July 2013

Wolfe, Steven. The Obligation. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2013. ISBN 978-1-3010-5798-6.
This is a wickedly clever book. A young congressional staffer spots a plaque on the wall of his boss, a rotund 15-term California Democrat, which reads, “The colonization of space will be the fulfillment of humankind's Obligation to the Earth.” Intrigued, he mentions the plaque to the congressman, and after a series of conversations, finds himself sent on a quest to meet archetypes of what the congressman refers to as the six Endowments of humanity—capacities present only in our own species which set us apart from all of those from whom we evolved, and equip us for a destiny which is our ultimate purpose: the Wanderer, Settler, Inventor, Builder, Visionary, and Protector. These Endowments have evolved, driven by the Evolutionary Impulse, toward the achievement, by humans and their eventual descendents, of three Obligations, which will require further evolution into a seventh Endowment.

The staffer tries to reconcile his discovery of the human destiny beyond the planet with his romance with a goo-goo eco-chick who advocates cancelling the space program to first solve our problems on the Earth. As he becomes progressively enlightened, he, and then she realise that there is no conflict between these goals, and that planetary stewardship and serving as the means for Gaia “going to seed” and propagating the life it has birthed outward into the cosmos are a unified part of the Obligation.

When I describe this book as “wickedly clever”, what I mean is that it creates a mythology for space migration which co-opts and subsumes that of its most vehement opponents: the anti-human Merchants of Despair (April 2013). It recasts humanity, not as a “cancer on the planet”, but rather the means by which Gaia can do what every life form must: reproduce. Indeed, Robert Zubrin, author of the aforementioned book, along with a number of other people I respect, have contributed effusive blurbs on the book's Web site. It provides a framework for presenting humanity's ultimate destiny and the purpose of life to those who have never thought of those in terms similar to those I expressed in my Epilogue to Rudy Rucker's The Hacker and the Ants. (Warning—there are spoilers for the novel in my Epilogue.)

In the acknowledgements, the author thanks several people for help in editing the manuscript. Given the state of what was published, one can only imagine what these stalwarts started with. The text is riddled with copy-editing errors: I noted 61, and I was just reading for enjoyment, not doing a close proof. In chapter 6, visiting Evan Phillips, the Builder, the protagonist witnesses a static test of an Aerojet LR-87 engine, which is said to have a “white hot exhaust” and is described as “off the shelf hardware”. But the LR-87, which powered Titan missiles and launchers, has used hypergolic fuels ever since the Titan II replaced the Titan I in the early 1960s. These storable fuels burn with a clear flame. Re-engineering an LR-87 to burn LOX and RP-1 would be a major engineering project, hardly off the shelf. Further, during the test, the engine is throttled to various thrust levels, but the LR-87 was a fixed thrust engine; no model incorporated throttling. In chapter 9, after visiting a Kitt Peak telescope earlier in the night, in the predawn hours, he steps out under the sky and sees a “nearly full Moon … dimming the blazing star fields I saw at Kitt Peak”. But a full Moon always rises at sunset (think about the geometry), so if the Moon were near full, it would have been up when he visited the telescope. There are other factual goofs, but I will not belabour them, as that isn't what this book is about. It is a rationale for space settlement which, if the reader can set aside the clumsy editing, may be seductively persuasive even to those inclined to oppose it.

Update: The copy-editing errors mentioned above have been corrected in a new edition now posted. If you previously purchased and downloaded the Kindle edition, log in to your Amazon account, go to “Manage Your Kindle / Manage Your Devices” and turn on Automatic Book Update. The next time you synchronise your reading device, the updated edition will be downloaded. (2013-08-03 13:28 UTC)

Only the Kindle edition is available from Amazon, but a wide variety of other electronic formats, including HTML, PDF, EPUB, and plain text are available from Smashwords.

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Cashill, Jack and James Sanders. First Strike. Nashville: WND Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7852-6354-8.
On July 17, 1996, just 12 minutes after takeoff, TWA Flight 800 from New York to Paris exploded in mid-air off the coast of Long Island and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 230 passengers and crew on board were killed. The disaster occurred on a summer evening in perfect weather, and was witnessed by hundreds of people from land, sea, and air—the FBI interviewed more than seven hundred eyewitnesses in the aftermath of the crash.

There was something “off” about the accident investigation from the very start. Many witnesses, including some highly credible people with military and/or aviation backgrounds, reported seeing a streak of light flying up and reaching the airliner, followed by a bright flash like that produced by a high-velocity explosive. Only later did a fireball from burning fuel appear and begin to fall to the ocean. In total disregard of the stautory requirements for an air accident investigation, which designate the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as the lead agency, the FBI was given prime responsibility and excluded NTSB personnel from interviews with eyewitnesses, restricted access to interview transcripts and physical evidence, and denied NTSB laboratories the opportunity to test debris recovered from the crash field.

NTSB investigations involve “partners”: representatives from the airline, aircraft manufacturer, the pilots' and aerospace workers' unions, and others. These individuals observed and remarked pointedly upon how different this investigation was from the others in which they had participated. Further, and more disturbingly, some saw what appeared to be FBI tampering with the evidence, falsifying records such as the location at which debris had been recovered, altering flight recorder data, and making key evidence as varied as the scavenge pump which was proposed as the ignition source for the fuel tank explosion advanced as the cause of the crash, seats in the area contaminated with a residue some thought indicative of missile propellant or a warhead explosion, and dozens of eyewitness sketches disappear.

Captain Terrell Stacey was the TWA representive in the investigation. He was in charge of all 747 pilot operations for the airline and had flown the Flight 800 aircraft into New York the night before its final flight. After observing these irregularities in the investigation, he got in touch with author Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, and arranged for Sanders to obtain samples of the residue on the seats for laboratory testing. The tests found an elemental composition consistent with missile propellant or explosive, which was reported on the front page of a Southern California newspaper on March 10th, 1997. The result: the FBI seized Sanders's phone records, tracked down Stacey, and arrested and perp-walked Sanders and his wife (a TWA trainer and former flight attendant). They were hauled into court and convicted of a federal charge intended to prosecute souvenir hunters disturbing crash sites. The government denied Sanders was a journalist (despite his work having been published in mainstream venues for years) and disallowed a First Amendment defence.

This is just a small part of what stinks to high heaven about this investigation. So shoddy was control of the chain of custody of the evidence and so blatant the disregard of testimony of hundreds of eyewitnesses, that alternative theories of the crash have flourished since shortly after the event until the present day. It is difficult to imagine what might have been the motives behind a cover-up of a missile attack against a U.S. airliner, but as the author notes, only a few months remained before the 1996 U.S. presidential election, in which Clinton was running on a platform of peace and prosperity. A major terrorist attack might subvert this narrative, so perhaps the well-documented high-level meetings which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the crash might have decided to direct a finding of a mechanical failure of a kind which had occurred only once before in the eighty-year history of aviation, with that incident being sometimes attributed to terrorism. What might have been seen as a wild conspiracy theory in the 1990s seems substantially more plausible in light of the Benghazi attack in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and its treatment by the supine legacy media.

A Kindle edition is available. If you are interested in this independent investigation of Flight 800, be sure to see the documentary Silenced which was produced by the authors and includes interviews with many of the key eyewitnesses and original documents and data. Finally, if this was just an extremely rare mechanical malfunction, why do so many of the documents from the investigation remain classified and inaccessible to Freedom of Information Act requests seventeen years thereafter?

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Walsh, Michael. Shock Warning. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7860-2412-4.
This is the third novel in the author's “Devlin” series of thrillers. When I read the first, Hostile Intent (September 2010), I described it as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author “may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did eventually read the sequel, Early Warning (January 2012), which I enjoyed very much, and concluded that the author was well on the path to being a grandmaster of the techno-thriller genre.

Then we have this book, the conclusion to the Devlin trilogy. Here the author decides to “go large” and widen the arena from regional terrorist strikes to a global apocalyptic clash of civilisations end-times scenario. The result is an utter flop. First of all, this novel shouldn't be read by anybody who hasn't read the previous two books—you won't have the slightest idea who the characters are, the backstory which has brought them to their present points, or what motivates them to behave as they do. Or maybe I can simplify the last sentence to say “This novel shouldn't be read by anybody”—it's that bad.

There is little more I can say which would not be spoilers for either this book or the series, so let us draw the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The key thing about a techno-thriller is that the technology should be plausible and that it should be thrilling. This novel fails by both criteria. The key conceit, that a laser operated by a co-opted employee of CERN on the Côte d'Azur could project lifelike holographic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Prophet Mohammed by bouncing them off the lunar ranging retroreflectors placed on the lunar surface is laugh-out-loud absurd. A moment's calculation of the energy required to return a visible signal to the Earth will result in howls of laughter, and that's before you consider that holograms don't work anything like the author presumes they do.

Our high-end NSA and special forces heroes communicate using a “double Playfair cipher”. This is a digraph substitution cipher which can be broken in milliseconds by modern computers.

Danny brings the MH-6H Little Bird “just a few feet off the high desert floor”, whereupon Devlin “rappelled down, hit the ground, and started running” if it were just a few feet, why didn't he just step off the chopper, or why didn't Danny land it?

Spoilers end here.  

I could go on and on, but I won't because I didn't care enough about this story to critique it in detail. There is a constant vertigo as the story line cuts back and forth among characters we've met in the first two novels, many of who play only peripheral roles in this story. There is an entire subplot about a manipulative contender for the U.S. presidency which fades out and goes nowhere. This is a techno-thriller in which the tech is absurd and the plot induces chuckles rather than thrills.

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Goldman, David P. How Civilizations Die. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98273-4.
I am writing this review in the final days of July 2013. A century ago, in 1913, there was a broad consensus as to how the 20th century would play out, at least in Europe. A balance of power had been established among the great powers, locked into alliances and linked with trade relationships which made it seem to most observers that large-scale conflict was so contrary to the self-interest of nations that it was unthinkable. And yet, within a year, the irrevocable first steps toward what would be the most sanguinary conflict in human history so far would be underway, a global conflict which would result in more than 37 million casualties, with 16 million dead. The remainder of the 20th century was nothing like the conventional wisdom of 1913, with an even more costly global war to come, the great powers of 1913 reduced to second rank, and a bipolar world emerging stabilised only by the mutual threat of annihilation by weapons which could destroy entire cities within a half hour of being launched.

What if our expectations for the 21st century are just as wrong as those of confident observers in 1913?

The author writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. It is commonplace to say “demographics is destiny”, yet Goldman is one a very few observers who really takes this to heart and projects the consequences of demographic trends which are visible to everybody but rarely projected to their logical conclusions. Those conclusions portend a very different 21st century than most anticipate. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and increasingly, the so-called developing world are dying: they have fertility rates not just below replacement (around 2.1 children per woman), but in many cases deep into “demographic death spiral” territory from which no recovery is possible. At present fertility rates, by 2100 the population of Japan will have fallen by 55%, Russia 53%, Germany 46%, and Italy 39%. For a social welfare state, whose financial viability presumes a large population of young workers who will pay for the pensions and medical care of a smaller cohort of retirees, these numbers are simply catastrophic. The inverted age pyramid places an impossible tax burden upon workers, which further compounds the demographic collapse since they cannot afford to raise families large enough to arrest it.

Some in the Islamic world have noted this trend and interpreted it as meaning ultimate triumph for the ummah. To this, Goldman replies, “not so fast”—the book is subtitled “And Why Islam is Dying Too”. In fact, the Islamic world is in the process of undergoing a demographic transition as great as that of the Western nations, but on a time scale so short as to be unprecedented in human history. And while Western countries will face imposing problems coping with their aging populations, at least they have sufficient wealth to make addressing the problem, however painful, possible. Islamic countries without oil (which is where the overwhelming majority of Muslims live) have no such financial or human resources. Egypt, for example, imports about half its food calories and has a functional illiteracy rate of around 40%. These countries not only lack a social safety net, they cannot afford to feed their current population, not to mention a growing fraction of retirees.

When societies are humiliated (as Islam has been in its confrontation with modernity), they not only lose faith in the future, but lose their faith, as has happened in post-Christian Europe, and then they cease to have children. Further, as the author observes, while in traditional society children were an asset who would care for their parents in old age, “In the modern welfare state, child rearing is an act of altruism.” (p. 194) This altruism becomes increasingly difficult to justify when, increasingly, children are viewed as the property of the state, to be indoctrinated, medicated, and used to its ends and, should the parents object, abducted by an organ of the state. Why bother? Fewer and fewer couples of childbearing age make that choice. Nothing about this is new: Athens, Sparta, and Rome all experienced the same collapse in fertility when they ceased to believe in their future—and each one eventually fell.

This makes for an extraordinarily dangerous situation. The history of warfare shows that in many conflicts the majority of casualties on the losing side occur after it was clear to those in political and military leadership that defeat was inevitable. As trends forecaster Gerald Celente says, “When people have nothing to lose, they lose it.” Societies which become aware of their own impending demographic extinction or shrinking position on the geopolitical stage will be tempted to go for the main prize before they scroll off the screen. This means that calculations based upon rational self-interest may not predict the behaviour of dying countries, any more than all of the arguments in 1913 about a European war being irrational kept one from erupting a year later.

There is much, much more in this book, with some of which I agree and some of which I find dubious, but it is all worthy of your consideration. The author sees the United States and Israel as exceptional states, as both have largely kept their faith and maintained a sustainable birthrate to carry them into the future. He ultimately agrees with me (p. 264) that “It is cheaper to seal off the failed states from the rest of the world than to attempt to occupy them and control the travel of their citizens.”

The twenty-first century may be nothing like what the conventional wisdom crowd assume. Here is a provocative alternative view which will get you thinking about how different things may be, as trends already in progress, difficult or impossible to reverse, continue in the coming years.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

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