2009  

January 2009

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan. New York: Random House, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4000-6351-2.
If you are interested in financial markets, investing, the philosophy of science, modelling of socioeconomic systems, theories of history and historicism, or the rôle of randomness and contingency in the unfolding of events, this is a must-read book. The author largely avoids mathematics (except in the end notes) and makes his case in quirky and often acerbic prose (there's something about the French that really gets his goat) which works effectively.

The essential message of the book, explained by example in a wide variety of contexts is (and I'll be rather more mathematical here in the interest of concision) is that while many (but certainly not all) natural phenomena can be well modelled by a Gaussian (“bell curve”) distribution, phenomena in human society (for example, the distribution of wealth, population of cities, book sales by authors, casualties in wars, performance of stocks, profitability of companies, frequency of words in language, etc.) are best described by scale-invariant power law distributions. While Gaussian processes converge rapidly upon a mean and standard deviation and rare outliers have little impact upon these measures, in a power law distribution the outliers dominate.

Consider this example. Suppose you wish to determine the mean height of adult males in the United States. If you go out and pick 1000 men at random and measure their height, then compute the average, absent sampling bias (for example, picking them from among college basketball players), you'll obtain a figure which is very close to that you'd get if you included the entire male population of the country. If you replaced one of your sample of 1000 with the tallest man in the country, or with the shortest, his inclusion would have a negligible effect upon the average, as the difference from the mean of the other 999 would be divided by 1000 when computing the average. Now repeat the experiment, but try instead to compute mean net worth. Once again, pick 1000 men at random, compute the net worth of each, and average the numbers. Then, replace one of the 1000 by Bill Gates. Suddenly Bill Gates's net worth dwarfs that of the other 999 (unless one of them randomly happened to be Warren Buffett, say)—the one single outlier dominates the result of the entire sample.

Power laws are everywhere in the human experience (heck, I even found one in AOL search queries), and yet so-called “social scientists” (Thomas Sowell once observed that almost any word is devalued by preceding it with “social”) blithely assume that the Gaussian distribution can be used to model the variability of the things they measure, and that extrapolations from past experience are predictive of the future. The entry of many people trained in physics and mathematics into the field of financial analysis has swelled the ranks of those who naïvely assume human action behaves like inanimate physical systems.

The problem with a power law is that as long as you haven't yet seen the very rare yet stupendously significant outlier, it looks pretty much like a Gaussian, and so your model based upon that (false) assumption works pretty well—until it doesn't. The author calls these unimagined and unmodelled rare events “Black Swans”—you can see a hundred, a thousand, a million white swans and consider each as confirmation of your model that “all swans are white”, but it only takes a single black swan to falsify your model, regardless of how much data you've amassed and how long it has correctly predicted things before it utterly failed.

Moving from ornithology to finance, one of the most common causes of financial calamities in the last few decades has been the appearance of Black Swans, wrecking finely crafted systems built on the assumption of Gaussian behaviour and extrapolation from the past. Much of the current calamity in hedge funds and financial derivatives comes directly from strategies for “making pennies by risking dollars” which never took into account the possibility of the outlier which would wipe out the capital at risk (not to mention that of the lenders to these highly leveraged players who thought they'd quantified and thus tamed the dire risks they were taking).

The Black Swan need not be a destructive bird: for those who truly understand it, it can point the way to investment success. The original business concept of Autodesk was a bet on a Black Swan: I didn't have any confidence in our ability to predict which product would be a success in the early PC market, but I was pretty sure that if we fielded five products or so, one of them would be a hit on which we could concentrate after the market told us which was the winner. A venture capital fund does the same thing: because the upside of a success can be vastly larger than what you lose on a dud, you can win, and win big, while writing off 90% of all of the ventures you back. Investors can fashion a similar strategy using options and option-equivalent investments (for example, resource stocks with a high cost of production), diversifying a small part of their portfolio across a number of extremely high risk investments with unbounded upside while keeping the bulk in instruments (for example sovereign debt) as immune as possible to Black Swans.

There is much more to this book than the matters upon which I have chosen to expound here. What you need to do is lay your hands on this book, read it cover to cover, think it over for a while, then read it again—it is so well written and entertaining that this will be a joy, not a chore. I find it beyond charming that this book was published by Random House.

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Hendrickx, Bart and Bert Vis. Energiya-Buran. Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2007. ISBN 978-0-387-69848-9.
This authoritative history chronicles one of the most bizarre episodes of the Cold War. When the U.S. Space Shuttle program was launched in 1972, the Soviets, unlike the majority of journalists and space advocates in the West who were bamboozled by NASA's propaganda, couldn't make any sense of the economic justification for the program. They worked the numbers, and they just didn't work—the flight rates, cost per mission, and most of the other numbers were obviously not achievable. So, did the Soviets chuckle at this latest folly of the capitalist, imperialist aggressors and continue on their own time-proven path of mass-produced low-technology expendable boosters? Well, of course not! They figured that even if their wisest double-domed analysts were unable to discern the justification for the massive expenditures NASA had budgeted for the Shuttle, there must be some covert military reason for its existence to which they hadn't yet twigged, and hence they couldn't tolerate a shuttle gap and consequently had to build their own, however pointless it looked on the surface.

And that's precisely what they did, as this book so thoroughly documents, with a detailed history, hundreds of pictures, and technical information which has only recently become available. Reasonable people can argue about the extent to which the Soviet shuttle was a copy of the American (and since the U.S. program started years before and placed much of its design data into the public domain, any wise designer would be foolish not to profit by using it), but what is not disputed is that (unlike the U.S. Shuttle) Energiya was a general purpose heavy-lift launcher which had the orbiter Buran as only one of its possible payloads and was one of the most magnificent engineering projects of the space programs of any nation, involving massive research and development, manufacturing, testing, integrated mission simulation, crew training, and flight testing programs.

Indeed, Energiya-Buran was in many ways a better-conceived program for space access than the U.S. Shuttle program: it integrated a heavy payload cargo launcher with the shuttle program, never envisioned replacing less costly expendable boosters with the shuttle, and forecast a development program which would encompass full reusability of boosters and core stages and both unmanned cargo and manned crew changeout missions to Soviet space stations.

The program came to a simultaneously triumphant and tragic end: the Energiya booster and the Energiya-Buran shuttle system performed flawless missions (the first Energiya launch failed to put its payload into orbit, but this was due to a software error in the payload: the launcher performed nominally from ignition through payload separation).

In the one and only flight of Buran (launch and landing video, other launch views) the orbiter was placed into its intended orbit and landed on the cosmodrome runway at precisely the expected time.

And then, in the best tradition not only of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union but of the British Labour Party of the 1970s, this singular success was rewarded by cancellation of the entire program. As an engineer, I have almost unlimited admiration for my ex-Soviet and Russian colleagues who did such masterful work and who will doubtless advance technology in the future to the benefit of us all. We should celebrate the achievement of those who created this magnificent space transportation system, while encouraging those inspired by it to open the high frontier to all of those who exulted in its success.

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Sinclair, Upton. Dragon's Teeth. Vol. 2. Safety Harbor, FL: Simon Publications, [1942] 2001. ISBN 978-1-931313-15-5.
This is the second half of the third volume in Upton Sinclair's grand-scale historical novel covering the years from 1913 through 1949. Please see my notes on the first half for details on the series and this novel. The second half, comprising books four through six of the original novel (this is a print on demand facsimile edition, in which each of the original novels is split into two parts due to constraints of the publisher), covers the years 1933 and 1934, as Hitler tightens his grip on Germany and persecution of the Jews begins in earnest.

The playboy hero Lanny Budd finds himself in Germany trying to arrange the escape of Jewish relatives from the grasp of the Nazi tyranny, meets Goebbels, Göring, and eventually Hitler, and discovers the depth of the corruption and depravity of the Nazi regime, and then comes to experience it directly when he becomes caught up in the Night of the Long Knives.

This book was published in January 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor. It is remarkable to read a book written in a time when the U.S. and Nazi Germany were at peace and the swastika flag flew from the German embassy in Washington which got the essence of the Nazis so absolutely correct (especially the corruption of the regime, which was overlooked by so many until Albert Speer's books decades later). This is very much a period piece, and enjoyable in giving a sense of how people saw the events of the 1930s not long after they happened. I'm not, however, inclined to slog on through the other novels in the saga—one suffices for me.

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Butterfield, Jeremy. Damp Squid. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-923906-1.
Dictionaries attempt to capture how language (or at least the words of which it is composed) is used, or in some cases should be used according to the compiler of the dictionary, and in rare examples, such as the monumental Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to trace the origin and history of the use of words over time. But dictionaries are no better than the source material upon which they are based, and even the OED, with its millions of quotations contributed by thousands of volunteer readers, can only sample a small fraction of the written language. Further, there is much more to language than the definitions of words: syntax, grammar, regional dialects and usage, changes due to the style of writing (formal, informal, scholarly, etc.), associations of words with one another, differences between spoken and written language, and evolution of all of these matters and more over time. Before the advent of computers and, more recently, the access to large volumes of machine-readable text afforded by the Internet, research into these aspects of linguistics was difficult, extraordinarily tedious, and its accuracy suspect due to the small sample sizes necessarily used in studies.

Computer linguistics sets out to study how a language is actually used by collecting a large quantity of text (called a corpus), tagged with identifying information useful for the intended studies, and permitting measurement of the statistics of the content of the text. The first computerised corpus was created in 1961, containing the then-staggering number of one million words. (Note that since a corpus contains extracts of text, the word count refers to the total number of words, not the number of unique words—as we'll see shortly, a small number of words accounts for a large fraction of the text.) The preeminent research corpus today is the Oxford English Corpus which, in 2006, surpassed two billion words and is presently growing at the rate of 350 million words a year—ain't the Web grand, or what?

This book, which is a pure delight, compelling page turner, and must-have for all fanatic “wordies”, is a light-hearted look at the state of the English language today: not what it should be, but what it is. Traditionalists and fussy prescriptivists (among whom I count myself) will be dismayed at the battles already lost: “miniscule” and “straight-laced” already outnumber “minuscule” and “strait-laced”, and many other barbarisms and clueless coinages are coming on strong. Less depressing and more fascinating are the empirical research on word frequency (Zipf's Law is much in evidence here, although it is never cited by name)—the ten most frequent words make up 25% of the corpus, and the top one hundred account for fully half of the text—word origins, mutation of words and terms, association of words with one another, idiomatic phrases, and the way context dictates the choice of words which most English speakers would find almost impossible to distinguish by definition alone. This amateur astronomer finds it heartening to discover that the most common noun modified by the adjective “naked” is “eye” (1398 times in the corpus; “body” is second at 1144 occurrences). If you've ever been baffled by the origin of the idiom “It's raining cats and dogs” in English, just imagine how puzzled the Welsh must be by “Bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn” (“It's raining old women and sticks”).

The title? It's an example of an “eggcorn” (p. 58–59): a common word or phrase which mutates into a similar sounding one as speakers who can't puzzle out its original, now obscure, meaning try to make sense of it. Now that the safetyland culture has made most people unfamiliar with explosives, “damp squib” becomes “damp squid” (although, if you're a squid, it's not being damp that's a problem). Other eggcorns marching their way through the language are “baited breath”, “preying mantis”, and “slight of hand”.

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Smith, L. Neil, Rex F. May, Scott Bieser, and Jen Zach. Roswell, Texas. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-9743814-5-9.
I have previously mentioned this story and even posted a puzzle based upon it. This was based upon the online edition, which remains available for free. For me, reading anything, including a comic book (sorry—“graphic novel”), online a few pages a week doesn't count as reading worthy of inclusion in this list, so I deferred listing it until I had time to enjoy the trade paperback edition, which has been sitting on my shelf for several months after its June 2008 release.

This rollicking, occasionally zany, alternative universe story is set in the libertarian Federated States of Texas, where, as in our own timeline, something distinctly odd happens on July 4th, 1947 on a ranch outside the town of Roswell. As rumours spread around the world, teams from the Federated States, the United States, the California Republic, the Franco-Mexican Empire, Nazi Britain, and others set out to discover the truth and exploit the information for their own benefit. Involved in the scheming and race to the goal are this universe's incarnations of Malcolm Little, Meir Kahane, Marion Morrison, Eliot Ness, T. E. Lawrence, Walt Disney, Irène Joliot-Curie, Karol Wojtyla, Gene Roddenberry, and Audie Murphy, among many others. We also encounter a most curious character from an out of the way place L. Neil Smith fans will recall fondly.

The graphic format works very well with the artfully-constructed story. Be sure to scan each panel for little details—there are many, and easily missed if you focus only on the text. The only disappointment in this otherwise near-perfect entertainment is that readers of the online edition will be dismayed to discover that all of the beautiful colour applied by Jen Zach has been flattened out (albeit very well) into grey scale in the print edition. Due to the higher resolution of print, you can still make out things in the book edition which aren't discernible online, but it's a pity to lose the colour. The publisher has explained the economic reasons which compelled this decision, which make perfect sense. Should a “premium edition” come along, I'll be glad to part with US$40 for a full colour copy.

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Trevor-Roper, Hugh. Hitler's War Directives. Edinburgh: Birlinn, [1964] 2004. ISBN 978-1-84341-014-10.
This book, originally published in 1964, contains all of Adolf Hitler's official decrees on the prosecution of the European war, from preparations for the invasion of Poland in 1939 to his final exhortation to troops on the Eastern Front of 15th April 1945 to stand in place or die. The author introduces each of the translated orders with an explanation of the situation at the time, and describes subsequent events. A fifteen page introduction explains the context of these documents and the structure of the organisations to which they were directed.

For those familiar with the history of the period, there are few revelations to be gained from these documents. It is interesting to observe the extent to which Hitler was concerned with creating and substantiating the pretexts for his aggression in both the East and West, and also how when the tide turned and the Wehrmacht was rolled back from Stalingrad to Berlin, he focused purely upon tactical details, never seeming to appreciate (at least in these orders to the military, state, and party) the inexorable disaster consuming them all.

As these are decrees at the highest level, they are largely composed of administrative matters and only occasionally discuss operational items; as such one's eyes may glaze over reading too much in one sitting. The bizarre parallel structure of state and party created by Hitler is evident in a series of decrees issued during the defensive phase of the war in which essentially the same orders were independently issued to state and party leaders, subordinating each to military commanders in battle areas. As the Third Reich approached collapse, the formal numbering of orders was abandoned, and senior military commanders issued orders in Hitler's name. These are included here using a system of numbering devised by the author. Appendices include lists of code names for operations, abbreviations, and people whose names appear in the orders.

If you aren't well-acquainted with the history of World War II in Europe, you'll take away little from this work. While the author sketches the history of each order, you really need to know the big picture to understand the situation the Germans faced and what they knew at the time to comprehend the extent to which Hitler's orders evidenced cunning or denial. Still, one rarely gets the opportunity to read the actual operational orders issued during a major conflict which ended in annihilation for the person giving them and the nation which followed him, and this book provides a way to understand how ambition, delusion, and blind obedience can lead to tragic catastrophe.

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February 2009

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Ballad of Carl Drega. Reno: Mountain Media, 2002. ISBN 978-0-9670259-2-6.
I was about write “the author is the most prominent libertarian writing for the legacy media today”, but in fact, to my knowledge, he is the only genuine libertarian employed by a major metropolitan newspaper (the Las Vegas Review-Journal), where he writes editorials and columns, the latter syndicated to a number of other newspapers. This book, like his earlier Send In The Waco Killers, is a collection of these writings, plus letters from readers and replies, along with other commentary. This volume covers the period from 1994 through the end of 2001, and contains his columns reacting to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, which set him at odds with a number of other prominent libertarians.

Suprynowicz is not one of those go-along, get-along people L. Neil Smith describes as “nerf libertarians”. He is a hard-edged lover of individual liberty, and defends it fiercely in all of its aspects here. As much of the content of the book was written as columns to be published weekly, collected by topic rather than chronologically, it may occasionally seem repetitive if you read the whole book cover to cover. It is best enjoyed a little at a time, which is why it did not appear here until years after I started to read it. If you're a champion of liberty who is prone to hypertension, you may want to increase your blood pressure medication before reading some of the stories recounted here. The author's prognosis for individual freedom in the U.S. seems to verge upon despair; in this I concur, which is why I no longer live there, but still it's depressing for people everywhere. Chapter 9 (pp. 441–476) is a collection of the “Greatest Hits from the Mailbag”, a collection of real mail (and hilarious replies) akin to Fourmilab's own Titanium Cranium Awards.

This book is now out of print, and used copies currently sell at almost twice the original cover price.

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War Department. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Oxford: Bodelian Library, [1942] 2004. ISBN 978-1-85124-085-2.
Shortly after the entry of the United States into the European war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. troops began to arrive in Britain in 1942. Although more than two years would elapse before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, an ever-increasing number of “overpaid, oversexed, and over here” American troops would establish air bases, build logistics for the eventual invasion, and provide liaison with the British command.

This little (31 page, small format) book reproduces a document originally furnished to U.S. troops embarking for Britain as seven pages of typescript. It provides a delightful look at how Americans perceived the British at the epoch, and also how they saw themselves—there's even an admonishment to soldiers of Irish ancestry not to look upon the English as their hereditary enemies, and a note that the American colloquialism “I look like a bum” means something much different in an English pub. A handy table helps Yanks puzzle out the bewildering British money.

Companion volumes were subsequently published for troops bound for Iraq (yes, in 1943!) and France; I'll get to them in due course.

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Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 1. New York: Modern Library, [1933–1941, 1995] 1998. ISBN 978-0-375-75378-7.
This book is simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.

Despite his conversion to protestantism, military service to Germany, exalted rank as a professor, and decades of marriage to a woman deemed “Aryan” under the racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, Klemperer was considered a “full-blooded Jew” and was subject to ever-escalating harassment, persecution, humiliation, and expropriation as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. As civil society spiralled toward barbarism, Klemperer lost his job, his car, his telephone, his house, his freedom of movement, the right to shop in “Aryan stores”, access to public and lending libraries, and even the typewriter on which he continued to write in the hope of maintaining his sanity. His world shrank from that of a cosmopolitan professor fluent in many European languages to a single “Jews' house” in Dresden, shared with other once-prosperous families similarly evicted from their homes. His family and acquaintances dwindle as, one after another, they opt for emigration, leaving only the author and his wife still in Germany (due to lack of opportunities, but also to an inertia and sense of fatalism evident in the narrative). Slowly the author's sense of Germanness dissipates as he comes to believe that what is happening in Germany is not an aberration but somehow deeply rooted in the German character, and that Hitler embodies beliefs widespread among the population which were previously invisible before becoming so starkly manifest. Klemperer is imprisoned for eight days in 1941 for a blackout violation for which a non-Jew would have received a warning or a small fine, and his prison journal, written a few days after his release, is a matter of fact portrayal of how an encounter with the all-powerful and arbitrary state reduces the individual to a mental servitude more pernicious than physical incarceration.

I have never read any book which provides such a visceral sense of what it is like to live in a totalitarian society and how quickly all notions of justice, rights, and human dignity can evaporate when a charismatic leader is empowered by a mob in thrall to his rhetoric. Apart from the description of the persecution the author's family and acquaintances suffered themselves, he turns a keen philologist's eye on the language of the Third Reich, and observes how the corruption of the regime is reflected in the corruption of the words which make up its propaganda. Ayn Rand's fictional (although to some extent autobiographical) We the Living provides a similar sense of life under tyranny, but this is the real thing, written as events happened, with no knowledge of how it was all going to come out, and is, as a consequence, uniquely compelling. Klemperer wrote these diaries with no intention of their being published: they were, at most, the raw material for an autobiography he hoped eventually to write, so when you read these words you're perceiving how a Jew in Nazi Germany perceived life day to day, and how what historians consider epochal events in retrospect are quite naturally interpreted by those hearing of them for the first time in the light of “What does this mean for me?”

The author was a prolific diarist who wrote thousands of pages from the early 1900s throughout his long life. The original 1995 German publication of the 1933–1945 diaries as Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten was a substantial abridgement of the original document and even so ran to almost 1700 pages. This English translation further abridges the diaries and still often seems repetitive. End notes provide historical context, identify the many people who figure in the diary, and translate the foreign phrases the author liberally sprinkles among the text.

I will certainly read Volume 2, which covers the years 1942–1945, but probably not right away—after this powerful narrative, I'm inclined toward lighter works for a while.

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Smith, Edward E. Masters of the Vortex. New York: Pyramid Books, [1960] 1968. ISBN 978-0-515-02230-8.
This novel is set in the Galactic Patrol universe, but is not part of the Lensman saga—the events take place an unspecified time after the conclusion of that chronicle. Galactic civilisation depends upon atomic power, but as Robert A. Heinlein (to whom this book is dedicated) observed, “Blowups Happen”, and for inexplicable reasons atomic power stations randomly erupt into deadly self-sustaining nuclear vortices, threatening to ultimately consume the planets they ravage. (Note that in the technophilic and optimistic universe of the Galactic Patrol, and the can-do society its creator inhabited, the thought that such a downside of an energy technology essential to civilisation would cause its renunciation never enters the mind.)

When a freak vortex accident kills ace nucleonicist Neal Cloud's family, he swears a personal vendetta against the vortices and vows to destroy them or be destroyed trying. This mild-mannered scientist who failed the Lensman entry examination re-invents himself as “Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster”, and in his eponymous ship flits off to rid the galaxy of the atomic plague. This is Doc Smith space opera, so you can be sure there are pirates, zwilniks, crooked politicians, blasters, space axes, and aliens of all persuasions in abundance—not to mention timeless dialogue like:

“Eureka! Good evening, folks.”
“Eureka? I hope you rot in hell, Graves…”
“This isn't Graves. Cloud. Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster, investigating…”
“Oh, Bob, the patrol!” the girl screamed.

It wouldn't be Doc Smith if it weren't prophetic, and in this book published in the year in which the Original Nixon was to lose the presidential election to John F. Kennedy, we catch a hint of a “New Nixon” as the intrepid Vortex Blaster visits the planet Nixson II on p. 77. While not as awe inspiring in scope as the Lensman novels, this is a finely crafted yarn which combines a central puzzle with many threads exploring characteristics of alien cultures (never cross an adolescent cat-woman from Vegia!), the ultimate power of human consciousness, and the eternal question never far from the mind of the main audience of science fiction: whether a nerdy brainiac can find a soulmate somewhere out there in the spacelanes.

If you're unacquainted with the Lensman universe, this is not the place to start, but once you've worked your way through, it's a delightful lagniappe to round out the epic. Unlike the Lensman series, this book remains out of print. Used copies are readily available although sometimes pricey. For those with access to the gizmo, a Kindle edition is available.

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Simon, Roger L. Blacklisting Myself. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-247-9.
The author arrived in Hollywood in the tumultuous year of 1968, fired by his allegiance to the New Left and experience in the civil rights struggle in the South to bring his activism to the screen and, at the same time, driven by his ambition to make it big in the movie business. Unlike the multitudes who arrive starry-eyed in tinseltown only to be frustrated trying to “break in”, Simon succeeded, both as a screenwriter (he was nominated for an Oscar for his screen adaptation of Enemies: A Love Story and as a novelist, best known for his Moses Wine detective fiction. One of the Moses Wine novels, The Big Fix, made it to the screen, with Simon also writing the screenplay. Such has been his tangible success that the author today lives in the Hollywood Hills house once shared by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.

This is in large part a memoir of a life in Hollywood, with pull-no-punches anecdotes about the celebrities and players in the industry, and the often poisonous culture of the movie business. But is also the story of the author's political evolution from the New Left through Hollywood radical chic (he used to hang with the Black Panthers) and eventual conversion to neo-conservatism which has made him a “Hollywood apostate” and which he describes on the first page of the book as “the ideological equivalent of a sex change operation”. He describes how two key events—the O. J. Simpson trial and the terrorist attacks of 2001—caused him to question assumptions he'd always taken as received wisdom and how, once he did start to think for himself instead of nodding in agreement with the monolithic leftist consensus in Hollywood, began to perceive and be appalled by the hypocrisy not only in the beliefs of his colleagues but between their lifestyles and the values they purported to champion. (While Simon has become a staunch supporter of efforts, military and other, to meet the threat of Islamic aggression and considers himself a fiscal conservative, he remains as much on the left as ever when it comes to social issues. But, as he describes, any dissent whatsoever from the Hollywood leftist consensus is enough to put one beyond the pale among the smart set, and possibly injure the career of even somebody as well-established as he.)

While never suggesting that he or anybody else has been the victim of a formal blacklist like that of suspected Communist sympathisers in the 1940s and 1950s, he does describe how those who dissent often feign support for leftist causes or simply avoid politically charged discussions to protect their careers. Simon was one of the first Hollywood figures to jump in as a blogger, and has since reinvented himself as a New Media entrepreneur, founding Pajamas Media and its associated ventures; he continues to actively blog. An early adopter of technology since the days of the Osborne 1 and CompuServe forums, he believes that new technology provides the means for an end-run around Hollywood groupthink, but by itself is insufficient (p. 177):

The answer to the problem of Hollywood for those of a more conservative or centrist bent is to go make movies of their own. Of course, to do so means finding financing and distribution. Today's technologies are making that simpler. Cameras and editing equipment cost a pittance. Distribution is at hand for the price of a URL. All that's left is the creativity. Unfortunately, that's the difficult part.

A video interview with the author is available.

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March 2009

Birmingham, John. Without Warning. New York: Del Rey, 2009. ISBN 978-0-345-50289-6.
One of the most common counsels offered to authors by agents and editors is to choose a genre and remain within it. A book which spans two or more of the usual categories runs the risk of “falling into the crack”, with reviewers not certain how to approach it and, on the marketing side, retailers unsure of where in the store it should be displayed. This is advice which the author of this work either never received or laughingly disdained. The present volume combines a political/military techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy tradition with alternative history as practiced by Harry Turtledove, but wait—there's more, relativistic arm-waving apocalyptic science fiction in the vein of the late Michael Crichton. This is an ambitious combination, and one which the author totally bungles in this lame book, which is a complete waste of paper, ink, time, and money.

The premise is promising. What would happen if there were no United States (something we may, after all, effectively find out over the next few years, if not in the manner posited here)? In particular, wind the clock back to just before the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and assume the U.S. vanished—what would the world look like in the aftermath? You ask, “what do you mean by the U.S. vanishing?” Well, you see, an interdimensional portal opens between a fifth dimensional braneworld which disgorges 500,000 flying saucers which spread out over North America, from which tens of millions of 10 metre tall purple and green centipedes emerge to hunt down and devour every human being in the United States and most of Canada and Mexico, leaving intact only the airheads in western Washington State and Hawaii and the yahoos in Alaska. No—not really—in fact what is proposed here is even more preposterously implausible than the saucers and centipedes, and is never explained in the text. It is simply an absurd plot device which defies about as many laws of physics as rules of thumb for authors of thrillers.

So the U.S. goes away, and mayhem erupts all around the world. The story is told by tracking with closeups of various people in the Middle East, Europe, on the high seas, Cuba, and the surviving remnant of the U.S. The way things play out isn't implausible, but since the precipitating event is absurd on the face of it, it's difficult to care much about the consequences as described here. I mean, here we have a book in which Bill Gates has a cameo rôle providing a high-security communications device which is competently implemented and works properly the first time—bring on the saucers and giant centipedes!

As the pages dwindle toward the end, it seems like nothing is being resolved. Then you turn the last page and discover that you've been left in mid-air and are expected to buy After America next year to find out how it all comes out. Yeah, right—fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, not gonna happen!

Apart from the idiotic premise, transgenred plot, and side-splitting goofs like the mention of “UCLA's Berkeley campus” (p. 21), the novel drips with gratuitous obscenity. Look, one expects soldiers and sailors to cuss, and having them speak that way conveys a certain authenticity. But here, almost everybody, from mild-mannered city engineers to urbane politicians seem unable to utter two sentences without dropping one or more F-bombs. Aside from the absurdity of the plot, this makes the reading experience coarsening. Perhaps that is how people actually speak in this post-Enlightenment age; if so, I do not wish to soil my recreational reading by being reminded of it.

If we end up in the kind of post-apocalyptic world described here, we'll probably have to turn to our libraries once the hoard of toilet paper in the basement runs out. I know which book will be first on the list.

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Wilczek, Frank. The Lightness of Being. New York: Basic Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-465-00321-1.
For much of its history as a science, physics has been about mass and how it behaves in response to various forces, but until very recently physics had little to say about the origin of mass: it was simply a given. Some Greek natural philosophers explained it as being made up of identical atoms, but then just assumed that the atoms somehow had their own intrinsic mass. Newton endowed all matter with mass, but considered its origin beyond the scope of observation and experiment and thus outside the purview of science. As the structure of the atom was patiently worked out in the twentieth century, it became clear that the overwhelming majority of the mass of atoms resides in a nucleus which makes up a minuscule fraction of its volume, later that the nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons, and still later that those particles were made up of quarks and gluons, but still physicists were left with no explanation for why these particles had the masses they did or, for that matter, any mass at all.

In this compelling book, Nobel Physics laureate and extraordinarily gifted writer Frank Wilczek describes how one of the greatest intellectual edifices ever created by the human mind: the drably named “standard model” of particle physics, combined with what is almost certainly the largest scientific computation ever performed to date (teraflop massively parallel computers running for several months on a single problem), has finally produced a highly plausible explanation for the origin of the mass of normal matter (ourselves and everything we have observed in the universe), or at least about 95% of it—these matters, and matter itself, always seems to have some more complexity to tease out.

And what's the answer? Well, the origin of mass is the vacuum, and its interaction with fields which fill all of the space in the universe. The quantum vacuum is a highly dynamic medium, seething with fluctuations and ephemeral virtual particles which come and go in instants which make even the speed of present-day computers look like geological time. The interaction of this vacuum with massless quarks produces, through processes explained so lucidly here, around 95% of the mass of the nucleus of atoms, and hence what you see when stepping on the bathroom scale. Hey, if you aren't happy with that number, just remember that 95% of it is just due to the boiling of the quantum vacuum. Or, you could go on a diet.

This spectacular success of the standard model, along with its record over the last three decades in withstanding every experimental test to which it has been put, inspires confidence that, as far as it goes, it's on the right track. But just as the standard model was consolidating this triumph, astronomers produced powerful evidence that everything it explains: atoms, ourselves, planets, stars, and galaxies—everything we observe and the basis of all sciences from antiquity to the present—makes up less than 5% of the total mass of the universe. This discovery, and the conundrum of how the standard model can be reconciled with the equally-tested yet entirely mathematically incompatible theory of gravitation, general relativity, leads the author into speculation on what may lie ahead, how what we presently know (or think we know) may be a piece in a larger puzzle, and how experimental tests expected within the next decade may provide clues and open the door to these larger theories. All such speculation is clearly labeled, but it is proffered in keeping with what he calls the Jesuit Credo, “It is more blessed to ask forgiveness than permission.”

This is a book for the intelligent layman, and a superb twenty page glossary is provided for terms used in the text with which the reader may be unfamiliar. In fact, the glossary is worth reading in its own right, as it expands on many subjects and provides technical details absent in the main text. The end notes are also excellent and shouldn't be missed. One of the best things about this book, in my estimation, is what is missing from it. Unlike so many physicists writing for a popular audience, Wilczek feels no need whatsoever to recap the foundations of twentieth century science. He assumes, and I believe wisely, that somebody who picks up a book on the origin of mass by a Nobel Prize winner probably already knows the basics of special relativity and quantum theory and doesn't need to endure a hundred pages recounting them for the five hundredth time before getting to the interesting stuff. For the reader who has wandered in without this background knowledge, the glossary will help, and also direct the reader to introductory popular books and texts on the various topics.

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Pipes. Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Doubleday, [2001] 2003. ISBN 978-0-8129-6864-4.
This slim volume (just 175 pages) provides, for its size, the best portrait I have encountered of the origins of communist theory, the history of how various societies attempted to implement it in the twentieth century, and the tragic consequences of those grand scale social experiments and their aftermath. The author, a retired professor of history at Harvard University, is one of the most eminent Western scholars of Russian and Soviet history. The book examines communism as an ideal, a program, and its embodiment in political regimes in various countries. Based on the ideals of human equality and subordination of the individual to the collective which date at least back to Plato, communism, first set out as a program of action by Marx and Engels, proved itself almost infinitely malleable in the hands of subsequent theorists and political leaders, rebounding from each self-evident failure (any one of which should, in a rational world, have sufficed to falsify a theory which proclaims itself “scientific”), morphing into yet another infallible and inevitable theory of history. In the words of the immortal Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!”

Regardless of the nature of the society in which the communist program is undertaken and the particular variant of the theory adopted, the consequences have proved remarkably consistent: emergence of an elite which rules through violence, repression, and fear; famine and economic stagnation; and collapse of the individual enterprise and innovation which are the ultimate engine of progress of all kinds. No better example of this is the comparison of North and South Korea on p. 152. Here are two countries which started out identically devastated by Japanese occupation in World War II and then by the Korean War, with identical ethnic makeup, which diverged in the subsequent decades to such an extent that famine killed around two million people in North Korea in the 1990s, at which time the GDP per capita in the North was around US$900 versus US$13,700 in the South. Male life expectancy at birth in the North was 48.9 years compared to 70.4 years in the South, with an infant mortality rate in the North more than ten times that of the South. This appalling human toll was modest compared to the famines and purges of the Soviet Union and Communist China, or the apocalyptic fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot. The Black Book of Communism puts the total death toll due to communism in the twentieth century as between 85 and 100 million, which is half again greater than that of both world wars combined. To those who say “One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”, the author answers, “Apart from the fact that human beings are not eggs, the trouble is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter.” (p. 158)

So effective were communist states in their “big lie” propaganda, and so receptive were many Western intellectuals to its idealistic message, that many in the West were unaware of this human tragedy as it unfolded over the better part of a century. This book provides an excellent starting point for those unaware of the reality experienced by those living in the lands of communism and those for whom that epoch is distant, forgotten history, but who remain, like every generation, susceptible to idealistic messages and unaware of the suffering of those who attempted to put them into practice in the past.

Communism proved so compelling to intellectuals (and, repackaged, remains so) because it promised hope for a new way of living together and change to a rational world where the best and the brightest—intellectuals and experts—would build a better society, shorn of all the conflict and messiness which individual liberty unavoidably entails. The author describes this book as “an introduction to Communism and, at the same time, its obituary.” Maybe—let's hope so. But this book can serve an even more important purpose: as a cautionary tale of how the best of intentions can lead directly to the worst of outcomes. When, for example, one observes in the present-day politics of the United States the creation, deliberate exacerbation, and exploitation of crises to implement a political agenda; use of engineered financial collapse to advance political control over the economy and pauperise and render dependent upon the state classes of people who would otherwise oppose it; the creation, personalisation, and demonisation of enemies replacing substantive debate over policy; indoctrination of youth in collectivist dogma; and a number of other strategies right out of Lenin's playbook, one wonders if the influence of that evil mummy has truly been eradicated, and wishes that the message in this book were more widely known there and around the world.

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Post, David G. In Search of Jefferson's Moose. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-534289-5.
In 1787, while serving as Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson took time out from his diplomatic duties to arrange to have shipped from New Hampshire across the Atlantic Ocean the complete skeleton, skin, and antlers of a bull moose, which was displayed in his residence in Paris. Jefferson was involved in a dispute with the Comte de Buffon, who argued that the fauna of the New World were degenerate compared to those of Europe and Asia. Jefferson concluded that no verbal argument or scientific evidence would be as convincing of the “structure and majesty of American quadrupeds” as seeing a moose in the flesh (or at least the bone), so he ordered one up for display.

Jefferson was a passionate believer in the exceptionality of the New World and the prospects for building a self-governing republic in its expansive territory. If it took hauling a moose all the way to Paris to convince Europeans disdainful of the promise of his nascent nation, then so be it—bring on the moose! Among Jefferson's voluminous writings, perhaps none expressed these beliefs as strongly as his magisterial Notes on the State of Virginia. The present book, subtitled “Notes on the State of Cyberspace” takes Jefferson's work as a model and explores this new virtual place which has been built based upon a technology which simply sends packets of data from place to place around the world. The parallels between the largely unexplored North American continent of Jefferson's time and today's Internet are strong and striking, as the author illustrates with extensive quotations from Jefferson interleaved in the text (set in italics to distinguish them from the author's own words) which are as applicable to the Internet today as the land west of the Alleghenies in the late 18th century.

Jefferson believed in building systems which could scale to arbitrary size without either losing their essential nature or becoming vulnerable to centralisation and the attendant loss of liberty and autonomy. And he believed that free individuals, living within such a system and with access to as much information as possible and the freedom to communicate without restrictions would self-organise to perpetuate, defend, and extend such a polity. While Europeans, notably Montesquieu, believed that self-governance was impossible in a society any larger than a city-state, and organised their national and imperial governments accordingly, Jefferson's 1784 plan for the government of new Western territory set forth an explicitly power law fractal architecture which, he believed, could scale arbitrarily large without depriving citizens of local control of matters which directly concerned them. This architecture is stunningly similar to that of the global Internet, and the bottom-up governance of the Internet to date (which Post explores in some detail) is about as Jeffersonian as one can imagine.

As the Internet has become a central part of global commerce and the flow of information in all forms, the eternal conflict between the decentralisers and champions of individual liberty (with confidence that free people will sort things out for themselves)—the Jeffersonians—and those who believe that only strong central authority and the vigorous enforcement of rules can prevent chaos—Hamiltonians—has emerged once again in the contemporary debate about “Internet governance”.

This is a work of analysis, not advocacy. The author, a law professor and regular contributor to The Volokh Conspiracy Web log, observes that, despite being initially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the development of the Internet to date has been one of the most Jeffersonian processes in history, and has scaled from a handful of computers in 1969 to a global network with billions of users and a multitude of applications never imagined by its creators, and all through consensual decision making and contractual governance with nary a sovereign gun-wielder in sight. So perhaps before we look to “fix” the unquestioned problems and challenges of the Internet by turning the Hamiltonians loose upon it, we should listen well to the wisdom of Jefferson, who has much to say which is directly applicable to exploring, settling, and governing this new territory which technology has opened up. This book is a superb way to imbibe the wisdom of Jefferson, while learning the basics of the Internet architecture and how it, in many ways, parallels that of aspects of Jefferson's time. Jefferson even spoke to intellectual property issues which read like today's news, railing against a “rascal” using an abusive patent of a long-existing device to extort money from mill owners (p. 197), and creating and distributing “freeware” including a design for a uniquely efficient plough blade based upon Newton's Principia which he placed in the public domain, having “never thought of monopolizing by patent any useful idea which happened to offer itself to me” (p. 196).

So astonishing was Jefferson's intellect that as you read this book you'll discover that he has a great deal to say about this new frontier we're opening up today. Good grief—did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary even credits Jefferson with being the first person to use the words “authentication” and “indecipherable” (p. 124)? The author's lucid explanations, deft turns of phrase, and agile leaps between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries are worthy of the forbidding standard set by the man so extensively quoted here. Law professors do love their footnotes, and this is almost two books in one: the focused main text and the more rambling but fascinating footnotes, some of which span several pages. There is also an extensive list of references and sources for all of the Jefferson quotations in the end notes.

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Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Escape from Hell. New York: Tor Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-765-31632-5.
Every now and then you read a novel where you're absolutely certain as you turn the pages that the author(s) had an absolute blast writing it, and when that's the case the result is usually superbly entertaining. That is certainly true here. How could two past masters of science fiction and fantasy not delight in a scenario in which they can darn to heck anybody they wish, choosing the particular torment for each and every sinner?

In this sequel to the authors' 1976 novel Inferno, the protagonist of the original novel, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter, makes a second progress through Hell. This time, after an unfortunate incident on the Ice in the Tenth Circle, he starts out back in the Vestibule, resolved that this time he will escape from Hell himself and, as he progresses ever downward toward the exit described by Dante, to determine if it is possible for any damned soul to escape and to aid those willing to follow him.

Hell is for eternity, but that doesn't mean things don't change there. In the decades since Carpenter's first traverse, there have been many modifications in the landscape of the underworld. We meet many newly-damned souls as well as revisiting those encountered before. Carpenter recounts his story to Sylvia Plath, who as a suicide, has been damned as a tree in the Wood of the Suicides in the Seventh Circle and who, rescued by him, accompanies him downward to the exit. The ice cream stand in the Fiery Desert is a refreshing interlude from justice without mercy! The treatment of one particular traitor in the Ice is sure to prove controversial; the authors explain their reasoning for his being there in the Notes at the end. A theme which runs throughout is how Hell is a kind of Heaven to many of those who belong there and, having found their niche in Eternity, aren't willing to gamble it for the chance of salvation. I've had jobs like that—got better.

I'll not spoil the ending, but will close by observing that the authors have provided a teaser for a possible Paradiso somewhere down the road. Should that come to pass, I'll look forward to devouring it as I did this thoroughly rewarding yarn. I'll wager that if that work comes to pass, Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy will be found to apply as Below, so Above.

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Forstchen, William R. One Second After. New York: Forge, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-1758-2.
Suppose, one fine spring day, with no warning or evident cause, the power went out. After a while, when it didn't come back on, you might try to telephone the power company, only to discover the phone completely dead. You pull out your mobile phone, and it too is kaput—nothing happens at all when you try to turn it on. You get the battery powered radio you keep in the basement in case of storms, and it too is dead; you swap in the batteries from the flashlight (which works) but that doesn't fix the radio. So, you decide to drive into town and see if anybody there knows what's going on. The car doesn't start. You set out on foot, only to discover when you get to the point along the lane where you can see the highway that it's full of immobile vehicles with their drivers wandering around on foot as in a daze.

What's happening—The Day the Earth Stood Still? Is there a saucer on the ground in Washington? Nobody knows: all forms of communication are down, all modes of transportation halted. You might think this yet another implausible scenario for a thriller, but what I've just described (in a form somewhat different than the novel) is pretty much what the sober-sided experts of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack sketch out in their April 2008 Critical National Infrastructures report and 2004 Executive Report as the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in space high above the continental United States. There would be no thermal, blast, or radiation effects on the ground (although somebody unlucky enough to be looking toward the location of the detonation the sky might suffer vision damage, particularly if it occurred at night), but a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created as prompt gamma rays from the nuclear detonation create free electrons in the upper atmosphere due to the Compton effect which spiral along the lines of force of Earth's magnetic field and emit an intense electric field pulse in three phases which reaches the ground and affects electrical and electronic equipment in a variety of ways, none good. As far as is known, the electromagnetic pulse is completely harmless to humans and other living organisms and would not even be perceived by them.

But it's Hell on electronics. The immediate (E1) pulse arrives at the speed of light everywhere within the line of sight of the detonation, and with a rise time of at most a few nanoseconds, gets into all kinds of electronics much faster than any form of transient protection can engage; this is what kills computer and communications gear and any other kind of electronics with exposed leads or antennas which the pulse can excite. The second phase (E2) pulse is much like the effects of a local lightning strike, and would not cause damage to equipment with proper lightning protection except that in many cases the protection mechanisms may have been damaged or disabled by the consequences of the E1 pulse (which has no counterpart in lightning, and hence lightning mitigation gear is not tested to withstand it). Finally, the E3 pulse arrives, lasting tens to hundreds of seconds, which behaves much like the fields created during a major solar/geomagnetic storm (although the EMP effect may be larger), inducing large currents in long distance electrical transmission lines and other extended conductive structures. The consequences of this kind of disruption are well documented from a number of incidents such as the 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused the collapse of the Quebec Hydro power distribution grid. But unlike a geomagnetic storm, the EMP E3 pulse can affect a much larger area, hit regions in latitudes rarely vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, and will have to be recovered from in an environment where electronics and communications are down due to the damage from the E1 and E2 pulses.

If you attribute much of the technological and economic progress of the last century and a half to the connection of the developed world by electrical, transportation, communication, and computational networks which intimately link all parts of the economy and interact with one another in complex and often non-obvious ways, you can think about the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon launched by a relatively crude missile (which need not be long range if fired, say, from a freighter outside the territorial waters of the target country) by imagining living in the 21st century, seeing the lights flicker and go out and hearing the air conditioner stop, and two minutes later you're living in 1860. None of this is fantasy—all of the EMP effects were documented in nuclear tests in the 1960s and hardening military gear against EMP has been an active area of research and development for decades: this book, which sits on my own shelf, was published 25 years ago. Little or no effort has been expended on hardening the civil infrastructure or commercial electronics against this threat.

This novel looks at what life might be like in the year following an EMP attack on the United States, seen through the microcosm of a medium sized college town in North Carolina where the protagonist is a history professor. Unlike many thrillers, the author superbly describes the sense of groping in the dark when communication is cut and rumours begin to fly, the realisation that with the transportation infrastructure down the ready food supply is measured in days (especially after the losses due to failure of refrigeration), and the consequences to those whose health depends upon medications produced at great distance and delivered on a just in time basis. It is far from a pretty picture, but given the premises of the story (about which I shall natter a bit below), entirely plausible in my opinion. This story has the heroes and stolid get-things-done people who come to the fore in times of crisis, but it also shows how thin the veneer of civilisation is when the food starts to run out and the usual social constraints and sanctions begin to fail. There's no triumphant ending: what is described is a disaster and the ensuing tragedy, with survival for some the best which can be made of the situation. The message is that this, or something like it although perhaps not so extreme, could happen, and that the time to take the relatively modest and inexpensive (at least compared to recent foreign military campaigns) steps to render an EMP attack less probable and, should one occur, to mitigate its impact on critical life-sustaining infrastructure and prepare for recovery from what damage does occur, is now, not the second after the power goes out—all across the continent.

This is a compelling page-turner, which I devoured in just a few days. I do believe the author overstates the total impact of an EMP attack. The scenario here is that essentially everything which incorporates solid state electronics or is plugged into the power grid is fried at the instant of the attack, and that only vacuum tube gear, vehicles without electronic ignition or fuel injection, and other museum pieces remain functional. All airliners en route fall from the sky when their electronics are hit by the pulse. But the EMP Commission report is relatively sanguine about equipment not connected to the power grid which doesn't have vulnerable antennas. They discuss aircraft at some length, and conclude that since all commercial and military aircraft are currently tested and certified to withstand direct lightning strikes, and all but the latest fly-by-wire planes use mechanical and hydraulic control linkages, they are unlikely to be affected by EMP. They may lose communication, and the collapse of the air traffic control system will pose major problems and doubtless lead to some tragedies, but all planes aloft raining from the sky doesn't seem to be in the cards. Automobiles and trucks were tested by the commission (see pp. 115–116 of the Critical Infrastructures report), and no damage whatsoever occurred to vehicles not running when subjected to a simulated pulse; some which were running stopped, but all but a few immediately restarted and none required more than routine garage repairs. Having the highways open and trucks on the road makes a huge difference in a disaster recovery scenario. But let me qualify these quibbles by noting that nobody knows what will actually happen: with non-nuclear EMP and other electromagnetic weapons a focus of current research, doubtless much of the information on vulnerability of various systems remains under the seal of secrecy. And besides, in a cataclysmic situation, it's usually the things you didn't think of which cause the most dire problems.

One language note: the author seems to believe that the word “of” is equivalent to “have” when used in a phrase such as “You should've” or “I'd have”—instead, he writes “You should of” and “I'd of”. At first I thought this was a dialect affectation of a single character, but it's used all over the place, by characters of all kinds of regional and cultural backgrounds. Now, this usage is grudgingly sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) by the descriptive Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (p. 679, item 2), but it just drives me nuts; if you consider the definitions of the individual words, what can “should of” possibly mean?

This novel focuses on the human story of people caught entirely by surprise trying to survive in a situation beyond their imagining one second before. If reading this book makes you ponder what steps you might take beforehand to protect your family in such a circumstance, James Wesley Rawles's Patriots (December 2008), which is being issued in a new, expanded edition in April 2009, is an excellent resource, as is Rawles's SurvivalBlog.

A podcast interview with William R. Forstchen about One Second After is available.

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April 2009

Levin, Mark R. Liberty and Tyranny. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-6285-6.
Even at this remove, I can recall the precise moment when my growing unease that the world wasn't turning into the place I'd hoped to live as an adult became concrete and I first began to comprehend the reasons for the trends which worried me. It was October 27th, 1964 (or maybe a day or so later, if the broadcast was tape delayed) when I heard Ronald Reagan's speech “A Time for Choosing”, given in support of Barry Goldwater's U.S. presidential campaign. Notwithstanding the electoral disaster of the following week, many people consider Reagan's speech (often now called just “The Speech”) a pivotal moment both in the rebirth of conservatism in the United States and Reagan's own political career. I know that I was never the same afterward: I realised that the vague feelings of things going the wrong way were backed up by the facts Reagan articulated and, further and more important, that there were alternatives to the course the country and society was presently steering. That speech, little appreciated at the time, changed the course of American history and changed my life.

Here is a book with the potential to do the same for people today who, like me in 1964, are disturbed at the way things are going, particularly young people who, indoctrinated in government schools and the intellectual monoculture of higher education, have never heard the plain and yet eternal wisdom the author so eloquently and economically delivers here. The fact that this book has recently shot up to the number one rank in Amazon.com book sales indicates that not only is the message powerful, but that an audience receptive to it exists.

The author admirably cedes no linguistic ground to the enemies of freedom. At the very start he dismisses the terms “liberal” (How is it liberal to advocate state coercion as the answer to every problem?) and “progressive” (How can a counter-revolution against the inherent, unalienable rights of individual human beings in favour of the state possibly be deemed progress?) for “Statist”, which is used consistently thereafter. He defines a “Conservative” not as one who cherishes the past or desires to return to it, but rather a person who wishes to conserve the individual liberty proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and supposedly protected by the Constitution (the author and I disagree about the wisdom of the latter document and the motives of those who promoted it). A Conservative is not one who, in the 1955 words of William F. Buckley “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”, but rather believes in incremental, prudential reform, informed by the experience of those who went before, from antiquity up until yesterday, with the humility to judge every policy not by its intentions but rather by the consequences it produces, and always ready to reverse any step which proves, on balance, detrimental.

The Conservative doesn't believe in utopia, nor in the perfectibility or infinite mutability of human nature. Any aggregate of flawed humans will be inevitably flawed; that which is least flawed and allows individuals the most scope to achieve the best within themselves is as much as can be hoped for. The Conservative knows from history that every attempt by Statists to create heaven on Earth by revolutionary transformation and the hope of engendering a “new man” has ended badly, often in tragedy.

For its length, this book is the best I've encountered at delivering the essentials of the conservative (or, more properly termed, but unusable due to corruption of the language, “classical liberal”) perspective on the central issues of the time. For those who have read Burke, Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, Hayek, Bastiat, Friedman, and other classics of individual and economic liberty (the idea that these are anything but inseparable is another Statist conceit), you will find little that is new in the foundations, although all of these threads are pulled together in a comprehensible and persuasive way. For people who have never heard of any of the above, or have been taught to dismiss them as outdated, obsolete, and inapplicable to our age, this book may open the door to a new, more clear way of thinking, and through its abundant source citations (many available on the Web) invites further exploration by those who, never having thought of themselves before as “conservative”, find their heads nodding in agreement with many of the plain-spoken arguments presented here.

As the book progresses, there is less focus on fundamentals and more on issues of the day such as the regulatory state, environmentalism, immigration, welfare dependency, and foreign relations and military conflicts. This was, to me, less satisfying than the discussion of foundational principles. These issues are endlessly debated in a multitude of venues, and those who call themselves conservatives and agree on the basics nonetheless come down on different sides of many of these issues. (And why not? Conservatives draw on the lessons of the past, and there are many ways of interpreting the historical record.) The book concludes with “A Conservative Manifesto” which, while I concur that almost every point mentioned would be a step in the right direction for the United States, I cannot envision how, in the present environment, almost any of the particulars could be adopted. The change that is needed is not the election of one set of politicians to replace another—there is precious little difference between them—but rather the slow rediscovery and infusion into the culture of the invariant principles, founded in human nature rather than the theories of academics, which are so lucidly explained here. As the author notes, the statists have taken more than eight decades on their long march through the institutions to arrive at the present situation. Champions of liberty must expect to be as patient and persistent if they are to prevail. The question is whether they will enjoy the same freedom of action their opponents did, or fall victim as the soft tyranny of the providential state becomes absolute tyranny, as has so often been the case.

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Dunn, Robin MacRae. Vickers Viscount. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-065-2.
Post World War II Britain had few technological and industrial successes of which to boast: as government administered industrial policy, sweeping nationalisations, and ascendant unions gripped the economy, “brain drain” became the phrase for the era. One bright spot in this dingy landscape was the world's first turboprop powered airliner, the Vickers Viscount. Less ambitious than its contemporary, the turbojet powered De Havilland Comet, it escaped the tragic fate which befell early models of that design and caused it to lose out to competitors which entered the market much later.

Despite its conventional appearance and being equipped with propellers, the Viscount represented a genuine revolution in air transport. Its turbine engines were vastly more reliable than the finicky piston powerplants of contemporary airliners, and provided its passengers a much quieter ride, faster speed, and the ability to fly above much of the bumpy weather. Its performance combined efficiency in the European short hop market for which it was intended with a maximum range (as much as 2,450 miles for some models with optional fuel tanks) which allowed it to operate on many intercontinental routes.

From the first flight of the prototype in July 1948 through entry into regular scheduled airline service in April 1953, the Viscount pioneered and defined turboprop powered air transport. From the start, the plane was popular with airlines and their passengers, with a total of 445 being sold. Some airlines ended up buying other equipment simply because demand for Viscounts meant they could not obtain delivery positions as quickly as they required. The Viscount flew for a long list of operators in the primary and secondary market, and was adapted as a freighter, high-density holiday charter plane, and VIP and corporate transport. Its last passenger flight in the U.K. took place on April 18th, 1996, the 43rd anniversary of its entry into service.

This lavishly illustrated book tells the story of the Viscount from concept through retirement of the last exemplars. A guide helps sort through the bewildering list of model numbers assigned to variants of the basic design, and comparative specifications of the principal models are provided. Although every bit as significant a breakthrough in propulsion as the turbojet, the turboprop powered Viscount never had the glamour of the faster planes without propellers. But they got their passengers to their destinations quickly, safely, and made money for the airlines delivering them there, which is all one can ask of an airliner, and made the Viscount a milestone in British aeronautical engineering.

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Lane, Nick. Power, Sex, Suicide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-920564-6.
When you start to look in detail at the evolution of life on Earth, it appears to be one mystery after another. Why did life appear so quickly after the Earth became hospitable to it? Why did life spend billions of years exclusively in the form of single-celled bacteria without a nucleus (bacteria and archaea)? Why are all complex cells (eukaryotes) apparently descended from a single ancestral cell? Why did it take so long for complex multicellular organisms to evolve? (I've taken a crack [perhaps crackpot] shot at that one myself.) Why did evolution favour sexual reproduction, where two parents are required to produce offspring, while clonal reproduction is twice as efficient? Why just two sexes (among the vast majority of species) and not more? What drove the apparent trend toward greater size and complexity in multicellular organisms? Why are the life spans of organisms so accurately predicted by a power law based upon their metabolic rate? Why and how does metabolic rate fall with the size of an organism? Why did evolution favour warm-bloodedness (endothermy) when it increases an organism's requirement for food by more than an order of magnitude? Why do organisms age, and why is the rate of ageing and the appearance of degenerative diseases so closely correlated with metabolic rate? Conversely, why do birds and bats live so long: a pigeon has about the same mass and metabolic rate as a rat, yet lives ten times as long?

I was intensely interested in molecular biology and evolution of complexity in the early 1990s, but midway through that decade I kind of tuned it out—there was this “Internet” thing going on which captured my attention…. While much remains to be discovered, and many of the currently favoured hypotheses remain speculative, there has been enormous progress toward resolving these conundra in recent years, and this book is an excellent way to catch up on this research frontier.

Quite remarkably, a common thread pulling together most of these questions is one of the most humble and ubiquitous components of eukaryotic life: the mitochondria. Long recognised as the power generators of the cell (“Power”), they have been subsequently discovered to play a key rôle in the evolution of sexual reproduction (“Sex”), and in programmed cell death (apoptosis—“Suicide”). Bacteria and archaea are constrained in size by the cube/square law: they power themselves by respiratory mechanisms embedded in their cellular membranes, which grow as the square of their diameter, but consume energy within the bulk of the cell, which grows as the cube. Consequently, evolution selects for small size, as a larger bacterium can generate less energy for its internal needs. Further, bacteria compete for scarce resources purely by replication rate: a bacterium which divides even a small fraction more rapidly will quickly come to predominate in the population versus its more slowly reproducing competitors. In cell division, the most energetically costly and time consuming part is copying the genome's DNA. As a result, evolution ruthlessly selects for the shortest genome, which results in the arcane overlapping genes in bacterial DNA which look like the work of those byte-shaving programmers you knew back when computers had 8 Kb RAM. All of this conspires to keep bacteria small and simple and indeed, they appear to be as small and simple today as they were three billion years and change ago. But that isn't to say they aren't successful—you may think of them as pond scum, but if you read the bacterial blogs, they think of us as an ephemeral epiphenomenon. “It's the age of bacteria, and it always has been.”

Most popular science books deliver one central idea you'll take away from reading them. This one has a forehead slapper about every twenty pages. It is not a particularly easy read: nothing in biology is unambiguous, and you find yourself going down a road and nodding in agreement, only to find out a few pages later that a subsequent discovery has falsified the earlier conclusion. While this may be confusing, it gives a sense of how science is done, and encourages the reader toward scepticism of all “breakthroughs” reported in the legacy media.

One of the most significant results of recent research into mitochondrial function is the connection between free radical production in the respiratory pipeline and ageing. While there is a power law relationship between metabolic rate and lifespan, there are outliers (including humans, who live about twice as long as they “should” based upon their size), and a major discrepancy for birds which, while obeying the same power law, are offset toward lifespans from three to ten times as long. Current research offers a plausible explanation for this: avians require aerobic power generation much greater than mammals, and consequently have more mitochondria in their tissues and more respiratory complexes in their mitochondria. This results in lower free radical production, which retards the onset of ageing and the degenerative diseases associated with it. Maybe before long there will be a pill which amplifies the mitochondrial replication factor in humans and, even if it doesn't extend our lifespan, retards the onset of the symptoms of ageing and degenerative diseases until the very end of life (old birds are very much like young adult birds, so there's an existence proof of this). I predict that the ethical questions associated with the creation of this pill will evaporate within about 24 hours of its availability on the market. Oh, it may have side-effects, such as increasing the human lifespan to, say, 160 years. Okay, science fiction authors, over to you!

If you are even remotely interested in these questions, this is a book you'll want to read.

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Moffat, John W. Reinventing Gravity. New York: Collins, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-117088-1.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, astronomers were confronted by a puzzling conflict between their increasingly precise observations and the predictions of Newton's time-tested theory of gravity. The perihelion of the elliptical orbit of the planet Mercury was found to precess by the tiny amount of 43 arc seconds per century more than could be accounted for by the gravitational influence of the Sun and the other planets. While small, the effect was unambiguously measured, and indicated that something was missing in the analysis. Urbain Le Verrier, coming off his successful prediction of the subsequently discovered planet Neptune by analysis of the orbit of Uranus, calculated that Mercury's anomalous precession could be explained by the presence of a yet unobserved planet he dubbed Vulcan. Astronomers set out to observe the elusive inner planet in transit across the Sun or during solar eclipses, and despite several sightings by respectable observers, no confirmed observations were made. Other astronomers suggested a belt of asteroids too small to observe within the orbit of Mercury could explain its orbital precession. For more than fifty years, dark matter—gravitating body or bodies so far unobserved—was invoked to explain a discrepancy between the regnant theory of gravitation and the observations of astronomers. Then, in 1915, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity which predicted that orbits in strongly curved spacetime would precess precisely the way Mercury's orbit was observed to, and that no dark matter was needed to reconcile the theory of gravitation with observations. So much for planet Vulcan, notwithstanding the subsequent one with all the pointy-eared logicians.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a disparate collection of observations on the galactic scale and beyond: the speed of rotation of stars in the discs of spiral galaxies, the velocities of galaxies in galactic clusters, gravitational lensing of distant objects by foreground galaxy clusters, the apparent acceleration of the expansion of the universe, and the power spectrum of the anisotropies in the cosmic background radiation, have yielded results grossly at variance with the predictions of General Relativity. The only way to make the results fit the theory is to assume that everything we observe in the cosmos makes up less than 5% of its total mass, and that the balance is “dark matter” and “dark energy”, neither of which has yet been observed or detected apart from their imputed gravitational effects. Sound familiar?

In this book, John Moffat, a distinguished physicist who has spent most of his long career exploring extensions to Einstein's theory of General Relativity, dares to suggest that history may be about to repeat itself, and that the discrepancy between what our theories predict and what we observe may not be due to something we haven't seen, but rather limitations in the scope of validity of our theories. Just as Newton's theory of gravity, exquisitely precise on the terrestrial scale and in the outer solar system, failed when applied to the strong gravitational field close to the Sun in which Mercury orbits, perhaps Einstein's theory also requires corrections over the very large distances involved in the galactic and cosmological scales. The author recounts his quest for such a theory, and eventual development of Modified Gravity (MOG), a scalar/tensor/vector field theory which reduces to Einstein's General Relativity when the scalar and vector fields are set to zero.

This theory is claimed to explain all of these large scale discrepancies without invoking dark matter, and to do so, after calibration of the static fields from observational data, with no free parameters (“fudge factors”). Unlike some other speculative theories, MOG makes a number of predictions which it should be possible to test in the next decade. MOG predicts a very different universe in the strong field regime than General Relativity: there are no black holes, no singularities, and the Big Bang is replaced by a universe which starts out with zero matter density and zero entropy at the start and decays because, as we all know, nothing is unstable.

The book is fascinating, but in a way unsatisfying. The mathematical essence of the theory is never explained: you'll have to read the author's professional publications to find it. There are no equations, not even in the end notes, which nonetheless contain prose such as (p. 235):

Wilson loops can describe a gauge theory such as Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism or the gauge theory of the standard model of particle physics. These loops are gauge-invariant observables obtained from the holonomy of the gauge connection around a given loop. The holonomy of a connection in differential geometry on a smooth manifold is defined as the measure to which parallel transport around closed loops fails to preserve the geometrical data being transported. Holonomy has nontrivial local and global features for curved connections.
I know that they say you lose half the audience for every equation you include in a popular science book, but this is pretty forbidding stuff for anybody who wanders into the notes. For a theory like this, the fit to the best available observational data is everything, and this is discussed almost everywhere only in qualitative terms. Let's see the numbers! Although there is a chapter on string theory and quantum gravity, these topics are dropped in the latter half of the book: MOG is a purely classical theory, and there is no discussion of how it might lead toward the quantisation of gravitation or be an emergent effective field theory of a lower level quantum substrate.

There aren't many people with the intellect, dogged persistence, and self-confidence to set out on the road to deepen our understanding of the universe at levels far removed from those of our own experience. Einstein struggled for ten years getting from Special to General Relativity, and Moffat has worked for three times as long arriving at MOG and working out its implications. If it proves correct, it will be seen as one of the greatest intellectual achievements by a single person (with a small group of collaborators) in recent history. Should that be the case (and several critical tests which may knock the theory out of the box will come in the near future), this book will prove a unique look into how the theory was so patiently constructed. It's amusing to reflect, if it turns out that dark matter and dark energy end up being epicycles invoked to avoid questioning a theory never tested in the domains in which it was being applied, how historians of science will look back at our age and wryly ask, “What were they thinking?”.

I have a photo credit on p. 119 for a vegetable.

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Flynn, Vince. Transfer of Power. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-671-02320-1.
No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that Islamic terrorists could make a successful strike on a high-profile symbol of U.S. power. Viewed from a decade later, this novel, the first featuring counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (who sometimes makes Jack Bauer seem like a bureaucrat), is astonishingly prescient. It is an almost perfect thriller—one of the most difficult to put down books I've read in quite some time. Apart from the action, which is abundant, the author has a pitch-perfect sense of the venality and fecklessness of politicians and skewers them with a gusto reminiscent of the early novels of Allen Drury.

I was completely unaware of this author and his hugely popular books (six of which, to date, have made the New York Times bestseller list) until I heard an extended interview (transcript; audio parts 1, 2, 3) with the author, after which I immediately ordered this book. It did not disappoint, and I shall be reading more in the series.

I don't read thrillers in a hyper-critical mode unless they transgress to such an extent that I begin to exclaim “oh, come on”. Still, this novel is carefully researched, and the only goof I noticed is in the Epilogue on p. 545 where “A KH-12 Keyhole satellite was moved into geosynchronous orbit over the city of Sao Paulo and began recording phone conversations”. The KH-12 (a somewhat ambiguous designation for an upgrade of the KH-11 reconnaissance satellite) operates in low Earth orbit, not geosynchronous orbit, and is an imaging satellite, not a signals intelligence satellite equipped to intercept communications. The mass market edition I read includes a teaser for Protect and Defend, the eighth novel in the series. This excerpt contains major spoilers for the earlier books, and if you're one of those people (like me) who likes to follow the books in a series in order, give it a miss.

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Orlov, Dmitry. Reinventing Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0-86571-606-3.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12. He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In this book he describes firsthand what happens when a continental scale superpower experiences economic and societal collapse, what it means to those living through it, and how those who survived managed to do so, in some cases prospering amid the rubble.

He then goes on to pose the question of whether the remaining superpower, the United States, is poised to experience a collapse of the same magnitude. This he answers in the affirmative, with only the timing uncertain (these events tend to happen abruptly and with little warning—in 1985 virtually every Western analyst assumed the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture on the world stage; six years later it was gone). He presents a U.S. collapse scenario in the form of the following theorem on p. 3, based upon the axioms of “Peak Oil” and the unsustainability of the debt the U.S. is assuming to finance its oil imports (as well as much of the rest of its consumer economy and public sector).

Oil powers just about everything in the US economy, from food production and distribution to shipping, construction and plastics manufacturing. When less oil becomes available, less is produced, but the amount of money in circulation remains the same, causing the prices for the now scarcer products to be bid up, causing inflation. The US relies on foreign investors to finance its purchases of oil, and foreign investors, seeing high inflation and economic turmoil, flee in droves. Result: less money with which to buy oil and, consequently, less oil with which to produce things. Lather, rinse, repeat; stop when you run out of oil. Now look around: Where did that economy disappear to?
Now if you believe in Peak Oil (as the author most certainly does, along with most of the rest of the catechism of the environmental left), this is pretty persuasive. But even if you don't, you can make the case for a purely economic collapse, especially with the unprecedented deficits and money creation as the present process of deleveraging accelerates into debt liquidation (either through inflation or outright default and bankruptcy). The ultimate trigger doesn't make a great deal of difference to the central argument: the U.S. runs on oil (and has no near-term politically and economically viable substitute) and depends upon borrowed money both to purchase oil and to service its ever-growing debt. At the moment creditors begin to doubt they're every going to be repaid (as happened with the Soviet Union in its final days), it's game over for the economy, even if the supply of oil remains constant.

Drawing upon the Soviet example, the author examines what an economic collapse on a comparable scale would mean for the U.S. Ironically, he concludes that many of the weaknesses which were perceived as hastening the fall of the Soviet system—lack of a viable cash economy, hoarding and self-sufficiency at the enterprise level, failure to produce consumer goods, lack of consumer credit, no private ownership of housing, and a huge and inefficient state agricultural sector which led many Soviet citizens to maintain their own small garden plots— resulted, along with the fact that the collapse was from a much lower level of prosperity, in mitigating the effects of collapse upon individuals. In the United States, which has outsourced much of its manufacturing capability, depends heavily upon immigrants in the technology sector, and has optimised its business models around high-velocity cash transactions and just in time delivery, the consequences post-collapse may be more dire than in the “primitive” Soviet system. If you're going to end up primitive, you may be better starting out primitive.

The author, although a U.S. resident for all of his adult life, did not seem to leave his dark Russian cynicism and pessimism back in the USSR. Indeed, on numerous occasions he mocks the U.S. and finds it falls short of the Soviet standard in areas such as education, health care, public transportation, energy production and distribution, approach to religion, strength of the family, and durability and repairability of capital and the few consumer goods produced. These are indicative of what he terms a “collapse gap”, which will leave the post-collapse U.S. in much worse shape than ex-Soviet Russia: in fact he believes it will never recover and after a die-off and civil strife, may fracture into a number of political entities, all reduced to a largely 19th century agrarian lifestyle. All of this seems a bit much, and is compounded by offhand remarks about the modern lifestyle which seem to indicate that his idea of a “sustainable” world would be one largely depopulated of humans in which the remainder lived in communities much like traditional African villages. That's what it may come to, but I find it difficult to see this as desirable. Sign me up for L. Neil Smith's “freedom, immortality, and the stars” instead.

The final chapter proffers a list of career opportunities which proved rewarding in post-collapse Russia and may be equally attractive elsewhere. Former lawyers, marketing executives, financial derivatives traders, food chemists, bank regulators, university administrators, and all the other towering overhead of drones and dross whose services will no longer be needed in post-collapse America may have a bright future in the fields of asset stripping, private security (or its mirror image, violent racketeering), herbalism and medical quackery, drugs and alcohol, and even employment in what remains of the public sector. Hit those books!

There are some valuable insights here into the Soviet collapse as seen from the perspective of citizens living through it and trying to make the best of the situation, and there are some observations about the U.S. which will make you think and question assumptions about the stability and prospects for survival of the economy and society on its present course. But there are so many extreme statements you come away from the book feeling like you've endured an “end is nigh” rant by a wild-eyed eccentric which dilutes the valuable observations the author makes.

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Susskind, Leonard. The Black Hole War. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-01640-7.
I hesitated buying this book for some months after its publication because of a sense there was something “off” in the author's last book, The Cosmic Landscape (March 2006). I should learn to trust my instincts more; this book treats a fascinating and important topic on the wild frontier between general relativity and quantum mechanics in a disappointing, deceptive, and occasionally infuriating manner.

The author is an eminent physicist who has made major contributions to string theory, the anthropic string landscape, and the problem of black hole entropy and the fate of information which is swallowed by a black hole. The latter puzzle is the topic of the present book, which is presented as a “war” between Stephen Hawking and his followers, mostly general relativity researchers, and Susskind and his initially small band of quantum field and string theorists who believed that information must be preserved in black hole accretion and evaporation lest the foundations of physics (unitarity and the invertibility of the S-matrix) be destroyed.

Here is a simple way to understand one aspect of this apparent paradox. Entropy is a measure of the hidden information in a system. The entropy of gas at equilibrium is very high because there are a huge number of microscopic configurations (position and velocity) of the molecules of the gas which result in the same macroscopic observables: temperature, pressure, and volume. A perfect crystal at absolute zero, on the other hand, has (neglecting zero-point energy), an entropy of zero because there is precisely one arrangement of atoms which exactly reproduces it. A classical black hole, as described by general relativity, is characterised by just three parameters: mass, angular momentum, and electrical charge. (The very same basic parameters as elementary particles—hmmmm….) All of the details of the mass and energy which went into the black hole: lepton and baryon number, particle types, excitations, and higher level structure are lost as soon as they cross the event horizon and cause it to expand. According to Einstein's theory, two black holes with the same mass, spin, and charge are absolutely indistinguishable even if the first was made from the collapse of a massive star and the second by crushing 1975 Ford Pintos in a cosmic trash compactor. Since there is a unique configuration for a given black hole, there is no hidden information and its entropy should therefore be zero.

But consider this: suppose you heave a ball of hot gas or plasma—a star, say—into the black hole. Before it is swallowed, it has a very high entropy, but as soon as it is accreted, you have only empty space and the black hole with entropy zero. You've just lowered the entropy of the universe, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that cannot ever happen. Some may argue that the Second Law is “transcended” in a circumstance like this, but it is a pill which few physicists are willing to swallow, especially since in this case it occurs in a completely classical context on a large scale where statistical mechanics obtains. It was this puzzle which led Jacob Bekenstein to propose that black holes did, in fact, have an entropy which was proportional to the area of the event horizon in units of Planck length squared. Black holes not only have entropy, they have a huge amount of it, and account for the overwhelming majority of entropy in the universe. Stephen Hawking subsequently reasoned that if a black hole has entropy, it must have temperature and radiate, and eventually worked out the mechanism of Hawking radiation and the evaporation of black holes.

But if a black hole can evaporate, what happens to the information (more precisely, the quantum state) of the material which collapsed into the black hole in the first place? Hawking argued that it was lost: the evaporation of the black hole was a purely thermal process which released none of the information lost down the black hole. But one of the foundations of quantum mechanics is that information is never lost; it may be scrambled in complex scattering processes to such an extent that you can't reconstruct the initial state, but in principle if you had complete knowledge of the state vector you could evolve the system backward and arrive at the initial configuration. If a black hole permanently destroys information, this wrecks the predictability of quantum mechanics and with it all of microscopic physics.

This book chronicles the author's quest to find out what happens to information that falls into a black hole and discover the mechanism by which information swallowed by the black hole is eventually restored to the universe when the black hole evaporates. The reader encounters string theory, the holographic principle, D-branes, anti de Sitter space, and other arcana, and is eventually led to the explanation that a black hole is really just an enormous ball of string, which encodes in its structure and excitations all of the information of the individual fundamental strings swallowed by the hole. As the black hole evaporates, little bits of this string slip outside the event horizon and zip away as fundamental particles, carrying away the information swallowed by the hole.

The story is told largely through analogies and is easy to follow if you accept the author's premises. I found the tone of the book quite difficult to take, however. The word which kept popping into my head as I made my way through was “smug”. The author opines on everything and anything, and comes across as scornful of anybody who disagrees with his opinions. He is bemused and astonished when he discovers that somebody who is a Republican, an evangelical Christian, or some other belief at variance with the dogma of the academic milieu he inhabits can, nonetheless, actually be a competent scientist. He goes on for two pages (pp. 280–281) making fun of Mormonism and then likens Stephen Hawking to a cult leader. The physics is difficult enough to explain; who cares about what Susskind thinks about everything else? Sometimes he goes right over the top, resulting in unseemly prose like the following.

Although the Black Hole War should have come to an end in early 1998, Stephen Hawking was like one of those unfortunate soldiers who wander in the jungle for years, not knowing that the hostilities have ended. By this time, he had become a tragic figure. Fifty-six years old, no longer at the height of his intellectual powers, and almost unable to communicate, Stephen didn't get the point. I am certain that it was not because of his intellectual limitations. From the interactions I had with him well after 1998, it was obvious that his mind was still extremely sharp. But his physical abilities had so badly deteriorated that he was almost completely locked within his own head. With no way to write an equation and tremendous obstacles to collaborating with others, he must have found it impossible to do the things physicists ordinarily do to understand new, unfamiliar work. So Stephen went on fighting for some time. (p. 419)
Or, Prof. Susskind, perhaps it's that the intellect of Prof. Hawking makes him sceptical of arguments based a “theory” which is, as you state yourself on p. 384, “like a very complicated Tinkertoy set, with lots of different parts that can fit together in consistent patterns”; for which not a single fundamental equation has yet been written down; in which no model that remotely describes the world in which we live has been found; whose mathematical consistency and finiteness in other than toy models remains conjectural; whose results regarding black holes are based upon another conjecture (AdS/CFT) which, even if proven, operates in a spacetime utterly unlike the one we inhabit; which seems to predict a vast “landscape” of possible solutions (vacua) which make it not a theory of everything but rather a “theory of anything”; which is formulated in a flat Minkowski spacetime, neglecting the background independence of general relativity; and which, after three decades of intensive research by some of the most brilliant thinkers in theoretical physics, has yet to make a single experimentally-testable prediction, while demonstrating its ability to wiggle out of almost any result (for example, failure of the Large Hadron Collider to find supersymmetric particles).

At the risk of attracting the scorn the author vents on pp. 186–187 toward non-specialist correspondents, let me say that the author's argument for “black hole complementarity” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to this layman. In essence, he argues that matter infalling across the event horizon of a black hole, if observed from outside, is disrupted by the “extreme temperature” there, and is excited into its fundamental strings which spread out all over the horizon, preserving the information accreted in the stringy structure of the horizon (whence it can be released as the black hole evaporates). But for a co-moving observer infalling with the matter, nothing whatsoever happens at the horizon (apart from tidal effects whose magnitude depends upon the mass of the black hole). Susskind argues that since you have to choose your frame of reference and cannot simultaneously observe the event from both outside the horizon and falling across it, there is no conflict between these two descriptions, and hence they are complementary in the sense Bohr described quantum observables.

But, unless I'm missing something fundamental, the whole thing about the “extreme temperature” at the black hole event horizon is simply nonsense. Yes, if you lower a thermometer from a space station at some distance from a black hole down toward the event horizon, it will register a diverging temperature as it approaches the horizon. But this is because it is moving near the speed of light with respect to spacetime falling through the horizon and is seeing the cosmic background radiation blueshifted by a factor which reaches infinity at the horizon. Further, being suspended above the black hole, the thermometer is in a state of constant acceleration (it might as well have a rocket keeping it at a specified distance from the horizon as a tether), and is thus in a Rindler spacetime and will measure black body radiation even in a vacuum due to the Unruh effect. But note that due to the equivalence principle, all of this will happen precisely the same even with no black hole. The same thermometer, subjected to the identical acceleration and velocity with respect to the cosmic background radiation frame, will read precisely the same temperature in empty space, with no black hole at all (and will even observe a horizon due to its hyperbolic motion).

The “lowering the thermometer” is a completely different experiment from observing an object infalling to the horizon. The fact that the suspended thermometer measures a high temperature in no way implies that a free-falling object approaching the horizon will experience such a temperature or be disrupted by it. A co-moving observer with the object will observe nothing as it crosses the horizon, while a distant observer will see the object appear to freeze and wink out as it reaches the horizon and the time dilation and redshift approaches infinity. Nowhere is there this legendary string blowtorch at the horizon spreading out the information in the infalling object around a horizon which, observed from either perspective, is just empty space.

The author concludes, in a final chapter titled “Humility”, “The Black Hole War is over…”. Well, maybe, but for this reader, the present book did not make the sale. The arguments made here are based upon aspects of string theory which are, at the moment, purely conjectural and models which operate in universes completely different from the one we inhabit. What happens to information that falls into a black hole? Well, Stephen Hawking has now conceded that it is preserved and released in black hole evaporation (but this assumes an anti de Sitter spacetime, which we do not inhabit), but this book just leaves me shaking my head at the arm waving arguments and speculative theorising presented as definitive results.

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May 2009

Cochran, Gregory and Henry Harpending. The 10,000 Year Explosion. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-00221-4.
“Only an intellectual could believe something so stupid” most definitely applies to the conventional wisdom among anthropologists and social scientists that human evolution somehow came to an end around 40,000 years ago with the emergence of modern humans and that differences among human population groups today are only “skin deep”: the basic physical, genetic, and cognitive toolkit of humans around the globe is essentially identical, with only historical contingency and cultural inheritance responsible for different outcomes.

To anybody acquainted with evolutionary theory, this should have been dismissed as ideologically motivated nonsensical propaganda on the face of it. Evolution is driven by changes and new challenges faced by a species as it moves into new niches and environments, adapts to environmental change, migrates and encounters new competition, and is afflicted by new diseases which select for those with immunity. Modern humans, in their expansion from Africa to almost every habitable part of the globe, have endured changes and challenges which dwarf those of almost any other metazoan species. It stands to reason, then, that the pace of human evolution, far from coming to a halt, would in fact accelerate dramatically, as natural selection was driven by the coming and going of ice ages, the development of agriculture and domestication of animals, spread of humans into environments inhospitable to their ancestors, trade and conquest resulting in the mixing of genes among populations, and numerous other factors.

Fortunately, we're lucky to live in an age in which we need no longer speculate upon such matters. The ability to sequence the human genome and compare the lineage of genes in various populations has created the field of genetic anthropology, which is in the process of transforming what was once a “soft science” into a thoroughly quantitative discipline where theories can be readily falsified by evidence in the genome. This book has the potential of creating a phase transition in anthropology: it is a manifesto for the genomic revolution, and a few years from now anthropologists who ignore the kind of evidence presented here will be increasingly forgotten, publishing papers nobody reads because they neglect the irrefutable evidence of human history we carry in our genes.

The authors are very ambitious in their claims, and I'm sure that some years from now they will be seen to have overreached in some of them. But the central message will, I am confident, stand: human evolution has dramatically accelerated since the emergence of modern humans, and is being driven at an ever faster pace by the cultural and environmental changes humans are incessantly confronting. Further, human history cannot be understood without first acknowledging that the human populations which were the actors in it were fundamentally different. The conquest of the Americas by Europeans may well not have happened had not Europeans carried genes which protected them against the infectuous diseases they also carried on their voyages of exploration and conquest. (By some estimates, indigenous populations in the Americas fell to 10% of their pre-contact levels, precipitating societal collapse.) Why do about half of all humans on Earth speak languages of the Indo-European group? Well, it may be because the obscure cattle herders from the steppes who spoke the ur-language happened to evolve a gene which made them lactose tolerant throughout adulthood, and hence were able to raise cattle for dairy products, which is five times as productive (measured by calories per unit area) as raising cattle for meat. While Europeans' immunity to disease served them well in their conquest of the Americas, their lack of immunity to diseases endemic in sub-Saharan Africa (in particular, falciparum malaria) rendered initial attempts colonise that region disastrous.

The authors do not hesitate to speculate on possible genetic influences on events in human history, but their conjectures are based upon published genetic evidence, cited from primary sources in the extensive end notes. A number of these discussions may lead to the sound of skulls exploding among those wedded to the dominant academic dogma. The authors suggest that some of the genes which allowed modern humans emerging from Africa to prosper in northern climes were the result of cross-breeding with Neanderthals; that just as domestication of animals results in neoteny, domestication of humans in agricultural and the consequent state societies has induced neotenous changes in “domesticated humans” which result in populations with a long history of living in agricultural societies adapting better to modern civilisation than those without that selection in their genetic heritage, and that the unique experience of selection for success in intellectually demanding professions and lack of interbreeding resulted in the emergence of the Ashkenazi Jews as a population whose mean intelligence exceeds that of all other human populations (as well as a prevalence of genetic diseases which appear linked to biochemical factors related to brain function).

There's an odd kind of doublethink present among many champions of evolutionary theory. While invoking evolution to explain even those aspects of the history of life on Earth where doing so involves what can only be called a “leap of faith”, they dismiss the self-evident consequences of natural selection on populations of their own species. Certainly, all humans constitute a single species: we can interbreed, and that's the definition. But all dogs and wolves can interbreed, yet nobody would say that there is no difference between a Great Dane and a Dachshund. Largely isolated human populations have been subjected to unique selective pressures from their environment, diet, diseases, conflict, culture, and competition, and it's nonsense to argue that these challenges did not drive selection of adaptive alleles among the population.

This book is a welcome shot across the bow of the “we're all the same” anthropological dogma, and provides a guide to the discoveries to be made as comparative genetics lays a firm scientific foundation for anthropology.

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Grant, Rob. Fat. London: Gollancz, 2006. ISBN 978-0-575-07820-8.
Every now and then, you have a really bad day. If you're lucky, you actually experience such days less frequently than you have nightmares about them (mine almost always involve trade shows, which demonstrates how traumatic that particular form of torture can be). The only remedy is to pick up the work of a master who shows you that whatever's happened to you is nothing compared to how bad a day really can be—this is such a yarn. This farce is in the fine tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Tom Sharpe, and is set in a future in which the British nanny state finally decides to do something about the “epidemic of obesity” which is bankrupting the National Health Service by establishing Well Farms, modelled upon that earlier British innovation, the concentration camp.

The story involves several characters, all of whom experience their own really bad days and come to interact in unexpected ways (you really begin to wonder how the author is going to pull it all together as the pages dwindle, but he does, and satisfyingly). And yet, as is usually the case in the genre, everything ends well for everybody.

This is a thoroughly entertaining romp, but there's also a hard edge here. The author skewers a number of food fads and instances of bad science and propaganda in the field of diet and nutrition and even provides a list of resources for those interested in exploring the facts behind the nonsense spouted by the “studies”, “reports”, and “experts” quoted in the legacy media.

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Berenson, Alex. The Silent Man. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009. ISBN 978-0-399-15538-3.
This is a compelling page-turner in which the nightmare scenario of “loose nukes” falling into the hands of jihadi terrorists raises the risk of a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil. Only intrepid CIA agent (and loose cannon—heroes in books like this never seem to be of the tethered cannon variety) John Wells can put the pieces together before disaster strikes and possibly provokes consequences even worse than a nuclear blast.

The author has come up with a very clever scenario to get around many of the obvious objections to most plots of this kind. The characters of the malefactors are believable, and the suspense as the story unfolds is palpable; this is a book I did not want to either put down or have come to an end too quickly. Still, I have some major quibbles with the details, which I'll describe in the spoiler block below (I don't consider anything discussed a major plot spoiler, but better safe than sorry).

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
There are number of factual goofs (or invocations of artistic license, if you prefer). The Russian nuclear warheads stolen by the terrorists are said to be from SS-26 Iskander tactical missiles. Yet according to both the Russian military and NATO, this missile uses only conventional warheads. The warheads are said to have been returned for refurbishing due to damage from the missile's corrosive liquid fuel, but the Iskander is, in fact, a solid fuel missile

The premise of constructing an improvised gun assembly nuclear weapon from material from the secondary of a thermonuclear warhead seems highly implausible to me. (They couldn't use the fissile material from the primary because it is plutonium, which would predetonate in a gun design, and they can't fire the implosion mechanism of the primary without the permissive action link code, without which the implosion system will misfire, resulting in no nuclear yield.) Anyway, the terrorists plan to use highly enriched U-235 from the secondary in their gun bomb. The problem is that, unless I'm mistaken or the Russians use a very odd design in their bombs, there is no reason for a fusion secondary to contain anywhere near a critical mass of U-235 or, for that matter, any U-235 at all. In a Teller-Ulam design the only fissile material in the secondary is the uranium or plutonium “spark plug” used to heat the lithium deuteride fuel to a temperature where fusion can begin, but, even if U-235 is used, the quantity is much less than that required for a gun assembly bomb.

Even if the terrorists did manage to obtain sufficient U-235, I'm far from certain the bomb would have worked. They planned to use a gun assembly with a Russian SPG-9 recoilless rifle propelling the projectile into the target. They weld the tube of the bazooka directly to the steel tamper surrounding the target. But that won't work! The SPG-9 projectile is ejected from the tube by a small charge, but its rocket motor, which accelerates it to full velocity, does not ignite until the projectile is about twenty metres from the tube. So the projectile in the bomb would be accelerated only by the initial charge, which wouldn't impart anything like the velocity needed to avoid predetonation. Finally, the terrorists have no initiator: they just hope background radiation will generate a neutron to get things going. But if they aren't lucky, the whole assembly will be blown apart by the explosive charge of the SPG-9 round before nuclear detonation begins.

Now, if you don't know these details, or you're willing to ignore them (as I was), they don't in any way detract from what is a gripping story. There's no question that a small group of terrorists who came into possession of a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium could construct a simple gun bomb which would have a high probability of working on the first try. It's just that the scenario in the novel doesn't explain how they obtained a sufficient quantity, nor does it describe a weapon design which is likely to work.

Spoilers end here.  

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Ciszek, Walter J. with Daniel L. Flaherty. He Leadeth Me. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1973] 1995. ISBN 978-0-89870-546-1.
Shortly after joining the Jesuit order in 1928, the author volunteered for the “Russian missions” proclaimed by Pope Pius XI. Consequently, he received most of his training at a newly-established centre in Rome, where in addition to the usual preparation for the Jesuit priesthood, he mastered the Russian language and the sacraments of the Byzantine rite in addition to those of the Latin. At the time of his ordination in 1937, Stalin's policy prohibited the entry of priests of all kinds to the Soviet Union, so Ciszek was assigned to a Jesuit mission in eastern Poland (as the Polish-American son of first-generation immigrants, he was acquainted with the Polish language). When Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 at the outbreak of what was to become World War II, he found himself in the Soviet-occupied region and subject to increasingly stringent curbs on religious activities imposed by the Soviet occupation.

The Soviets began to recruit labour brigades in Poland to work in factories and camps in the Urals, and the author and another priest from the mission decided to volunteer for one of these brigades, concealing their identity as priests, so as to continue their ministry to the Polish labourers and the ultimate goal of embarking on their intended mission to Russia. Upon arriving at a lumbering camp, the incognito priests found that the incessant, backbreaking work and intense scrutiny by the camp bosses made it impossible to minister to the other labourers.

When Hitler double crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Red Army was initially in disarray and Stalin apparently paralysed, but the NKVD (later to become the KGB) did what it has always done best with great efficiency: Ciszek, along with hundreds of other innocents, was rounded up as a “German spy” and thrown in prison. When it was discovered that he was, in fact, a Catholic priest, the charge was changed to “Vatican spy”, and he was sent to the Lubyanka, where he was held throughout the entire war—five years—most of it in solitary confinement, and subjected to the relentless, incessant, and brutal interrogations for which the NKVD never seemed to lack resources even as the Soviet Union was fighting for its survival.

After refusing to be recruited as a spy, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Siberia and shipped in a boxcar filled with hardened criminals to the first of a series of camps where only the strongest in body and spirit could survive. He served the entire 15 years less only three months, and was then released with a restricted internal passport which only permitted him to live in specific areas and required him to register with the police everywhere he went. In 1947, the Jesuit order listed him as dead in a Soviet prison, but he remained on the books of the KGB, and in 1963 was offered as an exchange to the U.S. for two Soviet spies in U.S. custody, and arrived back in the U.S. after twenty-three years in the Soviet Union.

In this book, as in his earlier With God in Russia, he recounts the events of his extraordinary life and provides a first-hand look at the darkest parts of a totalitarian society. Unlike the earlier book, which is more biographical, in the present volume the author uses the events he experienced as the point of departure for a very Jesuit exploration of topics including the body and soul, the priesthood, the apostolate, the kingdom of God on Earth, humility, and faith. He begins the chapter on the fear of death by observing, “Facing a firing squad is a pretty good test, I guess, of your theology of death” (p. 143).

As he notes in the Epilogue, on the innumerable occasions he was asked, after his return to the U.S., “How did you manage to survive?” and replied along the lines explained herein: by consigning his destiny to the will of God and accepting whatever came as God's will for him, many responded that “my beliefs in this matter are too simple, even naïve; they may find that my faith is not only childlike but childish.” To this he replies, “I am sorry if they feel this way, but I have written only what I know and what I have experienced. … My answer has always been—and can only be—that I survived on the basis of the faith others may find too simple and naïve” (p. 199).

Indeed, to this reader, it seemed that Ciszek's ongoing discovery that fulfillment and internal peace lay in complete submission to the will of God as revealed in the events one faces from day to day sometimes verged upon a fatalism I associate more with Islam than Catholicism. But this is the philosophy developed by an initially proud and ambitious man which permitted him not only to survive the almost unimaginable, but to achieve, to some extent, his mission to bring the word of God to those living in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

A more detailed biography with several photographs of Father Ciszek is available. Since 1990, he has been a candidate for beatification and sainthood.

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Lauer, Heather. Bacon: A Love Story. New York: William Morrow, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-170428-4.
The author, who operates the Bacon Unwrapped Web site, just loves bacon. But who doesn't? I've often thought that a principal reason the Middle East produces so much more trouble than it consumes is that almost nobody there ever mellows out in that salty, fat-metabolising haze of having consumed a plate-full of The Best Meat Ever.

Bacon (and other salt-cured pork products) has been produced for millennia, and the process (which is easy do at home and explained here, if you're so inclined) is simple. And yet the result is so yummy that there are innumerable ways to use this meat in all kinds of meals. This book traces the history of bacon, its use in the cuisine of cultures around the world, and its recent breakout from breakfast food to a gourmet item in main courses and even dessert.

The author is an enthusiast, and her passion is echoed in the prose. But what would be amusing in an essay comes across as a bit too precious and tedious in a 200 page book—how many times do we need to be reminded that bacon is The Best Meat Ever? There are numerous recipes for baconlicious treats you might not have ever imagined. I'm looking forward to trying the macaroni and blue cheese with bacon from p. 153. I'm not so sure about the bacon peanut brittle or the bacon candy floss. Still, the concept of bacon as candy (after all, bacon has been called “meat candy”) has its appeal: one customer's reaction upon tasting a maple bacon lollipop was “Jesus got my letter!” For those who follow Moses, there's no longer a need to forgo the joys of bacon: thanks to the miracles of twenty-first century chemistry, 100% kosher Bacon Salt (in a rainbow of flavours) aims to accomplish its mission statement: “Everything should taste like bacon.” Try it on popcorn—trust me.

If you're looking for criticism of the irrational love of bacon, you've come to the wrong place. I don't eat a lot of bacon myself—when you only have about 2000 calories a day to work with, there's only a limited amount of porky ambrosia you can admit into your menu plan. This is a superb book which will motivate you to explore other ways to incorporate preserved pork bellies into your diet, and if that isn't happiness, what is? You will learn a great deal here about the history of pork products: now I finally understand the distinction between bacon, pancetta, and prosciutto.

Bacon lovers should be sure to bookmark The Bacon Show, a Web site which promises “One bacon recipe per day, every day, forever” and has been delivering just that for more than four years.

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June 2009

Flynn, Vince. The Third Option. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. ISBN 978-0-671-04732-0.
This is the second novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. Unlike the previous episode, Transfer of Power (April 2009), which involved a high-profile terrorist strike, this is much more of a grudge match conducted in the shadows, with Rapp as much prey as hunter and uncertain of whom he can trust. Flynn demonstrates he can pull off this kind of ambiguous espionage story as well as the flash-bang variety, and while closing the present story in a satisfying way sets the stage for the next round of intrigue without resorting to a cliffhanger.

Rapp's character becomes increasingly complex as the saga unfolds, and while often conflicted he is mission-oriented and has no difficulty understanding his job description. Here he's reluctantly describing it to a congressman who has insisted he be taken into confidence (p. 296):

“… I'm what you might call a counterterrorism specialist.”

“Okay … and what, may I ask, does a counterterrorism specialist do?”

Rapp was not well versed in trying to spin what he did, so he just blurted out the hard, cold truth. “I kill terrorists.”

“Say again?”

“I hunt them down, and I kill them.”

No nuance for Mr. Mitch!

This is a superbly crafted thriller which will make you hunger for the next. Fortunately, there are seven sequels already published and more on the way. See my comments on the first installment for additional details and a link to an interview with the author. The montage on the cover of the paperback edition I read uses a biohazard sign (☣) as its background—I have no idea why—neither disease nor biological weapons figure in the story in any way. Yes, I've been reading a lot of thrillers recently—summer's comin' and 'tis the season for light and breezy reading. I'll reserve Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell for the dwindling daylight of autumn, if you don't mind.

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[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1884] 1999. ISBN 978-0-393-02039-7.
If you've read an abridged or bowdlerised edition of this timeless classic as a child or been deprived of it due to its being deemed politically incorrect by the hacks and morons in charge of education in recent decades, this audiobook is a superb way (better in some ways than a print edition) to appreciate the genius of one the greatest storytellers of all time. This is not your typical narration of a print novel. Voice actor Patrick Fraley assumes a different pitch, timbre, and dialect for each of the characters, making this a performance, not a reading; his wry, ironic tone for Huck's first person narration is spot on.

I, like many readers (among them Ernest Hemingway), found the last part of the book set on the Phelps farm less satisfying than the earlier story, but so great is Mark Twain's genius that, by themselves, these chapters would be a masterwork of the imagination of childhood.

The audio programme is distributed in two files, running 11 hours and 17 minutes, with original music between the chapters and plot interludes. An Audio CD edition is available. If you're looking for a print edition, this is the one to get; it can also serve as an excellent resource to consult as you're listening to the audiobook.

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Caplan, Bryan. The Myth of the Rational Voter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-691-13873-2.
Every survey of the electorate in Western democracies shows it to be woefully uninformed: few can name their elected representatives or identify their party affiliation, nor answer the most basic questions about the political system under which they live. Economists and political scientists attribute this to “rational ignorance”: since there is a vanishingly small probability that the vote of a single person will be decisive, it is rational for that individual to ignore the complexities of the issues and candidates and embrace the cluelessness which these polls make manifest.

But, the experts contend, there's no problem—even if a large majority of the electorate is ignorant knuckle-walkers, it doesn't matter because they'll essentially vote at random. Their uninformed choices will cancel out, and the small informed minority will be decisive. Hence the “miracle of aggregation”: stir in millions of ignoramuses and thousands of political junkies and diligent citizens and out pops true wisdom.

Or maybe not—this book looks beyond the miracle of aggregation, which assumes that the errors of the uninformed are random, to examine whether there are systematic errors (or biases) among the general population which cause democracies to choose policies which are ultimately detrimental to the well-being of the electorate. The author identifies four specific biases in the field of economics, and documents, by a detailed analysis of the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy , that while economists, reputed to always disagree amongst themselves, are in fact, on issues which Thomas Sowell terms Basic Economics (September 2008), almost unanimous in their opinions, yet widely at variance from the views of the general public and the representatives they elect.

Many economists assume that the electorate votes what economists call its “rational choice”, yet empirical data presented here shows that democratic electorates behave very differently. The key insight is that choice in an election is not a preference in a market, where the choice directly affects the purchaser, but rather an allocation in a commons, where the consequences of an individual vote have negligible results upon the voter who casts it. And we all know how commons inevitably end.

The individual voter in a large democratic polity bears a vanishingly small cost in voting their ideology or beliefs, even if they are ultimately damaging to their own well-being, because the probability their own single vote will decide the election is infinitesimal. As a result, the voter is liberated to vote based upon totally irrational beliefs, based upon biases shared by a large portion of the electorate, insulated by the thought, “At least my vote won't decide the election, and I can feel good for having cast it this way”.

You might think that voters would be restrained from indulging their feel-good inclinations by considering their self interest, but studies of voter behaviour and the preferences of subgroups of voters demonstrate that in most circumstances voters support policies and candidates they believe are best for the polity as a whole, not their narrow self interest. Now, this would be a good thing if their beliefs were correct, but at least in the field of economics, they aren't, as defined by the near-unanimous consensus of professional economists. This means that there is a large, consistent, systematic bias in policies preferred by the uninformed electorate, whose numbers dwarf the small fraction who comprehend the issues in contention. And since, once again, there is no cost to an individual voter in expressing his or her erroneous beliefs, the voter can be “rationally irrational”: the possibility of one vote being decisive vanishes next to the cost of becoming informed on the issues, so it is rational to unknowingly vote irrationally. The reason democracies so often pursue irrational policies such as protectionism is not unresponsive politicians or influence of special interests, but instead politicians giving the electorate what it votes for, which is regrettably ultimately detrimental to its own self-interest.

Although the discussion here is largely confined to economic issues, there is no reason to believe that this inherent failure of democratic governance is confined to that arena. Indeed, one need only peruse the daily news to see abundant evidence of democracies committing folly with the broad approbation of their citizenry. (Run off a cliff? Yes, we can!) The author contends that rational irrationality among the electorate is an argument for restricting the scope of government and devolving responsibilities it presently undertakes to market mechanisms. In doing so, the citizen becomes a consumer in a competitive market and now has an individual incentive to make an informed choice because the consequences of that choice will be felt directly by the person making it. Naturally, as you'd expect with an irrational electorate, things seem to have been going in precisely the opposite direction for much of the last century.

This is an excellently argued and exhaustively documented book (The ratio of pages of source citations and end notes to main text may be as great as anything I've read) which will make you look at democracy in a different way and begin to comprehend that in many cases where politicians do stupid things, they are simply carrying out the will of an irrational electorate. For a different perspective on the shortcomings of democracy, also with a primary focus on economics, see Hans-Hermann Hoppe's superb Democracy: The God that Failed (June 2002), which approaches the topic from a hard libertarian perspective.

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Dickson, Paul. The Unwritten Rules of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-156105-4.
Baseball is as much a culture as a game, and a great deal of the way it is played, managed, umpired, reported, and supported by fans is not written down in the official rulebook but rather a body of unwritten rules, customs, traditions, and taboos which, when violated, can often bring down opprobrium upon the offender greater than that of a rulebook infraction. Some egregious offences against the unwritten rules are, as documented here, remembered many decades later and seen as the key event in a player's career. In this little book (just 256 pages) the author collects and codifies in a semi-formal style (complete with three level item numbers) the unwritten rules for players, managers, umpires, the official scorer, fans, and media. For example, under “players”, rule 1.12.1 is “As a pitcher, always walk off the field at the end of an inning; for all other players, the rule is run on, run off the field”. I've been watching baseball for half a century and I'll be darned to heck if I ever noticed that—nor ever recall seeing it violated. There is an extensive discussion of the etiquette of deliberately throwing at the batter: the art of the beanball seems as formalised as a Japanese tea ceremony.

The second half of the book is a collection of aphorisms, rules of thumb, and customs organised alphabetically. In both this section and the enumerated rules, discussions of notable occasions where the rule was violated and the consequences are included. Three appendices provide other compilations of unwritten rules, including one for Japanese major leaguers.

Many of these rules will be well known to fans, but others provide little-known insight into the game. For example, did you know that hitters on a team will rarely tell a pitcher on their own team that he has a “tell” which indicates which pitch he's about to throw? This book explains the logic behind that seemingly perverse practice. I also loved the observation that the quality of books about a sport is inversely related to the size of the ball. Baseball fans, including this one who hasn't seen a game either live or televised for more than a decade, will find this book both a delight and enlightening.

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Clancy, Tom and Steve Pieczenik. Net Force. New York: Berkley, 1999. ISBN 978-0-425-16172-2.
One of the riskiest of marketing strategies is that of “brand expansion”: you have a hugely successful product whose brand name is near-universally known and conveys an image of quality, customer satisfaction, and market leadership. But there's a problem—the very success of the brand has led to its saturating the market, either by commanding a dominant market share or inability to produce additional volume. A vendor in such a position may opt to try to “expand” the brand, leveraging its name recognition by applying it to other products, for example a budget line aimed at less well-heeled customers, a line of products related to the original (Watermelon-Mango Coke), or a completely unrelated product (Volvo dog food). This sometimes works, and works well, but more often it fails at a great cost not only to the new product (but then a large majority of all new products fail, including those of the largest companies with the most extensive market research capabilities), but also to the value of the original brand. If a brand which has become almost synonymous with its project category (Coke, Xerox, Band-Aid) becomes seen as a marketing gimmick cynically applied to induce consumers to buy products which have not earned and are not worthy of the reputation of the original brand, both the value of that brand and the estimation of its owner fall in eyes of potential customers.

Tom Clancy, who in the 1980s and 1990s was the undisputed master of the techno/political/military thriller embarked upon his own program of brand expansion, lending his name to several series of books and video games written by others and marketed under his name, leading the naïve reader to believe they were Clancy's work or at least done under his supervision and comparable to the standard of his own fiction. For example, the present book, first in the “Net Force” series, bears the complete title Tom Clancy's Net Force, an above-the-title blurb, “From the #1 New York Times Bestselling Author”, and the byline, “Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik”. “Created”, eh…but who actually, you know, wrote the book? Well, that would be a gentleman named Steve Perry, whose name appears in the Acknowledgments in the sentence, “We'd like to thank Steve Perry for his creative ideas and his invaluable contributions to the preparation of the manuscript.”. Well yes, I suppose writing it is, indeed, an invaluable contribution to the preparation of a manuscript!

Regardless of how a novel is branded, marketed, or produced, however, the measure of its merit is what's between the covers. So how does this book measure up to the standard of Clancy's own work? I bought this book when it first came out in 1999 as an “airplane book”, but never got around to reading it. I was aware of the nature of this book at the time, having read one of the similarly-produced “Op-Center” novels, so my expectations were not high, but then neither is the level of cognition I expect to devote to a book read on an airplane, even in the pre-2001 era when air travel was not the Hell of torture, extortion, and humiliation it has become today. Anyway, I read something else on that long-forgotten trip, and the present book sat on my shelf slowly yellowing around the edges until I was about to depart on a trip in June 2009. Whilst looking for an airplane book for this trip, I happened across it and, noting that it had been published almost exactly ten years before, was set in the year 2010, and focused upon the evolution of the Internet and human-computer interaction, I thought it would be amusing to compare the vision of Clancy et alii for the next decade to the actual world in which we're living.

Well, I read it—the whole thing, in fact, on the outbound leg of what was supposed to be a short trip—you know you're having a really bad airline experience when due to thunderstorms and fog you end up in a different country than one on the ticket. My reaction? From the perspective of the present day, this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. But the greater problem is that from the perspective of 1999 this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. The technology of the 2010 in the story is not only grossly different from what we have at present, it doesn't make any sense at all to anybody with the most rudimentary knowledge of how computers, the Internet, or for that matter human beings behave. It's as if the author(s) had some kind of half-baked idea of “cyberspace” as conceived by William Gibson and mixed it up with a too-literal interpretation of the phrase “information superhighway”, ending up with car and motorcycle chases where virtual vehicles are careening down the fibrebahn dodging lumbering 18-wheeled packets of bulk data. I'm not making this up—the author(s) are (p. 247), and asking you to believe it!

The need for suspension of disbelief is not suspended from the first page to the last, and the price seems to ratchet up with every chapter. At the outset, we are asked to believe that by “gearing up” with a holographic VR (virtual reality) visor, an individual not only sees three dimensional real time imagery with the full fidelity of human vision, but also experiences touch, temperature, humidity, smell, and acceleration. Now how precisely does that work, particularly the last which appears to be at variance with some work by Professor Einstein? Oh, and this VR gear is available at an affordable price to all computer users, including high school kids in their bedrooms, and individuals can easily create their own virtual reality environments with some simple programming. There is techno-babble enough here for another dozen seasons of “24”. On p. 349, in the 38th of 40 chapters, and completely unrelated to the plot, we learn “The systems were also ugly-looking—lean-mean-GI-green—but when it came to this kind of hardware, pretty was as pretty did. These were state-of-the-art 900 MHz machines, with the new FireEye bioneuro chips, massive amounts of fiberlight memory, and fourteen hours of active battery power if the local plugs didn't work.” 900 Mhz—imagine! (There are many even more egregious examples, but I'll leave it at this in the interest of brevity and so as not to induce nausea.)

But that's not all! Teenage super-hackers, naturally, speak in their own dialect, like (p. 140):

“Hey, Jimmy Joe. How's the flow?”
“Dee eff eff, Tyrone.” This stood for DFF—data flowin' fine.
“Listen, I talked to Jay Gee. He needs our help.”
“Nopraw,” Tyrone said. “Somebody is poppin' strands.”
“Tell me somethin' I don't compro, bro. Somebody is always poppin' strands.”
“Yeah, affirm, but this is different. There's a C-1 grammer [sic] looking to rass the whole web.”
“Nofeek?”
“Nofeek.”

If you want to warm up your suspension of disbelief to take on this twaddle, imagine Tom Clancy voluntarily lending his name and reputation to it. And, hey, if you like this kind of stuff, there are nine more books in the series to read!

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Verne, Jules. Le Château des Carpathes. Paris: Poche, [1892] 1976. ISBN 978-2-253-01329-7.
This is one of Jules Verne's later novels, originally published in 1892, and is considered “minor Verne”, which is to say it's superior to about 95% of science and adventure fiction by other authors. Five years before Bram Stoker penned Dracula, Verne takes us to a looming, gloomy, and abandoned (or is it?) castle on a Carpathian peak in Transylvania, to which the superstitious residents of nearby villages attribute all kinds of supernatural goings on. Verne is clearly having fun with the reader in this book, which reads like a mystery, but what is mysterious is not whodunit, but rather what genre of book you're reading: is it a ghost story, tale of the supernatural, love triangle, mad scientist yarn, or something else? Verne manages to keep all of these balls in the air until the last thirty pages or so, when all is revealed and resolved. It's plenty of fun getting there, as the narrative is rich with the lush descriptive prose and expansive vocabulary for which Verne is renowned. It wouldn't be a Jules Verne novel without at least one stunning throwaway prediction of future technology; here it's the video telephone, to which he gives the delightful name “téléphote”.

A public domain electronic text edition is available from Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. A (pricey) English translation is available. I have not read it and cannot vouch for its faithfulness to Verne's text.

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Leeson, Peter T. The Invisible Hook. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-13747-6.
(Guest review by Iron Jack Rackham)
Avast, ye scurvy sea-dogs! Here we gentlemen of profit have crafted our swashbuckling customs to terrify those we prey upon, and now along comes a doubly-damned economist, and a landlubber at that, to explain how our curious ways can be explained by our own self-interest and lust for booty. Why do we who sail under the skull and crossbones democratically elect our captains and quartermasters: one pirate, one vote? Why do all pirates on the crew share equally in the plunder? Why do so many sailors voluntarily join pirate crews? Why do we pay “workman's compensation” to pirates wounded in battle? Why did the pirate constitutions that govern our ships embody separation of powers long before landlubber governments twigged to the idea? Why do we hoist the Jolly Roger and identify ourselves as pirates when closing with our prey? Why do we torture and/or slay those who resist, yet rarely harm crews which surrender without a fight? Why do our ships welcome buccaneers of all races as free men on an equal basis, even when “legitimate” vessels traded in and used black slaves and their governments tolerated chattel slavery?

This economist would have you believe it isn't our outlaw culture that makes us behave that way, but rather that our own rational choice, driven by our righteous thirst for treasure chests bulging with jewels, gold, and pieces of eight leads us, as if by an invisible hook, to cooperate toward our common goals. And because we're hostis humani generis, we need no foul, coercive governments to impose this governance upon us: it's our own voluntary association which imposes the order we need to achieve our highly profitable plunder—the author calls it “an-arrgh-chy”, and it works for us. What's that? A sail on the horizon? To yer' posts, me hearties, and hoist the Jolly Roger, we're off a-piratin'!

Thank you, Iron Jack—a few more remarks, if I may…there's a lot more in this slim volume (211 pages of main text): the Jolly Roger as one of the greatest brands of all time, lessons from pirates for contemporary corporate managers, debunking of several postmodern myths such as pirates having been predominately homosexual (“swishbucklers”), an examination of how pirates established the defence in case of capture that they had been compelled to join the pirate crew, and an analysis of how changes in Admiralty law shifted the incentives and brought the golden age of piracy to an end in the 1720s.

Exists there a person whose inner child is not fascinated by pirates? This book demonstrates why pirates also appeal to one's inner anarcho-libertarian, while giving pause to those who believe that market forces, unconstrained by a code of morality, always produce good outcomes.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

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July 2009

Swanson, Gerald. The Hyperinflation Survival Guide. Lake Oswego, OR: Eric Englund, 1989. ISBN 978-0-9741180-1-7.
In the 1980s, Harry E. Figgie, founder of Figgie International, became concerned that the then-unprecedented deficits, national debt, and trade imbalance might lead to recurrence of inflation, eventual spiralling into catastrophic hyperinflation (defined in 1956 by economist Phillip Cagan as a 50% or more average rise in prices per month, equivalent to an annual inflation rate of 12,875% or above). While there are a number of books on how individuals and investors can best protect themselves during an inflationary episode, Figgie found almost no guidance for business owners and managers for strategies to enable their enterprises to survive and make the best of the chaotic situation which hyperinflation creates.

To remedy this lacuna, Figgie assembled a three person team headed by the author, an economist at the University of Arizona, and dispatched them to South America, where on four visits over two years, they interviewed eighty business leaders and managers, bankers, and accounting professionals in Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, all of which were in the grip of calamitous inflation at the time, to discover how they managed to survive and cope with the challenge of prices which changed on a daily or even more frequent basis. This short book (or long pamphlet—it's less than 100 pages all-up) is the result.

The inflation which Figgie feared for the 1990s did not come to pass, but the wisdom Swanson and his colleagues collect here is applicable to any epoch of runaway inflation, wherever in the world and whenever it may eventuate. With money creation and debt today surpassing anything in the human experience, and the world's reserve currency being supported only by the willingness of other nations to lend to the United States, one certainly cannot rule out hyperinflation as a possible consequence when all of this paper money works its way through the economy and starts to bid up prices. Consequently, any business owner would be well advised to invest the modest time it takes to read this book and ponder how the advice herein, not based upon academic theorising but rather the actual experience of managers in countries suffering hyperinflation and whose enterprises managed to survive it, could be applied to the circumstances of their own business.

If you didn't live through, or have forgotten, the relatively mild (by these standards) inflation of the 1970s, this book drives home how fundamentally corrupting inflation is. Inflation is, after all, nothing other than the corruption by a national government of the currency it issues, and this corruption sullies everybody who transacts in that currency. Long term business planning goes out the window: “long term” comes to mean a week or two and “short term” today. Sound business practices such as minimising inventory and just in time manufacturing become suicidal when inventory appreciates more rapidly than money placed at interest. Management controls and the chain of command evaporate as purchasing managers must be delegated the authority to make verbal deals on the spot, paid in cash, to obtain the supplies the company needs at prices that won't bankrupt it. If wage and price controls are imposed by the government (as they always are, despite forty centuries of evidence they never work), more and more management resources must be diverted to gaming the system to retain workforce and sell products at a profitable price. Previously mundane areas of the business: purchasing and treasury, become central to the firm's survival, and speculation in raw materials and financial assets may become more profitable than the actual operations of the company. Finally (and the book dances around this a bit without ever saying it quite so baldly as I shall here), there's the flat-out corruption when the only option a business has to keep its doors open and its workers employed may be to buy or sell on the black market, evade wage and price controls by off-the-books transactions, and greasing the skids of government agencies with bulging envelopes of rapidly depreciating currency passed under the table to their functionaries.

Any senior manager, from the owner of a small business to the CEO of a multinational, who deems hyperinflation a possible outcome of the current financial turbulence, would be well advised to read this book. Although published twenty years ago, the pathology of inflation is perennial, and none of the advice is dated in any way. Indeed, as businesses have downsized, outsourced, and become more dependent upon suppliers around the globe, they are increasingly vulnerable to inflation of their home country currency. I'll wager almost every CEO who spends the time to read this book will spend the money to buy copies for all of his direct reports.

When this book was originally published by Figgie International, permission to republish any part or the entire book was granted to anybody as long as the original attribution was retained. If you look around on the Web, you'll find several copies of this book in various formats, none of which I'd consider ideal, but which at least permit you to sample the contents before ordering a print edition.

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Keegan. John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-00-4897-1.
As the author, a distinguished military historian, observes in the extended introduction, the topic of much of military history is battles, but only rarely do historians delve into the experience of battle itself—instead they treat the chaotic and sanguinary events on the battlefield as a kind of choreography or chess game, with commanders moving pieces on a board. But what do those pieces, living human beings in the killing zone, actually endure in battle? What motivates them to advance in the face of the enemy or, on the other hand, turn and run away? What do they see and hear? What wounds do they suffer, and what are their most common cause, and how are the wounded treated during and after the battle? How do the various military specialities: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and armour, combat one another, and how can they be used together to achieve victory?

To answer these questions, the author examines three epic battles of their respective ages: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme Offensive. Each battle is described in painstaking detail, not from that of the commanders, but the combatants on the field. Modern analysis of the weapons employed and the injuries they inflict is used to reconstruct the casualties suffered and their consequences for the victims. Although spanning almost five centuries, all of these battles took place in northwest Europe between European armies, and allow holding cultural influences constant (although, of course, evolving over time) as expansion of state authority and technology increased the size and lethality of the battlefield by orders of magnitude. (Henry's entire army at Agincourt numbered less than 6,000 and suffered 112 deaths during the battle, while on the first day of the Somme, British forces alone lost 57,470 men, with 19,240 killed.)

The experiences of some combatants in these set piece battles are so alien to normal human life that it is difficult to imagine how they were endured. Consider the Inniskilling Regiment, which arrived at Waterloo after the battle was already underway. Ordered by Wellington to occupy a position in the line, they stood there in static formation for four hours, while receiving cannon fire from French artillery several hundred yards away. During those hours, 450 of the regiment's 750 officers and men were killed and wounded, including 17 of the 18 officers. The same regiment, a century later, suffered devastating losses in a futile assault on the first day of the Somme.

Battles are decided when the intolerable becomes truly unendurable, and armies dissolve into the crowds from which they were formed. The author examines this threshold in various circumstances, and what happens when it is crossed and cohesion is lost. In a concluding chapter he explores how modern mechanised warfare (recall that when this book was published the threat of a Soviet thrust into Western Europe with tanks and tactical nuclear weapons was taken with deadly seriousness by NATO strategists) may have so isolated the combatants from one another and subjected them to such a level of lethality that armies might disintegrate within days of the outbreak of hostilities. Fortunately, we never got to see whether this was correct, and hopefully we never will.

I read the Kindle edition using the iPhone Kindle application. It appears to have been created by OCR scanning a printed copy of the book and passing it through a spelling checker, but with no further editing. Unsurprisingly, the errors one is accustomed to in scanned documents abound. The word “modern”, for example, appears more than dozen times as “modem”. Now I suppose cybercommand does engage in “modem warfare”, but this is not what the author means to say. The Kindle edition costs only a dollar less than the paperback print edition, and such slapdash production values are unworthy of a publisher with the reputation of Penguin.

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O'Rourke, P. J. Driving Like Crazy. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8021-1883-7.
Sex, drugs, fast cars, crazed drivers, vehicular mayhem spanning the globe from Manhattan to Kyrgyzstan, and vehicles to die for (or in) ranging from Fangio's 1939 Chevrolet racer to a six-wheel-drive Soviet Zil truck—what's not to like! Humorist and eternally young speed demon P. J. O'Rourke recounts the adventures of his reckless youth and (mostly) wreckless present from the perspective of someone who once owned a 1960 MGA (disclaimer: I once owned a 1966 MGB I named “Crunderthush”—Keith Laumer fans will understand why) and, decades later, actually, seriously contemplated buying a minivan (got better).

This collection of O'Rourke's automotive journalism has been extensively edited to remove irrelevant details and place each piece in context. His retrospective on the classic National Lampoon piece (included here) whose title is a bit too edgy for our family audience is worth the price of purchase all by itself. Ever wanted to drive across the Indian subcontinent flat-out? The account here will help you avoid that particular resolution of your mid-life crisis. (Hint: think “end of life crisis”—Whoa!)

You don't need to be a gearhead to enjoy this book. O'Rourke isn't remotely a gearhead himself: he just likes to drive fast on insane roads in marvellous machinery, and even if your own preference is to experience such joys vicariously, there are plenty of white knuckle road trips and great flatbeds full of laughs in this delightful read.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

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Maymin, Zak. Publicani. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4382-2123-6.
I bought this book based on its being mentioned on a weblog as being a mix of Atlas Shrugged and “Harrison Bergeron”, and the mostly positive reviews on Amazon. Since both of those very different stories contributed powerfully to my present worldview, I was intrigued at what a synthesis of them might be like, so I decided to give this very short (just 218 pages in the print edition) novel a read.

Jerry Pournelle has written that aspiring novelists need to write at least a million words and throw them away before truly mastering their craft. I know nothing of the present author, but I suspect he hasn't yet reached that megaword milestone. There is promise here, and some compelling scenes and dialogue, but there is also the tendency to try to do too much in too few pages, and a chaotic sense of timing where you're never sure how much time has elapsed between events and how so much could occur on one timeline while another seems barely to have advanced. This is a story which could have been much better with the attention of an experienced editor, but in our outsourced, just-in-time, disintermediated economy, evidently didn't receive it, and hence the result is ultimately disappointing.

The potential of this story is great: a metaphorical exploration of the modern redistributive coercive state through a dystopia in which the “excess intelligence” of those favoured by birth is redistributed to the government elites most in need of it for “the good of society”. (Because, as has always been the case, politicians tend to be underendowed when it comes to intelligence.) Those subjected to the “redistribution” of their intelligence rebel, claiming “I own myself”—the single most liberating statement a free human can hurl against the enslaving state. And the acute reader comes to see how any redistribution is ultimately a forced taking of the mind, body, or labour of one person for the benefit of another who did not earn it: compassion at the point of a gun—the signature of the the modern state.

Unfortunately, this crystal clear message is largely lost among all of the other stuff the author tries to cram in. There's Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, an Essene secret society, the Russian Mafia, parapsychology, miraculous intervention, and guns with something called a “safety clip”, which I've never encountered on any of the myriad of guns I've discharged downrange.

The basic premise of intelligence being some kind of neural energy fluid one can suck from one brain and transfer to another is kind of silly, but I'd have been willing to accept it as a metaphor for sucking out the life of the mind from the creators to benefit not the consumers (it's never that way), but rather the rulers and looters. And if this book had done that, I'd have considered it a worthy addition to the literature of liberty. But, puh–leez, don't drop in a paragraph like:

Suddenly, a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses descended from the sky. Sarah was driving. Urim and Thummim were shining on her breastplate of judgment.

Look, I've been backed into corners in stories myself on many occasions, and every time the fiery chariot option appears the best way out, I've found it best to get a good night's sleep and have another go at it on the morrow. Perhaps you have to write and discard a million words before achieving that perspective.

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MacKenzie, Andrew. Adventures in Time. London: Athlone Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0-485-82001-0.
You are taking a pleasant walk when suddenly and without apparent reason an oppressive feeling of depression grips you. Everything seems unnaturally silent, and even the vegetation seems to have taken on different colours. You observe a house you've never noticed before when walking in the area and, a few minutes later, as you proceed, the depression lifts and everything seems as before. Later you mention what you've seen to a friend, who says she is absolutely certain nothing like the building you saw exists in the vicinity. Later, you retrace your path, and although you're sure you came the same way as before, you can find no trace of the house you so vividly remember having seen. Initially you just put it down as “just one of those things”, and not wishing to be deemed one of those people who “sees things”, make no mention of it. But still, it itches in the back of your mind, and one day, at the library, you look up historical records (which you've never consulted before) and discover that two hundred years ago on the site stood a house matching the one you saw, of which no trace remains today.

What's going on here? Well, nobody really has any idea, but experiences like that just described (loosely based upon the case described on pp. 35–38), although among the rarest of those phenomena we throw into the grab-bag called “paranormal”, have been reported sufficiently frequently to have been given a name: “retrocognition”. This small (143 page) book collects a number of accounts of apparent retrocognition from the obscure to the celebrated “adventure” of Misses Moberly and Jourdain at Versailles in 1901 (to which all of chapter 4 is devoted), and reports on detailed investigations of several cases, some of which were found to be simple misperception. All of these cases are based solely upon the reports of those who experienced them (in some cases with multiple observers confirming one another's perceptions) so, as with much of anecdotal psychical research, there is no way to rule out fraud, malice, mental illness, or false memories (the latter a concern because many of these reports concern events which occurred many years earlier). Still, the credentials, reputation, and social position of the people making these reports, and the straightforward and articulate way they describe what they experienced inclines one to take them seriously, at least as to what those making the reports perceived.

The author, at the time a Vice President of the Society for Psychical Research, considers several possible explanations, normal and paranormal, for these extraordinary experiences. He quotes a number of physicists on the enigma of time and causation in physics, but never really crosses the threshold from the usual domain of ESP, hauntings, and “psychic ether” (p. 126) to consider the even weirder possibility that these observers were accurately describing (within the well-known limits of eyewitness testimony) what they actually saw. My incompletely baked general theory of paranormal phenomena (GTPP) provides (once you accept its outlandish [to some] premises) a perfectly straightforward mechanism for retrocognition. Recall that in GTPP consciousness is thought of as a “browser” which perceives spacetime as unfolding through one path in the multiverse which embodies all possibilities. GTPP posits that consciousness has a very small (probably linked to Planck's constant in some way) ability to navigate along its path in spacetime: we call people who are good at this “lucky”. But let's look at the past half-space of what I call the “life cone”. The quantum potentialities of the future, branching in all their myriad ways, are frozen in the crystalline classical block universe as they are squeezed through the throat of the light cone—as Dyson said, the future is quantum mechanical; the past is classical. But this isn't “eternalism” in the sense that the future is forever fixed and that we have an illusion of free will; it's that the future contains all possibilities, and that we have a small ability to navigate into the future branch we wish to explore. Our past is, however, fixed once it's moved into our past light and life cones.

But who's to say that consciousness, this magnificent instrument of perception we use to browse spacetime events in our immediate vicinity and at the moment of the present of our life cone, cannot also, on rare occasions, triggered by who knows what, also browse events in our past, or even on other branches of the multiverse which our own individual past did not traverse? (The latter, perhaps, explaining vivid reports of observations which subsequent investigation conclusively determined never existed in the past—on our timeline. Friar Ockham would probably put this down to hallucination or, in the argot, “seein' things”, and I don't disagree with this interpretation; it's the historically confirmed cases that make you wonder.)

This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I got around to reading it from cover to cover. It is now out of print, and used copies are absurdly expensive; if you're interested in such matters, the present volume is interesting, but I cannot recommend it at the price at which it's currently selling unless you've experienced such a singular event yourself and seek validation that you're not the only one who “sees things” where your consciousness seems to browse the crystalline past or paths not taken by you in the multiverse.

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August 2009

Weber, Bruce. As They See 'Em. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7432-9411-9.
In what other game is a critical dimension of the playing field determined on the fly, based upon the judgement of a single person, not subject to contestation or review, and depending upon the physical characteristics of a player, not to mention (although none dare discuss it) the preferences of the arbiter? Well, that would be baseball, where the plate umpire is required to call balls and strikes (about 160 called in an average major league game, with an additional 127 in which the batter swung at the pitch). A fastball from a major league pitcher, if right down the centre, takes about 11 milliseconds to traverse the strike zone, so that's the interval the umpire has, in the best case, to call the pitch. But big league pitchers almost never throw pitches over the fat part of the plate for the excellent reason that almost all hitters who have made it to the Show will knock such a pitch out of the park. So umpires have to call an endless series of pitches that graze the corners of the invisible strike zone, curving, sinking, sliding, whilst making their way to the catcher's glove, which wily catchers will quickly shift to make outside and inside pitches appear to be over the plate.

Major league umpiring is one of the most élite occupations in existence. At present, only sixty-eight people are full-time major league umpires and typically only one or two replacements are hired per year. Including minor leagues, there are fewer than 300 professional umpires working today, and since the inception of major league baseball, fewer than five hundred people have worked games as full-time umpires.

What's it like to pursue a career where if you do your job perfectly you're at best invisible, but if you make an error or, even worse, make a correct call that inflames the passion of the fans of the team it was made against, you're the subject of vilification and sometimes worse (what other sport has the equivalent of the cry from the stands, “Kill the umpire!”)? In this book, the author, a New York Times journalist, delves into the world of baseball umpiring, attending one of the two schools for professional umpires, following nascent umpires in their careers in the rather sordid circumstances of Single A ball (umpires have to drive from game to game on their own wheels—they get a mileage allowance, but that's all; often their accommodations qualify for my Sleazy Motel Roach Hammer Awards).

The author follows would-be umpires through school, the low minors, AA and AAA ball, and the bigs, all the way to veterans and the special pressures of the playoffs and the World Series. There are baseball anecdotes in abundance here: bad calls, high profile games where the umpire had to decide an impossible call, and the author's own experience behind the plate at an intersquad game in spring training where he first experienced the difference between play at the major league level and everything else—the clock runs faster. Relativity, dude—get used to it!

You think you know the rulebook? Fine—a runner is on third with no outs and the batter has a count of one ball and two strikes. The runner on third tries to steal home, and whilst sliding across the plate, is hit by the pitch, which is within the batter's strike zone. You make the call—50,000 fans and two irritable managers are waiting for you. What'll it be, ump? You have 150 milliseconds to make your call before the crowd starts to boo. (The answer is at the end of these remarks.) Bear in mind before you answer that any major league umpire gets this right 100% of the time—it's right there in the rulebook in section 6.05 (n).

Believers in “axiomatic baseball” may be dismayed at some of the discretion documented here by umpires who adjust the strike zone to “keep the game moving along” (encouraged by a “pace of game” metric used by their employer to rate them for advancement). I found the author's deliberately wrong call in a Little League blowout game (p. 113) reprehensible, but reasonable people may disagree.

As of January 2009, 289 people have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. How many umpires? Exactly eight—can you name a single one? Umpires agree that they do their job best when they are not noticed, but there will be those close calls where their human judgement and perception make the difference, some of which may be, even in this age of instant replay, disputed for decades afterward. As one umpire said of a celebrated contentious call, “I saw what I saw, and I called what I saw”. The author concludes:

Baseball, I know, needs people who can not only make snap decisions but live with them, something most people will do only when there's no other choice. Come to think of it, the world in general needs people who accept responsibility so easily and so readily. We should be thankful for them.

Batter up!

Answer: The run scores, the batter is called out on strikes, and the ball is dead. Had there been two outs, the third strike would have ended the inning and the run would not have scored (p. 91).

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Flynn, Vince. Separation of Power. New York: Pocket Books, [2001] 2009. ISBN 978-1-4391-3573-0.
Golly, these books go down smoothly, and swiftly too! This is the third novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. It continues the “story arc” begun in the second novel, The Third Option (June 2009), and picks up just two weeks after the conclusion of that story. While not leaving the reader with a cliffhanger, that book left many things to be resolved, and this novel sorts them out, administering summary justice to the malefactors behind the scenes.

The subject matter seems drawn from current and recent headlines: North Korean nukes, “shock and awe” air strikes in Iraq, special forces missions to search for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and intrigue in the Middle East. What makes this exceptional is that this book was originally published in 2001—before! It holds up very well when read eight years later although, of course, subsequent events sadly didn't go the way the story envisaged.

There are a few goofs: copy editors relying on the spelling checker instead of close proofing allowed a couple of places where “sight” appeared where “site” was intended, and a few other homonym flubs. I'm also extremely dubious that weapons with the properties described would have been considered operational without having been tested. And the premise of the final raid seems a little more like a video game than the circumstances of the first two novels. As one who learnt a foreign language in adulthood, I can testify that it is extraordinarily difficult to speak without an obvious accent. Is it plausible that Mitch can impersonate a figure that the top-tier security troops guarding the bunker have seen on television many times?

Still, the story works, and it's a page turner. The character of Mitch Rapp continues to darken in this novel. He becomes ever more explicitly an assassin, and notwithstanding however much his targets “need killin'”, it's unsettling to think of agents of coercive government sent to eliminate people those in power deem inconvenient, and difficult to consider the eliminator a hero. But that isn't going to keep me from reading the next in the series in a month or two.

See my comments on the first installment for additional details about the series and a link to an interview with the author.

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Drury, Bob and Tom Clavin. Halsey's Typhoon. New York: Grove Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8021-4337-2.
As Douglas MacArthur's forces struggled to expand the beachhead of their landing on the Philippine island of Mindoro on December 15, 1944, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey's Third Fleet was charged with providing round the clock air cover over Japanese airfields throughout the Philippines, both to protect against strikes being launched against MacArthur's troops and kamikaze attacks on his own fleet, which had been so devastating in the battle for Leyte Gulf three weeks earlier. After supporting the initial landings and providing cover thereafter, Halsey's fleet, especially the destroyers, were low on fuel, and the admiral requested and received permission to withdraw for a rendezvous with an oiler task group to refuel.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the chain of command, this decision set the Third Fleet on a direct intercept course with the most violent part of an emerging Pacific (not so much, in this case) typhoon which was appropriately named, in retrospect, Typhoon Cobra. Typhoons in the Pacific are as violent as Atlantic hurricanes, but due to the circumstances of the ocean and atmosphere where they form and grow, are much more compact, which means that in an age prior to weather satellites, there was little warning of the onset of a storm before one found oneself overrun by it.

Halsey's orders sent the Third Fleet directly into the bull's eye of the disaster: one ship measured sustained winds of 124 knots (143 miles per hour) and seas in excess of 90 feet. Some ships' logs recorded the barometric pressure as “U”—the barometer had gone off-scale low and the needle was above the “U” in “U. S. Navy”.

There are some conditions at sea which ships simply cannot withstand. This was especially the case for Farragut class destroyers, which had been retrofitted with radar and communication antennæ on their masts and a panoply of antisubmarine and gun directing equipment on deck, all of which made them top-heavy, vulnerable to heeling in high winds, and prone to capsize.

As the typhoon overtook the fleet, even the “heavies” approached their limits of endurance. On the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, Lt. (j.g.) Jerry Ford was saved from being washed off the deck to a certain death only by luck and his athletic ability. He survived, later to become President of the United States. On the destroyers, the situation was indescribably more dire. The watch on the bridge saw the inclinometer veer back and forth on each roll between 60 and 70 degrees, knowing that a roll beyond 71° might not be recoverable. They surfed up the giant waves and plunged down, with screws turning in mid-air as they crested the giant combers. Shipping water, many lost electrical power due to shorted-out panels, and most lost their radar and communications antennæ, rendering them deaf, dumb, and blind to the rest of the fleet and vulnerable to collisions.

The sea took its toll: in all, three destroyers were sunk, a dozen other ships were hors de combat pending repairs, and 146 aircraft were destroyed, all due to weather and sea conditions. A total of 793 U.S. sailors lost their lives, more than twice those killed in the Battle of Midway.

This book tells, based largely upon interviews with people who were there, the story of what happens when an invincible fleet encounters impossible seas. There are tales of heroism every few pages, which are especially poignant since so many of the heroes had not yet celebrated their twentieth birthdays, hailed from landlocked states, and had first seen the ocean only months before at the start of this, their first sea duty. After the disaster, the heroism continued, as the crew of the destroyer escort Tabberer, under its reservist commander Henry L. Plage, who disregarded his orders and, after his ship was dismasted and severely damaged, persisted in the search and rescue of survivors from the foundered ships, eventually saving 55 from the ocean. Plage expected to face a court martial, but instead was awarded the Legion of Merit by Halsey, whose orders he ignored.

This is an epic story of seamanship, heroism, endurance, and the nigh impossible decisions commanders in wartime have to make based upon the incomplete information they have at the time. You gain an appreciation for how the master of a ship has to balance doing things by the book and improvising in exigent circumstances. One finding of the Court of Inquiry convened to investigate the disaster was that the commanders of the destroyers which were lost may have given too much priority to following pre-existing orders to hold their stations as opposed to the overriding imperative to save the ship. Given how little experience these officers had at sea, this is not surprising. CEOs should always keep in mind this utmost priority: save the ship.

Here we have a thoroughly documented historical narrative which is every bit as much a page-turner as the the latest ginned-up thriller. As it happens, one of my high school teachers was a survivor of this storm (on one of the ships which did not go down), and I remember to this day how harrowing it was when he spoke of destroyers “turning turtle”. If accounts like this make you lose sleep, this is not the book for you, but if you want to experience how ordinary people did extraordinary things in impossible circumstances, it's an inspiring narrative.

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Jenkins, Dennis R. and Jorge R. Frank. The Apollo 11 Moon Landing. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-58007-148-2.
This book, issued to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, is a gorgeous collection of photographs, including a number of panoramas digitally assembled from photos taken during the mission which appear here for the first time. The images cover all aspects of the mission: the evolution of the Apollo project, crew training, stacking the launcher and spacecraft, voyage to the Moon, surface operations, and return to Earth. The photos have accurate and informative captions, and each chapter includes a concise but comprehensive description of its topic.

This is largely a picture book, and almost entirely focused upon the Apollo 11 mission, not the Apollo program as a whole. Unless you are an absolute space nut (guilty as charged), you will almost certainly see pictures here you've never seen before, including Neil Armstrong's brush with death when the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle went all pear shaped and he had to punch out (p. 35). Look at how the ejection seat motor vectored to buy him altitude for the chute to open!

Did you know that the iconic image of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon was retouched (or, as we'd say today, PhotoShopped)? No, I'm not talking about a Moon hoax, but just that Neil Armstrong, with his Hasselblad camera and no viewfinder, did what so many photographers do—he cut off Aldrin's head in the picture. NASA public affairs folks “reconstructed” the photo that Armstrong meant to take, but whilst airbrushing the top of the helmet, they forgot to include the OPS VHF antenna which extends from Aldrin's backpack in many other photos taken on the lunar surface.

This is a great book, and a worthy commemoration of the achievement of Apollo 11. It, of course, only scratches the surface of the history of the Apollo program, or even the details of Apollo 11 mission, but I don't know an another source which brings together so many images which evoke that singular exploit. The Introduction includes a list of sources for further reading which I was amazed (or maybe not) to discover that all of which I had read.

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Gray, Theodore. Theo Gray's Mad Science. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009. ISBN 978-1-57912-791-6.
Regular visitors here will recall that from time to time I enjoy mocking the fanatically risk-averse “safetyland” culture which has gripped the Western world over the last several decades. Pendulums do, however, have a way of swinging back, and there are a few signs that sanity (or, more accurately, entertaining insanity) may be starting to make a comeback. We've seen The Dangerous Book for Boys and the book I dubbed The Dangerous Book for Adults, but—Jeez Louise—look at what we have here! This is really the The Shudderingly Hazardous Book for Crazy People.

A total of fifty-four experiments (all summarised on the book's Web site) range from heating a hot tub with quicklime and water, exploding bubbles filled with a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, making your own iron from magnetite sand with thermite, turning a Snickers bar into rocket fuel, and salting popcorn by bubbling chlorine gas through a pot of molten sodium (it ends badly).

The book is subtitled “Experiments You Can Do at Home—But Probably Shouldn't”, and for many of them that's excellent advice, but they're still a great deal of fun to experience vicariously. I definitely want to try the ice cream recipe which makes a complete batch in thirty seconds flat with the aid of liquid nitrogen. The book is beautifully illustrated and gives the properties of the substances involved in the experiments. Readers should be aware that as the author prominently notes at the outset, the descriptions of many of the riskier experiments do not provide all the information you'd need to perform them safely—you shouldn't even consider trying them yourself unless you're familiar with the materials involved and experienced in the precautions required when working with them.

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September 2009

Spotts, Frederic. The Shameful Peace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-300-13290-8.
Paris between the World Wars was an international capital of the arts such as the world had never seen. Artists from around the globe flocked to this cosmopolitan environment which was organised more around artistic movements than nationalities. Artists drawn to this cultural magnet included the Americans Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, e.e. cummings, Virgil Thomson, and John Dos Passos; Belgians René Magritte and Georges Simenon; the Irish James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; Russians Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Vladimir Nabokov, and Marc Chagall; and Spaniards Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dali, only to mention some of the nationalities and luminaries.

The collapse of the French army and British Expeditionary Force following the German invasion in the spring of 1940, leading to the armistice between Germany and France on June 22nd, turned this world upside down. Paris found itself inside the Occupied Zone, administered directly by the Germans. Artists in the “Zone libre” found themselves subject to the Vichy government's cultural decrees, intended to purge the “decadence” of the interwar years.

The defeat and occupation changed the circumstances of Paris as an artistic capital overnight. Most of the foreign expatriates left (but not all: Picasso, among others, opted to stay), so the scene became much more exclusively French. But remarkably, or maybe not, within a month of the armistice, the cultural scene was back up and running pretty much as before. The theatres, cinemas, concert and music halls were open, the usual hostesses continued their regular soirées with the customary attendees, and the cafés continued to be filled with artists debating the same esoterica. There were changes, to be sure: the performing arts played to audiences with a large fraction of Wehrmacht officers, known Jews were excluded everywhere, and anti-German works were withdrawn by publishers and self-censored thereafter by both authors and publishers in the interest of getting their other work into print.

The artistic milieu, which had been overwhelmingly disdainful of the Third Republic, transferred their scorn to Vichy, but for the most part got along surprisingly well with the occupier. Many attended glittering affairs at the German Institute and Embassy, and fell right in with the plans of Nazi ambassador Otto Abetz to co-opt the cultural élite and render them, if not pro-German, at least neutral to the prospects of France being integrated into a unified Nazi Europe.

The writer and journalist Alfred Fabre-Luce was not alone in waxing with optimism over the promise of the new era, “This will not sanctify our defeat, but on the contrary overcome it. Rivalries between countries, that were such a feature of nineteenth-century Europe, have become passé. The future Europe will be a great economic zone where people, weary of incessant quarrels, will live in security”. Drop the “National” and keep the “Socialist”, and that's pretty much the same sentiment you hear today from similarly-placed intellectuals about the odious, anti-democratic European Union.

The reaction of intellectuals to the occupation varied from enthusiastic collaboration to apathetic self-censorship and an apolitical stance, but rarely did it cross the line into active resistance. There were some underground cultural publications, and some well-known figures did contribute to them (anonymously or under a pseudonym, bien sûr), but for the most part artists of all kinds got along, and adjusted their work to the changed circumstances so that they could continue to be published, shown, or performed. A number of prominent figures emigrated, mostly to the United States, and formed an expatriate French avant garde colony which would play a major part in the shift of the centre of the arts world toward New York after the war, but they were largely politically disengaged while the war was underway.

After the Liberation, the purge (épuration) of collaborators in the arts was haphazard and inconsistent. Artists found themselves defending their work and actions during the occupation before tribunals presided over by judges who had, after the armistice, sworn allegiance to Pétain. Some writers received heavy sentences, up to and including death, while their publishers, who had voluntarily drawn up lists of books to be banned, confiscated, and destroyed got off scot-free and kept right on running. A few years later, as the Trente Glorieuses began to pick up steam, most of those who had not been executed found their sentences commuted and went back to work, although the most egregious collaborators saw their reputations sullied for the rest of their lives. What could not be restored was the position of Paris as the world's artistic capital: the spotlight had moved on to the New World, and New York in particular.

This excellent book stirs much deeper thoughts than just those of how a number of artists came to terms with the occupation of their country. It raises fundamental questions as to how creative people behave, and should behave, when the institutions of the society in which they live are grossly at odds with the beliefs that inform their work. It's easy to say that one should rebel, resist, and throw one's body onto the gears to bring the evil machine to a halt, but it's entirely another thing to act in such a manner when you're living in a city where the Gestapo is monitoring every action of prominent people and you never know who may be an informer. Lovers of individual liberty who live in the ever-expanding welfare/warfare/nanny states which rule most “developed” countries today will find much to ponder in observing the actions of those in this narrative, and may think twice the next time they're advised to “be reasonable; go along: it can't get that bad”.

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Charpak, Georges et Richard L. Garwin. Feux follets et champignons nucléaires. Paris: Odile Jacob, [1997] 2000. ISBN 978-2-7381-0857-9.
Georges Charpak won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1992, and was the last person, as of this writing, to have won an unshared Physics Nobel. Richard Garwin is a quintessential “defence intellectual”: he studied under Fermi, did the detailed design of Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, has been a member of Jason and adviser on issues of nuclear arms control and disarmament for decades, and has been a passionate advocate against ballistic missile defence and for reducing the number of nuclear warheads and the state of alert of strategic nuclear forces.

In this book the authors, who do not agree on everything and take the liberty to break out from the main text on several occasions to present their individual viewpoints, assess the state of nuclear energy—civil and military—at the turn of the century and try to chart a reasonable path into the future which is consistent with the aspirations of people in developing countries, the needs of a burgeoning population, and the necessity of protecting the environment both from potential risks from nuclear technology but also the consequences of not employing it as a source of energy. (Even taking Chernobyl into account, the total radiation emitted by coal-fired power plants is far greater than that of all nuclear stations combined: coal contains thorium, and when it is burned, it escapes in flue gases or is captured and disposed of in landfills. And that's not even mentioning the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels.)

The reader of this book will learn a great deal about the details of nuclear energy: perhaps more than some will have the patience to endure. I made it through, and now I really understand, for the first time, why light water reactors have a negative thermal coefficient: as the core gets hotter, the U-238 atoms are increasingly agitated by the heat, and consequently are more likely due to Doppler shift to fall into one of the resonances where their neutron absorption is dramatically enhanced.

Charpak and Garwin are in complete agreement that civil nuclear power should be the primary source of new electrical generation capacity until and unless something better (such as fusion) comes along. They differ strongly on the issue of fuel cycle and waste management: Charpak argues for the French approach of reprocessing spent fuel, extracting the bred plutonium, and burning it in power reactors in the form of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. Garwin argues for the U.S. approach of a once-through fuel cycle, with used fuel buried, its plutonium energy content discarded in the interest of “economy”. Charpak points out that the French approach drastically reduces the volume of nuclear waste to be buried, and observes that France does not have a Nevada in which to bury it.

Both authors concur that breeder reactors will eventually have a rôle to play in nuclear power generation. Not only do breeders multiply the energy which can be recovered from natural uranium by a factor of fifty, they can be used to “burn up” many of the radioactive waste products of conventional light water reactors. Several next-generation reactor concepts are discussed, including Carlo Rubbia's energy amplifier, in which the core is inherently subcritical, and designs for more conventional reactors which are inherently safe in the event of loss of control feedback or cooling. They conclude, however, that further technology maturation is required before breeders enter into full production use and that, in retrospect, Superphénix was premature.

The last third of the book is devoted to nuclear weapons and the prospects for reducing the inventory of declared nuclear powers, increasing stability, and preventing proliferation. There is, as you would expect from Garwin, a great deal of bashing the concept of ballistic missile defence (“It can't possibly work, and if it did it would be bad”). This is quite dated, as many of the arguments and the lengthy reprinted article date from the mid 1980s when the threat was a massive “war-gasm” salvo launch of thousands of ICBMs from the Soviet Union, not one or two missiles from a rogue despot who's feeling “ronery”. The authors quite reasonably argue that current nuclear force levels are absurd, and that an arsenal about the size of France's (on the order of 500 warheads) should suffice for any conceivable deterrent purpose. They dance around the option of eliminating nuclear arms entirely, and conclude that such a goal is probably unachievable in a world in which such a posture would create an incentive for a rogue state to acquire even one or two weapons. They suggest a small deterrent force operated by an international authority—good luck with that!

This is a thoughtful book which encourages rational people to think for themselves about the energy choices facing humanity in the coming decades. It counters emotional appeals and scare trigger words with the best antidote: numbers. Numbers which demonstrate, for example, that the inherent radiation of atoms in the human body (mostly C-14 and K-40) and the variation in natural background radiation from one place to another on Earth is vastly greater than the dose received from all kinds of nuclear technology. The Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents are examined in detail, and the lessons learnt for safely operating nuclear power stations are explored. I found the sections on nuclear weapons weaker and substantially more dated. Although the book was originally published well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the perspective is still very much that of superpower confrontation, not the risk of proliferation to rogue states and terrorist groups. Certainly, responsibly disposing of the excess fissile material produced by the superpowers in their grotesquely hypertrophied arsenals (ideally by burning it up in civil power reactors, as opposed to insanely dumping it into a hole in the ground to remain a risk for hundreds of thousands of years, as some “green” advocates urge) is an important way to reduce the risks of proliferation, but events subsequent to the publication of this book have shown that states are capable of mounting their own indigenous nuclear weapons programs under the eyes of international inspectors. Will an “international community” which is incapable of stopping such clandestine weapons programs have any deterrent credibility even if armed with its own nuclear-tipped missiles?

An English translation of this book, entitled Megawatts and Megatons, is available.

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Flynn, Vince. Executive Power. New York: Pocket Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7434-5396-7.
This is the fourth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. At the end of the third novel, Separation of Power (August 2009), Rapp's identity was outed by a self-righteous and opportunistic congressman (who gets what's coming to him), and soon-to-be-married Rapp prepares to settle down at a desk job in the CIA's counterterrorism centre. But it's hard to keep a man of action down, and when political perfidy blows the cover on a hostage rescue operation in the Philippines, resulting in the death of two Navy SEALs, Rapp gets involved in the follow-up reprisal operation in a much more direct manner than anybody expected, and winds up with a non-life-threatening but extremely embarrassing and difficult to explain injury (hint, he spends most of the balance of the book standing up). Rapp has no hesitation in taking on terror masters single-handed, but he finds himself utterly unprepared for the withering scorn unleashed against him by the two women in his life: bride and boss.

Rapp soon finds himself on the trail of a person much like himself: an assassin who works in the shadows and leaves almost no traces of evidence. This malefactor, motivated by the desire for a political outcome just as sincere as Rapp's wish to protect his nation, is manipulating (or being manipulated by?) a rogue Saudi billionaire bent on provoking mayhem in the Middle East. The ever meddlesome chief of the Mossad is swept into the scheme, and events spiral toward the brink as Rapp tries to figure out what is really going on. The conclusion gets Rapp involved up close and personal, the way he likes it, and comes to a satisfying end.

This is the first of the Mitch Rapp novels to be written after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Other than a few oblique references to those events, little in the worldview of the series has changed. Flynn's attention to detail continues to shine in this story. About the only unrealistic thing is imagining the U.S. government as actually being serious and competent in taking the battle to terrorists. See my comments on the first installment for additional details about the series and a link to an interview with the author.

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McDonald, Allan J. and James R. Hansen. Truth, Lies, and O-Rings. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8130-3326-6.
More than two decades have elapsed since Space Shuttle Challenger met its tragic end on that cold Florida morning in January 1986, and a shelf-full of books have been written about the accident and its aftermath, ranging from the five volume official report of the Presidential commission convened to investigate the disaster to conspiracy theories and accounts of religious experiences. Is it possible, at this remove, to say anything new about Challenger? The answer is unequivocally yes, as this book conclusively demonstrates.

The night before Challenger was launched on its last mission, Allan McDonald attended the final day before launch flight readiness review at the Kennedy Space Center, representing Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the solid rocket motors, where he was Director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project. McDonald initially presented Thiokol's judgement that the launch should be postponed because the temperatures forecast for launch day were far below the experience base of the shuttle program and an earlier flight at the lowest temperature to date had shown evidence of blow-by the O-ring seals in the solid rocket field joints. Thiokol engineers were concerned that low temperatures would reduce the resiliency of the elastomeric rings, causing them to fail to seal during the critical ignition transient. McDonald was astonished when NASA personnel, in a reversal of their usual rôle of challenging contractors to prove why their hardware was safe to fly, demanded that Thiokol prove the solid motor was unsafe in order to scrub the launch. Thiokol management requested a five minute offline caucus back at the plant in Utah (in which McDonald did not participate) which stretched to thirty minutes and ended up with a recommendation to launch. NASA took the unprecedented step of requiring a written approval to launch from Thiokol, which McDonald refused to provide, but which was supplied by his boss in Utah.

After the loss of the shuttle and its crew, and the discovery shortly thereafter that the proximate cause was almost certainly a leak in the aft field joint of the right solid rocket booster, NASA and Thiokol appeared to circle the wagons, trying to deflect responsibility from themselves and obscure the information available to decision makers in a position to stop the launch. It was not until McDonald's testimony to the Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers that the truth began to come out. This thrust McDonald, up to then an obscure engineering manager, into the media spotlight and the political arena, which he quickly discovered was not at all about his priorities as an engineer: finding out what went wrong and fixing it so it could never happen again.

This memoir, composed by McDonald from contemporary notes and documents with the aid of space historian James R. Hansen (author of the bestselling authorised biography of Neil Armstrong) takes the reader through the catastrophe and its aftermath, as seen by an insider who was there at the decision to launch, on a console in the firing room when disaster struck, before the closed and public sessions of the Presidential commission, pursued by sensation-hungry media, testifying before congressional committees, and consumed by the redesign and certification effort and the push to return the shuttle to flight. It is a personal story, but told in terms, as engineers are wont to do, based in the facts of the hardware, the experimental evidence, and the recollection of meetings which made the key decisions before and after the tragedy.

Anybody whose career may eventually land them, intentionally or not (the latter almost always the case), in the public arena can profit from reading this book. Even if you know nothing about and have no interest in solid rocket motors, O-rings, space exploration, or NASA, the dynamics of a sincere, dedicated engineer who was bent on doing the right thing encountering the ravenous media and preening politicians is a cautionary tale for anybody who finds themselves in a similar position. I wish I'd had the opportunity to read this book before my own Dark Night of the Soul encounter with a reporter from the legacy media. I do not mean to equate my own mild experience with the Hell that McDonald experienced—just to say that his narrative would have been a bracing preparation for what was to come.

The chapters on the Rogers Commission investigation provided, for me, a perspective I'd not previously encountered. Many people think of William P. Rogers primarily as Nixon's first Secretary of State who was upstaged and eventually replaced by Henry Kissinger. But before that Rogers was a federal prosecutor going after organised crime in New York City and then was Attorney General in the Eisenhower administration from 1957 to 1961. Rogers may have aged, but his skills as an interrogator and cross-examiner never weakened. In the sworn testimony quoted here, NASA managers, who come across like the kids who were the smartest in their high school class and then find themselves on the left side of the bell curve when they show up as freshmen at MIT, are pinned like specimen bugs to their own viewgraphs when they try to spin Rogers and his tag team of technical takedown artists including Richard Feynman, Neil Armstrong, and Sally Ride.

One thing which is never discussed here, but should be, is just how totally insane it is to use large solid rockets, in any form, in a human spaceflight program. Understand: solid rockets are best thought of as “directed bombs”, but if detonated at an inopportune time, or when not in launch configuration, can cause catastrophe. A simple spark of static electricity can suffice to ignite the propellant in a solid rocket, and once ignited there is no way to extinguish it until it is entirely consumed. Consider: in the Shuttle era, there are usually one or more Shuttle stacks in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and if NASA's Constellation Program continues, this building will continue to stack solid rocket motors in decades to come. Sooner or later, the inevitable is going to happen: a static spark, a crane dropping a segment, or an interference fit of two segments sending a hot fragment into the propellant below. The consequence: destruction of the VAB, all hardware inside, and the death of all people working therein. The expected stand-down of the U.S. human spaceflight program after such an event is on the order of a decade. Am I exaggerating the risks here? Well, maybe; you decide. But within two years, three separate disasters struck the production of large solid motors in 1985–1986. I shall predict: if NASA continue to use large solid motors in their human spaceflight program, there will be a decade-long gap in U.S. human spaceflight sometime in the next twenty years.

If you're sufficiently interested in these arcane matters to have read this far, you should read this book. Based upon notes, it's a bit repetitive, as many of the same matters were discussed in the various venues in which McDonald testified. But if you want to read a single book to prepare you for being unexpectedly thrust into the maw of ravenous media and politicians, I know of none better.

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October 2009

Ferrigno, Robert. Heart of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-3767-0.
This novel completes the author's Assassin Trilogy, which began with Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006) and continued with Sins of the Assassin (March 2008). This is one of those trilogies in which you really want to read the books in order. While there is some effort to provide context for readers who start in the middle, you'll miss so much of the background of the scenario and the development and previous interactions of characters that you'll miss a great deal of what's going on. If you're unfamiliar with the world in which these stories are set, please see my comments on the earlier books in the series.

As this novel opens, a crisis is brewing as a heavily armed and increasingly expansionist Aztlán is ready to exploit the disunity of the Islamic Republic and the Bible Belt, most of whose military forces are arrayed against one another, to continue to nibble away at both. Visionaries on both sides imagine a reunification of the two monotheistic parts of what were once the United States, while the Old One and his mega-Machiavellian daughter Baby work their dark plots in the background. Former fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps finds himself on missions to the darkest part of the Republic, New Fallujah (the former San Francisco), and to the radioactive remains of Washington D.C., seeking a relic which might have the power to unite the nation once again.

Having read and tremendously enjoyed the first two books of the trilogy, I was very much looking forward to this novel, but having now read it, I consider it a disappointment. As the trilogy has progressed, the author seems to have become ever more willing to invent whatever technology he needs at the moment to advance the plot, whether or not it is plausible or consistent with the rest of the world he has created, and to admit the supernatural into a story which started out set in a world of gritty reality. I spent the first 270 pages making increasingly strenuous efforts to suspend disbelief, but then when one of the characters uses a medical oxygen tank as a flamethrower, I “lost it” and started laughing out loud at each of the absurdities in the pages that followed: “DNA knives” that melt into a person's forearm, holodeck hotel rooms with faithful all-senses stimulation and simulated lifeforms, a ghost, miraculous religious relics, etc., etc. The first two books made the reader think about what it would be like if a post-apocalyptic Great Awakening reorganised the U.S. around Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. In this book, all of that is swept into the background, and it's all about the characters (who one ceases to care much about, as they become increasingly comic book like) and a political plot so preposterous it makes Dan Brown's novels seem like nonfiction.

If you've read the first two novels and want to discover how it all comes out, you will find all of the threads resolved in this book. For me, there were just too many “Oh come on, now!” moments for the result to be truly satisfying.

A podcast interview with the author is available. You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

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Vallee, Jacques. Forbidden Science. Vol. 2. San Francisco: Documatica Research, 2008. ISBN 978-0-615-24974-2.
This, the second volume of Jacques Vallee's journals, chronicles the years from 1970 through 1979. (I read the first volume, covering 1957–1969, before I began this list.) Early in the narrative (p. 153), Vallee becomes a U.S. citizen, but although surrendering his French passport, he never gives up his Gallic rationalism and scepticism, both of which serve him well in the increasingly weird Northern California scene in the Seventies. It was in those locust years that the seeds for the personal computing and Internet revolutions matured, and Vallee was at the nexus of this technological ferment, working on databases, Doug Englebart's Augmentation project, and later systems for conferencing and collaborative work across networks. By the end of the decade he, like many in Silicon Valley of the epoch, has become an entrepreneur, running a company based upon the conferencing technology he developed. (One amusing anecdote which indicates how far we've come since the 70s in mindset is when he pitches his conferencing system to General Electric who, at the time, had the largest commercial data network to support their timesharing service. They said they were afraid to implement anything which looked too much like a messaging system for fear of running afoul of the Post Office.)

If this were purely a personal narrative of the formative years of the Internet and personal computing, it would be a valuable book—I was there, then, and Vallee gets it absolutely right. A journal is, in many ways, better than a history because you experience the groping for solutions amidst confusion and ignorance which is the stuff of real life, not the narrative of an historian who knows how it all came out. But in addition to being a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and (later) venture capitalist, Vallee is also one of the preeminent researchers into the UFO and related paranormal phenomena (the character Claude Lacombe, played by François Truffaut in Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was based upon Vallee). As the 1970s progress, the author becomes increasingly convinced that the UFO phenomenon cannot be explained by extraterrestrials and spaceships, and that it is rooted in the same stratum of the human mind and the universe we inhabit which has given rise to folklore about little people and various occult and esoteric traditions. Later in the decade, he begins to suspect that at least some UFO activity is the work of deliberate manipulators bent on creating an irrational, anti-science worldview in the general populace, a hypothesis expounded in his 1979 book, Messengers of Deception, which remains controversial three decades after its publication.

The Bay Area in the Seventies was a kind of cosmic vortex of the weird, and along with Vallee we encounter many of the prominent figures of the time, including Uri Geller (who Vallee immediately dismisses as a charlatan), Doug Engelbart, J. Allen Hynek, Anton LaVey, Russell Targ, Hal Puthoff, Ingo Swann, Ira Einhorn, Tim Leary, Tom Bearden, Jack Sarfatti, Melvin Belli, and many more. Always on a relentlessly rational even keel, he observes with dismay as many of his colleagues disappear into drugs, cults, gullibility, pseudoscience, and fads as that dark decade takes its toll. In May 1979 he feels himself to be at “the end of an age that defied all conventions but failed miserably to set new standards” (p. 463). While this is certainly spot on in the social and cultural context in which he meant it, it is ironic that so many of the standards upon which the subsequent explosion of computer and networking technology are based were created in those years by engineers patiently toiling away in Silicon Valley amidst all the madness.

An introduction and retrospective at the end puts the work into perspective from the present day, and 25 pages of end notes expand upon items in the journals which may be obscure at this remove and provide source citations for events and works mentioned. You might wonder what possesses somebody to read more than five hundred pages of journal entries by somebody else which date from thirty to forty years ago. Well, I took the time, and I'm glad I did: it perfectly recreated the sense of the times and of the intellectual and technological challenges of the age. Trust me: if you're too young to remember the Seventies, it's far better to experience those years here than to have actually lived through them.

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Woodbury, David O. The Glass Giant of Palomar. New York: Dodd, Mead, [1939, 1948] 1953. LCCN 53000393.
I originally read this book when I was in junior high school—it was one of the few astronomy titles in the school's library. It's one of the grains of sand dropping on the pile which eventually provoked the avalanche that persuaded me I was living in the golden age of engineering and that I'd best spend my life making the most of it.

Seventy years after it was originally published (the 1948 and 1953 updates added only minor information on the final commissioning of the telescope and a collection of photos taken through it), this book still inspires respect for those who created the 200 inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar, and the engineering challenges they faced and overcame in achieving that milestone in astronomical instrumentation. The book is as much a biography of George Ellery Hale as it is a story of the giant telescope he brought into being. Hale was a world class scientist: he invented the spectroheliograph, discovered the magnetic fields of sunspots, founded the Astrophysical Journal and to a large extent the field of astrophysics itself, but he also excelled as a promoter and fund-raiser for grand-scale scientific instrumentation. The Yerkes, Mount Wilson, and Palomar observatories would, in all likelihood, not have existed were it not for Hale's indefatigable salesmanship. And this was an age when persuasiveness was all. With the exception of the road to the top of Palomar, all of the observatories and their equipment promoted by Hale were funded without a single penny of taxpayer money. For the Palomar 200 inch, he raised US$6 million in gold-backed 1930 dollars, which in present-day paper funny-money amounts to US$78 million.

It was a very different America which built the Palomar telescope. Not only was it never even thought of that money coercively taken from taxpayers would be diverted to pure science, anybody who wanted to contribute to the project, regardless of their academic credentials, was judged solely on their merits and given a position based upon their achievements. The chief optician who ground, polished, and figured the main mirror of the Palomar telescope (so perfectly that its potential would not be realised until recently thanks to adaptive optics) had a sixth grade education and was first employed at Mount Wilson as a truck driver. You can make of yourself what you have within yourself in America, so they say—so it was for Marcus Brown (p. 279). Milton Humason who, with Edwin Hubble, discovered the expansion of the universe, dropped out of school at the age of 14 and began his astronomical career driving supplies up Mount Wilson on mule trains. You can make of yourself what you have within yourself in America, or at least you could then. Now we go elsewhere.

Is there anything Russell W. Porter didn't do? Arctic explorer, founder of the hobby of amateur telescope making, engineer, architect…his footprints and brushstrokes are all over technological creativity in the first half of the twentieth century. And he is much in evidence here: recruited in 1927, he did the conceptual design for most of the buildings of the observatory, and his cutaway drawings of the mechanisms of the telescope demonstrate to those endowed with contemporary computer graphics tools that the eye of the artist is far more important than the technology of the moment.

This book has been out of print for decades, but used copies (often, sadly, de-accessioned by public libraries) are generally available at prices (unless you're worried about cosmetics and collectability) comparable to present-day hardbacks. It's as good a read today as it was in 1962.

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Dewar, James with Robert Bussard. The Nuclear Rocket. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-894959-99-5.
Let me begin with a few comments about the author attribution of this book. I have cited it as given on the copyright page, but as James Dewar notes in his preface, the main text of the book is entirely his creation. He says of Robert Bussard, “I am deeply indebted to Bob's contributions and consequently list his name in the credit to this book”. Bussard himself contributes a five-page introduction in which he uses, inter alia, the adjectives “amazing”, “strange”, “remarkable”, “wonderful”, “visionary”, and “most odd” to describe the work, which he makes clear is entirely Dewar's. Consequently, I shall subsequently use “the author” to denote Dewar alone. Bussard died in 2007, two years before the publication of this book, so his introduction must have been based upon a manuscript. I leave to the reader to judge the propriety of posthumously naming as co-author a prominent individual who did not write a single word of the main text.

Unlike the author's earlier To the End of the Solar System (June 2008), which was a nuts and bolts history of the U.S. nuclear rocket program, this book, titled The Nuclear Rocket, quoting from Bussard's introduction, “…is not really about nuclear rocket propulsion or its applications to space flight…”. Indeed, although some of the nitty-gritty of nuclear rocket engines are discussed, the bulk of the book is an argument for a highly-specific long term plan to transform human access to space from an elitist government run program to a market-driven expansive program with the ultimate goal of providing access to space to all and opening the solar system to human expansion and eventual dominion. This is indeed ambitious and visionary, but of all of Bussard's adjectives, the one that sticks with me is “most odd”.

Dewar argues that the NERVA B-4 nuclear thermal rocket core, developed between 1960 and 1972, and successfully tested on several occasions, has the capability, once the “taboo” against using nuclear engines in the boost to low Earth orbit (LEO) is discarded, of revolutionising space transportation and so drastically reducing the cost per unit mass to orbit that it would effectively democratise access to space. In particular, he proposes a “Re-core” engine which, integrated with a liquid hydrogen tank and solid rocket boosters, would be air-launched from a large cargo aircraft such as a C-5, with the solid rockets boosting the nuclear engine to around 30 km where they would separate for recovery and the nuclear engine engaged. The nuclear rocket would continue to boost the payload to orbital insertion. Since the nuclear stage would not go critical until having reached the upper atmosphere, there would be no radioactivity risk to those handling the stage on the ground prior to launch or to the crew of the plane which deployed the rocket.

After reaching orbit, the payload and hydrogen tank would be separated, and the nuclear engine enclosed in a cocoon (much like an ICBM reentry vehicle) which would de-orbit and eventually land at sea in a region far from inhabited land. The cocoon, which would float after landing, would be recovered by a ship, placed in a radiation-proof cask, and returned to a reprocessing centre where the highly radioactive nuclear fuel core would be removed for reprocessing (the entire launch to orbit would consume only about 1% of the highly enriched uranium in the core, so recovering the remaining uranium and reusing it is essential to the economic viability of the scheme). Meanwhile, another never critical core would be inserted in the engine which, after inspection of the non-nuclear components, would be ready for another flight. If each engine were reused 100 times, and efficient fuel reprocessing were able to produce new cores economically, the cost for each 17,000 pound payload to LEO would be around US$108 per pound.

Payloads which reached LEO and needed to go beyond (for example, to geostationary orbit, the Moon, or the planets) would rendezvous with a different variant of the NERVA-derived engine, dubbed the “Re-use” stage, which is much like Von Braun's nuclear shuttle concept. This engine, like the original NERVA, would be designed for multiple missions, needing only inspection and refuelling with liquid hydrogen. A single Re-use stage might complete 30 round-trip missions before being disposed of in deep space (offering “free launches” for planetary science missions on its final trip into the darkness).

There is little doubt that something like this is technically feasible. After all, the nuclear rocket engine was extensively tested in the years prior to its cancellation in 1972, and NASA's massive resources of the epoch examined mission profiles (under the constraint that nuclear engines could be used only for departure from LEO, however, and without return to Earth) and found no show stoppers. Indeed, there is evidence that the nuclear engine was cancelled, in part, because it was performing so well that policy makers feared it would enable additional costly NASA missions post-Apollo. There are some technological issues: for example, the author implies that the recovered Re-core, once its hot core is extracted and a new pure uranium core installed, will not be radioactive and hence safe to handle without special precautions. But what about neutron activation of other components of the engine? An operating nuclear rocket creates one of the most extreme neutronic environments outside the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Would it be possible to choose materials for the non-core components of the engine which would be immune to this and, if not, how serious would the induced radioactivity be, especially if the engine were reused up to a hundred times? The book is silent on this and a number of other questions.

The initial breakthrough in space propulsion from the first generation nuclear engines is projected to lead to rapid progress in optimising them, with four generations of successively improved engines within a decade or so. This would eventually lead to the development of a heavy lifter able to orbit around 150,000 pounds of payload per flight at a cost (after development costs are amortised or expensed) of about US$87 per pound. This lifter would allow the construction of large space stations and the transport of people to them in “buses” with up to thirty passengers per mission. Beyond that, a nuclear single stage to orbit vehicle is examined, but there are a multitude of technological and policy questions to be resolved before that could be contemplated.

All of this, however, is not what the book is about. The author is a passionate believer in the proposition that opening the space frontier to all the people of Earth, not just a few elite civil servants, is essential to preserving peace, restoring the optimism of our species, and protecting the thin biosphere of this big rock we inhabit. And so he proposes a detailed structure for accomplishing these goals, beginning with “Democratization of Space Act” to be adopted by the U.S. Congress, and the creation of a “Nuclear Rocket Development and Operations Corporation” (NucRocCorp), which would be a kind of private/public partnership in which individuals could invest. This company could create divisions (in some cases competing with one another) and charter development projects. It would entirely control space nuclear propulsion, with oversight by U.S. government regulatory agencies, which would retain strict control over the fissile reactor cores.

As the initial program migrated to the heavy lifter, this structure would morph into a multinational (admitting only “good” nations, however) structure of bewildering (to this engineer) bureaucratic complexity which makes the United Nations look like the student council of Weemawee High. The lines of responsibility and power here are diffuse in the extreme. Let me simply cite “The Stockholder's Declaration” from p. 161:

Whoever invests in the NucRocCorp and subsequent Space Charter Authority should be required to sign a declaration that commits him or her to respect the purpose of the new regime, and conduct their personal lives in a manner that recognizes the rights of their fellow man (What about woman?—JW). They must be made aware that failure to do so could result in forfeiture of their investment.

Property rights, anybody? Thought police? Apart from the manifest baroque complexity of the proposed scheme, it entirely ignores Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy: regardless of its original mission, any bureaucracy will eventually be predominately populated by those seeking to advance the interests of the bureaucracy itself, not the purpose for which it was created. The structure proposed here, even if enacted (implausible in the extreme) and even if it worked as intended (vanishingly improbable), would inevitably be captured by the Iron Law and become something like, well, NASA.

On pp. 36–37, the author likens attempts to stretch chemical rocket technology to its limits to gold plating a nail when what is needed is a bigger hammer (nuclear rockets). But this book brings to my mind another epigram: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Dewar passionately supports nuclear rocket technology and believes that it is the way to open the solar system to human settlement. I entirely concur. But when it comes to assuming that boosting people up to a space station (p. 111):

And looking down on the bright Earth and into the black heavens might create a new perspective among Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox theologians, and perhaps lead to the end of the schism plaguing Christianity. The same might be said of the division between the Sunnis and Shiites in Islam, and the religions of the Near and Far East might benefit from a new perspective.

Call me cynical, but I'll wager this particular swing of the hammer is more likely to land on a thumb than the intended nail. Those who cherish individual freedom have often dreamt of a future in which the opening of access to space would, in the words of L. Neil Smith, extend the human prospect to “freedom, immortality, and the stars”—works for me. What is proposed here, if adopted, looks more like, after more than a third of a century of dithering, the space frontier being finally opened to the brave pioneers ready to homestead there, and when they arrive, the tax man and the all-pervasive regulatory state are already there, up and running. The nuclear rocket can expand the human presence throughout the solar system. Let's just hope that when humanity (or some risk-taking subset of it) takes that long-deferred step, it does not propagate the soft tyranny of present day terrestrial governance to worlds beyond.

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Derbyshire, John. We Are Doomed. New York: Crown Forum, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-40958-4.
In this book, genial curmudgeon John Derbyshire, whose previous two books were popular treatments of the Riemann hypothesis and the history of algebra, argues that an authentically conservative outlook on life requires a relentlessly realistic pessimism about human nature, human institutions, and the human prospect. Such a pessimistic viewpoint immunises one from the kind of happy face optimism which breeds enthusiasm for breathtaking ideas and grand, ambitious schemes, which all of history testifies are doomed to failure and tragedy.

Adopting a pessimistic attitude is, Derbyshire says, not an effort to turn into a sourpuss (although see the photograph of the author on the dust jacket), but simply the consequence of removing the rose coloured glasses and looking at the world as it really is. To grind down the reader's optimism into a finely-figured speculum of gloom, a sequence of chapters surveys the Hellbound landscape of what passes for the modern world: “diversity”, politics, popular culture, education, economics, and third-rail topics such as achievement gaps between races and the assimilation of immigrants. The discussion is mostly centred on the United States, but in chapter 11, we take a tour d'horizon and find that things are, on the whole, as bad or worse everywhere else.

In the conclusion the author, who is just a few years my senior, voices a thought which has been rattling around my own brain for some time: that those of our generation living in the West may be seen, in retrospect, as having had the good fortune to live in a golden age. We just missed the convulsive mass warfare of the 20th century (although not, of course, frequent brushfire conflicts in which you can be killed just as dead, terrorism, or the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War), lived through the greatest and most broadly-based expansion of economic prosperity in human history, accompanied by more progress in science, technology, and medicine than in all of the human experience prior to our generation. Further, we're probably going to hand in our dinner pails before the economic apocalypse made inevitable by the pyramid of paper money and bogus debt we created, mass human migrations, demographic collapse, and the ultimate eclipse of the tattered remnants of human liberty by the malignant state. Will people decades and centuries hence look back at the Boomer generation as the one that reaped all the benefits for themselves and passed on the bills and the adverse consequences to their descendants? That's the way to bet.

So what is to be done? How do we turn the ship around before we hit the iceberg? Don't look for any such chirpy suggestions here: it's all in the title—we are doomed! My own view is that we're in a race between a technological singularity and a new dark age of poverty, ignorance, subjugation to the state, and pervasive violence. Sharing the author's proclivity for pessimism, you can probably guess which I judge more probable. If you concur, you might want to read this book, which will appear in this chronicle in due time.

The book includes neither bibliography nor index. The lack of the former is particularly regrettable as a multitude of sources are cited in the text, many available online. It would be wonderful if the author posted a bibliography of clickable links (to online articles or purchase links for books cited) on his Web site, where there is a Web log of comments from readers and the author's responses.

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Paul, Ron. End the Fed. New York: Grand Central, 2000. ISBN 978-0-446-54919-6.
Imagine a company whose performance, measured over almost a century by the primary metric given in its charter, looked like this:

USD Purchasing Power 1913--2009

Now, would you be likely, were your own personal prosperity and that of all of those around you on the line, to entrust your financial future to their wisdom and demonstrated track record? Well, if you live in the United States, or your finances are engaged in any way in that economy (whether as an investor, creditor, or trade partner), you are, because this is the chart of the purchasing power of the United States Dollar since it began to be managed by the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Helluva record, don't you think?

Now, if you know anything about basic economics (which puts you several rungs up the ladder from most present-day politicians and members of the chattering classes), you'll recall that inflation is not defined as rising prices but rather an increase in the supply of money. It's just as if you were at an auction and you gave all of the bidders 10% more money: the selling price of the item would be 10% greater, not because it had appreciated in value but simply because the bidders had more to spend on acquiring it. And what is, fundamentally, the function of the Federal Reserve System? Well, that would be to implement an “elastic currency”, decoupled from real-world measures of value, with the goal of smoothing out the business cycle. Looking at this shorn of all the bafflegab, the mission statement is to create paper money out of thin air in order to fund government programs which the legislature lacks the spine to fund from taxation or debt, and to permit banks to profit by extending credit well beyond the limits of prudence, knowing they're backed up by the “lender of last resort” when things go South. The Federal Reserve System is nothing other than an engine of inflation (money creation), and it's hardly a surprise that the dollars it issues have lost more than 95% of their value in the years since its foundation.

Acute observers of the economic scene have been warning about the risks of such a system for decades—it came onto my personal radar well before there was a human bootprint on the Moon. But somehow, despite dollar crises, oil shocks, gold and silver bubble markets, saving and loan collapse, dot.bomb, housing bubble, and all the rest, the wise money guys somehow kept all of the balls in the air—until they didn't. We are now in the early days of an extended period in which almost a century of bogus prosperity founded on paper (not to mention, new and improved pure zap electronic) money and debt which cannot ever be repaid will have to be unwound. This will be painful in the extreme, and the profligate borrowers who have been riding high whilst running up their credit cards will end up marked down, not only in the economic realm but in geopolitical power.

Nobody imagines today that it would be possible, as Alan Greenspan envisioned in the days he was a member of Ayn Rand's inner circle, to abolish the paper money machine and return to honest money (or, even better, as Hayek recommended, competing moneys, freely interchangeable in an open market). But then, nobody imagines that the present system could collapse, which it is in the process of doing. The US$ will continue its slide toward zero, perhaps with an inflection point in the second derivative as the consequences of “bailouts” and “stimuli” kick in. The Euro will first see risk premiums increase across sovereign debt issued by Eurozone nations, and then the weaker members drop out to avoid the collapse of their own economies. No currency union without political union has ever survived in the long term, and the Euro is no exception.

Will we finally come to our senses and abandon this statist paper in favour of the mellow glow of gold? This is devoutly to be wished, but I fear unlikely in my lifetime or even in those of the koi in my pond. As long as politicians can fiddle with the money in order to loot savers and investors to fund their patronage schemes and line their own pockets they will: it's been going on since Babylon, and it will probably go to the stars as we expand our dominion throughout the universe. One doesn't want to hope for total economic and societal collapse, but that appears to be the best bet for a return to honest and moral money. If that's your wish, I suppose you can be heartened that the present administration in the United States appears bent upon that outcome. Our other option is opting out with technology. We have the ability today to electronically implement Hayek's multiple currency system online. This has already been done by ventures such as e-gold, but The Man has, to date, effectively stomped upon them. It will probably take a prickly sovereign state player to make this work. Hello, Dubai!

Let me get back to this book. It is superb: read it and encourage all of your similarly-inclined friends to do the same. If they're coming in cold to these concepts, it may be a bit of a shock (“You mean, the government doesn't create money?”), but there's a bibliography at the end with three levels of reading lists to bring people up to speed. Long-term supporters of hard money will find this mostly a reinforcement of their views, but for those experiencing for the first time the consequences of rapidly depreciating dollars, this will be an eye-opening revelation of the ultimate cause, and the malignant institution which must be abolished to put an end to this most pernicious tax upon the most prudent of citizens.

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Lyle, [Albert] Sparky and David Fisher. The Year I Owned the Yankees. New York: Bantam Books, [1990] 1991. ISBN 978-0-553-28692-2.
“Sparky” Lyle was one of the preeminent baseball relief pitchers of the 1970s. In 1977, he became the first American League reliever to win the Cy Young Award. In this book, due to one of those bizarre tax-swap transactions of the 1980–90s, George Steinbrenner, “The Boss”, was forced to divest the New York Yankees to an unrelated owner. Well, who could be more unrelated than Sparky Lyle, so when the telephone rings while he and his wife are watching “Jeopardy”, the last thing he imagines is that he's about to be offered a no-cash leveraged buy-out of the Yankees. Based upon his extensive business experience, 238 career saves, and pioneering in sitting naked on teammates' birthday cakes, he says, “Why not?” and the game, and season, are afoot.

None of this ever happened: the subtitle is “A Baseball Fantasy”, but wouldn't it have been delightful if it had? There's the pitcher with a bionic arm, cellular phone gloves so coaches can call fielders to position them for batters (if they don't get the answering machine), the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium enhanced with a Mood Room for those who wish to mellow out and a Frustration Room for those inclined to smash and break things after bruising losses, and the pitching coach who performs an exorcism and conducts a seance manifesting the spirit of Cy Young who counsels the Yankee pitching staff “Never hang a curve to Babe Ruth”. Thank you, Cy! Then there's the Japanese pitcher who can read minds and the reliever who reinvents himself as “Mr. Cool” and rides in from the bullpen on a Harley with the stadium PA system playing “Leader of the Pack”.

This is a romp which, while the very quintessence of fantasy baseball, also embodies a great deal of inside baseball wisdom. It's also eerily prophetic, as sabermetrics, as practised by Billy Beane's Oakland A's years after this book was remaindered, plays a major part in the plot. And never neglect the ultimate loyalty of a fan to their team!

Sparky becomes the owner with a vow to be the anti-Boss, but discovers as the season progresses that the realities of corporate baseball in the 1990s mandate many of the policies which caused Steinbrenner to be so detested. In the end, he comes to appreciate that any boss, to do his or her job, must be, in part, The Boss. I wish I'd read that before I discovered it for myself.

This is a great book to treat yourself to while the current World Series involving the Yankees is contested. The book is out of print, but used paperback copies in readable condition are abundant and reasonably priced. Special thanks to the reader of this chronicle who recommended this book!

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November 2009

Malkin, Michelle. Culture of Corruption. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59698-109-6.
This excellent book is essential to understanding what is presently going on in the United States. The author digs into the backgrounds and interconnections of the Obamas, the Clintons, their associates, the members of the Obama administration, and the web of shady organisations which surround them such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and ACORN, and demonstrates, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the United States is now ruled by a New Class of political operatives entirely distinct from the productive class which supports them and the ordinary citizens they purport to serve. Let me expand a bit on that term of art. In 1957, Milovan Đilas, Yugoslavian Communist revolutionary turned dissident, published a book titled The New Class, in which he described how, far from the egalitarian ideals of Marx and Engels, modern Communism had become captive to an entrenched political and bureaucratic class which used the power of the state to exploit its citizens. The New Class moved in different social and economic circles than the citizenry, and was moving in the direction of a hereditary aristocracy, grooming their children to take over from them.

In this book, we see a portrait of America's New Class, as exemplified by the Obama administration. (Although the focus is on Obama's people and the constituencies of the Democratic party, a similar investigation of a McCain administration wouldn't probably look much different: the special interests would differ, but not the character of the players. It's the political class as a whole and the system in which they operate which is corrupt, which is how mighty empires fall.) Reading through the biographies of the players, what is striking is that very few of them have ever worked a single day in the productive sector of the economy. They went from law school to government agency or taxpayer funded organisation to political office or to well-paid positions in a political organisation. They are members of a distinct political class which is parasitic upon the society, and whose interests do not align with the well-being of its citizens, who are coerced to support them.

And this, it seems to me, completes the picture of the most probable future trajectory of the United States. To some people Obama is the Messiah, and to others he is an American Lenin, but I think both of those views miss the essential point. He is, I concluded while reading this book, an American Juan Perón, a charismatic figure (with a powerful and ambitious wife) who champions the cause of the “little people” while amassing power and wealth to reward the cronies who keep the game going, looting the country (Argentina was the 10th wealthiest nation per capita in 1913) for the benefit of the ruling class, and setting the stage for economic devastation, political instability, and hyperinflation. It's pretty much the same game as Chicago under mayors Daley père and fils, but played out on a national scale. Adam Smith wrote, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation”, but as demonstrated here, there is a great deal of ruination in the New Class Obama has installed in the Executive branch in Washington.

As the experience of Argentina during the Perón era and afterward demonstrates, it is possible to inflict structural damage on a society which cannot be reversed by an election, or even a coup or revolution. Once the productive class is pauperised or driven into exile and the citizenry made dependent upon the state, a new equilibrium is reached which, while stable, drastically reduces national prosperity and the standard of living of the populace. But, if the game is played correctly, as despots around the world have figured out over millennia, it can enrich the ruling class, the New Class, beyond their dreams of avarice (well, not really, because those folks are really good when it comes to dreaming of avarice), all the time they're deploring the “greed” of those who oppose them and champion the cause of the “downtrodden” ground beneath their own boots.

To quote a politician who figures prominently in this book, “let me be clear”: the present book is a straightforward investigation of individuals staffing the Obama administration and the organisations associated with them, documented in extensive end notes, many of which cite sources accessible online. All of the interpretation of this in terms of a New Class is entirely my own and should not be attributed to this book or its author.

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Flynn, Vince. Term Limits. New York: Pocket Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-671-02318-8.
This was the author's first novel, which he initially self-published and marketed through bookshops in his native Minnesota after failing to place it with any of the major New York publishers. There have to be a lot of editors (What's the collective noun for a bunch of editors? A rejection slip of editors? A red pencil of editors?) who wrote the dozens of rejection letters he received, as Flynn's books now routinely make the New York Times bestseller list and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Unlike many writers who take a number of books, published or unpublished, to master their craft (Jerry Pournelle counsels aspiring writers to expect to throw away their first million words), Flynn showed himself to be a grandmaster at the art of the thriller in his very first outing. In fact, I found this book to be even more of a compulsive page-turner than the subsequent Mitch Rapp novels (but that's to be expected, since as the series progresses there's more character development and scene-setting)—the trade paperback edition is 612 pages long and I finished it in four days.

The story takes place in the same world as the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series, and introduces many of the characters of those books such as Thomas Stansfield, Irene Kennedy, Jack Warch, Scott Coleman, and Congressman Michael O'Rourke, but Rapp makes no appearance in it. The premise is simple: a group of retired Special Forces operatives who have spent their careers making foreign enemies of their country pay for their misdeeds concludes that the most pernicious enemies of the republic are the venal politicians spending the country into bankruptcy and ignoring the threats to its existence and decides to take, shall we say, direct action, much along the lines of Unintended Consequences (December 2003), but as a pure thriller without the political baggage of that novel.

Flynn's attention to detail is evident in this first novel, although there are a few lapses. This is to be expected, as his “brain trust” of fan/insiders had yet to discover his work and lend their expertise to vetting the gnarly details. For example, on p. 552, a KH-11 satellite is said to be “on station” and remains so for an extended period. KH-11s are in low Earth orbit, and cannot be on station anywhere. And they're operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, not the National Security Administration. Flynn seems to be very fond of the word “transponder”, and uses it in contexts where it's clear a receiver is intended. These and other minor goofs detract in no way from the story, which grips you and doesn't let go until the last page. Although this book is not at all a prerequisite to enjoying the Mitch Rapp series, in retrospect I wish I'd read it before Transfer of Power (April 2009) to better appreciate the history which formed the relationships among the secondary characters.

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Meyer, Stephen C. Signature in the Cell. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-147278-7.
At last we have a book which squarely takes on the central puzzle of the supposedly blind, purposeless universe to which so many scientists presently ascribe the origin of life on Earth. There's hardly any point debating evolution: it can be demonstrated in the laboratory. (Some may argue that Spiegelman's monster is an example of devolution, but recall that evolutionists must obligately eschew teleology, so selection in the direction of simplicity and rapid replication is perfectly valid, and evidenced by any number of examples in bacteria.)

No, the puzzle—indeed, the enigma— is the origin of the first replicator. Once you have a self-replicating organism and a means of variation (of which many are known to exist), natural selection can kick in and, driven by the environment and eventually competition with other organisms, select for more complexity when it confers an adaptive advantage. But how did the first replicator come to be?

In the time of Darwin, the great puzzle of biology was the origin of the apparently designed structures in organisms and the diversity of life, not the origin of the first cell. For much of Darwin's life, spontaneous generation was a respectable scientific theory, and the cell was thought to be an amorphous globule of a substance dubbed “protoplasm”, which one could imagine as originating at random through chemical reactions among naturally occurring precursor molecules.

The molecular biology revolution in the latter half of the twentieth century put the focus squarely upon the origin of life. In particular, the discovery of the extraordinarily complex digital code of the genome in DNA, the supremely complex nanomachinery of gene expression (more than a hundred proteins are involved in the translation of DNA to proteins, even in the simplest of bacteria), and the seemingly intractable chicken and egg problem posed by the fact that DNA cannot replicate its information without the proteins of the transcription mechanism, while those proteins cannot be assembled without the precise sequence information provided in the DNA, decisively excluded all scenarios for the origin of life through random chemical reactions in a “warm pond”.

As early as the 1960s, those who approached the problem of the origin of life from the standpoint of information theory and combinatorics observed that something was terribly amiss. Even if you grant the most generous assumptions: that every elementary particle in the observable universe is a chemical laboratory randomly splicing amino acids into proteins every Planck time for the entire history of the universe, there is a vanishingly small probability that even a single functionally folded protein of 150 amino acids would have been created. Now of course, elementary particles aren't chemical laboratories, nor does peptide synthesis take place where most of the baryonic mass of the universe resides: in stars or interstellar and intergalactic clouds. If you look at the chemistry, it gets even worse—almost indescribably so: the precursor molecules of many of these macromolecular structures cannot form under the same prebiotic conditions—they must be catalysed by enzymes created only by preexisting living cells, and the reactions required to assemble them into the molecules of biology will only go when mediated by other enzymes, assembled in the cell by precisely specified information in the genome.

So, it comes down to this: Where did that information come from? The simplest known free living organism (although you may quibble about this, given that it's a parasite) has a genome of 582,970 base pairs, or about one megabit (assuming two bits of information for each nucleotide, of which there are four possibilities). Now, if you go back to the universe of elementary particle Planck time chemical labs and work the numbers, you find that in the finite time our universe has existed, you could have produced about 500 bits of structured, functional information by random search. Yet here we have a minimal information string which is (if you understand combinatorics) so indescribably improbable to have originated by chance that adjectives fail.

What do I mean by “functional information”? Just information which has a meaning expressed in a separate domain than its raw components. For example, the information theoretic entropy of a typical mountainside is as great (and, in fact, probably greater) than that of Mount Rushmore, but the latter encodes functional (or specified) information from a separate domain: that of representations of U.S. presidents known from other sources. Similarly, a DNA sequence which encodes a protein which folds into a form which performs a specific enzymatic function is vanishingly improbable to have originated by chance, and this has been demonstrated by experiment. Without the enzymes in the cell, in fact, even if you had a primordial soup containing all of the ingredients of functional proteins, they would just cross-link into non-functional goo, as nothing would prevent their side chains from bonding to one another. Biochemists know this, which is why they're so sceptical of the glib theories of physicists and computer scientists who expound upon the origin of life.

Ever since Lyell, most scientists have embraced the principle of uniformitarianism, which holds that any phenomenon we observe in nature today must have been produced by causes we observe in action at the present time. Well, at the present time, we observe many instances of complex, structured, functional encoded data with information content in excess of 500 bits: books, music, sculpture, paintings, integrated circuits, machines, and even this book review. And to what cause would the doctrinaire uniformitarian attribute all of this complex, structured information? Well, obviously, the action of an intelligent agent: intelligent design.

Once you learn to recognise it, the signatures are relatively easy to distinguish. When you have a large amount of Shannon information, but no function (for example, the contour of a natural mountainside, or a random bit string generated by radioactive decay), then chance is the probable cause. When you have great regularity (the orbits of planets, or the behaviour of elementary particles), then natural law is likely to govern. As Jacques Monod observed, most processes in nature can be attributed to Chance and Necessity, but there remain those which do not, with which archæologists, anthropologists, and forensic scientists, among others, deal with every day.

Beyond the dichotomy of chance and necessity (or a linear combination of the two), there's the trichotomy which admits intelligent design as a cause. An Egyptologist who argued that plate tectonics was responsible for the Great Sphinx of Giza would be laughed out of the profession. And yet, when those who observe information content in the minimal self-replicating organism hundreds of orders of magnitude less likely than the Sphinx having been extruded from a volcanic vent infer evidence of intelligent design of that first replicator, they are derided and excluded from scientific discourse.

What is going on here? I would suggest there is a dogma being enforced with the same kind of rigour as the Darwinists impute to their fundamentalist opponents. In every single instance in the known universe, with the sole exception of the genome of the minimal self-replicating cell and the protein machinery which allows it to replicate, when we see 500 bits or more of functional complexity, we attribute it to the action of an intelligent agent. You aren't likely to see a CSI episode where one of the taxpayer-funded sleuths attributes the murder to a gun spontaneously assembling due to quantum fluctuations and shooting “the vic” through the heart. And yet such a Boltzmann gun is thousands of orders of magnitude more probable than a minimal genetic code and transcription apparatus assembling by chance in proximity to one another in order to reproduce.

Opponents of intelligent design hearts' go all pitty-pat because they consider it (gasp) religion. Nothing could be more absurd. Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) concluded that the origin of life on Earth was sufficiently improbable that the best hypothesis was that it had been seeded here deliberately by intelligent alien lifeforms. These creatures, whatever their own origins, would have engineered their life spores to best take root in promising environments, and hence we shouldn't be surprised to discover our ancestors to have been optimised for our own environment. One possibility (of which I am fond) is that our form of life is the present one in a “chain of life” which began much closer to the Big Bang. One can imagine life, originating at the quark-gluon plasma phase or in the radiation dominated universe, and seeing the end of their dominion approaching, planting the seeds of the next form of life among their embers. Dyson, Tipler, and others have envisioned the distant descendants of humanity passing on the baton of life to other lifeforms adapted to the universe of the far future. Apply the Copernican principle: what about our predecessors?

Or consider my own favourite hypothesis of origin, that we're living in a simulation. I like to think of our Creator as a 13 year old superbeing who designed our universe as a science fair project. I have written before about the clear signs accessible to experiment which might falsify this hypothesis but which, so far, are entirely consistent with it. In addition, I've written about how the multiverse model is less parsimonious than the design hypothesis.

In addition to the arguments in that paper, I would suggest that evidence we're living in a simulation is that we find, living within it, complex structured information which we cannot explain as having originated by the physical processes we discover within the simulation. In other words, we find there has been input of information by the intelligent designer of the simulation, either explicitly as genetic information, or implicitly in terms of fine-tuning of free parameters of the simulated universe so as to favour the evolution of complexity. If you were creating such a simulation (or designing a video game), wouldn't you fine tune such parameters and pre-specify such information in order to make it “interesting”?

Look at it this way. Imagine you were a sentient character in a video game. You would observe that the “game physics” of your universe was finely tuned both in the interest of computability but also to maximise the complexity of the interactions of the simulated objects. You would discover that your own complexity and that of the agents with which you interact could not be explained by the regularities of the simulation and the laws you'd deduced from them, and hence appeared to have been put in from the outside by an intelligent designer bent on winning the science fair by making the most interesting simulation. Being intensely rationalistic, you'd dismiss the anecdotal evidence for the occasional miracle as the pimple-faced Creator tweaked this or that detail to make things more interesting and thus justify an A in Miss O'Neill's Creative Cosmology class. And you'd be wrong.

Once we have discovered we're living in a simulation and inferred, from design arguments, that we're far from the top level, all of this will be obvious, but hey, if you're reading it here for the first time, welcome to the revelation of what's going on. Opponents of intelligent design claim it's “not science” or “not testable”. Poppycock—here's a science fiction story about how conclusive evidence for design might be discovered. Heck, you can go looking for it yourself!

This is an essential book for anybody interested in the origin of life on Earth. The author is a supporter of the hypothesis of intelligent design (as am I, although I doubt we would agree on any of the details). Regardless of what you think about the issue of origins, if you're interested in the question, you really need to know the biochemical details discussed here, and the combinatorial impossibility of chance assembly of even a single functionally folded protein in our universe in the time since the Big Bang.

I challenge you to read this and reject the hypothesis of intelligent design. If you reject it, then show how your alternative is more probable. I fully accept the hypothesis of intelligent design and have since I concluded more than a decade ago it's more probable than not that we're living in a simulation. We owe our existence to the Intelligent Designer who made us to be amusing. Let's hope she wins the Science Fair and doesn't turn it off!

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December 2009

Bracken, Matthew. Enemies Foreign and Domestic. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, [2003] 2008. ISBN 978-0-9728310-1-7.
This is one of those books, like John Ross's Unintended Consequences and Vince Flynn's Term Limits in which a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism committed by the Federal Government of the United States finally pushes liberty-loving citizens to exercise “their right, … their duty, to throw off such Government” even if doing so requires the tree of liberty to be refreshed “with the blood of patriots and tyrants”.

In this novel a massacre at a football stadium which occurs under highly dubious circumstances serves as the pretext for a draconian ban on semiautomatic weapons, with immediate confiscation and harsh penalties for non-compliance. This is a step too far for a diverse collection of individuals who believe the Second Amendment to be the ultimate bastion against tyranny, and a government which abridges it to be illegitimate by that very act. Individually, they begin to take action, and what amounts to a low grade civil war begins to break out in the Tidewater region of Virgina, with government provocateurs from a rogue federal agency of jackbooted thugs (as opposed to the jackbooted thugs of other agencies which are “just following orders”) perpetrating their own atrocities, which are then used to justify even more restrictions on the individual right to bear arms, including a ban on telescopic sights (dubbed “sniper rifles”), transportation of weapons in automobiles, and random vehicle stop checkpoints searching for and confiscating firearms.

As the situation spirals increasingly out of control, entrepreneurial jackbooted thugs exploit it to gain power and funding for themselves, and the individuals resisting them come into contact with one another and begin to put the pieces together and understand who is responsible and why a federal law enforcement agency is committing domestic terrorism. Then it's payback time.

This novel is just superbly written. It contains a wealth of detail, all of it carefully researched and accurate. I only noted a couple of typos and factual goofs. The characters are complex, realistically flawed, and develop as the story unfolds. This is a thriller, not a political tract, and it will keep you turning the pages until the very end, while thinking about what you would do when liberty is on the line.

Excerpts from the book are available online at the author's Web site.

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Magueijo, João. A Brilliant Darkness. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-00903-9.
Ettore Majorana is one of the most enigmatic figures in twentieth century physics. The son of a wealthy Sicilian family and a domineering mother, he was a mathematical prodigy who, while studying for a doctorate in engineering, was recruited to join Enrico Fermi's laboratory: the “Via Panisperna boys”. (Can't read that without seeing “panspermia”? Me neither.) Majorana switched to physics, and received his doctorate at the age of 22.

At Fermi's lab, he almost immediately became known as the person who could quickly solve intractable mathematical problems others struggled with for weeks. He also acquired a reputation for working on whatever interested him, declining to collaborate with others. Further, he would often investigate a topic to his own satisfaction, speak of his conclusions to his colleagues, but never get around to writing a formal article for publication—he seemed almost totally motivated by satisfying his own intellectual curiosity and not at all by receiving credit for his work. This infuriated his fiercely competitive boss Fermi, who saw his institute scooped on multiple occasions by others who independently discovered and published work Majorana had done and left to languish in his desk drawer or discarded as being “too obvious to publish”. Still, Fermi regarded Majorana as one of those wild talents who appear upon rare occasions in the history of science. He said,

There are many categories of scientists, people of second and third rank, who do their best, but do not go very far. There are also people of first class, who make great discoveries, which are of capital importance for the development of science. But then there are the geniuses, like Galileo and Newton. Well, Ettore was one of these.

In 1933, Majorana visited Werner Heisenberg in Leipzig and quickly became a close friend of this physicist who was, in most personal traits, his polar opposite. Afterward, he returned to Rome and flip-flopped from his extroversion in the company of Heisenberg to the life of a recluse, rarely leaving his bedroom in the family mansion for almost four years. Then something happened, and he jumped into the competition for the position of full professor at the University of Naples, bypassing the requirement for an examination due to his “exceptional merit”. He emerged from his reclusion, accepted the position, and launched into his teaching career, albeit giving lectures at a level which his students often found bewildering.

Then, on March 26th, 1938, he boarded a ship in Palermo Sicily bound for Naples and was never seen again. Before his departure he had posted enigmatic letters to his employer and family, sent a telegram, and left a further letter in his hotel room which some interpreted as suicide notes, but which forensic scientists who have read thousands of suicide notes say resemble none they've ever seen (but then, would a note by a Galileo or Newton read like that of the run of the mill suicide?). This event set in motion investigation and speculation which continues to this very day. Majorana was said to have withdrawn a large sum of money from his bank a few days before: is this plausible for one bent on self-annihilation (we'll get back to that infra)? Based on his recent interest in religion and reports of his having approached religious communities to join them, members of his family spent a year following up reports that he'd joined a monastery; despite “sightings”, none of these leads panned out. Years later, multiple credible sources with nothing apparently to gain reported that Majorana had been seen on numerous occasions in Argentina, and, abandoning physics (which he had said “was on the wrong path” before his disappearance), pursued a career as an engineer.

This only scratches the surface of the legends which have grown up around Majorana. His disappearance, occurring after nuclear fission had already been produced in Fermi's laboratory, but none of the “boys” had yet realised what they'd seen, spawns speculation that Majorana, as he often did, figured it out, worked out the implications, spoke of it to someone, and was kidnapped by the Germans (maybe he mentioned it to his friend Heisenberg), the Americans, or the Soviets. There is an Italian comic book in which Majorana is abducted by Americans, spirited off to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project, only to be abducted again (to his great relief) by aliens in a flying saucer. Nobody knows—this is just one of the many mysteries bearing the name Majorana.

Today, Majorana is best known for his work on the neutrino. He responded to Paul Dirac's theory of the neutrino (which he believed unnecessarily complicated and unphysical) with his own, in which, as opposed to there being neutrinos and antineutrinos, the neutrino is its own antiparticle and hence neutrinos of the same flavour can annihilate one another. At the time these theories were proposed the neutrino had not been detected, nor would it be for twenty years. When the existence of the neutrino was confirmed (although few doubted its existence by the time Reines and Cowan detected it in 1956), few believed it would ever be possible to distinguish the Dirac and Majorana theories of the neutrino, because that particle was almost universally believed to be massless. But then the “scientific consensus” isn't always the way to bet.

Starting with solar neutrino experiments in the 1960s, and continuing to the present day, it became clear that neutrinos did have mass, albeit very little compared to the electron. This meant that the distinction between the Dirac and Majorana theories of the neutrino was accessible to experiment, and could, at least in principle, be resolved. “At least in principle”: what a clarion call to the bleeding edge experimentalist! If the neutrino is a Majorana particle, as opposed to a Dirac particle, then neutrinoless double beta decay should occur, and we'll know whether Majorana's model, proposed more than seven decades ago, was correct. I wish there'd been more discussion of the open controversy over experiments which claim a 6σ signal for neutrinoless double beta decay in 76Ge, but then one doesn't want to date one's book with matters actively disputed.

To the book: this may be the first exemplar of a new genre I'll dub “gonzo scientific biography”. Like the “new journalism” of the 1960s and '70s, this is as much about the author as the subject; the author figures as a central character in the narrative, whether transcribing his queries in pidgin Italian to the Majorana family:

“Signora wifed a brother of Ettore, Luciano?”
“What age did signora owned at that time”
“But he was olded fifty years!”
“But in end he husbanded you.”

Besides humourously trampling on the language of Dante, the author employs profanity as a superlative as do so many “new journalists”. I find this unseemly in a scientific biography of an ascetic, deeply-conflicted individual who spent most of his short life in a search for the truth and, if he erred, erred always on the side of propriety, self-denial, and commitment to dignity of all people.

Should you read this? Well, if you've come this far, of course you should!   This is an excellent, albeit flawed, biography of a singular, albeit flawed, genius whose intellectual legacy motivates massive experiments conducted deep underground and in the seas today. Suppose a neutrinoless double beta decay experiment should confirm the Majorana theory? Should he receive the Nobel prize for it? On the merits, absolutely: many physics Nobels have been awarded for far less, and let's not talk about the “soft Nobels”. But under the rules a Nobel prize can't be awarded posthumously. Which then compels one to ask, “Is Ettore dead?” Well, sure, that's the way to bet: he was born in 1906 and while many people have lived longer, most don't. But how you can you be certain? I'd say, should an experiment for neutrinoless double beta decay prove conclusive, award him the prize and see if he shows up to accept it. Then we'll all know for sure.

Heck, if he did, it'd probably make Drudge.

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Flynn, Vince. Memorial Day. New York: Pocket Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7434-5398-1.
In this, the fifth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series the author returns from the more introspective view of the conflicting loyalties and priorities of the CIA's most effective loose cannon in previous novels to pen a rip-roaring edge-of-the-seat thriller which will keep you turning pages until the very last. I packed this as an “airplane book” and devoured the whole 574 page brick in less than 48 hours after I opened it on the train to the airport. Flynn is a grand master of the “just one more chapter before I go to sleep” thriller, and this is the most compelling of his novels I've read to date.

Without giving away any more than the back cover blurb, the premise is a nuclear terrorist attack on Washington, and the details of the detection of such a threat and the response to it are so precise that a U.S. government inquiry was launched into how Flynn got his information (answer—he has lots of fans in the alphabet soup agencies within a megaton or so of the Reflecting Pool). While the earlier novels in the Mitch Rapp chronicle are best read in order, you can pick this one up and enjoy it stand-alone: sure, you'll miss some of the nuances of the backgrounds and interactions among the characters, but the focus here is on crisis, mystery, taking expedient action to prevent a catastrophic outcome, and the tension between those committed to defending their nation and those committed to protecting the liberties which make that nation worthy of being defended.

As with most novels in which nuclear terrorism figures, I have some quibbles with the details, but I'm not going to natter upon them within a spoiler warning block because they made absolutely no difference to my enjoyment of this yarn. This is a thriller by a master of the genre at the height of his powers, which has not been dated in any way by the passing of years since its publication. Enjoy!

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Codevilla, Angelo. The Character of Nations. New York: Basic Books, [1997] 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-02800-9.
As George Will famously observed, “statecraft is soulcraft”. This book, drawing on examples from antiquity to the present day, and from cultures all around the world, explores how the character, culture, and morals of a people shape the political institutions they create and how, in turn, those institutions cause the character of those living under them to evolve over time. This feedback loop provides important insights into the rise and fall of nations and empires, and is acutely important in an age where the all-encompassing administrative state appears triumphant in developed nations at the very time it reduces its citizens to subservient, ovine subjects who seek advancement not through productive work but by seeking favours from those in power, which in turn imperils the wealth creation upon which the state preys.

This has, of course, been the state of affairs in the vast majority of human societies over the long span of human history but, as the author notes, for most of that history the intrusiveness of authority upon the autonomy of the individual was limited by constraints on transportation, communication, and organisation, so the scope of effective control of even the most despotic ruler rarely extended far beyond the seat of power. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were deeply concerned whether self-government of any form could function on a scale beyond that of a city-state: there were no historical precedents for such a polity enduring beyond a generation or two. Thomas Jefferson and others who believed such a government could be established and survive in America based their optimism on the character of the American people: their independence, self-reliance, morality grounded in deep religious convictions, strong families, and willingness to take up arms to defend their liberty would guide them in building a government which would reflect and promote those foundations.

Indeed, for a century and a half, despite a disastrous Civil War and innumerable challenges and crises, the character of the U.S. continued to embody that present at the founding, and millions of immigrants from cultures fundamentally different from those of the founders were readily assimilated into an ever-evolving culture which nonetheless preserved its essential character. For much of American history, people in the U.S. were citizens in the classic sense of the word: participants in self-government, mostly at a local level, and in turn accepting the governance of their fellow citizens; living lives centred around family, faith, and work, with public affairs rarely intruding directly into their lives, yet willing to come to the defence of the nation with their very lives when it was threatened.

How quaint that all seems today. Statecraft is soulcraft, and the author illustrates with numerous examples spanning millennia how even the best-intentioned changes in the relationship of the individual to the state can, over a generation or two, fundamentally and often irreversibly alter the relationship between government and the governed, transforming the character of the nation—the nature of its population, into something very different which will, in turn, summon forth a different kind of government. To be specific, and to cite the case most common in the the last century, there is a pernicious positive feedback loop which is set into motion by the enactment of even the most apparently benign social welfare programs. Each program creates a dependent client class, whose political goals naturally become to increase their benefits at the expense of the productive classes taxed to fund them. The dependent classes become reliable voting blocs for politicians who support the programs that benefit them, which motivates those politicians to expand benefits and thus grow the dependent classes. Eventually, indeed almost inevitably, the society moves toward a tipping point where net taxpayers are outvoted by tax eaters, after which the business of the society is no longer creation of wealth but rather a zero sum competition for the proceeds of redistribution by the state.

Note that the client classes in a mature redistributive state go far beyond the “poor, weak, and infirm” the politicians who promote such programs purport to champion. They include defence contractors, financial institutions dependent upon government loan guarantees and bailouts, nationalised companies, subsidised industries and commodity prices, public employee unions, well-connected lobbying and law firms, and the swarm of parasites that darken the sky above any legislature which expends the public patrimony at its sole discretion, and of course the relatives and supporters of the politicians and bureaucrats dispensing favours from the public purse.

The author distinguishes “the nation” (the people who live in a country), “the regime” (its governing institutions), and “the establishment” (the ruling class, including politicians but also media, academia, and opinion makers). When these three bodies are largely aligned, the character of the nation will be reflected in its institutions and those institutions will reinforce that character. In many circumstances, for example despotic societies, there has never been an alignment and this has often been considered the natural order of things: rulers and ruled. It is the rarest of exceptions when this triple alignment occurs, and the sad lesson of history is that even when it does, it is likely to be a transient phenomenon: we are doomed!

This is, indeed, a deeply pessimistic view of the political landscape, perhaps better read on the beach in mid-summer than by the abbreviated and wan daylight of a northern hemisphere winter solstice. The author examines in detail how seventy years of communist rule transformed the character of the Soviet population in such a manner that the emergence of the authoritarian Russian gangster state was a near-inevitable consequence. Perhaps had double-domed “defence intellectuals” read this book when it was originally published in 1997 (the present edition is revised and updated based upon subsequent events), ill-conceived attempts at “nation building” might have been avoided and many lives and vast treasure not squandered in such futile endeavours.

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