2008  

January 2008

Buckley, Christopher. No Way to Treat a First Lady. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0-375-75875-1.
First Lady Beth MacMann knew she was in for a really bad day when she awakened to find her philandering war hero presidential husband dead in bed beside her, with the hallmark of the Paul Revere silver spittoon she'd hurled at him the night before as he'd returned from an assignation in the Lincoln Bedroom “etched, etched” upon his forehead. Before long, Beth finds herself charged with assassinating the President of the United States, and before the spectacle a breathless media are pitching as the “Trial of the Millennium” even begins, nearly convicted in the court of public opinion, with the tabloids referring to her as “Lady Bethmac”.

Enter superstar trial lawyer and fiancé Beth dumped in law school Boyce “Shameless” Baylor who, without the benefit of a courtroom dream team, mounts a defence involving “a conspiracy so vast…” that the world sits on the edge of its seats to see what will happen next. What happens next, and then, and later, and still later is side-splittingly funny even by Buckley's high standards, perhaps the most hilarious yarn ever spun around a capital murder trial. As in many of Buckley's novels, everything works out for the best (except, perhaps, for the deceased commander in chief, but he's not talking), and yet none of the characters is admirable in any way—welcome to Washington D.C.! Barbs at legacy media figures and celebrities abound, and Dan Rather's inane folksiness comes in for delicious parody on the eve of the ignominious end of his career. This is satire at its most wicked, one of the funniest of Buckley's novels I've read (Florence of Arabia [March 2006] is comparable, but a very different kind of story). This may be the last Washington farce of the “holiday from history” epoch—the author completed the acknowledgements page on September 9th, 2001.

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Rex and Sparky [Garden, Joe et al.]. The Dangerous Book for Dogs. New York: Villard, 2007. ISBN 978-0-345-50370-1.
The Dangerous Book for Boys is all well and good, but what about a boy's inseparable companion in adventures great and small? This book comes to the rescue, with essential tips for the pooch who wants to experience their canine inheritance to the fullest. Packed cover to cover with practical advice on begging, swimming, picking a pill out of a ball of peanut butter, and treeing a raccoon; stories of heroic and resourceful dogs in history, from Mikmik the sabre-toothed sled dog who led the first humans to North America across the Bering Strait land bridge, to Pepper, the celebrated two-year-old Corgi who with her wits, snout, and stubby legs singlehandedly thwarted a vile conspiracy between the Sun and a rogue toaster to interfere with her nap; tips on dealing with tribulations of life such as cats, squirrels, baths, and dinner parties; and formal rules for timeless games such as “Fetch”. Given the proclivities of the species, there is a great deal more about poop here than in the books for boys and girls. I must take exception to the remarks on canine auditory performance on p. 105; dogs have superb hearing and perceive sounds well above the frequency range to which humans respond, but I've yet to meet the pooch able to hear “50,000 kHz”. Silent dog whistles notwithstanding, even the sharpest-eared cur doesn't pick up the six metre band!

Dogs who master the skills taught here will want to download the merit badges from the book's Web site and display them proudly on their collars. Dog owners (or, for those living in the moonbat caves of western North America, “guardians”) who find their pet doesn't get as much out of this book as they'd hoped may wish to consult my forthcoming monograph Why Rover Can't Read.

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Pratchett, Terry. Making Money. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-116164-3.
Who'd have imagined that fractional reserve banking, fiat currency, and macroeconometric modelling could be so funny? When Lord Vetinari, tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, decides the economy needs more juice than the stodgy plutocrat-run banks provide, he immediately identifies the ideal curriculum vitæ of a central banker: confidence man, showman, and all-purpose crook. (In our world, mumbling and unparsable prose seem additional job requirements, but things are simpler on Discworld.)

Fortunately, the man for the job is right at hand when the hereditary chief of the Royal Bank goes to her reward: Moist von Lipwig, triumphant in turning around the Post Office in Going Postal, is persuaded (Lord Vetinari can be very persuasive, especially to civil servants he has already once hanged by the neck) to take the second-in-command position at the Bank, the Chairman's office having been assumed by Mr. Fusspot, a small dog who lives in the in-box on Lipwig's desk.

Moist soon finds himself introducing paper money, coping with problems in the gold vault, dealing with a model of the economy which may be more than a model (giving an entirely new meaning to “liquidity”), fending off a run on the bank, summoning the dead to gain control of a super-weapon, and finding a store of value which is better than gold. If you aren't into economics, this is a terrific Discworld novel; if you are, it's delightful on a deeper level.

The “Glooper” in the basement of the bank is based upon economist William Phillips's MONIAC hydraulic economic computer, of which a dozen or more were built. There is no evidence that fiddling with Phillips's device was able to influence the economy which it modelled, but perhaps this is because Phillips never had an assistant named “Igor”.

If you're new to Terry Pratchett and don't know where to start, here's a handy chart (home page and other language translations) which shows the main threads and their interconnections. Making Money does not appear in this map; it should be added to the right of Going Postal.

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Buchanan, Patrick J. Day of Reckoning. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-312-37696-3.
In the late 1980s, I decided to get out of the United States. Why? Because it seemed to me that for a multitude of reasons, many of which I had experienced directly as the founder of a job-creating company, resident of a state whose border the national government declined to defend, and investor who saw the macroeconomic realities piling up into an inevitable disaster, that the U.S. was going down, and I preferred to spend the remainder of my life somewhere which wasn't.

In 1992, the year I moved to Switzerland, Pat Buchanan mounted an insurgent challenge to George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, gaining more than three million primary votes. His platform featured protectionism, immigration restriction, and rolling back the cultural revolution mounted by judicial activism. I opposed most of his agenda. He lost.

This book can be seen as a retrospective on the 15 years since, and is particularly poignant to me, as it's a reality check on whether I was wise in getting out when I did. Bottom line: I've no regrets whatsoever, and I'd counsel any productive individual in the U.S. to get out as soon as possible, even though it's harder than when I made my exit.

Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Are the good times really over for good?

Merle Haggard

Well, that's the way to bet. As usual, economics trumps just about everything. Just how plausible is it that a global hegemon can continue to exert its dominance when its economy is utterly dependent upon its ability to borrow two billion dollars a day from its principal rivals: China and Japan, and from these hired funds, it pumps more than three hundred billion dollars a year into the coffers of its enemies: Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, and others to fund its addiction to petroleum?

The last chapter presents a set of policy prescriptions to reverse the imminent disasters facing the U.S. Even if these policies could be sold to an electorate in which two generations have been brainwashed by collectivist nostrums, it still seems like “too little, too late”—once you've shipped your manufacturing industries offshore and become dependent upon immigrants for knowledge workers, how precisely do you get back to first world status? Beats me.

Some will claim I am, along with the author, piling on recent headlines. I'd counsel taking a longer-term view, as I did when I decided to get out of the U.S. If you're into numbers, note the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar versus the Euro, and the price of gold and oil in U.S. dollars today, then compare them to the quotes five years hence. If the dollar has appreciated, then I'm wrong; if it's continuing its long-term slide into banana republic status, then maybe this rant wasn't as intemperate as you might have initially deemed it.

His detractors call Pat Buchanan a “paleoconservative”, but how many “progressives” publish manuscripts written in the future? The acknowledgements (p. 266) is dated October 2008, ten months after I read it, but then I'm cool with that.

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[Audiobook] Churchill, Winston S. The Birth of Britain. (Audiobook, Unabridged). London: BBC Audiobooks, [1956] 2006. ISBN 978-0-304-36389-6.
This is the first book in Churchill's sprawling four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill began work on the history in the 1930s, and by the time he set it aside to go to the Admiralty in 1939, about half a million words had been delivered to his publisher. His wartime service as Prime Minister, postwar writing of the six-volume history The Second World War, and second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955 caused the project to be postponed repeatedly, and it wasn't until 1956–1958, when Churchill was in his 80s, that the work was published. Even sections which existed as print proofs from the 1930s were substantially revised based upon scholarship in the intervening years.

The Birth of Britain covers the period from Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. through Richard III's defeat and death at the hands of Henry Tudor's forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end both the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty. This is very much history in the “kings, battles, and dates” mould; there is little about cultural, intellectual, and technological matters—the influence of the monastic movement, the establishment and growth of universities, and the emergence of guilds barely figure at all in the narrative. But what a grand narrative it is, the work of one of the greatest masters of the language spoken by those whose history he chronicles. In accounts of early periods where original sources are scanty and it isn't necessarily easy to distinguish historical accounts from epics and legends, Churchill takes pains to note this and distinguish his own conclusions from alternative interpretations.

This audiobook is distributed in seven parts, totalling 17 hours. A print edition is available in the UK.

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Mashaal, Maurice. Bourbaki: A Secret Society of Mathematicians. Translated by Anna Pierrehumbert. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, [2002] 2006. ISBN 978-0-8218-3967-6.
In 1934, André Weil and Henri Cartan, both young professors of mathematics at the University of Strasbourg, would frequently, when discussing the calculus courses they were teaching, deplore the textbooks available, all of which they considered antiquated and inadequate. Weil eventually suggested getting in touch with several of their fellow alumni of the École Normale Supérieure who were teaching similar courses in provincial universities around France, inviting them to collaborate on a new analysis textbook. The complete work was expected to total 1000 to 1200 pages, with the first volumes ready about six months after the project began.

Thus began one of the most flabbergasting examples of “mission creep” in human intellectual history, which set the style for much of mathematics publication and education in subsequent decades. Working collectively and publishing under the pseudonym “Nicolas Bourbaki” (after the French general in the Franco-Prussian War Charles Denis Bourbaki), the “analysis textbook” to be assembled by a small group over a few years grew into a project spanning more than six decades and ten books, most of multiple volumes, totalling more than seven thousand pages, systematising the core of mathematics in a relentlessly abstract and austere axiomatic form. Although Bourbaki introduced new terminology, some of which has become commonplace, there is no new mathematics in the work: it is a presentation of pre-existing mathematical work as a pedagogical tool and toolbox for research mathematicians. (This is not to say that the participants in the Bourbaki project did not do original work—in fact, they were among the leaders in mathematical research in their respective generations. But their work on the Bourbaki opus was a codification and grand unification of the disparate branches of mathematics into a coherent whole. In fact, so important was the idea that mathematics was a unified tree rooted in set theory that the Bourbaki group always used the word mathématique, not mathématiques.)

Criticisms of the Bourbaki approach were many: it was too abstract, emphasised structure over the content which motivated it, neglected foundational topics such as mathematical logic, excluded anything tainted with the possibility of application (including probability, automata theory, and combinatorics), and took an eccentric approach to integration, disdaining the Lebesgue integral. These criticisms are described in detail, with both sides fairly presented. While Bourbaki participants had no ambitions to reform secondary school mathematics education, it is certainly true that academics steeped in the Bourbaki approach played a part in the disastrous “New Math” episode, which is described in chapter 10.

The book is extravagantly illustrated, and has numerous boxes and marginal notes which describe details, concepts, and the dramatis personæ in this intricate story. An appendix provides English translations of documents which appear in French in the main text. There is no index.

La version française reste disponible.

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[Audiobook] Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audiobooks, [1942, 1959, 1961] 2006. ISBN 978-0-7861-7279-5.
If you're looking for devilishly ironic satire, why not go right to the source? C. S. Lewis's classic is in the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon in the “lowerarchy” of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter on his first assignment on Earth: charged with securing the soul of an ordinary Englishman in the early days of World War II. Not only are the letters wryly funny, there is a great deal of wisdom and insight into the human condition and how the little irritations of life can present a greater temptation to flawed humans than extravagant sins. Also included in this audiobook is the 1959 essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, which is quite different in nature: Lewis directly attacks egalitarianism, dumbing-down of education, and destruction of the middle class by the welfare state as making the tempter's task much easier (the original letters were almost entirely apolitical), plus the preface Lewis wrote for a new edition of Screwtape in 1961, in which he says the book almost wrote itself, but that he found the process of getting into Screwtape's head very unpleasant indeed.

The book is read by Ralph Cosham, who adopts a dry, largely uninflected tone which is appropriate for the ironic nature of the text. This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 3 hours and 36 minutes. Audio CD and print editions are also available.

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Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1.
This is a book which has been sorely needed for a long, long time, and the author has done a masterful job of identifying, disentangling, and dismantling the mountain of disinformation and obfuscation which has poisoned so much of the political discourse of the last half century.

As early as 1946, George Orwell observed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. This situation has only worsened in the succeeding decades, and finally we have here a book which thoroughly documents the origins of fascism as a leftist, collectivist ideology, grounded in Rousseau's (typically mistaken and pernicious) notion of the “general will”, and the direct descendant of the God-state first incarnated in the French Revolution and manifested in the Terror.

I'd have structured this book somewhat differently, but then when you've spent the last fifteen years not far from the French border, you may adopt a more top-down rationalist view of things; call it “geographical hazard”. There is a great deal of discussion here about the definitions and boundaries among the categories “progressive”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “socialist”, “communist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “reactionary”, “social Darwinist”, and others, but it seems to me there's a top-level taxonomic divide which sorts out much of the confusion: collectivism versus individualism. Collectivists—socialists, communists, fascists—believe the individual to be subordinate to the state and subject to its will and collective goals, while individualists believe the state, to the limited extent it exists, is legitimate only as it protects the rights of the sovereign citizens who delegate to it their common defence and provision of public goods.

The whole question of what constitutes conservatism is ill-defined until we get to the Afterword where, on p. 403, there is a beautiful definition which would far better have appeared in the Introduction: that conservatism consists in conserving what is, and that consequently conservatives in different societies may have nothing whatsoever in common among what they wish to conserve. The fact that conservatives in the United States wish to conserve “private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines” in no way identifies them with conservatives in other societies bent on conserving monarchy, a class system, or a discredited collectivist regime.

Although this is a popular work, the historical scholarship is thorough and impressive: there are 54 pages of endnotes and an excellent index. Readers accustomed to the author's flamboyant humorous style from his writings on National Review Online will find this a much more subdued read, appropriate to the serious subject matter.

Perhaps the most important message of this book is that, while collectivists hurl imprecations of “fascist” or “Nazi” at defenders of individual liberty, it is the latter who have carefully examined the pedigree of their beliefs and renounced those tainted by racism, authoritarianism, or other nostrums accepted uncritically in the past. Meanwhile, the self-described progressives (well, yes, but progress toward what?) have yet to subject their own intellectual heritage to a similar scrutiny. If and when they do so, they'll discover that both Mussolini's Fascist and Hitler's Nazi parties were considered movements of the left by almost all of their contemporaries before Stalin deemed them “right wing”. (But then Stalin called everybody who opposed him “right wing”, even Trotsky.) Woodrow Wilson's World War I socialism was, in many ways, the prototype of fascist governance and a major inspiration of the New Deal and Great Society. Admiration for Mussolini in the United States was widespread, and H. G. Wells, the socialist's socialist and one of the most influential figures in collectivist politics in the first half of the twentieth century said in a speech at Oxford in 1932, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.”

If you're interested in understanding the back-story of the words and concepts in the contemporary political discourse which are hurled back and forth without any of their historical context, this is a book you should read. Fortunately, lots of people seem to be doing so: it's been in the top ten on Amazon.com for the last week. My only quibble may actually be a contributor to its success: there are many references to current events, in particular the 2008 electoral campaign for the U.S. presidency; these will cause the book to be dated when the page is turned on these ephemeral events, and it shouldn't be—the historical message is essential to anybody who wishes to decode the language and subtexts of today's politics, and this book should be read by those who've long forgotten the runners-up and issues of the moment.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

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February 2008

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3.
I've always been amused by those overwrought conspiracy theories which paint the CIA as the spider at the centre of a web of intrigue, subversion, skullduggery, and ungentlemanly conduct stretching from infringements of the rights of U.S. citizens at home to covert intrusion into internal affairs in capitals around the globe. What this outlook, however entertaining, seemed to overlook in my opinion is that the CIA is a government agency, and millennia of experience demonstrate that long-established instruments of government (the CIA having begun operations in 1947) rapidly converge upon the intimidating, machine-like, and ruthless efficiency of the Post Office or the Department of Motor Vehicles. How probable was it that a massive bureaucracy, especially one which operated with little Congressional oversight and able to bury its blunders by classifying documents for decades, was actually able to implement its cloak and dagger agenda, as opposed to the usual choke and stagger one expects from other government agencies of similar staffing and budget? Defenders of the CIA and those who feared its menacing, malign competence would argue that while we find out about the CIA's blunders when operations are blown, stings end up getting stung, and moles and double agents are discovered, we never know about the successes, because they remain secret forever, lest the CIA's sources and methods be disclosed.

This book sets the record straight. The Pulitzer prize-winning author has covered U.S. intelligence for twenty years, most recently for the New York Times. Drawing on a wealth of material declassified since the end of the Cold War, most from the latter half of the 1990s and afterward, and extensive interviews with every living Director of Central Intelligence and numerous other agency figures, this is the first comprehensive history of the CIA based on the near-complete historical record. It is not a pretty picture.

Chartered to collect and integrate information, both from its own sources and those of other intelligence agencies, thence to present senior decision-makers with the data they need to formulate policy, from inception the CIA neglected its primary mission in favour of ill-conceived and mostly disastrous paramilitary and psychological warfare operations deemed “covert”, but which all too often became painfully overt when they blew up in the faces of those who ordered them. The OSS heritage of many of the founders of the CIA combined with the proclivity of U.S. presidents to order covert operations which stretched the CIA's charter to its limits and occasionally beyond combined to create a litany of blunders and catastrophe which would be funny were it not so tragic for those involved, and did it not in many cases cast long shadows upon the present-day world.

While the clandestine service was tripping over its cloaks and impaling itself upon its daggers, the primary intelligence gathering mission was neglected and bungled to such an extent that the agency provided no warning whatsoever of Stalin's atomic bomb, the Korean War, the Chinese entry into that conflict, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran/Iraq War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and more. The spider at the centre of the web appears to have been wearing a blindfold and earplugs. (Oh, they did predict both the outbreak and outcome of the Six Day War—well, that's one!)

Not only have the recently-declassified documents shone a light onto the operations of the CIA, they provide a new perspective on the information from which decision-makers were proceeding in many of the pivotal events of the latter half of the twentieth century including Korea, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the past and present conflicts in Iraq. This book completely obsoletes everything written about the CIA before 1995; the source material which has become available since then provides the first clear look into what was previously shrouded in secrecy. There are 154 pages of end notes in smaller type—almost a book in itself—which expand, often at great length, upon topics in the main text; don't pass them up. Given the nature of the notes, I found it more convenient to read them as an appendix rather than as annotations.

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[Audiobook] Suetonius [Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus]. The Twelve Cæsars. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [A.D. 121, 1957] 2004. ISBN 978-1-929718-39-9.
Anybody who thinks the classics are dull, or that the cult of celebrity is a recent innovation, evidently must never have encountered this book. Suetonius was a member of the Roman equestrian order who became director of the Imperial archives under the emperor Trajan and then personal secretary to his successor, Hadrian. He took advantage of his access to the palace archives and other records to recount the history of Julius Cæsar and the 11 emperors who succeeded him, through Domitian, who was assassinated in A.D. 96, by which time Suetonius was an adult.

Not far into this book, I exclaimed to myself, “Good grief—this is like People magazine!” A bit further on, it became apparent that this Roman bureaucrat had penned an account of his employer's predecessors which was way too racy even for that down-market venue. Suetonius was a prolific writer (most of his work has not survived), and his style and target audience may be inferred from the titles of some of his other books: Lives of Famous Whores, Greek Terms of Abuse, and Physical Defects of Mankind.

Each of the twelve Cæsars is sketched in a quintessentially Roman systematic fashion: according to a template as consistent as a PowerPoint presentation (abbreviated for those whose reigns were short and inconsequential). Unlike his friend and fellow historian of the epoch Tacitus, whose style is, well, taciturn, Suetonius dives right into the juicy gossip and describes it in the most explicit and sensational language imaginable. If you thought the portrayal of Julius and Augustus Cæsar in the television series “Rome” was over the top, if Suetonius is to be believed, it was, if anything, airbrushed.

Whether Suetonius can be believed is a matter of some dispute. From his choice of topics and style, he clearly savoured scandal and intrigue, and may have embroidered upon the historical record in the interest of titillation. He certainly took omens, portents, prophecies, and dreams as seriously as battles and relates them, even those as dubious as marble statues speaking, as if they were documented historical events. (Well, maybe they were—perhaps back then the people running the simulation we're living in intervened more often, before they became bored and left it to run unattended. But I'm not going there, at least here and now….) Since this is the only extant complete history of the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, the books of Tacitus covering that period having been lost, some historians have argued that the picture of the decadence of those emperors may have been exaggerated due to Suetonius's proclivity for purple prose.

This audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 13 hours and 16 minutes. The 1957 Robert Graves translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin, whose narration of Julius Cæsar's Commentaries (August 2007) I so enjoyed. The Graves translation gives dates in B.C. and A.D. along with the dates by consulships used in the original Latin text. Audio CD and print editions of the same translation are available. The Latin text and a public domain English translation dating from 1913–1914 are available online.

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Rutler, George William. Coincidentally. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8245-2440-1.
This curious little book is a collection of the author's essays on historical coincidences originally published in Crisis Magazine. Each explores coincidences around a general theme. “Coincidence” is defined rather loosely and generously. Consider (p. 160), “Two years later in Missouri, the St. Louis Municipal Bridge was dedicated concurrently with the appointment of England's poet laureate, Robert Bridges. The numerical sum of the year of his birth, 1844, multiplied by 10, is identical to the length in feet of the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge over the Delaware River.”

Here is paragraph from p. 138 which illustrates what's in store for you in these essays.

Odd and tragic coincidences in maritime history render a little more plausible the breathless meters of James Elroy Flecker (1884–1915): “The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea.” That sea haunts me too, especially with the realization that Flecker died in the year of the loss of 1,154 lives on the Lusitania. More odd than tragic is this: the United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (in H. L. Mencken's estimation “The National Tear-Duct”) officially protested the ship's sinking on May 13, 1915 which was the 400th anniversary, to the day, of the marriage of the Duke of Suffolk to Mary, the widow of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, after she had spurned the hand of the Archduke Charles. There is something ominous even in the name of the great hydrologist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who set the standards for water purification: Thomas Drown (1842–1904). Swinburne capitalized on the pathos: “… the place of the slaying of Itylus / The feast of Daulis, the Thracian sea.” And a singularly melancholy fact about the sea is that Swinburne did not end up in it.
I noted several factual errors. For example, on p. 169, Chuck Yeager is said to have flown a “B-51 Mustang” in World War II (the correct designation is P-51). Such lapses make you wonder about the reliability of other details, which are far more arcane and difficult to verify.

The author is opinionated and not at all hesitant to share his acerbic perspective: on p. 94 he calls Richard Wagner a “master of Nazi elevator music”. The vocabulary will send almost all readers other than William F. Buckley (who contributed a cover blurb to the book) to the dictionary from time to time. This is not a book you'll want to read straight through—your head will end up spinning with all the details and everything will dissolve into a blur. I found a chapter or two a day about right. I'd sum it up with Abraham Lincoln's observation “Well, for those who like that sort of thing, I should think it is just about the sort of thing they would like.”

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March 2008

Minogue, Kenneth. Alien Powers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, [1985] 2007. ISBN 978-0-7658-0365-8.
No, this isn't a book about Roswell. Subtitled “The Pure Theory of Ideology”, it is a challenging philosophical exploration of ideology, ideological politics, and ideological arguments and strategies in academia and the public arena. By “pure theory”, the author means to explore what is common to all ideologies, regardless of their specifics. (I should note here, as does the author, that in sloppy contemporary discourse “ideology” is often used simply to denote a political viewpoint. In this work, the author restricts it to closed intellectual systems which ascribe a structural cause to events in the world, posit a mystification which prevents people from understanding what is revealed to the ideologue, and predict an inevitable historical momentum [“progress”] toward liberation from the unperceived oppression of the present.)

Despite the goal of seeking a pure theory, independent of any specific ideology, a great deal of time is necessarily spent on Marxism, since although the roots of modern ideology can be traced (like so many other pernicious things) to Rousseau and the French Revolution, it was Marx and Engels who elaborated the first complete ideological system, providing the intellectual framework for those that followed. Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, racism, nationalism, feminism, environmentalism, and many other belief systems are seen as instantiations of a common structure of ideology. In essence, this book can be seen as a “Content Wizard” for cranking out ideological creeds: plug in the oppressor and oppressed, the supposed means of mystification and path to liberation, and out pops a complete ideological belief system ready for an enterprising demagogue to start peddling. The author shows how ideological arguments, while masquerading as science, are the cuckoo's egg in the nest of academia, as they subvert and shortcut the adversarial process of inquiry and criticism with a revelation not subject to scrutiny. The attractiveness of such bogus enlightenment to second-rate minds and indolent intellects goes a long way to explaining the contemporary prevalence in the academy of ideologies so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.

The author writes clearly, and often with wit and irony so dry it may go right past unless you're paying attention. But this is nonetheless a difficult book: it is written at such a level of philosophical abstraction and with so many historical and literary references that many readers, including this one, find it heavy going indeed. I can't recall any book on a similar topic this formidable since chapters two through the end of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. If you want to really understand the attractiveness of ideology to otherwise intelligent and rational people, and how ideology corrupts the academic and political spheres (with numerous examples of how slippery ideological arguments can be), this is an enlightening read, but you're going to have to work to make the most of it.

This book was originally published in 1985. This edition includes a new introduction by the author, and two critical essays reflecting upon the influence of the book and its message from a contemporary perspective where the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have largely discredited Marxism in the political arena, yet left its grip and that of other ideologies upon humanities and the social sciences in Western universities, if anything, only stronger.

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[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1876] 1995. ISBN 978-157270-307-0.
Having read this book as a kid, I never imagined how much more there was to it, both because of the depth of Mark Twain's prose as perceived by an adult, and due to reading his actual words, free of abridgement for a “juvenile edition”. (Note that the author, in the introduction, explicitly states that he is writing for young people and hence expects his words to reach them unexpurgated, and that they will understand them. I've no doubt that in the epoch in which he wrote them they would. Today, I have my doubts, but there's no question that the more people who are exposed to this self-reliant and enterprising view of childhood, the brighter the future will be for the children of the kids who experience the freedom of a childhood like Tom's, as opposed to those I frequently see wearing crash helmets when riding bicycles with training wheels.)

There is nothing I can possibly add to the existing corpus of commentary on one of the greatest of American novels. Well, maybe this: if you've read an abridged version (and if you read it in grade school, you probably did), then give the original a try. There's a lot of material here which can be easily cut by somebody seeking the “essence” with no sense of the art of story-telling. You may remember the proper way to get rid of warts given a dead cat and a graveyard at midnight, but do you remember all of the other ways of getting rid of warts, their respective incantations, and their merits and demerits? Savour the folklore.

This audiobook is produced and performed by voice actor Patrick Fraley, who adopts a different timbre and dialect for each of the characters in the novel. The audio programme is distributed as a single file, running 7 hours and 42 minutes, with original music between the chapters. Audio CD and numerous print editions are available, of which this one looks like a good choice.

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Ferrigno, Robert. Sins of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-3765-6.
Here we have the eagerly awaited sequel to the author's compelling thriller Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006), now billed as the second volume in the eventual Assassin Trilogy. The book in the middle of a trilogy is often the most difficult to write. Readers are already acquainted with the setting, scenario, and many of the main characters, and aren't engaged by the novelty of discovering something entirely new. The plot usually involves ramifying the events of the first installment, while further developing characters and introducing new ones, but the reader knows at the outset that, while there may be subplots which are resolved, the book will end with the true climax of the story reserved for the final volume. These considerations tend to box in an author, and pulling off a volume two which is satisfying even when you know you're probably going to have to wait another two years to see how it all comes out is a demanding task, and one which Robert Ferrigno accomplishes magnificently in this novel.

Set three years after Prayers, the former United States remains divided into a coast-to-coast Islamic Republic, with the Christian fundamentalist Bible Belt in Texas and the old South, Mormon Territories and the Nevada Free State in the West, and the independent Nuevo Florida in the southeast, with low intensity warfare and intrigue at the borders. Both northern and southern frontiers are under pressure from green technology secular Canada and the expansionist Aztlán Empire, which is chipping away at the former U.S. southwest.

Something is up in the Bible Belt, and retired Fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps returns to his old haunts in the Belt to find out what's going on and prevent a potentially destabilising discovery from shifting the balance of power on the continent. He is accompanied by one of the most unlikely secret agents ever, whose story of self-discovery and growth is a delightful theme throughout. This may be a dystopian future, but it is populated by genuine heroes and villains, all of whom are believable human beings whose character and lives have made them who they are. There are foul and despicable characters to be sure, but also those you're inclined to initially dismiss as evil but discover through their honour and courage to be good people making the best of bad circumstances.

This novel is substantially more “science fiction-y” than Prayers—a number of technological prodigies figure in the tale, some of which strike this reader as implausible for a world less than forty years from the present, absent a technological singularity (which has not happened in this timeline), and especially with the former United States and Europe having turned into technological backwaters. I am not, however, going to engage in my usual quibbling: most of the items in question are central to the plot and mysteries the reader discovers as the story unfolds, and simply to cite them would be major spoilers. Even if I put them inside a spoiler warning, you'd be tempted to read them anyway, which would detract from your enjoyment of the book, which I don't want to do, given how much I enjoyed it. I will say that one particular character has what may be potentially the most itchy bioenhancement in all of modern fiction, and perhaps that contributes to his extravagantly foul disposition. In addition to the science fictional aspects, the supernatural appears to enter the story on several occasions—or maybe not—we'll have to wait until the next book to know for sure.

One thing you don't want to do is to read this book before first reading Prayers for the Assassin. There is sufficient background information mentioned in passing for the story to be comprehensible and enjoyable stand-alone, but if you don't understand the character and history of Redbeard, the dynamics of the various power centres in the Islamic Republic, or the fragile social equilibrium among the various communities within it, you'll miss a great deal of the richness of this future history. Fortunately, a mass market paperback edition of the first volume is now available.

You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

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D'Souza, Dinesh. What's So Great About Christianity. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59698-517-9.
I would almost certainly never have picked up a book with this title had I not happened to listen to a podcast interview with the author last October. In it, he says that his goal in writing the book was to engage the contemporary intellectually militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger on their own turf, mounting a rational argument in favour of faith in general and Christianity in particular, demonstrating that there are no serious incompatibilities between the Bible and scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang, debunking overblown accounts of wrongs perpetrated in the name of religion such as the crusades, the inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, witch hunts, and religious wars in Europe, and arguing that the great mass murders of the twentieth century can be laid at the feet not of religion, but atheist regimes bent on building heaven on Earth. All this is a pretty tall order, especially for a book of just 304 pages of main text, but the author does a remarkably effective job of it. While I doubt the arguments presented here will sway those who have made a belligerent atheism central to their self esteem, many readers may be surprised to discover that the arguments of the atheists are nowhere near as one sided as their propaganda would suggest.

Another main theme of the book is identifying how many of the central components of Western civilisation: limited government, religious toleration, individualism, separation of church and state, respect for individual human rights, and the scientific method, all have their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and how atheism and materialism can corrode these pillars supporting the culture which (rightly) allows the atheists the freedom to attack it. The author is neither a fundamentalist nor one who believes the Bible is true in a literal sense: he argues that when the scriptures are read, as most Christian scholars have understood them over two millennia, as using a variety of literary techniques to convey their message, there is no conflict between biblical accounts and modern science and, in some cases, the Bible seems to have anticipated recent discoveries. D'Souza believes that Darwinian evolution is not in conflict with the Bible and, while respectful of supporters of intelligent design, sees no need to invoke it. He zeroes in precisely on the key issue: that evolution cannot explain the origin of life since evolution can only operate on already living organisms upon which variation and selection can occur.

A good deal of the book can be read as a defence of religion in general against the arguments of atheism. Only in the last two chapters does he specifically make the case for the exceptionalism of Christianity. While polemicists such as Dawkins and Hitchens come across as angry, this book is written in a calm, self-confident tone and with such a limpid clarity that it is a joy to read. As one who has spent a good deal of time pondering the possibility that we may be living in a simulation created by an intelligent designer (“it isn't a universe; it's a science fair project”), this book surprised me as being 100% compatible with that view and provided several additional insights to expand my work in progress on the topic.

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Abadzis, Nick. Laika. New York: First Second, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59643-101-0.
The first living creature to orbit the Earth (apart, perhaps, from bacterial stowaways aboard Sputnik 1) was a tough, even-tempered, former stray dog from the streets of Moscow, named Kudryavka (Little Curly), who was renamed Laika (Barker) shortly before being sent on a one-way mission largely motivated by propaganda concerns and with only the most rudimentary biomedical monitoring in a slapdash capsule thrown together in less than a month.

This comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) tells the story through parallel narratives of the lives of Sergei Korolev, a former inmate of Stalin's gulag in Siberia who rose to be Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and Kudryavka, a female part-Samoyed stray who was captured and consigned to the animal research section of the Soviet Institute of Aviation Medicine (IMBP). While obviously part of the story is fictionalised, for example Kudryavka's origin and life on the street, those parts of the narrative which are recorded in history are presented with scrupulous attention to detail. The author goes so far as to show the Moon in the correct phase in events whose dates are known precisely (although he does admit frankly to playing fast and loose with the time of moonrise and moonset for dramatic effect). This is a story of survival, destiny, ambition, love, trust, betrayal, empathy, cruelty, and politics, for which the graphic format works superbly—often telling the story entirely without words. For decades Soviet propaganda spread deception and confusion about Laika's fate. It was only in 2002 that Russian sources became available which revealed what actually happened, and the account here presents the contemporary consensus based upon that information.

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April 2008

Siddiqi, Asif A. Challenge to Apollo. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000. NASA SP-2000-4408.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, accounts of the Soviet space program were a mix of legend, propaganda, speculations by Western analysts, all based upon a scanty collection of documented facts. The 1990s saw a wealth of previously secret information come to light (although many primary sources remain unavailable), making it possible for the first time to write an authoritative scholarly history of Soviet space exploration from the end of World War II through the mid-1970s; this book, published by the NASA History Division in 2000, is that history.

Whew! Many readers are likely to find that reading this massive (1011 7×14 cm pages, 1.9 kg) book cover to cover tells them far, far more about the Soviet space effort than they ever wanted to know. I bought the book from the U.S. Government Printing Office when it was published in 2000 and have been using it as a reference since then, but decided finally, as the bloggers say, to “read the whole thing”. It was a chore (it took me almost three weeks to chew through it), but ultimately rewarding and enlightening.

Back in the 1960s, when observers in the West pointed out the failure of the communist system to feed its own people or provide them with the most basic necessities, apologists would point to the successes of the Soviet space program as evidence that central planning and national mobilisation in a military-like fashion could accomplish great tasks more efficiently than the chaotic, consumer-driven market economies of the West. Indeed, with the first satellite, the first man in space, long duration piloted flights, two simultaneous piloted missions, the first spacecraft with a crew of more than one, and the first spacewalk, the Soviets racked up an impressive list of firsts. The achievements were real, but based upon what we now know from documents released in the post-Soviet era which form the foundation of this history, the interpretation of these events in the West was a stunning propaganda success by the Soviet Union backed by remarkably little substance.

Indeed, in the 1945–1974 time period covered here, one might almost say that the Soviet Union never actually had a space program at all, in the sense one uses those words to describe the contemporary activities of NASA. The early Soviet space achievements were all spin-offs of ballistic missile technology driven by Army artillery officers become rocket men. Space projects, and especially piloted flight, interested the military very little, and the space spectaculars were sold to senior political figures for their propaganda value, especially after the unanticipated impact of Sputnik on world opinion. But there was never a roadmap for the progressive development of space capability, such as NASA had for projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Instead, in most cases, it was only after a public success that designers and politicians would begin to think of what they could do next to top that.

Not only did this supposedly centrally planned economy not have a plan, the execution of its space projects was anything but centralised. Throughout the 1960s, there were constant battles among independent design bureaux run by autocratic chief designers, each angling for political support and funding at the expense of the others. The absurdity of this is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that on November 17th, 1967, six days after the first flight of NASA's Saturn V, the Central Committee issued a decree giving the go-ahead to the Chelomey design bureau to develop the UR-700 booster and LK-700 lunar spacecraft to land two cosmonauts on the Moon, notwithstanding having already spent millions of rubles on Korolev's already-underway N1-L3 project, which had not yet performed its first test flight. Thus, while NASA was checking off items in its Apollo schedule, developed years before, the Soviet Union, spending less than half of NASA's budget, found itself committed to two completely independent and incompatible lunar landing programs, with a piloted circumlunar project based on still different hardware simultaneously under development (p. 645).

The catastrophes which ensued from this chaotic situation are well documented, as well as how effective the Soviets were in concealing all of this from analysts in the West. Numerous “out there” proposed projects are described, including Chelomey's monster UR-700M booster (45 million pounds of liftoff thrust, compared to 7.5 million for the Saturn V), which would send a crew of two cosmonauts on a two-year flyby of Mars in an MK-700 spacecraft with a single launch. The little-known Soviet spaceplane projects are documented in detail.

This book is written in the same style as NASA's own institutional histories, which is to say that much of it is heroically boring and dry as the lunar regolith. Unless you're really into reorganisations, priority shifts, power grabs, and other manifestations of gigantic bureaucracies doing what they do best, you may find this tedious. This is not the fault of the author, but of the material he so assiduously presents. Regrettably, the text is set in a light sans-serif font in which (at least to my eyes) the letter “l” and the digit “1” are indistinguishable, and differ from the letter “I” in a detail I can spot only with a magnifier. This, in a book bristling with near-meaningless Soviet institutional names such as the Ministry of General Machine Building and impenetrable acronyms such as NII-1, TsKBEM (not to be confused with TsKBM) and 11F615, only compounds the reader's confusion. There are a few typographical errors, but none are serious.

This NASA publication was never assigned an ISBN, so looking it up on online booksellers will generally only find used copies. You can order new copies from the NASA Information Center at US$79 each. As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and a scanned online edition (PDF) is available. This is a 64 megabyte download, so unless you have a fast Internet connection, you'll need to be patient. Be sure to download it to a local file as opposed to viewing it in your browser, because otherwise you'll have to download the whole thing each time you open the document.

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Ministry of Information. What Britain Has Done. London: Atlantic Books, [1945] 2007. ISBN 978-1-84354-680-1.
Here is government propaganda produced by the organisation upon which George Orwell (who worked there in World War II) based the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This slim volume (126 pages in this edition) was originally published in May of 1945, after the surrender of Germany, but with the war against Japan still underway. (Although there are references to Germany's capitulation, some chapters appear to have been written before the end of the war in Europe.)

The book is addressed to residents of the United Kingdom, and seeks to show how important their contributions were to the overall war effort, seemingly to dispel the notion that the U.S. and Soviet Union bore the brunt of the effort. To that end, it is as craftily constructed a piece of propaganda as you're likely to encounter. While subtitled “1939–1945: A Selection of Outstanding Facts and Figures”, it might equally as well be described as “Total War: Artfully Chosen Factoids”. Here is an extract from pp. 34–35 to give you a flavour.

Between September 1939 and February 1943, HM Destroyer Forester steamed 200,000 miles, a distance equal to nine times round the world.

In a single year the corvette Jonquil steamed a distance equivalent to more than three times round the world.

In one year and four months HM Destroyer Wolfhound steamed over 50,000 miles and convoyed 3,000 ships.

The message of British triumphalism is conveyed in part by omission: you will find only the barest hints in this narrative of the disasters of Britain's early efforts in the war, the cataclysmic conflict on the Eastern front, or the Pacific war waged by the United States against Japan. (On the other hand, the title is “What Britain Has Done”, so one might argue that tasks which Britain either didn't do or failed to accomplish do not belong here.) But this is not history, but propaganda, and as the latter it is a masterpiece. (Churchill's history, The Second World War, although placing Britain at the centre of the story, treats all of these topics candidly, except those relating to matters still secret, such as the breaking of German codes during the war.)

This reprint edition includes a new introduction which puts the document into historical perspective and seven maps which illustrate operations in various theatres of the war.

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May 2008

Richelson, Jeffrey T. Spying on the Bomb. New York: W. W. Norton, [2006] 2007. ISBN 978-0-393-32982-7.
I had some trepidation about picking up this book. Having read the author's The Wizards of Langley (May 2002), expecting an account of “Q Branch” spy gizmology and encountering instead a tedious (albeit well-written and thorough) bureaucratic history of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, I was afraid this volume might also reduce one of the most critical missions of U.S. intelligence in the post World War II era to another account of interagency squabbling and budget battles. Not to worry—although such matters are discussed where appropriate (especially when they led to intelligence failures), the book not only does not disappoint, it goes well beyond the mission of its subtitle, “American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea” in delivering not just an account of intelligence activity but also a comprehensive history of the nuclear programs of each of the countries upon which the U.S. has focused its intelligence efforts: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, France, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

The reader gets an excellent sense of just how difficult it is, even in an age of high-resolution optical and radar satellite imagery, communications intelligence, surveillance of commercial and financial transactions, and active efforts to recruit human intelligence sources, to determine the intentions of states intent (or maybe not) on developing nuclear weapons. The ease with which rogue regimes seem to be able to evade IAEA safeguards and inspectors, and manipulate diplomats loath to provoke a confrontation, is illustrated on numerous occasions. An entire chapter is devoted to the enigmatic double flash incident of September 22nd, 1979 whose interpretation remains in dispute today. This 2007 paperback edition includes a new epilogue with information on the October 2006 North Korean “fissile or fizzle” nuclear test, and recent twists and turns in the feckless international effort to restrain Iran's nuclear program.

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Winograd, Morley and Michael D. Hais. Millennial Makeover. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8135-4301-7.
This is a disturbing book on a number of different levels. People, especially residents of the United States or subject to its jurisdiction, who cherish individual liberty and economic freedom should obtain a copy of this work (ideally, by buying a used copy to avoid putting money in the authors' pockets), put a clothespin on their noses, and read the whole thing (it only takes a day or so), being warned in advance that it may induce feelings of nausea and make you want to take three or four showers when you're done.

The premise of the book is taken from Strauss and Howe's Generations, which argues that American history is characterised by a repeating pattern of four kinds of generations, alternating between “idealistic” and “civic” periods on a roughly forty year cycle (two generations in each period). These periods have nothing to do with the notions of “right” and “left”—American history provides examples of periods of both types identified with each political tendency.

The authors argue that the United States are approaching the end of an idealistic period with a rightward tendency which began in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon, which supplanted the civic leftward period which began with the New Deal and ended in the excesses of the 1960s. They argue that the transition between idealistic and civic periods is signalled by a “realigning election”, in which the coalitions supporting political parties are remade, defining a new alignment and majority party which will dominate government for the next four decades or so.

These realignment elections usually mark the entrance of a new generation into the political arena (initially as voters and activists, only later as political figures), and the nature of the coming era can be limned, the authors argue, by examining the formative experiences of the rising generation and the beliefs they take into adulthood. Believing that a grand realignment is imminent, if not already underway, and that its nature will be determined by what they call the “Millennial Generation” (the cohort born between 1982 through 2003: a group larger in numbers than the Baby Boom generation), the authors examine the characteristics and beliefs of this generation, the eldest members of which are now entering the electorate, to divine the nature of the post-realignment political landscape. If they are correct in their conclusions, it is a prospect to induce fear, if not despair, in lovers of liberty. Here are some quotes.

The inevitable loss in privacy and freedom that has been a constant characteristic of the nation's reaction to any crisis that threatens America's future will more easily be accepted by a generation that willingly opts to share personal information with advertisers just for the sake of earning a few “freebies.” After 9/11 and the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, Millennials are not likely to object to increased surveillance and other intrusions into their private lives if it means increased levels of personal safety. The shape of America's political landscape after a civic realignment is thus more likely to favor policies that involve collective action and individual accountability than the libertarian approaches so much favored by Gen-Xers. (p. 200)
Note that the authors applaud these developments. Digital Imprimatur, here we come!
As the newest civic realignment evolves, the center of America's public policy will continue to shift away from an emphasis on individual rights and public morality toward a search for solutions that benefit the entire community in as equitable and orderly way as possible. Majorities will coalesce around ideas that involve the entire group in the solution and downplay the right of individuals to opt out of the process. (p. 250)
Millennials favor environmental protection even at the cost of economic growth by a somewhat wider margin than any other generation (43% for Millennials vs. 40% for Gen-Xers and 38% for Baby Boomers), hardly surprising, given the emphasis this issue received in their favorite childhood television programs such as “Barney” and “Sesame Street” (Frank N. Magid Associates, May 2007). (p. 263)
Deep thinkers, those millennials! (Note that these “somewhat wider” margins are within the statistical sampling error of the cited survey [p. xiv].)

The whole scheme of alternating idealist and civic epochs is presented with a historicist inevitability worthy of Hegel or Marx. While one can argue that this kind of cycle is like the oscillation between crunchy and soggy, it seems to me that the authors must be exceptionally stupid, oblivious to facts before their faces, or guilty of a breathtaking degree of intellectual dishonesty to ignore the influence of the relentless indoctrination of this generation with collectivist dogma in government schools and the legacy entertainment and news media—and I do not believe the authors are either idiots nor imperceptive. What they are, however, are long-term activists (since the 1970s) in the Democratic party, who welcome the emergence of a “civic” generation which they view as the raw material for advancing the agenda which FDR launched with the aid of the previous large civic generation in the 1930s.

Think about it. A generation which has been inculcated with the kind of beliefs illustrated by the quotations above, and which is largely ignorant of history (and much of the history they've been taught is bogus, agenda-driven propaganda), whose communications are mostly “peer-to-peer”—with other identically-indoctrinated members of the same generation, is the ideal putty in the hands of a charismatic leader bent on “unifying” a nation by using the coercive power of the state to enforce the “one best way”.

The authors make an attempt to present the millenials as a pool of potential voters in search of a political philosophy and party embodying it which, once chosen, they will likely continue to identify with for the rest of their lives (party allegiance, they claim, is much stronger in civic than in idealist eras). But it's clear that the book is, in fact, a pitch to the Democratic party to recruit these people: Republican politicians and conservative causes are treated with thinly veiled contempt.

This is entirely a book about political strategy aimed at electoral success. There is no discussion whatsoever of the specific policies upon which campaigns will be based, how they are to be implemented, or what their consequences will be for the nation. The authors almost seem to welcome catastrophes such as a “major terrorist attack … major environmental disaster … chronic, long-lasting war … hyperinflation … attack on the U.S. with nuclear weapons … major health catastrophe … major economic collapse … world war … and/or a long struggle like the Cold War” as being “events of significant magnitude to trigger a civic realignment” (p. 201).

I've written before about my decision to get out of the United States in the early 1990s, which decision I have never regretted. That move was based largely upon economic fundamentals, which I believed, and continue to believe, are not sustainable and will end badly. Over the last decade, I have been increasingly unsettled by my interactions with members of the tail-end of Generation X and the next generation, whatever you call it. If the picture presented in this book is correct (and I have no way to know whether it is), and their impact upon the U.S. political scene is anything like that envisioned by the authors, anybody still in the U.S. who values their liberty and autonomy has an even more urgent reason to get out, and quickly.

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Brooks, Max. World War Z. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-307-34661-2.
Few would have believed in the early years of the twenty-first century, as people busied themselves with their various concerns and little affairs, while their “leaders” occupied themselves with “crises” such as shortages of petroleum, mountains of bad debt, and ManBearPig, that in rural China a virus had mutated, replicating and spreading among the human population like creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water, slowly at first, with early outbreaks covered up to avoid bad publicity before the Chicom Olympics, soon thereafter to explode into a global contagion that would remake the world, rewrite human history, and sweep away all of the prewar concerns of mankind as trivialities while eliminating forever the infinite complacency humans had of their empire over matter and dominion over nature.

This book is an oral history of the Zombie War, told in the words of those who survived, fought, and ultimately won it. Written just ten years after victory was declared in China, with hotspots around the globe remaining to be cleared, it is a story of how cultures around the globe came to terms with a genuine existential threat, and how people and societies rise to a challenge inconceivable to a prewar mentality. Reading much like Studs Terkel's The Good War, the individual voices, including civilians, soldiers, researchers, and military and political leaders trace how unthinkable circumstances require unthinkable responses, and how ordinary people react under extraordinary stress. The emergence of the Holy Russian Empire, the evacuation and eventual reconquest of Japan, the rise of Cuba to a global financial power, the climactic end of the Second Chinese Revolution, and the enigma of the fate of North Korea are told in the words of eyewitnesses and participants.

Now, folks, this a zombie book, so if you're someone inclined to ask, “How, precisely, does this work?”, or to question the biological feasibility of the dead surviving in the depths of the ocean or freezing in the arctic winter and reanimating come spring, you're going to have trouble with this story. Suspending your disbelief and accepting the basic premise is the price of admission, but if you're willing to pay it, this is an enjoyable, unsettling, and ultimately rewarding read—even inspiring in its own strange way. It is a narrative of an apocalyptic epoch which works, and is about ten times better than Stephen King's The Stand. The author is a recognised global authority on the zombie peril.

(Yes, the first paragraph of these remarks is paraphrased from this; I thought it appropriate.)

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[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
Not only is The Peloponnesian War the first true work of history to have come down to us from antiquity, in writing it Thucydides essentially invented the historical narrative as it is presently understood. Although having served as a general (στρατηγός) on the Athenian side in the war, he adopts a scrupulously objective viewpoint and presents the motivations, arguments, and actions of all sides in the conflict in an even-handed manner. Perhaps his having been exiled from Athens due to arriving too late to save Amphipolis from falling to the Spartans contributed both to his dispassionate recounting of the war as well as providing the leisure to write the work. Thucydides himself wrote:
It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Unlike earlier war narratives in epic poetry, Thucydides based his account purely upon the actions of the human participants involved. While he includes the prophecies of oracles and auguries, he considers them important only to the extent they influenced decisions made by those who gave them credence. Divine intervention plays no part whatsoever in his description of events, and in his account of the Athenian Plague he even mocks how prophecies are interpreted to fit subsequent events. In addition to military and political affairs, Thucydides was a keen observer of natural phenomena: his account of the Athenian Plague reads like that of a modern epidemiologist, including his identifying overcrowding and poor sanitation as contributing factors and the observation that surviving the disease (as he did himself) conferred immunity. He further observes that solar eclipses appear to occur only at the new Moon, and may have been the first to identify earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis.

In the text, Thucydides includes lengthy speeches made by figures on all sides of the conflict, both in political assemblies and those of generals exhorting their troops to battle. He admits in the introduction that in many cases no contemporary account of these speeches exists and that he simply made up what he believed the speaker would likely have said given the circumstances. While this is not a technique modern historians would employ, Greeks, from their theatre and poetry, were accustomed to narratives presented in this form and Thucydides, inventing the concept of history as he wrote it, saw nothing wrong with inventing words in the absence of eyewitness accounts. What is striking is how modern everything seems. There are descriptions of the strategy of a sea power (Athens) confronted by a land power (Sparta), the dangers of alliances which invite weaker allies to take risks that involve their guarantors in unwanted and costly conflicts, the difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault on a defended shore, the challenge a democratic society has in remaining focused on a long-term conflict with an authoritarian opponent, and the utility of economic warfare (or, as Thucydides puts it [over and over again], “ravaging the countryside”) in sapping the adversary's capacity and will to resist. Readers with stereotyped views of Athens and Sparta may be surprised that many at the time of the war viewed Sparta as a liberator of independent cities from the yoke of the Athenian empire, and that Thucydides, an Athenian, often seems sympathetic to this view. Many of the speeches could have been given by present-day politicians and generals, except they would be unlikely to be as eloquent or argue their case so cogently. One understands why Thucydides was not only read over the centuries (at least prior to the present Dark Time, when the priceless patrimony of Western culture has been jettisoned and largely forgotten) for its literary excellence, but is still studied in military academies for its timeless insights into the art of war and the dynamics of societies at war. While modern readers may find the actual campaigns sporadic and the battles on a small scale by present day standards, from the Hellenic perspective, which saw their culture of city-states as “civilisation” surrounded by a sea of barbarians, this was a world war, and Thucydides records it as such a momentous event.

This is Volume 1 of the audiobook, which includes the first four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided, covering the prior history of Greece and the first nine years of the war, through the Thracian campaigns of the Spartan Brasidas in 423 B.C. (Here is Volume 2, with the balance.) The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 14 hours and 50 minutes with more than a hour of introductory essays including a biography of Thucydides and an overview of the work. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by the versatile Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

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Thornton, Bruce. Decline and Fall. New York: Encounter Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59403-206-6.
This slim volume (135 pages of main text, 161 pages in its entirety—the book is erroneously listed on Amazon.com as 300 pages in length) is an epitaph for the postwar European experiment. The author considers Europe, as defined by the post-Christian, post-national “EUtopia” envisioned by proponents of the European Union as already irretrievably failed, facing collapse in the coming decades due to economic sclerosis from bloated and intrusive statist policies, unsustainable welfare state expenditures, a demographic death spiral already beyond recovery, and transformation by a burgeoning Islamic immigrant population which Europeans lack the will to confront and compel to assimilate as a condition of residence. The book is concise, well-argued, and persuasive, but I'm not sure why it is ultimately necessary.

The same issues are discussed at greater length, more deeply, and with abundant documentation in recent books such as Mark Steyn's America Alone (November 2006), Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe (July 2006), and Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept (June 2007), all of which are cited as sources in this work. If you're looking for a very brief introduction and overview of Europe's problems, this book provides one, but readers interested in details of the present situation and prospects for the future will be better served by one of the books mentioned above.

A video interview with the author is available.

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Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. Fallen Angels. New York: Baen Books, 1991. ISBN 978-0-7434-7181-7.
I do not have the slightest idea what the authors were up to in writing this novel. All three are award-winning writers of “hard” science fiction, and the first two are the most celebrated team working in that genre of all time. I thought I'd read all of the Niven and Pournelle (and assorted others) collaborations, but I only discovered this one when the 2004 reprint edition was mentioned on Jerry Pournelle's Web log.

The premise is interesting, indeed delicious: neo-Luddite environmentalists have so crippled the U.S. economy (and presumably that of other industrialised nations, although they do not figure in the novel) that an incipient global cooling trend due to solar inactivity has tipped over into an ice age. Technologists are actively persecuted, and the U.S. and Soviet space stations and their crews have been marooned in orbit, left to fend for themselves without support from Earth. (The story is set in an unspecified future era in which the orbital habitats accommodate a substantially larger population than space stations envisioned when the novel was published, and have access to lunar resources.)

The earthbound technophobes, huddling in the cold and dark as the glaciers advance, and the orbiting technophiles, watching their meagre resources dwindle despite their cleverness, are forced to confront one another when a “scoop ship” harvesting nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere is shot down by a missile and makes a crash landing on the ice cap descending on upper midwest of the United States. The two “angels”—spacemen—are fugitives sought by the Green enforcers, and figures of legend to that small band of Earthlings who preserve the dream of a human destiny in the stars.

And who would they be? Science fiction fans, of course! Sorry, but you just lost me, right about when I almost lost my lunch. By “fans”, we aren't talking about people like me, and probably many readers of this chronicle, whose sense of wonder was kindled in childhood by science fiction and who, even as adults, find it almost unique among contemporary literary genera in being centred on ideas, and exploring “what if” scenarios that other authors do not even imagine. No, here we're talking about the subculture of “fandom”, a group of people, defying parody by transcending the most outrageous attempts, who invest much of their lives into elaborating their own private vocabulary, writing instantly forgotten fan fiction and fanzines, snarking and sniping at one another over incomprehensible disputes, and organising conventions whose names seem ever so clever only to other fans, where they gather to reinforce their behaviour. The premise here is that when the mainstream culture goes South (literally, as the glaciers descend from the North), “who's gonna save us?”—the fans!

I like to think that more decades of reading science fiction than I'd like to admit to has exercised my ability to suspend disbelief to such a degree that I'm willing to accept just about any self-consistent premise as the price of admission to an entertaining yarn. Heck, last week I recommended a zombie book! But for the work of three renowned hard science fiction writers, there are a lot of serious factual flubs here. (Page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition cited above.)

  • The Titan II (not “Titan Two”) uses Aerozine 50 and Nitrogen tetroxide as propellants, not RP-1 (kerosene) and LOX. One could not fuel a Titan II with RP-1 and LOX, not only because the sizes of the propellant tanks would be incorrect for the mixture ratio of the propellants, but because the Titan II lacks the ignition system for non-hypergolic propellants. (pp. 144–145)
  • “Sheppard reach in the first Mercury-Redstone?” It's “Shepard”, and it was the third Mercury-Redstone flight. (p. 151)
  • “Schirra's Aurora 7”. Please: Aurora 7 was Carpenter's capsule (which is in the Chicago museum); Schirra's was Sigma 7. (p. 248)
  • “Dick Rhutan”. It's “Rutan”. (p, 266)
  • “Just hydrogen. But you can compress it, and it will liquify. It is not that difficult.”. Well, actually, it is. The critical point for hydrogen is 23.97° K, so regardless of how much you compress it, you still need to refrigerate it to a temperature less than half that of liquid nitrogen to obtain the liquid phase. For liquid hydrogen at one atmosphere, you need to chill it to 20.28° K. You don't just need a compressor, you need a powerful cryostat to liquefy hydrogen.
    “…letting the O2 boil off.” Oxygen squared? Please, it's O2. (p. 290)
  • “…the jets were brighter than the dawn…“. If this had been in verse, I'd have let it stand as metaphorical, but it's descriptive prose and dead wrong. The Phoenix is fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which burn with an almost invisible flame. There's no way the rocket exhaust would have been brighter than the dawn.

Now it seems to me there are three potential explanations of the numerous lapses of this story from the grounded-in-reality attention to detail one expects in hard science fiction.

  1. The authors deliberately wished to mock science fiction fans who, while able to reel off the entire credits of 1950s B movie creature features from memory, pay little attention to the actual history and science of the real world, and hence they get all kinds of details wrong while spouting off authoritatively.
  2. The story is set is an alternative universe, just a few forks from the one we inhabit. Consequently, the general outline is the same, but the little details differ. Like, for example, science fiction fans being able to work together to accomplish something productive.
  3. This manuscript, which, the authors “suspect that few books have ever been delivered this close to a previously scheduled publication date” (p. 451) was never subjected to the intensive fact-checking scrutiny which the better kind of obsessive-compulsive fan will contribute out of a sense that even fiction must be right where it intersects reality.

I'm not gonna fingo any hypotheses here. If you have no interest whatsoever in the world of science fiction fandom, you'll probably, like me, consider this the “Worst Niven and Pournelle—Ever”. On the other hand, if you can reel off every Worldcon from the first Boskone to the present and pen Feghoots for the local 'zine on days you're not rehearsing with the filk band, you may have a different estimation of this novel.

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Paul, Ron. The Revolution. New York: Grand Central, 2008. ISBN 978-0-446-53751-3.
Ron Paul's campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination has probably done more to expose voters in the United States to the message of limited, constitutional governance, individual liberty, non-interventionist foreign policy, and sound money than any political initiative in decades. Although largely ignored by the collectivist legacy media, the stunning fund-raising success of the campaign, even if not translated into corresponding success at the polls, is evidence that this essentially libertarian message (indeed, Dr. Paul ran for president in 1988 as the standard bearer of the Libertarian Party) resonates with a substantial part of the American electorate, even among the “millennial generation”, which conventional wisdom believes thoroughly indoctrinated with collectivist dogma and poised to vote away the last vestiges of individual freedom in the United States. In the concluding chapter, the candidate observes:
The fact is, liberty is not given a fair chance in our society, neither in the media, nor in politics, nor (especially) in education. I have spoken to many young people during my career, some of whom had never heard my ideas before. But as soon as I explained the philosophy of liberty and told them a little American history in light of that philosophy, their eyes lit up. Here was something they'd never heard before, but something that was compelling and moving, and which appealed to their sense of idealism. Liberty had simply never been presented to them as a choice. (p. 158)
This slender (173 page) book presents that choice as persuasively and elegantly as anything I have read. Further, the case for liberty is anchored in the tradition of American history and the classic conservatism which characterised the Republican party for the first half of the 20th century. The author repeatedly demonstrates just how recent much of the explosive growth in government has been, and observes that people seemed to get along just fine, and the economy prospered, without the crushing burden of intrusive regulation and taxation. One of the most striking examples is the discussion of abolishing the personal income tax. “Impossible”, as other politicians would immediately shout? Well, the personal income tax accounts for about 40% of federal revenue, so eliminating it would require reducing the federal budget by the same 40%. How far back would you have to go in history to discover an epoch where the federal budget was 40% below that of 2007? Why, you'd have to go all the way back to 1997! (p. 80)

The big government politicians who dominate both major political parties in the United States dismiss the common-sense policies advocated by Ron Paul in this book by saying “you can't turn back the clock”. But as Chesterton observed, why not? You can turn back a clock, and you can replace disastrous policies which are bankrupting a society and destroying personal liberty with time-tested policies which have delivered prosperity and freedom for centuries wherever adopted. Paul argues that the debt-funded imperial nanny state is doomed in any case by simple economic considerations. The only question is whether it is deliberately and systematically dismantled by the kinds of incremental steps he advocates here, or eventually collapses Soviet-style due to bankruptcy and/or hyperinflation. Should the U.S., as many expect, lurch dramatically in the collectivist direction in the coming years, it will only accelerate the inevitable debacle.

Anybody who wishes to discover alternatives to the present course and that limited constitutional government is not a relic of the past but the only viable alternative for a free people to live in peace and prosperity will find this book an excellent introduction to the libertarian/constitutionalist perspective. A five page reading list cites both classics of libertarian thought and analyses of historical and contemporary events from a libertarian viewpoint.

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Upton, Jim. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-069-0.
In October 1951, following a fact-finding trip to Korea where he heard fighter pilots demand a plane with more speed and altitude capability than anything in existence, Kelly Johnson undertook the design of a fighter that would routinely operate at twice the speed of sound and altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet. Note that this was just four years after Chuck Yeager first flew at Mach 1 in the rocket-powered X-1, and two years before the Douglas Skyrocket research plane first achieved Mach 2. Kelly Johnson was nothing if not ambitious. He was also a man to deliver on his promises: in December 1952 he presented the completed design to the Air Force, which in March 1953 awarded a contract to build two experimental prototypes. On March 4, 1954, just a year later, the first XF-104 Starfighter made its first flight, and within another year it had flown at Mach 1.79. (The prototypes used a less powerful engine than the production model, and were consequently limited in speed.) In April 1956 the YF-104 production prototype reached Mach 2, and production models routinely operated at that speed thereafter. (In fact, the F-104 had the thrust to go faster: it was limited to Mach 2 by thermal limits on its aluminium construction and engine inlet temperature.)

The F-104 became one of the most successful international military aircraft programs of all time. A total of 2578 planes were manufactured in seven countries, and served in the air forces of 14 nations. The F-104 remained in service with the Italian Air Force until 2004, half a century after the flight of the first prototype.

Looking at a history like this, you begin to think that the days must have been longer in the 1950s, so compressed were the schedules for unprecedentedly difficult and complex engineering projects. Compare the F-104's development history with that of the current U.S. air superiority fighter, the F-22, for which a Pentagon requirement was issued in 1981, contractor proposals were solicited in 1986, and the winner of the design competition (Lockheed, erstwhile builder of the F-104) selected in 1991. And when did the F-22 enter squadron service with the Air Force? Well, that would be December 2005, twenty-four years after the Air Force launched the program. The comparable time for the F-104 was a little more than six years. Now, granted, the F-22 is a fantastically more complicated and capable design, but also consider that Kelly Johnson's team designed the F-104 with slide rules, mechanical calculators, and drawing boards, while present day aircraft use modeling and simulation tools which would have seemed like science fiction to designers of the fifties.

This prolifically illustrated book, written by a 35 year veteran of flight test engineering at Lockheed with a foreword by a former president of Lockheed-California who was the chief aerodynamicist of the XF-104 program, covers all aspects of this revolutionary airplane, from design concepts, flight testing, weapons systems, evolution of the design over the years, international manufacturing and deployment, and modifications and research programs. Readers interested in the history and technical details of one of Kelly Johnson's greatest triumphs, and a peek into the hands-on cut and try engineering of the 1950s will find this book a pure delight.

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June 2008

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58542-639-3.
The generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000, sometimes dubbed “Generation Y” or the “Millennial Generation”, now entering the workforce, the public arena, and exerting an ever-increasing influence in electoral politics, is the first generation in human history to mature in an era of ubiquitous computing, mobile communications, boundless choice in entertainment delivered by cable and satellite, virtual environments in video games, and the global connectivity and instant access to the human patrimony of knowledge afforded by the Internet. In the United States, it is the largest generational cohort ever, outnumbering the Baby Boomers who are now beginning to scroll off the screen. Generation Y is the richest (in terms of disposable income), most ethnically diverse, best educated (measured by years of schooling), and the most comfortable with new technologies and the innovative forms of social interactions they facilitate. Books like Millennials Rising sing the praises of this emerging, plugged-in, globally wired generation, and Millennial Makeover (May 2008) eagerly anticipates the influence they will have on politics and the culture.

To those of us who interact with members of this generation regularly through E-mail, Web logs, comments on Web sites, and personal Web pages, there seems to be a dissonant chord in this symphony of technophilic optimism. To be blunt, the kids are clueless. They may be able to multi-task, juggling mobile phones, SMS text messages, instant Internet messages (E-mail is so Mom and Dad!), social networking sites, Twitter, search engines, peer-to-peer downloads, surfing six hundred cable channels with nothing on while listening to an iPod and playing a video game, but when you scratch beneath the monomolecular layer of frantic media consumption and social interaction with their peers, there's, as we say on the Web, no content—they appear to be almost entirely ignorant of history, culture, the fine arts, civics, politics, science, economics, mathematics, and all of the other difficult yet rewarding aspects of life which distinguish a productive and intellectually engaged adult from a superannuated child. But then one worries that one's just muttering the perennial complaints of curmudgeonly old fogies and that, after all, the kids are all right. There are, indeed, those who argue that Everything Bad Is Good for You: that video games and pop culture are refining the cognitive, decision-making, and moral skills of youth immersed in them to never before attained levels.

But why are they so clueless, then? Well, maybe they aren't really, and Burgess Shale relics like me have simply forgotten how little we knew about the real world at that age. Errr…actually, no—this book, written by a professor of English at Emory University and former director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, who experiences first-hand the cognitive capacities and intellectual endowment of those Millennials who arrive in his classroom every year, draws upon a wealth of recent research (the bibliography is 18 pages long) by government agencies, foundations, and market research organisations, all without any apparent agenda to promote, which documents the abysmal levels of knowledge and the ability to apply it among present-day teenagers and young adults in the U.S. If there is good news, it is that the new media technologies have not caused a precipitous collapse in objective measures of outcomes overall (although there are disturbing statistics in some regards, including book reading and attendance at performing arts events). But, on the other hand, the unprecedented explosion in technology and the maturing generation's affinity for it and facility in using it have produced absolutely no objective improvement in their intellectual performance on a wide spectrum of metrics. Further, absorption in these new technologies has further squeezed out time which youth of earlier generations spent in activities which furthered intellectual development such as reading for enjoyment, visiting museums and historical sites, attending and participating in the performing arts, and tinkering in the garage or basement. This was compounded by the dumbing down and evisceration of traditional content in the secondary school curriculum.

The sixties generation's leaders didn't anticipate how their claim of exceptionalism would affect the next generation, and the next, but the sequence was entirely logical. Informed rejection of the past became uninformed rejection of the past, and then complete and unworried ignorance of it. (p. 228)
And it is the latter which is particularly disturbing: as documented extensively, Generation Y knows they're clueless and they're cool with it! In fact, their expectations for success in their careers are entirely discordant with the qualifications they're packing as they venture out to slide down the razor blade of life (pp. 193–198). Or not: on pp. 169–173 we meet the “Twixters”, urban and suburban middle class college graduates between 22 and 30 years old who are still living with their parents and engaging in an essentially adolescent lifestyle: bouncing between service jobs with no career advancement path and settling into no long-term relationship. These sad specimens who refuse to grow up even have their own term of derision: “KIPPERS” Kids In Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings.

In evaluating the objective data and arguments presented here, it's important to keep in mind that correlation does not imply causation. One cannot run controlled experiments on broad-based social trends: only try to infer from the evidence available what might be the cause of the objective outcomes one measures. Many of the characteristics of Generation Y described here might be explained in large part simply by the immersion and isolation of young people in the pernicious peer culture described by Robert Epstein in The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), with digital technologies simply reinforcing a dynamic in effect well before their emergence, and visible to some extent in the Boomer and Generation X cohorts who matured earlier, without being plugged in 24/7. For another insightful view of Generation Y (by another professor at Emory!), see I'm the Teacher, You're the Student (January 2005).

If Millennial Makeover is correct, the culture and politics of the United States is soon to be redefined by the generation now coming of age. This book presents a disturbing picture of what that may entail: a generation with little or no knowledge of history or of the culture of the society they've inherited, and unconcerned with their ignorance, making decisions not in the context of tradition and their intellectual heritage, but of peer popular culture. Living in Europe, it is clear that things have not reached such a dire circumstance here, and in Asia the intergenerational intellectual continuity appears to remain strong. But then, the U.S. was the first adopter of the wired society, and hence may simply be the first to arrive at the scene of the accident. Observing what happens there in the near future may give the rest of the world a chance to change course before their own dumbest generations mature. Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, the author notes that “Knowledge is never more than one generation away from oblivion.” (p. 186) In an age where a large fraction of all human knowledge is freely accessible to anybody in a fraction of a second, what a tragedy it would be if the “digital natives” ended up, like the pejoratively denigrated “natives” of the colonial era, surrounded by a wealth of culture but ignorant of and uninterested in it.

The final chapter is a delightful and stirring defence of culture wars and culture warriors, which argues that only those grounded in knowledge of their culture and equipped with the intellectual tools to challenge accepted norms and conventional wisdom can (for better or worse) change society. Those who lack the knowledge and reasoning skills to be engaged culture warriors are putty in the hands of marketeers and manipulative politicians, which is perhaps why so many of them are salivating over the impending Millennial majority.

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Dewar, James A. To the End of the Solar System. 2nd. ed. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, [2004] 2007. ISBN 978-1-894959-68-1.
If you're seeking evidence that entrusting technology development programs such as space travel to politicians and taxpayer-funded bureaucrats is a really bad idea, this is the book to read. Shortly after controlled nuclear fission was achieved, scientists involved with the Manhattan Project and the postwar atomic energy program realised that a rocket engine using nuclear fission instead of chemical combustion to heat a working fluid of hydrogen would have performance far beyond anything achievable with chemical rockets and could be the key to opening up the solar system to exploration and eventual human settlement. (The key figure of merit for rocket propulsion is “specific impulse”, expressed in seconds, which [for rockets] is simply an odd way of expressing the exhaust velocity. The best chemical rockets have specific impulses of around 450 seconds, while early estimates for solid core nuclear thermal rockets were between 800 and 900 seconds. Note that this does not mean that nuclear rockets were “twice as good” as chemical: because the rocket equation gives the mass ratio [mass of fuelled rocket versus empty mass] as exponential in the specific impulse, doubling that quantity makes an enormous difference in the missions which can be accomplished and drastically reduces the mass which must be lifted from the Earth to mount them.)

Starting in 1955, a project began, initially within the U.S. Air Force and the two main weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Livermore, to explore near-term nuclear rocket propulsion, initially with the goal of an ICBM able to deliver the massive thermonuclear bombs of the epoch. The science was entirely straightforward: build a nuclear reactor able to operate at a high core temperature, pump liquid hydrogen through it at a large rate, expel the hot gaseous hydrogen through a nozzle, and there's your nuclear rocket. Figure out the temperature of exhaust and the weight of the entire nuclear engine, and you can work out the precise performance and mission capability of the system. The engineering was a another matter entirely. Consider: a modern civil nuclear reactor generates about a gigawatt, and is a massive structure enclosed in a huge containment building with thick radiation shielding. It operates at a temperature of around 300° C, heating pressurised water. The nuclear rocket engine, by comparison, might generate up to five gigawatts of thermal power, with a core operating around 2000° C (compared to the 1132° C melting point of its uranium fuel), in a volume comparable to a 55 gallon drum. In operation, massive quantities of liquid hydrogen (a substance whose bulk properties were little known at the time) would be pumped through the core by a turbopump, which would have to operate in an almost indescribable radiation environment which might flash the hydrogen into foam and would certainly reduce all known lubricants to sludge within seconds. And this was supposed to function for minutes, if not hours (later designs envisioned a 10 hour operating lifetime for the reactor, with 60 restarts after being refuelled for each mission).

But what if it worked? Well, that would throw open the door to the solar system. Instead of absurd, multi-hundred-billion dollar Mars programs that land a few civil servant spacemen for footprints, photos, and a few rocks returned, you'd end up, for an ongoing budget comparable to that of today's grotesque NASA jobs program, with colonies on the Moon and Mars working their way toward self-sufficiency, regular exploration of the outer planets and moons with mission durations of years, not decades, and the ability to permanently expand the human presence off this planet and simultaneously defend the planet and its biosphere against the kind of Really Bad Day that did in the dinosaurs (and a heck of a lot of other species nobody ever seems to mention).

Between 1955 and 1973, the United States funded a series of projects, usually designated as Rover and NERVA, with the potential of achieving all of this. This book is a thoroughly documented (65 pages of end notes) and comprehensive narrative of what went wrong. As is usually the case when government gets involved, almost none of the problems were technological. The battles, and the eventual defeat of the nuclear rocket were due to agencies fighting for turf, bureaucrats seeking to build their careers by backing or killing a project, politicians vying to bring home the bacon for their constituents or kill projects of their political opponents, and the struggle between the executive and legislative branches and the military for control over spending priorities.

What never happened among all of the struggles and ups and downs documented here is an actual public debate over the central rationale of the nuclear rocket: should there be, or should there not be, an expansive program (funded within available discretionary resources) to explore, exploit the resources, and settle the solar system? Because if no such program were contemplated, then a nuclear rocket would not be required and funds spent on it squandered. But if such a program were envisioned and deemed worthy of funding, a nuclear rocket, if feasible, would reduce the cost and increase the capability of the program to such an extent that the research and development cost of nuclear propulsion would be recouped shortly after the resulting technology were deployed.

But that debate was never held. Instead, the nuclear rocket program was a political football which bounced around for 18 years, consuming 1.4 billion (p. 207) then-year dollars (something like 5.3 billion in today's incredible shrinking greenbacks). Goals were redefined, milestones changed, management shaken up and reorganised, all at the behest of politicians, yet through it all virtually every single technical goal was achieved on time and often well ahead of schedule. Indeed, when the ball finally bounced out of bounds and the 8000 person staff was laid off, dispersing forever their knowledge of the “black art” of fuel element, thermal, and neutronic design constraints for such an extreme reactor, it was not because the project was judged infeasible, but the opposite. The green eyeshade brigade considered the project too likely to succeed, and feared the funding requests for the missions which this breakthrough technological capability would enable. And so ended the possibility of human migration into the solar system for my generation. So it goes. When the rock comes down, the few transient survivors off-planet will perhaps recall their names; they are documented here.

There are many things to criticise about this book. It is cheaply made: the text is set in painfully long lines in a small font with narrow margins, which require milliarcsecond-calibrated eye muscles to track from the end of a line to the start of the next. The printing lops off the descenders from the last line of many pages, leaving the reader to puzzle over words like “hvdrooen” and phrases such as “Whv not now?”. The cover seems to incorporate some proprietary substance made of kangaroo hair and discarded slinkies which makes it curl into a tube once you've opened it and read a few pages. Now, these are quibbles which do not detract from the content, but then this is a 300 page paperback without a single colour plate with a cover price of USD26.95. There are a number of factual errors in the text, but none which seriously distort the meaning for the knowledgeable reader; there are few, if any, typographical errors. The author is clearly an enthusiast for nuclear rocket technology, and this sometimes results in over-the-top hyperbole where a dispassionate recounting of the details should suffice. He is a big fan of New Mexico senator Clinton Anderson, a stalwart supporter of the nuclear rocket from its inception through its demise (which coincided with his retirement from the Senate due to health reasons), but only on p. 145 does the author address the detail that the programme was a multi-billion dollar (in an epoch when a billion dollars was real money) pork barrel project for Anderson's state.

Flawed—yes, but if you're interested in this little-known backstory of the space program of the last century, whose tawdry history and shameful demise largely explains the sorry state of the human presence in space today, this is the best source of which I'm aware to learn what happened and why. Given the cognitive collapse in the United States (Want to clear a room of Americans? Just say “nuclear!”), I can't share the author's technologically deterministic optimism, “The potential foretells a resurgence at Jackass Flats…” (p. 195), that the legacy of Rover/NERVA will be redeemed by the descendants of those who paid for it only to see it discarded. But those who use this largely forgotten and, in the demographically imploding West, forbidden knowledge to make the leap off our planet toward our destiny in the stars will find the experience summarised here, and the sources cited, an essential starting point for the technologies they'll require to get there.

 ‘Und I'm learning Chinese,’ says Wernher von Braun.

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Raspail, Jean. Le Camp des Saints. Paris: Robert Laffont, [1973, 1978, 1985] 2006. ISBN 978-2-221-08840-1.
This is one of the most hauntingly prophetic works of fiction I have ever read. Although not a single word has been changed from its original publication in 1973 to the present edition, it is at times simply difficult to believe you're reading a book which was published thirty-five years ago. The novel is a metaphorical, often almost surreal exploration of the consequences of unrestricted immigration from the third world into the first world: Europe and France in particular, and how the instincts of openness, compassion, and generosity which characterise first world countries can sow the seeds of their destruction if they result in developed countries being submerged in waves of immigration of those who do not share their values, culture, and by their sheer numbers and rate of arrival, cannot be assimilated into the society which welcomes them.

The story is built around a spontaneous, almost supernatural, migration of almost a million desperate famine-struck residents from the Ganges on a fleet of decrepit ships, to the “promised land”, and the reaction of the developed countries along their path and in France as they approach and debark. Raspail has perfect pitch when it comes to the prattling of bien pensants, feckless politicians, international commissions chartered to talk about a crisis until it turns into catastrophe, humanitarians bent on demonstrating their good intentions whatever the cost to those they're supposed to be helping and those who fund their efforts, media and pundits bent on indoctrination instead of factual reporting, post-Christian clerics, and the rest of the intellectual scum which rises to the top and suffocates the rationality which has characterised Western civilisation for centuries and created the prosperity and liberty which makes it a magnet for people around the world aspiring to individual achievement.

Frankly addressing the roots of Western exceptionalism and the internal rot which imperils it, especially in the context of mass immigration, is a sure way to get yourself branded a racist, and that has, of course been the case with this book. There are, to be sure, many mentions of “whites” and “blacks”, but I perceive no evidence that the author imputes superiority to the first or inferiority to the second: they are simply labels for the cultures from which those actors in the story hail. One character, Hamadura, identified as a dark skinned “Français de Pondichéry” says (p. 357, my translation), “To be white, in my opinion, is not a colour of skin, but a state of mind”. Precisely—anybody, whatever their race or origin, can join the first world, but the first world has a limited capacity to assimilate new arrivals knowing nothing of its culture and history, and risks being submerged if too many arrive, particularly if well-intentioned cultural elites encourage them not to assimilate but instead work for political power and agendas hostile to the Enlightenment values of the West. As Jim Bennett observed, “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism. Pick any two.”

Now, this is a novel from 1973, not a treatise on immigration and multiculturalism in present-day Europe, and the voyage of the fleet of the Ganges is a metaphor for the influx of immigrants into Europe which has already provoked many of the cringing compromises of fundamental Western values prophesied, of which I'm sure most readers in the 1970s would have said, “It can't happen here”. Imagine an editor fearing for his life for having published a cartoon (p. 343), or Switzerland being forced to cede the values which have kept it peaceful and prosperous by the muscle of those who surround it and the intellectual corruption of its own elites. It's all here, and much more. There's even a Pope Benedict XVI (albeit very unlike the present occupant of the throne of St. Peter).

This is an ambitious literary work, and challenging for non mother tongue readers. The vocabulary is enormous, including a number of words you won't find even in the Micro Bob. Idioms, many quite obscure (for example “Les carottes sont cuites”—all is lost), abound, and references to them appear obliquely in the text. The apocalyptic tone of the book (whose title is taken from Rev. 20:9) is reinforced by many allusions to that Biblical prophecy. This is a difficult read, which careens among tragedy, satire, and farce, forcing the reader to look beyond political nostrums about the destiny of the West and seriously ask what the consequences of mass immigration without assimilation and the accommodation by the West of values inimical to its own are likely to be. And when you think that Jean Respail saw all of this coming more than three decades ago, it almost makes you shiver. I spent almost three weeks working my way through this book, but although it was difficult, I always looked forward to picking it up, so rewarding was it to grasp the genius of the narrative and the masterful use of the language.

An English translation is available. Given the language, idioms, wordplay, and literary allusions in the original French, this work would be challenging to faithfully render into another language. I have not read the translation and cannot comment upon how well it accomplished this formidable task.

For more information about the author and his works, visit his official Web site.

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Biggs, Barton. Wealth, War, and Wisdom. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. ISBN 978-0-470-22307-9.
Many people, myself included, who have followed financial markets for an extended period of time, have come to believe what may seem, to those who have not, a very curious and even mystical thing: that markets, aggregating the individual knowledge and expectations of their multitude of participants, have an uncanny way of “knowing” what the future holds. In retrospect, one can often look at a chart of broad market indices and see that the market “called” grand turning points by putting in a long-term bottom or top, even when those turning points were perceived by few if any people at the time. One of the noisiest buzzwords of the “Web 2.0” hype machine is “crowdsourcing”, yet financial markets have been doing precisely that for centuries, and in an environment in which the individual participants are not just contributing to some ratty, ephemeral Web site, but rather putting their own net worth on the line.

In this book the author, who has spent his long career as a securities analyst and hedge fund manager, and was a pioneer of investing in emerging global markets, looks at the greatest global cataclysm of the twentieth century—World War II—and explores how well financial markets in the countries involved identified the key trends and turning points in the conflict. The results persuasively support the “wisdom of the market” viewpoint and are a convincing argument that “the market knows”, even when its individual participants, media and opinion leaders, and politicians do not. Consider: the British stock market put in an all-time historic bottom in June 1940, just as Hitler toured occupied Paris and, in retrospect, Nazi expansionism in the West reached its peak. Many Britons expected a German invasion in the near future, and the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were still in the future, and yet the market rallied throughout these dark days. Somehow the market seems to have known that with the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkerque and the fall of France, the situation, however dire, was as bad as it was going to get.

In the United States, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined throughout 1941 as war clouds darkened, fell further after Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines, but put in an all-time bottom in 1942 coincident with the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway which, in retrospect, but not at the time, were seen as the key inflection point of the Pacific war. Note that at this time the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy but had not engaged either in a land battle, and yet somehow the market “knew” that, whatever the sacrifices to come, the darkest days were behind.

The wisdom of the markets was also apparent in the ultimate losers of the conflict, although government price-fixing and disruption of markets as things got worse obscured the message. The German CDAX index peaked precisely when the Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union was turned back within sight of the spires of the Kremlin. At this point the German army was intact, the Soviet breadbasket was occupied, and the Red Army was in disarray, yet somehow the market knew that this was the high point. The great defeat at Stalingrad and the roll-back of the Nazi invaders were all in the future, but despite propaganda, censorship of letters from soldiers at the front, and all the control of information a totalitarian society can employ, once again the market called the turning point. In Italy, where rampant inflation obscured nominal price indices, the inflation-adjusted BCI index put in its high at precisely the moment Mussolini made his alliance with Hitler, and it was all downhill from there, both for Italy and its stock market, despite rampant euphoria at the time. In Japan, the market was heavily manipulated by the Ministry of Finance and tight control of war news denied investors information to independently assess the war situation, but by 1943 the market had peaked in real terms and declined into a collapse thereafter.

In occupied countries, where markets were allowed to function, they provided insight into the sympathies of their participants. The French market is particularly enlightening. Clearly, the investor class was completely on-board with the German occupation and Vichy. In real terms, the market soared after the capitulation of France and peaked with the defeat at Stalingrad, then declined consistently thereafter, with only a little blip with the liberation of Paris. But then the French stock market wouldn't be French if it weren't perverse, would it?

Throughout, the author discusses how individuals living in both the winners and losers of the war could have best preserved their wealth and selves, and this is instructive for folks interested in saving their asses and assets the next time the Four Horsemen sortie from Hell's own stable. Interestingly, according to Biggs's analysis, so-called “defensive” investments such as government and top-rated corporate bonds and short-term government paper (“Treasury Bills”) performed poorly as stores of wealth in the victor countries and disastrously in the vanquished. In those societies where equity markets survived the war (obviously, this excludes those countries in Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet Union), stocks were the best financial instrument in preserving value, although in many cases they did decline precipitously over the period of the war. How do you ride out a cataclysm like World War II? There are three key ways: diversification, diversification, and diversification. You need to diversify across financial and real assets, including (diversified) portfolios of stocks, bonds, and bills, as well as real assets such as farmland, real estate, and hard assets (gold, jewelry, etc.) for really hard times. You further need to diversify internationally: not just in the assets you own, but where you keep them. Exchange controls can come into existence with the stroke of a pen, and that offshore bank account you keep “just in case” may be all you have if the worst comes to pass. Thinking about it in that way, do you have enough there? Finally, you need to diversify your own options in the world and think about what you'd do if things really start to go South, and you need to think about it now, not then. As the author notes in the penultimate paragraph:

…the rich are almost always too complacent, because they cherish the illusion that when things start to go bad, they will have time to extricate themselves and their wealth. It never works that way. Events move much faster than anyone expects, and the barbarians are on top of you before you can escape. … It is expensive to move early, but it is far better to be early than to be late.
This is a quirky book, and not free of flaws. Biggs is a connoisseur of amusing historical anecdotes and sprinkles them throughout the text. I found them a welcome leavening of a narrative filled with human tragedy, folly, and destruction of wealth, but some may consider them a distraction and out of place. There are far more copy-editing errors in this book (including dismayingly many difficulties with the humble apostrophe) than I would expect in a Wiley main catalogue title. But that said, if you haven't discovered the wisdom of the markets for yourself, and are worried about riding out the uncertainties of what appears to be a bumpy patch ahead, this is an excellent place to start.

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July 2008

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare. London: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-719790-3.
This small, thin (200 page) book contains just about every fact known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare, which isn't very much. In fact, if the book restricted itself only to those facts, and excluded descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Shakespeare's contemporaries, actors and theatres of the time, and the many speculations about Shakespeare and the deliciously eccentric characters who sometimes promoted them, it would probably be a quarter of its present length.

For a figure whose preeminence in English literature is rarely questioned today, and whose work shaped the English language itself—2035 English words appear for the first time in the works of Shakespeare, of which about 800 continue in common use today, including critical, frugal, horrid, vast, excellent, lonely, leapfrog, and zany (pp. 112–113)—very little is known apart from the content of his surviving work. We know the dates of his birth, marriage, and death, something of his parents, siblings, wife, and children, but nothing of his early life, education, travel, reading, or any of the other potential sources of the extraordinary knowledge and insight into the human psyche which informs his work. Between the years 1585 and 1592 he drops entirely from sight: no confirmed historical record has been found, then suddenly he pops up in London, at the peak of his powers, writing, producing, and performing in plays and quickly gaining recognition as one of the preeminent dramatists of his time. We don't even know (although there is no shortage of speculation) which plays were his early works and which were later: there is no documentary evidence for the dates of the plays nor the order in which they were written, apart from a few contemporary references which allow placing a play as no later than the mention of it. We don't even know how he spelt or pronounced his name: of six extant signatures believed to be in his hand, no two spell his name the same way, and none uses the “Shakespeare” spelling in use today.

Shakespeare's plays brought him fame and a substantial fortune during his life, but plays were regarded as ephemeral things at the time, and were the property of the theatrical company which commissioned them, not the author, so no authoritative editions of the plays were published during his life. Had it not been for the efforts of his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, who published the “First Folio” edition of his collected works seven years after his death, it is probable that the eighteen plays which first appeared in print in that edition would have been lost to history, with subsequent generations deeming Shakespeare, based upon surviving quarto editions of uneven (and sometimes laughable) quality of a few plays, one of a number of Elizabethan playwrights but not the towering singular figure he is now considered to be. (One wonders if there were others of Shakespeare's stature who were not as lucky in the dedication of their friends, of whose work we shall never know.) Nobody really knows how many copies of the First Folio were printed, but guesses run between 750 and 1000. Around 300 copies in various states of completeness have survived to the present, and around eighty copies are in a single room at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., about two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Now maybe decades of computer disasters have made me obsessively preoccupied with backup and geographical redundancy, but that just makes me shudder. Is there anybody there who wonders whether this is really a good idea? After all, the last time I was a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I spotted an ACME MISSILE BOMB right in plain sight!

A final chapter is devoted to theories that someone other than the scantily documented William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. The author points out the historical inconsistencies and implausibilities of most frequently proffered claimants, and has a good deal of fun with some of the odder of the theorists, including the exquisitely named J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman, and George M. Battey.

Bill Bryson fans who have come to cherish his lighthearted tone and quirky digressions on curious details and personalities from such works as A Short History of Nearly Everything (November 2007) will not be disappointed. If one leaves the book not knowing a great deal about Shakespeare, because so little is actually known, it is with a rich sense of having been immersed in the England of his time and the golden age of theatre to which he so mightily contributed.

A U.S. edition is available, but at this writing only in hardcover.

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Hirshfeld, Alan. The Electric Life of Michael Faraday. New York: Walker and Company, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8027-1470-1.
Of post-Enlightenment societies, one of the most rigidly structured by class and tradition was that of Great Britain. Those aspiring to the life of the mind were overwhelmingly the well-born, educated in the classics at Oxford or Cambridge, with the wealth and leisure to pursue their interests on their own. The career of Michael Faraday stands as a monument to what can be accomplished, even in such a stultifying system, by the pure power of intellect, dogged persistence, relentless rationality, humility, endless fascination with the intricacies of creation, and confidence that it was ultimately knowable through clever investigation.

Faraday was born in 1791, the third child of a blacksmith who had migrated to London earlier that year in search of better prospects, which he never found due to fragile health. In his childhood, Faraday's family occasionally got along only thanks to the charity of members of the fundamentalist church to which they belonged. At age 14, Faraday was apprenticed to a French émigré bookbinder, setting himself on the path to a tradesman's career. But Faraday, while almost entirely unschooled, knew how to read, and read he did—as many of the books which passed through the binder's shop as he could manage. As with many who read widely, Faraday eventually came across a book that changed his life, The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts, and from the pragmatic and inspirational advice in that volume, along with the experimental approach to science he learned from Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry, Faraday developed his own philosophy of scientific investigation and began to do his own experiments with humble apparatus in the bookbinder's shop.

Faraday seemed to be on a trajectory which would frustrate his curiosity forever amongst the hammers, glue, and stitches of bookbindery when, thanks to his assiduous note-taking at science lectures, his employer passing on his notes, and a providential vacancy, he found himself hired as the assistant to the eminent Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in London. Learning chemistry and the emerging field of electrochemistry at the side of the master, he developed the empirical experimental approach which would inform all of his subsequent work.

Faraday originally existed very much in Davy's shadow, even serving as his personal valet as well as scientific assistant on an extended tour of the Continent, but slowly (and over Davy's opposition) rose to become a Fellow of the Royal Institution and director of its laboratory. Seeking to shore up the shaky finances of the Institution, in 1827 he launched the Friday Evening Discourses, public lectures on a multitude of scientific topics by Faraday and other eminent scientists, which he would continue to supervise until 1862.

Although trained as a chemist, and having made his reputation in that field, his electrochemical investigations with Davy had planted in his mind the idea that electricity was not a curious phenomenon demonstrated in public lectures involving mysterious “fluids”, but an essential component in understanding the behaviour of matter. In 1831, he turned his methodical experimental attention to the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and within months had discovered electromagnetic induction: that an electric current was induced in a conductor only by a changing magnetic field: the principle used by every electrical generator and transformer in use today. He built the first dynamo, using a spinning copper disc between the poles of a strong magnet, and thereby demonstrated the conversion of mechanical energy into electricity for the first time. Faraday's methodical, indefatigable investigations, failures along with successes, were chronicled in a series of papers eventually collected into the volume Experimental Researches in Electricity, which is considered to be one of the best narratives ever written of science as it is done.

Knowing little mathematics, Faraday expressed the concepts he discovered in elegant prose. His philosophy of science presaged that of Karl Popper and the positivists of the next century—he considered all theories as tentative, advocated continued testing of existing theories in an effort to falsify them and thereby discover new science beyond them, and he had no use whatsoever for the unobservable: he detested concepts such as “action at a distance”, which he considered mystical obfuscation. If some action occurred, there must be some physical mechanism which causes it, and this led him to formulate what we would now call field theory: that physical lines of force extend from electrically charged objects and magnets through apparently empty space, and it is the interaction of objects with these lines of force which produces the various effects he had investigated. This flew in the face of the scientific consensus of the time, and while universally admired for his experimental prowess, many regarded Faraday's wordy arguments as verging on the work of a crank. It wasn't until 1857 that the ageing Faraday made the acquaintance of the young James Clerk Maxwell, who had sent him a copy of a paper in which Maxwell made his first attempt to express Faraday's lines of force in rigorous mathematical form. By 1864 Maxwell had refined his model into his monumental field theory, which demonstrated that light was simply a manifestation of the electromagnetic field, something that Faraday had long suspected (he wrote repeatedly of “ray-vibrations”) but had been unable to prove.

The publication of Maxwell's theory marked a great inflection point between the old physics of Faraday and the new, emerging, highly mathematical style of Maxwell and his successors. While discovering the mechanism through experiment was everything to Faraday, correctly describing the behaviour and correctly predicting the outcome of experiments with a set of equations was all that mattered in the new style, which made no effort to explain why the equations worked. As Heinrich Hertz said, “Maxwell's theory is Maxwell's equations” (p. 190). Michael Faraday lived in an era in which a humble-born person with no formal education or knowledge of advanced mathematics could, purely through intelligence, assiduous self-study, clever and tireless experimentation with simple apparatus he made with his own hands, make fundamental discoveries about the universe and rise to the top rank of scientists. Those days are now forever gone, and while we now know vastly more than those of Faraday's time, one also feels we've lost something. Aldous Huxley once remarked, “Even if I could be Shakespeare, I think I should still choose to be Faraday.” This book is an excellent way to appreciate how science felt when it was all new and mysterious, acquaint yourself with one of the most admirable characters in its history, and understand why Huxley felt as he did.

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Gurstelle, William. Backyard Ballistics. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-55652-375-5
Responsible adults who have a compelling need to launch potatoes 200 metres downrange at high velocity, turn common paper matches into solid rockets, fire tennis balls high into the sky with duct taped together potato chip cans (potatoes again!) and a few drops of lighter fluid, launch water balloons against the aggressor with nothing more than surgical tubing and a little muscle power, engender UFO reports with shimmering dry cleaner bag hot air balloons, and more, will find the detailed instructions they need for such diversions in this book. As in his subsequent Whoosh Boom Splat (December 2007), the author provides detailed directions for fabricating these engines of entertainment from, in most cases, PVC pipe, and the scientific background for each device and suggestions for further study by the intrepid investigator who combines the curiosity of the intuitive experimentalist with the native fascination of the third chimpanzee for things that go flash and bang.

If you live in Southern California, I'd counsel putting the Cincinnati Fire Kite and Dry Cleaner Bag Balloon experiments on hold until after the next big rain.

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Podhoretz, Norman. World War IV. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-52221-2.
Whether you agree with it or not, here is one of the clearest expositions of the “neoconservative” (a term the author, who is one of the type specimens, proudly uses to identify himself) case for the present conflict between Western civilisation and the forces of what he identifies as “Islamofascism”, an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology which is entirely distinct from Islam, the religion. The author considers the Cold War to have been World War III, and hence the present and likely as protracted a conflict, as World War IV. He deems it to be as existential a struggle for civilisation against the forces of tyranny as any of the previous three wars.

If you're sceptical of such claims (as am I, being very much an economic determinist who finds it difficult to believe a region of the world whose exports, apart from natural resources discovered and extracted largely by foreigners, are less than those of Finland, can truly threaten the fountainhead of the technologies and products without which its residents would remain in the seventh century utopia they seem to idolise), read Chapter Two for the contrary view: it is argued that since 1970, a series of increasingly provocative attacks were made against the West, not in response to Western actions but due to unreconcilably different world-views. Each indication of weakness by the West only emboldened the aggressors and escalated the scale of subsequent attacks.

The author argues the West is engaged in a multi-decade conflict with its own survival at stake, in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply campaigns. This war, like the Cold War, will be fought on many levels: not just military, but also proxy conflicts, propaganda, covert action, economic warfare, and promotion of the Western model as the solution to the problems of states imperiled by Islamofascism. There is some discussion in the epilogue of the risk posed to Europe by the radicalisation of its own burgeoning Muslim population while its indigenes are in a demographic death spiral, but for the most part the focus is on democratising the Middle East, not the creeping threat to democracy in the West by an unassimilated militant immigrant population which a feckless, cringing political class is unwilling to confront.

This book is well written and argued, but colour me unpersuaded. Instead of spending decades spilling blood and squandering fortune in a region of the world which has been trouble for every empire foolish enough to try to subdue it over the last twenty centuries, why not develop domestic energy sources to render the slimy black stuff in the ground there impotent and obsolete, secure the borders against immigration from there (except those candidates who demonstrate themselves willing to assimilate to the culture of the West), and build a wall around the place and ignore what happens inside? Works for me.

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Gingrich, Newt. Real Change. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59698-053-2.
Conventional wisdom about the political landscape in the United States is that it's split right down the middle (evidenced by the last two extremely close Presidential elections), with partisans of the Left and Right increasingly polarised, unwilling and/or unable to talk to one another, both committed to a “no prisoners” agenda of governance should they gain decisive power. Now, along comes Newt Gingrich who argues persuasively in this book, backed by extensive polling performed on behalf of his American Solutions organisation (results of these polls are freely available to all on the site), that the United States have, in fact, a centre-right majority which agrees on many supposedly controversial issues in excess of 70%, with a vocal hard-left minority using its dominance of the legacy media, academia, and the activist judiciary and trial lawyer cesspits to advance its agenda through non-democratic means.

Say what you want about Newt, but he's one of the brightest intellects to come onto the political stage in any major country in the last few decades. How many politicians can you think of who write what-if alternative history novels? I think Newt is onto something here. Certainly there are genuinely divisive issues upon which the electorate is split down the middle. But on the majority of questions, there is a consensus on the side of common sense which only the legacy media's trying to gin up controversy obscures in a fog of bogus conflict.

In presenting solutions to supposedly intractable problems, the author contrasts “the world that works”: free citizens and free enterprise solving problems for the financial rewards from doing so, with “the world that fails”: bureaucracies seeking to preserve and expand their claim upon the resources of the productive sector of the economy. Government, as it has come to be understood in our foul epoch, exclusively focuses upon the latter. All of this can be seen as consequences of Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which states that in any bureaucratic organisation there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organisation, and those who work for the organisation itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who seek to protect and augment the compensation of all teachers, including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organisation, and will thence write the rules under which the organisation functions, to the detriment of those who are coerced to fund it.

Bureaucracy and bureaucratic government can be extremely efficient and effective, as long as its ends are understood! Gingrich documents how the Detroit school system, for example, delivers taxpayer funds to the administrators, union leaders, and unaccountable teachers who form its political constituency. Educating the kids? Well, that's not on the agenda! The world that fails actually works quite well for those it benefits—the problem is that without the market feedback which obtains in the world that works, the supposed beneficiaries of the system have no voice in obtaining the services they are promised.

This is a book so full of common sense that I'm sure it will be considered “outside the mainstream” in the United States. But those who live there, and residents of other industrialised countries facing comparable challenges as demographics collide with social entitlement programs, should seriously ponder the prescriptions here which, if presented by a political leader willing to engage the population on an intellectual level, might command majorities which remake the political map.

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August 2008

Netz, Reviel and William Noel. The Archimedes Codex. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-306-81580-5.
Sometimes it is easy to forget just how scanty is the material from which we know the origins of Western civilisation. Archimedes was one of the singular intellects of antiquity, with contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering which foreshadowed achievements not surpassed until the Enlightenment. And yet all we know of the work of Archimedes in the original Greek (as opposed to translations into Arabic and Latin, which may have lost information due to translators' lack of comprehension of Archimedes's complex arguments) can be traced to three manuscripts: one which disappeared in 1311, another which vanished in the 1550s, and a third: the Archimedes Palimpsest, which surfaced in Constantinople at the start of the 20th century, and was purchased at an auction for more than USD 2 million by an anonymous buyer who deposited it for conservation and research with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. (Note that none of these manuscripts was the original work of Archimedes: all were copies made by scribes, probably around the tenth century. But despite being copies, their being in the original Greek means they are far more likely to preserve the sense of the original text of Archimedes, even if the scribe did not understand what he was copying.)

History has not been kind to this work of Archimedes. Only two centuries after the copy of his work was made, the parchment on which it was written was scrubbed of its original content and re-written with the text of a Christian prayer book, which to the unaided eye appears to completely obscure the Archimedes text in much of the work. To compound the insult, sometime in the 20th century four full-page religious images in Byzantine style were forged over pages of the book, apparently in an attempt to increase its market value. This, then, was a bogus illustration painted on top of the prayer book text, which was written on top of the precious words of Archimedes. In addition to these depredations of mankind, many pages had been attacked by mold, and an ill-advised attempt to conserve the text, apparently in the 1960s, had gummed up the binding, including the gutter of the page where Archimedes's text was less obscured, with an intractable rubbery glue.

But from what could be read, even in fragments, it was clear that the text, if it could be extracted, would be of great significance. Two works, “The Method” and “Stomachion”, have their only known copies in this text, and the only known Greek text of “On Floating Bodies” appears here as well. Fortunately, the attempt to extract the Archimedes text was made in the age of hyperspectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence, and other nondestructive technologies, not with the crude and often disastrous chemical potions applied to attempt to recover such texts a century before.

This book, with alternating chapters written by the curator of manuscripts at the Walters and a Stanford professor of Classics and Archimedes scholar, tells the story of the origin of the manuscript, how it came to be what it is and where it resides today, and the painstaking efforts at conservation and technological wizardry (including time on the synchrotron light source beamline at SLAC) which allowed teasing the work of Archimedes from the obscuration of centuries.

What has been found so far has elevated the reputation of Archimedes even above the exalted position he already occupied in the pantheon of science. Analysis of “The Method” shows that Archimedes anticipated the use of infinitesimals and hence the calculus in his proof of the volume of curved solids. The “Stomachion”, originally thought to be a puzzle devoid of serious mathematical interest, turns out to be the first and only known venture of Greek mathematics into the realm of combinatorics.

If you're interested in rare books, the origins of mathematical thought, applications of imaging technology to historical documents, and the perilous path the words of the ancients traverse to reach us across the ages, there is much to fascinate in this account. Special thanks to frequent recommender of books Joe Marasco, who not only brought this book to my attention but mailed me a copy! Joe played a role in the discovery of the importance of the “Stomachion”, which is chronicled in the chapter “Archimedes at Play”.

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[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
This is the second volume of the audiobook edition of Thucydides's epic history of what was, for Hellenic civilisation, a generation-long world war, describing which the author essentially invented historical narrative as it has been understood ever since. For general comments about the work, see my notes for Volume I.

Although a work of history (albeit with the invented speeches Thucydides acknowledges as a narrative device), this is as much a Greek tragedy as any of the Athenian plays. The war, which began, like so many, over a peripheral conflict between two regional hegemonies, transformed both Athens and Sparta into “warfare states”, where every summer was occupied in military campaigns, and every winter in planning for the next season's conflict. The Melian dialogue, which appears in Book V of the history, is one of the most chilling exemplars of raw power politics ever expressed—even more than two millennia later, it makes the soul shiver and, considering its consequences, makes one sympathetic to those, then and now, who decry the excesses of direct democracy.

Perhaps the massacre of the Melians offended the gods (although Thucydides would never suggest divine influence in the affairs of men), or maybe it was just a symptom of imperial overreach heading directly for the abyss, but not long afterward Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, which ultimately resulted in a defeat which, on the scale of classical conflict, was on the order of Stalingrad and resulted in the end of democracy in Athens and its ultimate subjugation by Sparta.

Weapons, technologies, and political institutions change, but the humans who invent them are invariant under time translation. There is wisdom in this narrative of a war fought so very long ago which contemporary decision makers on the global stage ignore only at the peril of the lives and fortune entrusted to them by their constituents. If I could put up a shill at the “town hall” meetings of aspiring politicians, I'd like to ask them “Have you read Thucydides?”, and when they predictably said they had, then “Do you approve of the Athenian democracy's judgement as regards the citizens of Melos?”

This recording includes the second four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided. The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 11 hours and 29 minutes with an epilogue describing the events which occurred after the extant text of Thucydides ends in mid-paragraph whilst describing events of 410 B.C., six years before the end of the war. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

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Mailer, Norman. Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: New York Review Books, [1968] 2008. ISBN 978-1-59017-296-4.
In the midst of the societal, political, and cultural chaos which was 1968 in the United States, Harper's magazine sent Norman Mailer to report upon the presidential nominating conventions in August of that year: first the Republicans in Miami Beach and then the Democrats in Chicago. With the prospect, forty years later, of two U.S. political conventions in which protest and street theatre may play a role not seen since 1968 (although probably nowhere near as massive or violent, especially since the political establishments of both parties appear bent upon presenting the appearance of unity), and a watershed election which may change the direction of the United States, New York Review Books have reissued this long out-of-print classic of “new journalism” reportage of the 1968 conventions. As with the comparable, but edgier, account of the 1972 campaign by Hunter S. Thompson, a good deal of this book is not about the events but rather “the reporter”, who identifies himself as such in the narrative.

If you're looking for detailed documentation of what transpired at the conventions, this is not the book to read. Much of Mailer's reporting took place in bars, in the streets, in front of the television, and on two occasions, in custody. This is an impressionistic account of events which leaves you with the feeling of what it was like to be there (at least if you were there and Norman Mailer), not what actually happened. But, God, that man could write! As reportage (the work was completed shortly after the conventions and long before the 1968 election) and not history, there is no sense of perspective, just immersion in the events. If you're old enough to recall them, as I am, you'll probably agree that he got it right, and that this recounting both stands the test of time and summons memories of the passions of that epoch.

On the last page, there are two phrases which have a particular poignancy four decades hence. Mailer, encountering Eugene McCarthy's daughter just before leaving Chicago thinks of telling her “Dear Miss, we will be fighting for forty years.” And then he concludes the book by observing, “We yet may win, the others are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do.” Wise words for the partisans of hope and change in the 2008 campaign!

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Pournelle, Jerry. Exile—and Glory. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-5563-6.
This book collects all of Jerry Pournelle's stories of Hansen Enterprises and other mega-engineering projects, which were originally published in Analog, Galaxy, and Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1972 and 1977. The stories were previously published in two books: High Justice and Exiles to Glory, which are now out of print—if you have those books, don't buy this one unless you want to upgrade to hardcover or can't resist the delightfully space-operatic cover art by Jennie Faries.

The stories take place in a somewhat dystopian future in which the “malaise” of the 1970s never ended. Governments worldwide are doing what governments do best: tax the productive, squander the revenue and patrimony of their subjects, and obstruct innovation and progress. Giant international corporations have undertaken the tasks needed to bring prosperity to a world teeming with people in a way which will not wreck the Earth's environment. But as these enterprises implement their ambitious projects on the sea floor, in orbit, and in the asteroid belt, the one great invariant, human nature, manifests itself and they find themselves confronted with the challenges which caused human societies to institute government in the first place. How should justice be carried out on the technological frontier? And, more to the point, how can it be achieved without unleashing the malign genie of coercive government? These stories are thoughtful explorations of these questions without ever ceasing to be entertaining yarns with believable characters. And you have to love what happens to the pesky lawyer on pp. 304–305!

I don't know if these stories have been revised between the time they were published in the '70s and this edition; there is no indication that they have either in this book or on Jerry Pournelle's Web site. If not, then the author was amazingly prescient about a number of subsequent events which few would have imagined probable thirty years ago. It's a little disheartening to think that one of the reasons these stories have had such a long shelf life is that none of the great projects we expected to be right around the corner in the Seventies have come to pass. As predicted here, governments have not only failed to undertake the challenges but been an active impediment to those trying to solve them, but also the business culture has become so risk-averse and oriented toward the short term that there appears to be no way to raise the capital needed to, for example, deploy solar power satellites, even though such capital is modest compared to that consumed in military adventures in Mesopotamia.

The best science fiction makes you think. The very best science fiction makes you think all over again when you re-read it three decades afterward. This is the very best, and just plain fun as well.

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Bernstein, Peter L. Against the Gods. New York: John Wiley & Sons, [1996] 1998. ISBN 978-0-471-29563-1.
I do not use the work “masterpiece” lightly, but this is what we have here. What distinguishes the modern epoch from all of the centuries during which humans identical to us trod this Earth? The author, a distinguished and erudite analyst and participant in the securities markets over his long career, argues that one essential invention of the modern era, enabling the vast expansion of economic activity and production of wealth in Western civilisation, is the ability to comprehend, quantify, and ultimately mitigate risk, either by commingling independent risks (as does insurance), or by laying risk off from those who would otherwise bear it onto speculators willing to assume it in the interest of financial gains (for example, futures, options, and other financial derivatives). If, as in the classical world, everyone bears the entire risk of any undertaking, then all market players will be risk-averse for fear of ruin. But if risk can be shared, then the society as a whole will be willing to run more risks, and it is risks voluntarily assumed which ultimately lead (after the inevitable losses) to net gain for all.

So curious and counterintuitive are the notions associated with risk that understanding them took centuries. The ancients, who made such progress in geometry and other difficult fields of mathematics, were, while avid players of games of chance, inclined to attribute the outcome to the will of the Gods. It was not until the Enlightenment that thinkers such as Pascal, Cardano, the many Bernoullis, and others worked out the laws of probability, bringing the inherent randomness of games of chance into a framework which predicted the outcome, not of any given event—that was unknowable in principle, but the result of a large number of plays with arbitrary precision as the number of trials increased. Next was the understanding of the importance of uncertainty in decision making. It's one thing not to know whether a coin will come up heads or tails. It's entirely another to invest in a stock and realise that however accurate your estimation of the probabilistic unknowns affecting its future (for example, the cost of raw materials), it's the “unknown unknowns” (say, overnight bankruptcy due to a rogue trader in an office half way around the world) that can really sink your investment. Finally, classical economics always assumed that participants in the market behave rationally, but they don't. Anybody who thinks their fellow humans are rational need only visit a casino or watch them purchasing lottery tickets; they are sure in the long term to lose, and yet they still line up to make the sucker bet.

Somehow, I'd gotten it into my head that this was a “history of insurance”, and as a result this book sat on my shelf quite some time before I read it. It is much, much more than that. If you have any interest at all in investing, risk management in business ventures, or in the history of probability, statistics, game theory, and investigations of human behaviour in decision making, this is an essential book. Chapter 18 is one of the clearest expositions for its length that I've read of financial derivatives and both the benefits they have for prudent investors as well as the risks they pose to the global financial system. The writing is delightful, and sources are well documented in end notes and an extensive bibliography.

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Hodges, Michael. AK47: The Story of the People's Gun. London: Sceptre, 2007. ISBN 978-0-340-92106-7.
The AK-47 (the author uses “AK47” in this book, except for a few places in the last chapter; I will use the more common hyphenated designation here) has become an iconic symbol of rebellion in the six decades since Mikhail Kalashnikov designed this simple (just 8 moving parts), rugged, inexpensive to manufacture, and reliable assault rifle. Iconic? Yes, indeed—for example the flag and coat of arms of Mozambique feature this weapon which played such a large and tragic rôle in its recent history. Wherever violence erupts around the world, you'll probably see young men brandishing AK-47s or one of its derivatives. The AK-47 has become a global brand as powerful as Coca-Cola, but symbolising insurgency and rebellion, and this book is an attempt to recount how that came to be.

Toward that end it is a total, abject, and utter failure. In a total of 225 pages, only about 35 are devoted to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the history of the weapon he invented, its subsequent diffusion and manufacture around the world, and its derivatives. Instead, what we have is a collection of war stories from Vietnam, Palestine, the Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and New Orleans (!), all told from a relentlessly left-wing, anti-American, and anti-Israel perspective, in which the AK-47 figures only peripherally. The author, as a hard leftist, believes, inter alia, in the bizarre notion that an inanimate object made of metal and wood can compel human beings to behave in irrational and ultimately self-destructive ways. You think I exaggerate? Well, here's an extended quote from p. 131.

The AK47 moved from being a tool of the conflict to the cause of the conflict, and by the mid-1990s it had become the progenitor of indiscriminate terror across huge swaths of the continent. How could it be otherwise? AKs were everywhere, and their ubiquity made stability a rare commodity as even the smallest groups could bring to bear a military pressure out of proportion to their actual size.
That's right—the existence of weapons compels human beings, who would presumably otherwise live together in harmony, to murder one another and rend their societies into chaotic, blood-soaked Hell-holes. Yup, and why do the birds always nest in the white areas? The concept that one should look at the absence of civil society as the progenitor of violence never enters the picture here. It is the evil weapon which is at fault, not the failed doctrines to which the author clings, which have wrought such suffering across the globe. Homo sapiens is a violent species, and our history has been one of constant battles. Notwithstanding the horrific bloodletting of the twentieth century, on a per-capita basis, death from violent conflict has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era, notwithstanding the advent of of weapons such as General Kalashnikov's. When bad ideas turn murderous, machetes will do.

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

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September 2008

Kurlansky, Mark. Cod. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-14-027501-8.
There is nothing particularly glamourous about a codfish. It swims near the bottom of the ocean in cold continental shelf waters with its mouth open, swallowing whatever comes along, including smaller cod. While its white flesh is prized, the cod provides little sport for the angler: once hooked, it simply goes limp and must be hauled from the bottom to the boat. And its rather odd profusion of fins and blotchy colour lacks the elegance of marlin or swordfish or the menace of a shark. But the cod has, since the middle ages, played a part not only in the human diet but also in human history, being linked to the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic, the Basque nautical tradition, long-distance voyages in the age of exploration, commercial transatlantic commerce, the Caribbean slave trade, the U.S. war of independence, the expansion of territorial waters from three to twelve and now 200 miles, conservation and the emerging international governance of the law of the sea, and more.

This delightful piece of reportage brings all of this together, from the biology and ecology of the cod, to the history of its exploitation by fishermen over the centuries, the commerce in cod and the conflicts it engendered, the cultural significance of cod in various societies and the myriad ways they have found to use it, and the shameful overfishing which has depleted what was once thought to be an inexhaustible resource (and should give pause to any environmentalist who believes government regulation is the answer to stewardship). But cod wouldn't have made so much history if people didn't eat them, and the narrative is accompanied by dozens of recipes from around the world and across the centuries (one dates from 1393), including many for parts of the fish other than its esteemed white flesh. Our ancestors could afford to let nothing go to waste, and their cleverness in turning what many today would consider offal into delicacies still cherished by various cultures is admirable. Since codfish has traditionally been sold salted and dried (in which form it keeps almost indefinitely, even in tropical climates, if kept dry, and is almost 80% protein by weight—a key enabler of long ocean voyages before the advent of refrigeration), you'll also want to read the author's work on Salt (February 2005).

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[Audiobook] Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Hong Kong: Naxos Audiobooks, [1915] 2003. ISBN 978-9-62634-286-2.
If you're haunted by that recurring nightmare about waking up as a giant insect, this is not the book to read. Me, I have other dreams (although, more recently, mostly about loading out from trade shows and Hackers' conferences that never end—where could those have come from?), so I decided to plunge right into this story. It's really a novella, not a novel—about a hundred pages in a mass-market paperback print edition, but one you won't soon forget. The genius of Kafka is his ability to relate extraordinary events in the most prosaic, deadpan terms. He's not just an omniscient narrator; he is an utterly dispassionate recorder of events, treating banal, bizarre, and impassioned scenes like a camcorder—just what happened. Perhaps Kafka's day job, filling out industrial accident reports for an insurance company, helped to instill the “view from above” so characteristic of his work.

This works extraordinarily well for this dark, dark story. I guess it's safe to say that the genre of people waking up as giant insects and the consequences of that happening was both created and mined out by Kafka in this tale. There are many lessons one can draw from the events described here, some of which do not reflect well upon our species, and others which show that sometimes, even in happy families, what appears to be the most disastrous adversity may actually, even in the face of tragedy, be ultimately liberating. I could write four or five prickly paragraphs about the lessons here for self-reliance, but that's not why you come here. Read the story and draw your own conclusions. I'm amazed that younger sister Grete never agonised over whether she'd inherited the same gene as Gregor. Wouldn't you? And when she stretches her young body in the last line, don't you wonder?

Kafka is notoriously difficult to translate. He uses the structure of the German language to assemble long sentences with a startling surprise in the last few words when you encounter the verb. This is difficult to render into English and other languages which use a subject-verb-object construction in most sentences. Kafka also exploits ambiguities in German which are not translatable to other languages. My German is not (remotely) adequate to read, no less appreciate, Kafka in the original, so translation will have to do for me. Still, even without the nuances in the original, this is a compelling narrative. The story is read by British actor Martin Jarvis, who adopts an ironic tone which is perfect for Kafka's understated prose. Musical transitions separate the chapters.

The audible.com audiobook edition is sold as a single download of 2 hours and 11 minutes, 31 megabytes at MP3 quality. An Audio CD edition is available. A variety of print editions are available, as well as this free online edition, which seems to be closer than the original German than that used in this audiobook although, perhaps inevitably, more clumsy in English.

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Crichton, Michael. Timeline. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0345-46826-0.
Sometimes books, even those I'm sure I'll love, end up sitting on my bookshelf for a long time before I get to them. This novel, originally published in 1999, not only sat on my bookshelf for almost a decade, it went to Africa and back in 2001 before I finally opened it last week and predictably devoured it in a few days.

Crichton is a master storyteller, and this may be the best of the many of his books I've read. I frequently remark that Crichton's work often reads like a novelisation of a screenplay, where you can almost see the storyboards for each chapter as you read it, and that's certainly the case here. This story just begs to be made into a great movie. Regrettably, it was subsequently made into an awful one. So skip the movie and enjoy the book, which is superb.

There's a price of admission, which is accepting some high octane quantum flapdoodle which enables an eccentric billionaire (where would stories like this be without eccentric billionaires?) to secretly develop a time machine which can send people back to historical events, all toward the end of creating perfectly authentic theme parks on historical sites researched through time travel and reconstructed as tourist attractions. (I'm not sure that's the business plan I would come up with if I had a time machine, but it's the premise it takes to make the story work.)

But something goes wrong, and somebody finds himself trapped in 14th century France, and an intrepid band of historians must go back into that world to rescue their team leader. This sets the stage for adventures in the middle ages, based on the recent historical view that the period was not a Dark Age but rather a time of intellectual, technological, and cultural ferment. The story is both an adventurous romp and a story of personal growth which makes one ask the question, “In which epoch would I prosper best?”.

Aside from the necessary suspension of disbelief and speculation about life in the 14th century (about which there remain many uncertainties), there are a few goofs. For example, in the chapter titled “26:12:01” (you'll understand the significance when you read the book), one character discovers that once dark-adapted he can see well by starlight. “Probably because there was no air pollution, he thought. He remembered reading that in earlier centuries, people could see the planet Venus during the day as we can now see the moon. Of course, that had been impossible for hundreds of years.” Nonsense—at times near maximum elongation, anybody who has a reasonably clear sky and knows where to look can spot Venus in broad daylight. I've seen it on several occasions, including from the driveway of my house in Switzerland and 20 kilometres from downtown San Francisco. But none of these detract from the fact that this is a terrific tale which will keep you turning the pages until the very satisfying end.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The explanation for how the transmitted people are reassembled at the destination in the next to last chapter of the “Black Rock” section (these chapters have neither titles nor numbers) seems to me to miss a more clever approach which would not affect the story in any way (as the explanation never figures in subsequent events). Instead of invoking other histories in the multiverse which are able to reconstitute the time travellers (which raises all kinds of questions about identity and continuity of consciousness), why not simply argue that unitarity is preserved only across the multiverse as a whole, and that when the quantum state of the transmitted object is destroyed in this universe, it is necessarily reassembled intact in the destination universe, because failure to do so would violate unitarity and destroy the deterministic evolution of the wave function?

This is consistent with arguments for what happens to quantum states which fall into a black hole or wormhole (on the assumption that the interior is another universe in the multiverse), and also fits nicely with the David Deutsch's view of the multiverse and my own ideas toward a general theory of paranormal phenomena.

Spoilers end here.  

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Veronico, Nicholas A. Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, [2001] 2002. ISBN 978-1-58007-047-8.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, launched in November 1945, with its first flight in July 1947 and entry into airline revenue service with Pan Am in April 1949, embodied the vision of luxurious postwar air travel based on the technological advances made in aviation during the war. (Indeed, the 377 inherited much from the Boeing B-29 and was a commercial derivative of the XC-97 prototype cargo aircraft.) The Stratocruiser, along with its contemporaries, the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-7, represented the apogee of piston powered airliner design. This was an era in which air travel was a luxury indulged in by the elite, and passengers were provided amenities difficult to imagine in our demotic days of flying cattle cars. There was a luxury compartment seating up to eight people with private sleeping berths and (in some configurations) a private bathroom. First class passengers could sleep in seats that reclined into beds more than six feet long, or in upper berths which folded out at nighttime. Economy passengers were accommodated in reclining “sleeperette” seats with sixty inches seat pitch (about twice that of present day economy class). Men and women had their own separate dressing rooms and toilets, and a galley allowed serving multi-course meals on china with silverware as well as buffet snacks. Downstairs on the cargo deck was a lounge seating as many as 14 with a full bar and card tables. One of the reasons for all of these creature comforts was that at a typical cruising speed of 300–340 miles per hour passengers on long haul flights had plenty of time to appreciate them: eleven hours on a flight from Seattle to Honolulu, for example.

Even in the 1950s “flying was the safest way to fly”, but nonetheless taking to the air was much more of an adventure than it is today, hence all those flight insurance vending machines in airports of the epoch. Of a total of 56 Boeing 377s built, no fewer than 10 were lost in accidents, costing a total of 135 crew and passenger lives. Three ditched at sea, including Pan Am 943, which went down in mid-Pacific with all onboard rescued by a Coast Guard weather ship with only a few minor injuries. In addition to crashes, on two separate occasions the main cabin door sprang open in flight, in each case causing one person to be sucked out to their death.

The advent of jet transports brought the luxury piston airliner era to an abrupt end. Stratocruiser airframes, sold to airlines in the 1940s for around US$1.3 million each, were offered in a late 1960 advert in Aviation Week, “14 aircraft from $75,000.00, flyaway”—how the mighty had fallen. Still, the book was not yet closed on the 377. One former Pan Am plane was modified into the Pregnant Guppy airlifter, used to transport NASA's S-IV and S-IVB upper stages for the Saturn I, IB, and V rockets from the manufacturer in California to the launch site in Florida. Later other 377 and surplus C-97 airframes were used to assemble Super Guppy cargo planes, one of which remains in service with NASA.

This book provides an excellent look into a long-gone era of civil aviation at the threshold of the jet age. More than 150 illustrations, including eight pages in colour, complement the text, which is well written with only a few typographical and factual errors. An appendix provides pictures of all but one 377 (which crashed into San Francisco Bay on a routine training flight in 1950, less than a month after being delivered to the airline), with a complete operational history of each.

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Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics. 2nd. ed. New York: Basic Books, [2004] 2007. ISBN 978-0-465-08145-5.
Want to know what's my idea of a financial paradise? A democratic country where the electorate understands the material so lucidly explained in this superb book. Heck, I'd settle for a country where even a majority of the politicians grasped these matters. In fewer than four hundred pages, without a single graph or equation, the author explains the essentials of economics, which he defines as “the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses”. While economics is a large and complex field with many different points of view, he argues that there are basic economic principles upon which virtually all economists agree, across the spectrum from libertarians to Marxists, that these fundamentals apply to all forms of economic and social organisation—feudalism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, communism, whatever—and in all times: millennia of human history provide abundant evidence for the functioning of these basic laws in every society humans have ever created.

But despite these laws being straightforward (if perhaps somewhat counterintuitive until you learn to “think like an economist”), the sad fact is that few citizens and probably even a smaller fraction of politicians comprehend them. In their ignorance, they confuse intentions and goals (however worthy) with incentives and their consequences, and the outcomes of their actions, however predictable, only serve to illustrate the cost when economic principles are ignored. As the author concludes on the last page:

Perhaps the most important distinction is between what sounds good and what works. The former may be sufficient for purposes of politics or moral preening, but not for the economic advancement of people in general or the poor in particular. For those willing to stop and think, basic economics provides some tools for evaluating policies and proposals in terms of their logical implications and empirical consequences.

And this is precisely what the intelligent citizen needs to know in these times of financial peril. I know of no better source to acquire such knowledge than this book.

I should note that due to the regrettably long bookshelf latency at Fourmilab, I read the second edition of this work after the third edition became available. Usually I wouldn't bother to mention such a detail, but while the second edition I read was 438 pages in length, the third is a 640 page ker-whump on the desktop. Now, my experience in reading the works of Thomas Sowell over the decades is that he doesn't waste words and that every paragraph encapsulates wisdom that's worth taking away, even if you need to read it four or five times over a few days to let it sink in. But still, I'm wary of books which grow to such an extent between editions. I read the second edition, and my unconditional endorsement of it as something you absolutely have to read as soon as possible is based upon the text I read. In all probability the third edition is even better—Dr. Sowell understands the importance of reputation in a market economy better than almost anybody, but I can neither evaluate nor endorse something I haven't yet read. That said, I'm confident that regardless of which edition of this book you read, you will close it as a much wiser citizen of a civil society and participant in a free economy than when you opened the volume.

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October 2008

Corsi, Jerome L. The Obama Nation. New York: Threshold Editions, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-9806-0.
The author of this book was co-author, with John O'Neill, of the 2004 book about John Kerry, Unfit for Command (October 2004), which resulted in the introduction of the verb “to swiftboat” into the English language. In this outing, the topic is Barack Obama, whose enigmatic origin, slim paper trail, and dubious associates are explored here. Unlike the earlier book, where his co-author had first-hand experience with John Kerry, this book is based almost entirely on secondary sources, well documented in end notes, with many from legacy media outlets, in particular investigative reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

The author concludes that behind Obama's centrist and post-partisan presentation is a thoroughly radical agenda, with long-term associations with figures on the extreme left-wing fringe of American society. He paints an Obama administration, especially if empowered by a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a House majority, as likely to steer American society toward a European-like social democratic agenda in the greatest veer to the left since the New Deal.

Is this, in fact, likely? Well, there are many worrisome, well-sourced, items here, but then one wonders about the attention to detail of an author who believes that Germany is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (p. 262). Lapses like this and a strong partisan tone undermine the persuasiveness of the case made here. I hear that David Freddoso's The Case Against Barack Obama is a better put argument, grounded in Obama's roots in Chicago machine politics rather than ideology, but I haven't read that book and I probably won't as the election will surely have gone down before I'd get to it.

If you have no idea where Obama came from or what he believes, there are interesting items here to follow up, but I wouldn't take the picture presented here as valid without independently verifying the source citations and making my own judgement as to their veracity.

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Bean, Alan and Andrew Chaikin. Apollo. Shelton, CT: The Greenwich Workshop, 1998. ISBN 978-0-86713-050-8.
On November 19th, 1969, Alan Bean became the fourth man to walk on the Moon, joining Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad on the surface of Oceanus Procellarum. He was the first person to land on the Moon on his very first space flight. He later commanded the Skylab 3 mission in 1973, spending more than 59 days in orbit.

Astronauts have had a wide variety of second careers after retiring from NASA: executives, professors, politicians, and many others. Among the Apollo astronauts, only Alan Bean set out, after leaving NASA in 1981, to become a professional artist, an endeavour at which he has succeeded, both artistically and commercially. This large format coffee table book collects many of his paintings completed before its publication in 1998, with descriptions by the artist of the subject material of each and, in many cases, what he was trying to achieve artistically. The companion text by space writer Andrew Chaikin (A Man on the Moon) provides an overview of Bean's career and the Apollo program.

Bean's art combines scrupulous attention to technical detail (for example, the precise appearance of items reflected in the curved visor of spacesuit helmets) with impressionistic brushwork and use of colour, intended to convey how the lunar scenes felt, as opposed to the drab, near monochrome appearance of the actual surface. This works for some people, while others find it grating—I like it very much. Visit the Alan Bean Gallery and make up your own mind.

This book is out of print, but used copies are available. (While mint editions can be pricey, non-collector copies for readers just interested in the content are generally available at modest cost).

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Phillips, Kevin. Bad Money. New York: Viking, 2008. ISBN 978-0-670-01907-6.
I was less than impressed by the author's last book, American Theocracy (March 2007), so I was a little hesitant about picking up this volume—but I'm glad I did. This is, for its length, the best resource for understanding the present financial mess I've read. While it doesn't explain everything, and necessarily skips over much of the detail, it correctly focuses on the unprecedented explosion of debt in recent decades; the dominance of finance (making money by shuffling money around) over manufacturing (making stuff) in the United States; the emergence of a parallel, unregulated, fantasy-land banking system based on arcane financial derivatives; politicians bent on promoting home ownership whatever the risk to the financial system; and feckless regulators and central bankers who abdicated their responsibility and became “serial bubblers” instead. The interwoven fate of the dollar and petroleum prices, the near-term impact of a global peak in oil production and the need to rein in carbon emissions, and their potential consequences for an already deteriorating economic situation are discussed in detail. You will also learn why government economic statistics (inflation rate, money supply, etc.) should be treated with great scepticism.

The thing about financial bubbles, and why such events are perennial in human societies, is that everybody wins—as long as the bubble continues to inflate and more suckers jump on board. Asset owners see their wealth soar, speculators make a fortune, those producing the assets enjoy ever-increasing demand, lenders earn more and more financing the purchase of appreciating assets, brokers earn greater and greater fees, and government tax revenues from everybody in the loop continue to rise—until the bubble pops. Then everybody loses, as reality reasserts itself. That's what we're beginning to see occur in today's financial markets: a grand-scale deleveraging of which events as of this writing (mid-October 2008) are just the opening act (or maybe the overture).

The author sketches possible scenarios for how the future may play out. On the whole, he's a bit more optimistic than I (despite the last chapter's being titled “The Global Crisis of American Capitalism”), but then that isn't difficult. The speculations about the future seem plausible to me, but I can imagine things developing in far different ways than those envisioned here, many of which would seem far-fetched today. There are a few errors (for example, Vladimir Putin never “headed the KGB” [p. 192]: in fact he retired from the KGB in 1991 after returning from having served as an agent in Dresden), but none seriously affects the arguments presented.

I continue to believe the author overstates the influence of the evangelical right in U.S. politics, and understates the culpability of politicians of both parties in creating the moral hazard which has now turned into the present peril. But these quibbles do not detract from this excellent primer on how the present crisis came to be, and what the future may hold.

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Darling, Kev. De Havilland Comet. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58007-036-2.
If the Boeing 377 was the epitome and eventual sunset of the piston powered airliner, the De Havilland Comet was the dawn, or perhaps the false dawn, of the jet age. As World War II was winding down, the British Government convened a commission to explore how the advances in aviation during the war could be translated into commercial aircraft in the postwar era, and how the British aviation industry could transition from military production to a leadership position in postwar aviation. Among the projects proposed, the most daring was the “Type 4”, which eventually became the De Havilland Comet. Powered by British-invented turbojet engines, it would be a swept-wing, four engine aircraft with a cruising speed in excess of 500 miles per hour and a stage length of 1500 miles. Despite these daunting technological leaps, the British aviation industry rose to the challenge, and in July 1949, the prototype De Havilland Comet took to the air. After extensive testing, the Comet entered revenue service in May 1952, the first commercial jet-powered passenger service. Surely the jet age was dawning, and Britannia would rule it.

And then disaster struck. First, three aircraft were lost due to the Comet's tetchy handling qualities and cockpit crews' unfamiliarity with the need to maintain speed in takeoff and landing with swept-wing aircraft. Another Comet was lost with all on board flying into a tropical storm in India. Analysis of the wreckage indicated that metal fatigue cracks at the corners of the square windows may have contributed to the structural failures, but this was not considered the definitive cause of the crash and Comets were permitted to continue to fly. Next, a Comet departed Rome and disintegrated in mid-air above the island of Elba, killing all on board. BOAC (the operator of the Comet in question) grounded their fleet voluntarily pending an investigation, but then reinstated flights 10 weeks later, as no probable cause had been determined for the earlier crashes. Just three days later, another BOAC aircraft, also departing Rome, disintegrated in the air near Naples, with no survivors. The British Civil Aviation Authority withdrew the Permit to Fly for the Comet, grounding all of the aircraft in operation.

Assiduous investigation determined that the flaw in the Comet had nothing to do with its breakthrough jet propulsion, or the performance it permitted, but rather structural failure due to metal fatigue, which started at the aerial covers at the top of the fuselage, then disastrously propagated to cracks originating at the square corners of the windows in the passenger cabin. Reinforcement of the weak points of the fuselage and replacement of the square windows with oval ones completely solved this problem, but only after precious time had been lost and, with it, the Comet's chance to define the jet age.

The subsequent Comets were a great success. The Comet 2 served with distinction with the Royal Air Force in a variety of capacities, and the Comet 4 became the flagship of numerous airlines around the globe. On October 4th, 1958, a Comet 4 inaugurated transatlantic jet passenger service, but just 22 days before the entry into service of the Boeing 707. The 707, with much greater passenger capacity (I remember the first time I saw one—I drew in my breath and said “It's so big”—the 747 actually had less impact on me than the 707 compared to earlier prop airliners) rapidly supplanted the Comet on high traffic city pairs.

But the Comet lived on. In the aftermarket, it was the jet fleet leader of numerous airlines, and the flagship of British airtour operator Dan-Air. The Comet 4 was the basis for the Nimrod marine patrol aircraft, which has served with the Royal Air Force since 1971 and remains in service today. With lifetime extensions, it is entirely possible that Nimrod aircraft will remain on patrol a century after its progenitor, the Comet, first took to the air.

This thorough, well-written, and lavishly illustrated (8 pages in colour) book provides comprehensive coverage of the Comet and Nimrod programmes, from concept through development, test, entry into service, tragedy, recovery, and eventual success (short-lived for the Comet 4, continuing for its Nimrod offspring).

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Klavan, Andrew. Empire of Lies. New York: Harcourt, 2008. ISBN 978-0-15-101223-7.
One perfect October Saturday afternoon, Jason Harrow, successful businessman, happily married father of three, committed Christian whose religion informs his moral sense, is sharing a lazy day with his family when the phone rings and sets into a motion an inexorable sequence of events which forces him to confront his dark past, when he was none of those things. Drawn from his prosperous life in the Midwest to the seamy world of Manhattan, he finds himself enmeshed in an almost hallucinatory web of evil and deceit which makes him doubt his own perception of reality, fearing that the dementia which consumed his mother is beginning to manifest itself in him, and that his moral sense is nothing but a veneer over the dark passions of his past.

This is a thriller that thrills. Although the story is unusual for these days in having a Christian protagonist who is not a caricature, this is no Left Behind hymn-singing tract; in fact, the language and situations are quite rough and unsuitable for the less than mature. The author, two of whose earlier books have been adapted into the films True Crime and Don't Say a Word, has a great deal of fun at the expense of the legacy media, political correctness, and obese, dissipated, staccato-speaking actors who—once portrayed—dashing—spacefarers. If you fall into any of those categories, you may be intensely irritated by this book, but otherwise you'll probably, like me, devour it in a few sittings. I just finished it this perfect October Saturday afternoon, and it's one of the most satisfying thrillers I've read in years.

A spoiler-free podcast interview with the author is available.

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West, Diana. The Death of the Grown-Up. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-312-34049-0.
In The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), Robert Epstein argued that the concept of adolescence as a distinct phase of life is a recently-invented social construct which replaced the traditional process of childhood passing into an apprenticeship to adulthood around the time of puberty. In this book, acid-penned author Diana West, while not discussing Epstein's contentions, suggests that the impact of adolescence upon the culture is even greater and more pernicious, and that starting with the Boomer generation, the very goal of maturing into an adult has been replaced by a “forever young” narcissism which elevates the behaviour of adolescence into the desideratum of people who previously would have been expected to put such childish things behind them and assume the responsibilities of adults.

What do you get when you have a society full of superannuated adolescents? An adolescent culture, of course, addicted to instant gratification (see the debt crisis), lack of respect for traditional virtues and moderation, a preference for ignoring difficult problems in favour of trivial distractions, and for euphemisms instead of unpleasant reality. Such a society spends so much time looking inward that it forgets who it is or where it has come from, and becomes as easily manipulated as an adolescent at the hands of a quick-talking confidence man. And there are, as always, no shortage of such predators ready to exploit it.

This situation, the author argues, crossing the line from cultural criticism into red meat territory, becomes an existential threat when faced with what she calls “The Real Culture War”: the challenge to the West from Islam (not “Islamists”, “Islamofascists”, “Islamic terrorists”, “militant fundamentalists” or the like, but Islam—the religion, in which she contends the institutions of violent jihad and dhimmitude for subjected populations which do not convert have been established from its early days). Islam, she says. is a culture which, whatever its shortcomings, does know what it is, exhorts its adherents to propagate it, and has no difficulty proclaiming its superiority over all others or working toward a goal of global domination. Now this isn't of course, the first time the West has faced such a threat: in just the last century the equally aggressive and murderous ideologies of fascism and communism were defeated, but they were defeated by an adult society, not a bunch of multicultural indoctrinated, reflexively cringing, ignorant or disdainful of their own culture, clueless about history, parents and grandparents whose own process of maturation stopped somewhere in their teens.

This is a polemic, and sometimes reads like a newspaper op-ed piece which has to punch its message through in limited space as opposed to the more measured development of an argument appropriate to the long form. I also think the author really misses a crucial connection in not citing the work of Epstein and others on the damage wrought by the concept of adolescence itself—when you segregate young adults by age and cut them off from the contact with adults which traditionally taught them what adulthood meant and how and why they should aspire to it, is it any surprise that you end up with a culture filled with people who have never figured out how to behave as adults?

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November 2008

Buckley, Christopher. Supreme Courtship. New York: Twelve, 2008. ISBN 978-0-446-57982-7.
You know you're about to be treated to the highest level of political farce by a master of the genre when you open a book which begins with the sentence:
Supreme Court Associate Justice J. Mortimer Brinnin's deteriorating mental condition had been the subject of talk for some months now, but when he showed up for oral argument with his ears wrapped in aluminum foil, the consensus was that the time had finally come for him to retire.
The departure of Mr. Justice Brinnin created a vacancy which embattled President Donald Vanderdamp attempted to fill with two distinguished jurists boasting meagre paper trails, both of whom were humiliatingly annihilated in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, loquacious loose cannon and serial presidential candidate Dexter Mitchell, coveted the seat for himself.

After rejection of his latest nominee, the frustrated president was channel surfing at Camp David when he came across the wildly popular television show Courtroom Six featuring television (and former Los Angeles Superior Court) judge Pepper Cartwright dispensing down-home justice with her signature Texas twang and dialect. Let detested Senator Mitchell take on that kind of popularity, thought the Chief Executive, chortling at the prospect, and before long Judge Pepper is rolled out as the next nominee, and prepares for the confirmation fight.

I kind of expected this story to be about how an authentic straight-talking human being confronts the “Borking” judicial nominees routinely receive in today's Senate, but it's much more and goes way beyond that, which I shall refrain from discussing to avoid spoilers. I found the latter half of the book less satisfying that the first—it seemed like once on the court Pepper lost some of her spice, but I suppose that's realistic (yet who expects realism in farces?). Still, this is a funny book, with hundreds of laugh out loud well-turned phrases and Buckley's customary delightfully named characters. The fractured Latin and snarky footnotes are an extra treat. This is not a roman à clef, but you will recognise a number of Washington figures upon which various characters were modelled.

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Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals. 3rd. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1990, 1991, 1998] 2008. ISBN 978-1-56663-796-1.
If you want to understand what's happening in the United States today, and how the so-called millennial generation (May 2008) came to be what it is, there's no better place to start than this book, originally published eighteen years ago, which has just been released in a new paperback edition with an introduction and postscript totalling 65 pages which update the situation as of 2008. The main text has been revised as well, and a number of footnotes added to update matters which have changed since earlier editions.

Kimball's thesis is that, already by 1990, and far more and broadly diffused today, the humanities departments (English, Comparative Literature, Modern Languages, Philosophy, etc.) of prestigious (and now almost all) institutions of higher learning have been thoroughly radicalised by politically-oriented academics who have jettisoned the traditional canon of literature, art, and learning and rejected the traditional mission of a liberal arts education in favour of indoctrinating students in a nominally “multicultural” but actually anti-Western ideology which denies the existence of objective truth and the meaning of text, and inculcates the Marxist view that all works can be evaluated only in terms of their political context and consequences. These pernicious ideas, which have been discredited by their disastrous consequences in the last century and laughed out of public discourse everywhere else, have managed to achieve an effective hegemony in the American academy, with tenured radicals making hiring and tenure decisions based upon adherence to their ideology as opposed to merit in disinterested intellectual inquiry.

Now, putting aside this being disastrous to a society which, like all societies, is never more than one generation away from losing its culture, and catastrophic to a country which now has a second generation of voters entering the electorate who are ignorant of the cultural heritage they inherited and the history of the nation whose leadership they are about to assume, this spectacle can also be quite funny if observed with special goggles which only transmit black humour. For the whole intellectual tommyrot of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” has become so trendy that intellectuals in other fields one would expect to be more immune to such twaddle are getting into the act, including the law (“Critical Legal Studies”) and—astoundingly—architecture. An entire chapter is devoted to “Deconstructivist Architecture”, which by its very name seems to indicate you wouldn't want to spend much time in buildings “deconstructed” by its proponents. And yet, it has a bevy of earnest advocates, including Peter Eisenman, one of the most distinguished of U.S. architects, who advised those wishing to move beyond the sterility of modernism to seek

a theory of the center, that is, a theory which occupies the center. I believe that only when such a theory of the center is articulated will architecture be able to transform itself as it always has and as it always will…. But the center that I am talking about is not a center that can be the center that we know is in the past, as a nostalgia for center. Rather, this not new but other center will be … an interstitial one—but one with no structure, but one also that embraces as periphery in its own centric position. … A center no longer sustained by nostalgia and no longer sustained by univocal discourse. (p. 187)
Got that? I'd hate to be a client explaining to him that I want the main door to be centred between these two windows.

But seriously, apart from the zaniness, intellectual vapidity and sophistry, and obscurantist prose (all of which are on abundant display here), what we're seeing what Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called the “long march through the institutions” arriving at the Marxist promised land: institutions of higher education funded with taxpayer money and onerous tuition payments paid by hard-working parents and towering student loans disgorging class after class of historically and culturally ignorant, indoctrinated, and easily influenced individuals into the electorate, just waiting for a charismatic leader who knows how to eloquently enunciate the trigger words they've been waiting for.

In the 2008 postscript the author notes that a common reaction to the original 1990 edition of the book was the claim that he had cherry-picked for mockery a few of the inevitably bizarre extremes you're sure to find in a vibrant and diverse academic community. But with all the news in subsequent years of speech codes, jackboot enforcing of “diversity”, and the lockstep conformity of much of academia, this argument is less plausible today. Indeed, much of the history of the last two decades has been the diffusion of new deconstructive and multicultural orthodoxy from elite institutions into the mainstream and its creeping into the secondary school curriculum as well. What happens in academia matters, especially in a country in which an unprecedented percentage of the population passes through what style themselves as institutions of higher learning. The consequences of this should be begin to be manifest in the United States over the next few years.

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Anderson, Brian C. and Adam D. Thierer. A Manifesto for Media Freedom. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-228-8.
In the last decade, the explosive growth of the Internet has allowed a proliferation of sources of information and opinion unprecedented in the human experience. As humanity's first ever many-to-many mass medium, the Internet has essentially eliminated the barriers to entry for anybody who wishes to address an audience of any size in any medium whatsoever. What does it cost to start your own worldwide television or talk radio show? Nothing—and the more print-inclined can join the more than a hundred million blogs competing for the global audience's attention. In the United States, the decade prior to the great mass-market pile-on to the Internet saw an impressive (by pre-Internet standards) broadening of radio and television offerings as cable and satellite distribution removed the constraints of over-the-air bandwidth and limited transmission range, and abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine” freed broadcasters to air political and religious programming of every kind.

Fervent believers in free speech found these developments exhilarating and, if they had any regrets, they were only that it didn't happen more quickly or go as far as it might. One of the most instructive lessons of this epoch has been that prominent among the malcontents of the new media age have been politicians who mouth their allegiance to free speech while trying to muzzle it, and legacy media outlets who wrap themselves in the First Amendment while trying to construe it as a privilege reserved for themselves, not a right to which the general populace is endowed as individuals.

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, while technologists, entrepreneurs, and new media innovators strive to level the mass communication playing field, it's the politicians who make the laws and write the regulations under which everybody plays, and the legacy media which support politicians inclined to tilt the balance back in their favour, reversing (or at least slowing) the death spiral in their audience and revenue figures. This thin volume (just 128 pages: even the authors describe it as a “brief polemic”) sketches the four principal threats they see to the democratisation of speech we have enjoyed so far and hope to see broadened in unimagined ways in the future. Three have suitably Orwellian names: the “Fairness Doctrine” (content-based censorship of broadcast media), “Network Neutrality” (allowing the FCC's camel nose into the tent of the Internet, with who knows what consequences as Fox Charlie sweeps Internet traffic into the regulatory regime it used to stifle innovation in broadcasting for half a century), and “Campaign Finance Reform” (government regulation of political speech, often implemented in such a way as to protect incumbents from challengers and shut out insurgent political movements from access to the electorate). The fourth threat to new media is what the authors call “neophobia”: fear of the new. To the neophobe, the very fact of a medium's being innovative is presumptive proof that it is dangerous and should be subjected to regulation from which pre-existing media are exempt. Just look at the political entrepreneurs salivating over regulating video games, social networking sites, and even enforcing “balance” in blogs and Web news sources to see how powerful a force this is. And we have a venerable precedent in broadcasting being subjected, almost from its inception unto the present, to regulation unthinkable for print media.

The actual manifesto presented here occupies all of a page and a half, and can be summarised as “Don't touch! It's working fine and will evolve naturally to get better and better.” As I agree with that 100%, my quibbles with the book are entirely minor items of presentation and emphasis. The chapter on network neutrality doesn't completely close the sale, in my estimation, on how something as innocent-sounding as “no packet left behind” can open the door to intrusive content regulation of the Internet and the end of privacy, but then it's hard to explain concisely: when I tried five years ago, more than 25,000 words spilt onto the page. Also, perhaps because the authors' focus is on political speech, I think they've underestimated the extent to which, in regulation of the Internet, ginned up fear of what I call the unholy trinity: terrorists, drug dealers, and money launderers, can be exploited by politicians to put in place content regulation which they can then turn to their own partisan advantage.

This is a timely book, especially for readers in the U.S., as the incoming government seems more inclined to these kinds of regulations than that it supplants. (I am on record as of July 10th, 2008, as predicting that an Obama administration would re-impose the “fairness doctrine”, enact “network neutrality”, and [an issue not given the attention I think it merits in this book] adopt “hate speech” legislation, all with the effect of stifling [mostly due to precautionary prior restraint] free speech in all new media.) For a work of advocacy, this book is way too expensive given its length: it would reach far more of the people who need to be apprised of these threats to their freedom of expression and to access to information were it available as an inexpensive paperback pamphlet or on-line download.

A podcast interview with one of the authors is available.

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Macintyre, Ben. Agent Zigzag. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-35341-2.
I'm not sure I'd agree with the cover blurb by the Boston Globe reviewer who deemed this “The best book ever written”, but it's a heck of a great read and will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Imagine the best wartime espionage novel you've ever read, stir in exploits from a criminal caper yarn, leaven with an assortment of delightfully eccentric characters, and then make the whole thing totally factual, exhaustively documented from archives declassified decades later by MI5, and you have this compelling story.

The protagonist, Eddie Chapman was, over his long and convoluted career, a British soldier; deserter; safecracker; elite criminal; prisoner of His Majesty, the government of the Isle of Jersey, and the Nazi occupation in Paris; volunteer spy and saboteur for the German Abwehr; parachute spy in Britain; double agent for MI5; instructor at a school for German spies in Norway; spy once again in Britain, deceiving the Germans about V-1 impact locations; participant in fixed dog track races; serial womaniser married to the same woman for fifty years; and for a while an “honorary crime correspondent” to the Sunday Telegraph. That's a lot to fit into even a life as long as Chapman's, and a decade after his death, those who remember him still aren't sure where his ultimate allegiance lay or even if the concept applied to him. If you simply look at him as an utterly amoral person who managed to always come up standing, even after intensive interrogations by MI5, the Abwehr, Gestapo, and SS, you miss his engaging charm, whether genuine or feigned, which engendered deeply-felt and long-lasting affection among his associates, both British and Nazi, criminal and police, all of whom describe him as a unique character.

Information on Chapman's exploits has been leaking out ever since he started publishing autobiographical information in 1953. Dodging the Official Secrets Act, in 1966 he published a more detailed account of his adventures, which was made into a very bad movie starring Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman. Since much of this information came from Chapman, it's not surprising that a substantial part of it was bogus. It is only with the release of the MI5 records, and through interviews with surviving participants in Chapman's exploits that the author was able to piece together an account which, while leaving many questions of motivation uncertain, at least pins down the facts and chronology.

This is a thoroughly delightful story of a totally ambiguous character: awarded the Iron Cross for his services to the Nazi Reich, having mistresses simultaneously supported in Britain and Norway by MI5 and the Abwehr, covertly pardoned for his high-profile criminal record for his service to the Crown, and unreconstructed rogue in his long life after the war. If published as spy fiction, this would be considered implausible in the extreme; the fact that it really happened makes this one of the most remarkable wartime stories I've read and an encounter with a character few novelists could invent.

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Miller, Ron and Fredrick C. Durant III. The Art of Chesley Bonestell. London: Paper Tiger, 2001. ISBN 978-1-85585-884-8.
If you're interested in astronomy and space, you're almost certainly familiar with the space art of Chesley Bonestell, who essentially created the genre of realistic depictions of extraterrestrial scenes. But did you know that Bonestell also:

  • Was a licensed architect in the State of California, who contributed to the design of a number of buildings erected in Northern California in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake?
  • Chose the site for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (of which the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts remains today)?
  • Laid out the Seventeen Mile Drive in Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula?
  • Did detailed design of the ornamentation of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, and illustrated pamphlets explaining the engineering of the bridge?
  • Worked for years in Hollywood doing matte paintings for films including Citizen Kane?
  • Not only did the matte paintings, but designed the buildings of Howard Roark for the film version of The Fountainhead?
  • Painted the Spanish missions of California as they would have appeared in their heyday?

Although Bonestell always considered himself an illustrator, not an artist, and for much of his career took no particular care to preserve the originals of his work, here was a polymath with a paintbrush who brought genius as well as precision to every subject he rendered. He was, like his collaborator on Destination Moon, Robert A. Heinlein (the two admired each other's talents, but Bonestell thought Heinlein somewhat of a nut in his political views; their relationship got off to a rocky start when Bonestell visited Heinlein's self-designed dream house and pronounced his architectural judgement that it looked like a gas station), a businessman first—he would take the job that paid best and quickest, and produced a large volume of commercial art to order, all with the attention to detail of his more artistically ambitious creations.

While Bonestell was modest about his artistic pretensions, he had no shortage of self-esteem: in 1974 he painted a proposed redesign of the facade of St. Peter's Basilica better in keeping with his interpretation of Michelangelo's original intent and arranged to have it sent to the Pope who responded, in essence, “Thanks, but no thanks”.

This resplendent large-format coffee table book tells the story of Bonestell's long and extraordinarily creative career in both text and hundreds of full-colour illustrations of his work. To open this book to almost any page is to see worlds unknown at the time, rendered through the eye of an artist whose mind transported him there and sparked the dream of exploration in the generations which expanded the human presence and quest to explore beyond the home planet.

This book is out of print and used copies command a frightful premium; I bought this book when it was for sale at the cover price and didn't get around to reading all the text for seven years, hence its tardy appearance here.

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Kauffman, Bill. Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-933859-73-6.
It is a cliché to observe that history is written by the victors, but rarely is it as evident as in the case of the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution, where the proponents of a strong national government, some of whom, including Alexander Hamilton, wished to “annihilate the State distinctions and State operations” (p. 30), not only conducted the proceedings in secret, carefully managed the flow of information to the public, and concealed their nationalist, nay imperial, ambitions from the state conventions which were to vote on ratification. Indeed, just like modern-day collectivists in the U.S. who have purloined the word “liberal”, which used to mean a champion of individual freedom, the covert centralisers at the Constitutional Convention styled themselves “Federalists”, while promoting a supreme government which was anything but federal in nature. The genuine champions of a federal structure allowed themselves to be dubbed “Anti-Federalists” and, as always, were slandered as opposing “progress” (but toward what?). The Anti-Federalists counted among their ranks men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Samuel Chase, and Elbridge Gerry: these were not reactionary bumpkins but heroes, patriots, and intellectuals the equal of any of their opponents. And then there was Luther Martin, fervent Anti-Federalist and perhaps the least celebrated of the Founding Fathers.

Martin's long life was a study in contradictions. He was considered one of the most brilliant trial lawyers of his time, and yet his courtroom demeanour was universally described as long-winded, rambling, uncouth, and ungrammatical. He often appeared in court obviously inebriated, was slovenly in appearance and dress, when excited would flick spittle from his mouth, and let's not get into his table manners. At the Consitutional Convention he was a fierce opponent of the Virginia Plan which became the basis of the Constitution and, with Samuel Adams and Mason, urged the adoption of a Bill of Rights. He argued vehemently for the inclusion of an immediate ban on the importation of slaves and a plan to phase out slavery while, as of 1790, owning six slaves himself yet serving as Honorary-Counselor to a Maryland abolitionist society.

After the Constitution was adopted by the convention (Martin had walked out by the time and did not sign the document), he led the fight against its ratification by Maryland. Maryland ratified the Constitution over his opposition, but he did manage to make the ratification conditional upon the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

Martin was a man with larger than life passions. Although philosophically close to Thomas Jefferson in his view of government, he detested the man because he believed Jefferson had slandered one of his wife's ancestors as a murderer of Indians. When Jefferson became President, Martin the Anti-Federalist became Martin the ardent Federalist, bent on causing Jefferson as much anguish as possible. When a law student studying with him eloped with and married his daughter, Martin turned incandescent, wrote, and self-published a 163 page full-tilt tirade against the bounder titled Modern Gratitude.

Lest Martin come across as a kind of buffoon, bear in mind that after his singular performance at the Constitutional Convention, he went on to serve as Attorney General of the State of Maryland for thirty years (a tenure never equalled in all the years which followed), argued forty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and appeared for the defence in two of the epochal trials of early U.S. jurisprudence: the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase before the U.S. Senate, and the treason trial of Aaron Burr—and won acquittals on both occasions.

The author is an unabashed libertarian, and considers Martin's diagnosis of how the Constitution would inevitably lead to the concentration of power in a Federal City (which his fellow Anti-Federalist George Clinton foresaw, “would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious, and ambitious” [p. xiii]) to the detriment of individual liberty as prescient. One wishes that Martin had been listened to, while sympathising with those who actually had to endure his speeches.

The author writes with an exuberantly vast vocabulary which probably would have sent the late William F. Buckley to the dictionary on several occasions: every few pages you come across a word like “roorback”, “eftsoons”, “sennight”, or “fleer”. For a complete list of those which stumped me, open the vault of the spoilers.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Here are the delightfully obscure words used in this book. To avoid typographic fussiness, I have not quoted them. Each is linked to its definition. Vocabulary ho!

malison, exordium, eristic, roorback, tertium quid, bibulosity, eftsoons, vendue, froward, pococurante, disprized, toper, cerecloth, sennight, valetudinarian, variorum, concinnity, plashing, ultimo, fleer, recusants, scrim, flagitious, indurated, truckling, linguacious, caducity, prepotency, natheless, dissentient, placemen, lenity, burke, plangency, roundelay, hymeneally, mesalliance, divagation, parti pris, anent, comminatory, descry, minatory
Spoilers end here.  

This is a wonderful little book which, if your view of the U.S. Constitution has been solely based on the propaganda of those who promulgated it, is an excellent and enjoyable antidote.

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December 2008

Sheckley, Robert. The People Trap and Mindswap. New York: Ace Books, [1952–1966, 1968] 1981. ISBN 978-0-441-65874-9.
This “Ace Double” (albeit not in the classic dos-à-dos format, but simply concatenated) contains a collection of mostly unrelated short stories by Robert Sheckley, and the short novel Mindswap, which is an extraordinarily zany story even by the standards of the year in which it was written, 1966, which was a pretty zany year—perhaps Sheckley foresaw just how weird the next few years would get.

I bought this book because it contained a story I've remembered ever since I first read it four decades ago (and, even then, a decade after it was first published in Galaxy in 1953), “The Laxian Key”. In a century and a half of science fiction, this is the only exemplar of which I'm aware of a story based upon economics which is also riotously funny. I won't give away the plot, but just imagine the ultimate implications of “it's free!”.

These stories are gems from the era in which science fiction was truly the “literature of ideas”—it's the ideas that matter; don't look for character development or introspection: the characters are props for the idea that underlies each story. If you like this kind of thing, which I do enormously, here is a master at work at the apogee of the genre, when you could pick up any one of the science fiction magazines and find several stories that made you look at the world through glasses which presented reality in a very different light.

This book is long out of print, but used copies are readily available, often for less than the 1981 reprint cover price.

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Rawles, James Wesley. Patriots. Philadelphia: Clearwater Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4257-3407-7.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein

In this compelling novel, which is essentially a fictionalised survival manual, the author tracks a small group of people who have banded together to ride out total societal collapse in the United States, prepared themselves, and are eventually forced by circumstances to do all of these things and more. I do not have high expectations for self-published works by first-time authors, but I started to read this book whilst scanning documents for one of my other projects and found it so compelling that the excellent book I was currently reading (a review of which will appear here shortly) was set aside as I scarfed up this book in a few days.

Our modern, technological civilisation has very much a “just in time” structure: interrupt electrical power and water supplies and sewage treatment fail in short order. Disrupt the fuel supply (in any number of ways), and provision of food to urban centres fails in less than a week, with food riots and looting the most likely outcome. As we head into what appears to be an economic spot of bother, it's worth considering just how bad it may get, and how well you and yours are prepared to ride out the turbulence. This book, which one hopes profoundly exaggerates the severity of what is to come, is an excellent way to inventory your own preparations and skills for a possible worst case scenario. For a sense of the author's perspective, and for a wealth of background information only alluded to in passing in the book, visit the author's SurvivalBlog.com site.

Sploosh, splash, inky squirt! Ahhhh…, it's Apostrophe Squid trying to get my attention. What is it about self-published authors who manifest encyclopedic knowledge across domains as diverse as nutrition, military tactics, medicine, economics, agriculture, weapons and ballistics, communications security, automobile and aviation mechanics, and many more difficult to master fields, yet who stumble over the humble apostrophe like their combat bootlaces were tied together? Our present author can tell you how to modify a common amateur radio transceiver to communicate on the unmonitored fringes of the Citizens' Band and how to make your own improvised Claymore mines, but can't seem to form the possessive of a standard plural English noun, and hence writes “Citizen's Band” and the equivalent in all instances. (Just how useful would a “Citizen's Band” radio be, with only one citizen transmitting and receiving on it?)

Despite the punctuational abuse and the rather awkward commingling of a fictional survival scenario with a catalogue of preparedness advice and sources of things you'll need when the supply chain breaks, I found this a compulsive page-turner. It will certainly make you recalibrate your ability to ride out that bad day when you go to check the news and find there's no Internet, and think again about just how much food you should store in the basement and (more importantly), how skilled you are in preparing what you cached many years ago, not to mention what you'll do when that supply is exhausted.

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Drury, Allen. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre. New York: Avon, 1973. ISBN 978-0-380-00126-2.
This novel is one of the two alternative conclusions the author wrote for the series which began with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent. As the series progressed, Drury became increasingly over the top (some would say around the bend) in skewering the media, academia, and the Washington liberal establishment of the 1960s and 1970 with wickedly ironic satire apt to make the skulls of contemporary bien pensants explode.

The story is set in a time in which the U.S. is involved in two protracted and broadly unpopular foreign wars, one seemingly winding down, the other an ongoing quagmire, both launched by a deeply despised president derided by the media and opposition as a warmonger. Due to a set of unexpected twists and turns in an electoral campaign like no other, a peace candidate emerges as the nominee of his party—a candidate with no foreign policy experience but supreme self-confidence, committed to engaging America's adversaries directly in one-on-one diplomacy, certain the outstanding conflicts can be thus resolved and, with multilateral good will, world peace finally achieved. This eloquent, charismatic, almost messianic candidate mobilises the support of a new generation, previously disengaged from politics, who not only throw their youthful vigour behind his campaign but enter the political arena themselves and support candidates aligned with the presidential standard bearer. Around the world, the candidate is praised as heralding a new era in America. The media enlist themselves on his side in an unprecedented manner, passing, not just on editorial pages but in supposedly objective news coverage, from artful bias to open partisanship. Worrisome connections between the candidate and radicals unwilling to renounce past violent acts, anti-American demagogues, and groups which resort to thuggish tactics against opponents and critics do not figure in the media's adulatory coverage of their chosen one. The media find themselves easily intimidated by even veiled threats of violence, and quietly self-censor criticism of those who oppose liberty for fear of “offending.” The candidate, inspiring the nation with hope for peace and change for the better, wins a decisive victory, sweeping in strong majorities in both the House and Senate, including many liberal freshmen aligned with the president-elect and owing their seats to the coattails of his victory. Bear in mind that this novel was published in 1973!

This is the story of what happens after the candidate of peace, change, and hope takes office, gives a stunningly eloquent, visionary, and bold inaugural address, and basks in worldwide adulation while everything goes swimmingly—for about twelve hours. Afterward, well, things don't, and a cataclysmic set of events are set into motion which threaten to change the U.S. in ways other than were hoped by those who elected the new man.

Now, this book was published three and a half decades ago, and much has changed in the intervening time, which doubtless explains why all of the books in the series are now long out of print. But considering the précis above, and how prophetic many of its elements were of the present situation in the U.S., maybe there's some wisdom here relevant to the changes underway there. Certainly one hopes that used booksellers aren't getting a lot of orders for this volume from buyers in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. I had not read this book since its initial publication (when, despite almost universal disdain from the liberal media, it sold almost 200,000 copies in hardcover), and found in re-reading it that the story, while obviously outdated in some regards (the enemy of yore, the Soviet Bear, is no more, but who knows where Russia's headed?), especially as regards the now-legacy media, stands up better than I remembered it from the first reading. The embrace of media content regulation by a “liberal” administration is especially chilling at a time when talk of re-imposing the “Fairness Doctrine” and enforcing “network neutrality” is afoot in Washington.

All editions of this book are out of print, but used copies of the mass-market paperback are presently available for little more than the shipping cost. Get yours before the bad guys clean out the shelves!

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Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man. New York: Harper Perennial, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-093642-6.
The conventional narrative of the Great Depression and New Deal is well-defined, and generations have been taught the story of how financial hysteria and lack of regulation led to the stock market crash of October 1929, which tipped the world economy into depression. The do-nothing policies of Herbert Hoover and his Republican majority in Congress allowed the situation to deteriorate until thousands of banks had failed, unemployment rose to around a quarter of the work force, collapsing commodity prices bankrupted millions of farmers, and world trade and credit markets froze, exporting the Depression from the U.S. to developed countries around the world. Upon taking office in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt embarked on an aggressive program of government intervention in the economy, going off the gold standard, devaluing the dollar, increasing government spending and tax rates on corporations and the wealthy by breathtaking amounts, imposing comprehensive regulation on every aspect of the economy, promoting trade unions, and launching public works and job creation programs on a massive scale. Although neither financial markets nor unemployment recovered to pre-crash levels, and full recovery did not occur until war production created demand for all industry could produce, at least FDR's New Deal kept things from getting much worse, kept millions from privation and starvation, and just possibly, by interfering with the free market in ways never before imagined in America, preserved it, and democracy, from the kind of revolutionary upheaval seen in the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and Germany. The New Deal pitted plutocrats, big business, and Wall Street speculators against the “forgotten man”—the people who farmed their land, toiled in the factories, and strove to pay their bills and support their families and, for once, allied with the Federal Government, the little guys won.

This is a story of which almost any student having completed an introductory course in American history can recount the key points. It is a tidy story, an inspiring one, and both a justification for an activist government and demonstration that such intervention can work, even in the most dire of economic situations. But is it accurate? In this masterful book, based largely on primary and often contemporary sources, the author makes a forceful argument that is is not—she does not dispute the historical events, most of which did indeed occur as described above, but rather the causal narrative which has been erected, largely after the fact, to explain them. Looking at what actually happened and when, the tidily wrapped up package begins to unravel and discordant pieces fall out.

For example, consider the crash of 1929. Prior to the crash, unemployment was around three percent (the Federal Government did not compile unemployment figures at the time, and available sources differ in methodology and hence in the precise figures). Following the crash, unemployment began to rise steeply and had reached around 9% by the end of 1929. But then the economy began to recover and unemployment fell. President Hoover was anything but passive: the Great Engineer launched a flurry of initiatives, almost all disastrously misguided. He signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff (over the objection of an open letter signed by 1,028 economists and published in the New York Times). He raised taxes and, diagnosing the ills of the economy as due to inflation, encouraged the Federal Reserve to contract the money supply. To counter falling wages, he jawboned industry leaders to maintain wage levels which predictably resulted in layoffs instead of reduced wages. It was only after these measures took hold that the economy, which before seemed to be headed into a 1921-like recession, nosed over and began to collapse toward the depths of the Depression.

There was a great deal of continuity between the Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations. Roosevelt did not rescind Hoover's disastrous policies, but rather piled on intrusive regulation of agriculture and industry, vastly increased Federal spending (he almost doubled the Federal budget in his first term), increased taxes to levels before unimaginable in peacetime, and directly attacked private enterprise in sectors such as electrical power generation and distribution, which he felt should be government enterprises. Investment, the author contends, is the engine of economic recovery, and Roosevelt's policies resulted in a “capital strike” (a phrase used at the time), as investors weighed their options and decided to sit on their money. Look at this way: suppose you're a plutocrat and have millions at your disposal. You can invest them in a business, knowing that if the business fails you're out your investment, but that if it generates a profit the government will tax away more than 75% of your gains. Or, you can put your money in risk- and tax-free government bonds and be guaranteed a return. Which would you choose?

The story of the Great Depression is told largely by following a group of individuals through the era. Many of the bizarre aspects of the time appear here: Father Divine; businesses and towns printing their own scrip currency; the Schechter Brothers kosher poultry butchers taking on FDR's NRA and utterly defeating it in the Supreme Court; the prosecution of Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary to three Presidents, for availing himself of tax deductions the government admitted were legal; and utopian “planned communities” such as Casa Grande in Arizona, where displaced farmers found themselves little more than tenants in a government operation resembling Stalin's collective farms.

From the tone of some of the reaction to the original publication of this book, you might think it a hard-line polemic longing to return to the golden days of the Coolidge administration. It is nothing of the sort. This is a fact-based re-examination of the Great Depression and the New Deal which, better than any other book I've read, re-creates the sense of those living through it, when nobody really understood what was happening and people acting with the best of intentions (and the author imputes nothing else to either Hoover or Roosevelt) could not see what the consequences of their actions would be. In fact, Roosevelt changed course so many times that it is difficult to discern a unifying philosophy from his actions—sadly, this very pragmatism created an uncertainty in the economy which quite likely lengthened and deepened the Depression. This paperback edition contains an afterword in which the author responds to the principal criticisms of the original work.

It is hard to imagine a more timely book. Since this book was published, the U.S. have experienced a debt crisis, real estate bubble collapse, sharp stock market correction, rapidly rising unemployment and economic contraction, with an activist Republican administration taking all kinds of unprecedented actions to try to avert calamity. A Democratic administration, radiating confidence in itself and the power of government to make things better, is poised to take office, having promised programs in its electoral campaign which are in many ways reminiscent of those enacted in FDR's “hundred days”. Apart from the relevance of the story to contemporary events, this book is a pure delight to read.

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