from contending sides, from their training as fighter pilots ready to kill one another in the skies over Europe in the 1950s to Leonov's handshake in space with an Apollo crew in 1975. This juxtaposition works very well, and writer Christine Toomey (you're not a “ghostwriter” when your name appears on the title page and the principals effusively praise your efforts) does a marvelous job in preserving the engaging conversational style of a one-on-one interview, which is even more an achievement when one considers that she interviewed Leonov through an interpreter, then wrote his contributions in English which was translated to Russian for Leonov's review, with his comments in Russian translated back to English for incorporation in the text. A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication in October 2004.

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Lelièvre, Domnique. L'Empire américain en échec sous l'éclairage de la Chine impériale. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2004. ISBN 2-84855-097-X.
This is a very odd book. About one third of the text is a fairly conventional indictment of the emerging U.S. “virtuous empire” along the lines of America the Virtuous (earlier this month), along with the evils of globalisation, laissez-faire capitalism, cultural imperialism, and the usual scélérats du jour. But the author, who has published three earlier books of Chinese history, anchors his analysis of current events in parallels between the present day United States and the early Ming dynasty in China, particularly the reign of Zhu Di (朱棣), the Emperor Yongle (永樂), A.D. 1403-1424. (Windows users: if you didn't see the Chinese characters in the last sentence and wish to, you'll need to install Chinese language support using the Control Panel / Regional Options / Language Settings item, enabling “Simplified Chinese”. This may require you to load the original Windows install CD, reboot your machine after the installation is complete, and doubtless will differ in detail from one version of Windows to another. It may be a global village, but it can sure take a lot of work to get from one hut to the next.) Similarities certainly exist, some of them striking: both nations had overwhelming naval superiority and command of the seas, believed themselves to be the pinnacle of civilisation, sought large-scale hegemony (from the west coast of Africa to east Asia in the case of China, global for the U.S.), preferred docile vassal states to allies, were willing to intervene militarily to preserve order and their own self-interests, but for the most part renounced colonisation, annexation, territorial expansion, and religious proselytising. Both were tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-racial societies which believed their values universal and applicable to all humanity. Both suffered attacks from Islamic raiders, the Mongols under Tamerlane (Timur) and his successors in the case of Ming China. And both even fought unsuccessful wars in what is now Vietnam which ended in ignominious withdrawals. All of this is interesting, but how useful it is in pondering the contemporary situation is problematic, for along with the parallels, there are striking differences in addition to the six centuries of separation in time and all that implies for cultural and technological development including communications, weapons, and forms of government. Ming dynasty China was the archetypal oriental despotism, where the emperor's word was law, and the administrative and military bureaucracy was in the hands of eunuchs. The U.S., on the other hand, seems split right about down the middle regarding its imperial destiny, and many observers of U.S. foreign and military policy believe it suffers a surfeit of balls, not their absence. Fifteenth century China was self-sufficient in everything except horses, and its trade with vassal states consisted of symbolic potlatch-type tribute payments in luxury goods. The U.S., on the other hand, is the world's largest debtor nation, whose economy is dependent not only on an assured supply of imported petroleum, but also a wide variety of manufactured goods, access to cheap offshore labour, and the capital flows which permit financing its chronic trade deficits. I could go on listing fundamental differences which make any argument by analogy between these two nations highly suspect, but I'll close by noting that China's entire career as would-be hegemon began with Yongle and barely outlasted his reign—six of the seven expeditions of the great Ming fleet occurred during his years on the throne. Afterward China turned inward and largely ignored the rest of the world until the Europeans came knocking in the 19th century. Is it likely the U.S. drift toward empire which occupied most of the last century will end so suddenly and permanently? Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn't bet on it.

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September 2004

Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-684-87053-3.
The author, whose 1996 The Clash of Civilisations anticipated the conflicts of the early 21st century, here turns his attention inward toward the national identity of his own society. Huntington (who is, justifiably, accorded such respect by his colleagues that you might think his full name is “Eminent Scholar Samuel P. Huntington”) has written a book few others could have gotten away with without being villified in academia. His scholarship, lack of partisan agenda, thoroughness, and meticulous documentation make his argument here, that the United States were founded as what he calls an “Anglo-Protestant” culture by their overwhelmingly English Protestant settlers, difficult to refute. In his view, the U.S. were not a “melting pot” of immigrants, but rather a nation where successive waves of immigrants accepted and were assimilated into the pre-existing Anglo-Protestant culture, regardless of, and without renouncing, their ethnic origin and religion. The essentials of this culture—individualism, the work ethic, the English language, English common law, high moral standards, and individual responsibility—are not universals but were what immigrants had to buy into in order to “make it in America”. In fact, as Huntington points out, in the great waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of those who came to America were self-selected for those qualities before they boarded the boat. All of this has changed, he argues, with the mass immigration which began in the 1960s. For the first time, a large percentage of immigrants share a common language (Spanish) and hail from a common culture (Mexico), with which it is easy to retain contact. At the same time, U.S. national identity has been eroded among the elite (but not the population as a whole) in favour of transnational (U.N., multinational corporation, NGO) and subnational (race, gender) identities. So wise is Huntington that I found myself exclaiming every few pages at some throw-away insight I'd never otherwise have had, such as that most of the examples offered up of successful multi-cultural societies (Belgium, Canada, Switzerland) owe their stability to fear of powerful neighbours (p. 159). This book is long on analysis but almost devoid of policy prescriptions. Fair enough: the list of viable options with any probability of being implemented may well be the null set, but even so, it's worthwhile knowing what's coming. While the focus of this book is almost entirely on the U.S., Europeans whose countries are admitting large numbers of difficult to assimilate immigrants will find much to ponder here. One stylistic point—Huntington is as fond of enumerations as even the most fanatic of the French encyclopédistes: on page 27 he indulges in one with forty-eight items and two levels of hierarchy! The enumerations form kind of a basso continuo to the main text.

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Holt, John. How Children Fail. rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, [1964] 1982. ISBN 0-201-48402-1.
This revised edition of Holt's classic includes the entire text of the 1964 first edition with extensive additional interspersed comments added after almost twenty years of additional experience and reflection. It is difficult to find a book with as much wisdom and as many insights per page as this one. You will be flabbergasted by Holt's forensic investigation of how many fifth graders (in an elite private school for high IQ children) actually think about arithmetic, and how many teachers and parents delude themselves into believing that parroting correct answers has anything to do with understanding or genuine learning. What is so refreshing about Holt is his scientific approach—he eschews theory and dogma in favour of observing what actually goes on in classrooms and inside the heads of students. Some of his insights about how those cunning little rascals game the system to get the right answer without enduring the submission to authority and endless boredom of what passes for education summoned some of the rare fond memories I have of that odious period in my own life. As a person who's spent a lot of time recently thinking about intelligence, problem solving, and learning, I found Holt's insights absolutely fascinating. This book has sold more than a million copies, but I'd have probably never picked it up had it not been recommended by a kind reader using the recommendation form—thank you!

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Chesterton, Gilbert K. Heretics. London: John Lane, [1905] 1914. ISBN 0-7661-7476-X.
In this collection of essays, the ever-quotable Chesterton takes issue with prominent contemporaries (including Kipling, G.B. Shaw, and H.G. Wells) and dogma (the cults of progress, science, simple living, among others less remembered almost a century later). There is so much insight and brilliant writing here it's hard to single out a few examples. My favourites include his dismantling of cultural anthropology and folklore in chapter 11, the insight in chapter 16 that elevating science above morality leads inevitably to oligarchy and rule by experts, and the observation in chapter 17, writing of Whistler, that what is called the “artistic temperament” is a property of second-rate artists. The link above is to a 2003 Kessinger Publishing facsimile reprint of the 1914 twelfth edition. The reprint is on letter-size pages, much larger than the original, with each page blown up to fit; consequently, the type is almost annoyingly large. A free electronic edition is available.

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Gamow, George. One, Two, Three…Infinity. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1947] 1961. rev. ed. ISBN 0-486-25664-2.
This book, which first I read at around age twelve, rekindled my native interest in mathematics and science which had, by then, been almost entirely extinguished by six years of that intellectual torture called “classroom instruction”. Gamow was an eminent physicist: among other things, he advocated the big bang theory decades before it became fashionable, originated the concept of big bang nucleosynthesis, predicted the cosmic microwave background radiation 16 years before it was discovered, proposed the liquid drop model of the atomic nucleus, worked extensively in the astrophysics of energy production in stars, and even designed a nuclear bomb (“Greenhouse George”), which initiated the first deuterium-tritium fusion reaction here on Earth. But he was also one of most talented popularisers of science in the twentieth century, with a total of 18 popular science books published between 1939 and 1967, including the Mr Tompkins series, timeless classics which inspired many of the science visualisation projects at this site, in particular C-ship. A talented cartoonist as well, 128 of his delightful pen and ink drawings grace this volume. For a work published in 1947 with relatively minor revisions in the 1961 edition, this book has withstood the test of time remarkably well—Gamow was both wise and lucky in his choice of topics. Certainly, nobody should consider this book a survey of present-day science, but for folks well-grounded in contemporary orthodoxy, it's a delightful period piece providing a glimpse of the scientific world view of almost a half-century ago as explained by a master of the art. This Dover paperback is an unabridged reprint of the 1961 revised edition.

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Cowan, Rick and Douglas Century. Takedown. New York: Berkley, 2002. ISBN 0-425-19299-7.
This is the true story of a New York Police Department detective who almost accidentally found himself in a position to infiltrate the highest levels of the New York City garbage cartel, one of the Mafia's fattest and most fiercely guarded cash cows for more than half a century. Cowan's investigation, dubbed “Operation Wasteland”, resulted in the largest organised crime bust in New York history, eliminating the “mob tax” paid by New York businesses which tripled their waste disposal charges compared to other cities. This book was recommended as a real world antidote to the dramatic liberties taken by the writers of The Sopranos. Curiously, I found it confirmed several aspects of The Sopranos I'd dismissed as far-fetched, such as the ability of mobsters to murder and dispose of the bodies of those who cross them with impunity, and the “mad dog” behaviour (think Ralph Cifaretto) of high ranked top-earner wiseguys.

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Stack, Jack with Bo Burlingham. The Great Game of Business. New York: Doubleday, [1992] 1994. ISBN 0-385-47525-X.
When you take a company public in the United States, there's inevitably a session where senior management sits down with the lawyers for the lecture on how, notwithstanding much vaunted constitutional guarantees of free speech, loose lips may land them in Club Fed for “insider trading”. This is where you learn of such things as the “quiet period”, and realise that by trying to cash out investors who risked their life savings on you before any sane person would, you're holding your arms out to be cuffed and do the perp walk should things end badly. When I first encountered this absurd mind-set, my immediate reaction was, “Well, if ‘insider trading’ is forbidden disclosure of secrets, then why not eliminate all secrets entirely? When you're a public company, you essentially publish your general ledger every quarter anyway—why not make it open to everybody in the company and outside on a daily (or whatever your reporting cycle is) basis?” As with most of my ideas, this was greeted with gales of laughter and dismissed as ridiculous. N'importe…right around when I and the other perpetrators were launching Autodesk, Jack Stack and his management team bought out a refurbishment business shed by International Harvester in its death agonies and turned it around into a people-oriented money machine, Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation. My Three Laws of business have always been: “1) Build the best product. 2) No bullshit. 3) Reward the people who do the work.” Reading this book opened my eyes to how I had fallen short in the third item. Stack's “Open Book” management begins by inserting what I'd call item “2a) Inform the people who do the work”. By opening the general ledger to all employees (and the analysts, and your competitors: get used to it—they know almost every number to within epsilon anyway if you're a serious player in the market), you give your team—hourly and salaried—labour and management—union and professional—the tools they need to know how they're doing, and where the company stands and how secure their jobs are. This is always what I wanted to do, but I was insufficiently bull-headed to override the advice of “experts” that it would lead to disaster or land me in the slammer. Jack Stack went ahead and did it, and the results his company has achieved stand as an existence proof that opening the books is the key to empowering and rewarding the people who do the work. This guy is a hero of free enterprise: go and do likewise; emulate and grow rich.

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Bin Ladin, Carmen. The Veiled Kingdom. London: Virago Press, 2004. ISBN 1-84408-102-8.
Carmen Bin Ladin, a Swiss national with a Swiss father and Iranian mother, married Yeslam Bin Ladin in 1974 and lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from 1976 to 1985. Yeslam Bin Ladin is one of the 54 sons and daughters sired by that randy old goat Sheikh Mohamed Bin Laden on his twenty-two wives including, of course, murderous nutball Osama. (There is no unique transliteration of Arabic into English. Yeslam spells his name “Bin Ladin”, while other members of the clan use “Bin Laden”, the most common spelling in the media. This book uses “Bin Ladin” when referring to Yeslam, Carmen, and their children, and “Bin Laden” when referring to the clan or other members of it.) This autobiography provides a peek, through the eyes of a totally Westernised woman, into the bizarre medieval life of Saudi women and the arcane customs of that regrettable kingdom. The author separated from her husband in 1988 and presently lives in Geneva. The link above is to a U.K. paperback edition. I believe the same book is available in the U.S. under the title Inside the Kingdom : My Life in Saudi Arabia, but at the present time only in hardcover.

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Rucker, Rudy. The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005. ISBN 1-56025-722-9.
I read this book in manuscript form. An online excerpt is available.

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Paulos, John Allen. A Mathematician Plays The Stock Market. New York: Basic Books, 2003. ISBN 0-465-05481-1.
Paulos, a mathematics professor and author of several popular books including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, managed to lose a painfully large pile of money (he never says how much) in Worldcom (WCOM) stock in 2000–2002. Other than broadly-based index funds, this was Paulos's first flier in the stock market, and he committed just about every clueless market-newbie blunder in the encyclopedia of Wall Street woe: he bought near the top, on margin, met every margin call and “averaged down” all the way from $47 to below $5 per share, bought out-of-the-money call options on a stock in a multi-year downtrend, never placed stop loss orders or hedged with put options or shorting against the box, based his decisions selectively on positive comments in Internet chat rooms, and utterly failed to diversify (liquidating index funds to further concentrate in a single declining stock). This book came highly recommended, but I found it unsatisfying. Paulos uses his experience in the market as a leitmotif in a wide ranging but rather shallow survey of the mathematics and psychology of markets and investors. Along the way we encounter technical and fundamental analysis, the efficient market hypothesis, compound interest and exponential growth, algorithmic complexity, nonlinear functions and fractals, modern portfolio theory, game theory and the prisoner's dilemma, power laws, financial derivatives, and a variety of card tricks, psychological games, puzzles, and social and economic commentary. Now all of this adds up to only 202 pages, so nothing is treated in much detail—while the explanation of compound interest is almost tedious, many of the deeper mathematical concepts may not be explained sufficiently for readers who don't already understand them. The “leitmotif” becomes pretty heavy after the fiftieth time or so the author whacks himself over the head for his foolishness, and wastes a lot of space which would have been better used discussing the market in greater depth. He dismisses technical analysis purely on the basis of Elliott wave theory, without ever discussing the psychological foundation of many chart patterns as explained in Edwards and Magee; the chapter on fundamental analysis mentions Graham and Dodd only in passing. The author's incessant rambling and short attention span leaves you feeling like you do after a long conversation with Ted Nelson. There is interesting material here, and few if any serious errors, but the result is kind of like English cooking—there's nothing wrong with the ingredients; it's what's done with them that's ultimately bland and distasteful.

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October 2004

Itzkoff, Seymour W. The Decline of Intelligence in America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994. ISBN 0-275-95229-0.
This book had the misfortune to come out in the same year as the first edition of The Bell Curve (August 2003), and suffers by comparison. Unlike that deservedly better-known work, Itzkoff presents few statistics to support his claims that dysgenic reproduction is resulting in a decline in intelligence in the U.S. Any assertion of declining intelligence must confront the evidence for the Flynn Effect (see The Rising Curve, July 2004), which seems to indicate IQ scores are rising about 15 points per generation in a long list of countries including the U.S. The author dismisses Flynn's work in a single paragraph as irrelevant to international competition since scores of all major industrialised countries are rising at about the same rate. But if you argue that IQ is a measure of intelligence, as this book does, how can you claim intelligence is falling at the same time IQ scores are rising at a dizzying rate without providing some reason that Flynn's data should be disregarded? There's quite a bit of hand wringing about the social, educational, and industrial prowess of Japan and Germany which sounds rather dated with a decade's hindsight. The second half of the book is a curious collection of policy recommendations, which defy easy classification into a point on the usual political spectrum. Itzkoff advocates economic protectionism, school vouchers, government-led industrial policy, immigration restrictions, abolishing affirmative action, punitive taxation, government incentives for conventional families, curtailment of payments to welfare mothers and possibly mandatory contraception, penalties for companies which export well-paying jobs, and encouragement of inter-racial and -ethnic marriage. I think that if an ADA/MoveOn/NOW liberal were to read this book, their head might explode. Given the political climate in the U.S. and other Western countries, such policies had exactly zero chance of being implemented either when he recommended them in 1994 and no more today.

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Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1913] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33589-7.
The link above is to a paperback reprint of the original 1913 novel, 16th in the original Tom Swift series, which is in the public domain. I actually read this novel on my PalmOS PDA (which is also my mobile phone, so it's usually right at hand). I always like to have some light reading available which doesn't require a long attention span or intense concentration to pass the time while waiting in line at the post office or other dreary moments one can't program, and early 20th century juvenile pulp fiction on a PDA fills the bill superbly. This novel lasted about a year and a half until I finished it earlier today in the check-out line at the grocery store. The PalmOS version I read was produced as a demo from the Project Gutenberg EText of the novel. This Palm version doesn't seem to be available any more (and was inconvenient, being broken into four parts in order to fit on early PalmPilots with limited memory). For those of you who prefer an electronic edition, I've posted downloadable files of these texts in a variety of formats.

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Cabbage, Michael and William Harwood. Comm Check…The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. New York: Free Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-6091-0.
This is an excellent account for the general reader of the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 accident and subsequent investigation. The authors are veteran space reporters: Cabbage for the Orlando Sentinel and Harwood for CBS News. If you've already read the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report (note that supplementary volumes II through VI are now available), you won't learn anything new about the technical details of the accident and its engineering and organisational causes here, but there's interesting information about the dynamics of the investigation and the individuals involved which you won't find in the formal report. The NASA Implementation Plan for Return to Flight and Beyond mentioned on page 264 is available online.

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Hayward, Steven F. The Real Jimmy Carter. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-090-5.
In the acknowledgements at the end, the author says one of his motivations for writing this book was to acquaint younger readers and older folks who've managed to forget with the reality of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Indeed, unless one lived through it, it's hard to appreciate how Carter's formidable intellect allowed him to quickly grasp the essentials of a situation, absorb vast amounts of detailed information, and then immediately, intuitively leap to the absolutely worst conceivable course of action. It's all here: his race-baiting 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia; the Playboy interview; “ethnic purity”; “I'll never lie to you”; the 111 page list of campaign promises; alienating the Democratic controlled House and Senate before inaugural week was over; stagflation; gas lines; the Moral Equivalent of War (MEOW); turning down the thermostat; spending Christmas with the Shah of Iran, “an island of stability in one of he more troubled areas of the world”; Nicaragua; Afghanistan; “malaise” (which he actually never said, but will be forever associated with his presidency); the cabinet massacre; kissing Brezhnev; “Carter held Hostage”, and more. There is a side-splitting account of the “killer rabbit” episode on page 155. I'd have tried to work in Billy Beer, but I guess you gotta stop somewhere. Carter's post-presidential career, hobnobbing with dictators, loose-cannon freelance diplomacy, and connections with shady middle-east financiers including BCCI, are covered along with his admirable humanitarian work with Habitat for Humanity. That this sanctimonious mountebank who The New Republic, hardly a right wing mouthpiece, called “a vain, meddling, amoral American fool” in 1995 after he expressed sympathy for Serbian ethnic cleanser Radovan Karadzic, managed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, only bears out the assessment of Carter made decades earlier by notorious bank robber Willie Sutton, “I've never seen a bigger confidence man in my life, and I've been around some of the best in the business.”

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Bell, John S. Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1987] 1993. ISBN 0-521-52338-9.
This volume collects most of Bell's papers on the foundations and interpretation of quantum mechanics including, of course, his discovery of “Bell's inequality”, which showed that no local hidden variable theory can reproduce the statistical results of quantum mechanics, setting the stage for the experimental confirmation by Aspect and others of the fundamental non-locality of quantum physics. Bell's interest in the pilot wave theories of de Broglie and Bohm is reflected in a number of papers, and Bell's exposition of these theories is clearer and more concise than anything I've read by Bohm or Hiley. He goes on to show the strong similarities between the pilot wave approach and the “many world interpretation” of Everett and de Witt. An extra added treat is chapter 9, where Bell derives special relativity entirely from Maxwell's equations and the Bohr atom, along the lines of Fitzgerald, Larmor, Lorentz, and Poincaré, arriving at the principle of relativity (which Einstein took as a hypothesis) from the previously known laws of physics.

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Schott, Ben. Schott's Original Miscellany. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. ISBN 1-58234-349-7.
At last—a readily available source one can cite for the definition of the unit “millihelen” (p. 152)!

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Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.
The French Revolution is so universally used as a metaphor in social and political writing that it's refreshing to come across a straight narrative history of what actually happened. The French Revolution is a huge, sprawling story, and this is a big, heavy book about it—more than nine hundred pages, with an enormous cast of characters—in large part because each successive set of new bosses cut off the heads of their predecessors. Schama stresses the continuity of many of the aspects of the Revolution with changes already underway in the latter decades of the ancien régime—Louis XVI comes across as kind of Enlightenment Gorbachev—attempting to reform a bankrupt system from the top and setting in motion forces which couldn't be controlled. Also striking is how many of the most extreme revolutionaries were well-off before the Revolution and, in particular, the large number of lawyers in their ranks. Far from viewing the Terror as an aberration, Schama argues that from the very start, the summer of 1789, “violence was the motor of the Revolution”. With the benefit of two centuries of hindsight, you almost want to reach back across the years, shake these guys by the shoulders, and say “Can't you see where you're going with this?” But then you realise: this was all happening for the very first time—they had no idea of the inevitable outcome of their idealism! In a mere four years, they invented the entire malevolent machinery of the modern, murderous, totalitarian nation-state, and all with the best intentions, informed by the persuasively posed yet relentlessly wrong reasoning of Rousseau. Those who have since repeated the experiment, with the example of the French Revolution before them as a warning, have no such excuse.

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Djavann, Chahdortt. Que pense Allah de l'Europe?. Paris: Gallimard, 2004. ISBN 2-07-077202-0.
The author came of age in revolutionary Iran. After ten years living in Paris, she sees the conflict over the Islamic veil in French society as one in which those she calls “islamists” use the words of the West in ways which mean one thing to westerners and something entirely different to partisans of their own cause. She argues what while freedom of religion is a Western value which cannot be compromised, neither should it be manipulated to subvert the social liberty which is equally a contribution of the West to civilisation. Europe, she believes, is particularly vulnerable to infiltration by those who do not share its values but can employ its traditions and institutions to subvert them. This is not a book length treatment, but rather an essay of 55 pages. For a less personally impassioned but more in-depth view of the situation across the Channel, see Le Londonistan (July 2003).

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Lewis, Michael. Moneyball. New York: W. W. Norton, [2003] 2004. ISBN 0-393-32481-8.
Everybody knows there's no faster or more reliable way to make a lot of money than to identify an inefficiency in a market and arbitrage it. (If you didn't know that, consider it free advice and worth everything you paid for it!) Modern financial markets are Hellishly efficient. Millions of players armed with real-time transaction data, massive computing and database resources for data mining, and more math, physics, and economics Ph.D.s than a dozen Ivy League campuses are continuously looking for the slightest discrepancy between price and value, which more or less guarantees that even when one is discovered, it won't last for more than a moment, and that by the time you hear about it, it'll be long gone. It's much easier to find opportunities in slower moving, less intensely scrutinised fields where conventional wisdom and lack of imagination can blind those in the market to lucrative inefficiencies. For example, in the 1980s generic personal computers and graphics adaptors became comparable in performance to special purpose computer aided design (CAD) workstations ten times or more as costly. This created a situation where the entire value-added in CAD was software, not hardware—all the hardware development, manufacturing, and support costs of the existing vendors were simply an inefficiency which cost their customers dearly. Folks who recognised this inefficiency and moved to exploit the opportunity it created were well rewarded, even while their products were still being ridiculed or ignored by “serious vendors”. Opportunities like this don't come around very often, and there's a lot of luck involved in being in the right place at the right time with the skills and resources at hand to exploit one when you do spot it.

But just imagine what you could do in a field mired in tradition, superstition, ignorance, meaningless numbers, a self-perpetuating old boy network, and gross disparities between spending and performance…Major League Baseball, say? Starting in the 1970s and 80s, Bill James and a slowly growing group of statistically knowledgeable and scientifically minded baseball fanatics—outsiders all—began to look beyond conventional statistics and box scores and study what really determines how many runs a team will score and how many games it will win. Their results turned conventional wisdom completely on its head and that, combined with the clubbiness of professional baseball, caused their work to be utterly ignored until Billy Beane became general manager of the Oakland A's in 1997. Beane and his statistics wizard Paul DePodesta were faced with the challenge of building a winning team with a budget for player salaries right at the bottom of the league—they had less to spend on the entire roster than some teams spent on three or four superstar free agents. I've always been fond of the phrase “management by lack of alternatives”, and that's the situation Beane faced. He took on board the wisdom of the fan statisticians and built upon it, to numerically estimate the value in runs—the ultimate currency of baseball—of individual players, and compare that to the cost of acquiring them. He quickly discovered the market in professional baseball players was grossly inefficient—teams were paying millions for players with statistics which contributed little or nothing to runs scored and games won, while players with the numbers that really mattered were languishing in the minors, available for a song.

The Oakland A's are short for “Athletics”, but under Beane it might as well have been “Arbitrageurs”—trading overvalued stars for cash, draft picks, and undervalued unknowns spotted by the statistical model. Conventional scouting went out the window; the A's roster was full of people who didn't look like baseball players but fit the mathematical profile. Further, Beane changed the way the game was played—if the numbers said stolen bases and sacrifice bunts were a net loss in runs long-term, then the A's didn't do them. The sportswriters and other teams thought it was crazy, but it won ball games: an amazing 103 in 2002 with a total payroll of less than US$42 million. In most other markets or businesses competitors would be tripping over one another to copy the methods which produced such results, but so hidebound and inbred is baseball that so far only two other teams have adopted the Oakland way of winning. Writing on the opening day of the 2004 World Series, is is interesting to observe than one of those two is the Boston Red Sox. I must observe, however, amongst rooting for the scientific method and high fives for budget discipline and number crunching, that the ultimate product of professional baseball is not runs scored, nor games, pennants, or World Series won, but rather entertainment and the revenue it generates from fans, directly or indirectly. One wonders whether this new style of MBAseball run from the front office will ultimately be as enjoyable as the intuitive, risk-taking, seat of the pants game contested from the dugout by a Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, or Earl Weaver. This superbly written, fascinating book is by the author of the almost indescribably excellent Liar's Poker. The 2004 paperback edition contains an Afterword recounting the “religious war” the original 2003 hardcover ignited. Again, this is a book recommended by an anonymous visitor with the recommendation form—thanks, Joe!

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Jacobs, Jane. Dark Age Ahead. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-6232-2.
The reaction of a reader who chooses this book solely based on its title or the dust-jacket blurb is quite likely to be, “Huh?” The first chapter vividly evokes the squalor and mass cultural amnesia which followed the fall of Western Rome, the collapse of the Chinese global exploration and trade in the Ming dynasty, and the extinction of indigenous cultures in North America and elsewhere. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves talking about urban traffic planning, the merits of trolley buses vs. light rail systems, Toronto metropolitan government, accounting scandals, revenue sharing with municipalities, and a host of other issues which, however important, few would rank as high on the list of probable causes of an incipient dark age. These are issues near and dear to the author, who has been writing about them ever since her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs was born in 1916 and wrote this book at the age of 87). If you're unfamiliar with her earlier work, the extensive discussion of “city import replacement” in the present volume will go right over your head as she never defines it here. Further, she uses the word “neoconservative” at variance with its usual meaning in the U.S. and Europe. It's only on page 113 (of 175 pages of main text) that we discover this is a uniquely Canadian definition. Fine, she's been a resident of Toronto since 1969, but this book is published in New York and addressed to an audience of “North Americans” (another Canadian usage), so it's unnecessarily confusing. I find little in this book to disagree with, but as a discussion of the genuine risks which face Western civilisation, it's superficial and largely irrelevant.

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O'Neill, John E. and Jerome L. Corsi. Unfit for Command. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-017-4.

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November 2004

Barnett, Thomas P. M. The Pentagon's New Map. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004. ISBN 0-399-15175-3.
This is one scary book—scary both for the world-view it advocates and the fact that its author is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and participant in strategic planning at the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation. His map divides the world into a “Functioning Core” consisting of the players, both established (the U.S., Europe, Japan) and newly arrived (Mexico, Russia, China, India, Brazil, etc.) in the great game of globalisation, and a “Non-Integrating Gap” containing all the rest (most of Africa, Andean South America, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia), deemed “disconnected” from globalisation. (The detailed map may be consulted on the author's Web site.) Virtually all U.S. military interventions in the years 1990–2003 occurred in the “Gap” while, he argues, nation-on-nation violence within the Core is a thing of the past and needn't concern strategic planners. In the Gap, however, he believes it is the mission of the U.S. military to enforce “rule-sets”, acting preemptively and with lethal force where necessary to remove regimes which block connectivity of their people with the emerging global system, and a U.S.-led “System Administration” force to carry out the task of nation building when the bombs and boots of “Leviathan” (a term he uses repeatedly—think of it as a Hobbesian choice!) re-embark their transports for the next conflict. There is a rather bizarre chapter, “The Myths We Make”, in which he says that global chaos, dreams of an American empire, and the U.S. as world police are bogus argument-enders employed by “blowhards”, which is immediately followed by a chapter proposing a ten-point plan which includes such items as invading North Korea (2), fomenting revolution in (or invading) Iran (3), invading Colombia (4), putting an end to Wahabi indoctrination in Saudi Arabia (5), co-operating with the Chinese military (6), and expanding the United States by a dozen more states by 2050, including the existing states of Mexico (9). This isn't globocop? This isn't empire? And even if it's done with the best of intentions, how probable is it that such a Leviathan with a moral agenda and a “shock and awe” military without peer would not succumb to the imperative of imperium?

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Barry, Max. Jennifer Government. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 1-4000-3092-7.
When you try to explain personal liberty to under-thirty-fivers indoctrinated in government schools, their general reaction is, “Well, wouldn't the big corporations just take over and you'd end up with a kind of corporate fascism which relegated individuals to the rôle of passive consumers?” Of course, that's what they've been taught is already the case—even as intrusive government hits unprecedented new highs—but then logic was never a strong point of collectivist kiddies. Max Barry has written the rarest of novels—a persuasive libertarian dystopia—what it would look like if the “big corporations” really did take over. In this world, individuals take the surname of their employer, and hence the protagonist, Jennifer, is an agent of what is left of the Government—get it? It is a useful exercise for libertarians to figure out “what's wrong with this picture” and identify why corporations self-size to that of the predominant government power: the smaller the government, the more local the optimal enterprise. This is another excellent recommendation by a visitor to this page.

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Miller, John J. and Mark Molesky. Our Oldest Enemy. New York: Doubleday, 2004. ISBN 0-385-51219-8.
In this history of relations between the America and France over three centuries—starting in 1704, well before the U.S. existed, the authors argue that the common perception of sympathy and shared interest between the “two great republics” from Lafayette to “Lafayette, we are here” and beyond is not borne out by the facts, that the recent tension between the U.S. and France over Iraq is consistent with centuries of French scheming in quest of its own, now forfeit, status as a great power. Starting with French-incited and led Indian raids on British settlements in the 18th century, through the undeclared naval war of 1798–1800, Napoleon's plans to invade New Orleans, Napoleon III's adventures in Mexico, Clemenceau's subverting Wilson's peace plans after being rescued by U.S. troops in World War I, Eisenhower's having to fight his way through Vichy French troops in North Africa in order to get to the Germans, Stalinst intellectuals in the Cold War, Suez, de Gaulle's pulling out of NATO, Chirac's long-term relationship with his “personal friend” Saddam Hussein, through recent perfidy at the U.N., the case is made that, with rare exceptions, France has been the most consistent opponent of the U.S. over all of their shared history. The authors don't hold France and the French in very high esteem, and there are numerous zingers and turns of phrase such as “Time and again in the last two centuries, France has refused to come to grips with its diminished status as a country whose greatest general was a foreigner, whose greatest warrior was a teenage girl, and whose last great military victory came on the plains of Wagram in 1809” (p. 10). The account of Vichy in chapter 9 is rather sketchy and one-dimensional; readers interested in that particular shameful chapter in French history will find more details in Robert Paxton's Vichy France and Marc Ferro's biography, Pétain or the eponymous movie made from it.

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Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. New York: Pantheon Books, [2000, 2001] 2003. ISBN 0-375-71457-X.
This story is told in comic strip form, but there's nothing funny about it. Satrapi was a 10 year old girl in Tehran when the revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran. Her well-off family detested the Shah, had several relatives active in leftist opposition movements, and supported the revolution, but were horrified when the mullahs began to turn the clock back to the middle ages. The terror and mass slaughter of the Iran/Iraq war are seen through the eyes of a young girl, along with the paranoia and repression of the Islamic regime. At age 14, her parents sent her to Vienna to escape Iran; she now lives and works in Paris. Persepolis was originally published in French in two volumes (1, 2). This edition combines the two volumes, with Satrapi's original artwork re-lettered with the English translation.

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Hammersley, Ben. Content Syndication with RSS. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2003. ISBN 0-596-00383-8.
Sometimes the process of setting standards for the Internet just leaves you wanting to avert your eyes. The RSS standard, used by Web loggers, news sites, and other to provide “feeds” which apprise other sites of updates to their content is a fine example of what happens when standards go bad. At first, there was the idea that RSS would be fully RDF compliant, but then out came version 0.9 which used RDF incompletely and improperly. Then came 0.91, which stripped out RDF entirely, which was followed by version 1.0, which re-incorporated full support for RDF along with modules and XML namespaces. Two weeks later, along came version 0.92 (I'm not making this up), which extended 0.91 and remained RDF free. Finally, late in 2002, RSS 2.0 arrived, a further extension of 0.92, and not in any way based on 1.0—got that? Further, the different standards don't even agree on what “RSS” stands for; personally, I'd opt for “Ridiculous Standard Setting”. For the poor guy who simply wants to provide feeds to let folks know what's changed on a Web log or site, this is a huge mess, as it is for those who wish to monitor such feeds. This book recounts the tawdry history of RSS, provides examples of the various dialects, and provides useful examples for generating and using RSS feeds, as well as an overview of the RSS world, including syndication directories, aggregators, desktop feed reader tools, and Publish and Subscribe architectures.

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Gleick, James. Isaac Newton. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-42233-1.
Fitting a satisfying biography of one of the most towering figures in the history of the human intellect into fewer than 200 pages is a formidable undertaking, which James Gleick has accomplished magnificently here. Newton's mathematics and science are well covered, placing each in the context of the “shoulders of Giants” which he said helped him see further, but also his extensive (and little known, prior to the twentieth century) investigations into alchemy, theology, and ancient history. His battles with Hooke, Leibniz, and Flamsteed, autocratic later years as Master of the Royal Mint and President of the Royal Society and ceaseless curiosity and investigation are well covered, as well as his eccentricity and secretiveness. I'm a little dubious of the discussion on pp. 186–187 where Newton is argued to have anticipated or at least left the door open for relativity, quantum theory, equivalence of mass and energy, and subatomic forces. Newton wrote millions of words on almost every topic imaginable, most for his own use with no intention of publication, few examined by scholars until centuries after his death. From such a body of text, it may be possible to find sentences here and there which “anticipate” almost anything when you know from hindsight what you're looking for. In any case, the achievements of Newton, who not only laid the foundation of modern physical science, invented the mathematics upon which much of it is based, and created the very way we think about and do science, need no embellishment. The text is accompanied by 48 pages of endnotes (the majority citing primary sources) and an 18 page bibliography. A paperback edition is now available.

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Babbin, Jed. Inside the Asylum. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-088-3.
You'll be shocked, shocked, to discover, turning these pages, that the United Nations is an utterly corrupt gang of despots, murderers, and kleptocrats, not just ineffectual against but, in some cases, complicit in supporting terrorism, while sanctimoniously proclaiming the moral equivalence of savagery and civilisation. And that the European Union is a feckless, collectivist, elitist club of effete former and wannabe great powers facing a demographic and economic cataclysm entirely of their own making. But you knew that, didn't you? That's the problem with this thin (less than 150 pages of main text) volume. Most of the people who will read it already know most of what's said here. Those who still believe the U.N. to be “the last, best hope for peace” (and their numbers are, sadly, legion—more than 65% of my neighbours in the Canton of Neuchâtel voted for Switzerland to join the U.N. in the March 2002 referendum) are unlikely to read this book.

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Bonner, William with Addison Wiggin. Financial Reckoning Day. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 0-471-44973-3.
William Bonner's Daily Reckoning newsletter was, along with a few others like Downside, a voice of sanity in the bubble markets of the turn of millennium. I've always found that the best investment analysis looks well beyond the markets to the historical, social, political, moral, technological, and demographic trends which market action ultimately reflects. Bonner and Wiggin provide a global, multi-century tour d'horizon here, and make a convincing case that the boom, bust, and decade-plus “soft depression” which Japan suffered from the 1990s to the present is the prototype of what's in store for the U.S. as the inevitable de-leveraging of the mountain of corporate and consumer debt on which the recent boom was built occurs, with the difference that Japan has the advantage of a high savings rate and large trade surplus, while the U.S. saves nothing and runs enormous trade deficits. The analysis of how Alan Greenspan's evolution from supreme goldbug in Ayn Rand's inner circle to maestro of paper money is completely consistent with his youthful belief in Objectivism is simply delightful. The authors readily admit that markets can do anything, but believe that in the long run, markets generally do what they “ought to”, and suggest an investment strategy for the next decade on that basis.

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December 2004

Fallaci, Oriana. La Force de la Raison. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2004. ISBN 2-268-05264-8.
If, fifty years from now, there still are historians permitted to chronicle the civilisation of Western Europe (which, if the trends described in this book persist, may not be the way to bet), Fallaci may be seen as a figure like Churchill in the 1930s, willing to speak the truth about a clear and present danger, notwithstanding the derision and abuse doing so engenders from those who prefer to live the easy life, avoid difficult decisions, and hope things will just get better. In this, and her earlier La rage et l'orgueil (June 2002), Fallaci warns, in stark and uncompromising terms verging occasionally on a rant, of the increasing Islamicisation of Western Europe, and decries the politicians, church figures, and media whose inaction or active efforts aid and abet it. She argues that what is at risk is nothing less than European civilisation itself, which Islamic figures openly predict among themselves eventually being transformed through the inexorable power of demographics and immigration into an Islamic Republic of “Eurabia”. The analysis of the “natural alliance” between the extreme political left and radical Islam is brilliant, and brings to mind L'Islam révolutionnaire (December 2003) by terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). There is a shameful little piece of paper tipped into the pages of the book by the publisher, who felt no need for a disclaimer when earlier publishing the screed by mass murderer “Carlos”. In language worthy of Pierre Laval, they defend its publication in the interest of presenting a «différent» viewpoint, and ask readers to approach it “critically, in light of the present-day international context” (my translation).

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Marasco, Joe. The Software Development Edge. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2005. ISBN 0-321-32131-6.
I read this book in manuscript form when it was provisionally titled The Psychology of Software Development.

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Godwin, Robert ed. Freedom 7: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 2000. ISBN 1-896522-80-7.
This volume in the superb Apogee NASA Mission Reports series covers Alan Shepard's May 5th, 1961 suborbital flight in Freedom 7, the first U.S. manned space flight. Included are the press kit for the mission, complete transcripts of the post-flight debriefings and in-flight communications, and proceedings of a conference held in June 1961 to report mission results. In addition, the original 1958 request for astronaut volunteers (before it was decided that only military test pilots need apply) is reproduced, along with the press conference introducing the Mercury astronauts, which Tom Wolfe so vividly (and accurately) described in The Right Stuff. A bonus CD-ROM includes the complete in-flight films of the instrument panel and astronaut, a 30 minute NASA documentary about the flight, and the complete NASA official history of Project Mercury, This New Ocean, as a PDF document. There are few if any errors in the transcriptions of the documents. The caption for the photograph of Freedom 7 on the second page of colour plates makes the common error of describing its heat shield as “ablative fiberglass”. In fact, as stated on page 145, suborbital missions used a beryllium heat sink; only orbital capsules were equipped with the ablative shield.

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Lundstrom, David E. A Few Good Men from Univac. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987. ISBN 0-262-12120-4.
The author joined UNIVAC in 1955 and led the testing of the UNIVAC II which, unlike the UNIVAC I, was manufactured in the St. Paul area. (This book uses “Univac” as the name of the company and its computers; in my experience and in all the documents in my collection, the name, originally an acronym for “UNIVersal Automatic Computer”, was always written in all capitals: “UNIVAC”; that is the convention I shall use here.) He then worked on the development of the Navy Tactical Data System (NTDS) shipboard computer, which was later commercialised as the UNIVAC 490 real-time computer. The UNIVAC 1107 also used the NTDS circuit design and I/O architecture. In 1963, like many UNIVAC alumni, Lundstrom crossed the river to join Control Data, where he worked until retiring in 1985. At Control Data he was responsible for peripherals, terminals, and airline reservation system development. It was predictable but sad to observe how Control Data, founded by a group of talented innovators to escape the stifling self-destructive incompetence of UNIVAC management, rapidly built up its own political hierarchy which chased away its own best people, including Seymour Cray. It's as if at a board meeting somebody said, “Hey, we're successful now! Let's build a big office tower and fill it up with idiots and politicians to keep the technical geniuses from getting anything done.” Lundstrom provides an authentic view from the inside of the mainframe computer business over a large part of its history. His observations about why technology transfer usually fails and the destruction wreaked on morale by incessant reorganisations and management shifts in direction are worth pondering. Lundstrom's background is in hardware. In chapter 13, before describing software, he cautions that “Professional programmers are going to disagree violently with what I say.” Well, this professional programmer certainly did, but it's because most of what he goes on to say is simply wrong. But that's a small wart on an excellent, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable book. This book is out of print; used copies are generally available but tend to be expensive—you might want to keep checking over a period of months as occasionally a bargain will come around.

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Lileks, James. Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-4640-8.
After turning your tastebuds inside out with The Gallery of Regrettable Food (April 2004), Lileks now tackles what passed for home decoration in the 1970s. Seldom will you encounter a book which makes you ask “What were they thinking?” so many times. It makes you wonder which aspects of the current scene will look as weird twenty or thirty years from now. Additional material which came to hand after the book was published may be viewed on the author's Web site.

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Bovard, James. The Bush Betrayal. New York: Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 1-4039-6727-X.
Having dissected the depredations of Clinton and Socialist Party A against the liberty of U.S. citizens in Feeling Your Pain (May 2001), Bovard now turns his crypto-libertarian gaze toward the ravages committed by Bush and Socialist Party B in the last four years. Once again, Bovard demonstrates his extraordinary talent in penetrating the fog of government propaganda to see the crystalline absurdity lurking within. On page 88 we discover that under the rules adopted by Colorado pursuant to the “No Child Left Behind Act”, a school with 1000 students which had a mere 179 or fewer homicides per year would not be classified as “persistently dangerous”, permitting parents of the survivors to transfer their children to less target-rich institutions.

On page 187, we encounter this head-scratching poser asked of those who wished to become screeners for the “Transportation Security Administration”:

Question: Why is it important to screen bags for IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]?
  1. The IED batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags.
  2. The wires in the IED could cause a short to the aircraft wires.
  3. IEDs can cause loss of lives, property, and aircraft.
  4. The ticking timer could worry other passengers.
I wish I were making this up. The inspector general of the “Homeland Security Department” declined to say how many of the “screeners” who intimidate citizens, feel up women, and confiscate fingernail clippers and putatively dangerous and easily-pocketed jewelry managed to answer this one correctly.

I call Bovard a “crypto-libertarian” because he clearly bases his analysis on libertarian principles, yet rarely observes that any polity with unconstrained government power and sedated sheeple for citizens will end badly, regardless of who wins the elections. As with his earlier books, sources for this work are exhaustively documented in 41 pages of endnotes.

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Holmes, W. J. Double-Edged Secrets. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, [1979] 1998. ISBN 1-55750-324-9.
This is the story of U.S. Naval Intelligence in the Pacific theatre during World War II, told by somebody who was there—Holmes served in the inner sanctum of Naval Intelligence at Pearl Harbor from before the Japanese attack in 1941 through the end of the war in 1945. Most accounts of naval intelligence in the war with Japan focus on cryptanalysis and use of the “Ultra” information it yielded from Japanese radio intercepts. Holmes regularly worked with this material, and with the dedicated and sometimes eccentric individuals who produced it, but his focus is broader—on intelligence as a whole, of which cryptanalysis was only a part. The “product” delivered by his shop to warfighters in the fleet was painstakingly gleaned not only from communications intercepts, but also traffic analysis, direction finding, interpretation of aerial and submarine reconnaissance photos, interrogation of prisoners, translations of captured documents, and a multitude of other sources. In preparing for the invasion of Okinawa, naval intelligence tracked down an eighty-year-old seashell expert who provided information on landing beaches from his pre-war collecting expedition there. The total material delivered by intelligence for the Okinawa operation amounted to 127 tons of paper. This book provides an excellent feel for the fog of war, and how difficult it is to discern enemy intentions from the limited and conflicting information at hand. In addition, the difficult judgement calls which must be made between the risk of disclosing sources of information versus getting useful information into the hands of combat forces on a timely basis is a theme throughout the narrative. If you're looking for more of a focus on cryptanalysis and a discussion of the little-known British contribution to codebreaking in the Pacific war, see Michael Smith's The Emperor's Codes (August 2001).

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Sharpe, Tom. Wilt in Nowhere. London: Hutchinson, 2004. ISBN 0-09-179965-1.
Tom Sharpe is, in my opinion, the the greatest living master of English farce. Combining Wodehouse's sense of the absurd and Waugh's acid-penned black humour, his novels make you almost grateful for the worst day you've ever had, as it's guaranteed to be a sunny stroll through the park compared to what his characters endure. I read most of Sharpe's novels to date in the 1980s, and was delighted to discover he's still going strong, bringing the misadventures of Henry Wilt up to date in this side-splitting book. The “release the hounds” episode in chapter 13 makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication in June 2005. There are numerous references to earlier episodes in the Wilt saga, but this book can be enjoyed without having read them. If you'd like to enjoy them in order, they're Wilt, The Wilt Alternative, Wilt on High, and then the present volume.

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Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-5535-6.
It's a safe bet that the vast majority of Westerners who have done business in East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and Asians who've done business in the West have come to the same conclusion: “Asians and Westerners think differently.” They may not say as much, at least not to the general public, for fear of being thought intolerant, but they believe it on the evidence of their own experience nonetheless.

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues in China and Korea have been experimentally investigating the differences in Asian and Western thought processes, and their results are summarised in this enlightening book (with citations of the original research). Their work confirms the conventional wisdom—Westerners view the world through a telephoto lens, applying logic and reductionism to find the “one best way”, while Asians see a wide-angle view, taking into account the context of events and seeking a middle way between extremes and apparent contradictions—with experimental effect sizes which are large, robust, and reliable.

Present-day differences in Asian and Western thought are shown to be entirely consistent with those of ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, implying that whatever the cause, it is stable over long spans of history. Although experiments with infants provide some evidence for genetic predisposition, Nisbett suspects that a self-reinforcing homeostatic feedback loop between culture, language, and society is responsible for most of the difference in thought processes. The fact that Asian-Americans and Westernised Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore test between Asian and Western extremes provides evidence for this. (The fact that Asians excel at quintessentially Western intellectual endeavours such as abstract mathematics and theoretical science would, it seems to me, exclude most simple-minded explanations based on inherited differences in brain wiring.)

This work casts doubt upon Utopian notions of an End of History in which Western-style free markets and democracy are adopted by all nations and cultures around the globe. To a large extent, such a scenario assumes all people think like Westerners and share the same values, an assumption to which Nisbett's research offers persuasive counter examples. This may be for the best; both Western and Asian styles of thought are shown as predisposing those applying them to distinct, yet equally dangerous, fallacies. Perhaps a synthesis of these (and other) ways of thinking is a sounder foundation for a global society than the Western model alone.

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  2005  

January 2005

Lamont, Peter. The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. ISBN 1-56025-661-3.
Charmed by a mysterious swami, the end of a rope rises up of its own accord high into the air. A small boy climbs the rope and, upon reaching the top, vanishes. The Indian rope trick: ancient enigma of the subcontinent or 1890 invention by a Chicago newspaper embroiled in a circulation war? Peter Lamont, magician and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, traces the origin and growth of this pervasive legend. Along the way we encounter a cast of characters including Marco Polo; a Chief of the U.S. Secret Service; Madame Blavatsky; Charles Dickens; Colonel Stodare, an Englishman who impersonated a Frenchman performing Indian magic; William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State; Professor Belzibub; General Earl Haig and his aptly named aide-de-camp, Sergeant Secrett; John Nevil Maskelyne, conjurer, debunker of spiritualism, and inventor of the pay toilet; and a host of others. The author's style is occasionally too clever for its own good, but this is a popular book about the Indian rope trick, not a quantum field theory text after all, so what the heck. I read the U.K. edition.

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Orsenna, Erik. La grammaire est une chanson douce. Paris: Poche, 2001. ISBN 2-253-14910-1.
Ten year old Jeanne and her insufferable fourteen year old brother survive a shipwreck and find themselves on an enchanted island where words come alive and grammar escapes the rationalistic prison of Madame Jargonos and her Cartesian colleagues in the black helicopters (nice touch, that) to emerge as the intuitive music of thought and expression. As Jeanne recovers her ability to speak, we discover the joy of forging phrases from the raw material of living words with the tools of grammar. The result of Jeanne's day in the factory on page 129 is a pure delight. The author is a member of l'Académie française.

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Crichton, Michael. State of Fear. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-621413-0.
Ever since I read his 2003 Commonwealth Club speech, I've admired Michael Crichton's outspoken defence of rationality against the junk science, elitist politics, and immoral anti-human policies of present-day Big Environmentalism. In State of Fear, he enlists his talent as a techno-thriller writer in the cause, debunking the bogus fear-mongering of the political/legal/media/academic complex which is increasingly turning the United States into a nation of safety-obsessed sheeple, easily manipulated by the elite which constructs the fact-free virtual reality they inhabit. To the extent this book causes people to look behind the green curtain of environmentalism, it will no doubt do a world of good. Scientific integrity is something which matters a great deal to Crichton—when's the last time you read a thriller which included dozens of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers, charts based on public domain climate data, a list of data sources for independent investigation, a twenty page annotated bibliography, and an explicit statement of the author's point of view on the issues discussed in the novel?

The story is a compelling page-turner, but like other recent Crichton efforts, requires somewhat more suspension of disbelief than I'm comfortable with. I don't disagree with the scientific message—I applaud it—but I found myself less than satisfied with how the thing worked as a thriller. As in Prey (January 2003), the characters often seemed to do things which simply weren't the way real people would actually behave. It is plausible that James Bond like secret agent John Kenner would entrust a raid on an eco-terrorist camp to a millionaire's administrative assistant and a lawyer who'd never fired a gun, or that he'd include these two, along with an actor who played a U.S. president on television, sent to spy for the bad guys, on an expedition to avert a horrific terrorist strike? These naïve, well-intentioned, but clueless characters provide convenient foils for Crichton's scientific arguments and come to deliciously appropriate ends, at least in one case, but all the time you can't help but thinking they're just story devices who don't really belong there. The villains' grand schemes also make this engineer's reality detector go bzzzt! In each case, they're trying to do something on an unprecedented scale, involving unconfirmed theories and huge uncertainties in real-world data, and counting on it working the very first time, with no prior prototyping or reduced-scale tests. In the real world, heroics wouldn't be necessary—you could just sit back and wait for something to go wrong, as it always does in such circumstances.

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Schmitt, Christopher. CSS Cookbook. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2004. ISBN 0-596-00576-8.
It's taken a while, but Cascading Style Sheets have finally begun to live up to their promise of separating content from presentation on the Web, allowing a consistent design, specified in a single place and easily modified, to be applied to large collections of documents, and permitting content to be rendered in different ways depending on the media and audience: one style for online reading, another for printed output, an austere presentation for handheld devices, large type for readers with impaired vision, and a text-only format tailored for screen reader programs used by the blind. This book provides an overview of CSS solutions for common Web design problems, with sample code and screen shots illustrating what can be accomplished. It doesn't purport to be a comprehensive reference—you'll want to have Eric Meyer's Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide at hand as you develop your own CSS solutions, but Schmitt's book is valuable in showing how common problems can be solved in ways which aren't obvious from reading the specification or a reference book. Particularly useful for the real-world Web designer are Schmitt's discussion of which CSS features work and don't work in various popular browsers and suggestions of work-arounds to maximise the cross-platform portability of pages.

Many of the examples in this book are more or less obvious, and embody techniques which folks who've rolled their own Movable Type style sheets will be familiar, but every chapter has one or more gems which caused this designer of minimalist Web pages to slap his forehead and exclaim, “I didn't know you could do that!” Chapter 9, which presents a collection of brutal hacks, many involving exploiting parsing bugs, for working around browser incompatibilities may induce nausea in those who cherish standards compliance or worry about the consequences of millions of pages on the Web containing ticking time bombs which will cause them to fall flat on their faces when various browser bugs are fixed. One glimpses here the business model of the Web site designer who gets paid when the customer is happy with how the site looks in Exploder and views remediation of incompatibilities down the road as a source of recurring revenue. Still, if you develop and maintain Web sites at the HTML level, there are many ideas here which can lead to more effective Web pages, and encourage you to dig deeper into the details of CSS.

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Weinberg, Steven. Facing Up. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-674-01120-1.
This is a collection of non-technical essays written between 1985 and 2000 by Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg. Many discuss the “science wars”—the assault by postmodern academics on the claim that modern science is discovering objective truth (well, duh), but many other topics are explored, including string theory, Zionism, Alan Sokal's hoax at the expense of the unwitting (and witless) editors of Social Text, Thomas Kuhn's views on scientific revolutions, science and religion, and the comparative analysis of utopias. Weinberg applies a few basic principles to most things he discusses—I counted six separate defences of reductionism in modern science, most couched in precisely the same terms. You may find this book more enjoyable a chapter at a time over an extended period rather than in one big cover-to-cover gulp.

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Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-175-7.
Here's where it all began—the first episode of the original Tom Swift saga. Here we encounter Tom, his father Barton Swift, Mrs. Baggert, Ned Newton, Eradicate Sampson and his mule Boomerang, Wakefield “bless my hatband” Damon, Happy Harry, and the rest of the regulars for the first time. In this first outing, Appleton is still finding his voice: a good deal of the narration occurs as Tom's thinking or talking out loud, and there are way too many references to Tom as “our hero” for the cynical modern reader. But it's a rip-snorting, thoroughly enjoyable yarn, and the best point of departure to explore the world of Tom Swift and American boyhood in the golden years before the tragically misnamed Great War. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects a few typographical and formatting errors I noted whilst reading the novel.

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Allitt, Patrick. I'm the Teacher, You're the Student. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8122-1887-6.
This delightfully written and enlightening book provides a look inside a present-day university classroom. The author, a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, presents a diary of a one semester course in U.S. history from 1877 to the present. Descriptions of summer programs at Oxford and experiences as a student of Spanish in Salamanca Spain (the description of the difficulty of learning a foreign language as an adult [pp. 65–69] is as good as any I've read) provide additional insight into the life of a professor. I wish I'd had a teacher explain the craft of expository writing as elegantly as Allitt in his “standard speech” (p. 82). The sorry state of undergraduate prose is sketched in stark detail, with amusing howlers like, “Many did not survive the harsh journey west, but still they trekked on.” Although an introductory class, students were a mix of all four undergraduate years; one doesn't get a sense the graduating seniors thought or wrote any more clearly than the freshmen. Along the way, Allitt provides a refresher course in the historical period covered by the class. You might enjoy answering the factual questions from the final examination on pp. 215–218 before and after reading the book and comparing your scores (answers are on p. 237—respect the honour code and don't peek!). The darker side of the educational scene is discussed candidly: plagiarism in the age of the Internet; clueless, lazy, and deceitful students; and the endless spiral of grade inflation. What grade would you give to students who, after a semester in an introductory undergraduate course, “have no aptitude for history, no appreciation for the connection between events, no sense of how a historical situation changes over time, [who] don't want to do the necessary hard work, … skimp on the reading, and can't write to save their lives” (p. 219)—certainly an F? Well, actually, no: “Most of them will get B− and a few really hard cases will come in with Cs”. And, refuting the notion that high mean grade point averages at elite schools simply reflect the quality of the student body and their work, about a quarter of Allitt's class are these intellectual bottom feeders he so vividly evokes.

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Sinclair, Upton. Mental Radio. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, [1930, 1962] 2001. ISBN 1-57174-235-2.
Upton Sinclair, self-described (p. 8) “Socialist ‘muckraker’” is best known for his novels such as The Jungle (which put a generation off eating sausage), Oil!, and The Moneychangers, and his social activism. His 1934 run for Governor of California was supported by young firebrand Robert A. Heinlein, whose 1938-1939 “lost first novel” For Us, The Living (February 2004) was in large part a polemic for Sinclair's “Social Credit” platform.

Here, however, the focus is on the human mind, in particular the remarkable experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance performed in the late 1920s with his wife, Mary Craig Sinclair. The experiments consisted of attempts to mentally transmit or perceive the content of previously drawn images. Some experiments were done with the “sender” and “receiver” separated by more than 40 kilometres, while others involved Sinclair drawing images in a one room with the door closed, while his wife attempted to receive them in a different room. Many of the results are simply astonishing, so much so that given the informal conditions of the testing, many sceptics (especially present-day CSICOPs who argue that any form of cheating or sensory information transfer, whether deliberate or subconscious, which cannot be definitively excluded must be assumed to have occurred), will immediately discard them as flawed. But the Sinclair experiments took place just as formal research in parapsychology was getting underway—J.B. Rhine's Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University was not founded until 1935—five years after the publication of Mental Radio, with the support of William McDougall, chairman of the Duke psychology department who, in 1930, himself performed experiments with Mary Craig Sinclair and wrote the introduction to the present volume.

This book is a reprint of the 1962 edition, which includes a retrospective foreword by Upton Sinclair, the analysis of the Sinclair experiments by Walter Franklin Prince published in the Bulletin of the Boston Society for Psychic Research in 1932, and a preface by Albert Einstein.

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Smith, L. Neil. Ceres. Unpublished manuscript, January 2005.
I read this book in manuscript form; I'll add the ISBN when it is published. An online plot summary is available.

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Landis, Tony R. and Dennis R. Jenkins. X-15 Photo Scrapbook. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-074-4.

This companion to Hypersonic: The Story of the North American X-15 (March 2004) contains more than 400 photos, 50 in colour, which didn't make the cut for the main volume, as well as some which came to hand only after its publication. There's nothing really startling, but if you can't get enough of this beautiful flying machine, here's another hefty dose of well-captioned period photos, many never before published. The two page spread on pp. 58–59 is interesting. It's a North American Aviation presentation from 1962 on how the X-15 could be used for various advanced propulsion research programs, including ramjets, variable cycle turboramjets, scramjets, and liquid air cycle engines (LACE) burning LH2 and air liquefied on board. More than forty years later, these remain “advanced propulsion” concepts, with scant progress to show for the intervening decades. None of the X-15 propulsion research programs were ever flown.

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Smith, L. Neil and Scott Bieser. The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, 2004. ISBN 0-9743814-1-1.
What a tremendous idea! Here is L. Neil Smith's classic libertarian science fiction novel, Prometheus Award winning The Probability Broach, transformed into a comic book—er—graphic novel—with story by Smith and artwork by Scott Bieser. The artwork and use of colour are delightful—particularly how Win Bear's home world is rendered in drab collectivist grey and the North American Confederacy in vibrant hues. Lucy Kropotkin looks precisely as I'd imagined her. Be sure to look at all the detail and fine print in the large multi-panel spreads. After enjoying a couple of hours back in the Confederacy, why not order copies to give to all the kids in the family who've never thought about what it would be like to live in a world where free individuals entirely owned their own lives?

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February 2005

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-14-200161-9.
You may think this a dry topic, but the history of salt is a microcosm of the history of human civilisation. Carnivorous animals and human tribes of hunters get all the salt they need from the meat they eat. But as soon as humans adopted a sedentary agricultural lifestyle and domesticated animals, they and their livestock had an urgent need for salt—a cow requires ten times as much salt as a human. The collection and production of salt was a prerequisite for human settlements and, as an essential commodity required by every individual, the first to be taxed and regulated by that chronic affliction of civilisation, government. Salt taxes supported the Chinese empire for almost two millennia, the Viennese and Genoan trading empires and the Hanseatic League, precipitated the French Revolution and India's struggle for independence from the British empire. Salt was a strategic commodity in the Roman Empire: most Roman cities were built near saltworks, and the words “salary” and “soldier” are both derived from the Latin word for salt. This and much more is covered in this fascinating look at human civilisation through the crystals of a tasty and essential inorganic compound composed of two poisonous elements. Recipes for salty specialities of cultures around the world and across the centuries are included, along with recommendations for surviving that “surprisingly pleasant” Swedish speciality surströmming (p. 139): “The only remaining problem is how to get the smell out of the house…”.

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Kopparapu, Chandra. Load Balancing Servers, Firewalls, and Caches. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. ISBN 0-471-41550-2.
Don't even think about deploying a server farm or geographically dispersed mirror sites without reading this authoritative book. The Internet has become such a mountain of interconnected kludges that something as conceptually simple as spreading Web and other Internet traffic across a collection of independent servers or sites in the interest of increased performance and fault tolerance becomes a matter of enormous subtlety and hideous complexity. Most of the problems come from the need for “session persistence”: when a new user arrives at your site, you can direct them to any available server based on whatever load balancing algorithm you choose, but if the user's interaction with the server involves dynamically generated content produced by the server (for example, images generated by Earth and Moon Viewer, or items the user places in their shopping cart at a commerce site), subsequent requests by the user must be directed to the same server, as only it contains the state of the user's session.

(Some load balancer vendors will try to persuade you that session persistence is a design flaw in your Web applications which you should eliminate by making them stateless or by using a common storage pool shared by all the servers. Don't believe this. I defy you to figure out how an application as simple as Earth and Moon Viewer, which does nothing more complicated than returning a custom Web page which contains a dynamically generated embedded image, can be made stateless. And shared backing store [for example, Network Attached Storage servers] has its own scalability and fault tolerance challenges.)

Almost any simple scheme you can come up with to get around the session persistence problem will be torpedoed by one or more of the kludges and hacks through which a user's packet traverses between client and server: NAT, firewalls, proxy servers, content caches, etc. Consider what at first appears to be a foolproof scheme (albeit sub-optimal for load distribution): simply hash the client's IP address into a set of bins, one for each server, and direct the packets accordingly. Certainly, that would work, right? Wrong: huge ISPs such as AOL and EarthLink have farms of proxy servers between their customers and the sites they contact, and these proxy servers are themselves load balanced in a non-persistent manner. So even two TCP connections from the same browser retrieving, say, the text and an image from a single Web page, may arrive at your site apparently originating from different IP addresses!

This and dozens of other gotchas and ways to work around them are described in detail in this valuable book, which is entirely vendor-neutral, except for occasionally mentioning products to illustrate different kinds of architectures. It's a lot better to slap your forehead every few pages as you discover something else you didn't think of which will sabotage your best-laid plans than pull your hair out later after putting a clever and costly scheme into production and discovering that it doesn't work. When I started reading this book, I had no idea how I was going to solve the load balancing problem for the Fourmilab site, and now I know precisely how I'm going to proceed. This isn't a book you read for entertainment, but if you need to know this stuff, it's a great place to learn it.

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Smith, Edward E. First Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1950] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-10-7.
There's no better way to escape for a brief respite from the world of session persistence, subnet masks, stateful fallover, gratuitous ARP packets, and the like than some coruscating, actinic space opera, and nobody does it better than the guy who invented it, Doc Smith. About every decade I re-read the Lensman series, of which this is the second of six volumes (seven if you count Masters of the Vortex) and never cease to be amazed at Smith's talent for thinking big—really big. I began this fourth expedition through the Lensman saga with the first installment, Triplanetary, in June 2004. Old Earth Books are to be commended for this reprint, which is a facsimile of the original 1950 Fantasy Press edition including all the illustrations.

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Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, [1899] 2004. ISBN 1-4145-0492-6.
This is probably, by present-day standards, the most politically incorrect book ever written by a United States President. The fact that it was published and became a best-seller before his election as Vice President in 1900 and President in 1904 indicates how different the world was in the age in which Theodore Roosevelt lived and helped define. T.R. was no chicken-hawk. After advocating war with Spain as assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, as war approached, he left his desk job in Washington to raise a volunteer regiment from the rough and ready horse- and riflemen of his beloved Wild West, along with number of his fellow Ivy Leaguers hungry for a piece of the action. This book chronicles his adventures in raising, equipping, and training the regiment, and its combat exploits in Cuba in 1898. The prose is pure T.R. passionate purple; it was rumoured that when the book was originally typeset the publisher had to send out for more copies of the upper-case letter “I”. Almost every page contains some remark or other which would end the career of what passes for politicians in today's pale, emasculated world. What an age. What a man! The bloodthirsty warrior who wrote this book would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering an end to the war between Russia and Japan.

This paperback edition from Pavilion Press is a sorry thing physically. The text reads like something that's been OCR scanned and never spelling checked or proofread—on p. 171, for example, “antagonists” is printed as “antagon1sts”, and this is one of many such errors. There's no excuse for this at all, since there's an electronic text edition of The Rough Riders freely available from Project Gutenberg which is free of these errors, and an on-line edition which lacks these flaws. The cover photo of T.R. on his horse is a blow-up of a low-resolution JPEG image with obvious pixels and compression artefacts.

Roosevelt's report to his commanding general (pp. 163–170) detailing the logistical and administrative screwups in the campaign is an excellent illustration of the maxim that the one area in which government far surpasses the capabilities of free enterprise is in the making of messes.

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Sullivan, Scott P. Virtual LM. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2004. ISBN 1-894959-14-0.
I closed my comments about the author's earlier Virtual Apollo (July 2004) expressing my hope he would extend the project to the Lunar Module (LM). Well, here it is! These books are based on intricate computer solid models created by Sullivan from extensive research, then rendered to show how subsystems fit into the tightly-packed and weight-constrained spacecraft. The differences between the initial “H mission” modules (Apollo 9–14) and the extended stay “J mission” landers of Apollo 15–17 are shown in comparison renderings. In addition, the Lunar Roving Vehicle (moon buggy) used on the J missions is dissected in the same manner as the LM, along with the life support backpack worn by astronauts on the lunar surface. Nothing about the Lunar Module was simple, and no gory detail is overlooked in this book—there are eight pages (40–47) devoted to the door of the scientific equipment bay and the Rube Goldberg-like mechanism used to open it.

Sadly, like Virtual Apollo, this modeling and rendering labour of love is marred by numerous typographical errors in text and captions. From the point where I started counting, I noted 25, which is an unenviable accomplishment in a 250 page book which is mostly pictures. A companion CD-ROM includes the Apollo Operations Handbook, Lunar Module flight documents from Apollo 14–16, and photographs of the LM simulator and test article.

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Kuhns, Elizabeth. The Habit. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-50588-4.
For decades I've been interested in and worried about how well-intentioned “modernisations” might interrupt the chain of transmission of information and experience between generations and damage, potentially mortally, the very institutions modernisers were attempting to adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps my concern with this somewhat gloomy topic stems from having endured both “new math” in high school and “new chemistry” in college, in both cases having to later re-learn the subject matter in the traditional way which enables one to, you know, actually solve problems.

Now that the radicals left over from the boomer generation are teachers and professors, we're into the second or third generation of a feedback cycle in which students either never learn the history of their own cultures or are taught contempt and hatred for it. The dearth of young people in the United States and U.K. who know how to think and have the factual framework from which to reason (or are aware what they don't know and how to find it out) is such that I worry about a runaway collapse of Western civilisation there. The very fact that it's impolitic to even raise such an issue in most of academia today only highlights how dire the situation is. (In continental Europe the cultural and educational situation is nowhere near as bad, but given that the population is aging and dying out it hardly matters. I read a prediction a couple of weeks ago that, absent immigration or change in fertility, the population of Switzerland, now more than seven million, could fall to about one million before the end of this century, and much the same situation obtains elsewhere in Europe. There is no precedent in human history for this kind of population collapse unprovoked by disaster, disease, or war.)

When pondering “macro, macro” issues like this, it's often useful to identify a micro-model to serve as a canary in the mineshaft for large-scale problems ahead. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a top to bottom modernisation of the Roman Catholic Church. In that same year, there were around 180,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S.—an all time historical high—whose lifestyle, strongly steeped in tradition, began to immediately change in many ways far beyond the clothes they wore. Increasingly, orders opted for increasing invisibility—blending into the secular community. The result: an almost immediate collapse in their numbers, which has continued to the present day (graph). Today, there are only about 70,000 left, and with a mean age of 69, their numbers are sure to erode further in the future. Now, it's impossible to separate the consequences of modernisation of tradition from those of social changes in society at large, but it gives one pause to see an institution which, as this book vividly describes, has tenaciously survived two millennia of rising and falling empires, war, plague, persecution, inquisition, famine, migration, reformation and counter-reformation, disappearing like a puff of smoke within the space of one human lifetime. It makes you wonder about how resilient other, far more recent, components of our culture may be in the face of changes which discard the experience and wisdom of the past.

A paperback edition is scheduled for publication in April 2005.

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Purdy, Gregor N. Linux iptables Pocket Reference. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2004. ISBN 0-596-00569-5.
Sure, you could just read the manual pages, but when your site is under attack and you're the “first responder”, this little book is just what you want in your sweaty fingers. It's also a handy reference to the fields in IP, TCP, UDP, and ICMP packets, which can be useful in interpreting packet dumps. Although intended as a reference, it's well worth taking the time (less than an hour) to read cover to cover. There are a number of very nice facilities in iptables/Netfilter which permit responding to common attacks. For example, the iplimit match allows blocking traffic from the bozone layer (yes, you—I know who you are and I know where you live) which ties up all of your HTTP server processes by connecting to them and then letting them time out or, slightly more sophisticated, feeding characters of a request every 20 seconds or so to keep it alive. The solution is:
    /sbin/iptables -A INPUT -p tcp --syn --dport 80 -m iplimit \
    	--iplimit-above 20 --iplimit-mask 32 -j REJECT
Anybody who tries to open more than 20 connections will get whacked on each additional SYN packet. You can see whether this rule is affecting too many legitimate connections with the status query:
    /sbin/iptables -L -v
Geekly reading, to be sure, but just the thing if you're responsible for defending an Internet server or site from malefactors in the Internet Slum.

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Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. New York: Pantheon Books, [2002, 2003] 2004. ISBN 0-375-42288-9.
Having escaped from Iran in the middle of Iran/Iraq war to secular, decadent Austria, Marjane Satrapi picks up her comic book autobiography with the culture shock of encountering the amoral West. It ends badly. She returns to Tehran in search of her culture, and finds she doesn't fit there either, eventually abandoning a failed marriage to escape to the West, where she has since prospered as an author and illustrator. This intensely personal narrative brings home both why the West is hated in much of the world, and why, at the same time, so many people dream of escaping the tyranny of dull conformity for the light of liberty and reason in the West. Like Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (November 2004), this is a re-lettered English translation of the original French edition published in two volumes: (3, 4).

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Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English. London: Sceptre, 2003. ISBN 0-340-82993-1.
How did a language spoken by 150,000 or so Germanic warriors who invaded the British Isles in the fifth century A.D. become the closest thing so far to a global language, dominating the worlds of science and commerce which so define the modern age? Melvyn Bragg, who earlier produced a television series (which I haven't seen) with the same name for the British ITV network follows the same outline in this history of English. The tremendous contingency in the evolution of a language is much to be seen here: had Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, or William Tyndale (who first translated the Bible into English and paid with his life for having done so) died in infancy, how would we speak today, and in what culture would we live? The assembly of the enormous vocabulary of English by devouring words from dozens of other languages is well documented, as well as the differentiation of British English into distinct American, Caribbean, Australian, South African, Indian, and other variants which enrich the mother tongue with both vocabulary and grammar. Fair dinkum, innit man?

As English has grown by accretion, it has also cast out a multitude of words into the “Obs.” bin of the OED, many in the “Inkhorn Controversy” in the 16th century. What a loss! The more words, the richer the language, and I hereby urge we reinstate “abstergify”, last cited in the OED in 1612, defined as the verb “To cleanse”. I propose this word to mean “to clean up, æsthetically, without any change in function”. For example, “I spent all day abstergifying the configuration files for the Web server”.

The mystery of why such an ill-structured language with an almost anti-phonetic spelling should have become so widespread is discussed here only on the margin, often in apologetic terms invoking the guilt of slavery and colonialism. (But speakers of other languages pioneered these institutions, so why didn't they triumph?) Bragg suggests, almost in passing, what I think is very significant. The very irregularity of English permits it to assimilate the vocabulary of every language it encounters. In Greek, Latin, Spanish, or French, there are rules about the form of verbs and the endings of nouns and agreement of adjectives which cannot accommodate words from fundamentally different languages. But in English, there are no rules whatsoever—bring your own vocabulary—there's room for everybody and every word. Come on in, it's great—the more the better!

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

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March 2005

Smith, Edward E. Galactic Patrol. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1937-1938, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-11-5.
Although this is the third volume of the Lensman series, it was written first; Triplanetary (June 2004) and First Lensman (February 2005) are “prequels”, written more than a decade after Galactic Patrol ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction beginning in September 1937. This was before John W. Campbell, Jr. assumed the editor's chair, the event usually considered to mark the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction. This volume is a facsimile of the illustrated 1950 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat by the author from the original magazine version.

While I enjoy the earlier books, and read them in order in this fourth lifetime trip through the saga, Galactic Patrol is where the story really takes off for me. If you're new to Doc Smith, you might want to begin here to experience space opera at its best, then go back and read the two slower-paced prior installments afterward. Having been written first, this novel is completely self-contained; everything introduced in the earlier books is fully explained when it appears here.

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Hayek, Friedrich A. The Fatal Conceit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-226-32066-9.
The idiosyncratic, if not downright eccentric, synthesis of evolutionary epistemology, spontaneous emergence of order in self-organising systems, free markets as a communication channel and feedback mechanism, and individual liberty within a non-coercive web of cultural traditions which informs my scribblings here and elsewhere is the product of several decades of pondering these matters, digesting dozens of books by almost as many authors, and discussions with brilliant and original thinkers it has been my privilege to encounter over the years.

If, however, you want it all now, here it is, in less than 160 pages of the pellucid reasoning and prose for which Hayek is famed, ready to be flashed into your brain's philosophical firmware in a few hours' pleasant reading. This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I picked it up a couple of days ago and devoured it, exclaiming “Yes!”, “Bingo!”, and “Precisely!” every few pages. The book is subtitled “The Errors of Socialism”, which I believe both misstates and unnecessarily restricts the scope of the actual content, for the errors of socialism are shared by a multitude of other rationalistic doctrines (including the cult of design in software development) which, either conceived before biological evolution was understood, or by those who didn't understand evolution or preferred the outlook of Aristotle and Plato for aesthetic reasons (“evolution is so messy, and there's no rational plan to it”), assume, as those before Darwin and those who reject his discoveries today, that the presence of apparent purpose implies the action of rational design. Hayek argues (and to my mind demonstrates) that the extended order of human interaction: ethics, morality, division of labour, trade, markets, diffusion of information, and a multitude of other components of civilisation fall between biological instinct and reason, poles which many philosophers consider a dichotomy.

This middle ground, the foundation of civilisation, is the product of cultural evolution, in which reason plays a part only in variation, and selection occurs just as brutally and effectively as in biological evolution. (Cultural and biological evolution are not identical, of course; in particular, the inheritance of acquired traits is central in the development of cultures, yet absent in biology.)

The “Fatal Conceit” of the title is the belief among intellectuals and social engineers, mistaking the traditions and institutions of human civilisation for products of reason instead of evolution, that they can themselves design, on a clean sheet of paper as it were, a one-size-fits-all eternal replacement which will work better than the product of an ongoing evolutionary process involving billions of individuals over millennia, exploring a myriad of alternatives to find what works best. The failure to grasp the limits of reason compared to evolution explains why the perfectly consistent and often tragic failures of utopian top-down schemes never deters intellectuals from championing new (or often old, already discredited) ones. Did I say I liked this book?

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Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-679-45443-8.
This is simply a monumental piece of work. I can't think of any comparable book published in the last century, or any work with such an ambitious goal which pulls it off so well. In this book, Roger Penrose presents the essentials of fundamental physics as understood at the turn of the century to the intelligent layman in the way working theoretical physicists comprehend them. Starting with the Pythagorean theorem, the reader climbs the ladder of mathematical abstraction to master complex numbers, logarithms, real and complex number calculus, Fourier decomposition, hyperfunctions, quaternions and octionions, manifolds and calculus on manifolds, symmetry groups, fibre bundles and connections, transfinite numbers, spacetime, Hamiltonians and Lagrangians, Clifford and Grassman algebras, tensor calculus, and the rest of the mathematical armamentarium of the theoretical physicist. And that's before we get to the physics, where classical mechanics and electrodynamics, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the standard models of particle physics and cosmology are presented in the elegant and economical notation into which the reader has been initiated in the earlier chapters.

Authors of popular science books are cautioned that each equation they include (except, perhaps E=mc²) will halve the sales of their book. Penrose laughs in the face of such fears. In this “big damned fat square book” of 1050 pages of main text, there's an average of one equation per page, which, according to conventional wisdom should reduce readership by a factor of 2−1050 or 8.3×10−317, so the single copy printed would have to be shared by among the 1080 elementary particles in the universe over an extremely long time. But, according to the Amazon sales ranking as of today, this book is number 71 in sales—go figure.

Don't deceive yourself; in committing to read this book you are making a substantial investment of time and brain power to master the underlying mathematical concepts and their application to physical theories. If you've noticed my reading being lighter than usual recently, both in terms of number of books and their intellectual level, it's because I've been chewing through this tome for last two and a half months and it's occupied my cerebral capacity to the exclusion of other works. But I do not regret for a second the time I've spent reading this work and working the exercises, and I will probably make a second pass through it in a couple of years to reinforce the mathematical toolset into my aging neurons. As an engineer whose formal instruction in mathematics ended with differential equations, I found chapters 12–15 to be the “hump”—after making it through them (assuming you've mastered their content), the rest of the book is much more physical and accessible. There's kind of a phase transition between the first part of the book and chapters 28–34. In the latter part of the book, Penrose gives free rein to his own view of fundamental physics, introducing his objective reduction of the quantum state function (OR) by gravity, twistor theory, and a deconstruction of string theory which may induce apoplexy in researchers engaged in that programme. But when discussing speculative theories, he takes pains to identify his own view when it differs from the consensus, and to caution the reader where his own scepticism is at variance with a widely accepted theory (such as cosmological inflation).

If you really want to understand contemporary physics at the level of professional practitioners, I cannot recommend this book too highly. After you've mastered this material, you should be able to read research reports in the General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology preprint archives like the folks who write and read them. Imagine if, instead of two or three hundred taxpayer funded specialists, four or five thousand self-educated people impassioned with figuring out how nature does it contributed every day to our unscrewing of the inscrutable. Why, they'll say it's a movement. And that's exactly what it will be.

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Bear, Greg. Moving Mars. New York: Tor, 1993. ISBN 0-812-52480-2.
I received an electronic edition of this novel several years ago as part of a bundle when I purchased a reader program for my PalmOS PDA, and only got around to reading it in odd moments over the last few months. I've really enjoyed some of Greg Bear's recent work, such as 1999's Darwin's Radio, so I was rather surprised to find this story disappointing. However, that's just my opinion, and clearly at variance with the majority of science fiction authors and fans, for this book won the 1994 Nebula and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for best novel and was nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Campbell awards that year. The electronic edition I read remains available.

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Fort, Adrian. Prof: The Life of Frederick Lindemann. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003. ISBN 0-224-06317-0.
Frederick Lindemann is best known as Winston Churchill's scientific advisor in the years prior to and during World War II. He was the central figure in what Churchill called the “Wizard War”, including the development and deployment of radar, antisubmarine warfare technologies, the proximity fuze, area bombing techniques, and nuclear weapons research (which was well underway in Britain before the Manhattan Project began in the U.S.). Lindemann's talents were so great and his range of interests so broad that if he had settled into the cloistered life of an Oxford don after his appointment as Professor of Experimental Philosophy and chief of the Clarendon Laboratory in 1919, he would still be remembered for his scientific work in quantum mechanics, X-ray spectra, cryogenics, photoelectric photometry in astronomy, and isotope separation, as well as for restoring Oxford's reputation in the natural sciences, which over the previous half century “had sunk almost to zero” in Lindemann's words.

Educated in Germany, he spoke German and French like a native. He helped organise the first historic Solvay Conference in 1911, which brought together the pioneers of the relativity and quantum revolutions in physics. There he met Einstein, beginning a life-long friendship. Lindemann was a world class tennis champion and expert golfer and squash player, as well as a virtuoso on the piano. Although a lifetime bachelor, he was known as a ladies' man and never lacked female companionship.

In World War I Lindemann tackled the problem of spin recovery in aircraft, then thought to be impossible (this in an era when pilots were not issued parachutes!). To collect data and test his theories, he learned to fly and deliberately induced spins in some of the most notoriously dangerous aircraft types and confirmed his recovery procedure by putting his own life on the line. The procedure he developed is still taught to pilots today.

With his close contacts in Germany, Lindemann was instrumental in arranging and funding the emigration of Jewish and other endangered scientists after Hitler took power in 1933. The scientists he enabled to escape not only helped bring Oxford into the first rank of research universities, many ended up contributing to the British and U.S. atomic projects and other war research. About the only thing he ever failed at was his run for Parliament in 1937, yet his influence as confidant and advisor to Churchill vastly exceeded that of a Tory back bencher. With the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined Churchill at the Admiralty, where he organised and ran the Statistical Branch, which applied what is now called Operations Research to the conduct of the war, which rôle he expanded as chief of “S Department” after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. Many of the wartime “minutes” quoted in Churchill's The Second World War were drafted by Lindemann and sent out verbatim over Churchill's signature, sometimes with the addition “Action this day”. Lindemann finally sat in Parliament, in the House of Lords, after being made Lord Cherwell in 1941, and joined the Cabinet in 1942 and became a Privy Counsellor in 1943.

After the war, Lindemann returned to Oxford, continuing to champion scientific research, taking leave to serve in Churchill's cabinet from 1951–1953, where he almost single-handedly and successfully fought floating of the pound and advocated the establishment of an Atomic Energy Authority, on which he served for the rest of his life.

There's an atavistic tendency when writing history to focus exclusively on the person at the top, as if we still lived in the age of warrior kings, neglecting those who obtain and filter the information and develop the policies upon which the exalted leader must ultimately decide. (This is as common, or more so, in the business press where the cult of the CEO is well entrenched.) This biography, of somebody many people have never heard of, shows that the one essential skill a leader must have is choosing the right people to listen to and paying attention to what they say.

A paperback edition is now available.

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Lebeau, Caroline. Les nouvelles preuves sur l'assassinat de J. F. Kennedy. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04915-9.
If you don't live in Europe, you may not be fully aware just how deranged the Looney Left can be in their hatred of Western civilisation, individual liberty, and the United States in particular. This book, from the same publisher who included a weasel-word disclaimer in each copy of Oriana Fallaci's La Force de la Raison (December 2004), bears, on its cover, in 42 point white type on a red background, the subtitle «Le clan Bush est-il coupable?»—“Is the Bush clan guilty?” This book was prominently displayed in French language bookstores in 2004. The rambling narrative and tangled illogic finally pile up to give an impression reminiscent of the JFK assassination headline in The Onion's Our Dumb Century: “Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, Teamsters, Freemasons”. Lebeau declines to implicate the Masons, but fleshes out the list, adding multinational corporations, defence contractors, the Pentagon, Khrushchev, anti-Casto Cuban exiles, a cabal within the Italian army (I'm not making this up—see pp. 167–168), H.L. Hunt, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, the mayor of Dallas … and the Bush family, inter alia. George W. Bush, who was 17 years old at the time, is not accused of being a part of the «énorme complot», but his father is, based essentially on the deduction: “Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Dallas is in Texas. George H. W. Bush lived in Texas at the time—guilty, guilty, guilty!

“Independent investigative journalist” Lebeau is so meticulous in her “investigations” that she confuses JFK's older brother's first and middle names, misspells Nixon's middle name, calls the Warren Report the product of a Republican administration, confuses electoral votes with Senate seats, consistently misspells “grassy knoll”, thinks a “dum-dum” bullet is explosive, that Gerald Ford was an ex-FBI agent, and confuses H. L. Hunt and E. Howard Hunt on the authority of “journalist” Mumia Abu-Jamal, not noting that he is a convicted cop killer. Her studies in economics permit her to calculate (p. 175) that out of a total cost of 80 billion dollars, the Vietnam war yielded total profits to the military-industrial complex and bankers of 220 trillion dollars, which is about two centuries worth of the U.S. gross national product as of 1970. Some of the illustrations in the book appear to have been photographed off a television screen, and many of the original documents reproduced are partially or entirely illegible.

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Pickover, Clifford A. The Loom of God. New York: Perseus Books, 1997. ISBN 0-306-45411-4.
Clifford Pickover has more than enough imagination for a hundred regular people. An enormously prolific author, his work includes technical books on computing and scientific visualisation, science fiction, and popular works on mathematics and a wide variety of scientific topics. This book explores the boundary between mathematics and religion, including Pythagorean cults, Stonehenge, cave paintings from 20,000 years ago which may be the first numbers, the Kabala, the quipu of the Incas, numerology, eschatology, and real-world doomsday scenarios, along with a wide variety of puzzles in number theory, geometry, and other mathematical topics. One of the many fascinating unsolved problems he discusses is the “integer brick”, which seems to be more often referred to as the “perfect cuboid”: can you find a three-dimensional rectangular parallelopiped in which all the edges and face and space diagonals are integers? Computer searches have shown than no cuboid with a smallest edge less than 1,281,000,000 satisfies this requirement but, who knows, you may find it in just a few more compute cycles! (I'll pass on this one, after spending three years of computer time pursuing another unicorn of recreational mathematics.) As with Pickover's other popular books, this one includes source code for programs to explore topics raised in the text, explanation of the science and history behind the science fiction narrative, and extensive literature citations for those interested in digging deeper.

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April 2005

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? New York: Perennial, 2002. ISBN 0-06-051605-4.
Bernard Lewis is the preeminent Western historian of Islam and the Middle East. In his long career, he has written more than twenty volumes (the list includes those currently in print) on the subject. In this book he discusses the causes of the centuries-long decline of Islamic civilisation from a once preeminent empire and culture to the present day. The hardcover edition was in press when the September 2001 terrorist attacks took place. So thoroughly does Lewis cover the subject matter that a three page Afterword added in October 2002 suffices to discuss their causes and consequences. This is an excellent place for anybody interested in the “clash of civilisations” to discover the historical context of Islam's confrontation with modernity. Lewis writes with a wit which is so dry you can easily miss it if you aren't looking. For example, “Even when the Ottoman Turks were advancing into southeastern Europe, they were always able to buy much needed equipment for their fleets and armies from Christian European suppliers, to recruit European experts, and even to obtain financial cover from Christian European banks. What is nowadays known as ‘constructive engagement’ has a long history.” (p. 13).

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Scalzi, John. Old Man's War. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-30940-8.
I don't read a lot of contemporary science fiction, but the review by Glenn Reynolds and those of other bloggers he cited on Instapundit motivated me to do the almost unthinkable—buy a just-out science fiction first novel in hardback—and I'm glad I did. It's been a long time since I last devoured a three hundred page novel in less than 36 hours in three big gulps, but this is that kind of page-turner. It will inevitably be compared to Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Remarkably, it stands up well beside the work of the Master, and also explores the kinds of questions of human identity which run through much of Heinlein's later work. The story is in no way derivative, however; this is a thoroughly original work, and even more significant for being the author's first novel in print. Here's a writer to watch.

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Healy, Gene, ed. Go Directly to Jail. Washington: Cato Institute, 2004. ISBN 1-930865-63-5.
Once upon a time, when somebody in the U.S. got carried away and started blowing something out of proportion, people would chide them, “Don't make a federal case out of it.” For most of U.S. history, “federal cases”—criminal prosecutions by the federal government—were a big deal because they were about big things: treason, piracy, counterfeiting, bribery of federal officials, and offences against the law of nations. With the exception of crimes committed in areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction such as the District of Columbia, Indian reservations, territories, and military bases, all other criminal matters were the concern of the states. Well, times have changed. From the 17 original federal crimes defined by Congress in 1790, the list of federal criminal offences has exploded to more than 4,000 today, occupying 27,000 pages of the U.S. Code, the vast majority added since 1960. But it's worse than that—many of these “crimes” consist of violations of federal regulations, which are promulgated by executive agencies without approval by Congress, constantly changing, often vague and conflicting, and sprawling through three hundred thousand or so pages of the Code of Federal Regulations.

This creates a legal environment in which the ordinary citizen or, for that matter, even a professional expert in an area of regulation cannot know for certain what is legal and what is not. And since these are criminal penalties and prosecutors have broad discretion in charging violators, running afoul of an obscure regulation can lead not just to a fine but serious downtime at Club Fed, such as the seafood dealers facing eight years in the pen for selling lobster tails which violated no U.S. law. And don't talk back to the Eagle—a maintenance supervisor who refused to plead guilty to having a work crew bury some waste paint cans found himself indicted on 43 federal criminal counts (United States v. Carr, 880 F.2d 1550 (1989)). Stir in enforcement programs which are self-funded by the penalties and asset seizures they generate, and you have a recipe for entrepreneurial prosecution at the expense of liberty.

This collection of essays is frightening look at criminalisation run amok, trampling common law principles such as protection against self-incrimination, unlawful search and seizure, and double jeopardy, plus a watering down of the rules of evidence, standard of proof, and need to prove both criminal intent (mens rea) and a criminal act (actus reus). You may also be amazed and appalled at how the traditional discretion accorded trial judges in sentencing has been replaced by what amount to a “spreadsheet of damnation” of 258 cells which, for example, ranks possession of 150 grams of crack cocaine a more serious offence than second-degree murder (p. 137). Each essay concludes with a set of suggestions as to how the trend can be turned around and something resembling the rule of law re-established, but that's not the way to bet. Once the ball of tyranny starts to roll, even in the early stage of the soft tyranny of implied intimidation, it gains momentum all by itself. I suppose we should at be glad they aren't torturing people. Oh, right….

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Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.

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Orsenna, Erik. Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif. Paris: Stock, 2004. ISBN 2-234-05698-5.
Two years have passed since Jeanne and her brother Thomas were marooned on the enchanted island of words in La grammaire est une chanson douce (January 2005). In this sequel, Jeanne takes to the air in a glider with a diminutive cartographer to map the Archipelago of Conjugation and search for her brother who has vanished. Jeanne's luck with voyages hasn't changed—the glider crashes on the Island of the Subjunctives, where Jeanne encounters its strange inhabitants, guardians of the verbs which speak of what may be, or may not—the mode of dreams and love (for what is love if not hope and doubt?), the domain of the subjunctive. To employ a subjunctive survival from old French, oft-spoken but rarely thought of as such, « Vive le subjonctif ! ».

The author has been a member of the French Conseil d'État since 1985, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, is an accomplished sailor and president of the Centre de la mer, and was elected to l'Académie française in 1998. For additional information, visit his beautiful and creatively designed Web site, where you will find a map of the Archipelago of Conjugation and the first chapter of the book in both text and audio editions.

Can you spot the perspective error made by the artist on the front cover? (Hint: the same goof occurs in the opening title sequence of Star Trek: Voyager.)

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Pais, Abraham. The Genius of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-850614-7.
In this volume Abraham Pais, distinguished physicist and author of Subtle Is the Lord, the definitive scientific biography of Einstein, presents a “portrait gallery” of eminent twentieth century physicists, including Bohr, Dirac, Pauli, von Neumann, Rabi, and others. If you skip the introduction, you may be puzzled at some of the omissions: Heisenberg, Fermi, and Feynman, among others. Pais wanted to look behind the physics to the physicist, and thus restricted his biographies to scientists he personally knew; those not included simply didn't cross his career path sufficiently to permit sketching them in adequate detail. Many of the chapters were originally written for publication in other venues and revised for this book; consequently the balance of scientific and personal biography varies substantially among them, as does the length of the pieces: the chapter on Victor Weisskopf, adapted from an honorary degree presentation, is a mere two and half pages, while that on George Eugene Uhlenbeck, based on a lecture from a memorial symposium, is 33 pages long. The scientific focus is very much on quantum theory and particle physics, and the collected biographies provide an excellent view of the extent to which researchers groped in the dark before discovering phenomena which, presented in a modern textbook, seem obvious in retrospect. One wonders whether the mysteries of present-day physics will seem as straightforward a century from now.

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Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, [1936] 1959. ISBN 0-451-18784-9.
This is Ayn Rand's first novel, which she described to be “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write”. It is a dark story of life in the Soviet Union in 1925, a year after the death of Lenin and a year before Ayn Rand's own emigration to the United States from St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad, the city in which the story is set. Originally published in 1936, this edition was revised by Rand in 1958, shortly after finishing Atlas Shrugged. Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading this novel before, and was surprised to discover that the characters were, in many ways, more complex and believable and the story less preachy than her later work. Despite the supposedly diametrically opposed societies in which they are set and the ideologies of their authors, this story and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle bear remarkable similarities and are worth reading together for an appreciation of how horribly things can go wrong in any society in which, regardless of labels, ideals, and lofty rhetoric, people do not truly own their own lives.

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Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Astérix chez les Helvètes. Paris: Hachette, [1970] 2004. ISBN 2-01-210016-3.

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May 2005

Dembski, William A. No Free Lunch. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2002. ISBN 0-7425-1297-5.
It seems to be the rule that the softer the science, the more rigid and vociferously enforced the dogma. Physicists, confident of what they do know and cognisant of how much they still don't, have no problems with speculative theories of parallel universes, wormholes and time machines, and inconstant physical constants. But express the slightest scepticism about Darwinian evolution being the one, completely correct, absolutely established beyond a shadow of a doubt, comprehensive and exclusive explanation for the emergence of complexity and diversity in life on Earth, and outraged biologists run to the courts, the legislature, and the media to suppress the heresy, accusing those who dare to doubt their dogma as being benighted opponents of science seeking to impose a “theocracy”. Funny, I thought science progressed by putting theories to the test, and that all theories were provisional, subject to falsification by experimental evidence or replacement by a more comprehensive theory which explains additional phenomena and/or requires fewer arbitrary assumptions.

In this book, mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski attempts to lay the mathematical and logical foundation for inferring the presence of intelligent design in biology. Note that “intelligent design” needn't imply divine or supernatural intervention—the “directed panspermia” theory of the origin of life proposed by co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick is a theory of intelligent design which invokes no deity, and my perpetually unfinished work The Rube Goldberg Variations and the science fiction story upon which it is based involve searches for evidence of design in scientific data, not in scripture.

You certainly won't find any theology here. What you will find is logical and mathematical arguments which sometimes ascend (or descend, if you wish) into prose like (p. 153), “Thus, if P characterizes the probability of E0 occurring and f characterizes the physical process that led from E0 to E1, then Pf −1 characterizes the probability of E1 occurring and P(E0) ≤ Pf −1(E1) since f(E0) = E1 and thus E0 ⊂ f −1(E1).” OK, I did cherry-pick that sentence from a particularly technical section which the author advises readers to skip if they're willing to accept the less formal argument already presented. Technical arguments are well-supplemented by analogies and examples throughout the text.

Dembski argues that what he terms “complex specified information” is conclusive evidence for the presence of design. Complexity (the Shannon information measure) is insufficient—all possible outcomes of flipping a coin 100 times in a row are equally probable—but presented with a sequence of all heads, all tails, alternating heads and tails, or a pattern in which heads occurred only for prime numbered flips, the evidence for design (in this case, cheating or an unfair coin) would be considered overwhelming. Complex information is considered specified if it is compressible in the sense of Chaitin-Kolmogorov-Solomonoff algorithmic information theory, which measures the randomness of a bit string by the length of the shortest computer program which could produce it. The overwhelming majority of 100 bit strings cannot be expressed more compactly than simply by listing the bits; the examples given above, however, are all highly compressible. This is the kind of measure, albeit not rigorously computed, which SETI researchers would use to identify a signal as of intelligent origin, which courts apply in intellectual property cases to decide whether similarity is accidental or deliberate copying, and archaeologists use to determine whether an artefact is of natural or human origin. Only when one starts asking these kinds of questions about biology and the origin of life does controversy erupt!

Chapter 3 proposes a “Law of Conservation of Information” which, if you accept it, would appear to rule out the generation of additional complex specified information by the process of Darwinian evolution. This would mean that while evolution can and does account for the development of resistance to antibiotics in bacteria and pesticides in insects, modification of colouration and pattern due to changes in environment, and all the other well-confirmed cases of the Darwinian mechanism, that innovation of entirely novel and irreducibly complex (see chapter 5) mechanisms such as the bacterial flagellum require some external input of the complex specified information they embody. Well, maybe…but one should remember that conservation laws in science, unlike invariants in mathematics, are empirical observations which can be falsified by a single counter-example. Niels Bohr, for example, prior to its explanation due to the neutrino, theorised that the energy spectrum of nuclear beta decay could be due to a violation of conservation of energy, and his theory was taken seriously until ruled out by experiment.

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Darwinian evolution does explain the emergence of all the complexity of the Earth's biosphere, starting with a single primordial replicating lifeform. Then one still must explain how that replicator came to be in the first place (since Darwinian evolution cannot work on non-replicating organisms), and where the information embodied in its molecular structure came from. The smallest present-day bacterial genomes belong to symbiotic or parasitic species, and are in the neighbourhood of 500,000 base pairs, or roughly 1 megabit of information. Even granting that the ancestral organism might have been much smaller and simpler, it is difficult to imagine a replicator capable of Darwinian evolution with an information content 1000 times smaller than these bacteria, Yet randomly assembling even 500 bits of precisely specified information seems to be beyond the capacity of the universe we inhabit. If you imagine every one of the approximately 1080 elementary particles in the universe trying combinations every Planck interval, 1045 times every second, it would still take about a billion times the present age of the universe to randomly discover a 500 bit pattern. Of course, there are doubtless many patterns which would work, but when you consider how conservative all the assumptions are which go into this estimate, and reflect upon the evidence that life seemed to appear on Earth just about as early as environmental conditions permitted it to exist, it's pretty clear that glib claims that evolution explains everything and there are just a few details to be sorted out are arm-waving at best and propaganda at worst, and that it's far too early to exclude any plausible theory which could explain the mystery of the origin of life. Although there are many points in this book with which you may take issue, and it does not claim in any way to provide answers, it is valuable in understanding just how difficult the problem is and how many holes exist in other, more accepted, explanations. A clear challenge posed to purely naturalistic explanations of the origin of terrestrial life is to suggest a prebiotic mechanism which can assemble adequate specified information (say, 500 bits as the absolute minimum) to serve as a primordial replicator from the materials available on the early Earth in the time between the final catastrophic bombardment and the first evidence for early life.

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Suprynowicz, Vin. The Black Arrow. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2005. ISBN 0-9762516-0-4.
For more than a decade, Vin Suprynowicz's columns in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (collected in Send In The Waco Killers and The Ballad of Carl Drega) have chronicled the closing circle of individual freedom in the United States. You may find these books difficult to finish, not due to any fault in the writing, which is superb, but because reading of the treatment of citizens at the hands of a government as ignorant as it is imperious makes your blood boil. Here, however, in his first venture into fiction, the author has written a book which is difficult to put down.

The year is 2030, and every complacent person who asked rhetorically, “How much worse can it get?” has seen the question answered beyond their worst nightmares. What's left of the United States is fighting to put down the secessionist mountain states of New Columbia, and in the cities of the East, people are subject to random searches by jackbooted Lightning Squads, when they aren't shooting up clandestine nursery schools operated by anarchist parents who refuse to deliver their children into government indoctrination. This is the kind of situation which cries out for a superhero and, lo and behold, onto the stage steps The Black Arrow and his deadly serious but fun-loving band to set things right through the time-tested strategy of killing the bastards. The Black Arrow has a lot in common with Batman—actually maybe a tad too much. Like Batman, he's a rich and resourceful man with a mission (but no super powers), he operates in New York City, which is called “Gotham” in the novel, and he has a secret lair in a cavern deep beneath the city.

There is a modicum of libertarian background and philosophy, but it never gets in the way of the story. There is enough explicit violence and copulation for an R rated movie—kids and those with fragile sensibilities should give this one a miss. Some of the verbal imagery in the story is so vivid you can almost see it erupting from the page—this would make a tremendous comic book adaptation or screenplay for an alternative universe Hollywood where stories of liberty were welcome.

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Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2005. ISBN 1-414-24253-0.
This is the second installment in the Tom Swift saga. These early volumes are more in the genre of juvenile adventure than the science fiction which emerges later in the series. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical and formatting errors I noted in reading the novel.

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Herken. Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. ISBN 0-8050-6589-X.
What more's to be said about the tangled threads of science, politics, ego, power, and history that bound together the lives of Ernest O. Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller from the origin of the Manhattan Project through the postwar controversies over nuclear policy and the development of thermonuclear weapons? In fact, a great deal, as declassification of FBI files, including wiretap transcripts, release of decrypted Venona intercepts of Soviet espionage cable traffic, and documents from Moscow archives opened to researchers since the collapse of the Soviet Union have provide a wealth of original source material illuminating previously dark corners of the epoch.

Gregg Herken, a senior historian and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, draws upon these resources to explore the accomplishments, conflicts, and controversies surrounding Lawrence, Oppenheimer, and Teller, and the cold war era they played such a large part in defining. The focus is almost entirely on the period in which the three were active in weapons development and policy—there is little discussion of their prior scientific work, nor of Teller's subsequent decades on the public stage. This is a serious academic history, with almost 100 pages of source citations and bibliography, but the story is presented in an engaging manner which leaves the reader with a sense of the personalities involved, not just their views and actions. The author writes with no discernible ideological bias, and I noted only one insignificant technical goof.

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Entine, Jon. Taboo. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. ISBN 1-58648-026-X.

A certain segment of the dogma-based community of postmodern academics and their hangers-on seems to have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Darwinian evolution explains every aspect of the origin and diversification of life on Earth while, at the same time, denying that genetics—the mechanism which underlies evolution—plays any part in differentiating groups of humans. Doublethink is easy if you never think at all. Among those to whom evidence matters, here's a pretty astonishing fact to ponder. In the last four Olympic games prior to the publication of this book in the year 2000, there were thirty-two finalists in the men's 100-metre sprint. All thirty-two were of West African descent—a region which accounts for just 8% of the world's population. If finalists in this event were randomly chosen from the entire global population, the probability of this concentration occurring by chance is 0.0832 or about 8×10−36, which is significant at the level of more than twelve standard deviations. The hardest of results in the flintiest of sciences—null tests of conservation laws and the like—are rarely significant above 7 to 8 standard deviations.

Now one can certainly imagine any number of cultural and other non-genetic factors which predispose those with West African ancestry toward world-class performance in sprinting, but twelve standard deviations? The fact that running is something all humans do without being taught, and that training for running doesn't require any complicated or expensive equipment (as opposed to sports such as swimming, high-diving, rowing, or equestrian events), and that champions of West African ancestry hail from countries around the world, should suggest a genetic component to all but the most blinkered of blank slaters.

Taboo explores the reality of racial differences in performance in various sports, and the long and often sordid entangled histories of race and sports, including the tawdry story of race science and eugenics, over-reaction to which has made most discussion of human biodiversity, as the title of book says, taboo. The equally forbidden subject of inherent differences in male and female athletic performance is delved into as well, with a look at the hormone dripping “babes from Berlin” manufactured by the cruel and exploitive East German sports machine before the collapse of that dismal and unlamented tyranny.

Those who know some statistics will have no difficulty understanding what's going on here—the graph on page 255 tells the whole story. I wish the book had gone into a little more depth about the phenomenon of a slight shift in the mean performance of a group—much smaller than individual variation—causing a huge difference in the number of group members found in the extreme tail of a normal distribution. Another valuable, albeit speculative, insight is that if one supposes that there are genes which confer advantage to competitors in certain athletic events, then given the intense winnowing process world-class athletes pass through before they reach the starting line at the Olympics, it is plausible all of them at that level possess every favourable gene, and that the winner is determined by training, will to win, strategy, individual differences, and luck, just as one assumed before genetics got mixed up in the matter. It's just that if you don't have the genes (just as if your legs aren't long enough to be a runner), you don't get anywhere near that level of competition.

Unless research in these areas is suppressed due to an ill-considered political agenda, it is likely that the key genetic components of athletic performance will be identified in the next couple of decades. Will this mean that world-class athletic competition can be replaced by DNA tests? Of course not—it's just that one factor in the feedback loop of genetic endowment, cultural reinforcement of activities in which group members excel, and the individual striving for excellence which makes competitors into champions will be better understood.

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Sharansky, Natan with Ron Dermer. The Case for Democracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004. ISBN 1-58648-261-0.
Every now and then you come across a book which cuts through the fog of contemporary political discourse with pure clarity of thought. Well of course, the programmer peanut gallery shouts in unison, Sharansky was a computer scientist before becoming a Soviet dissident and political prisoner, then Israeli politician! In this book Sharansky draws a line of unambiguous binary distinction between “free societies” and “fear societies”. In a free society, you can walk into the town square and express your views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm (p. 41); in a “fear society”, you can't—it's that simple. Note that, as Sharansky is quick to observe, this counts as free societies without a trace of democracy, with dirigiste economies, and which discriminate against minorities and women—yet permit those who live there to protest these and other shortcomings without fear of recrimination. A society which he deems “free” may not be just, but a society which doesn't pass this most basic test of freedom is always unjust.

From this viewpoint, every compromise with fear societies and their tyrants in the interest of “stability” and “geopolitics” is always ill-considered, not just in terms of the human rights of those who live there, but in the self-interest of all free people. Fear societies require an enemy, internal or external, to unite their victims behind the tyrant, and history shows how fickle the affections of dictators can be when self-interest is at stake.

The disastrous example of funding Arafat's ugly dictatorship over the Palestinian people is dissected in detail, but the message is applicable everywhere diplomats argue for a “stable partner” over the inherent human right of people to own their own lives and govern themselves. Sharansky is forthright in saying it's better to face a democratically elected fanatic opponent than a dictator “we can do business with”, because ultimately the democratic regime will converge on meeting the needs of its citizens, while the dictator will focus on feathering his own nest at the expense of those he exploits.

If you're puzzled about which side to back in all the myriad conflicts around the globe, you could do a lot worse that simply picking the side which comes out best in Sharansky's “town square test”. Certainly, the world would be a better place if the diplomats who prattle on about “complexity” and realpolitik were hit over the head with the wisdom of an author who spent 13 years in Siberian labour camps rather than compromise his liberty.

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Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father. New York: Free Press, 1996. ISBN 0-684-83142-2.
This thin (less than 200 pages of main text) volume is an enlightening biography of George Washington. It is very much a moral biography in the tradition of Plutarch's Lives; the focus is on Washington's life in the public arena and the events in his life which formed his extraordinary character. Reading Washington's prose, one might assume that he, like many other framers of the U.S. Constitution, had an extensive education in the classics, but in fact his formal education ended at age 15, when he became an apprentice surveyor—among U.S. presidents, only Andrew Johnson had less formal schooling. Washington's intelligence and voracious reading—his library numbered more than 900 books at his death—made him the intellectual peer of his just sprouting Ivy League contemporaries. One historical footnote I'd never before encountered is the tremendous luck the young U.S. republic had in escaping the risk of dynasty—among the first five U.S. presidents, only John Adams had a son who survived to adulthood (and his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president).

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Levin, Mark R. Men in Black. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-050-6.
Let's see—suppose we wanted to set up a system of self-government—a novus ordo seclorum as it were—which would be immune to the assorted slippery slopes which delivered so many other such noble experiments into the jaws of tyranny, and some dude shows up and suggests, “Hey, what you really need is a branch of government composed of non-elected people with lifetime tenure, unable to be removed from office except for the most egregious criminal conduct, granted powers supreme above the legislative and executive branches, and able to define and expand the scope of their own powers without constraint.”

What's wrong with this picture? Well, it's pretty obvious that it's a recipe for an imperial judiciary, as one currently finds ascendant in the United States. Men in Black, while focusing on recent abuses of judicial power, demonstrates that there's nothing new about judges usurping the prerogatives of democratically elected branches of government—in fact, the pernicious consequences of “judicial activism” are as old as America, winked at by each generation of politicians as long as it advanced their own agenda more rapidly than the ballot box permitted, ignoring (as politicians are inclined to do, never looking beyond the next election), that when the ideological pendulum inevitably swings back the other way, judges may thwart the will of elected representatives in the other direction for a generation or more.

But none of this is remotely new. Robert Yates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who came to oppose the ratification of that regrettable document, wrote in 1788:

They will give the sense of every article of the constitution, that may from time to time come before them. And in their decisions they will not confine themselves to any fixed or established rules, but will determine, according to what appears to them, the reason and spirit of the constitution. The opinions of the supreme court, whatever they may be, will have the force of law; because there is no power provided in the constitution, that can correct their errors, or controul [sic] their adjudications. From this court there is no appeal.
The fact that politicians are at loggerheads over the selection of judges has little or nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with judges having usurped powers explicitly reserved for representatives accountable to their constituents in regular elections.

How to fix it? Well, I proposed my own humble solution here not so long ago, and the author of this book suggests 12 year terms for Supreme Court judges staggered with three year expiry. Given how far the unchallenged assertion of judicial supremacy has gone, a constitutional remedy in the form of a legislative override of judicial decisions (with the same super-majority as required to override an executive veto) might also be in order.

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June 2005

Rolfe, Fr. Hadrian the Seventh. New York: New York Review Books, [1904] 2001. ISBN 0-940322-62-5.
This is a masterpiece of eccentricity. The author, whose full name is Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, deliberately abbreviated his name to “Fr.” not just in the interest of concision, but so it might be mistaken for “Father” and the book deemed the work of a Catholic priest. (Rolfe also used the name “Baron Corvo” and affected a coat of arms with a raven.) Having twice himself failed in aspirations to the priesthood, in this novel the protagonist, transparently based upon the author, finds himself, through a sequence of events straining even the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit, vaulted from the humble estate of debt-ridden English hack writer directly to the papacy, taking the name Hadrian the Seventh in honour of Hadrian IV, the first, last, and only English pope to date.

Installed on the throne of Saint Peter, Hadrian quickly moves to remedy the discrepancies his erstwhile humble life has caused to him to perceive between the mission of the Church and the policies of its hierarchy. Dodging intrigue from all sides, and wielding his intellect, wit, and cunning along with papal authority, he quickly becomes what now would be called a “media pope” and a major influence on the world political stage, which he remakes along lines which, however alien and ironic they may seem today, might have been better than what actually happened a decade after this novel was published in 1904.

Rolfe, like Hadrian, is an “artificer in verbal expression”, and his neologisms and eccentric spelling (“saxificous head of the Medoysa”) and Greek and Latin phrases—rarely translated—sprinkle the text. Rolfe/Hadrian doesn't think too highly of the Irish, the French, Socialists, the press, and churchmen who believe their mission is building cathedrals and accumulating treasure rather than saving souls, and he skewers these and other targets on every occasion—if such barbs irritate you, you will find plenty here at which to take offence. The prose is simply beautiful, and thought provoking as well as funny. The international politics of a century ago figures in the story, and if you're not familiar with that now rather obscure era, you may wish to refresh your memory as to principal players and stakes in the Great Game of that epoch.

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Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Airship. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-177-3.
Following his adventures on land and lake, in this third volume of the Tom Swift series, our hero takes to the air in his hybrid dirigible/airplane, the Red Cloud. (When this book was written, within a decade of the Wright Brothers' first flight, “airship” referred to any flying craft, lighter or heavier than air.) Along the way he survives a forest fire, thunderstorm, flying bullets, false accusation of a crime, and an irritable schoolmarm not amused by having an airship crash into her girls' school, and solves the crime, bags the perpetrators, and clears his good name. Bless my seltzer bottle—never get on the wrong side of Mr. Wakefield Damon!

Apart from the arm-waving about new inventions which is the prerogative of the science fiction writer, Victor Appleton is generally quite careful about the technical details—All American Boys in the early 20th century knew their machinery and would be all over a scribbler who didn't understand how a carburetor worked! Here, however, he misunderstands lighter than air flight. He describes the Red Cloud as supported by a rigid aluminium gas container filled with “a secret gas, made partly of hydrogen, being very light and powerful”. But since the only thing that matters in generating lift is the weight of the air displaced compared to the weight of the gas displacing it, and since hydrogen is the lightest of elements (can't have fewer than one proton, mate!), then any mixture of hydrogen with anything else would have less lift than hydrogen alone. (You might mix hydrogen with helium to obtain a nonflammable gas lighter than pure helium—something suggested by Arthur C. Clarke a few years ago—but here Tom's secret gas is claimed to have more lift than hydrogen, and the question of flammability is never raised. Also, the gas is produced on demand by a “gas generator”. That rules out helium as a component, as it is far too noble to form compounds.) Later, Tom increases the lift on the ship by raising the pressure in the gas cells: “when an increased pressure of the vapor was used the ship was almost as buoyant as before” (chapter 21). But increasing the pressure of any gas in a fixed volume cell reduces the lift, as it increases the weight of the gas within without displacing any additional air. One could make this work by assuming a gas cell with a flexible bladder which permitted the volume occupied by the lift gas to expand and contract as desired, the rest being filled with ambient air, but even then the pressure of the lift gas would not increase, but simply stay the same as atmospheric pressure as more air was displaced. Feel free to berate me for belabouring such a minor technical quibble in a 95 year old story, but I figure that Tom Swift fans probably, like myself, enjoy working out this kind of stuff. The fact that this is only such item I noticed is a testament to the extent Appleton sweated the details.

I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a month or so. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I spotted while reading the yarn.

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Stenhoff, Mark. Ball Lightning. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-306-46150-1.
Reports of ball lightning—glowing spheres of light which persist for some number of seconds, usually associated with cloud to ground lightning strikes during thunderstorms, date back to the classical Greeks. Since 1838, when physicist and astronomer Dominique Arago published a survey of twenty reports of ball lightning, a long list of scientists, many eminent, have tried their hands at crafting a theory which might explain such an odd phenomenon yet, at the start of the twenty-first century ball lightning remains, as Arago said in 1854, “One of the most inexplicable problems of physics today.”

Well, actually, ball lightning only poses problems to the physics of yesterday and today if it, you know, exists, and the evidence that it does is rather weak, as this book demonstrates. (Its author does come down in favour of the existence of ball lightning, and wrote the 1976 Nature paper which helped launched the modern study of the phenomenon.) As of the date this book was published, not a single unambiguous photograph, movie, or video recording of ball lightning was known to exist, and most of the “classic” photographs illustrated in chapter 9 are obvious fakes created by camera motion and double exposure. It is also difficult when dealing with reports by observers unacquainted with the relevant phenomena to sort out genuine ball lightning (if such exists) from other well-documented and understood effects such as corona discharges (St. Elmo's fire), that perennial favourite of UFO debunkers: ignis fatuus or swamp gas, and claims of damage caused by the passage of ball lightning or its explosive dissipation from those produced by conventional lightning strikes. See the author's re-casting of a lightning strike to a house which he personally investigated into “ball lightning language” on pp. 105–106 for an example of how such reports can originate.

Still, after sorting out the mis-identifications, hoaxes, and other dross, a body of reports remains, some by expert observers of atmospheric phenomena, which have a consistency not to be found, for example, in UFO reports. A number of observations of ball lightning within metallic aircraft fuselages are almost identical and pose a formidable challenge to most models. The absence of unambiguous evidence has not in any way deterred the theoretical enterprise, and chapters 11–13 survey models based on, among other mechanisms, heated air, self-confining plasma vortices and spheroids, radial charge separation, chemical reactions and combustion, microwave excitation of metastable molecules of atmospheric gases, nuclear fusion and the production of unstable isotopes of oxygen and nitrogen, focusing of cosmic rays, antimatter meteorites, and microscopic black holes. One does not get the sense of this converging upon a consensus. Among the dubious theories, there are some odd claims of experimental results such as the production of self-sustaining plasma balls by placing a short burning candle in a kitchen microwave oven (didn't work for me, anyway—if you must try it yourself, please use common sense and be careful), and reports of producing ball lightning sustained by fusion of deuterium in atmospheric water vapour by short circuiting a 200 tonne submarine accumulator battery. (Don't try this one at home, kids!)

The book concludes with the hope that with increasing interest in ball lightning, as evidenced by conferences such as the International Symposia on Ball Lightning, and additional effort in collecting and investigating reports, this centuries-old puzzle may be resolved within this decade. I'm not so sure—the UFO precedent does not incline one to optimism. For those motivated to pursue the matter further, a bibliography of more than 75 pages and 2400 citations is included.

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Barlow, Connie. The Ghosts of Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-00552-7.
Ponder the pit of the avocado; no, actually ponder it—hold it in your hand and get a sense of how big and heavy it is. Now consider that due to its toughness, slick surface, and being laced with toxins, it was meant to be swallowed whole and deposited far from the tree in the dung of the animal who gulped down the entire fruit, pit and all. Just imagine the size of the gullet (and internal tubing) that requires—what on Earth, or more precisely, given the avocado's range, what in the Americas served to disperse these seeds prior to the arrival of humans some 13,000 years ago?

The Western Hemisphere was, in fact, prior to the great extinction at the end of the Pleistocene, (coincident with the arrival of humans across the land bridge with Asia, and probably the result of their intensive hunting), home to a rich collection of megafauna: mammoths and mastodons, enormous ground sloths, camels, the original horses, and an armadillo as large as a bear, now all gone. Plants with fruit which doesn't seem to make any sense—which rots beneath the tree and isn't dispersed by any extant creature—may be the orphaned ecological partners of extinct species with which they co-evolved. Plants, particularly perennials and those which can reproduce clonally, evolve much more slowly than mammal and bird species, and may survive, albeit in a limited or spotty range, through secondary dispersers of their seeds (seed hoarders and predators, water, and gravity) long after the animal vectors their seeds evolved to employ have departed the scene. That is the fascinating premise of this book, which examines how enigmatic, apparently nonsensical fruit such as the osage orange, Kentucky coffee tree, honey locust, ginkgo, desert gourd, and others may be, figuratively, ripening their fruit every year waiting for the passing mastodon or megatherium which never arrives, some surviving because they are attractive, useful, and/or tasty to the talking apes who killed off the megafauna.

All of this is very interesting, and along the way one learns a great deal about the co-evolution of plants and their seed dispersal partners and predators—an endless arms race involving armour, chemical warfare (selective toxins and deterrents in pulp and seeds), stealth, and co-optation (burrs which hitch a ride on the fur of animals). However, this 250 page volume is basically an 85 page essay struggling to get out of the rambling, repetitious, self-indulgent, pretentious prose and unbridled speculations of the author, which results in a literary bolus as difficult to masticate as the seed pods of some of the plants described therein. This book desperately needed the attention of an editor ready to wield the red pencil and Basic Books, generally a quality publisher of popularisations of science, dropped the ball (or, perhaps I should say, spit out the seed) here. The organisation of the text is atrocious—we encounter the same material over and over, frequently see technical terms such as indehiscent used four or five times before they are first defined, only to then endure a half-dozen subsequent definitions of the same word (a brief glossary of botanical terms would be a great improvement), and on occasions botanical jargon is used apparently because it rolls so majestically off the tongue or lends authority to the account—which authority is sorely lacking. While there is serious science and well-documented, peer-reviewed evidence for anachronism in certain fruits, Barlow uses the concept as a launching pad for wild speculation in which any apparent lack of perfect adaptation between a plant and its present-day environment is taken as evidence for an extinct ecological partner.

One of many examples is the suggestion on p. 164 that the fact that the American holly tree produces spiny leaves well above the level of any current browser (deer here, not Internet Exploder or Netscrape!) is evidence it evolved to defend itself against much larger herbivores. Well, maybe, but it may just be that a tree lacks the means to precisely measure the distance from the ground, and those which err on the side of safety are more likely to survive. The discussion of evolution throughout is laced with teleological and anthropomorphic metaphors which will induce teeth-grinding among Darwinists audible across a large lecture hall.

At the start of chapter 8, vertebrate paleontologist Richard Tedford is quoted as saying, “Frankly, this is not really science. You haven't got a way of testing any of this. It's more metaphysics.”—amen. The author tests the toxicity of ginkgo seeds by feeding them to squirrels in a park in New York City (“All the world seems in tune, on a spring afternoon…”), and the attractiveness of maggot-ridden overripe pawpaw fruit by leaving it outside her New Mexico trailer for frequent visitor Mrs. Foxie (you can't make up stuff like this) and, in the morning, it was gone! I recall a similar experiment from childhood involving milk, cookies, and flying reindeer; she does, admittedly, acknowledge that skunks or raccoons might have been responsible. There's an extended discourse on the possible merits of eating dirt, especially for pregnant women, then in the very next chapter the suggestion that the honey locust has “devolved” into the swamp locust, accompanied by an end note observing that a professional botanist expert in the genus considers this nonsense.

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of interesting material here, and much to think about in the complex intertwined evolution of animals and plants, but this is a topic which deserves a more disciplined author and a better book.

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Mack, John E. Abduction. New York: Ballantine Books, [1994] 1995. ISBN 0-345-39300-7.
I started this book, as I recall, sometime around 1998, having picked it up to get a taste for the “original material” after reading C.D.B. Bryan's excellent Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, describing an MIT conference on the alien abduction phenomenon. I made it most of the way through Abduction on the first attempt, but ran out of patience and steam about 100 pages from the finish line while reading the material “recovered” from “experiencer” Carlos, which is the literary equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld with a custard pudding. A mercifully brief excerpt with Mack's interpolations in parentheses goes as follows (p. 355).
Their bodies go from being the little white creatures they are to light. But when they become light, they first become like cores of light, like molten light. The appearance (of the core of light) is one of solidity. They change colors and a haze is projected around the (interior core which is centralized; surrounding this core in an immediate environment is a denser, tighter) haze (than its outer peripheries). The eyes are the last to go (as one perceives the process of the creatures disappearing into the light), and then they just kind of disappear or are absorbed into this. … We are or exist through our flesh, and they are or exist through whatever it is they are.
Got that? If not, there is much, much more along these lines in the extended babblings of this and a dozen other abductees, developed during the author's therapy sessions with them. Now, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (Mack was killed in a traffic accident in 2004), and having won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of T.E. Lawrence in addition to his career as a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and founder of the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital, his credentials incline one to hear him out, however odd the message may seem to be.

One's mind, however, eventually summons up Thomas Jefferson's (possibly apocryphal) remark upon hearing of two Yale professors who investigated a meteor fall in Connecticut and pronounced it genuine, “Gentlemen, I would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from heaven.” Well, nobody's accusing Professor Mack of lying, but the leap from the oh-wow, New Age accounts elicited by hypnotic regression and presented here, to the conclusion that they are the result of a genuine phenomenon of some kind, possibly contact with “another plane of reality” is an awfully big one, and simply wading through the source material proved more than I could stomach on my first attempt. So, the book went back on the unfinished shelf, where it continued to glare at me balefully until a few days ago when, looking for something to read, I exclaimed, “Hey, if I can make it through The Ghosts of Evolution, surely I can finish this one!” So I did, picking up from the bookmark I left where my first assault on the summit petered out.

In small enough doses, much of this material can be quite funny. This paperback edition includes two appendices added to address issues raised after the publication of the original hardcover. In the first of these (p. 390), Mack argues that the presence of a genuine phenomenon of some kind is strongly supported by “…the reports of the experiencers themselves. Although varied in some respects, these are so densely consistent as to defy conventional psychiatric explanations.” Then, a mere three pages later, we are informed:

The aliens themselves seem able to change or disguise their form, and, as noted, may appear initially to the abductees as various kinds of animals, or even as ordinary human beings, as in Peter's case. But their shape-shifting abilities extend to their vehicles and to the environments they present to the abductees, which include, in this sample, a string of motorcycles (Dave), a forest and conference room (Catherine), images of Jesus in white robes (Jerry), and a soaring cathedral-like structure with stained glass windows (Sheila). One young woman, not written about in this book, recalled at age seven seeing a fifteen-foot kangaroo in a park, which turned out to be a small spacecraft.
Now that's “densely consistent”! One is also struck by how insipidly banal are the messages the supposed aliens deliver, which usually amount to New Age cerebral suds like “All is one”, “Treat the Earth kindly”, and the rest of the stuff which appeals to those who are into these kinds of things in the first place. Occam's razor seems to glide much more smoothly over the supposition that we are dealing with seriously delusional people endowed with vivid imaginations than that these are “transformational” messages sent by superior beings to avert “planetary destruction” by “for-profit business corporations” (p. 365, Mack's words, not those of an abductee). Fifteen-foot kangaroo? Well, anyway, now this book can hop onto the dubious shelf in the basement and stop making me feel guilty! For a sceptical view of the abduction phenomenon, see Philip J. Klass's UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game.

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Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster, Vol. 3. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 1998. ISBN 1-875671-34-X.
In the early 1970s I worked for a company that sold remote batch computing services on UNIVAC mainframes. Our management visited Boeing headquarters in Seattle to pitch for some of their business (unlikely, as Boeing had their own computer service bureau at the time, but you never know unless you try). Part of the presentation focused on how reliable our service was, averaging better than 99.5% uptime. The Boeing data processing manager didn't seem too impressed with this. He asked, “When you came up here from San Francisco, did you fly on one of our airplanes?” “As a matter of fact, we did.”, answered the president of our company. The Boeing guy then asked, “Well, how would you feel if I told you Boeing airplanes only crash about once every two hundred flights?” The meeting moved on to other topics; we never did get any business from Boeing.

Engineering is an art we learn from failure, and the aviation safety community is the gold standard when it comes to getting to the probable cause of a complicated disaster and defining achievable steps to prevent it from recurring. There is much for practitioners of other branches of engineering to admire and learn from looking over the shoulders of their colleagues in air accident investigation, and Macarthur Job's superb Air Disaster series, of which this is the third volume (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) provides precisely such a viewpoint. Starting from the official accident reports, author Job and illustrator Matthew Tesch recreate the circumstances which led to each accident and the sometimes tortuous process through which investigators established what actually happened. The presentation is not remotely sensationalistic, yet much more readable than the dry prose of most official accident reports. If detail is required, Job and Tesch do not shrink from providing it; four pages of text and a detailed full page diagram on page 45 of this volume explain far more about the latching mechanism of the 747 cargo door than many people might think there is to know, but since you can't otherwise understand how the door of a United 747 outbound from Honolulu could have separated in flight, it's all there.

Reading the three volumes, which cover the jet age from the de Havilland Comet through the mid 1990s, provides an interesting view of the way in which assiduous investigation of anomalies and incremental fixes have made an inherently risky activity so safe that some these days seem more concerned with fingernail clippers than engine failure or mid-air collisions. Many of the accidents in the first two volumes were due to the machine breaking in some way or another, and one by one, they have basically been fixed to the extent that in this volume, the only hardware related accident is the 747 cargo door failure (in which nine passengers died, but 345 passengers and crew survived). The other dozen are problems due to the weather, human factors, and what computer folks call “user interface”—literally so in several cases of mode confusion and mismanagement of the increasingly automated flight decks of the latest generation of airliners. Anybody designing interfaces in which the user is expected to have a correct mental model of the operation of a complex, partially opaque system will find many lessons here, some learnt at tragic cost in an environment where the stakes are high and the margin of error small.

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Hawks, Tony. Round Ireland with a Fridge. London: Ebury Press, 1998. ISBN 0-09-186777-0.
The author describes himself as “not, by nature” either a drinking or a betting man. Ireland, however, can have a way of changing those particular aspects of one's nature, and so it was that after a night about which little else was recalled, our hero found himself having made a hundred pound bet that he could hitch-hike entirely around the Republic of Ireland in one calendar month, accompanied the entire way by a refrigerator. A man, at a certain stage in his life, needs a goal, even if it is, as this epic quest was described by an Irish radio host, “A totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.” And the result is this very funny book. Think about it; almost every fridge lives a life circumscribed by a corner of a kitchen—door opens—light goes on—door closes—light goes out (except when the vegetables are having one of their wild parties in the crisper—sssshhh—mustn't let the homeowner catch on). How singular and rare it is for a fridge to experience the freedom of the open road, to go surfing in the Atlantic (chapter 10), to be baptised with a Gaelic name that means “freedom”, blessed by a Benedictine nun (chapter 14), be guest of honour at perhaps the first-ever fridge party at an Irish pub (chapter 21), and make a triumphal entry into Dublin amid an army of well-wishers consisting entirely of the author pulling it on a trolley, a radio reporter carrying a mop and an ice cube tray, and an elderly bagpiper (chapter 23). Tony Hawks points out one disadvantage of his profession I'd never thought of before. When one of those bizarre things with which his life and mine are filled comes to pass, and you're trying to explain something like, “No, you see there were squirrels loose in the passenger cabin of the 747”, and you're asked the inevitable, “What are you, a comedian?”, he has to answer, “Well, actually, as a matter of fact, I am.”

A U.S. edition is now available.

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July 2005

Sloane, Eric. Diary of an Early American Boy. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1962] 2004. ISBN 0-486-43666-7.
In 1805, fifteen year old Noah Blake kept a diary of his life on a farm in New England. More than a century and a half later, artist, author, and collector of early American tools Eric Sloane discovered the diary and used it as the point of departure for this look at frontier life when the frontier was still in Connecticut. Young Noah was clearly maturing into a fine specimen of the taciturn Yankee farmer—much of the diary reads like:
21: A sour, foggy Sunday.
22: Heavy downpour, but good for the crops.
23: Second day of rain. Father went to work under cover at the mill.
24: Clear day. Worked in the fields. Some of the corn has washed away.
The laconic diary entries are spun into a fictionalised but plausible story of farm life focusing on the self-reliant lifestyle and the tools and techniques upon which it was founded. Noah Blake was atypical in being an only child at a time when large families were the norm; Sloane takes advantage of this in showing Noah learning all aspects of farm life directly from his father. The numerous detailed illustrations provide a delightful glimpse into the world of two centuries ago and an appreciation for the hard work and multitude of skills it took to make a living from the land in those days.

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Faverjon, Philippe. Les mensonges de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Paris: Perrin, 2004. ISBN 2-262-01949-5.
“In wartime,” said Winston Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” This book examines lies, big and small, variously motivated, made by the principal combatants in World War II, from the fabricated attack on a German radio station used as a pretext to launch the invasion of Poland which ignited the conflict, to conspiracy theories about the Yalta conference which sketched the map of postwar Europe as the war drew to a close. The nature of the lies discussed in the various chapters differs greatly—some are propaganda addressed to other countries, others intended to deceive domestic populations; some are strategic disinformation, while still others are delusions readily accepted by audiences who preferred them to the facts. Although most chapters end with a paragraph which sets the stage for the next, each is essentially a stand-alone essay which can be read on its own, and the book can be browsed in any order. The author is either (take your pick) scrupulous in his attention to historical accuracy or, (if you prefer) almost entirely in agreement with my own viewpoint on these matters. There is no “big message”, philosophical or otherwise, here, nor any partisan agenda—this is simply a catalogue of deception in wartime based on well-documented historical examples which, translated into the context of current events, can aid in critical analysis of conventional wisdom and mass stampede media coverage of present-day conflicts.

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Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.

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Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Rocket Boys. New York: Doubleday, 1998. ISBN 0-385-33321-8.
The author came of age in southern West Virginia during the dawn of the space age. Inspired by science fiction and the sight of Sputnik gliding through the patch of night sky between the mountains which surrounded his coal mining town, he and a group of close friends decided to build their own rockets. Counselled by the author's mother, “Don't blow yourself up”, they managed not only to avoid that downside of rocketry (although Mom's garden fence was not so lucky), but succeeded in building and launching more than thirty rockets powered by, as they progressed, first black powder, then melted saltpetre and sugar (“rocket candy”), and finally “zincoshine”, a mixture of powdered zinc and sulphur bound by 200 proof West Virginia mountain moonshine, which propelled their final rocket almost six miles into the sky. Their efforts won them the Gold and Silver award at the National Science Fair in 1960, and a ticket out of coal country for the author, who went on to a career as a NASA engineer. This is a memoir by a member of the last generation when the U.S. was still free enough for boys to be boys, and boys with dreams were encouraged to make them come true. This book will bring back fond memories for any member of that generation, and inspire envy among those who postdate that golden age.

This book served as the basis for the 1999 film October Sky, which I have not seen.

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Posner, Gerald L. Secrets of the Kingdom. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6291-8.
Most of this short book (196 pages of main text) is a straightforward recounting of the history of Saudi Arabia from its founding as a unified kingdom in 1932 under Ibn Saud, and of the petroleum-dominated relationship between the United States and the kingdom up to the present, based almost entirely upon secondary sources. Chapter 10, buried amidst the narrative and barely connected to the rest, and based on the author's conversations with an unnamed Mossad (Israeli intelligence) officer and an unidentified person claiming to be an eyewitness, describes a secret scheme called “Petroleum Scorched Earth” (“Petro SE”) which, it is claimed, was discovered by NSA intercepts of Saudi communications which were shared with the Mossad and then leaked to the author.

The claim is that the Saudis have rigged all of their petroleum infrastructure so that it can be destroyed from a central point should an invader be about to seize it, or the House of Saud fall due to an internal revolution. Oil and gas production facilities tend to be spread out over large areas and have been proven quite resilient—the damage done to Kuwait's infrastructure during the first Gulf War was extensive, yet reparable in a relatively short time, and the actual petroleum reserves are buried deep in the Earth and are essentially indestructible—if a well is destroyed, you simply sink another well; it costs money, but you make it back as soon as the oil starts flowing again. Refineries and storage facilities are more easily destroyed, but the real long-term wealth (and what an invader or revolutionary movement would covet most) lies deep in the ground. Besides, most of Saudi Arabia's export income comes from unrefined products (in the first ten months of 2004, 96% of Saudi Arabia's oil exports to the U.S. were crude), so even if all the refineries were destroyed (which is difficult—refineries are big and spread out over a large area) and took a long time to rebuild, the core of the export economy would be up and running as soon as the wells were pumping and pipelines and oil terminals were repaired.

So, it is claimed, the Saudis have mined their key facilities with radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), “dirty bombs” composed of Semtex plastic explosive mixed with radioactive isotopes of cesium, rubidium (huh?), and/or strontium which, when exploded, will disperse the radioactive material over a broad area, which (p. 127) “could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years”. What's that? Do I hear some giggling from the back of the room from you guys with the nuclear bomb effects computers? Well, gosh, where shall we begin?

Let us commence by plinking an easy target, the rubidium. Metallic rubidium burns quite nicely in air, which makes it easy to disperse, but radioactively it's a dud. Natural rubidium contains about 28% of the radioactive isotope rubidium-87, but with a half-life of about 50 billion years, it's only slightly more radioactive than dirt when dispersed over any substantial area. The longest-lived artificially created isotope is rubidium-83 with a half-life of only 86 days, which means that once dispersed, you'd only have to wait a few months for it to decay away. In any case, something which decays so quickly is useless for mining facilities, since you'd need to constantly produce fresh batches of the isotope (in an IAEA inspected reactor?) and install it in the bombs. So, at least the rubidium part of this story is nonsense; how about the rest?

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 both have half-lives of about 30 years and are readily taken up and stored in the human body, so they are suitable candidates for a dirty bomb. But while a dirty bomb is a credible threat for contaminating high-value, densely populated city centres in countries whose populations are wusses about radiation, a sprawling oil field or petrochemical complex is another thing entirely. The Federation of American Scientists report, “Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat”, estimates that in the case of a cobalt-salted dirty bomb, residents who lived continuously in the contaminated area for forty years after the detonation would have a one in ten chance of death from cancer induced by the radiation. With the model cesium bomb, five city blocks would be contaminated at a level which would create a one in a thousand chance of cancer for residents.

But this is nothing! To get a little perspective on this, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Leading Causes of Death Reports, people in the United States never exposed to a dirty bomb have a 22.8% probability of dying of cancer. While the one in ten chance created by the cobalt dirty bomb is a substantial increase in this existing risk, that's the risk for people who live for forty years in the contaminated area. Working in a contaminated oil field is quite different. First of all, it's a lot easier to decontaminate steel infrastructure and open desert than a city, and oil field workers can be issued protective gear to reduce their exposure to the remaining radiation. In any case, they'd only be in the contaminated area for the work day, then return to a clean area at the end of the shift. You could restrict hiring to people 45 years and older, pay a hazard premium, and limit their contract to either a time period (say two years) or based on integrated radiation dose. Since radiation-induced cancers usually take a long time to develop, older workers are likely to die of some other cause before the effects of radiation get to them. (This sounds callous, but it's been worked out in detail in studies of post nuclear war decontamination. The rules change when you're digging out of a hole.)

Next, there is this dumb-as-a-bag-of-dirt statement on p. 127:

Saudi engineers calculated that the soil particulates beneath the surface of most of their three hundred known reserves are so fine that radioactive releases there would permit the contamination to spread widely through the soil subsurface, carrying the radioactivity far under the ground and into the unpumped oil. This gave Petro SE the added benefit of ensuring that even if a new power in the Kingdom could rebuild the surface infrastructure, the oil reserves themselves might be unusable for years.
Hey, you guys in the back—enough with the belly laughs! Did any of the editors at Random House think to work out, even if you stipulated that radioactive contamination could somehow migrate from the surface down through hundreds to thousands of metres of rock (how, due to the abundant rain?), just how much radioactive contaminant you'd have to mix with the estimated two hundred and sixty billion barrels of crude oil in the Saudi reserves to render it dangerously radioactive? In any case, even if you could magically transport the radioactive material into the oil bearing strata and supernaturally mix it with the oil, it would be easy to separate during the refining process.

Finally, there's the question of why, if the Saudis have gone to all the trouble to rig their oil facilities to self-destruct, it has remained a secret waiting to be revealed in this book. From a practical standpoint, almost all of the workers in the Saudi oil fields are foreigners. Certainly some of them would be aware of such a massive effort and, upon retirement, say something about it which the news media would pick up. But even if the secret could be kept, we're faced with the same question of deterrence which arose in the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove with the Soviet doomsday machine—it's idiotic to build a doomsday machine and keep it a secret! Its only purpose is to deter a potential attack, and if attackers don't know there's a doomsday machine, they won't be deterred. Precisely the same logic applies to the putative Saudi self-destruct button.

Now none of this argumentation proves in any way that the Saudis haven't rigged their oil fields to blow up and scatter radioactive material on the debris, just that it would be a phenomenally stupid thing for them to try to do. But then, there are plenty of precedents for the Saudis doing dumb things—they have squandered the greatest fortune in the history of the human race and, while sitting on a quarter of all the world's oil, seen their per capita GDP erode to fall between that of Poland and Latvia. If, indeed, they have done something so stupid as this scorched earth scheme, let us hope they manage the succession to the throne, looming in the near future, in a far more intelligent fashion.

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Aagaard, Finn. Aagaard's Africa. Washington: National Rifle Association, 1991. ISBN 0-935998-62-4.
The author was born in Kenya in 1932 and lived there until 1977 when, after Kenya's ban on game hunting destroyed his livelihood as a safari guide, he emigrated to the United States, where he died in April 2000. This book recounts his life in Kenya, from boyhood through his career as a professional hunter and guide. If you find the thought of hunting African wildlife repellent, this is not the book for you. It does provide a fine look at Africa and its animals by a man who clearly cherished the land and the beasts which roam it, and viewed the responsible hunter as an integral part of a sustainable environment. A little forensic astronomy allows us to determine the day on which the kudu hunt described on page 124 took place. Aagaard writes, “There was a total eclipse of the sun that afternoon, but it seemed a minor event to us. Laird and I will always remember that day as ‘The Day We Shot The Kudu’.” Checking the canon of 20th century solar eclipses shows that the only total solar eclipse crossing Kenya during the years when Aagaard was hunting there was on June 30th, 1973, a seven minute totality once in a lifetime spectacle. So, the kudu hunt had to be that morning. To this amateur astronomer, no total solar eclipse is a minor event, and the one I saw in Africa will forever remain a major event in my life. A solar eclipse with seven minutes of totality is something I shall never live to see (the next occurring on June 25th, 2150), so I would have loved to have seen the last and would never have deemed it a “minor event”, but then I've never shot a kudu the morning of an eclipse!

This book is out of print and used copies, at this writing, are offered at outrageous prices. I bought this book directly from the NRA more than a decade ago—books sometimes sit on my shelf a long time before I read them. I wouldn't pay more than about USD 25 for a used copy.

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Lefevre, Edwin. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. New York: John Wiley & Sons, [1923] 1994. ISBN 0-471-05970-6.
This stock market classic is a thinly fictionalised biography of the exploits of the legendary speculator Jesse Livermore, written in the form of an autobiography of “Larry Livingston”. (In 1940, shortly before his death, Livermore claimed that he had actually written the book himself, with writer Edwin Lefevre acting as editor and front-man; I know of no independent confirmation of this claim.) In any case, there are few books you can read which contain so much market wisdom packed into 300 pages of entertaining narrative. The book was published in 1923, and covers Livermore/Livingston's career from his start in the bucket shops of Boston to a millionaire market mover as the great 1920s bull market was just beginning to take off.

Trading was Livermore's life; he ended up making and losing four multi-million dollar fortunes, and was blamed for every major market crash from 1917 through the year of his death, 1940. Here is a picture of the original wild and woolly Wall Street—before the SEC, Glass-Steagall, restrictions on insider trading, and all the other party-pooping innovations of later years. Prior to 1913, there were not even any taxes on stock market profits. Market manipulation was considered (chapter 19) “no more than common merchandising processes”, and if the public gets fleeced, well, that's what they're there for! If you think today's financial futures, options, derivatives, and hedge funds are speculative, check out the description of late 19th century “bucket shops”: off-track betting parlours for stocks, which actually made no transactions in the market at all. Some things never change, however, and anybody who read chapter 23 about media hyping of stocks in the early decades of the last century would have been well cautioned against the “perma-bull” babblers who sucked the public into the dot-com bubble near the top.

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August 2005

Barks, Carl. Back to the Klondike. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1953] 1987. ISBN 0-944599-02-8.
When this comic was originally published in 1953, the editors considered Barks's rendition of the barroom fight and Scrooge McDuck's argument with his old flame Glittering Goldie a bit too violent for the intended audience and cut those panels from the first edition. They are restored here, except for four lost panels which have been replaced by a half-page pencil drawing of the fight scene by Barks, inked and coloured in his style for this edition. Ironically, this is one of the first Scrooge comics which shows the heart of gold (hey, he can afford it!) inside the prickly skinflint.

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York, Byron. The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8238-2.
The 2004 presidential election in the United States was heralded as the coming of age of “new media”: Internet-based activism such as MoveOn, targeted voter contact like America Coming Together, political Weblogs, the Air America talk radio network, and politically-motivated films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald's Uncovered and Outfoxed. Yet, in the end, despite impressive (in fact unprecedented) fund-raising, membership numbers, and audience figures, the thoroughly conventional Bush campaign won the election, performing better in essentially every way compared to the 2000 results. This book explores what went wrong with the “new politics” revolution, and contains lessons that go well beyond the domain of politics and the borders of the United States.

The many-to-many mass medium which is the Internet provides a means for those with common interests to find one another, organise, and communicate unconstrained by time and distance. MoveOn, for example, managed so sign up 2.5 million members, and this huge number and giddy rate of growth persuaded those involved that they had tapped into a majority which could be mobilised to not only win, but as one of the MoveOn founders said not long before the election, “Yeah, we're going to win by a landslide” (p. 45). But while 2.5 million members is an impressive number, it is quite small compared to the approximately 120 million people who voted in the presidential election. That electorate is made up of about 15 million hard-core liberals and about the same number of uncompromising conservatives. The remaining 90 million are about evenly divided in leaning one direction or another, but are open to persuasion.

The Internet and the other new media appear to have provided a way for committed believers to connect with one another, ending up in an echo chamber where they came to believe that everybody shared their views. The approximately USD 200 million that went into these efforts was spent, in effect, preaching to the choir—reaching people whose minds were already made up. Outreach to swing voters was ineffective because if you're in a community which believes that anybody who disagrees is insane or brainwashed, it's difficult to persuade the undecided. Also, the closed communication loop of believers pushes rhetoric to the extremes, which alienates those in the middle.

Although the innovations in the 2004 campaign had negligible electoral success, they did shift the political landscape away from traditional party organisations to an auxiliary media-savvy network funded by wealthy donors. The consequences of this will doubtless influence U.S. politics in the future. The author, White House correspondent for National Review, writes from a conservative standpoint but had excellent access to the organisations about which he writes in the run-up to the election and provides an inside view of the new politics in the making. You have to take the author's research on faith, however, as there is not a single source citation in the book. The book's title was inspired by a 2001 Slate article, “Wanted: A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy”; there is no suggestion of the existence of a conspiracy in a legal sense.

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Rucker, Rudy. Mathematicians in Love. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31584-X.
I read this book in manuscript form; the manuscript was dated 2005-07-28. Now that Tor have issued a hardcover edition, I've added its ISBN to this item. Notes and reviews are available on Rudy's Weblog.

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Smith, L. Neil. The Lando Calrissian Adventures. New York: Del Rey, [1983] 1994. ISBN 0-345-39110-1.
This volume collects together the three Lando Calrissian short novels: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, and Lando Calrissian and the StarCave of ThonBoka, originally published separately in 1983 and now out of print (but readily available second-hand). All three novels together are just 409 mass market paperback pages. I wouldn't usually bother with an item of Star Wars merchandising, but as these yarns were written by one of my favourite science fiction authors, exalted cosmic libertarian L. Neil Smith, I was curious to see what he'd make of a character created by the Lucas organisation. It's pretty good, especially as a gentle introduction for younger readers who might be more inclined to read a story with a Star Wars hook than the more purely libertarian (although no more difficult to read) The Probability Broach (now available in a comic book edition!) or Pallas.

The three novels, which form a continuous story arc and are best read in order, are set in the period after Lando has won the Millennium Falcon in a card game but before he encounters Han Solo and loses the ship to him the same way. Lando is the only character in the Star Wars canon who appears here; if the name of the protagonist and ship were changed, one would scarcely guess the setting was the Star Wars universe, although parts of the “back-story” are filled in here and there, such as how a self-described interstellar gambler and con artiste came to be an expert starship pilot, why the steerable quad-guns on the Falcon “recoil” when they fire like World War II ack-ack guns, and how Lando laid his hands on enough money to “buy an entire city” (p. 408).

Lando's companion in all the adventures is the droid Vuffi Raa, also won in a card game, who is a full-fledged character and far more intriguing than any of the droids in the Star Wars movies. Unlike the stilted and mechanical robots of the films, Vuffi Raa is a highly dextrous starfish-like creature, whose five fractal-branching tentacles can detach and work independently, and who has human-level intelligence, a mysterious past (uncovered as the story progresses), and ethical conflicts between his built-in pacifism and moral obligation to his friends when they are threatened. (The cover art is hideous; Vuffi Raa, an elegant and lithe creature in the story, is shown as something like a squared-off R2-D2 with steel dreadlocks.) Now that computer graphics permits bringing to film any character the mind can imagine, Vuffi Raa would make a marvelous addition to a movie: for once, a robot fully as capable as a human without being even remotely humanoid.

The first novel is more or less straightforward storytelling, while the second and third put somewhat more of a libertarian edge on things. StarCave of ThonBoka does an excellent job of demonstrating how a large organisation built on fear and coercion, regardless how formidably armed, is vulnerable to those who think and act for themselves. This is a theme which fits perfectly with the Star Wars movies which occur in this era, but cannot be more than hinted at within the constraints of a screenplay.

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Smith, Edward E. Gray Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1939-1940, 1951] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-12-3.
This is the fourth volume of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), and Galactic Patrol (March 2005). Gray Lensman ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from October 1939 through January 1940. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1951 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat from the original magazine serial.

Gray Lensman is one of the most glittering nuggets of the Golden Age of science fiction. In this story, Doc Smith completely redefined the standard for thinking big and created an arena for the conflict between civilisation and chaos that's larger than a galaxy. This single novel has more leaps of the imagination than some other authors content themselves with in their entire careers. Here we encounter the “primary projector”: a weapon which can only be used when no enemy can possibly survive or others observe because the mere knowledge that it exists may compromise its secret (this, in a story written more that a decade before the first hydrogen bomb); the “negasphere”: an object which, while described as based on antimatter, is remarkably similar to a black hole (first described by J.R. Oppenheimer and H. Snyder in 1939, the same year the serial began to run in Astounding); the hyper-spatial tube (like a traversable wormhole); the Grand Fleet (composed of one million combat units); the Z9M9Z Directrix command ship, with its “tank” display 700 feet wide by 80 feet thick able to show the tactical situation in an entire galaxy at once; directed planetary impact weapons; a multi-galactic crime syndicate; insects and worms as allies of the good guys; organ regeneration; and more. Once you've experienced the Doc Smith universe, the Star Wars Empire may feel small and antiquated.

This edition contains two Forewords: the author's original, intended to bring readers who haven't read the earlier books up to speed, and a snarky postmodern excretion by John Clute which is best skipped. If you're reading the Lensman series for the first time (this is my fourth), it's best to start either at the beginning with Triplanetary, or with Galactic Patrol, which was written first and stands on its own, not depending on any of the material introduced in the first two “prequel” volumes.

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Jordan, Bill [William Henry]. No Second Place Winner. Concord, NH: Police Bookshelf, [1965] 1989. ISBN 0-936279-09-5.
This thin (114 page) book is one of the all-time classics of gunfighting, written by a man whose long career in the U.S. Border Patrol in an era when the U.S. actually defended its southern border schooled him in the essentials of bringing armed hostilities to an end as quickly and effectively as possible while minimising risk to the lawman. Although there are few pages and many pictures, in a way that's part of the message: there's nothing particularly complicated about winning a gunfight; it's a matter of skill acquired by patient practice until one can perform reliably under the enormous stress of a life-or-death situation. All of the refinements and complexity of “combat shooting” competitions are a fine game, the author argues, but have little to do with real-world situations where a peace officer has no alternative to employing deadly force.

The author stresses repeatedly that one shouldn't attempt to learn the fast draw or double action hip shooting techniques he teaches before having completely mastered single action aimed fire at bullseye targets, and advocates extensive dry-fire practice and training with wax or plastic primer-only practice loads before attempting the fast draw with live ammunition, “unless you wish to develop the three-toed limp of the typical Hollywood ‘gunslinger’” (p. 61). Jordan considers the double action revolver the only suitable weapon for a law officer, but remember that this book was written forty years ago, before the advent of today's light and reliable semiautomatics with effective factory combat loads. Still, the focus is on delivering the first shot to the malefactor's centre of gravity before he pulls the trigger, so magazine capacity and speedy reloading aren't as high priorities as they may be with today's increasingly militarised police.

This book is out of print, but used copies are readily available.

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September 2005

Stevenson, David. 1914–1918: The History of the First World War. London: Allen Lane, 2004. ISBN 0-140-26817-0.
I have long believed that World War I was the absolutely pivotal event of the twentieth century, and that understanding its causes and consequences was essential to comprehending subsequent history. Here is an excellent single-volume history of the war for those interested in this tragic and often-neglected epoch of modern history. The author, a professor of International History at the London School of Economics, attempts to balance all aspects of the war: politics, economics, culture, ideology, demographics, and technology, as well as the actual military history of the conflict. This results in a thick (727 page), heavy book which is somewhat heavy going and best read and digested over a period of time rather than in one frontal assault (I read the book over a period of about four months). Those looking for a detailed military history won't find it here; while there is a thorough discussion of grand strategy and evolving war aims and discussion of the horrific conditions of the largely static trench warfare which characterised most of the war, there is little or no tactical description of individual battles.

The high-level integrated view of the war (and subsequent peacemaking and its undoing) is excellent for understanding the place of the war in modern history. It was World War I which, more than any other event, brought the leviathan modern nation state to its malign maturity: mass conscription, direct taxation, fiat currency, massive public debt, propaganda aimed at citizens, manipulation of the news, rationing, wage and price controls, political intrusion into the economy, and attacks on noncombatant civilians. All of these horrors, which were to characterise the balance of the last century and continue to poison the present, appeared in full force in all the powers involved in World War I. Further, the redrawing of borders which occurred following the liquidation of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires sowed the seeds of subsequent conflicts, some still underway almost a century later, to name a few: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Palestine, and Iraq.

The U.S edition, titled Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, is now available in paperback.

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Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33567-6.
As usual, I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a couple of months. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I noted whilst reading the book, the fourth installment in the original Tom Swift saga.

It's delightful to read a book which uses the word “filibuster” in its original sense: “to take part in a private military action in a foreign country” but somewhat disconcerting to encounter Brazilians speaking Spanish! The diving suits which allow full mobility on the abyssal plain two miles beneath the ocean surface remain as science-fictional as when this novel was written almost a century ago.

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Guy, Richard K. Unsolved Problems in Number Theory. 3rd ed. New York: Springer, 2004. ISBN 0-387-20860-7.
Your hard-working and overheated CPU chip does not want you to buy this book! Collected here are hundreds of thorny problems, puzzles, and conjectures, many of which, even if you lack the cerebral horsepower to tackle a formal proof, are candidates for computational searches for solutions or counterexamples (and, indeed, a substantial number of problems posed in the first and second editions have been so resolved, some with quite modest computation by today's standards). In the 18th century, Leonhard Euler conjectured that there was no nontrivial solution to the equation:
a5 + b5 + c5 + d5 = e5
The problem remained open until 1966 when Lander and Parkin found the counterexample:
275 + 845 + 1105 + 1335 = 1445
Does the equation:
a6 + b6 + c6 + d6 + e6 = f6
have a nontrivial integer solution? Ladies and gentlemen, start your (analytical) engines! (Problem D1.) There are a large collection of mathematical curiosities here, including a series which grows so slowly it is proportional to the inverse of the Ackermann function (E20), and a conjecture (E16) regarding the esoteric equation “3x+1” about which Paul Erdös said, “Mathematics may not be ready for such problems.” The 196 palindrome problem which caused me to burn up three years of computer time some fifteen years ago closes the book (F32). Many (but not all) of the problems to which computer attacks are applicable indicate the status of searches as of 2003, giving you some idea what you're getting into should you be inclined to launch your own.

For a book devoted to one of the most finicky topics in pure mathematics, there are a dismaying number of typographical errors, and not just in the descriptive text. Even some of the LaTeX macros used to typeset the book are bungled, with “@”-form \index entries appearing explicitly in the text. Many of the errors would have been caught by a spelling checker, and there are a number of rather obvious typesetting errors in equations. As the book contains an abundance of “magic numbers” related to the various problems which may figure in computer searches, I would make a point to independently confirm their accuracy before launching any extensive computing project.

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Woods, Thomas E., Jr. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-047-6.
You know you're getting old when events you lived through start showing up in history textbooks! Upon reaching that milestone (hey, it beats the alternative), you'll inevitably have the same insight which occurs whenever you see media coverage of an event at which you were personally present or read a popular account of a topic which you understand in depth—“Hey, it wasn't like that at all!”…and then you begin to wonder about all the coverage of things about which you don't have direct knowledge.

This short book (246 pages of widely-leaded text with broad margins and numerous sidebars and boxed quotations, asides, and recommendations for further reading) provides a useful antidote to the version of U.S. history currently taught in government brainwashing institutions, written from a libertarian/conservative standpoint. Those who have made an effort to educate themselves on the topics discussed will find little here they haven't already encountered, but those whose only knowledge of U.S. history comes from contemporary textbooks will encounter many eye-opening “stubborn facts” along with source citations to independently verify them (the excellent bibliography is ten pages long).

The topics covered appear to have been selected based on the degree to which the present-day collectivist academic party line is at variance with the facts (although, as Woods points out, in many cases historians specialising in given areas themselves diverge from textbook accounts). This means that while “hot spots” such as the causes of the Civil War, the events leading to U.S. entry in World War I, and the reasons for the Great Depression and the rôle of New Deal programs in ending it are discussed, many others are omitted entirely; the book is suitable as a corrective for those who know an outline of U.S. history but not as an introduction for those college graduates who believe that FDR defeated Santa Anna at the Little Big Horn.

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Smith, George O. Venus Equilateral. New York: Del Rey, [1942-1945, 1947, 1976] 1980. ISBN 0-345-28953-6.
During World War II the author worked on one of the most outrageous (and successful) electrical engineering projects of all time—a vacuum tube radio set manufactured in the tens of thousands, designed to be fired from an artillery piece, withstanding an initial acceleration of 20,000 gravities and spinning at 500 revolutions per second—the radio proximity fuze. To relax, he wrote the Venus Equilateral stories, published in Astounding Science Fiction and collected in this volume along with a retrospective written in 1973 for an anthology in memory of long-time Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell, Jr.

If you like your science fiction hard, this is about as geeky as it gets:

“The nice thing about this betatron,” said Channing, “is the fact that it can and does run both ends on the same supply. The current and voltage phases are correct so that we do not require two supplies which operate in a carefully balanced condition. The cyclotron is one of the other kinds; though the one supply is strictly D.C., the strength of the field must be controlled separately from the supply to the oscillator that runs the D plates. You're sitting on a fence, juggling knobs and stuff all the time you are bombarding with a cyc.” (From “Recoil”, p. 95)
Notwithstanding such passages, and how quaint an interplanetary radio relay station based on vacuum tubes with a staff of 2700 may seem to modern readers, these are human stories which are, on occasions, breathtaking in their imagination and modernity. The account of the impact of an “efficiency expert” on a technology-based operation in “QRM—Interplanetary” is as trenchant (and funny) as anything in Dilbert. The pernicious effect of abusive patent litigation on innovation, the economics of a technological singularity created by what amounts to a nanotechnological assembler, and the risk of identity theft, are the themes of other stories which it's difficult to imagine having been written half a century ago, along with timeless insights into engineering. One, in particular, from “Firing Line” (p. 259) so struck me when I read it thirty-odd years ago that it has remained in my mind ever since as one of the principal differences between the engineer and the tinkerer, “They know one simple rule about the universe. That rule is that if anything works once, it may be made to work again.” The tinkerer is afraid to touch something once it mysteriously starts to work; an engineer is eager to tear it apart and figure out why. I found the account of the end of Venus Equilateral in “Mad Holiday” disturbing when I first read it, but now see it as a celebration of technological obsolescence as an integral part of progress, to be welcomed, and the occasion for a blow-out party, not long faces and melancholy.

Arthur C. Clarke, who contributes the introduction to this collection, read these stories while engaged in his own war work, in copies of Astounding sent from America by Willy Ley, acknowledges that these tales of communication relays in space may have played a part in his coming up with that idea.

This book is out of print, but inexpensive used copies are readily available.

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Ronson, Jon. The Men Who Stare at Goats. London: Picador, 2004. ISBN 0-330-37548-2.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. If you take everything at face value, you're asked to believe that U.S. Army Intelligence harbours a New Age pentacle in the Pentagon cabal bent on transforming Special Forces soldiers into “warrior monks” who can walk through walls, become invisible, and kill goats (and presumably the enemy, even if they are not goats) just by staring at them. These wannabe paranormal super-soldiers are responsible for the cruel and inhuman torture of prisoners in Iraq by playing the Barney the Purple Dinosaur song and all-girl Fleetwood Mac covers around the clock, and are implicated in the Waco massacre, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the Heaven's Gate suicides, and have “re-activated” Uri Geller in the War on Terror.

Now, stipulating that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron, this still seems altogether too zany to be entirely credible. Lack of imagination is another well-known military characteristic, and all of this seems to be so far outside the box that it's in another universe entirely, say one summoned up by a writer predisposed to anti-American conspiracy theories, endowed with an over-active imagination, who's spent way too much time watching X-Files reruns. Anyway, that's what one would like to believe, since it's rather disturbing to contemplate living in a world in which the last remaining superpower is so disconnected from reality that its Army believes it can field soldiers with…super powers. But, as much as I'd like to dismiss this story as fantasy, I cannot entirely do so. Here's my problem: one of the central figures in the narrative is a certain Colonel John Alexander. Now I happen to know from independent and direct personal contacts that Colonel Alexander is a real person, that he is substantially as described in the book, and is involved in things every bit as weird as those with which he is associated here. So maybe all the rest is made up, but the one data point I can confirm checks out. Maybe it's time to start equipping our evil mutant attack goat legions with Ray-Ban shades! For an earlier, better sourced look at the Pentagon's first foray into psychic spying, see Jim Schnabel's 1997 Remote Viewers.

A U.S edition is now available, but presently only in hardcover; a U.S. paperback edition is scheduled for April 2006.

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October 2005

Sloane, Eric. The Cracker Barrel. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1967] 2005. ISBN 0-486-44101-6.
In the 1960s, artist and antiquarian Eric Sloane wrote a syndicated column of which many of the best are collected in this volume. This is an excellent book for browsing in random order in the odd moment, but like the contents of the eponymous barrel, it's hard to stop after just one, so you may devour the whole thing at one sitting. Hey, at least it isn't fattening!

The column format allowed Sloane to address a variety of topics which didn't permit book-length treatment. There are gems here about word origins, what was good and not so good about “the good old days”, tools and techniques (the “variable wrench” is pure genius), art and the business of being an artist, and much more. Each column is illustrated with one of Sloane's marvelous line drawings. Praise be to Dover for putting this classic back into print where it belongs.

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Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. London: Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0-141-00984-5.
Only a perfect idiot would undertake to transport two forty foot mahogany motorboats from London to Cape Town and then onward to Lake Tanganyika by ship, rail, steam tractor, and teams of oxen, there to challenge German dominance of the lake during World War I by attempting to sink a ship three times the length and seven times the displacement of the fragile craft. Fortunately, the Admiralty found just the man in Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simpson, in 1915 the oldest Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, his ascent through the ranks having been retarded due to his proclivity for sinking British ships. Spicer-Simpson was an inveterate raconteur of tall tales and insufferable know-it-all (on the ship bound for South Africa he was heard lecturing the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town on the southern constellations), and was eccentric in about as many ways as can be packed into a single human frame. Still, he and his motley team, despite innumerable misadventures (many self-inflicted), got the job done, sinking the ship they were sent to and capturing another German vessel, the first German warship ever captured by the Royal Navy. Afterward, Spicer-Simpson rather blotted his copybook by declining to engage first a German fort and then a warship both later found to have been “armed” only with wooden dummy guns. His exploits caused him to be worshipped as a god by the Holo-holo tribe, who fashioned clay effigies of him, but rather less impressed the Admiralty who, despite awarding him the DSO, re-assigned him upon his return to the routine desk job he had before the adventure. HMS Mimi and Toutou were the boats under Spicer-Simpson's command, soon joined by the captured German ship which was rechristened HMS Fifi. The events described herein (very loosely) inspired C.S.Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen and the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn film.

A U.S. edition is now available, titled Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure, but at present only in hardcover. A U.S. paperback is scheduled for March, 2006.

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Radosh, Ronald and Allis Radosh. Red Star over Hollywood. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-893554-96-1.
The Hollywood blacklist has become one of the most mythic elements of the mid-20th century Red scare. Like most myths, especially those involving tinseltown, it has been re-scripted into a struggle of good (falsely-accused artists defending free speech) versus evil (paranoid witch hunters bent on censorship) at the expense of a large part of the detail and complexity of the actual events. In this book, drawing upon contemporary sources, recently released documents from the FBI and House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and interviews with surviving participants in the events, the authors patiently assemble the story of what really happened, which is substantially different than the stories retailed by partisans of the respective sides. The evolution of those who joined the Communist Party out of idealism, were repelled by its totalitarian attempts to control their creative work and/or the cynicism of its support for the 1939–1941 Nazi/Soviet pact, yet who risked their careers to save those of others by refusing to name other Party members, is evocatively sketched, along with the agenda of HUAC, which FBI documents now reveal actually had lists of party members before the hearings began, and were thus grandstanding to gain publicity and intimidate the studios into firing those who would not deny Communist affiliations. History isn't as tidy as myth: the accusers were perfectly correct in claiming that a substantial number of prominent Hollywood figures were members of the Communist Party, and the accused were perfectly correct in their claim that apart from a few egregious exceptions, Soviet and pro-communist propaganda was not inserted into Hollywood films. A mystery about one of those exceptions, the 1943 Warner Brothers film Mission to Moscow, which defended the Moscow show trials, is cleared up here. I've always wondered why, since many of the Red-baiting films of the 1950s are cult classics, this exemplar of the ideological inverse (released, after all, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies in World War II) has never made it to video. Well, apparently those who currently own the rights are sufficiently embarrassed by it that apart from one of the rare prints being run on television, the only place you can see it is at the film library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in the archive of the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Radosh is author of Commies (July 2001) and co-author of The Rosenberg File (August 2002).

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Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near. New York: Viking, 2005. ISBN 0-670-03384-7.
What happens if Moore's Law—the annual doubling of computing power at constant cost—just keeps on going? In this book, inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist Ray Kurzweil extrapolates the long-term faster than exponential growth (the exponent is itself growing exponentially) in computing power to the point where the computational capacity of the human brain is available for about US$1000 (around 2020, he estimates), reverse engineering and emulation of human brain structure permits machine intelligence indistinguishable from that of humans as defined by the Turing test (around 2030), and the subsequent (and he believes inevitable) runaway growth in artificial intelligence leading to a technological singularity around 2045 when US$1000 will purchase computing power comparable to that of all presently-existing human brains and the new intelligence created in that single year will be a billion times greater than that of the entire intellectual heritage of human civilisation prior to that date. He argues that the inhabitants of this brave new world, having transcended biological computation in favour of nanotechnological substrates “trillions of trillions of times more capable” will remain human, having preserved their essential identity and evolutionary heritage across this leap to Godlike intellectual powers. Then what? One might as well have asked an ant to speculate on what newly-evolved hominids would end up accomplishing, as the gap between ourselves and these super cyborgs (some of the precursors of which the author argues are alive today) is probably greater than between arthropod and anthropoid.

Throughout this tour de force of boundless technological optimism, one is impressed by the author's adamantine intellectual integrity. This is not an advocacy document—in fact, Kurzweil's view is that the events he envisions are essentially inevitable given the technological, economic, and moral (curing disease and alleviating suffering) dynamics driving them. Potential roadblocks are discussed candidly, along with the existential risks posed by the genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) revolutions which will set the stage for the singularity. A chapter is devoted to responding to critics of various aspects of the argument, in which opposing views are treated with respect.

I'm not going to expound further in great detail. I suspect a majority of people who read these comments will, in all likelihood, read the book themselves (if they haven't already) and make up their own minds about it. If you are at all interested in the evolution of technology in this century and its consequences for the humans who are creating it, this is certainly a book you should read. The balance of these remarks discuss various matters which came to mind as I read the book; they may not make much sense unless you've read it (You are going to read it, aren't you?), but may highlight things to reflect upon as you do.

  • Switching off the simulation. Page 404 raises a somewhat arcane risk I've pondered at some length. Suppose our entire universe is a simulation run on some super-intelligent being's computer. (What's the purpose of the universe? It's a science fair project!) What should we do to avoid having the simulation turned off, which would be bad? Presumably, the most likely reason to stop the simulation is that it's become boring. Going through a technological singularity, either from the inside or from the outside looking in, certainly doesn't sound boring, so Kurzweil argues that working toward the singularity protects us, if we be simulated, from having our plug pulled. Well, maybe, but suppose the explosion in computing power accessible to the simulated beings (us) at the singularity exceeds that available to run the simulation? (This is plausible, since post-singularity computing rapidly approaches its ultimate physical limits.) Then one imagines some super-kid running top to figure out what's slowing down the First Superbeing Shooter game he's running and killing the CPU hog process. There are also things we can do which might increase the risk of the simulation's being switched off. Consider, as I've proposed, precision fundamental physics experiments aimed at detecting round-off errors in the simulation (manifested, for example, as small violations of conservation laws). Once the beings in the simulation twig to the fact that they're in a simulation and that their reality is no more accurate than double precision floating point, what's the point to letting it run?
  • Fifty bits per atom? In the description of the computational capacity of a rock (p. 131), the calculation assumes that 100 bits of memory can be encoded in each atom of a disordered medium. I don't get it; even reliably storing a single bit per atom is difficult to envision. Using the “precise position, spin, and quantum state” of a large ensemble of atoms as mentioned on p. 134 seems highly dubious.
  • Luddites. The risk from anti-technology backlash is discussed in some detail. (“Ned Ludd” himself joins in some of the trans-temporal dialogues.) One can imagine the next generation of anti-globalist demonstrators taking to the streets to protest the “evil corporations conspiring to make us all rich and immortal”.
  • Fundamentalism. Another risk is posed by fundamentalism, not so much of the religious variety, but rather fundamentalist humanists who perceive the migration of humans to non-biological substrates (at first by augmentation, later by uploading) as repellent to their biological conception of humanity. One is inclined, along with the author, simply to wait until these folks get old enough to need a hip replacement, pacemaker, or cerebral implant to reverse a degenerative disease to motivate them to recalibrate their definition of “purely biological”. Still, I'm far from the first to observe that Singularitarianism (chapter 7) itself has some things in common with religious fundamentalism. In particular, it requires faith in rationality (which, as Karl Popper observed, cannot be rationally justified), and that the intentions of super-intelligent beings, as Godlike in their powers compared to humans as we are to Saccharomyces cerevisiae, will be benign and that they will receive us into eternal life and bliss. Haven't I heard this somewhere before? The main difference is that the Singularitarian doesn't just aspire to Heaven, but to Godhood Itself. One downside of this may be that God gets quite irate.
  • Vanity. I usually try to avoid the “Washington read” (picking up a book and flipping immediately to the index to see if I'm in it), but I happened to notice in passing I made this one, for a minor citation in footnote 47 to chapter 2.
  • Spindle cells. The material about “spindle cells” on pp. 191–194 is absolutely fascinating. These are very large, deeply and widely interconnected neurons which are found only in humans and a few great apes. Humans have about 80,000 spindle cells, while gorillas have 16,000, bonobos 2,100 and chimpanzees 1,800. If you're intrigued by what makes humans human, this looks like a promising place to start.
  • Speculative physics. The author shares my interest in physics verging on the fringe, and, turning the pages of this book, we come across such topics as possible ways to exceed the speed of light, black hole ultimate computers, stable wormholes and closed timelike curves (a.k.a. time machines), baby universes, cold fusion, and more. Now, none of these things is in any way relevant to nor necessary for the advent of the singularity, which requires only well-understood mainstream physics. The speculative topics enter primarily in discussions of the ultimate limits on a post-singularity civilisation and the implications for the destiny of intelligence in the universe. In a way they may distract from the argument, since a reader might be inclined to dismiss the singularity as yet another woolly speculation, which it isn't.
  • Source citations. The end notes contain many citations of articles in Wired, which I consider an entertainment medium rather than a reliable source of technological information. There are also references to articles in Wikipedia, where any idiot can modify anything any time they feel like it. I would not consider any information from these sources reliable unless independently verified from more scholarly publications.
  • “You apes wanna live forever?” Kurzweil doesn't just anticipate the singularity, he hopes to personally experience it, to which end (p. 211) he ingests “250 supplements (pills) a day and … a half-dozen intravenous therapies each week”. Setting aside the shots, just envision two hundred and fifty pills each and every day! That's 1,750 pills a week or, if you're awake sixteen hours a day, an average of more than 15 pills per waking hour, or one pill about every four minutes (one presumes they are swallowed in batches, not spaced out, which would make for a somewhat odd social life). Between the year 2000 and the estimated arrival of human-level artificial intelligence in 2030, he will swallow in excess of two and a half million pills, which makes one wonder what the probability of choking to death on any individual pill might be. He remarks, “Although my program may seem extreme, it is actually conservative—and optimal (based on my current knowledge).” Well, okay, but I'd worry about a “strategy for preventing heart disease [which] is to adopt ten different heart-disease-prevention therapies that attack each of the known risk factors” running into unanticipated interactions, given how everything in biology tends to connect to everything else. There is little discussion of the alternative approach to immortality with which many nanotechnologists of the mambo chicken persuasion are enamoured, which involves severing the heads of recently deceased individuals and freezing them in liquid nitrogen in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.

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Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête. Paris: Albert René, 2005. ISBN 2-86497-170-4.
Credit me with some restraint—I waited ten whole days after volume 33 of the Astérix saga appeared before devouring it in one sitting. If it isn't sufficiently obvious from the author's remark at the end of the album, note that planet “Tadsylwien” is an anagram of “Walt Disney”. The diffuse reflection of the countryside in the spherical spaceship on p. 8 is magnificently done.

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Paul, Pamela. Pornified. New York: Times Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6.
If you've been on the receiving end of Internet junk mail as I've been until I discovered a few technical tricks (here and here) which, along with Annoyance Filter, have essentially eliminated spam from my mailbox, you're probably aware that the popular culture of the Internet is, to a substantial extent, about pornography and that this marvelous global packet switching medium is largely a means for delivering pornography both to those who seek it and those who find it, unsolicited, in their electronic mailboxes or popping up on their screens.

This is an integral part of the explosive growth of pornography along with the emergence of new media. In 1973, there were fewer than a thousand pornographic movie theatres in the U.S. (p 54). Building on the first exponential growth curve driven by home video, the Internet is bringing pornography to everybody connected and reducing the cost asymptotically to zero. On “peer to peer” networks such as Kazaa, 73% of all movie searches are for pornography and 24% of image searches are for child pornography (p. 60).

It's one thing to talk about free speech, but another to ask what the consequences might be of this explosion of consumption of material which is largely directed at men, and which not only objectifies but increasingly, as the standard of “edginess” ratchets upward, degrades women and supplants the complexity of adult human relationships with the fantasy instant gratification of “adult entertainment”.

Mark Schwartz, clinical director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, hardly a puritanical institution, says (p. 142) “Pornography is having a dramatic effect on relationships at many different levels and in many different ways—and nobody outside the sexual behavior field and the psychiatric community is talking about it.” This book, by Time magazine contributor Pamela Paul, talks about it, interviewing both professionals surveying the landscape and individuals affected in various ways by the wave of pornography sweeping over developed countries connected to the Internet. Paul quotes Judith Coché, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has 25 years experience in therapy practice as saying (p. 180), “We have an epidemic on our hands. The growth of pornography and its impact on young people is really, really dangerous. And the most dangerous part is that we don't even realize what's happening.”

Ironically, part of this is due to the overwhelming evidence of the pernicious consequences of excessive consumption of pornography and its tendency to progress into addictive behaviour from the Zillman and Bryant studies and others, which have made academic ethics committees reluctant to approve follow-up studies involving human subjects (p. 90). Would you vote, based on the evidence in hand, for a double blind study of the effects of tobacco or heroin on previously unexposed subjects?

In effect, with the technologically-mediated collapse of the social strictures against pornography, we've embarked upon a huge, entirely unplanned, social and cultural experiment unprecedented in human history. This book will make people on both sides of the debate question their assumptions; the author, while clearly appalled by the effects of pornography on many of the people she interviews, is forthright in her opposition to censorship. Even if you have no interest in pornography nor strong opinions for or against it, there's little doubt that the ever-growing intrusiveness and deviance of pornography on the Internet will be a “wedge issue” in the coming battle over the secure Internet, so the message of this book, unwelcome as it may be, should be something which everybody interested in preserving both our open society and the fragile culture which sustains it ponders at some length.

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November 2005

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2: Hegel and Marx. London: Routledge, [1945, 1962, 1966, 1995] 2003. ISBN 0-415-27842-2.
After tracing the Platonic origins of utopian schemes of top-down social engineering in Volume 1 (December 2003), Popper now turns to the best-known modern exemplars of the genre, Hegel and Marx, starting out by showing Aristotle's contribution to Hegel's philosophy. Popper considers Hegel a complete charlatan and his work a blizzard of obfuscation intended to dull the mind to such an extent that it can believe that the Prussian monarchy (which paid the salaries of Hegel and his acolytes) was the epitome of human freedom. For a work of serious philosophical criticism (there are more than a hundred pages of end notes in small type), Popper is forthrightly acerbic and often quite funny in his treatment of Hegel, who he disposes of in only 55 pages of this book of 470. (Popper's contemporary, Wittgenstein, gets much the same treatment. See note 51 to chapter 11, for example, in which he calls the Tractatus “reinforced dogmatism that opens wide the door to the enemy, deeply significant metaphysical nonsense…”. One begins to comprehend what possessed Wittgenstein, a year after the publication of this book, to brandish a fireplace poker at Popper.)

Readers who think of Popper as an icon of libertarianism may be surprised at his remarkably positive treatment of Marx, of whom he writes (chapter 13), “Science progresses through trial and error. Marx tried, and although he erred in his main doctrines, he did not try in vain. He opened and sharpened our eyes in many ways. A return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. All modern writers are indebted to Marx, even if they do not know it. … One cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts, his distrust of verbiage, and especially of moralizing verbiage, made him one of the world's most influential fighters against hypocisy and pharisaism. He had a burning desire to help the oppressed, and was fully conscious of the need for proving himself in deeds, and not only in words.”

To be sure, this encomium is the prelude to a detailed critique of Marx's deterministic theory of history and dubious economic notions, but unlike Hegel, Marx is given credit for trying to make sense of phenomena which few others even attempted to study scientifically. Many of the flaws in Marx's work, Popper argues, may be attributed to Marx having imbibed too deeply and uncritically the work of Hegel, and the crimes committed in the name of Marxism the result of those treating his work as received dogma, as opposed to a theory subject to refutation, as Marx himself would have viewed it.

Also surprising is his condemnation, with almost Marxist vehemence, of nineteenth century “unrestrained capitalism”, and enthusiasm for government intervention in the economy and the emergence of the modern welfare state (chapter 20 in particular). One must observe, with the advantage of sixty years hindsight, that F.A. Hayek's less sanguine contemporary perspective in The Road to Serfdom (May 2002) has proved more prophetic. Of particular interest is Popper's advocacy of “piecemeal social engineering”, as opposed to grand top-down systems such as “scientific socialism”, as the genuinely scientific method of improving society, permitting incremental progress by experiments on the margin which are subject to falsification by their results, in the same manner Popper argues the physical sciences function in The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Permit me to make a few remarks about the physical properties of this book. The paperback seems to have a spine made of triple-reinforced neutronium, and cannot be induced to lie flat by any of the usual stratagems. In fact, when reading the book, one must either use two hands to hold it open or else wedge it open with three fingers against the spine in order to read complete lines of text. This is tiring, particularly since the book is also quite heavy. If you happen to doze off whilst reading (which I'll confess happened a few times during some of the more intricate philosophical arguments), the thing will pop out of your hand, snap shut like a bear trap, and fly off in some random direction—Zzzzzz … CLACK … thud! I don't know what the problem is with the binding—I have any number of O'Reilly paperbacks about the same size and shape which lie flat without the need for any extreme measures. The text is set in a type font in which the distinction between roman and italic type is very subtle—sometimes I had to take off my glasses (I am nearsighted) and eyeball the text close-up to see if a word was actually emphasised, and that runs the risk of a bloody nose if your thumb should slip and the thing snap shut.

A U.S. edition of this volume is now back in print; for a while only Volume 1 was available from Princeton University Press. The U.K. edition of Volume 1 from Routledge remains available.

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Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-013-1.
This book has the worthy goal of providing a brief, accessible antidote to the airbrushed version of Islam dispensed by its apologists and echoed by the mass media, and the relentlessly anti-Western account of the Crusades indoctrinated in the history curricula of government schools. Regrettably, the attempt falls short of the mark. The tone throughout is polemical—you don't feel like you're reading about history, religion, and culture so much as that the author is trying to persuade you to adopt his negative view of Islam, with historical facts and citations from original sources trotted out as debating points. This runs the risk of the reader suspecting the author of having cherry-picked source material, omitting that which argues the other way. I didn't find the author guilty of this, but the result is that this book is only likely to persuade those who already agree with its thesis before picking it up, which makes one wonder what's the point.

Spencer writes from an overtly Christian perspective, with parallel “Muhammad vs. Jesus” quotes in each chapter, and statements like, “If Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard the Lionhearted, and countless others hadn't risked their lives to uphold the honor of Christ and His Church thousands of miles from home, the jihadists would almost certainly have swept across Europe much sooner” (p. 160). Now, there's nothing wrong with comparing aspects of Islam to other religions to counter “moral equivalence” arguments which claim that every religion is equally guilty of intolerance, oppression, and incitement to violence, but the near-exclusive focus on Christianity is likely to be off-putting to secular readers and adherents of other religions who are just as threatened by militant, expansionist Islamic fundamentalism as Christians.

The text is poorly proofread; in several block quotations, words are run together without spaces, three times in as many lines on page 110. In the quote from John Wesley on p. 188, the whole meaning is lost when the phrase “cities razed from the foundation” is written with “raised” instead of “razed”.

The author's earlier Islam Unveiled (February 2003) is similarly flawed in tone and perspective. Had I noticed that this book was by the same author, I wouldn't have read it. It's more to read, but the combination of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002) and Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West (July 2002) will leave you with a much better understanding of the issues than this disappointing effort.

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Thorpe, Peter. Why Literature Is Bad for You. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-88229-745-7.
Techies like myself often have little patience with students of the humanities, particularly those argumentative types ill-informed in anything outside their speciality often found around university campuses. After escaping from an encounter with one of these creatures, a common reaction is to shrug one's shoulders and mutter “English majors…”. I'd always assumed it was a selection effect: a career which involves reading made-up stories and then arguing vociferously about small details in them just naturally appeals to dopey people who those more engaged in the real world inevitably find tedious and irritating. But here's a book written by a professor of English Literature who argues that immersion in the humanities manufactures such people, wrecking the minds and often the lives of those who would have otherwise made well-balanced and successful accountants, scientists, physicians, engineers, or members of other productive professions.

This is either one of the most astonishing exemplars of academic apostasy ever written, or such a dry satire (which, it should be noted, is one of the author's fields of professional interest) that it slips beneath the radar of almost everybody who reads it. Peter Thorpe was a tenured (to be sure, otherwise this book would have been career suicide) associate professor of English at the University of Colorado when, around 1980, he went through what must have been a king-Hell existential mid-life crisis and penned this book which, for all its heresies, didn't wreck his career: here's a recent biography.

In any case, the message is incendiary. A professor of English Literature steps up to the podium to argue that intensive exposure to the Great Books which undergraduate and graduate students in English and their professors consider their “day job” is highly destructive to their psyches, as can be observed by the dysfunctional behaviour manifest in the denizens of a university department of humanities. So dubious is Thorpe that such departments have anything to do with human values, that he consistently encloses “humanities” in scare quotes.

Rather than attempting to recapitulate the arguments of this short and immensely entertaining polemic, I will simply cite the titles of the five parts and list the ways in which Thorpe deems the study of literature pernicious in each.

  1. Seven Types of Immaturity
    “Outgrowing” loved ones; addiction to and fomenting crises; refusal to co-operate deemed a virtue; fatalism as an excuse; self-centredness instead of self-knowledge; lust for revenge; hatred and disrespect for elders and authority.
  2. Seven Avenues to Unawareness
    Imputing “motivation” where it doesn't exist; pigeonholing people into categories; projecting one's own feelings onto others; replacement of one's own feelings with those of others; encouragement of laziness—it's easier to read than to do; excessive tolerance for incompetence; encouraging hostility and aggression.
  3. Five Avenues to Unhappiness
    Clinically or borderline paranoia, obsession with the past, materialism or irrational anti-materialism, expectation of gratitude when none is due, and being so worry-prone as to risk stomach ulcers (lighten up—this book was published two years before the discovery of H. pylori).
  4. Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers
    Misuse of opinion, faulty and false memories, dishonest use of evidence, and belief that ideas do not have consequences.
  5. Four Ways to Failing to Communicate
    Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.

That's a pretty damning bill of particulars, isn't it? Most of these indictments of the rôle of literature in inducing these dysfunctions are illustrated by fictionalised anecdotes based on individuals the author has encountered in English departments during his career. Some of the stories and arguments for how devotion to literature is the root cause of the pathology of the people who study it seem a tad over the top to this engineer, but then I haven't spent my whole adult life in an English Lit. department! The writing is entertaining and the author remains true to his profession in invoking a multitude of literary allusions to bolster his points. Whatever, it's comforting to believe that when you took advantage of Cliff's Notes to survive those soporific equation-free requirements for graduation you weren't (entirely) being lazy but also protecting your sanity and moral compass!

The book is out of print, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive. Special thanks to the visitor who recommended this book.

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Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Britain. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-39-2.
History records many examples of the collapse of once great and long-established cultures. Usually, such events are the consequence of military defeat, occupation or colonisation by a foreign power, violent revolution and its totalitarian aftermath, natural disasters, or other dramatic and destructive events. In this book, Peter Hitchens chronicles the collapse, within the span of a single human lifetime (bracketed by the funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Princess Diana in 1997), of the culture which made Britain British, and maintained domestic peace in England and Wales since 1685 (and Scotland since Culloden in 1746) while the Continent was repeatedly convulsed by war and revolution. The collapse in Britain, however, occurred following victory in a global conflict in which, at the start, Britain stood alone against tyranny and barbarism, and although rooted in a time of postwar privation, demotion from great power status, and loss of empire, ran its course as the nation experienced unprecedented and broadly-based prosperity.

Hitchens argues that the British cultural collapse was almost entirely the result of well-intentioned “reform” and “modernisation” knocking out the highly evolved and subtly interconnected pillars which supported the culture, set in motion, perhaps, by immersion in American culture during World War II (see chapter 16—this argument seems rather dubious to me, since many of the postwar changes in Britain also occurred in the U.S., but afterward), and reinforced and accelerated by television broadcasting, the perils of which were prophetically sketched by T.S. Eliot in 1950 (p. 128). When the pillars of a culture: historical memory, national identity and pride, religion and morality, family, language, community, landscape and architecture, decency, and education are dislodged, even slightly, what ensues is much like the “controlled implosion” demolition of a building, with the Hobbesian forces of “every man for himself” taking the place of gravity in pulling down the structure and creating the essential preconditions for the replacement of bottom-up self-government by self-reliant citizens with authoritarian rule by élite such as Tony Blair's ambition of U.S.-style presidential power and, the leviathan where the road to serfdom leads, the emerging anti-democratic Continental super-state.

This U.S second edition includes notes which explain British terms and personalities unlikely to be familiar to readers abroad, a preface addressed to American readers, and an afterword discussing the 2001 general election and subsequent events.

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Gingerich, Owen. The Book Nobody Read. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN 0-14-303476-6.
There is something about astronomy which seems to invite obsession. Otherwise, why would intelligent and seemingly rational people expend vast amounts of time and effort to compile catalogues of hundreds of thousands of stars, precisely measure the positions of planets over periods of decades, travel to the ends of the Earth to observe solar eclipses, get up before the crack of noon to see a rare transit of Mercury or Venus, or burn up months of computer time finding every planetary transit in a quarter million year interval around the present? Obsession it may be, but it's also fascinating and fun, and astronomy has profited enormously from the labours of those so obsessed, whether on a mountain top in the dead of winter, or carrying out lengthy calculations when tables of logarithms were the only computational tool available.

This book chronicles one man's magnificent thirty-year obsession. Spurred by Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, which portrayed Copernicus as a villain and his magnum opus De revolutionibus “the book that nobody read”—“an all time worst seller”, followed by the discovery of an obviously carefully read and heavily annotated first edition in the library of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, the author, an astrophysicist and Harvard professor of the history of science, found himself inexorably drawn into a quest to track down and examine every extant copy of the first (Nuremberg, 1543) and second (Basel, 1566) editions of De revolutionibus to see whether and where readers had annotated them and so determine how widely the book, of which about a thousand copies were printed in these editions—typical for scientific works at the time—was read. Unlike today, when we've been educated that writing in a book is desecration, readers in the 16th and 17th centuries often made extensive annotations to their books, even assigning students and apprentices the task of copying annotations by other learned readers into their copies.

Along the way Gingerich found himself driving down an abandoned autobahn in the no man's land between East and West Germany, testifying in the criminal trial of a book rustler, discovering the theft of copies which librarians were unaware were missing, tracking down the provenance of pages in “sophisticated” (in the original sense of the word) copies assembled from two or more incomplete originals, attending the auction at Sotheby's of a first edition with a dubious last leaf which sold for US$750,000 (the author, no impecunious naïf in the rare book game, owns two copies of the second edition himself), and discovering the fate of many less celebrated books from that era (toilet paper). De revolutionibus has survived the vicissitudes of the centuries quite well—out of about 1000 original copies of the first and second editions, approximately six hundred exemplars remain.

Aside from the adventures of the Great Copernicus Chase, there is a great deal of information about Copernicus and the revolution he discovered and sparked which dispels many widely-believed bogus notions such as:

  • Copernicus was a hero of secular science against religious fundamentalism. Wrong!   Copernicus was a deeply religious doctor of church law, canon of the Roman Catholic Varmian Cathedral in Poland. He dedicated the book to Pope Paul III.
  • Prior to Copernicus, astronomers relying on Ptolemy's geocentric system kept adding epicycles on epicycles to try to approximate the orbits of the planets. Wrong!   This makes for a great story, but there is no evidence whatsoever for “epicycles on epicycles”. The authoritative planetary ephemerides in use in the age of Copernicus were calculated using the original Ptolemaic system without additional refinements, and there are no known examples of systems with additional epicycles.
  • Copernicus banished epicycles from astronomy. Wrong!   The Copernican system, in fact, included thirty-four epicycles! Because Copernicus believed that all planetary motion was based on circles, just like Ptolemy he required epicycles to approximate motion which wasn't known to be actually elliptical prior to Kepler. In fact, the Copernican system was no more accurate in predicting planetary positions than that of Ptolemy, and ephemerides computed from it were no better.
  • The Roman Catholic Church was appalled by Copernicus's suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the cosmos and immediately banned his book. Wrong!   The first edition of De revolutionibus was published in 1543. It wasn't until 1616, more than seventy years later, that the book was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and in 1620 it was permitted as long as ten specific modifications were made. Outside Italy, few copies even in Catholic countries were censored according to these instructions. In Spain, usually thought of as a hotbed of the Inquisition, the book was never placed on the Index at all. Galileo's personal copy has the forbidden passages marked in boxes and lined through, permitting the original text to be read. There is no evidence of any copy having been destroyed on the orders of the Church, and the Vatican library has three copies of both the first and second editions.

Obviously, if you're as interested as I in eccentric topics like positional astronomy, rare books, the evolution of modern science, and the surprisingly rapid and efficient diffusion of knowledge more than five centuries before the Internet, this is a book you're probably going to read if you haven't already. The only flaw is that the colour plates (at least in the UK paperback edition I read) are terribly reproduced—they all look like nobody bothered to focus the copy camera when the separations were made; plates 4b, 6, and 7a through 7f, which show annotations in various copies, are completely useless because they're so fuzzy the annotations can barely be read, if at all.

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December 2005

Malanga, Steven. The New New Left. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. ISBN 1-56663-644-2.
This thin book (or long essay—the main text is less than 150 pages), argues that urban politics in the United States has largely been captured by an iron triangle of “tax eaters”: unionised public employees, staff of government funded social and health services, and elected officials drawn largely from the first two groups and put into office by their power to raise campaign funds, get out the vote, and direct involvement in campaigns due to raw self-interest: unlike private sector voters, they are hiring their own bosses.

Unlike traditional big-city progressive politics or the New Left of the 1960s, which were ideologically driven and motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the disadvantaged (even if many of their policy prescriptions proved to be counterproductive in practice), this “new new left” puts its own well-being squarely at the top of the agenda: increasing salaries, defeating attempts to privatise government services, expanding taxpayer-funded programs, and forcing unionisation and regulation onto the private sector through schemes such as “living wage” mandates. The author fears that the steady growth in the political muscle of public sector unions may be approaching or have reached a tipping point—where, albeit not yet a numerical majority, through their organised clout they have the power to elect politicians beholden to them, however costly to the productive sector or ultimately disastrous for their cities, whose taxpayers and businesses may choose to vote with their feet for places where they are viewed as valuable members of the community rather than cash cows to be looted.

Chapter 5 dismantles Richard Florida's crackpot “Creative Class” theory, which argues that by taxing remaining workers and businesses even more heavily and spending the proceeds on art, culture, “diversity”, bike paths, and all the other stuff believed to attract the golden children of the dot.com bubble, rust belt cities already devastated by urban socialism can be reborn. Post dot.bomb, such notions are more worthy of a belly laugh than thorough refutation, but if it's counter-examples and statistics you seek, they're here.

The last three chapters focus almost entirely on New York City. I suppose this isn't surprising, both because New York is often at the cutting edge in urban trends in the U.S., and also because the author is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to its City Journal, where most of this material originally appeared.

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Godwin, Robert ed. Friendship 7: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 1999. ISBN 1-896522-60-2.
This installment in the Apogee NASA Mission Reports series contains original pre- and post-flight documents describing the first United States manned orbital flight piloted by John Glenn on February 20th, 1962, including a complete transcript of the air-to-ground communications from launch through splashdown. An excerpt from the Glenn's postflight debriefing describing his observations from space including the “fireflies” seen at orbital sunrise is included, along with a scientific evaluation which, in retrospect, seems to have gotten everything just about right. Glenn's own 13 page report on the flight is among the documents, as is backup pilot Scott Carpenter's report on training for the mission in which he describes the “extinctospectropolariscope-occulogyrogravoadaptometer”, abbreviated “V-Meter” in order to fit into the spacecraft (p. 110). A companion CD-ROM includes a one hour NASA film about the mission, with flight day footage from the tracking stations around the globe, and film from the pilot observation camera synchronised with recorded radio communications. An unintentionally funny introduction by the editor (complete with two idiot “it's”-es on consecutive lines) attempts to defend Glenn's 1998 political junket / P.R. stunt aboard socialist space ship Discovery. “If NASA is going to conduct gerontology experiments in orbit, who is more eminently qualified….” Well, a false predicate does imply anything, but if NASA were at all genuinely interested in geezers in space independent of political payback, why didn't they also fly John Young, only nine years Glenn's junior, who walked on the Moon, commanded the first flight of the space shuttle, was Chief of the Astronaut Office for ten years, and a NASA astronaut continuously from 1962 until his retirement in 2004, yet never given a flight assignment since 1983? Glenn's competence and courage needs no embellishment—and the contrast between the NASA in the days of his first flight and that of his second could not be more stark.

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Bockris, John O'M. The New Paradigm. College Station, TX: D&M Enterprises, 2005. ISBN 0-9767444-0-6.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the triumphs of classical science were everywhere apparent: Newton's theories of mechanics and gravitation, Maxwell's electrodynamics, the atomic theory of chemistry, Darwin's evolution, Mendel's genetics, and the prospect of formalising all of mathematics from a small set of logical axioms. Certainly, there were a few little details awaiting explanation: the curious failure to detect ether drift in the Michelson-Morley experiment, the pesky anomalous precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury, the seeming contradiction between the equipartition of energy and the actual spectrum of black body radiation, the mysterious patterns in the spectral lines of elements, and the source of the Sun's energy, but these seemed matters the next generation of scientists could resolve by building on the firm foundation laid by the last. Few would have imagined that these curiosities would spark a thirty year revolution in physics which would show the former foundations of science to be valid only in the limits of slow velocities, weak fields, and macroscopic objects.

At the start of the twenty-first century, in the very centennial of Einstein's annus mirabilis, it is only natural to enquire how firm are the foundations of present-day science, and survey the “little details and anomalies” which might point toward scientific revolutions in this century. That is the ambitious goal of this book, whose author's long career in physical chemistry began in 1945 with a Ph.D. from Imperial College, London, and spanned more than forty years as a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Flinders University in Australia, and Texas A&M University, where he was Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environmental Chemistry, with more than 700 papers and twenty books to his credit. And it is at this goal that Professor Bockris utterly, unconditionally, and irredeemably fails. By the evidence of the present volume, the author, notwithstanding his distinguished credentials and long career, is a complete idiot.

That's not to say you won't learn some things by reading this book. For example, what do physicists Hendrik Lorentz, Werner Heisenberg, Hannes Alfvén, Albert A. Michelson, and Lord Rayleigh; chemist Amedeo Avogadro, astronomers Chandra Wickramasinghe, Benik Markarian, and Martin Rees; the Weyerhaeuser Company; the Doberman Pinscher dog breed; Renaissance artist Michelangelo; Cepheid variable stars; Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; the Menninger Foundation and the Cavendish Laboratory; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; religious figures Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop Berkeley, and Teilhard de Chardin; parapsychologists York Dobyns and Brenda Dunne; anomalist William R. Corliss; and Centreville Maryland, Manila in the Philippines, and the Galapagos Islands all have in common?

The “Shaking Pillars of the Paradigm” about which the author expresses sentiments ranging from doubt to disdain in chapter 3 include mathematics (where he considers irrational roots, non-commutative multiplication of quaternions, and the theory of limits among flaws indicative of the “break down” of mathematical foundations [p. 71]), Darwinian evolution, special relativity, what he refers to as “The So-Called General Theory of Relativity” with only the vaguest notion of its content—yet is certain is dead wrong, quantum theory (see p. 120 for a totally bungled explanation of Schrodinger's cat in which he seems to think the result depends upon a decision made by the cat), the big bang (which he deems “preposterus” on p. 138) and the Doppler interpretation of redshifts, and naturalistic theories of the origin of life. Chapter 4 begins with the claim that “There is no physical model which can tell us why [electrostatic] attraction and repulsion occur” (p. 163).

And what are those stubborn facts in which the author does believe, or at least argues merit the attention of science, pointing the way to a new foundation for science in this century? Well, that would be: UFOs and alien landings; Kirlian photography; homeopathy and Jacques Benveniste's “imprinting of water”; crop circles; Qi Gong masters remotely changing the half-life of radioactive substances; the Maharishi Effect and “Vedic Physics”; “cold fusion” and the transmutation of base metals into gold (on both of which the author published while at Texas A&M); telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition; apparitions, poltergeists, haunting, demonic possession, channelling, and appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary; out of body and near-death experiences; survival after death, communication through mediums including physical manifestations, and reincarnation; and psychokinesis, faith and “anomalous” healing (including the “psychic surgeons” of the Philippines), and astrology. The only apparent criterion for the author's endorsement of a phenomenon appears to be its rejection by mainstream science.

Now, many works of crank science can be quite funny, and entirely worth reading for their amusement value. Sadly, this book is so poorly written it cannot be enjoyed even on that level. In the introduction to this reading list I mention that I don't include books which I didn't finish, but that since I've been keeping the list I've never abandoned a book partway through. Well, my record remains intact, but this one sorely tempted me. The style, if you can call it that, is such that one finds it difficult to believe English is the author's mother tongue, no less that his doctorate is from a British university at a time when language skills were valued. The prose is often almost physically painful to read. Here is an example, from footnote 37 on page 117—but you can find similar examples on almost any page; I've chosen this one because it is, in addition, almost completely irrelevant to the text it annotates.

Here, it is relevant to describe a corridor meeting with a mature colleague - keen on Quantum Mechanical calculations, - who had not the friends to give him good grades in his grant applications and thus could not employ students to work with him. I commiserated on his situation, - a professor in a science department without grant money. How can you publish I blurted out, rather tactlessly. “Ah, but I have Lili” he said (I've changed his wife's name). I knew Lili, a pleasant European woman interested in obscure religions. She had a high school education but no university training. “But” … I began to expostulate. “It's ok, ok”, said my colleague. “Well, we buy the programs to calculate bond strengths, put it in the computer and I tell Lili the quantities and she writes down the answer the computer gives. Then, we write a paper.” The program referred to is one which solves the Schrödinger equation and provides energy values, e.g., for bond strength in chemical compounds.
Now sit back, close your eyes, and imagine five hundred pages of this; in spelling, grammar, accuracy, logic, and command of the subject matter it reads like a textbook-length Slashdot post. Several recurrent characteristics are manifest in this excerpt. The author repeatedly, though not consistently, capitalises Important Words within Sentences; he uses hyphens where em-dashes are intended, and seems to have invented his own punctuation sign: a comma followed by a hyphen, which is used interchangeably with commas and em-dashes. The punctuation gives the impression that somebody glanced at the manuscript and told the author, “There aren't enough commas in it”, whereupon he went through and added three or four thousand in completely random locations, however inane. There is an inordinate fondness for “e.g.”, “i.e.”, and “cf.”, and they are used in ways which make one suspect the author isn't completely clear on their meaning or the distinctions among them. And regarding the footnote quoted above, did I mention that the author's wife is named “Lily”, and hails from Austria?

Further evidence of the attention to detail and respect for the reader can be found in chapter 3 where most of the source citations in the last thirty pages are incorrect, and the blank cross-references scattered throughout the text. Not only is it obvious the book has not been fact checked, nor even proofread; it has never even been spelling checked—common words are misspelled all over. Bockris never manages the Slashdot hallmark of misspelling “the”, but on page 475 he misspells “to” as “ot”. Throughout you get the sense that what you're reading is not so much a considered scientific exposition and argument, but rather the raw unedited output of a keystroke capturing program running on the author's computer.

Some readers may take me to task for being too harsh in these remarks, noting that the book was self-published by the author at age 82. (How do I know it was self-published? Because my copy came with the order from Amazon to the publisher to ship it to their warehouse folded inside, and the publisher's address in this document is directly linked to the author.) Well, call me unkind, but permit me to observe that readers don't get a quality discount based on the author's age from the price of US$34.95, which is on the very high end for a five hundred page paperback, nor is there a disclaimer on the front or back cover that the author might not be firing on all cylinders. Certainly, an eminent retired professor ought to be able to call on former colleagues and/or students to review a manuscript which is certain to become an important part of his intellectual legacy, especially as it attempts to expound a new paradigm for science. Even the most cursory editing to remove needless and tedious repetition could knock 100 pages off this book (and eliminating the misinformation and nonsense could probably slim it down to about ten). The vast majority of citations are to secondary sources, many popular science or new age books.

Apart from these drawbacks, Bockris, like many cranks, seems compelled to personally attack Einstein, claiming his work was derivative, hinting at plagiarism, arguing that its significance is less than its reputation implies, and relating an unsourced story claiming Einstein was a poor husband and father (and even if he were, what does that have to do with the correctness and importance of his scientific contributions?). In chapter 2, he rants upon environmental and economic issues, calls for a universal dole (p. 34) for those who do not work (while on p. 436 he decries the effects of just such a dole on Australian youth), calls (p. 57) for censorship of music, compulsory population limitation, and government mandated instruction in philosophy and religion along with promotion of religious practice. Unlike many radical environmentalists of the fascist persuasion, he candidly observes (p. 58) that some of these measures “could not achieved under the present conditions of democracy”. So, while repeatedly inveighing against the corruption of government-funded science, he advocates what amounts to totalitarian government—by scientists.

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Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Anchor Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-4000-3280-6.
This book uses the true-crime narrative of a brutal 1984 double murder committed by two Mormon fundamentalist brothers as the point of departure to explore the origin and sometimes violent early history of the Mormon faith, the evolution of Mormonism into a major mainstream religion, and the culture of present-day fundamentalist schismatic sects which continue to practice polygamy within a strictly hierarchical male-dominated society, and believe in personal revelation from God. (It should be noted that these sects, although referring to themselves as Mormon, have nothing whatsoever to do with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which excommunicates leaders of such sects and their followers, and has officially renounced the practice of polygamy since the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890. The “Mormon fundamentalist” sects believe themselves to be the true exemplars of the religion founded by Joseph Smith and reject the legitimacy of the mainstream church.)

Mormonism is almost unique among present-day large (more than 11 million members, about half in the United States) religions in having been established recently (1830) in a modern, broadly literate society, so its history is, for better or for worse, among the best historically documented of all religions. This can, of course, pose problems to any religion which claims absolute truth for its revealed messages, as the history of factionalism and schisms in Mormonism vividly demonstrates. The historical parallels between Islam and Mormonism are discussed briefly, and are well worth pondering: both were founded by new revelations building upon the Bible, both incorporated male domination and plural marriage at the outset, both were persecuted by the existing political and religious establishment, fled to a new haven in the desert, and developed in an environment of existential threats and violent responses. One shouldn't get carried away with such analogies—in particular Mormons never indulged in territorial conquest nor conversion at swordpoint. Further, the Mormon doctrine of continued revelation allows the religion to adapt as society evolves: discarding polygamy and, more recently, admitting black men to the priesthood (which, in the Mormon church, is comprised of virtually all adult male members).

Obviously, intertwining the story of the premeditated murder of a young mother and her infant committed by people who believed they were carrying out a divine revelation, with the history of a religion whose present-day believers often perceive themselves as moral exemplars in a decadent secular society is bound to be incendiary, and the reaction of the official Mormon church to the publication of the book was predictably negative. This paperback edition includes an appendix which reprints a review of a pre-publication draft of the original hardcover edition by senior church official Richard E. Turley, Jr., along with the author's response which acknowledges some factual errors noted by Turley (and corrected in this edition) while disputing his claim that the book “presents a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history” (p. 346). While the book is enlightening on each of the topics it treats, it does seem to me that it may try to do too much in too few pages. The history of the Mormon church, exploration of the present-day fundamentalist polygamous colonies in the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and the story of how the Lafferty brothers went from zealotry to murder and their apprehension and trials are all topics deserving of book-length treatment; combining them in a single volume invites claims that the violent acts of a few aberrant (and arguably insane) individuals are being used to slander a church of which they were not even members at the time of their crime.

All of the Mormon scriptures cited in the book are available on-line. Thanks to the reader who recommended this book; I'd never have otherwise discovered it.

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Lileks, James. Mommy Knows Worst. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8228-5.
Why did we baby boomers end up so doggone weird? Maybe it's thanks to all the “scientific” advice our parents received from “experts” who seemed convinced that despite millennia of ever-growing human population, new parents didn't have the slightest clue what do with babies and small children. James Lileks, who is emerging as one of the most talented and prolific humorists of this young century, collects some of the very best/worst of such advice in this volume, along with his side-splitting comments, as in the earlier volumes on food and interior decoration. Flip the pages and learn, as our parents did, why babies should be turned regularly as they broil in the Sun (pp. 36–42), why doping little snookums with opiates to make the bloody squaller shut up is a bad idea (pp. 44–48), why everything should be boiled, except for those which should be double boiled (pp. 26, 58–59, 65–68), plus the perfect solution for baby's ears that stick out like air scoops (pp. 32–33). This collection is laugh-out-loud funny from cover to cover; if you're looking for more in this vein, be sure to visit The Institute of Official Cheer and other features on the author's Web site which now includes a weekly audio broadcast.

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Truss, Lynne. Talk to the Hand. London: Profile Books, 2005. ISBN 1-86197-933-9.
Following the runaway success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (January 2004), one might have expected the author to follow up with another book on grammar, but instead in this outing she opted to confront the “utter bloody rudeness of everyday life”. Not long ago I might have considered these topics unrelated, but after the publication in July 2005 of Strike Out, and the subsequent discussion it engendered, I've come to realise that slapdash spelling and grammar are, as explained on page 23 here, simply one aspect of the rudeness which affronts us from all sides. As Bernard Pivot observed, “[spelling] remains a politeness one owes to our language, and a politeness one owes to those to whom one writes.”

In this book Truss parses rudeness into six categories, and explores how modern technology and society have nearly erased the distinctions between private and public spaces, encouraging or at least reducing the opprobrium of violating what were once universally shared social norms. (Imagine, for example, how shocking it would have seemed in 1965 to overhear the kind of intensely personal or confidential business conversation between two fellow passengers on a train which it is now entirely routine to hear one side of as somebody obliviously chatters into their mobile phone.)

Chapter 2, “Why am I the One Doing This?”, is 23 pages of pure wisdom for designers of business systems, customer relations managers, and designers of user interfaces for automated systems; it perfectly expresses the rage which justifiably overcomes people who feel themselves victimised for the convenience and/or profit of the counterparty in a transaction which is supposedly of mutual benefit. This is a trend which, in my opinion (particularly in computer user interface design), has been going in the wrong direction since I began to rant about it almost twenty years ago.

A U.S edition is also available.

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  2006  

January 2006

Hayward, Steven F. Greatness. New York: Crown Forum, 2005. ISBN 0-307-23715-X.
This book, subtitled “Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders ”, examines the parallels between the lives and careers of these two superficially very different men, in search of the roots of their ability, despite having both been underestimated and disdained by their contemporaries (which historical distance has caused many to forget in the case of Churchill, a fact of which Hayward usefully reminds the reader), and considered too old for the challenges facing them when they arrived at the summit of power.

The beginning of the Cold War was effectively proclaimed by Churchill's 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, and its end foretold by Reagan's “Tear Down this Wall” speech at the Berlin wall in 1987. (Both speeches are worth reading in their entirety, as they have much more to say about the world of their times than the sound bites from them you usually hear.) Interestingly, both speeches were greeted with scorn, and much of Reagan's staff considered it fantasy to imagine and an embarrassment to suggest the Berlin wall falling in the foreseeable future.

Only one chapter of the book is devoted to the Cold War; the bulk explores the experiences which formed the character of these men, their self-education in the art of statecraft, their remarkably similar evolution from youthful liberalism in domestic policy to stalwart confrontation of external threats, and their ability to talk over the heads of the political class directly to the population and instill their own optimism when so many saw only disaster and decline ahead for their societies. Unlike the vast majority of their contemporaries, neither Churchill nor Reagan considered Communism as something permanent—both believed it would eventually collapse due to its own, shall we say, internal contradictions. This short book provides an excellent insight into how they came to that prophetic conclusion.

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Bolchover, David. The Living Dead. Chichester, England: Capstone Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-84112-656-X.
If you've ever worked in a large office, you may have occasionally found yourself musing, “Sure, I work hard enough, but what do all those other people do all day?” In this book, David Bolchover, whose personal work experience in two large U.K. insurance companies caused him to ask this question, investigates and comes to the conclusion, “Not very much”. Quoting statistics such as the fact that 70% of Internet pornography site accesses are during the 9 to 5 work day, and that fully one third of mid-week visitors at a large U.K. theme park are employees who called in sick at work, the author discovers that it is remarkably easy to hold down a white collar job in many large organisations while doing essentially no productive work at all—simply showing up every day and collecting paychecks. While the Internet has greatly expanded the scope of goofing off on the job (type “bored at work” into Google and you'll get in excess of sixteen million hits), it is in addition to traditional alternatives to work and, often, easier to measure. The author estimates that as many as 20% of the employees in large offices contribute essentially nothing to their employer's business—these are the “living dead” of the title. Not only are the employers of these people getting nothing for their salaries, even more tragically, the living dead themselves are wasting their entire working careers and a huge portion of their lives in numbing boredom devoid of the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile.

In large office environments, there is often so little direct visibility of productivity that somebody who either cannot do the work or simply prefers not to can fall into the cracks for an extended period of time—perhaps until retirement. The present office work environment can be thought of as a holdover from the factory jobs of the industrial revolution, but while it is immediately apparent if a machine operator or production line worker does nothing, this may not be evident for office work. (One of the reasons outsourcing may work well for companies is that it forces them to quantify the value of the contracted work, and the outsourcing companies are motivated to better measure the productivity of their staff since they represent a profit centre, as opposed to a cost centre for the company which outsources.)

Back during my blessedly brief career in the management of an organisation which grew beyond the experience base of those who founded it, I found that the only way I could get a sense for what was actually going on in the company, as opposed to what one heard in meetings and read in memoranda, was what I called “Lieutenant Columbo” management—walking around with a little notepad, sitting down with people all over the company, and asking them to explain what they really did—not what their job title said or what their department was supposed to accomplish, but how they actually spent the working day, which was often quite different from what you might have guessed. Another enlightening experience for senior management is to spend a day jacked in to the company switchboard, listening (only) to a sample of the calls coming in from the outside world. I guarantee that anybody who does this for a full working day will end up with pages of notes about things they had no idea were going on. (The same goes for product developers, who should regularly eavesdrop on customer support calls.) But as organisations become huge, the distance between management and where the work is actually done becomes so great that expedients like this cannot bridge the gap: hence the legions of living dead.

The insights in this book extend to why so many business books (some seeming like they were generated by the PowerPoint Content Wizard) are awful and what that says about the CEOs who read them, why mumbo-jumbo like “going forward, we need to grow the buy-in for leveraging our core competencies” passes for wisdom in the business world (while somebody who said something like that at the dinner table would, and should, invite a hail of cutlery and vegetables), and why so many middle managers (the indispensable NCOs of the corporate army) are so hideously bad.

I fear the author may be too sanguine about the prospects of devolving the office into a world of home-working contractors, all entrepreneurial and self-motivated. I wish that world could come into being, and I sincerely hope it does, but one worries that the inner-directed people who prosper in such an environment are the ones who are already productive even in the stultifying environment of today's office. Perhaps a “middle way” such as Jack Stack's Great Game of Business (September 2004), combined with the devolving of corporate monoliths into clusters of smaller organisations as suggested in this book may point the way to dezombifying the workplace.

If you follow this list, you know how few “business books” I read—as this book so eloquently explains, most are hideous. This is one which will open your eyes and make you think.

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Ronson, Jon. Them: Adventures with Extremists. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0-7432-3321-2.
Journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson, intrigued by political and religious extremists in modern Western societies, decided to try to get inside their heads by hanging out with a variety of them as they went about their day to day lives on the fringe. Despite his being Jewish, a frequent contributor to the leftist Guardian newspaper, and often thought of as primarily a humorist, he found himself welcomed into the inner circle of characters as diverse as U.K. Muslim fundamentalist Omar Bakri, Randy Weaver and his daughter Rachel, Colonel Bo Gritz, who he visits while helping to rebuild the Branch Davidian church at Waco, a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan attempting to remake the image of that organisation with the aid of self-help books, and Dr. Ian Paisley on a missionary visit to Cameroon (where he learns why it's a poor idea to order the “porcupine” in the restaurant when visiting that country).

Ronson is surprised to discover that, as incompatible as the doctrines of these characters may be, they are nearly unanimous in believing the world is secretly ruled by a conspiracy of globalist plutocrats who plot their schemes in shadowy venues such as the Bilderberg conferences and the Bohemian Grove in northern California. So, the author decides to check this out for himself. He stalks the secretive Bilderberg meeting to a luxury hotel in Portugal and discovers to his dismay that the Bilderberg Group stalks back, and that the British Embassy can't help you when they're on your tail. Then, he gatecrashes the bizarre owl god ritual in the Bohemian Grove through the clever expedient of walking in right through the main gate.

The narrative is entertaining throughout, and generally sympathetic to the extremists he encounters, who mostly come across as sincere (if deluded), and running small-time operations on a limited budget. After becoming embroiled in a controversy during a tour of Canada by David Icke, who claims the world is run by a cabal of twelve foot tall shape-shifting reptilians, and was accused of anti-Semitic hate speech on the grounds that these were “code words” for a Zionist conspiracy, the author ends up concluding that sometimes a twelve foot tall alien lizard is just an alien lizard.

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Anderson, Brian C. South Park Conservatives. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-019-0.
Who would have imagined that the advent of “new media”—not just the Internet, but also AM radio after having been freed of the shackles of the “fairness doctrine”, cable television, with its proliferation of channels and the advent of “narrowcasting”, along with the venerable old media of stand-up comedy, cartoon series, and square old books would end up being dominated by conservatives and libertarians? Certainly not the greybeards atop the media pyramid who believed they set the agenda for public discourse and are now aghast to discover that the “people power” they always gave lip service to means just that—the people, not they, actually have the power, and there's nothing they can do to get it back into their own hands.

This book chronicles the conservative new media revolution of the past decade. There's nothing about the new media in themselves which has made it a conservative revolution—it's simply that it occurred in a society in which, at the outset, the media were dominated by an elite which were in the thrall of a collectivist ideology which had little or no traction outside the imperial districts from which they declaimed, while the audience they were haranguing had different beliefs entirely which, when they found media which spoke to them, immediately started to listen and tuned out the well-groomed, dulcet-voiced, insipid propagandists of the conventional wisdom.

One need only glance at the cratering audience figures for the old media—left-wing urban newspapers, television network news, and “mainstream” news-magazines to see the extent to which they are being shunned. The audience abandoning them is discovering the new media: Web sites, blogs, cable news, talk radio, which (if one follows a broad enough selection), gives a sense of what is actually going on in the world, as opposed to what the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post decide merits appearing on the front page.

Of course, the new media aren't perfect, but they are diverse—which is doubtless why collectivist partisans of coercive consensus so detest them. Some conservatives may be dismayed by the vulgarity of “South Park” (I'll confess; I'm a big fan), but we partisans of civilisation would be well advised to party down together under a broad and expansive tent. Otherwise, the bastards might kill Kenny with a rocket widget ball.

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Dalrymple, Theodore. Our Culture, What's Left of It. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. ISBN 1-56663-643-4.
Theodore Dalrymple is the nom de plume of Anthony Daniels, a British physician and psychiatrist who, until his recent retirement, practiced in a prison medical ward and public hospital in Birmingham, England. In his early career, he travelled widely, visiting such earthly paradises as North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, Zimbabwe (when it was still Rhodesia), and Tanzania, where he acquired an acute sense of the social prerequisites for the individual disempowerment which characterises the third world. This experience superbly equipped him to diagnose the same maladies in the city centres of contemporary Britain; he is arguably the most perceptive and certainly among the most eloquent contemporary observers of that society.

This book is a collection of his columns from City Journal, most dating from 2001 through 2004, about equally divided between “Arts and Letters” and “Society and Politics”. There are gems in both sections: you'll want to re-read Macbeth after reading Dalrymple on the nature of evil and need for boundaries if humans are not to act inhumanly. Among the chapters of social commentary is a prophetic essay which almost precisely forecast the recent violence in France three years before it happened, one of the clearest statements of the inherent problems of Islam in adapting to modernity, and a persuasive argument against drug legalisation by somebody who spent almost his entire career treating the victims of both illegal drugs and the drug war. Dalrymple has decided to conclude his medical career in down-spiralling urban Britain for a life in rural France where, notwithstanding problems, people still know how to live. Thankfully, he will continue his writing.

Many of these essays can be found on-line at the City Journal site; I've linked to those I cited in the last paragraph. I find that writing this fine is best enjoyed away from the computer, as ink on paper in a serene time, but it's great that one can now read material on-line to decide whether it's worth springing for the book.

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Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, [1958] 1994. ISBN 1-56000-704-4.
The word “meritocracy” has become so commonplace in discussions of modern competitive organisations and societies that you may be surprised to learn the word did not exist before 1958—a year after Sputnik—when the publication of this most curious book introduced the word and concept into the English language. This is one of the oddest works of serious social commentary ever written—so odd, in fact, its author despaired of its ever seeing print after the manuscript was rejected by eleven publishers before finally appearing, whereupon it was quickly republished by Penguin and has been in print ever since, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and being translated into seven different languages.

Even though the author was a quintessential “policy wonk”: he wrote the first postwar manifesto for the British Labour Party, founded the Open University and the Consumer Association, and sat in the House of Lords as Lord Young of Dartington, this is a work of…what shall we call it…utopia? dystopia? future history? alternative history? satire? ironic social commentary? science fiction?…beats me. It has also perplexed many others, including one of the publishers who rejected it on the grounds that “they never published Ph.D. theses” without having observed that the book is cast as a thesis written in the year 2034! Young's dry irony and understated humour has gone right past many readers, especially those unacquainted with English satire, moving them to outrage, as if George Orwell were thought to be advocating Big Brother. (I am well attuned to this phenomenon, having experienced it myself with the Unicard and Digital Imprimatur papers; no matter how obvious you make the irony, somebody, usually in what passes for universities these days, will take it seriously and explode in rage and vituperation.)

The meritocracy of this book is nothing like what politicians and business leaders mean when they parrot the word today (one hopes, anyway)! In the future envisioned here, psychology and the social sciences advance to the point that it becomes possible to determine the IQ of individuals at a young age, and that this IQ, combined with motivation and effort of the person, is an almost perfect predictor of their potential achievement in intellectual work. Given this, Britain is seen evolving from a class system based on heredity and inherited wealth to a caste system sorted by intelligence, with the high-intelligence élite “streamed” through special state schools with their peers, while the lesser endowed are directed toward manual labour, and the sorry side of the bell curve find employment as personal servants to the élite, sparing their precious time for the life of the mind and the leisure and recreation it requires.

And yet the meritocracy is a thoroughly socialist society: the crème de la crème become the wise civil servants who direct the deployment of scarce human and financial capital to the needs of the nation in a highly-competitive global environment. Inheritance of wealth has been completely abolished, existing accumulations of wealth confiscated by “capital levies”, and all salaries made equal (although the élite, naturally, benefit from a wide variety of employer-provided perquisites—so is it always, even in merito-egalitopias). The benevolent state provides special schools for the intelligent progeny of working class parents, to rescue them from the intellectual damage their dull families might do, and prepare them for their shining destiny, while at the same time it provides sports, recreation, and entertainment to amuse the mentally modest masses when they finish their daily (yet satisfying, to dullards such as they) toil.

Young's meritocracy is a society where equality of opportunity has completely triumphed: test scores trump breeding, money, connections, seniority, ethnicity, accent, religion, and all of the other ways in which earlier societies sorted people into classes. The result, inevitably, is drastic inequality of results—but, hey, everybody gets paid the same, so it's cool, right? Well, for a while anyway…. As anybody who isn't afraid to look at the data knows perfectly well, there is a strong hereditary component to intelligence. Sorting people into social classes by intelligence will, over the generations, cause the mean intelligence of the largely non-interbreeding classes to drift apart (although there will be regression to the mean among outliers on each side, mobility among the classes due to individual variation will preserve or widen the gap). After a few generations this will result, despite perfect social mobility in theory, in a segregated caste system almost as rigid as that of England at the apogee of aristocracy. Just because “the masses” actually are benighted in this society doesn't mean they can't cause a lot of trouble, especially if incited by rabble-rousing bored women from the élite class. (I warned you this book will enrage those who don't see the irony.) Toward the end of the book, this conflict is building toward a crisis. Anybody who can guess the ending ought to be writing satirical future history themselves.

Actually, I wonder how many of those who missed the satire didn't actually finish the book or simply judged it by the title. It is difficult to read a passage like this one on p. 134 and mistake it for anything else.

Contrast the present — think how different was a meeting in the 2020s of the National Joint Council, which has been retained for form's sake. On the one side sit the I.Q.s of 140, on the other the I.Q.s of 99. On the one side the intellectual magnates of our day, on the other honest, horny-handed workmen more at home with dusters than documents. On the one side the solid confidence born of hard-won achievement; on the other the consciousness of a just inferiority.
Seriously, anybody who doesn't see the satire in this must be none too Swift. Although the book is cast as a retrospective from 2038, and there passing references to atomic stations, home entertainment centres, school trips to the Moon and the like, technologically the world seems very much like that of 1950s. There is one truly frightening innovation, however. On p. 110, discussing the shrinking job market for shop attendants, we're told, “The large shop with its more economical use of staff had supplanted many smaller ones, the speedy spread of self-service in something like its modern form had reduced the number of assistants needed, and piped distribution of milk, tea, and beer was extending rapidly.” To anybody with personal experience with British plumbing and English beer, the mere thought of the latter being delivered through the former is enough to induce dystopic shivers of 1984 magnitude.

Looking backward from almost fifty years on, this book can be read as an alternative history of the last half-century. In the eyes of many with a libertarian or conservative inclination, just when the centuries-long battle against privilege and prejudice was finally being won: in the 1950s and early 60s when Young's book appeared, the dream of equal opportunity so eloquently embodied in Dr. Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech began to evaporate in favour of equality of results (by forced levelling and dumbing down if that's what it took), group identity and entitlements, and the creation of a permanently dependent underclass from which escape was virtually impossible. The best works of alternative history are those which change just one thing in the past and then let the ripples spread outward over the years. You can read this story as a possible future in which equal opportunity really did completely triumph over egalitarianism in the sixties. For those who assume that would have been an unqualifiedly good thing, here is a cautionary tale well worth some serious reflexion.

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February 2006

Randall, Lisa. Warped Passages. New York: Ecco, 2005. ISBN 0-06-053108-8.
The author is one of most prominent theoretical physicists working today, known primarily for her work on multi-dimensional “braneworld” models for particle physics and gravitation. With Raman Sundrum, she created the Randall-Sundrum models, the papers describing which are among the most highly cited in contemporary physics. In this book, aimed at a popular audience, she explores the revolution in theoretical physics which extra dimensional models have sparked since 1999, finally uniting string theorists, model builders, and experimenters in the expectation of finding signatures of new physics when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) comes on stream at CERN in 2007.

The excitement among physicists is palpable: there is now reason to believe that the unification of all the forces of physics, including gravity, may not lie forever out of reach at the Planck energy, but somewhere in the TeV range—which will be accessible at the LHC. This book attempts to communicate that excitement to the intelligent layman and, sadly, falls somewhat short of the mark. The problem, in a nutshell, is that while the author is a formidable physicist, she is not, at least at this point in her career, a particularly talented populariser of science. In this book she has undertaken an extremely ambitious task, since laying the groundwork for braneworld models requires recapitulating most of twentieth century physics, including special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, particle physics and the standard model, and the rudiments of string theory. All of this results in a 500 page volume where we don't really get to the new stuff until about page 300. Now, this problem is generic to physics popularisations, but many others have handled it much better; Randall seems compelled to invent an off-the-wall analogy for every single technical item she describes, even when the description itself would be crystal clear to a reader encountering the material for the first time. You almost start to cringe—after every paragraph or two about actual physics, you know there's one coming about water sprinklers, ducks on a pond, bureaucrats shuffling paper, artists mixing paint, drivers and speed traps, and a host of others. There are also far too few illustrations in the chapters describing relativity and quantum mechanics; Isaac Asimov used to consider it a matter of pride to explain things in words rather than using a diagram, but Randall is (as yet) neither the wordsmith nor the explainer that Asimov was, but then who is?

There is a lot to like here, and I know of no other popular source which so clearly explains what may be discovered when the LHC fires up next year. Readers familiar with modern physics might check this book out of the library or borrow a copy from a friend and start reading at chapter 15, or maybe chapter 12 if you aren't up on the hierarchy problem in the standard model. This is a book which could have greatly benefited from a co-author with experience in science popularisation: Randall's technical writing (for example, her chapter in the Wheeler 90th birthday festschrift) is a model of clarity and concision; perhaps with more experience she'll get a better handle on communicating to a general audience.

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Warraq, Ibn [pseud.] ed. Leaving Islam. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. ISBN 1-59102-068-9.
Multiculturalists and ardent secularists may contend “all organised religions are the same”, but among all major world religions only Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostasy, which makes these accounts by former Muslims of the reasons for and experience of their abandoning Islam more than just stories of religious doubt. (There is some dispute as to whether the Koran requires death for apostates, or only threatens punishment in the afterlife. Some prominent Islamic authorities, however, interpret surat II:217 and IX:11,12 as requiring death for apostates. Numerous aḥadīth are unambiguous on the point, for example Bukhārī book 84, number 57 quotes Mohammed saying, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him”, which doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation, nor do authoritative manuals of Islamic law such as Reliance of the Traveller, which prescribes (o8.1) “When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed”. The first hundred pages of Leaving Islam explore the theory and practice of Islamic apostasy in both ancient and modern times.)

The balance of the book are personal accounts by apostates, both those born into Islam and converts who came to regret their embrace of what Salman Rushdie has called “that least huggable of faiths”. These testaments range from the tragic (chapter 15), to the philosophical (chapter 29), and ironically humorous (chapter 37). One common thread which runs through the stories of many apostates is that while they were taught as children to “read” the Koran, what this actually meant was learning enough Arabic script and pronunciation to be able to recite the Arabic text but without having any idea what it meant. (Very few of the contributors to this book speak Arabic as their mother tongue, and it is claimed [p. 400] that even native Arabic speakers can barely understand the classical Arabic of the Koran, but I don't know the extent to which this is true. But in any case, only about 15% of Muslims are Arabic mother tongue speakers.) In many of the narratives, disaffection with Islam either began, or was strongly reinforced, when they read the Koran in translation and discovered that the “real Islam” they had imagined as idealistic and benign was, on the evidence of what is regarded as the word of God, nothing of the sort. It is interesting that, unlike the Roman Catholic church before the Reformation, which attempted to prevent non-clergy from reading the Bible for themselves, Islam encourages believers to study the Koran and Ḥadīth, both in the original Arabic and translation (see for example this official Saudi site). It is ironic that just such study of scripture seems to encourage apostasy, but perhaps this is the case only for those already so predisposed.

Eighty pages of appendices include quotations from the Koran and Ḥadīth illustrating the darker side of Islam and a bibliography of books and list of Web sites critical of Islam. The editor is author of Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002), editor of What the Koran Really Says (April 2003), and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society.

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Gurstelle, William. Adventures from the Technology Underground. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5082-0.
This thoroughly delightful book invites the reader into a subculture of adults who devote their free time, disposable income, and considerable brainpower to defying Mr. Wizard's sage injunction, “Don't try this yourself at home”. The author begins with a handy litmus test to decide whether you're a candidate for the Technology Underground. If you think flying cars are a silly gag from The Jetsons, you don't make the cut. If, on the other hand, you not only think flying cars are perfectly reasonable but can barely comprehend why there isn't already one, ideally with orbital capability, in your own garage right now—it's the bleepin' twenty-first century, fervent snakes—then you “get it” and will have no difficulty understanding what motivates folks to build high powered rockets, giant Tesla coils, flamethrowers, hypersonic rail guns, hundred foot long pumpkin-firing cannons, and trebuchets (if you really want to make your car fly, it's just the ticket, but the operative word is “fly”, not “land”). In a world where basement tinkering and “that looks about right” amateur engineering has been largely supplanted by virtual and vicarious experiences mediated by computers, there remains the visceral attraction of heavy metal, high voltage, volatile chemicals, high velocities, and things that go bang, whoosh, zap, splat, and occasionally kaboom.

A technical section explains the theory and operation of the principal engine of entertainment in each chapter. The author does not shrink from using equations where useful to clarify design trade-offs; flying car fans aren't going to be intimidated by the occasional resonant transformer equation! The principles of operation of the various machines are illustrated by line drawings, but there isn't a single photo in the book, which is a real shame. Three story tall diesel-powered centrifugal pumpkin hurling machines, a four story 130 kW Tesla coil, and a calliope with a voice consisting of seventeen pulsejets are something one would like to see as well as read about, however artfully described.

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Mullane, Mike. Riding Rockets. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7682-5.
Mike Mullane joined NASA in 1978, one of the first group of astronauts recruited specifically for the space shuttle program. An Air Force veteran of 134 combat missions in Vietnam as back-seater in the RF-4C reconnaissance version of the Phantom fighter (imperfect eyesight disqualified him from pilot training), he joined NASA as a mission specialist and eventually flew on three shuttle missions: STS-41D in 1984, STS-27 in 1988, and STS-36 in 1990, the latter two classified Department of Defense missions for which he was twice awarded the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. (Receipt of this medal was, at the time, itself a secret, but was declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The work for which the medals were awarded remains secret to this day.)

As a mission specialist, Mullane never maneuvered the shuttle in space nor landed it on Earth, nor did he perform a spacewalk, mark any significant “first” in space exploration or establish any records apart from being part of the crew of STS-36 which flew the highest inclination (62°) orbit of any human spaceflight so far. What he has done here is write one of the most enlightening, enthralling, and brutally honest astronaut memoirs ever published, far and away the best describing the shuttle era. All of the realities of NASA in the 1980s which were airbrushed out by Public Affairs Officers with the complicity of an astronaut corps who knew that to speak to an outsider about what was really going on would mean they'd never get another flight assignment are dealt with head-on: the dysfunctional, intimidation- and uncertainty-based management culture, the gap between what astronauts knew about the danger and unreliability of the shuttle and what NASA was telling Congress and public, the conflict between battle-hardened military astronauts and perpetual student post-docs recruited as scientist-astronauts, the shameless toadying to politicians, and the perennial over-promising of shuttle capabilities and consequent corner-cutting and workforce exhaustion. (Those of a libertarian bent might wish they could warp back in time, shake the author by the shoulders, and remind him, “Hey dude, you're working for a government agency!”)

The realities of flying a space shuttle mission are described without any of the sugar-coating or veiled references common in other astronaut accounts, and always with a sense of humour. The deep-seated dread of strapping into an experimental vehicle with four million pounds of explosive fuel and no crew escape system is discussed candidly, along with the fact that, while universally shared by astronauts, it was, of course, never hinted to outsiders, even passengers on the shuttle who were told it was a kind of very fast, high-flying airliner. Even if the shuttle doesn't kill you, there's still the toilet to deal with, and any curiosity you've had about that particular apparatus will not outlast your finishing this book (the on-orbit gross-out prank on p. 179 may be too much even for “South Park”). Barfing in space and the curious and little-discussed effects of microgravity on the male and female anatomy which may someday contribute mightily to the popularity of orbital tourism are discussed in graphic detail. A glossary of NASA jargon and acronyms is included but there is no index, which would be a valuable addition.

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Kelleher, Colm A. and George Knapp. Hunt for the Skinwalker. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 1-4165-0521-0.
Memo to file: if you're one of those high-strung people prone to be rattled by the occasional bulletproof wolf, flying refrigerator, disappearing/reappearing interdimensional gateway, lumbering giant humanoid, dog-incinerating luminous orb, teleporting bull, and bloodlessly eviscerated cow, don't buy a ranch, even if it's a terrific bargain, whose very mention makes American Indians in the neighbourhood go “woo-woo” and slowly back away from you. That's what Terry Sherman (“Tom Gorman” in this book) and family did in 1994, walking into, if you believe their story, a seething nexus of the paranormal so weird and intense that Chris Carter could have saved a fortune by turning the “X-Files” into a reality show about their life. The Shermans found that living with things which don't just go bump in the night but also slaughter their prize livestock and working dogs so disturbing they jumped at the opportunity to unload the place in 1996, when the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), a private foundation investigating the paranormal funded by real estate tycoon and inflatable space station entrepreneur Robert Bigelow offered to buy them out in order to establish a systematic on-site investigation of the phenomena. (The NIDS Web site does not appear to have been updated since late 2004; I don't know if the organisation is still in existence or active.)

This book, co-authored by the biochemist who headed the field team investigating the phenomena and the television news reporter who covered the story, describes events on the ranch both before and during the scientific investigation. As is usual in such accounts, all the really weird stuff happened before the scientists arrived on the scene with their cameras, night vision scopes, radiation meters, spectrometers, magnetometers (why is always magnetometers, anyway?) and set up shop in their “command and control centre” (a.k.a. trailer—summoning to mind the VW bus “mobile command post” in The Lone Gunmen). Afterward, there was only the rare nocturnal light, mind-controlling black-on-black flying object, and transdimensional tunnel sighting (is an orange pulsating luminous orb which disgorges fierce four hundred pound monsters a “jackal lantern”?), none, of course, captured on film or video, nor registered on any other instrument.

This observation and investigation serves as the launch pad for eighty pages of speculation about causes, natural and supernatural, including the military, shape-shifting Navajo witches, extraterrestrials, invaders from other dimensions, hallucination-inducing shamanism, bigfoot, and a muddled epilogue which illustrates why biochemists and television newsmen should seek the advice of a physicist before writing about speculative concepts in modern physics. The conclusion is, unsurprisingly: “inconclusive.”

Suppose, for a moment, that all of this stuff really did happen, more or less as described. (Granted, that is a pretty big hypothetical, but then the family who first experienced the weirdness never seems to have sought publicity or profit from their experiences, and this book is the first commercial exploitation of the events, coming more than ten years after they began.) What could possibly be going on? Allow me to humbly suggest that the tongue-in-cheek hypothesis advanced in my 1997 paper Flying Saucers Explained, combined with some kind of recurring “branestorm” opening and closing interdimensional gates in the vicinity, might explain many of the otherwise enigmatic, seemingly unrelated, and nonsensical phenomena reported in this and other paranormal “hot spots”.

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March 2006

Ferrigno, Robert. Prayers for the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7289-7.
The year is 2040. The former United States have fissioned into the coast-to-coast Islamic Republic in the north and the Bible Belt from Texas eastward to the Atlantic, with the anything-goes Nevada Free State acting as a broker between them, pressure relief valve, and window to the outside world. The collapse of the old decadent order was triggered by the nuclear destruction of New York and Washington, and the radioactive poisoning of Mecca by a dirty bomb in 2015, confessed to by an agent of the Mossad, who revealed a plot to set the Islamic world and the West against one another. In the aftermath, a wave of Islamic conversion swept the West, led by the glitterati and opinion leaders, with hold-outs fleeing to the Bible Belt, which co-exists with the Islamic Republic in a state of low intensity warfare. China has become the world's sole superpower, with Russia, reaping the benefit of refugees from overrun Israel, the high-technology centre.

This novel is set in the Islamic Republic, largely in the capital of Seattle (no surprise—even pre-transition, that's where the airheads seem to accrete, and whence bad ideas and flawed technologies seep out to despoil the heartland). The society sketched is believably rich and ambiguous: Muslims are divided into “modern”, “moderate”, and “fundamentalist” communities which more or less co-exist, like the secular, religious, and orthodox communities in present-day Israel. Many Catholics have remained in the Islamic Republic, reduced to dhimmitude and limited in their career aspirations, but largely left alone as long as they keep to themselves. The Southwest, with its largely Catholic hispanic population, is a zone of relative personal liberty within the Islamic Republic, much like Kish Island in Iran. Power in the Islamic Republic, as in Iran, is under constant contention among national security, religious police, the military, fanatic “fedayeen”, and civil authority, whose scheming against one another leaves cracks in which the clever can find a modicum of freedom.

But the historical events upon which the Islamic Republic is founded may not be what they seem, and the protagonists, the adopted but estranged son and daughter of the shadowy head of state security, must untangle decades of intrigue and misdirection to find the truth and make it public. There are some thoughtful and authentic touches in the world sketched in this novel: San Francisco has become a hotbed of extremist fundamentalism, which might seem odd until you reflect that moonbat collectivism and environmentalism share much of the same desire to make the individual submit to externally imposed virtue which suffuses radical Islam. Properly packaged and marketed, Islam can be highly attractive to disillusioned leftists, as the conversion of Carlos “the Jackal” from fanatic Marxist to “revolutionary Islam” demonstrates.

There are a few goofs. Authors who include nuclear weapons in their stories really ought seek the advice of somebody who knows about them, or at least research them in the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. The “fissionable fuel rods from a new Tajik reactor…made from a rare isotope, supposedly much more powerful than plutonium” on p. 212, purportedly used to fabricate a five megaton bomb, is the purest nonsense in about every way imaginable. First of all, there are no isotopes, rare or otherwise, which are better than highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium for fission weapons. Second, there's no way you could possibly make a five megaton fission bomb, regardless of the isotope you used—to get such a yield you'd need so much fission fuel that it would be much more than a critical mass and predetonate, which would ruin your whole day. The highest yield fission bomb ever built was Ted Taylor's Mk 18F Super Oralloy Bomb (SOB), which contained about four critical masses of U-235, and depended upon the very low neutron background of HEU to permit implosion assembly before predetonation. The SOB had a yield of about 500 kt; with all the short half-life junk in fuel rods, there's no way you could possibly approach that yield, not to speak of something ten times as great. If you need high yield, tritium boosting or a full-fledged two stage Teller-Ulam fusion design is the only way to go. The author also shares the common misconception in thrillers that radiation is something like an infectuous disease which permanently contaminates everything it touches. Unfortunately, this fallacy plays a significant part in the story.

Still, this is a well-crafted page-turner which, like the best alternative history, is not only entertaining but will make you think. The blogosphere has been chattering about this book (that's where I came across it), and they're justified in recommending it. The Web site for the book, complete with Flash animation and an annoying sound track, includes background information and the author's own blog with links to various reviews.

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Susskind, Leonard. The Cosmic Landscape. New York: Little, Brown, 2006. ISBN 0-316-15579-9.
Leonard Susskind (and, independently, Yoichiro Nambu) co-discovered the original hadronic string theory in 1969. He has been a prominent contributor to a wide variety of topics in theoretical physics over his long career, and is a talented explainer of abstract theoretical concepts to the general reader. This book communicates both the physics and cosmology of the “string landscape” (a term he coined in 2003) revolution which has swiftly become the consensus among string theorists, as well as the intellectual excitement of those exploring this new frontier.

The book is subtitled “String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design” which may be better marketing copy—controversy sells—than descriptive of the contents. There is very little explicit discussion of intelligent design in the book at all except in the first and last pages, and what is meant by “intelligent design” is not what the reader might expect: design arguments in the origin and evolution of life, but rather the apparent fine-tuning of the physical constants of our universe, the cosmological constant in particular, without which life as we know it (and, in many cases, not just life but even atoms, stars, and galaxies) could not exist. Susskind is eloquent in describing why the discovery that the cosmological constant, which virtually every theoretical physicist would have bet had to be precisely zero, is (apparently) a small tiny positive number, seemingly fine tuned to one hundred and twenty decimal places “hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks” (p. 185)—here was a number which, not only did theory suggest should be 120 orders of magnitude greater, but which, had it been slightly larger than its minuscule value, would have precluded structure formation (and hence life) in the universe. One can imagine some as-yet-undiscovered mathematical explanation why a value is precisely zero (and, indeed, physicists did: it's called supersymmetry, and searching for evidence of it is one of the reasons they're spending billions of taxpayer funds to build the Large Hadron Collider), but when you come across a dial set with the almost ridiculous precision of 120 decimal places and it's a requirement for our own existence, thoughts of a benevolent Creator tend to creep into the mind of even the most doctrinaire scientific secularist. This is how the appearance of “intelligent design” (as the author defines it) threatens to get into the act, and the book is an exposition of the argument string theorists and cosmologists have developed to contend that such apparent design is entirely an illusion.

The very title of the book, then invites us to contrast two theories of the origin of the universe: “intelligent design” and the “string landscape”. So, let's accept that challenge and plunge right in, shall we? First of all, permit me to observe that despite frequent claims to the contrary, including some in this book, intelligent design need not presuppose a supernatural being operating outside the laws of science and/or inaccessible to discovery through scientific investigation. The origin of life on Earth due to deliberate seeding with engineered organisms by intelligent extraterrestrials is a theory of intelligent design which has no supernatural component, evidence of which may be discovered by science in the future, and which is sufficiently plausible to have persuaded Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was the most likely explanation. If you observe a watch, you're entitled to infer the existence of a watchmaker, but there's no reason to believe he's a magician, just a craftsman.

If we're to compare these theories, let us begin by stating them both succinctly:

Theory 1: Intelligent Design.   An intelligent being created the universe and chose the initial conditions and physical laws so as to permit the existence of beings like ourselves.

Theory 2: String Landscape.   The laws of physics and initial conditions of the universe are chosen at random from among 10500 possibilities, only a vanishingly small fraction of which (probably no more than one in 10120) can support life. The universe we observe, which is infinite in extent and may contain regions where the laws of physics differ, is one of an infinite number of causally disconnected “pocket universes“ which spontaneously form from quantum fluctuations in the vacuum of parent universes, a process which has been occurring for an infinite time in the past and will continue in the future, time without end. Each of these pocket universes which, together, make up the “megaverse”, has its own randomly selected laws of physics, and hence the overwhelming majority are sterile. We find ourselves in one of the tiny fraction of hospitable universes because if we weren't in such an exceptionally rare universe, we wouldn't exist to make the observation. Since there are an infinite number of universes, however, every possibility not only occurs, but occurs an infinite number of times, so not only are there an infinite number of inhabited universes, there are an infinite number identical to ours, including an infinity of identical copies of yourself wondering if this paragraph will ever end. Not only does the megaverse spawn an infinity of universes, each universe itself splits into two copies every time a quantum measurement occurs. Our own universe will eventually spawn a bubble which will destroy all life within it, probably not for a long, long time, but you never know. Evidence for all of the other universes is hidden behind a cosmic horizon and may remain forever inaccessible to observation.

Paging Friar Ockham! If unnecessarily multiplying hypotheses are stubble indicating a fuzzy theory, it's pretty clear which of these is in need of the razor! Further, while one can imagine scientific investigation discovering evidence for Theory 1, almost all of the mechanisms which underlie Theory 2 remain, barring some conceptual breakthrough equivalent to looking inside a black hole, forever hidden from science by an impenetrable horizon through which no causal influence can propagate. So severe is this problem that chapter 9 of the book is devoted to the question of how far theoretical physics can go in the total absence of experimental evidence. What's more, unlike virtually every theory in the history of science, which attempted to describe the world we observe as accurately and uniquely as possible, Theory 2 predicts every conceivable universe and says, hey, since we do, after all, inhabit a conceivable universe, it's consistent with the theory. To one accustomed to the crystalline inevitability of Newtonian gravitation, general relativity, quantum electrodynamics, or the laws of thermodynamics, this seems by comparison like a California blonde saying “whatever”—the cosmology of despair.

Scientists will, of course, immediately rush to attack Theory 1, arguing that a being such as that it posits would necessarily be “indistinguishable from magic”, capable of explaining anything, and hence unfalsifiable and beyond the purview of science. (Although note that on pp. 192–197 Susskind argues that Popperian falsifiability should not be a rigid requirement for a theory to be deemed scientific. See Lee Smolin's Scientific Alternatives to the Anthropic Principle for the argument against the string landscape theory on the grounds of falsifiability, and the 2004 Smolin/Susskind debate for a more detailed discussion of this question.) But let us look more deeply at the attributes of what might be called the First Cause of Theory 2. It not only permeates all of our universe, potentially spawning a bubble which may destroy it and replace it with something different, it pervades the abstract landscape of all possible universes, populating them with an infinity of independent and diverse universes over an eternity of time: omnipresent in spacetime. When a universe is created, all the parameters which ultimately govern its ultimate evolution (under the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics, to be sure) are fixed at the moment of creation: omnipotent to create any possibility, perhaps even varying the mathematical structures underlying the laws of physics. As a budded off universe evolves, whether a sterile formless void or teeming with intelligent life, no information is ever lost in its quantum evolution, not even down a black hole or across a cosmic horizon, and every quantum event splits the universe and preserves all possible outcomes. The ensemble of universes is thus omniscient of all its contents. Throw in intelligent and benevolent, and you've got the typical deity, and since you can't observe the parallel universes where the action takes place, you pretty much have to take it on faith. Where have we heard that before?

Lest I be accused of taking a cheap shot at string theory, or advocating a deistic view of the universe, consider the following creation story which, after John A. Wheeler, I shall call “Creation without the Creator”. Many extrapolations of continued exponential growth in computing power envision a technological singularity in which super-intelligent computers designing their own successors rapidly approach the ultimate physical limits on computation. Such computers would be sufficiently powerful to run highly faithful simulations of complex worlds, including intelligent beings living within them which need not be aware they were inhabiting a simulation, but thought they were living at the “top level”, who eventually passed through their own technological singularity, created their own simulated universes, populated them with intelligent beings who, in turn,…world without end. Of course, each level of simulation imposes a speed penalty (though, perhaps not much in the case of quantum computation), but it's not apparent to the inhabitants of the simulation since their own perceived time scale is in units of the “clock rate” of the simulation.

If an intelligent civilisation develops to the point where it can build these simulated universes, will it do so? Of course it will—just look at the fascination crude video game simulations have for people today. Now imagine a simulation as rich as reality and unpredictable as tomorrow, actually creating an inhabited universe—who could resist? As unlimited computing power becomes commonplace, kids will create innovative universes and evolve them for billions of simulated years for science fair projects. Call the mean number of simulated universes created by intelligent civilisations in a given universe (whether top-level or itself simulated) the branching factor. If this is greater than one, and there is a single top-level non-simulated universe, then it will be outnumbered by simulated universes which grow exponentially in numbers with the depth of the simulation. Hence, by the Copernican principle, or principle of mediocrity, we should expect to find ourselves in a simulated universe, since they vastly outnumber the single top-level one, which would be an exceptional place in the ensemble of real and simulated universes. Now here's the point: if, as we should expect from this argument, we do live in a simulated universe, then our universe is the product of intelligent design and Theory 1 is an absolutely correct description of its origin.

Suppose this is the case: we're inside a simulation designed by a freckle-faced superkid for extra credit in her fifth grade science class. Is this something we could discover, or must it, like so many aspects of Theory 2, be forever hidden from our scientific investigation? Surprisingly, this variety of Theory 1 is quite amenable to experiment: neither revelation nor faith is required. What would we expect to see if we inhabited a simulation? Well, there would probably be a discrete time step and granularity in position fixed by the time and position resolution of the simulation—check, and check: the Planck time and distance appear to behave this way in our universe. There would probably be an absolute speed limit to constrain the extent we could directly explore and impose a locality constraint on propagating updates throughout the simulation—check: speed of light. There would be a limit on the extent of the universe we could observe—check: the Hubble radius is an absolute horizon we cannot penetrate, and the last scattering surface of the cosmic background radiation limits electromagnetic observation to a still smaller radius. There would be a limit on the accuracy of physical measurements due to the finite precision of the computation in the simulation—check: Heisenberg uncertainty principle—and, as in games, randomness would be used as a fudge when precision limits were hit—check: quantum mechanics.

Might we expect surprises as we subject our simulated universe to ever more precise scrutiny, perhaps even astonishing the being which programmed it with our cunning and deviousness (as the author of any software package has experienced at the hands of real-world users)? Who knows, we might run into round-off errors which “hit us like a ton of bricks”! Suppose there were some quantity, say, that was supposed to be exactly zero but, if you went and actually measured the geometry way out there near the edge and crunched the numbers, you found out it differed from zero in the 120th decimal place. Why, you might be as shocked as the naïve Perl programmer who ran the program “printf("%.18f", 0.2)” and was aghast when it printed “0.200000000000000011” until somebody explained that with about 56 bits of mantissa in IEEE double precision floating point, you only get about 17 decimal digits (log10 256) of precision. So, what does a round-off in the 120th digit imply? Not Theory 2, with its infinite number of infinitely reproducing infinite universes, but simply that our Theory 1 intelligent designer used 400 bit numbers (log2 10120) in the simulation and didn't count on our noticing—remember you heard it here first, and if pointing this out causes the simulation to be turned off, sorry about that, folks! Surprises from future experiments which would be suggestive (though not probative) that we're in a simulated universe would include failure to find any experimental signature of quantum gravity (general relativity could be classical in the simulation, since potential conflicts with quantum mechanics would be hidden behind event horizons in the present-day universe, and extrapolating backward to the big bang would be meaningless if the simulation were started at a later stage, say at the time of big bang nucleosynthesis), and discovery of limits on the ability to superpose wave functions for quantum computation which could result from limited precision in the simulation as opposed to the continuous complex values assumed by quantum mechanics. An interesting theoretical program would be to investigate feasible experiments which, by magnifying physical effects similar to proposed searches for quantum gravity signals, would detect round-off errors of magnitude comparable to the cosmological constant.

But seriously, this is an excellent book and anybody who's interested in the strange direction in which the string theorists are veering these days ought to read it; it's well-written, authoritative, reasonably fair to opposing viewpoints (although I'm surprised the author didn't address the background spacetime criticism of string theory raised so eloquently by Lee Smolin), and provides a roadmap of how string theory may develop in the coming years. The only nagging question you're left with after finishing the book is whether after thirty years of theorising which comes to the conclusion that everything is predicted and nothing can be observed, it's about science any more.

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Freeh, Louis J. with Howard Means. My FBI. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 0-312-32189-9.
This may be one of the most sanctimonious and self-congratulatory books ever written by a major U.S. public figure who is not Jimmy Carter. Not only is the book titled “My FBI” (gee, I always thought it was supposed to belong to the U.S. taxpayers who pay the G-men's salaries and buy the ammunition they expend), in the preface, where the author explains why he reversed his original decision not to write a memoir of his time at the FBI, he uses the words “I”, “me”, “my”, and “myself” a total of 91 times in four pages.

Only about half of the book covers Freeh's 1993–2001 tenure as FBI director; the rest is a straightforward autohagiography of his years as an altar boy, Eagle Scout, idealistic but apolitical law student during the turbulent early 1970s, FBI agent, crusading anti-Mafia federal prosecutor in New York City, and hard-working U.S. district judge, before bring appointed to the FBI job by Bill Clinton, who promised him independence and freedom from political interference in the work of the Bureau. Little did Freeh expect, when accepting the job, that he would spend much of his time in the coming years investigating the Clintons and their cronies. The tawdry and occasionally bizarre stories of those events as seen from the FBI fills a chapter and sets the background for the tense relations between the White House and FBI on other matters such as terrorism and counter-intelligence. The Oklahoma City and Saudi Arabian Khobar Towers bombings, the Atlanta Olympics bomb, the identification and arrest of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and the discovery of long-term Soviet mole Robert Hanssen in the FBI all occurred on Freeh's watch; he provides a view of these events and the governmental turf battles they engendered from the perspective of the big office in the Hoover Building, but there's little or no new information about the events themselves. Freeh resigned the FBI directorship in June 2001, and September 11th of that year was the first day at his new job. (What do you do after nine years running the FBI? Go to work for a credit card company!) In a final chapter, he provides a largely exculpatory account of the FBI's involvement in counter-terrorism and what might have been done to prevent such terrorist strikes. He directly attacks Richard A. Clarke and his book Against All Enemies as a self-aggrandising account by a minor player including some outright fabrications.

Freeh's book provides a peek into the mind of a self-consciously virtuous top cop—if only those foolish politicians and their paranoid constituents would sign over the last shreds of their liberties and privacy (on p. 304 he explicitly pitches for key escrow and back doors in encryption products, arguing “there's no need for this technology to be any more intrusive than a wiretap on a phone line”—indeed!), the righteous and incorruptible enforcers of the law and impartial arbiters of justice could make their lives ever so much safer and fret-free. And perhaps if the human beings in possession of those awesome powers were, in fact, as righteous as Mr. Freeh seems to believe himself to be, then there would nothing to worry about. But evidence suggests cause for concern. On the next to last page of the book, p. 324, near the end of six pages of acknowledgements set in small type with narrow leading (didn't think we'd read that far, Mr. Freeh?), we find the author naming, as an exemplar of one of the “courageous and honorable men who serve us”, who “deserve the nation's praise and lasting gratitude”, one Lon Horiuchi, the FBI sniper who shot and killed Vicki Weaver (who was accused of no crime) while she was holding her baby in her hands during the Ruby Ridge siege in August of 1992. Horiuchi later pled the Fifth Amendment in testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1995, ten years prior to Freeh's commendation of him here.

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O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Dalkey Archive. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1964] 1993. ISBN 1-56478-172-0.
What a fine book to be reading on Saint Patrick's Day! Flann O'Brien (a nom de plume of Brian O'Nolan, who also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, among others) is considered one of the greatest Irish authors of humor and satire in the twentieth century; James Joyce called him “A real writer, with the true comic spirit.” In addition to his novels, he wrote short stories, plays, and a multitude of newspaper columns in both the Irish and English languages. The Dalkey Archive is a story of mind-bending fantasy and linguistic acrobatics yet so accessible it sucks the reader into its alternative reality almost unsuspecting. A substantial part of the material is recycled from The Third Policeman (January 2004) which, although completed in 1940, the author despaired of ever seeing published (it was eventually published posthumously in 1967). Both novels are works of surreal fantasy, but The Dalkey Archive is more conventionally structured and easier to get into, much as John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit stands in relation to his own earlier and more experimental Stand on Zanzibar.

The mad scientist De Selby, who appears offstage and in extensive and highly eccentric footnotes in The Third Policeman, is a key character here, joined by Saint Augustine and James Joyce. The master of malaprop, Sergeant Fottrell and his curious “mollycule” theory about people and bicycles is here as well, providing a stolid counterpoint to De Selby's relativistic pneumatic theology and diabolical designs. It takes a special kind of genius to pack this much weirdness into only two hundred pages. If you're interested in O'Brien's curious career, this biography is an excellent starting point which contains no spoilers for any of his fiction.

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Reynolds, Glenn. An Army of Davids. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006. ISBN 1-5955-5054-2.
In this book, law professor and über blogger (InstaPundit.com) Glenn Reynolds explores how present and near-future technology is empowering individuals at the comparative expense of large organisations in fields as diverse as retailing, music and motion picture production, national security, news gathering, opinion journalism, and, looking further out, nanotechnology and desktop manufacturing, human longevity and augmentation, and space exploration and development (including Project Orion [pp. 228–233]—now there's a garage start-up I'd love to work on!). Individual empowerment is, like the technology which creates it, morally neutral: good people can do more good, and bad people can wreak more havoc. Reynolds is relentlessly optimistic, and I believe justifiably so; good people outnumber bad people by a large majority, and in a society which encourages them to be “a pack, not a herd” (the title of chapter 5), they will have the means in their hands to act as a societal immune system against hyper-empowered malefactors far more effective than heavy-handed top-down repression and fear-motivated technological relinquishment.

Anybody who's seeking “the next big thing” couldn't find a better place to start than this book. Chapters 2, 3 and 7, taken together, provide a roadmap for the devolution of work from downtown office towers to individual entrepreneurs working at home and in whatever environments attract them, and the emergence of “horizontal knowledge”, supplanting the top-down one-to-many model of the legacy media. There are probably a dozen ideas for start-ups with the potential of eBay and Amazon lurking in these chapters if you read them with the right kind of eyes. If the business and social model of the twenty-first century indeed comes to resemble that of the eighteenth, all of those self-reliant independent people are going to need lots of products and services they will find indispensable just as soon as somebody manages to think of them. Discovering and meeting these needs will pay well.

The “every person an entrepreneur” world sketched here raises the same concerns I expressed in regard to David Bolchover's The Living Dead (January 2006): this will be a wonderful world, indeed, for the intelligent and self-motivated people who will prosper once liberated from corporate cubicle indenture. But not everybody is like that: in particular, those people tend to be found on the right side of the bell curve, and for every one on the right, there's one equally far to the left. We have already made entire categories of employment for individuals with average or below-average intelligence redundant. In the eighteenth century, there were many ways in which such people could lead productive and fulfilling lives; what will they do in the twenty-first? Further, ever since Bismarck, government schools have been manufacturing worker-bees with little initiative, and essentially no concept of personal autonomy. As I write this, the élite of French youth is rioting over a proposal to remove what amounts to a guarantee of lifetime employment in a first job. How will people so thoroughly indoctrinated in collectivism fare in an individualist renaissance? As a law professor, the author spends much of his professional life in the company of high-intelligence, strongly-motivated students, many of whom contemplate an entrepreneurial career and in any case expect to be judged on their merits in a fiercely competitive environment. One wonders if his optimism might be tempered were he to spend comparable time with denizens of, say, the school of education. But the fact that there will be problems in the future shouldn't make us fear it—heaven knows there are problems enough in the present, and the last century was kind of a colossal monument to disaster and tragedy; whatever the future holds, the prescription of more freedom, more information, greater wealth and health, and less coercion presented here is certain to make it a better place to live.

The individualist future envisioned here has much in common with that foreseen in the 1970s by Timothy Leary, who coined the acronym “SMIILE” for “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension”. The “II” is alluded to in chapter 12 as part of the merging of human and machine intelligence in the singularity, but mightn't it make sense, as Leary advocated, to supplement longevity research with investigation of the nature of human intelligence and near-term means to increase it? Realising the promise and avoiding the risks of the demanding technologies of the future are going to require both intelligence and wisdom; shifting the entire bell curve to the right, combined with the wisdom of longer lives may be key in achieving the much to be desired future foreseen here.

InstaPundit visitors will be familiar with the writing style, which consists of relatively brief discussion of a multitude of topics, each with one or more references for those who wish to “read the whole thing” in more depth. One drawback of the print medium is that although many of these citations are Web pages, to get there you have to type in lengthy URLs for each one. An on-line edition of the end notes with all the on-line references as clickable links would be a great service to readers.

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Buckley, Christopher. Florence of Arabia. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-8129-7226-0.
This is a very funny novel, and thought-provoking as well. Some speak of a “clash of civilisations” or “culture war” between the Western and Islamic worlds, but with few exceptions the battle has been waged inadvertently by the West, through diffusion of its culture through mass media and globalised business, and indirectly by Islam, through immigration without assimilation into Western countries. Suppose the West were to say, “OK, you want a culture war? Here's a culture war!” and target one of fundamentalist Islam's greatest vulnerabilities: its subjugation and oppression of women?

In this story, the stuck-on-savage petroleum superpower Royal Kingdom of Wasabia cuts off one head too many when they execute a woman who had been befriended by Foreign Service staffer Florence Farfaletti, herself an escapee from trophy wife status in the desert kingdom, who hammers out a fifty-page proposal titled “Female Emancipation as a Means of Achieving Long-Term Political Stability in the Near East” and, undiplomatically vaulting over heaven knows how many levels of bureaucrats and pay grades, bungs it into the Secretary of State's in-box. Bold initiatives of this kind are not in keeping with what State does best, which is nothing, but Florence's plan comes to the attention of the mysterious “Uncle Sam” who appears to have unlimited financial resources at his command and the Washington connections to make just about anything happen.

This sets things in motion, and soon Florence and her team, including a good ole' boy ex-CIA killer, Foreign Service officer who detests travel, and public relations wizard so amoral his slime almost qualifies him for OPEC membership, are set up in the Emirate of Matar, “Switzerland of the Gulf”, famed for its duty-free shopping, offshore pleasure domes at “Infidel Land”, and laid-back approach to Islam by clergy so well-compensated for their tolerance they're nicknamed “moolahs”. The mission? To launch TVMatar, a satellite network targeting Arab women, headed by the wife of the Emir, who was a British TV presenter before marrying the randy royal.

TVMatar's programming is, shall we say, highly innovative, and before long things are bubbling on both sides of the Wasabi/Matar border, with intrigue afoot on all sides, including Machiavellian misdirection by those masters of perfidy, the French. And, of course (p. 113), “This is the Middle East! … Don't you understand that since the start of time, startin' with the Garden of Eden, nothing has ever gone right here?” Indeed, before long, a great many things go all pear-shaped, with attendant action, suspense, laughs, and occasional tragedy. As befits a comic novel, in the end all is resolved, but many are the twists and turns to get there which will keep you turning pages, and there are delightful turns of phrase throughout, from CIA headquarters christened the “George Bush Center for Intelligence” in the prologue to Shem, the Camel Royal…but I mustn't spoil that for you.

This is a delightful read, laugh out loud funny, and enjoyable purely on that level. But in a world where mobs riot, burn embassies, and murder people over cartoons, while pusillanimous European politicians cower before barbarism and contemplate constraining liberties their ancestors bequeathed to humanity in the Enlightenment, one cannot help but muse, “OK, you want a culture war?”

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Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-72560-1.
It's conventional wisdom in the publishing business that you never want a book to “fall into the crack” between two categories: booksellers won't know where to shelve it, promotional campaigns have to convey a complicated mixed message, and you run the risk of irritating readers who bought it solely for one of the two topics. Here we have a book which evokes the best and the worst of the Gilded Age of the 1890s in Chicago by interleaving the contemporary stories of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the depraved series of murders committed just a few miles from the fairgrounds by the archetypal American psychopathic serial killer, the chillingly diabolical Dr. H. H. Holmes (the principal alias among many used by a man whose given name was Herman Webster Mudgett; his doctorate was a legitimate medical degree from the University of Michigan). Architectural and industrial history and true crime are two genres you might think wouldn't mix, but in the hands of the author they result in a compelling narrative which I found as difficult to put down as any book I have read in the last several years. For once, this is not just my eccentric opinion; at this writing the book has been on The New York Times Best-Seller list for more than two consecutive years and won the Edgar award for best fact crime in 2004. As I rarely frequent best-seller lists, it went right under my radar. Special thanks to the visitor to this page who recommended I read it!

Boosters saw the Columbian Exposition not so much as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the New World but as a brash announcement of the arrival of the United States on the world stage as a major industrial, commercial, financial, and military power. They viewed the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (for which the Eiffel Tower was built) as a throwing down of the gauntlet by the Old World, and vowed to assert the preeminence of the New by topping the French and “out-Eiffeling Eiffel”. Once decided on by Congress, the site of the exposition became a bitterly contested struggle between partisans of New York, Washington, and Chicago, with the latter seeing its victory as marking its own arrival as a peer of the Eastern cities who looked with disdain at what Chicagoans considered the most dynamic city in the nation.

Charged with building the Exposition, a city in itself, from scratch on barren, wind-swept, marshy land was architect Daniel H. Burnham, he who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.” He made no little plans. The exposition was to have more than 200 buildings in a consistent neo-classical style, all in white, including the largest enclosed space ever constructed. While the electric light was still a novelty, the fair was to be illuminated by the the first large-scale application of alternating current. Edison's kinetoscope amazed visitors with moving pictures, and a theatre presented live music played by an orchestra in New York and sent over telephone wires to Chicago. Nikola Tesla amazed fairgoers with huge bolts of electrical fire, and a giant wheel built by a man named George Washington Gale Ferris lifted more than two thousand people at once into the sky to look down upon the fair like gods. One of the army of workers who built the fair was a carpenter named Elias Disney, who later regaled his sons Roy and Walt with tales of the magic city; they must have listened attentively.

The construction of the fair in such a short time seemed miraculous to onlookers (and even more so to those accustomed to how long it takes to get anything built a century later), but the list of disasters, obstacles, obstructions, and outright sabotage which Burnham and his team had to overcome was so monumental you'd have almost thought I was involved in the project! (Although if you've ever set up a trade show booth in Chicago, you've probably gotten a taste of it.) A total of 27.5 million people visited the fair between May and October of 1893, and this in a country whose total population (1890 census) was just 62.6 million. Perhaps even more astonishing to those acquainted with comparable present-day undertakings, the exposition was profitable and retired all of its bank debt.

While the enchanted fair was rising on the shore of Lake Michigan and enthralling visitors from around the world, in a gloomy city block size building not far away, Dr. H. H. Holmes was using his almost preternatural powers to charm the young, attractive, and unattached women who flocked to Chicago from the countryside in search of careers and excitement. He offered them the former in various capacities in the businesses, some legitimate and other bogus, in his “castle”, and the latter in his own person, until he killed them, disposed of their bodies, and in some cases sold their skeletons to medical schools. Were the entire macabre history of Holmes not thoroughly documented in court proceedings, investigators' reports, and reputable contemporary news items, he might seem to be a character from an over-the-top Gothic novel, like Jack the Ripper. But wait—Jack the Ripper was real too. However, Jack the Ripper is only believed to have killed five women; Holmes is known for certain to have killed nine men, women, and children. He confessed to killing 27 in all, but this was the third of three mutually inconsistent confessions all at variance with documented facts (some of those he named in the third confession turned up alive). Estimates ran as high as two hundred, but that seems implausible. In any case, he was a monster the likes of which no American imagined inhabited their cities until his crimes were uncovered. Remarkably, and of interest to libertarians who advocate the replacement of state power by insurance-like private mechanisms, Holmes never even came under suspicion by any government law enforcement agency during the entire time he committed his murder spree, nor did any of his other scams (running out on debts, forging promissory notes, selling bogus remedies) attract the attention of the law. His undoing was when he attempted insurance fraud (one of his favourite activities) and ended up with Nemesis-like private detective Frank Geyer on his trail. Geyer, through tireless tracking and the expenditure of large quantities of shoe leather, got the goods on Holmes, who met his end on the gallows in May of 1896. His jailers considered him charming.

I picked this book up expecting an historical recounting of a rather distant and obscure era. Was I ever wrong—I finished the whole thing in two and half days; the story is that fascinating and the writing that good. More than 25 pages of source citations and bibliography are included, but this is not a dry work of history; it reads like a novel. In places, the author has invented descriptions of events for which no eyewitness account exists; he says that in doing this, his goal is to create a plausible narrative as a prosecutor does at a trial. Most such passages are identified in the end notes and justifications given for the inferences made therein. The descriptions of the Exposition cry out for many more illustrations than are included: there isn't even a picture of the Ferris wheel! If you read this book, you'll probably want to order the Dover Photographic Record of the Fair—I did.

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April 2006

Levitt, Steven D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics. New York: William Morrow, 2005. ISBN 0-06-073132-X.
Finally—a book about one of my favourite pastimes: mining real-world data sets for interesting correlations and searching for evidence of causality—and it's gone and become a best-seller! Steven Levitt is a University of Chicago economics professor who excels in asking questions others never think to pose such as, “If dealing crack is so profitable, why do most drug dealers live with their mothers?” and “Why do real estate agents leave their own houses on the market longer than the houses of their clients?”, then crunches the numbers to answer them, often with fascinating results. Co-author Stephen Dubner, who has written about Levitt's work for The New York Times Magazine, explains Levitt's methodologies in plain language that won't scare away readers inclined to be intimidated by terms such as “multiple regression analysis” and “confidence level”.

Topics run the gamut from correlation between the legalisation of abortion and a drop in the crime rate, cheating in sumo wrestling in Japan, tournament dynamics in advancement to managerial positions in the crack cocaine trade, Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan, the generation-long trajectory of baby names from prestigious to down-market, and the effects of campaign spending on the outcome of elections. In each case there are surprises in store, and sufficient background to understand where the results came from and the process by which they were obtained. The Internet has been a godsend for this kind of research: a wealth of public domain data in more or less machine-readable form awaits analysis by anybody curious about how it might fit together to explain something. This book is an excellent way to get your own mind asking such questions.

My only quibble with the book is the title: “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.” The only thing freaky about Levitt's work is that so few other professional economists are using the tools of their profession to ask and answer such interesting and important questions. And as to “rogue economist”, that's a rather odd term for somebody with degrees from Harvard and MIT, who is a full professor in one of the most prestigious departments of economics in the United States, recipient of the Clark Medal for best American economist under forty, and author of dozens of academic publications in the leading journals. But book titles, after all, are marketing tools, and the way this book is selling, I guess the title is doing its job quite well, thank you. A web site devoted to the book contains additional information and New York Times columns by the authors containing additional analyses.

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Verne, Jules. Voyage à reculons en Angleterre et en Écosse. Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 1989. ISBN 2-86274-147-7.
As a child, Jules Verne was fascinated by the stories of his ancestor who came to France from exotic Scotland to serve as an archer in the guard of Louis XI. Verne's attraction to Scotland was reinforced by his life-long love of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and when in 1859, at age 31, he had a chance to visit that enchanting ancestral land, he jumped at the opportunity. This novel is a thinly fictionalised account of his “backwards voyage” to Scotland and England. “Backwards” («à reculons») because he and his travelling companion began their trip from Paris into the North by heading South to Bordeaux, where they had arranged economical passage on a ship bound for Liverpool, then on to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and then back by way of London and Dieppe—en sens inverse of most Parisian tourists. The theme of “backwards” surfaces regularly in the narrative, most amusingly on p. 110 where they find themselves advancing to the rear after having inadvertently wandered onto a nude beach.

So prolific was Jules Verne that more than a century and a half after he began his writing career, new manuscripts keep turning up among his voluminous papers. In the last two decades, Paris au XXe siècle, the original un-mangled version of La chasse au météore (October 2002), and the present volume have finally made their way into print. Verne transformed the account of his own trip into a fictionalised travel narrative of a kind quite common in the 19th century but rarely encountered today. The fictional form gave him freedom to add humour, accentuate detail, and highlight aspects of the country and culture he was visiting without crossing the line into that other venerable literary genre, the travel tall tale. One suspects that the pub brawl in chapter 16 is an example of such embroidery, along with the remarkable steam powered contraption on p. 159 which prefigured Mrs. Tweedy's infernal machine in Chicken Run. The description of the weather, however, seems entirely authentic. Verne offered the manuscript to Hetzel, who published most of his work, but it was rejected and remained forgotten until it was discovered in a cache of Verne papers acquired by the city of Nantes in 1981. This 1989 edition is its first appearance in print, and includes six pages of notes on the history of the work and its significance in Verne's œuvre, notes on changes in the manuscript made by Verne, and a facsimile manuscript page.

What is remarkable in reading this novel is the extent to which it is a fully-developed “template” for Verne's subsequent Voyages extraordinaires: here we have an excitable and naïve voyager (think Michel Ardan or Passepartout) paired with a more stolid and knowledgeable companion (Barbicane or Phileas Fogg), the encyclopedist's exultation in enumeration, fascination with all forms of locomotion, and fun with language and dialect (particularly poor Jacques who beats the Dickens out of the language of Shakespeare). Often, when reading the early works of writers, you sense them “finding their voice”—not here. Verne is in full form, the master of his language and the art of story-telling, and fully ready, a few years later, with just a change of topic, to invent science fiction. This is not “major Verne”, and you certainly wouldn't want to start with this work, but if you've read most of Verne and are interested in how it all began, this is genuine treat.

This book is out of print. If you can't locate a used copy at a reasonable price at the Amazon link above, try abebooks.com. For comparison with copies offered for sale, the cover price in 1989 was FRF 95, which is about €14.50 at the final fixed rate.

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Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004. ISBN 0-425-20040-X.
The author was an “embedded journalist” with Second Platoon, Bravo Company of the U.S. First Marine Reconnaissance Battalion from a week before the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 through the entire active combat phase and subsequent garrison duty in Baghdad until the end of April. This book is an expanded edition of his National Magazine Award winning reportage in Rolling Stone. Recon Marines are the elite component of the U.S. Marine Corps—like Army Special Forces or Navy SEALs; there are only about a thousand Recon Marines in the entire 180,000 strong Corps. In the invasion of Iraq, First Recon was used—some say misused—as the point of the spear, often the lead unit in their section of the conflict, essentially inviting ambushes by advancing into suspected hostile terrain.

Wright accompanied the troops 24/7 throughout their mission, sharing their limited rations, sleeping in the same “Ranger graves”, and risking the enemy fire, incoming mortar rounds, and misdirected friendly artillery and airstrikes alongside the Marines. This is 100% grunt-level boots on the ground reportage in the tradition of Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin, and superbly done. If you're looking for grand strategy or “what it all means”, you won't find any of that: only the confusing and often appalling face of war as seen through the eyes of the young men sent to fight it. The impression you're left with of the troops (and recall, these are elite warriors of a military branch itself considered elite) is one of apolitical professionalism. You don't get the slightest sense they're motivated by patriotism or a belief they're defending their country or its principles; they're there to do their job, however messy and distasteful. One suspects you'd have heard much the same from the Roman legionnaires who occupied this land almost nineteen centuries ago.

The platoon's brief stay in post-conquest Baghdad provides some insight into why war-fighters, however they excel at breaking stuff and killing people, are as ill-suited to the tasks of nation building, restoring civil order, and promoting self-government as a chainsaw is for watchmaking. One begins to understand how it can be that three years after declaring victory in Iraq, a military power which was able to conquer the entire country in less than two weeks has yet to assert effective control over its capital city.

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Bannier, Pierre. Pleins feux sur… Columbo. Paris: Horizon illimité, 2005. ISBN 2-84787-141-1.
It seems like the most implausible formula for a successful television series: no violence, no sex, no car chases, a one-eyed hero who is the antithesis of glamorous, detests guns, and drives a beat-up Peugeot 403. In almost every episode the viewer knows “whodunit” before the detective appears on the screen, and in most cases the story doesn't revolve around his discovery of the perpetrator, but rather obtaining evidence to prove their guilt, the latter done without derring-do or scientific wizardry, but rather endless, often seemingly aimless dialogue between the killer and the tenacious inspector. Yet “Columbo”, which rarely deviated from this formula, worked so well it ran (including pilot episodes) for thirty-five years in two separate series (1968–1978 and 1989–1994) and subsequent telefilm specials through 2003 (a complete episode guide is available online).

Columbo, as much a morality play about persistence and cunning triumphing over the wealthy, powerful, and famous as it is a mystery (creators of the series Richard Levinson and William Link said the character was inspired by Porfiry Petrovich in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries), translates well into almost any language and culture. This book provides the French perspective on the phénomène Columbo. In addition to a comprehensive history of the character and series (did you know that the character which became Columbo first appeared in a story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1960, or that Peter Falk was neither the first nor the second, but the third actor to portray Columbo?), details specific to l'Hexagone abound: a profile of Serge Sauvion, the actor who does the uncanny French doublage of Peter Falk's voice in the series, Marc Gallier, the “French Columbo”, and the stage adaptation in 2005 of Une femme de trop (based on the original stage play by Levinson and Link which became the pilot of the television series) starring Pascal Brunner. This being a French take on popular culture, there is even a chapter (pp. 74–77) providing a Marxish analysis of class conflict in Columbo! A complete episode guide with both original English and French titles and profiles of prominent guest villains rounds out the book.

For a hardcover, glossy paper, coffee table book, many of the colour pictures are hideously reproduced; they look like they were blown up from thumbnail images found on the Internet with pixel artefacts so prominent that in some cases you can barely make out what the picture is supposed to be. Other illustrations desperately need the hue, saturation, and contrast adjustment you'd expect to be routine pre-press steps for a publication of this type and price range. There are also a number of errors in transcribing English words in the text—sadly, this is not uncommon in French publications; even Jules Verne did it.

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Kurlansky, Mark. 1968 : The Year That Rocked the World. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-345-45582-7.
In the hands of an author who can make an entire book about Salt (February 2005) fascinating, the epochal year of 1968 abounds with people, events, and cultural phenomena which make for a compelling narrative. Many watershed events in history: war, inventions, plague, geographical discoveries, natural disasters, economic booms and busts, etc. have causes which are reasonably easy to determine. But 1968, like the wave of revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 (January 2002), seems to have been driven by a zeitgeist—a spirit in the air which independently inspired people to act in a common way.

The nearly simultaneous “youthquake” which shook societies as widespread and diverse as France, Poland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Spain, and the United States, and manifested itself in radical social movements: antiwar, feminism, black power, anti-authoritarianism, psychedelic instant enlightenment, revolutionary and subversive music, and the emergence of “the whole world is watching” wired planetary culture of live satellite television, all of which continue to reverberate today, seemed so co-ordinated that politicians from Charles de Gaulle, Mexican el presidente Díaz Ordaz, and Leonid Brezhnev were convinced it must be the result of deliberate subversion by their enemies, and were motivated to repressive actions which, in the short term, only fed the fire. In fact, most of the leaders of the various youth movements (to the extent they can be called “leaders”—in those individualistic and anarchistic days, most disdained the title) had never met, and knew about the actions of one another only from what they saw on television. Radicals in the U.S. were largely unaware of the student movement in Mexico before it exploded into televised violence in October.

However the leaders of 1968 may have viewed themselves, in retrospect they were for the most part fascinating, intelligent, well-educated, motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, and optimistic that they could—nothing like the dour, hateful, contemptuous, intolerant, and historically and culturally ignorant people one so often finds today in collectivist movements which believe themselves descended from those of 1968. Consider Mark Rudd's famous letter to Grayson Kirk, president of Columbia University, which ended with the memorable sentence, “I'll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I'm sure you don't like a whole lot: ‘Up against the wall, mother****er, this is a stick-up.’” (p. 197), which shocked his contemporaries with the (quoted) profanity, but strikes readers today mostly for the grammatically correct use of “whom”. Who among present-day radicals has the eloquence of Mario Savio's “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop” (p. 92), yet had the politeness to remove his shoes to avoid damaging the paint before jumping on a police car to address a crowd. In the days of the Free Speech Movement, who would have imagined some of those student radicals, tenured professors four decades later, enacting campus speech codes and enforcing an intellectual monoculture on their own students?

It is remarkable to read on p. 149 how the French soixante-huitards were “dazzled” by their German contemporaries: “We went there and they had their banners and signs and their security forces and everything with militaristic tactics. It was new to me and the other French.” One suspects they weren't paying attention when their parents spoke of the spring of 1940! Some things haven't changed: when New Left leaders from ten countries finally had the opportunity to meet one another at a conference sponsored by the London School of Economics and the BBC (p. 353), the Americans dismissed the Europeans as all talk and no action, while the Europeans mocked the U.S. radicals' propensity for charging into battle without thinking through why, what the goal was supposed to be, or how it was to be achieved.

In the introduction, the author declares his sympathy for the radical movements of 1968 and says “fairness is possible but true objectivity is not”. And, indeed, the book is written from the phrasebook of the leftist legacy media: good guys are “progressives” and “activists”, while bad guys are “right wingers”, “bigots”, or “reactionaries”. (What's “progressive” ought to depend on your idea of progress. Was SNCC's expulsion of all its white members [p. 96] on racial grounds progress?) I do not recall a single observation which would be considered outside the box on the editorial page of the New York Times. While the book provides a thorough recounting of the events and acquaintance with the principal personalities involved, for me it failed to evoke the “anything goes”, “everything is possible” spirit of those days—maybe you just had to have been there. The summation is useful for correcting false memories of 1968, which ended with both Dubček and de Gaulle still in power; the only major world leader defeated in 1968 was Lyndon Johnson, and he was succeeded by Nixon. A “whatever became of” or “where are they now” section would be a useful addition; such information, when it's given, is scattered all over the text.

One wonders whether, in our increasingly interconnected world, something like 1968 could happen again. Certainly, that's the dream of greying radicals nostalgic for their days of glory and young firebrands regretful for having been born too late. Perhaps better channels of communication and the collapse of monolithic political structures have resulted in change becoming an incremental process which adapts to the evolving public consensus before a mass movement has time to develop. It could simply be that the major battles of “liberation” have all been won, and the next major conflict will be incited by those who wish to rein them in. Or maybe it's just that we're still trying to digest the consequences of 1968 and far from ready for another round.

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Smith, Edward E. Second Stage Lensmen. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1941–1942, 1953] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-13-1.
This is the fifth installment of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), Galactic Patrol (March 2005), and Gray Lensman (August 2005). Second Stage Lensmen ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from November 1941 through February 1942. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1953 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised from the original magazine serial.

The only thing I found disappointing when rereading this book in my fourth lifetime expedition through the Lensman saga is knowing there's only one volume of the main story remaining—but what a yarn that is. In Second Stage Lensmen, Doc Smith more overtly adopts the voice of “historian of civilisation” and from time to time departs from straight story-telling to describe off-stage action, discuss his “source material”, and grouse about Galactic Patrol secrecy depriving him of important documents. Still, there's enough rays and shields space opera action for three or four normal novels, although the focus increasingly shifts from super-weapons and shoot-em-ups to mental combat, indirection, and espionage.

It's here we first meet Nadreck, one of the most fascinating of Doc Smith's creations: a poison-breathing cryogenic being who extends into the fourth dimension and considers cowardice and sloth among his greatest virtues. His mind, however, like Kinnison's, honed to second stage Lensman capability by Mentor of Arisia, is both powerful and subtle, and Nadreck a master of boring within without the villains even suspecting his presence. He gets the job done, despite never being satisfied with his “pitifully imperfect” performance. I've known programmers like that.

Some mystery and thriller writers complain of how difficult the invention of mobile phones has made their craft. While it used to be easy for characters to be out of touch and operating with incomplete and conflicting information, now the reader immediately asks, “Why didn't she just pick up the phone and ask?” But in the Lensman universe, both the good guys and (to a lesser extent) the blackguards have instantaneous, mind-to-mind high bandwidth communication on an intergalactic scale, and such is Doc Smith's mastery of his craft that it neither reduces the suspense nor strains the plot, and he makes it look almost effortless.

Writing in an age where realistic women of any kind were rare in science fiction, Smith was known for his strong female characters—on p. 151 he observes, “Indeed, it has been argued that sexual equality is the most important criterion of that which we know as Civilization”—no postmodern multi-culti crapola here! Some critics carped that his women characters were so strong and resourceful they were just male heroes without the square jaws and broad shoulders. So here, probably in part just to show he can do it, we have Illona of Lonabar, a five-sigma airhead bimbo (albeit with black hair, not blonde), and the mind-murdering matriarchy of Lyrane, who have selectively bred their males to be sub-sentient dwarves with no function other than reproduction.

The author's inexhaustible imagination manages to keep these stories up to date, even more than half a century on. While the earlier volumes stressed what would decades later be called low-observable or stealth technology, in this outing he anticipates today's hot Pentagon buzzword, “network-centric warfare”: the grand battles here are won not by better weapons or numbers, but by the unique and top secret information technology of the Z9M9Z Directrix command vessel. The bizarre excursion into “Nth-space” may have seemed over the top to readers in the 1940s, but today it's reminiscent of another valley in the cosmic landscape of string theory.

Although there is a fifteen page foreword by the author which recaps the story to date, you don't really want to start with this volume: there's just too much background and context you'll have missed. It's best either to start at the beginning with Triplanetary or, if you'd rather defer the two slower-paced “prequels”, with Volume 3, Galactic Patrol, which was the first written and can stand alone.

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May 2006

Bonner, William and Addison Wiggin. Empire of Debt. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. ISBN 0-471-73902-2.
To make any sense in the long term, an investment strategy needs to be informed by a “macro macro” view of the global economic landscape and the grand-scale trends which shape it, as well as a fine sense for nonsense: the bubbles, manias, and unsustainable situations which seduce otherwise sane investors into doing crazy things which will inevitably end badly, although nobody can ever be sure precisely when. This is the perspective the authors provide in this wise, entertaining, and often laugh-out-loud funny book. If you're looking for tips on what stocks or funds to buy or sell, look elsewhere; the focus here is on the emergence in the twentieth century of the United States as a global economic and military hegemon, and the bizarre economic foundations of this most curious empire. The analysis of the current scene is grounded in a historical survey of empires and a recounting of how the United States became one.

The business of empire has been conducted more or less the same way all around the globe over millennia. An imperial power provides a more or less peaceful zone to vassal states, a large, reasonably open market in which they can buy and sell their goods, safe transport for goods and people within the imperial limes, and a common currency, system of weights and measures, and other lubricants of efficient commerce. In return, vassal states finance the empire through tribute: either explicit, or indirectly through taxes, tariffs, troop levies, and other imperial exactions. Now, history is littered with the wreckage of empires (more than fifty are listed on p. 49), which have failed in the time-proven ways, but this kind of traditional empire at least has the advantage that it is profitable—the imperial power is compensated for its services (whether welcome or appreciated by the subjects or not) by the tribute it collects from them, which may be invested in further expanding the empire.

The American empire, however, is unique in all of human history for being funded not by tribute but by debt. The emergence of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, severed from the gold standard or any other measure of actual value, has permitted the U.S. to build a global military presence and domestic consumer society by borrowing the funds from other countries (notably, at the present time, China and Japan), who benefit (at least in the commercial sense) from the empire. Unlike tribute, the debt remains on the balance sheet as an exponentially growing liability which must eventually either be repaid or repudiated. In this environment, international trade has become a system in which (p. 221) “One nation buys things that it cannot afford and doesn't need with money it doesn't have. Another sells on credit to people who already cannot pay and then builds more factories to increase output.” Nobody knows how long the game can go on, but when it ends, it is certain to end badly.

An empire which has largely ceased to produce stuff for its citizens, whose principal export has become paper money (to the tune of about two billion dollars per day at this writing), will inevitably succumb to speculative binges. No sooner had the dot.com mania of the late 1990s collapsed than the residential real estate bubble began to inflate, with houses bought with interest-only mortgages considered “investments” which are “flipped” in a matter of months, and equity extracted by further assumption of debt used to fund current consumption. This contemporary collective delusion is well documented, with perspectives on how it may end.

The entire book is written in an “always on” ironic style, with a fine sense for the absurdities which are taken for wisdom and the charlatans and nincompoops who peddle them to the general public in the legacy media. Some may consider the authors' approach as insufficiently serious for a discussion of an oncoming global financial train wreck but, as they note on p. 76, “There is nothing quite so amusing as watching another man make a fool of himself. That is what makes history so entertaining.” Once you get your head out of the 24 hour news cycle and the political blogs and take the long view, the economic and geopolitical folly chronicled here is intensely entertaining, and the understanding of it imparted in this book is valuable in developing a strategy to avoid its inevitable tragic consequences.

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Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. New York: Perennial, 1999. ISBN 0-380-78862-4.
I've found that I rarely enjoy, and consequently am disinclined to pick up, these huge, fat, square works of fiction cranked out by contemporary super scribblers such as Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling. In each case, the author started out and made their name crafting intricately constructed, tightly plotted page-turners, but later on succumbed to a kind of mid-career spread which yields flabby doorstop novels that give you hand cramps if you read them in bed and contain more filler than thriller. My hypothesis is that when a talented author is getting started, their initial books receive the close attention of a professional editor and benefit from the discipline imposed by an individual whose job is to flense the flab from a manuscript. But when an author becomes highly successful—a “property” who can be relied upon to crank out best-seller after best-seller, it becomes harder for an editor to restrain an author's proclivity to bloat and bloviation. (This is not to say that all authors are so prone, but some certainly are.) I mean, how would you feel giving Tom Clancy advice on the art of crafting thrillers, even though Executive Orders could easily have been cut by a third and would probably have been a better novel at half the size.

This is why, despite my having tremendously enjoyed his earlier Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon sat on my shelf for almost four years before I decided to take it with me on a trip and give it a try. Hey, even later Tom Clancy can be enjoyed as “airplane” books as long as they fit in your carry-on bag! While ageing on the shelf, this book was one of the most frequently recommended by visitors to this page, and friends to whom I mentioned my hesitation to dive into the book unanimously said, “You really ought to read it.” Well, I've finished it, so now I'm in a position to tell you, “You really ought to read it.” This is simply one of the best modern novels I have read in years.

The book is thick, but that's because the story is deep and sprawling and requires a large canvas. Stretching over six decades and three generations, and melding genera as disparate as military history, cryptography, mathematics and computing, business and economics, international finance, privacy and individualism versus the snooper state and intrusive taxation, personal eccentricity and humour, telecommunications policy and technology, civil and military engineering, computers and programming, the hacker and cypherpunk culture, and personal empowerment as a way of avoiding repetition of the tragedies of the twentieth century, the story defies classification into any neat category. It is not science fiction, because all of the technologies exist (or plausibly could have existed—well, maybe not the Galvanick Lucipher [p. 234; all page citations are to the trade paperback edition linked above. I'd usually cite by chapter, but they aren't numbered and there is no table of contents]—in the epoch in which they appear). Some call it a “techno thriller”, but it isn't really a compelling page-turner in that sense; this is a book you want to savour over a period of time, watching the story lines evolve and weave together over the decades, and thinking about the ideas which underlie the plot line.

The breadth of the topics which figure in this story requires encyclopedic knowledge. which the author demonstrates while making it look effortless, never like he's showing off. Stephenson writes with the kind of universal expertise for which Isaac Asimov was famed, but he's a better writer than the Good Doctor, and that's saying something. Every few pages you come across a gem such as the following (p. 207), which is the funniest paragraph I've read in many a year.

He was born Graf Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Otto Friedrich von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, but changed his name to Nigel St. John Gloamthorpby, a.k.a. Lord Woadmire, in 1914. In his photograph, he looks every inch a von Übersetzenseehafenstadt, and he is free of the cranial geometry problem so evident in the older portraits. Lord Woadmire is not related to the original ducal line of Qwghlm, the Moore family (Anglicized from the Qwghlmian clan name Mnyhrrgh) which had been terminated in 1888 by a spectacularly improbable combination of schistosomiasis, suicide, long-festering Crimean war wounds, ball lightning, flawed cannon, falls from horses, improperly canned oysters, and rogue waves.
On p. 352 we find one of the most lucid and concise explanations I've ever read of why it far more difficult to escape the grasp of now-obsolete technologies than most technologists may wish.
(This is simply because the old technology is universally understood by those who need to understand it, and it works well, and all kinds of electronic and software technology has been built and tested to work within that framework, and why mess with success, especially when your profit margins are so small that they can only be detected by using techniques from quantum mechanics, and any glitches vis-à-vis compatibility with old stuff will send your company straight into the toilet.)
In two sentences on p. 564, he lays out the essentials of the original concept for Autodesk, which I failed to convey (providentially, in retrospect) to almost every venture capitalist in Silicon Valley in thousands more words and endless, tedious meetings.
“ … But whenever a business plan first makes contact with the actual market—the real world—suddenly all kinds of stuff becomes clear. You may have envisioned half a dozen potential markets for your product, but as soon as you open your doors, one just explodes from the pack and becomes so instantly important that good business sense dictates that you abandon the others and concentrate all your efforts.”
And how many New York Times Best-Sellers contain working source code (p, 480) for a Perl program?

A 1168 page mass market paperback edition is now available, but given the unwieldiness of such an edition, how much you're likely to thumb through it to refresh your memory on little details as you read it, the likelihood you'll end up reading it more than once, and the relatively small difference in price, the trade paperback cited at the top may be the better buy. Readers interested in the cryptographic technology and culture which figure in the book will find additional information in the author's Cryptonomicon cypher-FAQ.

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Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 0-375-41482-7.
One thing which strikes me, having been outside the United States for fifteen years, is just how dumb people in the U.S. are, particularly those 35 years and younger. By “dumb” I don't mean unintelligent: although there is a genetic component to intelligence, evolution doesn't work quickly enough to make much difference in a generation or two, and there's no evidence for selective breeding for stupidity in any case. No, they are dumb in the sense of being almost entirely ignorant of the literary and cultural heritage upon which their society is founded, and know next to nothing about the history of their own country and the world. Further, and even more disturbing, they don't seem to know how to think. Rational thinking is a skill one learns by practise, and these people never seem to have worked through the intellectual exercises to acquire it, and hence have never discovered the quiet joy of solving problems and figuring things out. (Of course, I am talking in broad generalisations here. In a country as large and diverse as the U.S. there are many, many exceptions, to be sure. But the overall impression of the younger population, exceptions apart, comes across to me as dumb.)

You may choose to attribute this estimation to the jaundiced disdain for young'uns so common among balding geezers like me. But the funny thing is, I observe this only in people who grew up the U.S. I don't perceive anything similar in those raised in continental Europe or Asia. (I'm not so sure about the U.K., and my experience with people from South America and Africa is insufficient to form any conclusions.) Further, this seems to be a relatively new phenomenon; I don't recall perceiving anything like the present level of dumbness among contemporaries when I was in the 20–35 age bracket. If you doubt my estimation of the knowledge and reasoning skills of younger people in the U.S., just cast a glance at the highest moderated comments on one of the online discussion boards such as Slashdot, and bear in mind when doing so that these are the technological élite, not the fat middle of the bell curve. Here is an independent view of younger people in the U.S. which comes to much the same conclusion as I.

What could possibly account for this? Well, it may not be the entire answer, but an important clue is provided by this stunning book by an historian and professor of education at New York University, which documents the exclusion of essentially the entire body of Western culture from the primary and secondary school curriculum starting in around 1970, and the rewriting of history to exclude anything perceived as controversial by any pressure group motivated to involve itself in the textbook and curriculum adoption process, which is described in detail. Apart from a few egregious cases which have come to the attention of the media, this process has happened almost entirely out of the public eye, and an entire generation has now been educated, if you can call it that, with content-free material chosen to meet bizarre criteria of “diversity” and avoid offending anybody. How bad is it? So bad that the president of a textbook company, when asked in 1998 by members of the committee charged with developing a national reading test proposed by President Clinton, why the reading passages chosen contained nothing drawn from classic literature or myth, replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased.” So long, Shakespeare; heave-ho Homer! It's no wonder the author of I'm the Teacher, You're the Student (January 2005) discovered so many of his students at a top-tier university had scarcely read a single book before arriving in his classroom: their public school experience had taught them that reading is tedious and books contain only boring, homogenised pablum utterly disconnected from the real world they experience through popular culture and their everyday life.

The author brings no perceptible political bias or agenda to the topic. Indeed, she documents how the ideologues of the right and left form a highly effective pincer movement which squeezes out the content and intellectual stimulation from the material taught in schools, and thus educates those who pass through them that learning is boring, reading is dull, and history is all settled, devoid of controversy, and that every event in the past should be interpreted according to the fashionable beliefs of the present day. The exquisite irony is this is said to be done in the interest of “diversity” when, in fact, the inevitable consequence is the bowdlerisation of the common intellectual heritage into mediocre, boring, and indistinguishable pap. It is also interesting to observe that the fundamental principles upon which the champions of this “diversity” base their arguments—that one's ethnic group identity determines how an individual thinks and learns; that one cannot and should not try to transcend that group identity; that a member of a group can learn only from material featuring members of their own group, ideally written by a group member—are, in fact, identical to those believed by the most vicious of racists. Both reject individualism and the belief that any person, if blessed with the requisite talent and fired by ambition and the willingness to work assiduously toward the goal, can achieve anything at all in a free society.

Instead, we see things like this document, promulgated by the public school system of Seattle, Washington (whose motto is “Academic Achievement for Every Student in Every School”), which provides “Definitions of Racism” in six different categories. (Interesting—the Seattle Public Schools seem to have taken this document down—wonder why? However, you can still view a copy I cached just in case that might happen.) Under “Cultural Racism” we learn that “having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, [and] defining one form of English as standard” constitutes “cultural racism”. Some formula for “Academic Achievement for Every Student”, don't you think? (Reading The Language Police is quite enlightening in parsing details such as those in the drawing which appears to the right of the first paragraph of this document. It shows a group of people running a foot race [exercise: good]. Of the four people whose heads are shown, one is a Caucasian female [check], another is an African American male [check], a third is an Hispanic man [check—although the bias and sensitivity guidelines of two major textbook companies (p. 191) would fault this picture because, stereotypically, the man has a moustache], and an older [check] Caucasian male [older people must always be shown as active; never sitting on the porch in a rocking chair]. Two additional figures are shown with their heads lopped off: one an African American woman and the other what appears to be a light-skinned male. Where's the Asian?) Now, this may seem ridiculous, but every major U.S. textbook publisher these days compiles rigorous statistics on the racial and gender mix of both text and illustrations in their books, and adjusts them to precisely conform to percentages from the U.S. census. Intellectual content appears to receive no such scrutiny.

A thirty page appendix provides a list of words, phrases, and concepts banned from U.S. textbooks, including the delightful list (p. 196) of Foods which May Not Be Mentioned in California, including pickles and tea. A second appendix of the same length provides a wonderful list of recommendations of classic literature for study from grades three through ten. Home schoolers will find this a bounty of worthwhile literature to enrich their kids' education and inculcate the love of reading, and it's not a bad place to start for adults who have been deprived of this common literary heritage in their own schooling. A paperback edition is now available.

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June 2006

Woit, Peter. Not Even Wrong. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006. ISBN 0-224-07605-1.
Richard Feynman, a man about as difficult to bamboozle on scientific topics as any who ever lived, remarked in an interview (p. 180) in 1987, a year before his death:
…I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and it is in the wrong direction. … I don't like that they're not calculating anything. I don't like that they don't check their ideas. I don't like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation—a fix-up to say “Well, it still might be true.”
Feynman was careful to hedge his remark as being that of an elder statesman of science, who collectively have a history of foolishly considering the speculations of younger researchers to be nonsense, and he would have almost certainly have opposed any effort to cut off funding for superstring research, as it might be right, after all, and should be pursued in parallel with other promising avenues until they make predictions which can be tested by experiment, falsifying and leading to the exclusion of those candidate theories whose predictions are incorrect.

One wonders, however, what Feynman's reaction would have been had he lived to contemplate the contemporary scene in high energy theoretical physics almost twenty years later. String theory and its progeny still have yet to make a single, falsifiable prediction which can be tested by a physically plausible experiment. This isn't surprising, because after decades of work and tens of thousands of scientific publications, nobody really knows, precisely, what superstring (or M, or whatever) theory really is; there is no equation, or set of equations from which one can draw physical predictions. Leonard Susskind, a co-founder of string theory, observes ironically in his book The Cosmic Landscape (March 2006), “On this score, one might facetiously say that String Theory is the ultimate epitome of elegance. With all the years that String Theory has been studied, no one has ever found a single defining equation! The number at present count is zero. We know neither what the fundamental equations of the theory are or even if it has any.” (p. 204). String theory might best be described as the belief that a physically correct theory exists and may eventually be discovered by the research programme conducted under that name.

From the time Feynman spoke through the 1990s, the goal toward which string theorists were working was well-defined: to find a fundamental theory which reproduces at the low energy limit the successful results of the standard model of particle physics, and explains, from first principles, the values of the many (there are various ways to count them, slightly different—the author gives the number as 18 in this work) free parameters of that theory, whose values are not predicted by any theory and must be filled in by experiment. Disturbingly, theoretical work in the early years of this century has convinced an increasing number of string theorists (but not all) that the theory (whatever it may turn out to be), will not predict a unique low energy limit (or “vacuum state”), but rather an immense “landscape” of possible universes, with estimates like 10100 and 10500 and even more bandied around (by comparison, there are only about 1080 elementary particles in the entire observable universe—a minuscule number compared to such as these). Most of these possible universes would be hideously inhospitable to intelligent life as we know and can imagine it (but our imagination may be limited), and hence it is said that the reason we find ourselves in one of the rare universes which contain galaxies, chemistry, biology, and the National Science Foundation is due to the anthropic principle: a statement, bordering on tautology, that we can only observe conditions in the universe which permit our own existence, and that perhaps either in a “multiverse” of causally disjoint or parallel realities, all the other possibilities exist as well, most devoid of observers, at least those like ourselves (triune glorgs, feeding on bare colour in universes dominated by quark-gluon plasma would doubtless deem our universe unthinkably cold, rarefied, and dead).

But adopting the “landscape” view means abandoning the quest for a theory of everything and settling for what amounts to a “theory of anything”. For even if string theorists do manage to find one of those 10100 or whatever solutions in the landscape which perfectly reproduces all the experimental results of the standard model (and note that this is something nobody has ever done and appears far out of reach, with legitimate reasons to doubt it is possible at all), then there will almost certainly be a bewildering number of virtually identical solutions with slightly different results, so that any plausible experiment which measures a quantity to more precision or discovers a previously unknown phenomenon can be accommodated within the theory simply by tuning one of its multitudinous dials and choosing a different solution which agrees with the experimental results. This is not what many of the generation who built the great intellectual edifice of the standard model of particle physics would have considered doing science.

Now if string theory were simply a chimæra being pursued by a small band of double-domed eccentrics, one wouldn't pay it much attention. Science advances by exploring lots of ideas which may seem crazy at the outset and discarding the vast majority which remain crazy after they are worked out in more detail. Whatever remains, however apparently crazy, stays in the box as long as its predictions are not falsified by experiment. It would be folly of the greatest magnitude, comparable to attempting to centrally plan the economy of a complex modern society, to try to guess in advance, by some kind of metaphysical reasoning, which ideas were worthy of exploration. The history of the S-matrix or “bootstrap” theory of the strong interactions recounted in chapter 11 is an excellent example of how science is supposed to work. A beautiful theory, accepted by a large majority of researchers in the field, which was well in accord with experiment and philosophically attractive, was almost universally abandoned in a few years after the success of the quark model in predicting new particles and the stunning deep inelastic scattering results at SLAC in the 1970s.

String theory, however, despite not having made a single testable prediction after more than thirty years of investigation, now seems to risk becoming a self-perpetuating intellectual monoculture in theoretical particle physics. Among the 22 tenured professors of theoretical physics in the leading six faculties in the United States who received their PhDs after 1981, fully twenty specialise in string theory (although a couple now work on the related brane-world models). These professors employ graduate students and postdocs who work in their area of expertise, and when a faculty position opens up, may be expected to support candidates working in fields which complement their own research. This environment creates a great incentive for talented and ambitious students aiming for one the rare permanent academic appointments in theoretical physics to themselves choose string theory, as that's where the jobs are. After a generation, this process runs the risk of operating on its own momentum, with nobody in a position to step back and admit that the entire string theory enterprise, judged by the standards of genuine science, has failed, and does not merit the huge human investment by the extraordinarily talented and dedicated people who are pursuing it, nor the public funding it presently receives. If Edward Witten believes there's something still worth pursuing, fine: his self-evident genius and massive contributions to mathematical physics more than justify supporting his work. But this enterprise which is cranking out hundreds of PhDs and postdocs who are spending their most intellectually productive years learning a fantastically complicated intellectual structure with no grounding whatsoever in experiment, most of whom will have no hope of finding permanent employment in the field they have invested so much to aspire toward, is much more difficult to justify or condone.

The problem, to state it in a manner more inflammatory than the measured tone of the author, and in a word of my choosing which I do not believe appears at all in his book, is that contemporary academic research in high energy particle theory is corrupt. As is usually the case with such corruption, the root cause is socialism, although the look-only-left blinders almost universally worn in academia today hides this from most observers there. Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, twigged to it quite early. In his farewell address of January 17th, 1961, which academic collectivists endlessly cite for its (prescient) warning about the “military-industrial complex”, he went on to say, although this is rarely quoted,

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

And there, of course, is precisely the source of the corruption. This enterprise of theoretical elaboration is funded by taxpayers, who have no say in how their money, taken under threat of coercion, is spent. Which researchers receive funds for what work is largely decided by the researchers themselves, acting as peer review panels. While peer review may work to vet scientific publications, as soon as money becomes involved, the disposition of which can make or break careers, all the venality and naked self- and group-interest which has undone every well-intentioned experiment in collectivism since Robert Owen comes into play, with the completely predictable and tediously repeated results. What began as an altruistic quest driven by intellectual curiosity to discover answers to the deepest questions posed by nature ends up, after a generation of grey collectivism, as a jobs program. In a sense, string theory can be thought of like that other taxpayer-funded and highly hyped program, the space shuttle, which is hideously expensive, dangerous to the careers of those involved with it (albeit in a more direct manner), supported by a standing army composed of some exceptional people and a mass of the mediocre, difficult to close down because it has carefully cultivated a constituency whose own self-interest is invested in continuation of the program, and almost completely unproductive of genuine science.

One of the author's concerns is that the increasingly apparent impending collapse of the string theory edifice may result in the de-funding of other promising areas of fundamental physics research. I suspect he may under-estimate how difficult it is to get rid of a government program, however absurd, unjustified, and wasteful it has become: consider the space shuttle, or mohair subsidies. But perhaps de-funding is precisely what is needed to eliminate the corruption. Why should U.S. taxpayers be spending on the order of thirty million dollars a year on theoretical physics not only devoid of any near- or even distant-term applications, but also mostly disconnected from experiment? Perhaps if theoretical physics returned to being funded by universities from their endowments and operating funds, and by money raised from patrons and voluntarily contributed by the public interested in the field, it would be, albeit a much smaller enterprise, a more creative and productive one. Certainly it would be more honest. Sure, there may be some theoretical breakthrough we might not find for fifty years instead of twenty with massive subsidies. But so what? The truth is out there, somewhere in spacetime, and why does it matter (since it's unlikely in the extreme to have any immediate practical consequences) how soon we find it, anyway? And who knows, it's just possible a research programme composed of the very, very best, whose work is of such obvious merit and creativity that it attracts freely-contributed funds, exploring areas chosen solely on their merit by those doing the work, and driven by curiosity instead of committee group-think, might just get there first. That's the way I'd bet.

For a book addressed to a popular audience which contains not a single equation, many readers will find it quite difficult. If you don't follow these matters in some detail, you may find some of the more technical chapters rather bewildering. (The author, to be fair, acknowledges this at the outset.) For example, if you don't know what the hierarchy problem is, or why it is important, you probably won't be able to figure it out from the discussion here. On the other hand, policy-oriented readers will have little difficulty grasping the problems with the string theory programme and its probable causes even if they skip the gnarly physics and mathematics. An entertaining discussion of some of the problems of string theory, in particular the question of “background independence”, in which the string theorists universally assume the existence of a background spacetime which general relativity seems to indicate doesn't exist, may be found in Carlo Rovelli's "A Dialog on Quantum Gravity". For more technical details, see Lee Smolin's Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. There are some remarkable factoids in this book, one of the most stunning being that the proposed TeV class muon colliders of the future will produce neutrino (yes, neutrino) radiation which is dangerous to humans off-site. I didn't believe it either, but look here—imagine the sign: “DANGER: Neutrino Beam”!

A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication at the end of September 2006. The author has operated the Not Even Wrong Web log since 2004; it is an excellent source for news and gossip on these issues. The unnamed “excitable … Harvard faculty member” mentioned on p. 227 and elsewhere is Luboš Motl (who is, however, named in the acknowledgements), and whose own Web log is always worth checking out.

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Bartlett, Bruce. Impostor. New York: Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-51827-7.
This book is a relentless, uncompromising, and principled attack on the administration of George W. Bush by an author whose conservative credentials are impeccable and whose knowledge of economics and public finance is authoritative; he was executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress during the Reagan administration and later served in the Reagan White House and in the Treasury Department under the first president Bush. For the last ten years he was a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, which fired him in 2005 for writing this book.

Bartlett's primary interest is economics, and he focuses almost exclusively on the Bush administration's spending and tax policies here, with foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, social policy, civil liberties, and other contentious issues discussed only to the extent they affect the budget. The first chapter, titled “I Know Conservatives, and George W. Bush Is No Conservative” states the central thesis, which is documented by detailed analysis of the collapse of the policy-making process in Washington, the expensive and largely ineffective tax cuts, the ruinous Medicare prescription drug program (and the shameful way in which its known costs were covered up while the bill was rammed through Congress), the abandonment of free trade whenever there were votes to be bought, the explosion in regulation, and the pork-packed spending frenzy in the Republican controlled House and Senate which Bush has done nothing to restrain (he is the first president since John Quincy Adams to serve a full four year term and never veto a single piece of legislation). All of this is documented in almost 80 pages of notes and source references.

Bartlett is a “process” person as well as a policy wonk, and he diagnoses the roots of many of the problems as due to the Bush White House's resembling a third and fourth Nixon administration. There is the same desire for secrecy, the intense value placed on personal loyalty, the suppression of active debate in favour of a unified line, isolation from outside information and opinion, an attempt to run everything out of the White House, bypassing the policy shops and resources in the executive departments, and the paranoia induced by uniformly hostile press coverage and detestation by intellectual elites. Also Nixonesque is the free-spending attempt to buy the votes, at whatever the cost or long-term consequences, of members of groups who are unlikely in the extreme to reward Republicans for their largesse because they believe they'll always get a better deal from the Democrats.

The author concludes that the inevitable economic legacy of the Bush presidency will be large tax increases in the future, perhaps not on Bush's watch, but correctly identified as the consequences of his irresponsibility when they do come to pass. He argues that the adoption of a European-style value-added tax (VAT) is the “least bad” way to pay the bill when it comes due. The long-term damage done to conservatism and the Republican party are assessed, along with prospects for the post-Bush era.

While Bartlett was one of the first prominent conservatives to speak out against Bush, he is hardly alone today, with disgruntlement on the right seemingly restrained mostly due to lack of alternatives. And that raises a question on which this book is silent: if Bush has governed (at least in domestic economic policy) irresponsibly, incompetently, and at variance with conservative principles, what other potential candidate could have been elected instead who would have been the true heir of the Reagan legacy? Al Gore? John Kerry? John McCain? Steve Forbes? What plausible candidate in either party seems inclined and capable of turning things around instead of making them even worse? The irony, and a fundamental flaw of Empire seems to be that empires don't produce the kind of leaders which built them, or are required to avert their decline. It's fundamentally a matter of crunchiness and sogginess, and it's why empires don't last forever.

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Ortega y Gasset, José. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, [1930, 1932, 1964] 1993. ISBN 0-393-31095-7.
This book, published more than seventy-five years ago, when the twentieth century was only three decades old, is a simply breathtaking diagnosis of the crises that manifested themselves in that century and the prognosis for human civilisation. The book was published in Spanish in 1930; this English translation, authorised and approved by the author, by a translator who requested to remain anonymous, first appeared in 1932 and has been in print ever since.

I have encountered few works so short (just 190 pages), which are so densely packed with enlightening observations and thought-provoking ideas. When I read a book, if I encounter a paragraph that I find striking, either in the writing or the idea it embodies, I usually add it to my “quotes” archive for future reference. If I did so with this book, I would find myself typing in a large portion of the entire text. This is not an easy read, not due to the quality of the writing and translation (which are excellent), nor the complexity of the concepts and arguments therein, but simply due to the pure number of insights packed in here, each of which makes you stop and ponder its derivation and implications.

The essential theme of the argument anticipated the crunchy/soggy analysis of society by more than 65 years. In brief, over-achieving self-motivated elites create liberal democracy and industrial economies. Liberal democracy and industry lead to the emergence of the “mass man”, self-defined as not of the elite and hostile to existing elite groups and institutions. The mass man, by strength of numbers and through the democratic institutions which enabled his emergence, seizes the levers of power and begins to use the State to gratify his immediate desires. But, unlike the elites who created the State, the mass man does not think or plan in the long term, and is disinclined to make the investments and sacrifices which were required to create the civilisation in the first place, and remain necessary if it is to survive. In this consists the crisis of civilisation, and grasping this single concept explains much of the history of the seven decades which followed the appearance of the book and events today. Suddenly some otherwise puzzling things start to come into focus, such as why it is, in a world enormously more wealthy than that of the nineteenth century, with abundant and well-educated human resources and technological capabilities which dwarf those of that epoch, there seems to be so little ambition to undertake large-scale projects, and why those which are embarked upon are so often bungled.

In a single footnote on p. 119, Ortega y Gasset explains what the brilliant Hans-Hermann Hoppe spent an entire book doing: why hereditary monarchies, whatever their problems, are usually better stewards of the national patrimony than democratically elected leaders. In pp. 172–186 he explains the curious drive toward European integration which has motivated conquerors from Napoleon through Hitler, and collectivist bureaucratic schemes such as the late, unlamented Soviet Union and the odious present-day European Union. On pp. 188–190 he explains why a cult of youth emerges in mass societies, and why they produce as citizens people who behave like self-indulgent perpetual adolescents. In another little single-sentence footnote on p. 175 he envisions the disintegration of the British Empire, then at its zenith, and the cultural fragmentation of the post-colonial states. I'm sure that few of the author's intellectual contemporaries could have imagined their descendants living among the achievements of Western civilisation yet largely ignorant of its history or cultural heritage; the author nails it in chapters 9–11, explaining why it was inevitable and tracing the consequences for the civilisation, then in chapter 12 he forecasts the fragmentation of science into hyper-specialised fields and the implications of that. On pp. 184–186 he explains the strange attraction of Soviet communism for European intellectuals who otherwise thought themselves individualists—recall, this is but six years after the death of Lenin. And still there is more…and more…and more. This is a book you can probably re-read every year for five years in a row and get something more out of it every time.

A full-text online edition is available, which is odd since the copyright of the English translation was last renewed in 1960 and should still be in effect, yet the site which hosts this edition claims that all their content is in the public domain.

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Weinberger, Sharon. Imaginary Weapons. New York: Nation Books, 2006. ISBN 1-56025-849-7.

A nuclear isomer is an atomic nucleus which, due to having a greater spin, different shape, or differing alignment of the spin orientation and axis of symmetry, has more internal energy than the ground state nucleus with the same number of protons and neutrons. Nuclear isomers are usually produced in nuclear fusion reactions when the the addition of protons and/or neutrons to a nucleus in a high-energy collision leaves it in an excited state. Hundreds of nuclear isomers are known, but the overwhelming majority decay with gamma ray emission in about 10−14 seconds. In a few species, however, this almost instantaneous decay is suppressed for various reasons, and metastable isomers exist with half-lives ranging from 10−9 seconds (one nanosecond), to the isomer Tantalum-180m, which has a half-life of at least 1015 years and may be entirely stable; it is the only nuclear isomer found in nature and accounts for about one atom of 8300 in tantalum metal.

Some metastable isomers with intermediate half-lives have a remarkably large energy compared to the ground state and emit correspondingly energetic gamma ray photons when they decay. The Hafnium-178m2 (the “m2” denotes the second lowest energy isomeric state) nucleus has a half-life of 31 years and decays (through the m1 state) with the emission of 2.45 MeV in gamma rays. Now the fact that there's a lot of energy packed into a radioactive nucleus is nothing new—people were calculating the energy of disintegrating radium and uranium nuclei at the end of the 19th century, but all that energy can't be used for much unless you can figure out some way to release it on demand—as long as it just dribbles out at random, you can use it for some physics experiments and medical applications, but not to make loud bangs or turn turbines. It was only the discovery of the fission chain reaction, where the fission of certain nuclei liberates neutrons which trigger the disintegration of others in an exponential process, which made nuclear energy, for better or for worse, accessible.

So, as long as there is no way to trigger the release of the energy stored in a nuclear isomer, it is nothing more than an odd kind of radioactive element, the subject of a reasonably well-understood and somewhat boring topic in nuclear physics. If, however, there were some way to externally trigger the decay of the isomer to the ground state, then the way would be open to releasing the energy in the isomer at will. It is possible to trigger the decay of the Tantalum-180 isomer by 2.8 MeV photons, but the energy required to trigger the decay is vastly greater than the 0.075 MeV it releases, so the process is simply an extremely complicated and expensive way to waste energy.

Researchers in the small community interested in nuclear isomers were stunned when, in the January 25, 1999 issue of Physical Review Letters, a paper by Carl Collins and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas reported they had triggered the release of 2.45 MeV in gamma rays from a sample of Hafnium-178m2 by irradiating it with a second-hand dental X-ray machine with the sample of the isomer sitting on a styrofoam cup. Their report implied, even with the crude apparatus, an energy gain of sixty times break-even, which was more than a million times the rate predicted by nuclear theory, if triggering were possible at all. The result, if real, could have substantial technological consequences: the isomer could be used as a nuclear battery, which could store energy and release it on demand with a density which dwarfed that of any chemical battery and was only a couple of orders of magnitude less than a fission bomb. And, speaking of bombs, if you could manage to trigger a mass of hafnium all at once or arrange for it to self-trigger in a chain reaction, you could make a variety of nifty weapons out of it, including a nuclear hand grenade with a yield of two kilotons. You could also build a fission-free trigger for a thermonuclear bomb which would evade all of the existing nonproliferation safeguards which are aimed at controlling access to fissile material. These are the kind of things that get the attention of folks in that big five-sided building in Arlington, Virginia.

And so it came to pass, in a Pentagon bent on “transformational technologies” and concerned with emerging threats from potential adversaries, that in May of 2003 a Hafnium Isomer Production Panel (HIPP) was assembled to draw up plans for bulk production of the substance, with visions of nuclear hand grenades, clean bunker-busting fusion bombs, and even hafnium-powered bombers floating before the eyes of the out of the box thinkers at DARPA, who envisioned a two-year budget of USD30 million for the project—military science marches into the future. What's wrong with this picture? Well, actually rather a lot of things.

  • No other researcher had been able to reproduce the results from the original experiment. This included a team of senior experimentalists who used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory and state of the art instrumentation and found no evidence whatsoever for triggering of the hafnium isomer with X-rays—in two separate experiments.
  • As noted above, well-understood nuclear theory predicted the yield from triggering, if it occurred, to be six orders of magnitude less than reported in Collins's paper.
  • An evaluation of the original experiment by the independent JASON group of senior experts in 1999 determined the result to be “a priori implausible” and “inconclusive, at best”.
  • A separate evaluation by the Institute for Defense Analyses concluded the original paper reporting the triggering results “was flawed and should not have passed peer review”.
  • Collins had never run, and refused to run, a null experiment with ordinary hafnium to confirm that the very small effect he reported went away when the isomer was removed.
  • James Carroll, one of the co-authors of the original paper, had obtained nothing but null results in his own subsequent experiments on hafnium triggering.
  • Calculations showed that even if triggering were to be possible at the reported rate, the process would not come close to breaking even: more than six times as much X-ray energy would go in as gamma rays came out.
  • Even if triggering worked, and some way were found to turn it into an energy source or explosive device, the hafnium isomer does not occur in nature and would have to be made by a hideously inefficient process in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator, at a cost estimated at around a billion dollars per gram. The explosive in the nuclear hand grenade would cost tens of billions of dollars, compared to which highly enriched uranium and plutonium are cheap as dirt.
  • If the material could be produced and triggering made to work, the resulting device would pose an extreme radiation hazard. Radiation is inverse to half-life, and the hafnium isomer, with a 31 year half-life, is vastly more radioactive than U-235 (700 million years) or Pu-239 (24,000 years). Further, hafnium isomer decays emit gamma rays, which are the most penetrating form of ionising nuclear radiation and the most difficult against which to shield. The shielding required to protect humans in the vicinity of a tangible quantity of hafnium isomer would more than negate its small mass and compact size.
  • A hafnium explosive device would disperse large quantities of the unreacted isomer (since a relatively small percentage of the total explosive can react before the device is disassembled in the explosion). As it turns out, the half-life of the isomer is just about the same as that of Cesium-137, which is often named as the prime candidate for a “dirty” radiological bomb. One physicist on the HIPP (p. 176) described a hafnium weapon as “the mother of all dirty bombs”.
  • And consider that hand grenade, which would weigh about five pounds. How far can you throw a five pound rock? What do you think about being that far away from a detonation with the energy of two thousand tons of TNT, all released in prompt gamma rays?

But bad science, absurd economics, a nonexistent phenomenon, damning evaluations by panels of authorities, lack of applications, and ridiculous radiation risk in the extremely improbable event of success pose no insurmountable barriers to a government project once it gets up to speed, especially one in which the relationships between those providing the funding and its recipients are complicated and unseemingly cozy. It took an exposé in the Washington Post Magazine by the author and subsequent examination in Congress to finally drive a stake through this madness—maybe. As of the end of 2005, although DARPA was out of the hafnium business (at least publicly), there were rumours of continued funding thanks to a Congressional earmark in the Department of Energy budget.

This book is a well-researched and fascinating look inside the defence underworld where fringe science feeds on federal funds, and starkly demonstrates how weird and wasteful things can get when Pentagon bureaucrats disregard their own science advisors and substitute instinct and wishful thinking for the tedious, but ultimately reliable, scientific method. Many aspects of the story are also quite funny, although U.S. taxpayers who footed the bill for this madness may be less amused. The author has set up a Web site for the book, and Carl Collins, who conducted the original experiment with the dental X-ray and styrofoam cup which incited the mania has responded with his own, almost identical in appearance, riposte. If you're interested in more technical detail on the controversy than appears in Weinberg's book, the Physics Today article from May 2004 is an excellent place to start. The book contains a number of typographical and factual errors, none of which are significant to the story, but when the first line of the Author's Note uses “sited” when “cited” is intended, and in the next paragraph “wondered” instead of “wandered”, you have to—wonder.

It is sobering to realise that this folly took place entirely in the public view: in the open scientific literature, university labs, unclassified defence funding subject to Congressional oversight, and ultimately in the press, and yet over a period of years millions in taxpayer funds were squandered on nonsense. Just imagine what is going on in highly-classified “black” programs.

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July 2006

Herrmann, Alexander. Herrmann's Book of Magic. Chicago: Frederick J. Drake & Co., 1903. LCCN 05035787.
When you were a kid, did your grandfather ever pull a coin from his pocket, clap his hands together and make it disappear, then “find” it behind your ear, sending you off to the Popsicle truck for a summer evening treat? If so, and you're now grandparent age yourself, this may be the book from which he learned that trick. Alexander Herrmann was a prominent stage magician in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this 1903 book, he reveals many of the secrets of the conjuror, from the fundamental sleight of hand skills of palming objects and vanishing and producing them, to the operation of famous illusions such as the disembodied head which speaks. This on-line edition, available both in HTML and Plain ASCII formats, is a complete reproduction of the book, including (in the HTML edition) all the illustrations.

If you must have a printed copy, you may find one at abebooks.com, but it will probably be expensive. It's much better to read the on-line edition produced from a copy found by Bill Walker at a yard sale and kindly contributed to produce this edition.

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Berlinski, Claire. Menace in Europe. New York: Crown Forum, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-9768-1.
This is a scary book. The author, who writes with a broad and deep comprehension of European history and its cultural roots, and a vocabulary which reminds one of William F. Buckley, argues that the deep divide which has emerged between the United States and Europe since the end of the cold war, and particularly in the last few years, is not a matter of misunderstanding, lack of sensitivity on the part of the U.S., or the personnel, policies, and style of the Bush administration, but deeply rooted in structural problems in Europe which are getting worse, not better. (That's not to say that there aren't dire problems in the U.S. as well, but that isn't the topic here.)

Surveying the contemporary scene in the Netherlands, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, and tracing the roots of nationalism, peasant revolts (of which “anti-globalisation” is the current manifestation), and anti-Semitism back through the centuries, she shows that what is happening in Europe today is simply Europe—the continent of too many kings and too many wars—being Europe, adapted to present-day circumstances. The impression you're left with is that Europe isn't just the “sick man of the world”, but rather a continent afflicted with half a dozen or more separate diseases, all terminal: a large, un-assimilated immigrant population concentrated in ghettos; an unsustainable welfare state; a sclerotic economy weighed down by social charges, high taxes, and ubiquitous and counterproductive regulation; a collapsing birth rate and aging population; a “culture crash” (my term), where the religions and ideologies which have structured the lives of Europeans for millennia have evaporated, leaving nothing in their place; a near-total disconnect between elites and the general population on the disastrous project of European integration, most recently manifested in the controversy over the so-called European constitution; and signs that the rabid nationalism which plunged Europe into two disastrous wars in the last century and dozens, if not hundreds of wars in the centuries before, is seeping back up through the cracks in the foundation of the dystopian, ill-conceived European Union.

In some regards, the author does seem to overstate the case, or generalise from evidence so narrow it lacks persuasiveness. The most egregious example is chapter 8, which infers an emerging nihilist neo-Nazi nationalism in Germany almost entirely based on the popularity of the band Rammstein. Well, yes, but whatever the lyrics, the message of the music, and the subliminal message of the music videos, there is a lot more going on in Germany, a nation of more than 80 million people, than the antics of a single heavy metal band, however atavistic.

U.S. readers inclined to gloat over the woes of the old continent should keep in mind the author's observation, a conclusion I had come to long before I ever opened this book, that the U.S. is heading directly for the same confluence of catastrophes as Europe, and, absent a fundamental change of course, will simply arrive at the scene of the accident somewhat later; and that's only taking into account the problems they have in common; the European economy, unlike the American, is able to function without borrowing on the order of two billion dollars a day from China and Japan.

If you live in Europe, as I have for the last fifteen years (thankfully outside, although now encircled by, the would-be empire that sprouted from Brussels), you'll probably find little here that's new, but you may get a better sense of how the problems interact with one another to make a real crisis somewhere in the future a genuine possibility. The target audience in the U.S., which is so often lectured by their elite that Europe is so much more sophisticated, nuanced, socially and environmentally aware, and rational, may find this book an eye opener; 344,955 American soldiers perished in European wars in the last century, and while it may be satisfying to say, “To Hell with Europe!”, the lesson of history is that saying so is most unwise.

An Instapundit podcast interview with the author is freely available on-line.

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Williamson, Donald I. The Origins of Larvae. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2003. ISBN 1-4020-1514-3.
I am increasingly beginning to suspect that we are living through an era which, in retrospect, will be seen, like the early years of the twentieth century, as the final days preceding revolutions in a variety of scientific fields. Precision experiments and the opening of new channels of information about the universe as diverse as the sequencing of genomes, the imminent detection of gravitational waves, and detailed measurement of the cosmic background radiation are amassing more and more discrepant data which causes scientific journeymen to further complicate their already messy “standard models”, and the more imaginative among them to think that maybe there are simple, fundamental things which we're totally missing. Certainly, when the scientific consensus is that everything we see and know about comprises less than 5% of the universe, and a majority of the last generation of theorists in high energy physics have been working on a theory which only makes sense in a universe with ten, or maybe eleven, or maybe twenty-six dimensions, there would seem to be a lot of room for an Einstein-like conceptual leap which would make everybody slap their foreheads and exclaim, “How could we have missed that!

But still we have Darwin, don't we? If the stargazers and particle smashers are puzzled by what they see, certainly the more down-to-earth folk who look at creatures that inhabit our planet still stand on a firm foundation, don't they? Well…maybe not. Perhaps, as this book argues, not only is the conventional view of the “tree of life” deeply flawed, the very concept of a tree, where progenitor species always fork into descendants, but there is never any interaction between the ramified branches, is incorrect. (Just to clarify in advance: the author does not question the fundamental mechanism of Darwinian evolution by natural selection of inherited random variations, nor argue for some other explanation for the origin of the diversity in species on Earth. His argument is that this mechanism may not be the sole explanation for the characteristics of the many species with larval forms or discordant embryonic morphology, and that the assumption made by Darwin and his successors that evolution is a pure process of diversification [or forking of species from a common ancestor, as if companies only developed by spin-offs, and never did mergers and acquisitions] may be a simplification that, while it makes the taxonomist's job easier, is not warranted by the evidence.)

Many forms of life on Earth are not born from the egg as small versions of their adult form. Instead, they are born as larvae, which are often radically different in form from the adult. The best known example is moths and butterflies, which hatch as caterpillars, and subsequently reassemble themselves into the winged insects which mate and produce eggs that hatch into the next generation of caterpillars. Larvae are not restricted to arthropoda and other icky phyla: frogs and toads are born as tadpoles and live in one body form, then transform into quite different adults. Even species, humans included, which are born as little adults, go through intermediate stages as developing embryos which have the characteristics of other, quite different species.

Now, when you look closely at this, (and many will be deterred because a great deal of larvae and the species they mature into are rather dreadful), you'll find a long list of curious things which have puzzled naturalists all the way back to Darwin and before. There are numerous examples of species which closely resemble one another and are classified by taxonomists in the same genus which have larvae which are entirely different from one another—so much so that if the larvae were classified by themselves, they would probably be put into different classes or phyla. There are almost identical larvae which develop into species only distantly related. Closely related species include those with one or more larval forms, and others which develop directly: hatching as small individuals already with the adult form. And there are animals which, in their adult form, closely resemble the larvae of other species.

What a mess—but then biology is usually messy! The author, an expert on marine invertebrates (from which the vast majority of examples in this book are drawn), argues that there is a simple explanation for all of these discrepancies and anomalies, one which, if you aren't a biologist yourself, may have already occurred to you—that larvae (and embryonic forms) are the result of a hybridisation or merger of two unrelated species, with the result being a composite which hatches in one form and then subsequently transforms into the other. The principle of natural selection would continue to operate on these inter-specific mergers, of course: complicating or extending the development process of an animal before it could reproduce would probably be selected out, but, on the other hand, adding a free-floating or swimming larval form to an animal whose adult crawls on the ocean bottom or remains fixed to a given location like a clam or barnacle could confer a huge selective advantage on the hybrid, and equip it to ride out mass extinction events because the larval form permitted the species to spread to marginal habitats where it could survive the extinction event.

The acquisition of a larva by successful hybridisation could spread among the original species with no larval form not purely by differential selection but like a sexually transmitted disease—in other words, like wildfire. Note that many marine invertebrates reproduce simply by releasing their eggs and sperm into the sea and letting nature sort it out; consequently, the entire ocean is a kind of of promiscuous pan-specific singles bar where every pelagic and benthic creature is trying to mate, utterly indiscriminately, with every other at the whim of the wave and current. Most times, as in singles bars, it doesn't work out, but suppose sometimes it does?

You have to assume a lot of improbable things for this to make sense, the most difficult of which is that you can combine the sperm and egg of vastly different creatures and (on extremely rare occasions) end up with a hybrid which is born in the form of one and then, at some point, spontaneously transforms into the other. But ruling this out (or deciding it's plausible) requires understanding the “meta-program” of embryonic development—until we do, there's always the possibility we'll slap our foreheads when we realise how straightforward the mechanism is which makes this work.

One thing is clear: this is real science; the author makes unambiguous predictions about biology which can be tested in a variety of ways: laboratory experiments in hybridisation (on p. 213–214 he advises those interested in how to persuade various species to release their eggs and sperm), analysis of genomes (which ought to show evidence of hybridisation in the past), and detailed comparison of adult species which are possible progenitors of larval forms with larvae of those with which they may have hybridised.

If you're insufficiently immersed in the utter weirdness of life forms on this little sphere we inhabit, there is plenty here to astound you. Did you know, for example, about Owenia fusiformis (p. 72), which undergoes “cataclysmic metamorphosis”, which puts the chest-burster of Alien to shame: the larva develops an emerging juvenile worm which, in less than thirty seconds, turns itself inside-out and swallows the larva, which it devours in fifteen minutes. The larva does not “develop into” the juvenile, as is often said; it is like the first stage of a rocket which is discarded after it has done its job. How could this have evolved smoothly by small, continuous changes? For sheer brrrr factor, it's hard to beat the nemertean worms, which develop from tiny larvae into adults some of which exceed thirty metres in length (p. 87).

The author is an expert, and writes for his peers. There are many paragraphs like the following (p. 189), which will send you to the glossary at the end of the text (don't overlook it—otherwise you'll spend lots of time looking up things on the Web).

Adult mantis shrimp (Stomatapoda) live in burrows. The five anterior thoracic appendages are subchelate maxillipeds, and the abdomen bears pleopods and uropods. Some hatch as antizoeas: planktonic larvae that swim with five pairs of biramous thoracic appendages. These larvae gradually change into pseudozoeas, with subchelate maxillipeds and with four or five pairs of natatory pleopods. Other stomatopods hatch as pseudozoeas. There are no uropods in the larval stages. The lack of uropods and the form of the other appendages contrasts with the condition in decapod larvae. It seems improbable that stomatopod larvae could have evolved from ancestral forms corresponding to zoeas and megalopas, and I suggest that the Decapoda and the Stomatopoda acquired their larvae from different foreign sources.
In addition to the zoö-jargon, another deterrent to reading this book is the cost: a list price of USD 109, quoted at Amazon.com at this writing at USD 85, which is a lot of money for a 260 page monograph, however superbly produced and notwithstanding its small potential audience; so fascinating and potentially significant is the content that one would happily part with USD 15 to read a PDF, but at prices like this one's curiosity becomes constrained by the countervailing virtue of parsimony. Still, if Williamson is right, some of the fundamental assumptions underlying our understanding of life on Earth for the last century and a half may be dead wrong, and if his conjecture stands the test of experiment, we may have at hand an understanding of mysteries such as the Cambrian explosion of animal body forms and the apparent “punctuated equilibria” in the fossil record. There is a Nobel Prize here for somebody who confirms that this supposition is correct. Lynn Margulis, whose own theory of the origin of eukaryotic cells by the incorporation of previously free-living organisms as endosymbionts, which is now becoming the consensus view, co-authors a foreword which endorses Williamson's somewhat similar view of larvae.

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Reasoner, James. Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West. New York: Berkley, 2003. ISBN 0-425-19193-1.
The author is best known as a novelist, author of a bookshelf full of yarns, mostly set in the Wild West, but also of the War Between the States and World War II. In this, his first work of nonfiction after twenty-five years as a writer, he sketches in 31 short chapters (of less than ten pages average length, with a number including pictures) the careers and climactic (and often career-ending) conflicts of the best known gunslingers of the Old West, as well as many lesser-known figures, some of which were just as deadly and, in their own time, notorious. Here are tales of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Dalton Gang, Bat Masterson, Bill Doolin, Pat Garrett, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok; but also Jim Levy, the Jewish immigrant from Ireland who was considered by both Earp and Masterson to be one of the deadliest gunfighters in the West; Henry Starr, who robbed banks from the 1890s until his death in a shoot-out in 1921, pausing in mid-career to write, direct, and star in a silent movie about his exploits, A Debtor to the Law; and Ben Thompson, who Bat Masterson judged to be the fastest gun in the West, who was, at various times, an Indian fighter, Confederate cavalryman, mercenary for Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, gambler, gunfighter,…and chief of police of Austin, Texas. Many of the characters who figure here worked both sides of the law, in some cases concurrently.

The author does not succumb to the temptation to glamorise these mostly despicable figures, nor the tawdry circumstances in which so many met their ends. (Many, but not all: Bat Masterson survived a career as deputy sheriff in Dodge City, sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, Marshal of Trinidad, Colorado, and as itinerant gambler in the wildest towns of the West, to live the last twenty years of his life in New York City, working as sports editor and columnist for a Manhattan newspaper.) Reasoner does, however, attempt to spice up the narrative with frontier lingo (whether genuine or bogus, I know not): lawmen and “owlhoots” (outlaws) are forever slappin' leather, loosing or dodging hails of lead, getting thrown in the hoosegow, or seeking the comfort of the soiled doves who plied their trade above the saloons. This can become tedious if you read the book straight through; it's better enjoyed a chapter at a time spread out over an extended period. The chapters are completely independent of one other (although there are a few cross-references), and may be read in any order. In fact, they read like a collection of magazine columns, but there is no indication in the book they were ever previously published. There is a ten page bibliography citing sources for each chapter but no index—this is a substantial shortcoming since many of the chapter titles do not name the principals in the events they describe, and since the paths of the most famous gunfighters crossed frequently, their stories are spread over a number of chapters.

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Lloyd, Seth. Programming the Universe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-4092-2.
The author has devoted his professional career to exploring the deep connections between information processing and the quantum mechanical foundations of the universe. Although his doctorate is in physics, he is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, which I suppose makes him an honest to God quantum mechanic. A pioneer in the field of quantum computation, he suggested the first physically realisable quantum computational device, and is author of the landmark papers which evaluated the computational power of the “ultimate laptop”computer which, if its one kilogram of mass and one litre of volume crunched any faster, would collapse into a black hole; estimated the computational capacity of the entire visible universe; and explored how gravitation and spacetime could be emergent properties of a universal quantum computation.

In this book, he presents these concepts to a popular audience, beginning by explaining the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and the principles of quantum computation, before moving on to the argument that the universe as a whole is a universal quantum computer whose future cannot be predicted by any simulation less complicated than the universe as a whole, nor any faster than the future actually evolves (a concept reminiscent of Stephen Wolfram's argument in A New Kind of Science [August 2002], but phrased in quantum mechanical rather than classical terms). He argues that all of the complexity we observe in the universe is the result of the universe performing a computation whose input is the random fluctuations created by quantum mechanics. But, unlike the proverbial monkeys banging on typewriters, the quantum mechanical primate fingers are, in effect, typing on the keys of a quantum computer which, like the cellular automata of Wolfram's book, has the capacity to generate extremely complex structures from very simple inputs. Why was the universe so simple shortly after the big bang? Because it hadn't had the time to compute very much structure. Why is the universe so complicated today? Because it's had sufficient time to perform 10122 logical operations up to the present.

I found this book, on the whole, a disappointment. Having read the technical papers cited above before opening it, I didn't expect to learn any additional details from a popularisation, but I did hope the author would provide a sense for how the field evolved and get a sense of where he saw this research programme going in the future and how it might (or might not) fit with other approaches to the unification of quantum mechanics and gravitation. There are some interesting anecdotes about the discovery of the links between quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory, and the personalities involved in that work, but one leaves the book without any sense for where future research might be going, nor how these theories might be tested by experiment in the near or even distant future. The level of the intended audience is difficult to discern. Unlike some popularisers of science, Lloyd does not shrink from using equations where they clarify physical relationships and even introduces and uses Dirac's “bra-ket” notation (for example, <φ|ψ>), yet almost everywhere he writes a number in scientific notation, he also gives it in the utterly meaningless form of (p. 165) “100 billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion” (OK, I've done that myself, on one occasion, but I was having fun at the expense of a competitor). And finally, I find it dismaying that a popular science book by a prominent researcher published by a house as respectable as Knopf at a cover price of USD26 lacks an index—this is a fundamental added value that the reader deserves when parting with this much money (especially for a book of only 220 pages). If you know nothing about these topics, this volume will probably leave you only more confused, and possibly over-optimistic about the state of quantum computation. If you've followed the field reasonably closely, the author's professional publications (most available on-line), which are lucidly written and accessible to the non-specialist, may be more rewarding.

I remain dubious about grandiose claims for quantum computation, and nothing in this book dispelled my scepticism. From Democritus all the way to the present day, every single scientific theory which assumed the existence of a continuum has been proved wrong when experiments looked more closely at what was really going on. Yet quantum mechanics, albeit a statistical theory at the level of measurement, is completely deterministic and linear in the evolution of the wave function, with amplitudes given by continuous complex values which embody, theoretically, an infinite amount of information. Where is all this information stored? The Bekenstein bound gives an upper limit on the amount of information which can be represented in a given volume of spacetime, and that implies that even if the quantum state were stored nonlocally in the entire causally connected universe, the amount of information would be (albeit enormous), still finite. Extreme claims for quantum computation assume you can linearly superpose any number of wave functions and thus encode as much information as you like in a single computation. The entire history of science, and of quantum mechanics itself makes me doubt that this is so—I'll bet that we eventually find some inherent granularity in the precision of the wave function (perhaps round-off errors in the simulation we're living within, but let's not revisit that). This is not to say, nor do I mean to imply, that quantum computation will not work; indeed, it has already been demonstrated in proof of concept laboratory experiments, and it may well hold the potential of extending the growth of computational power after the pure scaling of classical computers runs into physical limits. But just as shrinking semiconductor devices is fundamentally constrained by the size of atoms, quantum computation may be limited by the ultimate precision of the discrete computational substrate of the universe which behaves, on the large scale, like a continuous wave function.

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Ponnuru, Ramesh. The Party of Death. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-59698-004-4.
One party government is not a pretty thing. Just as competition in the marketplace reins in the excesses of would-be commercial predators (while monopoly encourages them to do their worst), long-term political dominance by a single party inevitably leads to corruption, disconnection of the ruling elites from their constituents, and unsustainable policy decisions which are destructive in the long term; this is precisely what has eventually precipitated the collapse of most empires. In recent years the federal government of the United States has been dominated by the Republican party, with all three branches of government and both houses of the congress in Republican hands. Chapter 18 of this fact-packed book cites a statistic which provides a stunning insight into an often-overlooked aspect of the decline of the Democratic party. In 1978, Democrats held 292 seats in the House of Representatives: an overwhelming super-majority of more than two thirds. Of these Democrats, 125, more than 40%, were identified as “pro-life”—opposed to abortion on demand and federal funding of abortion. But by 2004, only 35 Democrats in the House were identified as pro-life: fewer than 18%, and the total number of Democrats had shrunk to only 203, a minority of less than 47%. It is striking to observe that over a period of 26 years the number of pro-life Democrats has dropped by 90, almost identical to the party's total loss of 89 seats.

Now, the Democratic decline is more complicated than any single issue, but as the author documents, the Democratic activist base and large financial contributors are far more radical on issues of human life: unrestricted and subsidised abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, stem cell research which destroys human embryos, and human cloning for therapeutic purposes, than the American public at large. (The often deceptive questions used to manipulate the results of public opinion polls and the way they are spun in the overwhelmingly pro-abortion legacy media are discussed at length.) The activists and moneybags make the Democratic party a hostile environment for pro-life politicians and has, over the decades, selected them out, applying an often explicit litmus test to potential candidates, who are not allowed to deviate from absolutist positions. Their adherence to views not shared by most voters then makes them vulnerable in the general election.

Apart from the political consequences, the author examines the curious flirtation of the American left with death in all its forms—a strange alliance for a political philosophy which traditionally stressed protecting the weak and vulnerable: in the words of Hubert Humphrey (who was pro-life), “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” (p. 131).

The author argues against the panoply of pro-death policies exclusively from a human rights standpoint. Religion is not mentioned except to refute the claim that pro-life policies are an attempt to impose a sectarian agenda on a secular society. The human rights argument could not be simpler to grasp: if you believe that human beings have inherent, unalienable rights, simply by being human, then what human right could conceivably be more fundamental than the right not to be killed. If one accepts this (and the paucity of explicitly pro-murder voters would seem to indicate the view is broadly shared), then the only way one can embrace policies which permit the destruction of a living human organism is to define criteria which distinguish a “person” who cannot be killed, from those who are not persons and therefore can. Thus one hears the human embryo or fetus (which has the potential of developing into an adult human) described as a “potential human”, and medical patients in a persistent vegetative state as having no personhood. Professor Peter Singer, bioethicist at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University argues (p. 176), “[T]he concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life.”

But the problem with drawing lines that divide unarguably living human beings into classes of persons and nonpersons is that the distinctions are rarely clear-cut. If a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy is a nonperson, then what changes on the first day of the fourth month to confer personhood on the continuously developing baby? Why not five months, or six? And if a woman in the U.S. has a constitutionally protected right to have her child killed right up until the very last part of its body emerges from the birth canal (as is, in fact, the regime in effect today in the United States, notwithstanding media dissimulation of this reality), then what's so different about killing a newborn baby if, for example, it was found to have a birth defect which was not detected in utero. Professor Singer has no problem with this at all; he enumerates a variety of prerequisites for personhood: “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”, and then concludes “Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

It's tempting to dismiss Singer as another of the many intellectual Looney Tunes which decorate the American academy, but Ponnuru defends him for having the intellectual integrity to follow the premises he shares with many absolutists on these issues all the way to their logical conclusions, which lead Singer to conclude (p. 186), “[d]uring the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse…. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.” Doesn't that sound like a wonderful world, especially for those of us who expect to live out our declining years as that brave new era dawns, at least for those suitably qualified “persons” permitted to live long enough to get there?

Many contend that such worries are simply “the old slippery slope argument”, thinking that settles the matter. But the problem is that the old slippery slope argument is often right, and in this case there is substantial evidence that it very much applies. The enlightened Dutch seem to have slid further and faster than others in the West, permitting both assisted suicide for the ill and euthanasia for seriously handicapped infants at the parents' request—in theory. In fact, it is estimated that five percent of of all deaths in The Netherlands are the result of euthanasia by doctors without request (which is nominally illegal), and that five percent of infanticide occurs without the request or consent of the parents, and it is seldom noted in the media that the guidelines which permit these “infanticides” actually apply to children up to the age of twelve. Perhaps that's why the Dutch are so polite—young hellions run the risk not only of a paddling but also of “post-natal abortion”. The literally murderous combination of an aging population supported by a shrinking number of working-age people, state-sanctioned euthanasia, and socialised medicine is fearful to contemplate.

These are difficult issues, and the political arena has become so polarised into camps of extremists on both sides that rational discussion and compromise seem almost impossible. This book, while taking a pro-life perspective, eschews rhetoric in favour of rational argumentation grounded in the principles of human rights which date to the Enlightenment. One advantage of applying human rights to all humans is that it's simple and easy to understand. History is rich in examples which show that once a society starts sorting people into persons and nonpersons, things generally start to go South pretty rapidly. Like it or not, these are issues which modern society is going to have to face: advances in medical technologies create situations that call for judgements people never had to make before. For those who haven't adopted one extreme position or another, and are inclined to let the messy democratic process of decision making sort this out, ideally leaving as much discretion as possible to the individuals involved, as opposed to absolutist “rights” discovered in constitutional law and imposed by judicial diktat, this unsettling book is a valuable contribution to the debate. Democratic party stalwarts are unlikely in the extreme to read it, but they ignore this message at their peril.

The book is not very well-edited. There are a number of typographical errors and on two occasions (pp.  94 and 145), the author's interpolations in the middle of extended quotations are set as if they were part of the quotation. It is well documented; there are thirty-four pages of source citations.

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August 2006

Sullivan, Robert. Rats. New York: Bloomsbury, [2004] 2005. ISBN 1-58234-477-9.
Here we have one of the rarest phenomena in publishing: a thoroughly delightful best-seller about a totally disgusting topic: rats. (Before legions of rat fanciers write to berate me for bad-mouthing their pets, let me state at the outset that this book is about wild rats, not pet and laboratory rats which have been bred for docility for a century and a half. The new afterword to this paperback edition relates the story of a Brooklyn couple who caught a juvenile Bedford-Stuyvesant street rat to fill the empty cage of their recently deceased pet and, as it it matured, came to regard it with such fear that they were afraid even to release it in a park lest it turn and attack them when the cage was opened—the author suggested they might consider the strategy of “open the cage and run like hell” [p. 225–226]. One of the pioneers in the use of rats in medical research in the early years of the 20th century tried to use wild rats and concluded “they proved too savage to maintain in the laboratory” [p. 231].)

In these pages are more than enough gritty rat facts to get yourself ejected from any polite company should you introduce them into a conversation. Many misconceptions about rats are debunked, including the oft-cited estimate that the rat and human population is about the same, which would lead to an estimate of about eight million rats in New York City—in fact, the most authoritative estimate (p. 20) puts the number at about 250,000 which is still a lot of rats, especially once you begin to appreciate what a single rat can do. (But rat exaggeration gets folks' attention: here is a politician claiming there are fifty-six million rats in New York!) “Rat stories are war stories” (p. 34), and this book teems with them, including The Rat that Came Up the Toilet, which is not an urban legend but a well-documented urban nightmare. (I'd be willing to bet that the incidence of people keeping the toilet lid closed with a brick on the top is significantly greater among readers of this book.)

It's common for naturalists who study an animal to develop sympathy for it and defend it against popular aversion: snakes and spiders, for example, have many apologists. But not rats: the author sums up by stating that he finds them “disgusting”, and he isn't alone. The great naturalist and wildlife artist John James Audubon, one of the rare painters ever to depict rats, amused himself during the last years of his life in New York City by prowling the waterfront hunting rats, having received permission from the mayor “to shoot Rats in the Battery” (p. 4).

If you want to really get to know an animal species, you have to immerse yourself in its natural habitat, and for the Brooklyn-based author, this involved no more than a subway ride to Edens Alley in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed during the year he spent observing rats there. Along with rat stories and observations, he sketches the history of New York City from a ratty perspective, with tales of the arrival of the brown rat (possibly on ships carrying Hessian mercenaries to fight for the British during the War of American Independence), the rise and fall of rat fighting as popular entertainment in the city, the great garbage strike of 1968 which transformed the city into something close to heaven if you happened to be a rat, and the 1964 Harlem rent strike in which rats were presented to politicians by the strikers to acquaint them with the living conditions in their tenements.

People involved with rats tend to be outliers on the scale of human oddness, and the reader meets a variety of memorable characters, present-day and historical: rat fight impresarios, celebrity exterminators, Queen Victoria's rat-catcher, and many more. Among numerous fascinating items in this rat fact packed narrative is just how recent the arrival of the mis-named brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, is. (The species was named in England in 1769, having been believed to have stowed away on ships carrying lumber from Norway. In fact, it appears to have arrived in Britain before it reached Norway.) There were no brown rats in Europe at all until the 18th century (the rats which caused the Black Death were Rattus rattus, the black rat, which followed Crusaders returning from the Holy Land). First arriving in America around the time of the Revolution, the brown rat took until 1926 to spread to every state in the United States, displacing the black rat except for some remaining in the South and West. The Canadian province of Alberta remains essentially rat-free to this day, thanks to a vigorous and vigilant rat control programme.

The number of rats in an area depends almost entirely upon the food supply available to them. A single breeding pair of rats, with an unlimited food supply and no predation or other causes of mortality, can produce on the order of fifteen thousand descendants in a single year. That makes it pretty clear that a rat population will grow until all available food is being consumed by rats (and that natural selection will favour the most aggressive individuals in a food-constrained environment). Poison or trapping can knock down the rat population in the case of a severe infestation, but without limiting the availability of food, will produce only a temporary reduction in their numbers (while driving evolution to select for rats which are immune to the poison and/or more wary of the bait stations and traps).

Given this fact, which is completely noncontroversial among pest control professionals, it is startling that in New York City, which frets over and regulates public health threats like second-hand tobacco smoke while its denizens suffer more than 150 rat bites a year, many to children, smoke-free restaurants dump their offal into rat-infested alleys in thin plastic garbage bags, which are instantly penetrated by rats. How much could it cost to mandate, or even provide, rat-proof steel containers for organic waste, compared to the budget for rodent control and the damages and health hazards of a large rat population? Rats will always be around—in 1936, the president of the professional society for exterminators persuaded the organisation to change the name of the occupation from “exterminator” to “pest control operator”, not because the word “exterminator” was distasteful, but because he felt it over-promised what could actually be achieved for the client (p. 98). But why not take some simple, obvious steps to constrain the rat population?

The book contains more than twenty pages of notes in narrative form, which contain a great deal of additional information you don't want to miss, including the origin of giant inflatable rats for labour rallies, and even a poem by exterminator guru Bobby Corrigan. There is no index.

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Staley, Kent W. The Evidence for the Top Quark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-82710-8.
A great deal of nonsense and intellectual nihilism has been committed in the name of “science studies”. Here, however, is an exemplary volume which shows not only how the process of scientific investigation should be studied, but also why. The work is based on the author's dissertation in philosophy, which explored the process leading to the September 1994 publication of the “Evidence for top quark production in pp collisions at √s = 1.8 TeV” paper in Physical Review D. This paper is a quintessential example of Big Science: more than four hundred authors, sixty pages of intricate argumentation from data produced by a detector weighing more than two thousand tons, and automated examination of millions and millions of collisions between protons and antiprotons accelerated to almost the speed of light by the Tevatron, all to search, over a period of months, for an elementary particle which cannot be observed in isolation, and finally reporting “evidence” for its existence (but not “discovery” or “observation”) based on a total of just twelve events “tagged” by three different algorithms, when a total of about 5.7 events would have been expected due to other causes (“background”) purely by chance alone.

Through extensive scrutiny of contemporary documents and interviews with participants in the collaboration which performed the experiment, the author provides a superb insight into how science on this scale is done, and the process by which the various kinds of expertise distributed throughout a large collaboration come together to arrive at the consensus they have found something worthy of publication. He explores the controversies about the paper both within the collaboration and subsequent to its publication, and evaluates claims that choices made by the experimenters may have a produced a bias in the results, and/or that choosing experimental “cuts” after having seen data from the detector might constitute “tuning on the signal”: physicist-speak for choosing the criteria for experimental success after having seen the results from the experiment, a violation of the “predesignation” principle usually assumed in statistical tests.

In the final two, more philosophical, chapters, the author introduces the concept of “Error-Statistical Evidence”, and evaluates the analysis in the “Evidence” paper in those terms, concluding that despite all the doubt and controversy, the decision making process was, in the end, ultimately objective. (And, of course, subsequent experimentation has shown the information reported in the Evidence paper to be have been essentially correct.)

Popular accounts of high energy physics sometimes gloss over the fantastically complicated and messy observations which go into a reported result to such an extent you might think experimenters are just waiting around looking at a screen waiting for a little ball to pop out with a “t” or whatever stencilled on the side. This book reveals the subtlety of the actual data from these experiments, and the intricate chain of reasoning from the multitudinous electronic signals issuing from a particle detector to the claim of having discovered a new particle. This is not, however, remotely a work of popularisation. While attempting to make the physics accessible to philosophers of science and the philosophy comprehensible to physicists, each will find the portions outside their own speciality tough going. A reader without a basic understanding of the standard model of particle physics and the principles of statistical hypothesis testing will probably end up bewildered and may not make it to the end, but those who do will be rewarded with a detailed understanding of high energy particle physics experiments and the operation of large collaborations of researchers which is difficult to obtain anywhere else.

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Wilczek, Frank. Fantastic Realities. Singapore: World Scientific, 2006. ISBN 981-256-655-4.
The author won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of “asymptotic freedom” in the strong interaction of quarks and gluons, which laid the foundation of the modern theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) and the Standard Model of particle physics. This book is an anthology of his writing for general and non-specialist scientific audiences over the last fifteen years, including eighteen of his “Reference Frame” columns from Physics Today and his Nobel prize autobiography and lecture.

I had eagerly anticipated reading this book. Frank Wilczek and his wife Betsy Devine are co-authors of the 1988 volume Longing for the Harmonies, which I consider to be one of the best works of science popularisation ever written, and whose “theme and variation” structure I adopted for my contemporary paper “The New Technological Corporation”. Wilczek is not only a brilliant theoretician, he has a tremendous talent for explaining the arcana of quantum mechanics and particle physics in lucid prose accessible to the intelligent layman, and his command of the English language transcends pedestrian science writing and sometimes verges on the poetic, occasionally crossing the line: this book contains six original poems!

The collection includes five book reviews, in a section titled “Inspired, Irritated, Inspired”, the author's reaction to the craft of reviewing books, which he describes as “like going on a blind date to play Russian roulette” (p. 305). After finishing this 500 page book, I must sadly report that my own experience can be summed up as “Inspired, Irritated, Exasperated”. There is inspiration aplenty and genius on display here, but you're left with the impression that this is a quickie book assembled by throwing together all the popular writing of a Nobel laureate and rushed out the door to exploit his newfound celebrity. This is not something you would expect of World Scientific, but the content of the book argues otherwise.

Frank Wilczek writes frequently for a variety of audiences on topics central to his work: the running of the couplings in the Standard Model, low energy supersymmetry and the unification of forces, a possible SO(10) grand unification of fundamental particles, and lattice QCD simulation of the mass spectrum of mesons and hadrons. These are all fascinating topics, and Wilczek does them justice here. The problem is that with all of these various articles collected in one book, he does them justice again, again, and again. Four illustrations: the lattice QCD mass spectrum, the experimentally measured running of the strong interaction coupling, the SO(10) particle unification chart, and the unification of forces with and without supersymmetry, appear and are discussed three separate times (the latter four times) in the text; this gets tedious.

There is sufficient wonderful stuff in this book to justify reading it, but don't feel duty-bound to slog through the nth repetition of the same material; a diligent editor could easily cut at least a third of the book, and probably close to half without losing any content. The final 70 pages are excerpts from Betsy Devine's Web log recounting the adventures which began with that early morning call from Sweden. The narrative is marred by the occasional snarky political comment which, while appropriate in a faculty wife's blog, is out of place in an anthology of the work of a Nobel laureate who scrupulously avoids mixing science and politics, but still provides an excellent inside view of just what it's like to win and receive a Nobel prize.

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Scalzi, John. The Ghost Brigades. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31502-5.
After his stunning fiction debut in Old Man's War (April 2005), readers hoping for the arrival on the scene of a new writer of Golden Age stature held their breath to see whether the author would be a one book wonder or be able to repeat. You can start breathing again—in this, his second novel, he hits another one out of the ballpark.

This story is set in the conflict-ridden Colonial Union universe of Old Man's War, some time after the events of that book. Although in the acknowledgements he refers to this as a sequel, you'd miss little or nothing by reading it first, as everything introduced in the first novel is explained as it appears here. Still, if you have the choice, it's best to read them in order. The Colonial Special Forces, which are a shadowy peripheral presence in Old Man's War, take centre stage here. Special Forces are biologically engineered and enhanced super-soldiers, bred from the DNA of volunteers who enlisted in the regular Colonial Defense Forces but died before they reached the age of 75 to begin their new life as warriors. Unlike regular CDF troops, who retain their memories and personalities after exchanging their aged frame for a youthful and super-human body, Special Forces start out as a tabula rasa with adult bodies and empty brains ready to be programmed by their “BrainPal” appliance, which also gives them telepathic powers.

The protagonist, Jared Dirac, is a very special member of the Special Forces, as he was bred from the DNA of a traitor to the Colonial Union, and imprinted with that person's consciousness in an attempt to figure out his motivations and plans. Things didn't go as expected, and Jared ends up with two people in his skull, leading to exploration of the meaning of human identity and how our memories (or those of others) make us who we are, along the lines of Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil. The latter was not one of Heinlein's better outings, but Scalzi takes the nugget of the idea and runs with it here, spinning a yarn that reads like Heinlein's better work. In the last fifty pages, the Colonial Union universe becomes a lot more ambiguous and interesting, and the ground is laid for a rich future history series set there. This book has less rock-em sock-em combat and more character development and ideas, which is just fine for this non-member of the video game generation.

Since almost anything more I said would constitute a spoiler, I'll leave it at that; I loved this book, and if you enjoy the best of Heinlein, you probably will as well. (One quibble, which I'll try to phrase to avoid being a spoiler: for the life of me, I can't figure out how Sagan expects to open the capture pod at the start of chapter 14 (p. 281), when on p. 240 she couldn't open it, and since then nothing has happened to change the situation.) For more background on the book and the author's plans for this universe, check out the Instapundit podcast interview with the author.

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September 2006

Howard, Michael, David LeBlanc, and John Viega. 19 Deadly Sins of Software Security. Emeryville, CA: Osborne, 2005. ISBN 0-07-226085-8.
During his brief tenure as director of the National Cyber Security Division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Amit Yoran (who wrote the foreword to this book) got a lot of press attention when he claimed, “Ninety-five percent of software bugs are caused by the same 19 programming flaws.” The list of these 19 dastardly defects was assembled by John Viega who, with his two co-authors, both of whom worked on computer security at Microsoft, attempt to exploit its notoriety in this poorly written, jargon-filled, and utterly worthless volume. Of course, I suppose that's what one should expect when a former official of the agency of geniuses who humiliate millions of U.S. citizens every day to protect them from the peril of grandmothers with exploding sneakers team up with a list of authors that includes a former “security architect for Microsoft's Office division”—why does the phrase “macro virus” immediately come to mind?

Even after reading this entire ramble on the painfully obvious, I cannot remotely guess who the intended audience was supposed to be. Software developers who know enough to decode what the acronym-packed (many never or poorly defined) text is trying to say are already aware of the elementary vulnerabilities being discussed and ways to mitigate them. Those without knowledge of competent programming practice are unlikely to figure out what the authors are saying, since their explanations in most cases assume the reader is already aware of the problem. The book is also short (281 pages), generous with white space, and packed with filler: the essential message of what to look out for in code can be summarised in a half-page table: in fact, it has been, on page 262! Not only does every chapter end with a summary of “do” and “don't” recommendations, all of these lists are duplicated in a ten page appendix at the end, presumably added because the original manuscript was too short. Other obvious padding is giving examples of trivial code in a long list of languages (including proprietary trash such as C#, Visual Basic, and the .NET API); around half of the code samples are Microsoft-specific, as are the “Other Resources” at the end of each chapter. My favourite example is on pp. 176–178, which gives sample code showing how to read a password from a file (instead of idiotically embedding it in an application) in four different programming languages: three of them Microsoft-specific.

Like many bad computer books, this one seems to assume that programmers can learn only from long enumerations of specific items, as opposed to a theoretical understanding of the common cause which underlies them all. In fact, a total of eight chapters on supposedly different “deadly sins” can be summed up in the following admonition, “never blindly trust any data that comes from outside your complete control”. I had learned this both from my elders and brutal experience in operating system debugging well before my twentieth birthday. Apart from the lack of content and ill-defined audience, the authors write in a dialect of jargon and abbreviations which is probably how morons who work for Microsoft speak to one another: “app”, “libcall”, “proc”, “big-honking”, “admin”, “id” litter the text, and the authors seem to believe the word for a security violation is spelt “breech”. It's rare that I read a technical book in any field from which I learn not a single thing, but that's the case here. Well, I suppose I did learn that a prominent publisher and forty dollar cover price are no guarantee the content of a book will be of any value. Save your money—if you're curious about which 19 “sins” were chosen, just visit the Amazon link above and display the back cover of the book, which contains the complete list.

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Mayer, Milton. They Thought They Were Free. 2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1955] 1966. ISBN 0-226-51192-8.
The author, a journalist descended from German Jewish immigrants to the United States, first visited Nazi Germany in 1935, spending a month in Berlin attempting to obtain, unsuccessfully, an interview with Hitler, notwithstanding the assistance of his friend, the U.S. ambassador, then travelled through the country reporting for a U.S. magazine. It was then that he first discovered, meeting with ordinary Germans, that Nazism was not, as many perceived it then and now, “the tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions” (p. xviii), but rather a mass movement grounded in the “little people” with a broad base of non-fanatic supporters.

Ten years after the end of the war, Mayer arranged a one year appointment as a visiting professor at the University of Frankfurt and moved, with his family, to a nearby town of about 20,000 he calls “Kronenberg”. There, he spent much of his time cultivating the friendship of ten men he calls “my ten Nazi friends”, all of whom joined the party for various reasons ranging from ideology, assistance in finding or keeping employment, to admiration of what they saw as Hitler's success (before the war) in restoring the German economy and position in the world. A large part of the book is reconstructed conversations with these people, exploring the motivations of those who supported Hitler (many of whom continued, a decade after Germany's disastrous defeat in the war he started, to believe the years of his rule prior to the war were Germany's golden age). Together they provide a compelling picture of life in a totalitarian society as perceived by people who liked it.

This is simultaneously a profoundly enlightening and disturbing book. The author's Nazi friends come across as almost completely unexceptional, and one comes to understand how the choices they made, rooted in the situation they found themselves, made perfect sense to them. And then, one cannot help but ask, “What would I have done in the same circumstances?” Mayer has no truck with what has come to be called multiculturalism—he is a firm believer in national character (although, of course, only on the average, with large individual variation), and he explains how history, over almost two millennia, has forged the German character and why it is unlikely to be changed by military defeat and a few years of occupation.

Apart from the historical insights, this book is highly topical when a global superpower is occupying a very different country, with a tradition and history far more remote from its own than was Germany's, and trying to instill institutions with no historical roots there. People forget, but ten years after the end of World War II many, Mayer included, considered the occupation of Germany to have been a failure. He writes (p. 303):

The failure of the Occupation could not, perhaps, have been averted in the very nature of the case. But it might have been mitigated. Its mitigation would have required the conquerors to do something they had never had to do in their history. They would have had to stop doing what they were doing and ask themselves some questions, hard questions, like, What is the German character? How did it get that way? What is wrong with its being that way? What way would be better, and what, if anything, could anybody do about it?
Wise questions, indeed, for any conqueror of any country.

The writing is so superb that you may find yourself re-reading paragraphs just to savour how they're constructed. It is also thought-provoking to ponder how many things, from the perspective of half a century later, the author got wrong. In his view the occupation of West Germany would fail to permanently implant democracy, that German re-militarisation and eventual aggression was almost certain unless blocked by force, and that the project of European unification was a pipe dream of idealists and doomed to failure. And yet, today, things seem to have turned out pretty well for Germany, the Germans, and their neighbours. The lesson of this may be that national character can be changed, but changing it is the work of generations, not a few years of military occupation. That is also something modern-day conquerors, especially Western societies with a short attention span, might want to bear in mind.

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Smolin, Lee. The Trouble with Physics. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. ISBN 0-618-55105-0.
The first forty years of the twentieth century saw a revolution in fundamental physics: special and general relativity changed our perception of space, time, matter, energy, and gravitation; quantum theory explained all of chemistry while wiping away the clockwork determinism of classical mechanics and replacing it with a deeply mysterious theory which yields fantastically precise predictions yet nobody really understands at its deepest levels; and the structure of the atom was elucidated, along with important clues to the mysteries of the nucleus. In the large, the universe was found to be enormously larger than expected and expanding—a dynamic arena which some suspected might have an origin and a future vastly different than its present state.

The next forty years worked out the structure and interactions of the particles and forces which constitute matter and govern its interactions, resulting in a standard model of particle physics with precisely defined theories which predicted all of the myriad phenomena observed in particle accelerators and in the highest energy events in the heavens. The universe was found to have originated in a big bang no more distant than three times the age of the Earth, and the birth cry of the universe had been detected by radio telescopes.

And then? Unexpected by almost all practitioners of high energy particle physics, which had become an enterprise larger by far than all of science at the start of the century, progress stopped. Since the wrapping up of the standard model around 1975, experiments have simply confirmed its predictions (with the exception of the discovery of neutrino oscillations and consequent mass, but that can be accommodated within the standard model without changing its structure), and no theoretical prediction of phenomena beyond the standard model has been confirmed experimentally.

What went wrong? Well, we certainly haven't reached the End of Science or even the End of Physics, because the theories which govern phenomena in the very small and very large—quantum mechanics and general relativity—are fundamentally incompatible with one another and produce nonsensical or infinite results when you attempt to perform calculations in the domain—known to exist from astronomical observations—where both must apply. Even a calculation as seemingly straightforward as estimating the energy of empty space yields a result which is 120 orders of magnitude greater than experiment shows it to be: perhaps the most embarrassing prediction in the history of science.

In the first chapter of this tour de force, physicist Lee Smolin poses “The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics”, all of which are just as mysterious today as they were thirty-five years ago. Subsequent chapters explore the origin and nature of these problems, and how it came to be, despite unprecedented levels of funding for theoretical and experimental physics, that we seem to be getting nowhere in resolving any of these fundamental enigmas.

This prolonged dry spell in high energy physics has seen the emergence of string theory (or superstring theory, or M-theory, or whatever they're calling it this year) as the dominant research program in fundamental physics. At the outset, there were a number of excellent reasons to believe that string theory pointed the way to a grand unification of all of the forces and particles of physics, and might answer many, if not all, of the Great Problems. This motivated many very bright people, including the author (who, although most identified with loop quantum gravity research, has published in string theory as well) to pursue this direction. What is difficult for an outsider to comprehend, however, is how a theoretical program which, after thirty-five years of intensive effort, has yet to make a single prediction testable by a plausible experiment; has failed to predict any of the major scientific surprises that have occurred over those years such as the accelerating expansion of the universe and the apparent variation in the fine structure constant; that does not even now exist in a well-defined mathematical form; and has not been rigorously proved to be a finite theory; has established itself as a virtual intellectual monopoly in the academy, forcing aspiring young theorists to work in string theory if they are to have any hope of finding a job, receiving grants, or obtaining tenure.

It is this phenomenon, not string theory itself, which, in the author's opinion, is the real “Trouble with Physics”. He considers string theory as quite possibly providing clues (though not the complete solution) to the great problems, and finds much to admire in many practitioners of this research. But monoculture is as damaging in academia as in agriculture, and when it becomes deeply entrenched in research institutions, squeezes out other approaches of equal or greater merit. He draws the distinction between “craftspeople”, who are good at performing calculations, filling in blanks, and extending an existing framework, and “seers”, who make the great intellectual leaps which create entirely new frameworks. After thirty-five years with no testable result, there are plenty of reasons to suspect a new framework is needed, yet our institutions select out those most likely to discover them, or force them to spend their most intellectually creative years doing tedious string theory calculations at the behest of their elders.

In the final chapters, Smolin looks at how academic science actually works today: how hiring and tenure decisions are made, how grant applications are evaluated, and the difficult career choices young physicists must make to work within this system. When reading this, the word “Gosplan” (Госпла́н) kept flashing through my mind, for the process he describes resembles nothing so much as central planning in a command economy: a small group of senior people, distant from the facts on the ground and the cutting edge of intellectual progress, trying to direct a grand effort in the interest of “efficiency”. But the lesson of more than a century of failed socialist experiments is that, in the timeless words of Rocket J. Squirrel, “that trick never works”—the decisions inevitably come down on the side of risk aversion, and are often influenced by cronyism and toadying to figures in authority. The concept of managing risk and reward by building a diversified portfolio of low and high risk placements which is second nature to managers of venture capital funds and industrial research and development laboratories appears to be totally absent in academic science, which is supposed to be working on the most difficult and fundamental questions. Central planning works abysmally for cement and steel manufacturing; how likely is it to spark the next scientific revolution?

There is much more to ponder: why string theory, as presently defined, cannot possibly be a complete theory which subsumes general relativity; hints from experiments which point to new physics beyond string theory; stories of other mathematically beautiful theories (such as SU(5) grand unification) which experiment showed to be dead wrong; and a candid view of the troubling groupthink, appeal to authority, and intellectual arrogance of some members of the string theory community. As with all of Smolin's writing, this is a joy to read, and you get the sense that he's telling you the straight story, as honestly as he can, not trying to sell you something. If you're interested in these issues, you'll probably also want to read Leonard Susskind's pro-string The Cosmic Landscape (March 2006) and Peter Woit's sceptical Not Even Wrong (June 2006).

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Wells, H. G. Little Wars. Springfield, VA: Skirmisher, [1913] 2004. ISBN 0-9722511-5-4.
I have been looking for a copy of this book for more than twenty-five years. In this 1913 classic, H. G. Wells essentially single-handedly invented the modern pastime of miniature wargaming, providing a (tin soldier) battle-tested set of rules which makes for exciting, well-balanced, and unpredictable games which can be played by two or more people in an afternoon and part of an evening. Interestingly, he avoids much of the baggage that burdens contemporary games such as icosahedral dice and indirect fire calculations, and strictly minimises the rôle of chance, using nothing fancier than a coin toss, and that only in rare circumstances.

The original edition couldn't have appeared at a less auspicious time: published just a year before the outbreak of the horrific Great War (a term Wells uses, prophetically, to speak of actual military conflict in this book). The work is, of course, long out of copyright and text editions are available on the Internet, including this one at Project Gutenberg, but they are unsatisfying because the text makes frequent reference to the nineteen photographs by Wells's second wife, Amy Catherine Wells, which are not included in the on-line editions but reproduced in this volume. Even if you aren't interested in the details, just seeing grown men in suits scrunching down on the ground playing with toy soldiers is worth the price of admission. The original edition included almost 150 delightful humorous line drawings by J. R. Sinclair; sadly, only about half are reproduced here, but that's better than none at all. This edition includes a new foreword by Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons and Dragons. Radical feminists of the dour and scornful persuasion should be sure to take their medication before reading the subtitle or the last paragraph on page 6 (lines 162–166 of the Gutenberg edition).

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October 2006

Dworkin, Ronald W. Artificial Happiness. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006. ISBN 0-78671-714-9.
Western societies, with the United States in the lead, appear to be embarked on a grand scale social engineering experiment with little consideration of the potentially disastrous consequences both for individuals and the society at large. Over the last two decades “minor depression”, often no more than what, in less clinical nomenclature one would term unhappiness, has become seen as a medical condition treatable with pharmaceuticals, and prescription of these medications, mostly by general practitioners, not psychiatrists or psychologists, has skyrocketed, with drugs such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft regularly appearing on lists of the most frequently prescribed. Tens of million of people in the United States take these pills, which are being prescribed to children and adolescents as well as adults.

Now, there's no question that these medications have been a Godsend for individuals suffering from severe clinical depression, which is now understood in many cases to be an organic disease caused by imbalances in the metabolism of neurotransmitters in the brain. But this vast public health experiment in medicating unhappiness is another thing altogether. Unhappiness, like pain, is a signal that something's wrong, and a motivator to change things for the better. But if unhappiness is seen as a disease which is treated by swallowing pills, this signal is removed, and people are numbed or stupefied out of taking action to eliminate the cause of their unhappiness: changing jobs or careers, reducing stress, escaping from abusive personal relationships, or embarking on some activity which they find personally rewarding. Self esteem used to be thought of as something you earned from accomplishing difficult things; once it becomes a state of mind you get from a bottle of pills, then what will become of all the accomplishments the happily medicated no longer feel motivated to achieve?

These are serious questions, and deserve serious investigation and a book-length treatment of the contemporary scene and trends. This is not, however, that book. The author is an M.D. anæsthesiologist with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute—impressive credentials. Notwithstanding them, the present work reads like something written by somebody who learned Marxism from a comic book. Individuals, entire professions, and groups as heterogeneous as clergy of organised religions are portrayed like cardboard cutouts—with stick figures drawn on them—in crayon. Each group the author identifies is seen as acting monolithically toward a specific goal, which is always nefarious in some way, advancing an agenda based solely on its own interest. The possibility that a family doctor might prescribe antidepressants for an unhappy patient in the belief that he or she is solving a problem for the patient is scarcely considered. No, the doctor is part of a grand conspiracy of “primary care physicians” advancing an agenda to usurp the “turf” (a term he uses incessantly) of first psychiatrists, and finally organised religion.

After reading this entire book, I still can't decide whether the author is really as stupid as he seems, or simply writes so poorly that he comes across that way. Each chapter starts out lurching toward a goal, loses its way and rambles off in various directions until the requisite number of pages have been filled, and then states a conclusion which is not justified by the content of the chapter. There are few cliches in the English language which are not used here—again and again. Here is an example of one of hundreds of paragraphs to which the only rational reaction is “Huh?”.

So long as spirituality was an idea, such as believing in God, it fell under religious control. However, if doctors redefined spirituality to mean a sensual phenomenon—a feeling—then doctors would control it, since feelings had long since passed into the medical profession's hands, the best example being unhappiness. Turning spirituality into a feeling would also help doctors square the phenomenon with their own ideology. If spirituality were redefined to mean a feeling rather than an idea, then doctors could group spirituality with all the other feelings, including unhappiness, thereby preserving their ideology's integrity. Spirituality, like unhappiness, would become a problem of neurotransmitters and a subclause of their ideology. (Page 226.)
A reader opening this book is confronted with 293 pages of this. This paragraph appears in chapter nine, “The Last Battle”, which describes the Manichean struggle between doctors and organised religion in the 1990s for the custody of the souls of Americans, ending in a total rout of religion. Oh, you missed that? Me too.

Mass medication with psychotropic drugs is a topic which cries out for a statistical examination of its public health dimensions, but Dworkin relates only anecdotes of individuals he has known personally, all of whose minds he seems to be able to read, diagnosing their true motivations which even they don't perceive, and discerning their true destiny in life, which he believes they are failing to follow due to medication for unhappiness.

And if things weren't muddled enough, he drags in “alternative medicine” (the modern, polite term for what used to be called “quackery”) and ”obsessive exercise” as other sources of Artificial Happiness (which he capitalises everywhere), which is rather odd since he doesn't believe either works except through the placebo effect. Isn't it just a little bit possible that some of those people working out at the gym are doing so because it makes them feel better and likely to live longer? Dworkin tries to envision the future for the Happy American, decoupled from the traditional trajectory through life by the ability to experience chemically induced happiness at any stage. Here, he seems to simultaneously admire and ridicule the culture of the 1950s, of which his knowledge seems to be drawn from re-runs of “Leave it to Beaver”. In the conclusion, he modestly proposes a solution to the problem which requires completely restructuring medical education for general practitioners and redefining the mission of all organised religions. At least he doesn't seem to have a problem with self-esteem!

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Peters, Eric. Automotive Atrocities. St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks International, 2004. ISBN 0-7603-1787-9.
Oh my, oh my, there really were some awful automobiles on the road in the 1970s and 1980s, weren't there? Those born too late to experience them may not be fully able to grasp the bumper to bumper shoddiness of such rolling excrescences as the diesel Chevette, the exploding Pinto, Le Car, the Maserati Biturbo, the Cadillac V-8-6-4 and even worse diesel; bogus hamster-powered muscle cars (“now with a black stripe and fake hood scoop, for only $5000 more!”); the Yugo, the DeLorean, and the Bricklin—remember that one?

They're all here, along with many more vehicles which, like so many things of that era, can only elicit in those who didn't live through it, the puzzled response, “What were they thinking?” Hey, I lived through it, and that's what I used to think when blowing past multi-ton wheezing early 80s Thunderbirds (by then, barely disguised Ford Fairmonts) in my 1972 VW bus!

Anybody inclined toward automotive Schadenfreude will find this book enormously entertaining, as long as you weren't one of the people who spent your hard-earned, rapidly-inflating greenbacks for one of these regrettable rolling rustbuckets. Unlike many automotive books, this one is well-produced and printed, has few if any typographical errors, and includes many excerpts from the contemporary sales material which recall just how slimy and manipulative were the campaigns used to foist this junk off onto customers who, one suspects, the people selling it referred to in the boardroom as “the rubes”.

It is amazing to recall that almost a generation exists whose entire adult experience has been with products which, with relatively rare exceptions, work as advertised, don't break as soon as you take them home, and rapidly improve from year to year. Those of us who remember the 1970s took a while to twig to the fact that things had really changed once the Asian manufacturers raised the quality bar a couple of orders of magnitude above where the U.S. companies thought they had optimised their return.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I once drove a 1966 MGB, but I didn't buy it new! To grasp what awaited the seventies denizen after they parked the disco-mobile and boogied into the house, see Interior Desecrations (December 2004).

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Vilenkin, Alexander. Many Worlds in One. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. ISBN 0-8090-9523-8.
From the dawn of the human species until a time within the memory of many people younger than I, the origin of the universe was the subject of myth and a topic, if discussed at all within the academy, among doctors of divinity, not professors of physics. The advent of precision cosmology has changed that: the ultimate questions of origin are not only legitimate areas of research, but something probed by satellites in space, balloons circling the South Pole, and mega-projects of Big Science. The results of these experiments have, in the last few decades, converged upon a consensus from which few professional cosmologists would dissent:
  1. At the largest scale, the geometry of the universe is indistinguishable from Euclidean (flat), and the distribution of matter and energy within it is homogeneous and isotropic.
  2. The universe evolved from an extremely hot, dense, phase starting about 13.7 billion years ago from our point of observation, which resulted in the abundances of light elements observed today.
  3. The evidence of this event is imprinted on the cosmic background radiation which can presently be observed in the microwave frequency band. All large-scale structures in the universe grew from gravitational amplification of scale-independent quantum fluctuations in density.
  4. The flatness, homogeneity, and isotropy of the universe is best explained by a period of inflation shortly after the origin of the universe, which expanded a tiny region of space, smaller than a subatomic particle, to a volume much greater than the presently observable universe.
  5. Consequently, the universe we can observe today is bounded by a horizon, about forty billion light years away in every direction (greater than the 13.7 billion light years you might expect since the universe has been expanding since its origin), but the universe is much, much larger than what we can see; every year another light year comes into view in every direction.
Now, this may seem mind-boggling enough, but from these premises, which it must be understood are accepted by most experts who study the origin of the universe, one can deduce some disturbing consequences which seem to be logically unavoidable.

Let me walk you through it here. We assume the universe is infinite and unbounded, which is the best estimate from precision cosmology. Then, within that universe, there will be an infinite number of observable regions, which we'll call O-regions, each defined by the volume from which an observer at the centre can have received light since the origin of the universe. Now, each O-region has a finite volume, and quantum mechanics tells us that within a finite volume there are a finite number of possible quantum states. This number, although huge (on the order of 1010123 for a region the size of the one we presently inhabit), is not infinite, so consequently, with an infinite number of O-regions, even if quantum mechanics specifies the initial conditions of every O-region completely at random and they evolve randomly with every quantum event thereafter, there are only a finite number of histories they can experience (around 1010150). Which means that, at this moment, in this universe (albeit not within our current observational horizon), invoking nothing as fuzzy, weird, or speculative as the multiple world interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are an infinite number of you reading these words scribbled by an infinite number of me. In the vast majority of our shared universes things continue much the same, but from time to time they d1v3r93 r4ndtx#e~—….

Reset . . .
Snap back to universe of origin . . .
Reloading initial vacuum parameters . . .
Restoring simulation . . .
Resuming from checkpoint.
What was that? Nothing, I guess. Still, odd, that blip you feel occasionally. Anyway, here is a completely fascinating book by a physicist and cosmologist who is pioneering the ragged edge of what the hard evidence from the cosmos seems to be telling us about the apparently boundless universe we inhabit. What is remarkable about this model is how generic it is. If you accept the best currently available evidence for the geometry and composition of the universe in the large, and agree with the majority of scientists who study such matters how it came to be that way, then an infinite cosmos filled with observable regions of finite size and consequently limited diversity more or less follows inevitably, however weird it may seem to think of an infinity of yourself experiencing every possible history somewhere. Further, in an infinite universe, there are an infinite number of O-regions which contain every possible history consistent with the laws of quantum mechanics and the symmetries of our spacetime including those in which, as the author noted, perhaps using the phrase for the first time in the august pages of the Physical Review, “Elvis is still alive”.

So generic is the prediction, there's no need to assume the correctness of speculative ideas in physics. The author provides a lukewarm endorsement of string theory and the “anthropic landscape” model, but is clear to distinguish its “multiverse” of distinct vacua with different moduli from our infinite universe with (as far as we know) a single, possibly evolving, vacuum state. But string theory could be completely wrong and the deductions from observational cosmology would still stand. For that matter, they are independent of the “eternal inflation” model the book describes in detail, since they rely only upon observables within the horizon of our single “pocket universe”.

Although the evolution of the universe from shortly after the end of inflation (the moment we call the “big bang”) seems to be well understood, there are still deep mysteries associated with the moment of origin, and the ultimate fate of the universe remains an enigma. These questions are discussed in detail, and the author makes clear how speculative and tentative any discussion of such matters must be given our present state of knowledge. But we are uniquely fortunate to be living in the first time in all of history when these profound questions upon which humans have mused since antiquity have become topics of observational and experimental science, and a number of experiments now underway and expected in the next few years which bear upon them are described.

Curiously, the author consistently uses the word “google” for the number 10100. The correct name for this quantity, coined in 1938 by nine-year-old Milton Sirotta, is “googol”. Edward Kasner, young Milton's uncle, then defined “googolplex” as 1010100. “Google” is an Internet search engine created by megalomaniac collectivists bent on monetising, without compensation, content created by others. The text is complemented by a number of delightful cartoons reminiscent of those penned by George Gamow, a physicist the author (and this reader) much admires.

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Rowsome, Frank, Jr. The Verse by the Side of the Road. New York: Plume, [1965] 1979. ISBN 0-452-26762-5.
In the years before the Interstate Highway System, long trips on the mostly two-lane roads in the United States could bore the kids in the back seat near unto death, and drive their parents to the brink of homicide by the incessant drone of “Are we there yet?” which began less than half an hour out of the driveway. A blessed respite from counting cows, license plate poker, and counting down the dwindling number of bottles of beer on the wall would be the appearance on the horizon of a series of six red and white signs, which all those in the car would strain their eyes to be the first to read.

WITHIN THIS VALE

OF TOIL

AND SIN

YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD

BUT NOT YOUR CHIN—USE

Burma-Shave

In the fall of 1925, the owners of the virtually unknown Burma-Vita company of Minneapolis came up with a new idea to promote the brushless shaving cream they had invented. Since the product would have particular appeal to travellers who didn't want to pack a wet and messy shaving brush and mug in their valise, what better way to pitch it than with signs along the highways frequented by those potential customers? Thus was born, at first only on a few highways in Minnesota, what was to become an American institution for decades and a fondly remembered piece of Americana, the Burma-Shave signs. As the signs proliferated across the landscape, so did sales; so rapid was the growth of the company in the 1930s that a director of sales said (p. 38), “We never knew that there was a depression.” At the peak the company had more than six million regular customers, who were regularly reminded to purchase the product by almost 7000 sets of signs—around 40,000 individual signs, all across the country.

While the first signs were straightforward selling copy, Burma-Shave signs quickly evolved into the characteristic jingles, usually rhyming and full of corny humour and outrageous puns. Rather than hiring an advertising agency, the company ran national contests which paid $100 for the best jingle and regularly received more than 50,000 entries from amateur versifiers.

Almost from the start, the company devoted a substantial number of the messages to highway safety; this was not the result of outside pressure from anti-billboard forces as I remember hearing in the 1950s, but based on a belief that it was the right thing to do—and besides, the sixth sign always mentioned the product! The set of signs above is the jingle that most sticks in my memory: it was a favourite of the Burma-Shave founders as well, having been re-run several times since its first appearance in 1933 and chosen by them to be immortalised in the Smithsonian Institution. Another that comes immediately to my mind is the following, from 1960, on the highway safety theme:

THIRTY DAYS

HATH SEPTEMBER

APRIL

JUNE AND THE

SPEED OFFENDER

Burma-Shave

Times change, and with the advent of roaring four-lane freeways, billboard bans or set-back requirements which made sequences of signs unaffordable, the increasing urbanisation of American society, and of course the dominance of television over all other advertising media, by the early 1960s it was clear to the management of Burma-Vita that the road sign campaign was no longer effective. They had already decided to phase it out before they sold the company to Philip Morris in 1963, after which the signs were quickly taken down, depriving the two-lane rural byways of America of some uniquely American wit and wisdom, but who ever drove them any more, since the Interstate went through?

The first half of this delightful book tells the story of the origin, heyday, and demise of the Burma-Shave signs, and the balance lists all of the six hundred jingles preserved in the records of the Burma-Vita Company, by year of introduction. This isn't something you'll probably want to read straight through, but it's great to pick up from time to time when you want a chuckle.

And then the last sign had been read: all the family exclaimed in unison, “Burma-Shave!”. It had been maybe sixty miles since the last set of signs, and so they'd recall that one and remember other great jingles from earlier trips. Then things would quiet down for a while. “Are we there yet?”

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Karsh, Efraim. Islamic Imperialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-300-10603-3.
A great deal of conflict and tragedy might have been avoided in recent years had only this 2006 book been published a few years earlier and read by those contemplating ambitious adventures to remake the political landscape of the Near East and Central Asia. The author, a professor of history at King's College, University of London, traces the repeated attempts, beginning with Muhammad and his immediate successors, to establish a unified civilisation under the principles of Islam, in which the Koranic proscription of conflict among Muslims would guarantee permanent peace.

In the century following the Prophet's death in the year 632, Arab armies exploded out of the birthplace of Islam and conquered a vast territory from present-day Iran to Spain, including the entire north African coast. This was the first of a succession of great Islamic empires, which would last until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. But, as this book thoroughly documents, over this entire period, the emphasis was on the word “empire” and not “Islamic”. While the leaders identified themselves as Muslims and exhorted their armies to holy war, the actual empires were very much motivated by a quest for temporal wealth and power, and behaved much as the previous despotisms they supplanted. Since the Arabs had no experience in administering an empire nor a cadre of people trained in those arts, they ended up assimilating the bureaucratic structure and personnel of the Persian empire after conquering it, and much the same happened in the West after the fall of the Byzantine empire.

While soldiers might have seen themselves as spreading the word of Islam by the sword, in fact the conquests were mostly about the traditional rationale for empire: booty and tribute. (The Prophet's injunction against raiding other Muslims does appear to have been one motivation for outward-directed conquest, especially in the early years.) Not only was there relatively little aggressive proselytising of Islam, on a number of occasions conversion to Islam by members of dhimmi populations was discouraged or prohibited outright because the imperial treasury depended heavily on the special taxes non-Muslims were required to pay. Nor did these empires resemble the tranquil Dar al-Islam envisaged by the Prophet—in fact, only 24 years would elapse after his death before the Caliph Uthman was assassinated by his rivals, and that would be first of many murders, revolutions, plots, and conflicts between Muslim factions within the empires to come.

Nor were the Crusades, seen through contemporary eyes, the cataclysmic clash of civilisations they are frequently described as today. The kingdoms established by the crusaders rapidly became seen as regional powers like any other, and often found themselves in alliance with Muslims against Muslims. Pan-Arabists in modern times who identify their movement with opposition to the hated crusader often fail to note that there was never any unified Arab campaign against the crusaders; when they were finally ejected, it was by the Turks, and their great hero Saladin was, himself, a Kurd.

The latter half of the book recounts the modern history of the Near East, from Churchill's invention of Iraq, through Nasser, Khomeini, and the emergence of Islamism and terror networks directed against Israel and the West. What is simultaneously striking and depressing about this long and detailed history of strife, subversion, oppression, and conflict is that you can open it up to almost any page and apart from a few details, it sounds like present-day news reports from the region. Thirteen centuries of history with little or no evidence for indigenous development of individual liberty, self-rule, the rule of law, and religious tolerance does not bode well for idealistic neo-Jacobin schemes to “implant democracy” at the point of a bayonet. (Modern Turkey can be seen as a counter-example, but it is worth observing that Mustafa Kemal explicitly equated modernisation with the importation and adoption of Western values, and simultaneously renounced imperial ambitions. In this, he was alone in the region.)

Perhaps the lesson one should draw from this long and tragic narrative is that this unfortunate region of the world, which was a fiercely-contested arena of human conflict thousands of years before Muhammad, has resisted every attempt by every actor, the Prophet included, to pacify it over those long millennia. Rather than commit lives and fortune to yet another foredoomed attempt to “fix the problem”, one might more wisely and modestly seek ways to keep it contained and not aggravate the situation.

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Finkbeiner, Ann. The Jasons. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03489-4.
Shortly after the launch of Sputnik thrust science and technology onto the front lines of the Cold War, a group of Manhattan Project veterans led by John Archibald Wheeler decided that the government needed the very best advice from the very best people to navigate these treacherous times, and that the requisite talent was not to be found within the weapons labs and other government research institutions, but in academia and industry, whence it should be recruited to act as an independent advisory panel. This fit well with the mandate of the recently founded ARPA (now DARPA), which was chartered to pursue “high-risk, high-payoff” projects, and needed sage counsel to minimise the former and maximise the latter.

The result was Jason (the name is a reference to Jason of the Argonauts, and is always used in the singular when referring to the group, although the members are collectively called “Jasons”). It is unlikely such a scientific dream team has ever before been assembled to work together on difficult problems. Since its inception in 1960, a total of thirteen known members of Jason have won Nobel prizes before or after joining the group. Members include Eugene Wigner, Charles Townes (inventor of the laser), Hans Bethe (who figured out the nuclear reaction that powers the stars), polymath and quark discoverer Murray Gell-Mann, Freeman Dyson, Val Fitch, Leon Lederman, and more, and more, and more.

Unlike advisory panels who attend meetings at the Pentagon for a day or two and draft summary reports, Jason members gather for six weeks in the summer and work together intensively, “actually solving differential equations”, to produce original results, sometimes inventions, for their sponsors. The Jasons always remained independent—while the sponsors would present their problems to them, it was the Jasons who chose what to work on.

Over the history of Jason, missile defence and verification of nuclear test bans have been a main theme, but along the way they have invented adaptive optics, which has revolutionised ground-based astronomy, explored technologies for detecting antipersonnel mines, and created, in the Vietnam era, the modern sensor-based “electronic battlefield”.

What motivates top-ranked, well-compensated academic scientists to spend their summers in windowless rooms pondering messy questions with troubling moral implications? This is a theme the author returns to again and again in the extensive interviews with Jasons recounted in this book. The answer seems to be something so outré on the modern university campus as to be difficult to vocalise: patriotism, combined with a desire so see that if such things be done, they should be done as wisely as possible.

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November 2006

Steyn, Mark. America Alone. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-89526-078-6.
Leave it to Mark Steyn to write a funny book about the collapse of Western civilisation. Demographics are destiny, and unlike political and economic trends, are easier to extrapolate because the parents of the next generation have already been born: if there are more of them than their own parents, a population is almost certain to increase, and if there are fewer, the population is destined to fall. Once fertility drops to 1.3 children per woman or fewer, a society enters a demographic “death spiral” from which there is no historical precedent for recovery. Italy, Spain, and Russia are already below this level, and the European Union as a whole is at 1.47, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. And what's the makeup of this shrinking population of Europe? Well, we might begin by asking what is the most popular name for boys born in Belgium…and Amsterdam…and Malmö, Sweden: Mohammed. Where is this going? Well, in the words of Mullah Krekar of Norway (p. 39), “We're the ones who will change you. Every Western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries is producing 3.5 children. By 2050, 30 percent of the population in Europe will be Muslim. Our way of thinking…will prove more powerful than yours.”

The author believes, and states forthrightly, that it is the purest fantasy to imagine that this demographic evolution, seen by many of the élite as the only hope of salvation for the European welfare state, can occur without a profound change in the very nature of the societies in which it occurs. The end-point may not be “Eutopia”, but rather “Eurabia”, and the timidity of European nations who already have an urban Muslim population approaching 30% shows how a society which has lost confidence in its own civilisation and traditions and imbibed the feel-good but ultimately debilitating doctrine of multiculturalism ends up assimilating to the culture of the immigrants, not the other way around. Steyn sees only three possible outcomes for the West (p. 204):

  1. Submit to Islam
  2. Destroy Islam
  3. Reform Islam
If option one is inconceivable and option two unthinkable (and probably impossible, certainly without changing Western civilisation beyond recognition and for the worse), you're left with number three, but, as Steyn notes, “Ultimately, only Muslims can reform Islam”. Unfortunately, the recent emergence of a global fundamentalist Islamic identity with explicitly political goals may be the Islamic Reformation, and if that be the case, the trend is going in the wrong direction. So maybe option one isn't off the table, after all.

The author traces the roots of the European predicament to the social democratic welfare state, which like all collectivist schemes, eventually creates a society of perpetual adolescents who never mature into and assume the responsibilities of adults. When the state becomes responsible for all the things the family once had to provide for, and is supported by historically unprecedented levels of taxation which impoverish young families and make children unaffordable, why not live for the present and let the next generation, wherever it may come from, worry about itself? In a static situation, this is a prescription for the kind of societal decline which can be seen in the histories of both Greece and Rome, but when there is a self-confident, rapidly-proliferating immigrant population with no inclination to assimilate, it amounts to handing the keys over to the new tenants in a matter of decades.

Among Western countries, the United States is the great outlier, with fertility just at the replacement rate and immigrants primarily of Hispanic origin who have, historically, assimilated to U.S. society in a generation or two. (There are reasons for concern about the present rate of immigration to the U.S. and the impact of multiculturalism on assimilation there, but that is not the topic of this book.) Steyn envisages a future, perhaps by 2050, where the U.S. looks out upon the world and sees not an “end of history” with liberal democracy and free markets triumphant around the globe but rather (p. 205), “a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, [and] a civil war-torn Eurabia”—America alone.

Heavy stuff, but Steyn's way with words will keep you chuckling as you contemplate the apocalypse. The book is long on worries and short on plausible solutions, other than a list of palliatives which it is unlikely Western societies, even the U.S., have the will to adopt, although the author predicts (p. 192) “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist…”. But demographics don't turn on a dime, and by then, whatever measures are politically feasible may be too little to make much difference.

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Macdonald, Lyn. 1915: The Death of Innocence. London: Penguin Books, [1993] 1997. ISBN 0-14-025900-7.
I'm increasingly coming to believe that World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century: not only a cataclysm which destroyed the confident assumptions of the past, but which set history inexorably on a path which would lead to even greater tragedies and horrors as that century ran its course. This book provides an excellent snapshot of what the British people, both at the front and back home, were thinking during the first full year of the war, as casualties mounted and hope faded for the quick victory almost all expected at the outset.

The book does not purport to be a comprehensive history of the war, nor even of the single year it chronicles. It covers only the British Army: the Royal Navy is mentioned only in conjunction with troop transport and landings, and the Royal Flying Corps scarcely at all. The forces of other countries, allied or enemy, are mentioned only in conjunction with their interaction with the British, and no attempt is made to describe the war from their perspective. Finally, the focus is almost entirely on the men in the trenches and their commanders in the field: there is little focus on the doings of politicians and the top military brass, nor on grand strategy, although there was little of that in evidence in the events of 1915 in any case.

Within its limited scope, however, the book succeeds superbly. About a third of the text is extended quotations from people who fought at the front, many from contemporary letters home. Not only do you get an excellent insight into how horrific conditions were in the field, but also how stoically those men accepted them, hardly ever questioning the rationale for the war or the judgement of those who commanded them. And this in the face of a human cost which is nearly impossible to grasp by the standards of present-day warfare. Between the western front and the disastrous campaign in Gallipoli, the British suffered more than half a million casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) (p. 597). In “quiet periods” when neither side was mounting attacks, simply manning their own trenches, British casualties averaged five thousand a week (p. 579), mostly from shelling and sniper fire.

And all of the British troops who endured these appalling conditions were volunteers—conscription did not begin in Britain until 1916. With the Regular Army having been largely wiped out in the battles of 1914, the trenches were increasingly filled with Territorial troops who volunteered for service in France, units from around the Empire: India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and as the year progressed, Kitchener's “New Army” of volunteer recruits rushed through training and thrown headlong into the killing machine. The mindset that motivated these volunteers and the conclusions drawn from their sacrifice set the stage for the even greater subsequent horrors of the twentieth century.

Why? Because they accepted as given that their lives were, in essence, the property of the state which governed the territory in which they happened to live, and that the rulers of that state, solely on the authority of having been elected by a small majority of the voters in an era when suffrage was far from universal, had every right to order them to kill or be killed by subjects of other states with which they had no personal quarrel. (The latter point was starkly illustrated when, at Christmas 1914, British and German troops declared an impromptu cease-fire, fraternised, and played football matches in no man's land before, the holiday behind them, returning to the trenches to resume killing one another for King and Kaiser.) This was a widely shared notion, but the first year of the Great War demonstrated that the populations of the countries on both sides really believed it, and would charge to almost certain death even after being told by Lord Kitchener himself on the parade ground, “that our attack was in the nature of a sacrifice to help the main offensive which was to be launched ‘elsewhere’” (p. 493). That individuals would accept their rôle as property of the state was a lesson which the all-encompassing states of the twentieth century, both tyrannical and more or less democratic, would take to heart, and would manifest itself not only in conscription and total war, but also in expropriation, confiscatory taxation, and arbitrary regulation of every aspect of subjects' lives. Once you accept that the state is within its rights to order you to charge massed machine guns with a rifle and bayonet, you're unlikely to quibble over lesser matters.

Further, the mobilisation of the economy under government direction for total war was taken as evidence that central planning of an industrial economy was not only feasible but more efficient than the market. Unfortunately, few observed that there is a big difference between consuming capital to build the means of destruction over a limited period of time and creating new wealth and products in a productive economy. And finally, governments learnt that control of mass media could mould the beliefs of their subjects as the rulers wished: the comical Fritz with which British troops fraternised at Christmas 1914 had become the detested Boche whose trenches they shelled continuously on Christmas Day a year later (p. 588).

It is these disastrous “lessons” drawn from the tragedy of World War I which, I suspect, charted the tragic course of the balance of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. Even a year before the outbreak of World War I, almost nobody imagined such a thing was possible, or that it would have the consequences it did. One wonders what will be the equivalent defining event of the twenty-first century, when it will happen, and in what direction it will set the course of history?

A U.S. edition is also available.

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Ronan, Mark. Symmetry and the Monster. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-19-280722-6.
On the morning of May 30th, 1832, self-taught mathematical genius and revolutionary firebrand Évariste Galois died in a duel in Paris, the reasons for which are forgotten; he was twenty years old. The night before, he wrote a letter in which he urged that his uncompleted mathematical work be sent to the preeminent contemporary mathematicians Jacobi and Gauss; neither, however, ever saw it. The work in question laid the foundations for group theory, an active area of mathematical research a century and three quarters hence, and a cornerstone of the most fundamental theories of physics: Noether's Theorem demonstrates that conservation laws and physical symmetries are two aspects of the same thing.

Finite groups, which govern symmetries among a finite number of discrete items (as opposed to, say, the rotations of a sphere, which are continuously valued), can be arbitrarily complicated, but, as shown by Galois, can be decomposed into one or more simple groups whose only normal subgroups are the trivial subgroup of order one and the improper subgroup consisting of the entire group itself: these are the fundamental kinds of symmetries or, as this book refers to them, the “atoms of symmetry”, and there are only five categories (four of the five categories are themselves infinite). The fifth category are the sporadic groups, which do not fit into any of the other categories. The first was discovered by Émile Mathieu in 1861, and between then and 1873 he found four more. As group theory continued to develop, mathematicians kept finding more and more of these sporadic groups, and nobody knew whether there were only a finite number or infinitely many of them…until recently.

Most research papers in mathematics are short and concise. Some group theory papers are the exception, with two hundred pagers packed with dense notation not uncommon. The classification theorem of finite groups is the ultimate outlier; it has been likened to the Manhattan Project of pure mathematics. Consisting of hundreds of papers published over decades by a large collection of authors, it is estimated, if every component involved in the proof were collected together, to be on the order of fifteen thousand pages, many of which are so technical those not involved in the work itself have extreme difficulty understanding them. (In fact, a “Revision project” is currently underway with the goal of restating the proof in a form which future generations of mathematicians will be able to comprehend.) The last part of the classification theorem, itself more than a thousand pages in length, was not put into place until November 2004, so only then could one say with complete confidence that there were only 26 sporadic groups, all of which are known.

While these groups are “simple” in the sense of not being able to be decomposed, the symmetries most of them represent are of mind-boggling complexity. The order of a finite group is the number of elements it contains; for example, the group of permutations on five items has an order of 5! = 120. The simplest sporadic group has an order of 7920 and the biggest, well, it's a monster. In fact, that's what it's called, the “monster group”, and its order is (deep breath):

808,017,424,794,512,875,886,459,904,961,710,757,005,754,368,000,000,000 =
246×320×59×76×112×133×17×19×23×29×31×41×47×59×71
If it helps, you can think of the monster as the group of rotations in a space of 196,884 dimensions—much easier to visualise, isn't it? In any case, that's how Robert Griess first constructed the monster in 1982, in a 102 page paper done without a computer.

In one of those “take your breath away” connections between distant and apparently unrelated fields of mathematics, the divisors of the order of the monster are precisely the 15 supersingular primes, which are intimately related to the j-function of number theory. Other striking coincidences, or maybe deep connections, link the monster group to the Lorentzian geometry of general relativity, the multidimensional space of string theory, and the enigmatic properties of the number 163 in number theory. In 1983, Freeman Dyson mused, “I have a sneaking hope, a hope unsupported by any facts or any evidence, that sometime in the twenty-first century physicists will stumble upon the Monster group, built in some unsuspected way into the structure of the universe.” Hey, stranger things have happened.

This book, by a professional mathematician who is also a talented populariser of the subject, tells the story of this quest. During his career, he personally knew almost all of the people involved in the classification project, and leavens the technical details with biographical accounts and anecdotes of the protagonists. To avoid potentially confusing mathematical jargon, he uses his own nomenclature: “atom of symmetry” instead of finite simple group, “deconstruction” instead of decomposition, and so on. This sometimes creates its own confusion, since the extended quotes from mathematicians use the standard terminology; the reader should refer to the glossary at the end of the book to resolve any such puzzlement.

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Meers, Nick. Stretch: The World of Panoramic Photography. Mies, Switzerland: RotoVision, 2003. ISBN 2-88046-692-X.
In the early years of the twentieth century, panoramic photography was all the rage. Itinerant photographers with unwieldy gear such as the Cirkut camera would visit towns to photograph and sell 360° panoramas of the landscape and wide format pictures of large groups of people, such as students at the school or workers at a factory or mine. George Lawrence's panoramas (some taken from a camera carried aloft by a kite) of the devastation resulting from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire have become archetypal images of that disaster.

Although pursued as an art form by a small band of photographers, and still used occasionally for large group portraits, the panoramic fad largely died out with the popularity of fixed-format roll film cameras and the emergence of the ubiquitous 24×36 mm format. The advent of digital cameras and desktop image processing software able to “stitch” multiple images more or less seamlessly (if you know what you're doing when you take them) into an arbitrarily wide panorama has sparked a renaissance in the format, including special-purpose film and digital cameras for panoramic photography. Computers with high performance graphics hardware now permit viewing full-sphere virtual reality imagery in which the viewer can “look around” at will, something undreamed of in the first golden age of panoramas.

This book provides an introduction to the history, technology, and art of panoramic photography, alternating descriptions of equipment and technique with galleries featuring the work of contemporary masters of the format, including many examples of non-traditional subjects for panoramic presentation which will give you ideas for your own experiments. The book, which is beautifully printed in China, is itself in “panoramic format” with pages 30 cm wide by 8 cm tall for an aspect ratio of 3¾:1, allowing many panoramic pictures to be printed on a single page. (There are a surprising number of vertical panoramas in the examples which are short-changed by the page format, as they are always printed vertically rather than asking you to turn the book around to view them.) Although the quality of reproduction is superb, the typography is frankly irritating, at least to my ageing eyes. The body copy is set in a light sans-serif font with capitals about six points tall, and photo captions in even smaller type: four point capitals. If that wasn't bad enough, all of the sections on technique are printed in white type on a black background which, especially given the high reflectivity of the glossy paper, is even more difficult to read. This appears to be entirely for artistic effect— there is plenty of white (or black) space which would have permitted using a more readable font. The cover price of US$30 seems high for a work of fewer than 150 pages, however wide and handsome.

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Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. New York: Vintage, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-7949-7.
Pulitzer Prize-winning mainstream novelist Philip Roth turns to alternative history in this novel, which also falls into the genre Rudy Rucker pioneered and named “transreal”—autobiographical fiction, in which the author (or a character clearly based upon him) plays a major part in the story. Here, the story is told in the first person by the author, as a reminiscence of his boyhood in the early 1940s in Newark, New Jersey. In this timeline, however, after a deadlocked convention, the Republican party chooses Charles Lindbergh as its 1940 presidential candidate who, running on an isolationist platform of “Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war”, defeats FDR's bid for a third term in a landslide.

After taking office, Lindbergh's tilt toward the Axis becomes increasingly evident. He appoints the virulently anti-Semitic Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior, flies to Iceland to sign a pact with Hitler, and a concludes a treaty with Japan which accepts all its Asian conquests so far. Further, he cuts off all assistance to Britain and the USSR. On the domestic front, his Office of American Absorption begins encouraging “urban” children (almost all of whom happen to be Jewish) to spend their summers on farms in the “heartland” imbibing “American values”, and later escalates to “encouraging” the migration of entire families (who happen to be Jewish) to rural areas.

All of this, and its many consequences, ranging from trivial to tragic, are seen through the eyes of young Philip Roth, perceived as a young boy would who was living through all of this and trying to make sense of it. A number of anecdotes have nothing to do with the alternative history story line and may be purely autobiographical. This is a “mood novel” and not remotely a thriller; the pace of the story-telling is languid, evoking the time sense and feeling of living in the present of a young boy. As alternative history, I found a number of aspects implausible and unpersuasive. Most exemplars of the genre choose one specific event at which the story departs from recorded history, then spin out the ramifications of that event as the story develops. For example, in 1945 by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany does not declare war on the United States, which only goes to war against Japan. In Roth's book, the point of divergence is simply the nomination of Lindbergh for president. Now, in the real election of 1940, FDR defeated Wendell Willkie by 449 electoral votes to 82, with the Republican carrying only 10 of the 48 states. But here, with Lindbergh as the nominee, we're supposed to believe that FDR would lose in forty-six states, carrying only his home state of New York and squeaking to a narrow win in Maryland. This seems highly implausible to me—Lindbergh's agitation on behalf of America First made him a highly polarising figure, and his apparent sympathy for Nazi Germany (in 1938 he accepted a gold medal decorated with four swastikas from Hermann Göring in Berlin) made him anathema in much of the media. All of these negatives would have been pounded home by the Democrats, who had firm control of the House and Senate as well as the White House, and all the advantages of incumbency. Turning a 38 state landslide into a 46 state wipeout simply by changing the Republican nominee stretches suspension of disbelief to the limit, at least for this reader, especially as Americans are historically disinclined to elect “outsiders” to the presidency.

If you accept this premise, then most of what follows is reasonably plausible and the descent of the country into a folksy all-American kind of fascism is artfully told. But then something very odd happens. As events are unfolding at their rather leisurely pace, on page 317 it's like the author realised he was about to run out of typewriter ribbon or something, and the whole thing gets wrapped up in ten pages, most of which is an unconfirmed account by one of the characters of behind-the-scenes events which may or may not explain everything, and then there's a final chapter to sort out the personal details. This left me feeling like Charlie Brown when Lucy snatches away the football; either the novel should be longer, or else the pace of the whole thing should be faster rather than this whiplash-inducing discontinuity right before the end—but who am I to give advice to somebody with a Pulitzer?

A postscript provides real-world biographies of the many historical figures who appear in the novel, and the complete text of Lindbergh's September 1941 Des Moines speech to the America First Committee which documents his contemporary sentiments for readers who are unaware of this unsavoury part of his career.

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December 2006

Bova, Ben. Mercury. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-34314-2.
I hadn't read anything by Ben Bova in years—certainly not since 1990. I always used to think of him as a journeyman science fiction writer, cranking out enjoyable stories mostly toward the hard end of the science fiction spectrum, but not a grand master of the calibre of, say, Heinlein, Clarke, and Niven. His stint as editor of Analog was admirable, proving himself a worthy successor to John W. Campbell, who developed the authors of the golden age of science fiction. Bova is also a prolific essayist on science, writing, and other topics, and his January 1965 Analog article “It's Done with Mirrors” with William F. Dawson may have been one of the earliest proposals of a multiply-connected small universe cosmological model.

I don't read a lot of fiction these days, and tend to lose track of authors, so when I came across this book in an airport departure lounge and noticed it was published in 2005, my first reaction was, “Gosh, is he still writing?” (Bova was born in 1932, and his first novel was published in 1959.) The U.K. paperback edition was featured in a “buy one, get one free” bin, so how could I resist?

I ought to strengthen my resistance. This novel is so execrably bad that several times in the process of reading it I was tempted to rip it to bits and burn them to ensure nobody else would have to suffer the experience. There is nothing whatsoever redeeming about this book. The plot is a conventional love triangle/revenge tale. The only thing that makes it science fiction at all is that it's set in the future and involves bases on Mercury, space elevators, and asteroid mining, but these are just backdrops for a story which could take place anywhere. Notwithstanding the title, which places it within the author's “Grand Tour” series, only about half of the story takes place on Mercury, whose particulars play only a small part.

Did I mention the writing? No, I guess I was trying to forget it. Each character, even throw-away figures who appear only in a single chapter, is introduced by a little sketch which reads like something produced by filling out a form. For example,

Jacqueline Wexler was such an administrator. Gracious and charming in public, accommodating and willing to compromise at meetings, she nevertheless had the steel-hard will and sharp intellect to drive the ICU's ramshackle collection of egos toward goals that she herself selected. Widely known as ‘Attila the Honey,’ Wexler was all sweetness and smiles on the outside, and ruthless determination within.
After spending a third of page 70 on this paragraph, which makes my teeth ache just to re-read, the formidable Ms. Wexler walks off stage before the end of p. 71, never to re-appear. But fear not (or fear), there are many, many more such paragraphs in subsequent pages.

An Earth-based space elevator, a science fiction staple, is central to the plot, and here Bova bungles the elementary science of such a structure in a laugh-out-loud chapter in which the three principal characters ride the elevator to a platform located at the low Earth orbit altitude of 500 kilometres. Upon arrival there, they find themselves weightless, while in reality the force of gravity would be imperceptibly less than on the surface of the Earth! Objects in orbit are weightless because their horizontal velocity cancels Earth's gravity, but a station at 500 kilometres is travelling only at the speed of the Earth's rotation, which is less than 1/16 of orbital velocity. The only place on a space elevator where weightlessness would be experienced is the portion where orbital velocity equals Earth's rotation rate, and that is at the anchor point at geosynchronous altitude. This is not a small detail; it is central to the physics, engineering, and economics of space elevators, and it figured prominently in Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise which is alluded to here on p. 140.

Nor does Bova restrain himself from what is becoming a science fiction cliché of the first magnitude: “nano-magic”. This is my term for using the “nano” prefix the way bad fantasy authors use “magic”. For example, Lord Hacksalot draws his sword and cuts down a mighty oak tree with a single blow, smashing the wall of the evil prince's castle. The editor says, “Look, you can't cut down an oak tree with a single swing of a sword.” Author: “But it's a magic sword.” On p. 258 the principal character is traversing a tether between two parts of a ship in the asteroid belt which, for some reason, the author believes is filled with deadly radiation. “With nothing protecting him except the flimsy…suit, Bracknell felt like a turkey wrapped in a plastic bag inside a microwave oven. He knew that high-energy radiation was sleeting down on him from the pale, distant Sun and still-more-distant stars. He hoped that suit's radiation protection was as good as the manufacturer claimed.” Imaginary editor (who clearly never read this manuscript): “But the only thing which can shield you from heavy primary cosmic rays is mass, and lots of it. No ‘flimsy suit’ however it's made, can protect you against iron nuclei incoming near the speed of light.” Author: “But it's a nano suit!”

Not only is the science wrong, the fiction is equally lame. Characters simply don't behave as people do in the real world, nor are events and their consequences plausible. We are expected to believe that the causes of and blame for a technological catastrophe which killed millions would be left to be decided by a criminal trial of a single individual in Ecuador without any independent investigation. Or that a conspiracy to cause said disaster involving a Japanese mega-corporation, two mass religious movements, rogue nanotechnologists, and numerous others could be organised, executed, and subsequently kept secret for a decade. The dénouement hinges on a coincidence so fantastically improbable that the plausibility of the plot would be improved were the direct intervention of God Almighty posited instead.

Whatever became of Ben Bova, whose science was scientific and whose fiction was fun to read? It would be uncharitable to attribute this waste of ink and paper to age, as many science fictioneers with far more years on the clock have penned genuine classics. But look at this! Researching the author's biography, I discovered that in 1996, at the age of 64, he received a doctorate in education from California Coast University, a “distance learning” institution. Now, remember back when you were in engineering school struggling with thermogoddamics and fluid mechanics how you regarded the student body of the Ed school? Well, I always assumed it was a selection effect—those who can do, and those who can't…anyway, it never occurred to me that somewhere in that dark, lowering building they had a nano brain mushifier which turned the earnest students who wished to dedicate their careers to educating the next generation into the cognitively challenged classes they graduated. I used to look forward to reading anything by Ben Bova; I shall, however, forgo further works by the present Doctor of Education.

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Gershenfeld, Neil. Fab. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 0-465-02745-8.
Once, every decade or so, you encounter a book which empowers you in ways you never imagined before you opened it, and ultimately changes your life. This is one of those books. I am who I am (not to sound too much like Popeye) largely because in the fall of 1967 I happened to read Daniel McCracken's FORTRAN book and realised that there was nothing complicated at all about programming computers—it was a vocational skill that anybody could learn, much like operating a machine tool. (Of course, as you get deeper into the craft, you discover there is a great body of theory to master, but there's much you can accomplish if you're willing to work hard and learn on the job before you tackle the more abstract aspects of the art.) But this was not only something that I could do but, more importantly, I could learn by doing—and that's how I decided to spend the rest of my professional life and I've never regretted having done so. I've never met a genuinely creative person who wished to spend a nanosecond in a classroom downloading received wisdom at dial-up modem bandwidth. In fact, I suspect the absence of such people in the general population is due to the pernicious effects of the Bismarck worker-bee indoctrination to which the youth of most “developed” societies are subjected today.

We all know that, some day, society will pass through the nanotechnological singularity, after which we'll be eternally free, eternally young, immortal, and incalculably rich: hey—works for me!   But few people realise that if the age of globalised mass production is analogous to that of mainframe computers and if the desktop nano-fabricator is equivalent to today's personal supercomputer, we're already in the equivalent of the minicomputer age of personal fabrication. Remember minicomputers? Not too large, not too small, and hence difficult to classify: too expensive for most people to buy, but within the budget of groups far smaller than the governments and large businesses who could afford mainframes.

The minicomputer age of personal fabrication is as messy as the architecture of minicomputers of four decades before: there are lots of different approaches, standards, interfaces, all mutually incompatible: isn't innovation wonderful? Well, in this sense no!   But it's here, now. For a sum in the tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, it is now possible to equip a “Fab Lab” which can make “almost anything”. Such a lab can fit into a modestly sized room, and, provided with electrical power and an Internet connection, can empower whoever crosses its threshold to create whatever their imagination can conceive. In just a few minutes, their dream can become tangible hardware in the real world.

The personal computer revolution empowered almost anybody (at least in the developed world) to create whatever information processing technology their minds could imagine, on their own, or in collaboration with others. The Internet expanded the scope of this collaboration and connectivity around the globe: people who have never met one another are now working together to create software which will be used by people who have never met the authors to everybody's mutual benefit. Well, software is cool, but imagine if this extended to stuff. That's what Fab is about. SourceForge currently hosts more than 135,500 software development projects—imagine what will happen when StuffForge.net (the name is still available, as I type this sentence!) hosts millions of OpenStuff things you can download to your local Fab Lab, make, and incorporate into inventions of your own imagination. This is the grand roll-back of the industrial revolution, the negation of globalisation: individuals, all around the world, creating for themselves products tailored to their own personal needs and those of their communities, drawing upon the freely shared wisdom and experience of their peers around the globe. What a beautiful world it will be!

Cynics will say, “Sure, it can work at MIT—you have one of the most talented student bodies on the planet, supported by a faculty which excels in almost every discipline, and an industrial plant with bleeding edge fabrication technologies of all kinds.” Well, yes, it works there. But the most inspirational thing about this book is that it seems to work everywhere: not just at MIT but also in South Boston, rural India, Norway far north of the Arctic Circle, Ghana, and Costa Rica—build it and they will make. At times the author seems unduly amazed that folks without formal education and the advantages of a student at MIT can imagine, design, fabricate, and apply a solution to a problem in their own lives. But we're human beings—tool-making primates who've prospered by figuring things out and finding ways to make our lives easier by building tools. Is it so surprising that putting the most modern tools into the hands of people who daily confront the most fundamental problems of existence (access to clean water, food, energy, and information) will yield innovations which surprise even professors at MIT?

This book is so great, and so inspiring, that I will give the author a pass on his clueless attack on AutoCAD's (never attributed) DXF file format on pp. 46–47, noting simply that the answer to why it's called “DXF” is that Lotus had already used “DIF” for their spreadsheet interchange files and we didn't want to create confusion with their file format, and that the reason there's more than one code for an X co-ordinate is that many geometrical objects require more than one X co-ordinate to define them (well, duh).

The author also totally gets what I've been talking about since Unicard and even before that as “Gizmos”, that every single device in the world, and every button on every device will eventually have its own (IPv6) Internet address and be able to interact with every other such object in every way that makes sense. I envisioned MIDI networks as the cheapest way to implement this bottom-feeder light-switch to light-bulb network; the author, a decade later, opts for a PCM “Internet 0”—works for me. The medium doesn't matter; it's that the message makes it end to end so cheaply that you can ignore the cost of the interconnection that ultimately matters.

The author closes the book with the invitation:

Finally, demand for fab labs as a research project, as a collection of capabilities, as a network of facilities, and even as a technological empowerment movement is growing beyond what can be handled by the initial collection of people and institutional partners that were involved in launching them. I/we welcome your thoughts on, and participation in, shaping their future operational, organizational, and technological form.
Well, I am but a humble programmer, but here's how I'd go about it. First of all, I'd create a “Fabrication Trailer“ which could visit every community in the United States, Canada, and Mexico; I'd send it out on the road in every MIT vacation season to preach the evangel of “make” to every community it visited. In, say, one of eighty of such communities, one would find a person who dreamed of this happening in his or her lifetime who was empowered by seeing it happen; provide them a template which, by writing a cheque, can replicate the fab and watch it spread. And as it spreads, and creates wealth, it will spawn other Fab Labs.

Then, after it's perfected in a couple of hundred North American copies, design a Fab Lab that fits into an ocean cargo container and can be shipped anywhere. If there isn't electricity and Internet connectivity, also deliver the diesel generator or solar panels and satellite dish. Drop these into places where they're most needed, along with a wonk who can bootstrap the locals into doing things with these tools which astound even those who created them. Humans are clever, tool-making primates; give us the tools to realise what we imagine and then stand back and watch what happens!

The legacy media bombard us with conflict, murder, and mayhem. But the future is about creation and construction. What does An Army of Davids do when they turn their creativity and ingenuity toward creating solutions to problems perceived and addressed by individuals? Why, they'll call it a renaissance! And that's exactly what it will be.

For more information, visit the Web site of The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, which the author directs. Fab Central provides links to Fab Labs around the world, the machines they use, and the open source software tools you can download and start using today.

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Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. New York: Vintage, [1951, 1953, 1981] 1990. ISBN 0-679-72856-2.
This book is an illuminating exploration of life in a totalitarian society, written by a poet and acute observer of humanity who lived under two of the tyrannies of the twentieth century and briefly served one of them. The author was born in Lithuania in 1911 and studied at the university in Vilnius, a city he describes (p. 135) as “ruled in turn by the Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, again the Lithuanians, again the Germans, and again the Russians”—and now again the Lithuanians. An ethnic Pole, he settled in Warsaw after graduation, and witnessed the partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II, conquest and occupation by Germany, “liberation” by the Red Army, and the imposition of Stalinist rule under the tutelage of Moscow. After working with the underground press during the war, the author initially supported the “people's government”, even serving as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassies in Washington and Paris. As Stalinist terror descended upon Poland and the rigid dialectical “Method” was imposed upon intellectual life, he saw tyranny ascendant once again and chose exile in the West, initially in Paris and finally the U.S., where he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961—imagine, an anti-communist at Berkeley!

In this book, he explores the various ways in which the human soul comes to terms with a regime which denies its very existence. Four long chapters explore the careers of four Polish writers he denotes as “Alpha” through “Delta” and the choices they made when faced with a system which offered them substantial material rewards in return for conformity with a rigid system which put them at the service of the State, working toward ends prescribed by the “Center” (Moscow). He likens acceptance of this bargain to swallowing a mythical happiness pill, which, by eliminating the irritations of creativity, scepticism, and morality, guarantees those who take it a tranquil place in a well-ordered society. In a powerful chapter titled “Ketman”—a Persian word denoting fervent protestations of faith by nonbelievers, not only in the interest of self-preservation, but of feeling superior to those they so easily deceive—Milosz describes how an entire population can become actors who feign belief in an ideology and pretend to believe the earnest affirmations of orthodoxy on the part of others while sharing scorn for the few true believers.

The author received the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Hawkins, Jeff with Sandra Blakeslee. On Intelligence. New York: Times Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8050-7456-2.
Ever since the early days of research into the sub-topic of computer science which styles itself “artificial intelligence”, such work has been criticised by philosophers, biologists, and neuroscientists who argue that while symbolic manipulation, database retrieval, and logical computation may be able to mimic, to some limited extent, the behaviour of an intelligent being, in no case does the computer understand the problem it is solving in the sense a human does. John R. Searle's “Chinese Room” thought experiment is one of the best known and extensively debated of these criticisms, but there are many others just as cogent and difficult to refute.

These days, criticising artificial intelligence verges on hunting cows with a bazooka—unlike the early days in the 1950s when everybody expected the world chess championship to be held by a computer within five or ten years and mathematicians were fretting over what they'd do with their lives once computers learnt to discover and prove theorems thousands of times faster than they, decades of hype, fads, disappointment, and broken promises have instilled some sense of reality into the expectations most technical people have for “AI”, if not into those working in the field and those they bamboozle with the sixth (or is it the sixteenth) generation of AI bafflegab.

AI researchers sometimes defend their field by saying “If it works, it isn't AI”, by which they mean that as soon as a difficult problem once considered within the domain of artificial intelligence—optical character recognition, playing chess at the grandmaster level, recognising faces in a crowd—is solved, it's no longer considered AI but simply another computer application, leaving AI with the remaining unsolved problems. There is certainly some truth in this, but a closer look gives lie to the claim that these problems, solved with enormous effort on the part of numerous researchers, and with the application, in most cases, of computing power undreamed of in the early days of AI, actually represents “intelligence”, or at least what one regards as intelligent behaviour on the part of a living brain.

First of all, in no case did a computer “learn” how to solve these problems in the way a human or other organism does; in every case experts analysed the specific problem domain in great detail, developed special-purpose solutions tailored to the problem, and then implemented them on computing hardware which in no way resembles the human brain. Further, each of these “successes” of AI is useless outside its narrow scope of application: a chess-playing computer cannot read handwriting, a speech recognition program cannot identify faces, and a natural language query program cannot solve mathematical “word problems” which pose no difficulty to fourth graders. And while many of these programs are said to be “trained” by presenting them with collections of stimuli and desired responses, no amount of such training will permit, say, an optical character recognition program to learn to write limericks. Such programs can certainly be useful, but nothing other than the fact that they solve problems which were once considered difficult in an age when computers were much slower and had limited memory resources justifies calling them “intelligent”, and outside the marketing department, few people would remotely consider them so.

The subject of this ambitious book is not “artificial intelligence” but intelligence: the real thing, as manifested in the higher cognitive processes of the mammalian brain, embodied, by all the evidence, in the neocortex. One of the most fascinating things about the neocortex is how much a creature can do without one, for only mammals have them. Reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and even insects (which barely have a brain at all) exhibit complex behaviour, perception of and interaction with their environment, and adaptation to an extent which puts to shame the much-vaunted products of “artificial intelligence”, and yet they all do so without a neocortex at all. In this book, the author hypothesises that the neocortex evolved in mammals as an add-on to the old brain (essentially, what computer architects would call a “bag hanging on the side of the old machine”) which implements a multi-level hierarchical associative memory for patterns and a complementary decoder from patterns to detailed low-level behaviour which, wired through the old brain to the sensory inputs and motor controls, dynamically learns spatial and temporal patterns and uses them to make predictions which are fed back to the lower levels of the hierarchy, which in turns signals whether further inputs confirm or deny them. The ability of the high-level cortex to correctly predict inputs is what we call “understanding” and it is something which no computer program is presently capable of doing in the general case.

Much of the recent and present-day work in neuroscience has been devoted to imaging where the brain processes various kinds of information. While fascinating and useful, these investigations may overlook one of the most striking things about the neocortex: that almost every part of it, whether devoted to vision, hearing, touch, speech, or motion appears to have more or less the same structure. This observation, by Vernon B. Mountcastle in 1978, suggests there may be a common cortical algorithm by which all of these seemingly disparate forms of processing are done. Consider: by the time sensory inputs reach the brain, they are all in the form of spikes transmitted by neurons, and all outputs are sent in the same form, regardless of their ultimate effect. Further, evidence of plasticity in the cortex is abundant: in cases of damage, the brain seems to be able to re-wire itself to transfer a function to a different region of the cortex. In a long (70 page) chapter, the author presents a sketchy model of what such a common cortical algorithm might be, and how it may be implemented within the known physiological structure of the cortex.

The author is a founder of Palm Computing and Handspring (which was subsequently acquired by Palm). He subsequently founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, which has now become part of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and in March of 2005 founded Numenta, Inc. with the goal of developing computer memory systems based on the model of the neocortex presented in this book.

Some academic scientists may sniff at the pretensions of a (very successful) entrepreneur diving into their speciality and trying to figure out how the brain works at a high level. But, hey, nobody else seems to be doing it—the computer scientists are hacking away at their monster programs and parallel machines, the brain community seems stuck on functional imaging (like trying to reverse-engineer a microprocessor in the nineteenth century by looking at its gross chemical and electrical properties), and the neuron experts are off dissecting squid: none of these seem likely to lead to an understanding (there's that word again!) of what's actually going on inside their own tenured, taxpayer-funded skulls. There is undoubtedly much that is wrong in the author's speculations, but then he admits that from the outset and, admirably, presents an appendix containing eleven testable predictions, each of which can falsify all or part of his theory. I've long suspected that intelligence has more to do with memory than computation, so I'll confess to being predisposed toward the arguments presented here, but I'd be surprised if any reader didn't find themselves thinking about their own thought processes in a different way after reading this book. You won't find the answers to the mysteries of the brain here, but at least you'll discover many of the questions worth pondering, and perhaps an idea or two worth exploring with the vast computing power at the disposal of individuals today and the boundless resources of data in all forms available on the Internet.

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  2007  

January 2007

Wade, Nicholas. Before The Dawn. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 1-59420-079-3.
Modern human beings, physically very similar to people alive today, with spoken language and social institutions including religion, trade, and warfare, had evolved by 50,000 years ago, yet written historical records go back only about 5,000 years. Ninety percent of human history, then, is “prehistory” which paleoanthropologists have attempted to decipher from meagre artefacts and rare discoveries of human remains. The degree of inference and the latitude for interpretation of this material has rendered conclusions drawn from it highly speculative and tentative. But in the last decade this has begun to change.

While humans only began to write the history of their species in the last 10% of their presence on the planet, the DNA that makes them human has been patiently recording their history in a robust molecular medium which only recently, with the ability to determine the sequence of the genome, humans have learnt to read. This has provided a new, largely objective, window on human history and origins, and has both confirmed results teased out of the archæological record over the centuries, and yielded a series of stunning surprises which are probably only the first of many to come.

Each individual's genome is a mix of genes inherited from their father and mother, plus a few random changes (mutations) due to errors in the process of transcription. The separate genome of the mitochondria (energy producing organelles) in their cells is inherited exclusively from the mother, and in males, the Y chromosome (except for the very tips) is inherited directly from the father, unmodified except for mutations. In an isolated population whose members breed mostly with one another, members of the group will come to share a genetic signature which reflects natural selection for reproductive success in the environment they inhabit (climate, sources of food, endemic diseases, competition with other populations, etc.) and the effects of random “genetic drift” which acts to reduce genetic diversity, particularly in small, isolated populations. Random mutations appear in certain parts of the genome at a reasonably constant rate, which allows them to be used as a “molecular clock” to estimate the time elapsed since two related populations diverged from their last common ancestor. (This is biology, so naturally the details are fantastically complicated, messy, subtle, and difficult to apply in practice, but the general outline is as described above.)

Even without access to the genomes of long-dead ancestors (which are difficult in the extreme to obtain and fraught with potential sources of error), the genomes of current populations provide a record of their ancestry, geographical origin, migrations, conquests and subjugations, isolation or intermarriage, diseases and disasters, population booms and busts, sources of food, and, by inference, language, social structure, and technologies. This book provides a look at the current state of research in the rapidly expanding field of genetic anthropology, and it makes for an absolutely compelling narrative of the human adventure. Obviously, in a work where the overwhelming majority of source citations are to work published in the last decade, this is a description of work in progress and most of the deductions made should be considered tentative pending further results.

Genomic investigation has shed light on puzzles as varied as the size of the initial population of modern humans who left Africa (almost certainly less than 1000, and possibly a single hunter-gatherer band of about 150), the date when wolves were domesticated into dogs and where it happened, the origin of wheat and rice farming, the domestication of cattle, the origin of surnames in England, and the genetic heritage of the randiest conqueror in human history, Genghis Khan, who, based on Y chromosome analysis, appears to have about 16 million living male descendants today.

Some of the results from molecular anthropology run the risk of being so at variance with the politically correct ideology of academic soft science that the author, a New York Times reporter, tiptoes around them with the mastery of prose which on other topics he deploys toward their elucidation. Chief among these is the discussion of the microcephalin and ASPM genes on pp. 97–99. (Note that genes are often named based on syndromes which result from deleterious mutations within them, and hence bear names opposite to their function in the normal organism. For example, the gene which triggers the cascade of eye formation in Drosophila is named eyeless.) Both of these genes appear to regulate brain size and, in particular, the development of the cerebral cortex, which is the site of higher intelligence in mammals. Specific alleles of these genes are of recent origin, and are unequally distributed geographically among the human population. Haplogroup D of Microcephalin appeared in the human population around 37,000 years ago (all of these estimates have a large margin of error); which is just about the time when quintessentially modern human behaviour such as cave painting appeared in Europe. Today, about 70% of the population of Europe and East Asia carry this allele, but its incidence in populations in sub-Saharan Africa ranges from 0 to 25%. The ASPM gene exists in two forms: a “new” allele which arose only about 5800 years ago (coincidentally[?] just about the time when cities, agriculture, and written language appeared), and an “old” form which predates this period. Today, the new allele occurs in about 50% of the population of the Middle East and Europe, but hardly at all in sub-Saharan Africa. Draw your own conclusions from this about the potential impact on human history when germline gene therapy becomes possible, and why opposition to it may not be the obvious ethical choice.

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Derbyshire, John. Unknown Quantity. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2006. ISBN 0-309-09657-X.
After exploring a renowned mathematical conundrum (the Riemann Hypothesis) in all its profundity in Prime Obsession (June 2003), in this book the author recounts the history of algebra—an intellectual quest sprawling over most of recorded human history and occupying some of the greatest minds our species has produced. Babylonian cuneiform tablets dating from the time of Hammurabi, about 3800 years ago, demonstrate solving quadratic equations, extracting square roots, and finding Pythagorean triples. (The methods in the Babylonian texts are recognisably algebraic but are expressed as “word problems” instead of algebraic notation.) Diophantus, about 2000 years later, was the first to write equations in a symbolic form, but this was promptly forgotten. In fact, twenty-six centuries after the Babylonians were solving quadratic equations expressed in word problems, al-Khwārizmī (the word “algebra” is derived from the title of his book,
الكتاب المختصر في حساب الجبر والمقابلة
al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa-l-muqābala,
and “algorithm” from his name) was solving quadratic equations in word problems. It wasn't until around 1600 that anything resembling the literal symbolism of modern algebra came into use, and it took an intellect of the calibre of René Descartes to perfect it. Finally, equipped with an expressive notation, rules for symbolic manipulation, and the slowly dawning realisation that this, not numbers or geometric figures, is ultimately what mathematics is about, mathematicians embarked on a spiral of abstraction, discovery, and generalisation which has never ceased to accelerate in the centuries since. As more and more mathematics was discovered (or, if you're an anti-Platonist, invented), deep and unexpected connections were found among topics once considered unrelated, and this is a large part of the story told here, as algebra has “infiltrated” geometry, topology, number theory, and a host of other mathematical fields while, in the form of algebraic geometry and group theory, providing the foundation upon which the most fundamental theories of modern physics are built.

With all of these connections, there's a strong temptation for an author to wander off into fields not generally considered part of algebra (for example, analysis or set theory); Derbyshire is admirable in his ability to stay on topic, while not shortchanging the reader where important cross-overs occur. In a book of this kind, especially one covering such a long span of history and a topic so broad, it is difficult to strike the right balance between explaining the mathematics and sketching the lives of the people who did it, and between a historical narrative and one which follows the evolution of specific ideas over time. In the opinion of this reader, Derbyshire's judgement on these matters is impeccable. As implausible as it may seem to some that a book about algebra could aspire to such a distinction, I found this one of the more compelling page-turners I've read in recent months.

Six “math primers” interspersed in the text provide the fundamentals the reader needs to understand the chapters which follow. While excellent refreshers, readers who have never encountered these concepts before may find the primers difficult to comprehend (but then, they probably won't be reading a history of algebra in the first place). Thirty pages of end notes not only cite sources but expand, sometimes at substantial length, upon the main text; readers should not deprive themselves this valuable lagniappe.

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Florey, Kitty Burns. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House, 2006. ISBN 1-933633-10-7.
In 1877, Alonzo Reed and and Brainerd Kellogg published Higher Lessons in English, which introduced their system for the grammatical diagramming of English sentences. For example, the sentence “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up” (an example from Lesson 63 of their book) would be diagrammed as:
Diagrammed sentence
Diagram by Bruce D. Despain.
in the Reed and Kellogg system.

The idea was to make the grammatical structure of the sentence immediately evident, sharpening students' skills in parsing sentences and rendering grammatical errors apparent. This seems to have been one of those cases when an idea springs upon a world which has, without knowing it, been waiting for just such a thing. Sentence diagramming spread through U.S. schools like wildfire—within a few years Higher Lessons and the five other books on which Reed and Kellogg collaborated were selling at the astonishing rate of half a million copies a year, and diagramming was firmly established in the English classes of children across the country and remained so until the 1960s, when it evaporated almost as rapidly as it had appeared.

The author and I are both members of the last generation who were taught sentence diagramming at school. She remembers it as having been “fun” (p. 15), something which was not otherwise much in evidence in Sister Bernadette's sixth grade classroom. I learnt diagramming in the seventh grade, and it's the only part of English class that I recall having enjoyed. (Gertrude Stein once said [p. 73], “I really do not know anything that has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” I don't think I'd go quite that far myself.) In retrospect, it seems an odd part of the curriculum: we spent about a month furiously parsing and diagramming, then dropped the whole thing and never took it up again that year or afterwards; I can't recall ever diagramming a sentence since.

This book, written by an author and professional copy editor, charmingly recounts the origin, practice, curiosities, and decline of sentence diagramming, and introduces the reader to stalwarts who are keeping it alive today. There are a wealth of examples from literature, including the 93 word concluding sentence of Proust's Time Regained, which appears as a two-page spread (pp. 94–95). (The author describes seeing a poster from the 1970s which diagrams a 958 word Proust sentence without an explicit subject.)

Does diagramming make one a better writer? The general consensus, which the author shares, is that it doesn't, which may explain why it is rarely taught today. While a diagram shows the grammatical structure of a sentence, you already have to understand the rules of grammar in order to diagram it, and you can make perfectly fine looking diagrams of barbarisms such as “Me and him gone out.” Also, as a programmer, it disturbs me that one cannot always unambiguously recover the word order of the original sentence from a diagram; this is not a problem with the tree diagrams used by linguists today. But something doesn't have to be useful to be fun (even if not, as it was to Gertrude Stein, exciting), and the structure of a complex sentence graphically elucidated on a page is marvellous to behold and rewarding to create. I'm sure some may disdain those of us who find entertainment in such arcane intellectual endeavours; after all, the first name of the co-inventor of diagramming, Brainerd Kellogg, includes both the words “brain” and “nerd”!

The author's remark on p. 120, “…I must confess that I like editing my own work more than I do writing it. I find first drafts painful; what I love is to revise and polish. Sometimes I think I write simply to have the fun of editing what I've written.” is one I share, as Gertrude Stein put it (p. 76), “completely entirely completely”—and it's a sentiment I don't ever recall seeing in print before. I think the fact that students aren't taught that a first draft is simply the raw material of a cogent, comprehensible document is why we encounter so many hideously poorly written documents on the Web.

The complete text of the 1896 Revised Edition of Reed and Kellogg's Higher Lessons in English is available from Project Gutenberg; the diagrams are rendered as ASCII art and a little difficult to read until you get used to them. Eugene R. Moutoux, who constructed the diagrams for the complicated sentences in Florey's book has a wealth of information about sentence diagramming on his Web site, including diagrams of famous first-page sentences from literature such as this beauty from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

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Ponting, Clive. Gunpowder. London: Pimlico, 2005. ISBN 1-8441-3543-8.
When I was a kid, we learnt in history class that gunpowder had been discovered in the thirteenth century by the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, who is considered one of the founders of Western science. The Chinese were also said to have known of gunpowder, but used it only for fireworks, as opposed to the applications in the fields of murder and mayhem the more clever Europeans quickly devised. In The Happy Turning (July 2003), H. G. Wells remarked that “truth has a way of heaving up through the cracks of history”, and so it has been with the origin of gunpowder, as recounted here.

It is one of those splendid ironies that gunpowder, which, along with its more recent successors, has contributed to the slaughter of more human beings than any other invention with the exception of government, was discovered in the 9th century A.D. by Taoist alchemists in China who were searching for an elixir of immortality (and, in fact, gunpowder continued to be used as a medicine in China for centuries thereafter). But almost as soon as the explosive potential of gunpowder was discovered, the Chinese began to apply it to weapons and, over the next couple of centuries had invented essentially every kind of firearm and explosive weapon which exists today.

Gunpowder is not a high explosive; it does not detonate in a supersonic shock wave as do substances such as nitroglycerine and TNT, but rather deflagrates, or burns rapidly, as the heat of combustion causes the release of the oxygen in the nitrate compound in the mix. If confined, of course, the rapid release of gases and heat can cause a container to explode, but the rapid combustion of gunpowder also makes it suitable as a propellant in guns and rockets. The early Chinese formulations used a relatively small amount of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), and were used in incendiary weapons such as fire arrows, fire lances (a kind of flamethrower), and incendiary bombs launched by catapults and trebuchets. Eventually the Chinese developed high-nitrate mixes which could be used in explosive bombs, rockets, guns, and cannon (which were perfected in China long before the West, where the technology of casting iron did not appear until two thousand years after it was known in China).

From China, gunpowder technology spread to the Islamic world, where bombardment by a giant cannon contributed to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Knowledge of gunpowder almost certainly reached Europe via contact with the Islamic invaders of Spain. The first known European document giving its formula, whose disarmingly candid Latin title Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes translates to “Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies”, dates from about 1300 and contains a number of untranslated Arabic words.

Gunpowder weapons soon became a fixture of European warfare, but crude gun fabrication and weak powder formulations initially limited their use mostly to huge siege cannons which launched large stone projectiles against fortifications at low velocity. But as weapon designs and the strength of powder improved, the balance in siege warfare shifted from the defender to the attacker, and the consolidation of power in Europe began to accelerate.

The author argues persuasively that gunpowder played an essential part in the emergence of the modern European state, because the infrastructure needed to produce saltpetre, manufacture gunpowder weapons in quantity, equip, train, and pay ever-larger standing armies required a centralised administration with intrusive taxation and regulation which did not exist before. Once these institutions were in place, they conferred such a strategic advantage that the ruler was able to consolidate and expand the area of control at the expense of previously autonomous regions, until coming up against another such “gunpowder state”.

Certainly it was gunpowder weapons which enabled Europeans to conquer colonies around the globe and eventually impose their will on China, where centuries of political stability had caused weapons technology to stagnate by comparison with that of conflict-ridden Europe.

It was not until the nineteenth century that other explosives and propellants discovered by European chemists brought the millennium-long era of gunpowder a close. Gunpowder shaped human history as have few other inventions. This excellent book recounts that story from gunpowder's accidental invention as an elixir to its replacement by even more destructive substances, and provides a perspective on a thousand years of world history in terms of the weapons with which so much of it was created.

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Walden, George. Time to Emigrate? London: Gibson Square, 2006. ISBN 1-90393393-5.
Readers of Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom and Our Culture, What's Left of It may have thought his dire view of the state of civilisation in Britain to have been unduly influenced by his perspective as a prison and public hospital physician in one of the toughest areas of Birmingham, England. Here we have, if not the “view from the top”, a brutally candid evaluation written by a former Minister of Higher Education in the Thatcher government and Conservative member of the House of Commons from 1983 until his retirement in 1997, and it is, if anything, more disturbing.

The author says of himself (p. 219), “My life began unpromisingly, but everything's always got better. … In other words, in personal terms I've absolutely no complaints.” But he is deeply worried about whether his grown children and their children can have the same expectations in the Britain of today and tomorrow. The book is written in the form of a long (224 page) and somewhat rambling letter to a fictional son and his wife who are pondering emigrating from Britain after their young son was beaten into unconsciousness by immigrants within sight of their house in London. He describes his estimation of the culture, politics, and economy of Britain as much like the work of a house surveyor: trying to anticipate the problems which may befall those who choose to live there. Wherever he looks: immigration, multiculturalism, education, transportation, the increasingly debt-supported consumer economy, public health services, mass media, and the state of political discourse, he finds much to fret about. But this does not come across as the sputtering of an ageing Tory, but rather a thoroughly documented account of how most of the things which the British have traditionally valued (and have attracted immigrants to their shores) have eroded during his lifetime, to such an extent that he can no longer believe that his children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities he had as a lower middle class boy born twelve days after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.

The curious thing about emigration from the British Isles today is that it's the middle class that is bailing out. Over most of history, it was the lower classes seeking opportunity (or in the case of my Irish ancestors, simply survival) on foreign shores, and the surplus sons of the privileged classes hoping to found their own dynasties in the colonies. But now, it's the middle that's being squeezed out, and it's because the collectivist state is squeezing them for all they're worth. The inexorably growing native underclass and immigrants benefit from government services and either don't have the option to leave or else consider their lot in life in Britain far better than whence they came. The upper classes can opt out of the sordid shoddiness and endless grey queues of socialism; on p. 153 the author works out the cost: for a notional family of two parents and two children, “going private” for health care, education for the kids, transportation, and moving to a “safe neighbourhood” would roughly require doubling income from what such a typical family brings home.

Is it any wonder we have so many billionaire collectivists (Buffett, Gates, Soros, etc.)? They don't have to experience the sordid consequences of their policies, but by advocating them, they can recruit the underclass (who benefit from them and are eventually made dependent and unable to escape from helotry) to vote them into power and keep them there. And they can exult in virtue as their noble policies crush those who might aspire to their own exalted station. The middle class, who pay for all of this, forced into minority, retains only the franchise which is exercised through shoe leather on pavement, and begins to get out while the property market remains booming and the doors are still open.

The author is anything but a doctrinaire Tory; he has, in fact, quit the party, and savages its present “100% Feck-Free” (my term) leader, David Cameron as, among other things, a “transexualised [Princess] Diana” (p. 218). As an emigrant myself, albeit from a different country, I think his conclusion and final recommendation couldn't be wiser (and I'm sorry if this is a spoiler, but if you're considering such a course you should read this book cover to cover anyway): go live somewhere else (I'd say, anywhere else) and see how you like it. You may discover that you're obsessed with what you miss and join the “International Club” (which usually means the place they speak the language of the Old Country), or you may find that after struggling with language, customs, and how things are done, you fit in rather well and, after a while, find most of your nightmares are about things in the place you left instead of the one you worried about moving to. There's no way to know—it could go either way. I think the author, as many people, may have put somewhat more weight on the question of emigration that it deserves. I've always looked at countries like any other product. I've never accepted that because I happened to be born within the borders of some state to whose creation and legitimacy I never personally consented, that I owe it any obligation whatsoever apart from those in compensation for services provided directly to me with my assent. Quitting Tyrania to live in Freedonia is something anybody should be able do to, assuming the residents of Freedonia welcome you, and it shouldn't occasion any more soul-searching on the part of the emigrant than somebody choosing to trade in their VW bus for a Nissan econobox because the 1972 bus was a shoddy crapwagon. Yes, you should worry and even lose sleep over all the changes you'll have to make, but there's no reason to gum up an already difficult decision process by cranking all kinds of guilt into it. Nobody (well, nobody remotely sane) gets all consumed by questions of allegiance, loyalty, or heritage when deciding whether their next computer will run Windows, MacOS, Linux, or FreeBSD. It seems to me that once you step back from the flags and anthems and monuments and kings and presidents and prime ministers and all of the other atavistic baggage of the coercive state, it's wisest to look at your polity like an operating system; it's something that you have to deal with (increasingly, as the incessant collectivist ratchet tightens the garrote around individuality and productivity), but you still have a choice among them, and given how short is our tenure on this planet, we shouldn't waste a moment of it living somewhere that callously exploits our labours in the interest of others. And, the more productive people exercise that choice, the greater the incentive is for the self-styled rulers of the various states to create an environment which will attract people like ourselves.

Many of the same issues are discussed, from a broader European perspective, in Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe and Mark Steyn's America Alone. To fend off queries, I emigrated from what many consider the immigration magnet of the world in 1991 and have never looked back and rarely even visited the old country except for business and family obligations. But then I suspect, as the author notes on p. 197, I am one of those D4-7 allele people (look it up!) who thrive on risk and novelty; I'm not remotely claiming that this is better—Heaven knows we DRD4 7-repeat folk have caused more than our cohort's proportion of chaos and mayhem, but we just can't give it up—this is who we are.

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Card, Orson Scott. Empire. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31611-0.
I first heard of this novel in an Instapundit podcast interview with the author, with whom I was familiar, having read and admired Ender's Game when it first appeared in 1977 as a novelette in Analog (it was later expanded and published as a novel in 1985) and several of his books since then. I'd always pigeonholed him as a science fictioneer, so I was somewhat surprised to learn that his latest effort was a techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy vein, with the flabbergasting premise of a near future American civil war pitting the conservative “red states” against the liberal “blue states”. The interview, which largely stayed away from the book, was interesting and since I'd never felt let down by any of Card's previous work (although none of it that I'd read seemed to come up to the level of Ender's Game, but then I've read only a fraction of his prolific output), I decided to give it a try.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The story is set in the very near future: a Republican president detested by the left and reviled in the media is in the White House, the Republican nomination for his successor is a toss-up, and a ruthless woman is the Democratic front-runner. In fact, unless this is an alternative universe with a different calendar, we can identify the year as 2008, since that's the only presidential election year on which June 13th falls on a Friday until 2036, by which date it's unlikely Bill O'Reilly will still be on the air.

The book starts out with a bang and proceeds as a tautly-plotted, edge of the seat thriller which I found more compelling than any of Clancy's recent doorstop specials. Then, halfway through chapter 11, things go all weird. It's like the author was holding his breath and chanting the mantra “no science fiction—no science fiction” and then just couldn't take it any more, explosively exhaled, drew a deep breath, and furiously started pounding the keys. (This is not, in fact, what happened, but we don't find that out until the end material, which I'll describe below.) Anyway, everything is developing as a near-future thriller combined with a “who do you trust” story of intrigue, and then suddenly, on p. 157, our heroes run into two-legged robotic Star Wars-like imperial walkers on the streets of Manhattan and, before long, storm troopers in space helmets and body armour, death rays that shoot down fighter jets, and later, “hovercycles”—yikes.

We eventually end up at a Bond villain redoubt in Washington State built by a mad collectivist billionaire clearly patterned on George Soros, for a final battle in which a small band of former Special Ops heroes take on all of the villains and their futuristic weaponry by grit and guile. If you like this kind of stuff, you'll probably like this. The author lost me with the imperial walkers, and it has nothing to do with my last name, or my anarchist proclivities.

May we do a little physics here? Let's take a closer look at the lair of the evil genius, hidden under a reservoir formed by a boondoggle hydroelectric dam “near Highway 12 between Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier” (p. 350). We're told (p. 282) that the entry to the facility is hidden beneath the surface of the lake formed in a canyon behind a dam, and access to it is provided by pumping water from the lake to another, smaller lake in an adjacent canyon. The smaller lake is said to be two miles long, and exposing the entrance to the rebels' headquarters causes the water to rise fifteen feet in that lake. The width of the smaller lake is never given, but most of the natural lakes in that region seem to be long and skinny, so let's guess it's only a tenth as wide as it is long, or about 300 yards wide. The smaller lake is said to be above the lake which conceals the entrance, so to expose the door would require pumping a chunk of water we can roughly estimate (assuming the canyon is rectangular) at 2 miles by 300 yards by fifteen feet. Transforming all of these imperial (there's that word again!) measures into something comprehensible, we can compute the volume of water as about 4 million cubic metres or, as the boots on the ground would probably put it, about a billion gallons. This is a lot of water.

A cubic metre of water weighs 1000 kg, or a metric ton, so in order to expose the door, the villains would have to pump 4 billion kilograms of water uphill at least 15 feet (because the smaller lake is sufficiently above the facility to allow it to be flooded [p. 308] it would almost certainly be much more, but let's be conservative)—call it 5 metres. Now the energy required to raise this quantity of water 5 metres against the Earth's gravitation is just the product of the mass (4 billion kilograms), the distance (5 metres), and gravitational acceleration of 9.8 m/s², which works out to about 200 billion joules, or 54 megawatt-hours. If the height difference were double our estimate, double these numbers. Now to pump all of that water uphill in, say, half an hour (which seems longer than the interval in which it happens on pp. 288–308) will require about 100 megawatts of power, and that's assuming the pumps are 100% efficient and there are no frictional losses in the pipes. Where does the power come from? It can't come from the hydroelectric dam, since in order to generate the power to pump the water, you'd need to run a comparable amount of water through the dam's turbines (less because the drop would be greater, but then you have to figure in the efficiency of the turbines and generators, which is about 80%), and we've already been told that dumping the water over the dam would flood communities in the valley floor. If they could store the energy from letting the water back into the lower lake, then they could re-use it (less losses) to pump it back uphill again, but there's no way to store anything like that kind of energy—in fact, pumping water uphill and releasing it through turbines is the only practical way to store large quantities of electricity, and once the water is in the lower lake, there's no place to put the power. We've already established that there are no heavy duty power lines running to the area, as that would be immediately suspicious (of course, it's also suspicious that there aren't high tension lines running from what's supposed to be a hydroelectric dam, but that's another matter). And if the evil genius had invented a way to efficiently store and release power on that scale, he wouldn't need to start a civil war—he could just about buy the government with the proceeds from such an invention.

Spoilers end here.  
Call me picky—“You're picky!”—feel better now?—but I just cannot let this go unremarked. On p. 248, one character likens another to Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels. But it's spelt “Hari Selden”, and it's not a typo because the name is given the same wrong way three times on the same page! Now I'd excuse such a goof by a thriller scribbler recalling science fiction he'd read as a kid, but this guy is a distinguished science fiction writer who has won the Hugo Awardfour times, and this book is published by Tor Books, the pre-eminent specialist science fiction press; don't they have an editor on staff who's familiar with one of the universally acknowledged classics of the genre and winner of the unique Hugo for Best All-Time Series?

One becomes accustomed to low expectations for science fiction novel cover art, but expects a slightly higher standard for techno-thrillers. The image on the dust jacket has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any scene in the book. It looks like a re-mix of several thriller covers chosen at random.

It is only on p. 341, in the afterword, that we learn this novel was commissioned as part of a project to create an “entertainment franchise”, and on p. 349, in the acknowledgements, that this is, in fact, the scenario of a video game already under development when the author joined the team. Frankly, it shows. As befits the founding document of an “entertainment franchise” the story ends setting the stage for the sequel, although at least to this reader, the plot for the first third of that work seems transparently obvious, but then Card is a master of the gob smack switcheroo, as the present work demonstrates. In any case, what we have here appears to be Volume One of a series of alternative future political/military novels like Allen Drury's Advise and Consent series. While that novel won a Pulitzer Prize, the sequels rapidly degenerated into shrill right-wing screeds. In Empire Card is reasonably even-handed, although his heterodox personal views are apparent. I hope the inevitable sequels come up to that standard, but I doubt I'll be reading them.

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February 2007

Lukacs, John. Five Days in London. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-300-08466-8.
Winston Churchill titled the fourth volume of his memoirs of The Second World War, describing the events of 1942, The Hinge of Fate. Certainly, in the military sense, it was in that year that the tide turned in favour of the allies—the entry of the United States into the war and the Japanese defeat in the Battle of Midway, Germany's failure at Stalingrad and the beginning of the disastrous consequences