Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reading List: The Great Influenza

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza. New York: Penguin, [2004] 2005. ISBN 978-0-14-303649-4.
In the year 1800, the practice of medicine had changed little from that in antiquity. The rapid progress in other sciences in the 18th century had had little impact on medicine, which one historian called “the withered arm of science”. This began to change as the 19th century progressed. Researchers, mostly in Europe and especially in Germany, began to lay the foundations for a scientific approach to medicine and public health, understanding the causes of disease and searching for means of prevention and cure. The invention of new instruments for medical examination, anesthesia, and antiseptic procedures began to transform the practice of medicine and surgery.

All of these advances were slow to arrive in the United States. As late as 1900 only one medical school in the U.S. required applicants to have a college degree, and only 20% of schools required a high school diploma. More than a hundred U.S. medical schools accepted any applicant who could pay, and many graduated doctors who had never seen a patient or done any laboratory work in science. In the 1870s, only 10% of the professors at Harvard's medical school had a Ph.D.

In 1873, Johns Hopkins died, leaving his estate of US$ 3.5 million to found a university and hospital. The trustees embarked on an ambitious plan to build a medical school to be the peer of those in Germany, and began to aggressively recruit European professors and Americans who had studied in Europe to build a world class institution. By the outbreak of World War I in Europe, American medical research and education, still concentrated in just a few centres of excellence, had reached the standard set by Germany. It was about to face its greatest challenge.

With the entry of the United States into World War I in April of 1917, millions of young men conscripted for service were packed into overcrowded camps for training and preparation for transport to Europe. These camps, thrown together on short notice, often had only rudimentary sanitation and shelter, with many troops living in tent cities. Large number of doctors and especially nurses were recruited into the Army, and by the start of 1918 many were already serving in France. Doctors remaining in private practice in the U.S. were often older men, trained before the revolution in medical education and ignorant of modern knowledge of diseases and the means of treating them.

In all American wars before World War I, more men died from disease than combat. In the Civil War, two men died from disease for every death on the battlefield. Army Surgeon General William Gorgas vowed that this would not be the case in the current conflict. He was acutely aware that the overcrowded camps, frequent transfers of soldiers among far-flung bases, crowded and unsanitary troop transport ships, and unspeakable conditions in the trenches were a tinderbox just waiting for the spark of an infectious disease to ignite it. But the demand for new troops for the front in France caused his cautions to be overruled, and still more men were packed into the camps.

Early in 1918, a doctor in rural Haskell County, Kansas began to treat patients with a disease he diagnosed as influenza. But this was nothing like the seasonal influenza with which he was familiar. In typical outbreaks of influenza, the people at greatest risk are the very young (whose immune systems have not been previously exposed to the virus) and the very old, who lack the physical resilience to withstand the assault by the disease. Most deaths are among these groups, leading to a “bathtub curve” of mortality. This outbreak was different: the young and elderly were largely spared, while those in the prime of life were struck down, with many dying quickly of symptoms which resembled pneumonia. Slowly the outbreak receded, and by mid-March things were returning to normal. (The location and mechanism where the disease originated remain controversial to this day and we may never know for sure. After weighing competing theories, the author believes the Kansas origin most likely, but other origins have their proponents.)

That would have been the end of it, had not soldiers from Camp Funston, the second largest Army camp in the U.S., with 56,000 troops, visited their families in Haskell County while on leave. They returned to camp carrying the disease. The spark had landed in the tinderbox. The disease spread outward as troop trains travelled between camps. Often a train would leave carrying healthy troops (infected but not yet symptomatic) and arrive with up to half the company sick and highly infectious to those at the destination. Before long the disease arrived via troop ships at camps and at the front in France.

This was just the first wave. The spring influenza was unusual in the age group it hit most severely, but was not particularly more deadly than typical annual outbreaks. Then in the fall a new form of the disease returned in a much more virulent form. It is theorised that under the chaotic conditions of wartime a mutant form of the virus had emerged and rapidly spread among the troops and then passed into the civilian population. The outbreak rapidly spread around the globe, and few regions escaped. It was particularly devastating to aboriginal populations in remote regions like the Arctic and Pacific islands who had not developed any immunity to influenza.

The pathogen in the second wave could kill directly within a day by destroying the lining of the lung and effectively suffocating the patient. The disease was so virulent and aggressive that some medical researchers doubted it was influenza at all and suspected some new kind of plague. Even those who recovered from the disease had much of their immunity and defences against respiratory infection so impaired that some people who felt well enough to return to work would quickly come down with a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia which could kill them.

All of the resources of the new scientific medicine were thrown into the battle with the disease, with little or no impact upon its progression. The cause of influenza was not known at the time: some thought it was a bacterial disease while others suspected a virus. Further adding to the confusion is that influenza patients often had a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia, and the organism which causes that disease was mis-identified as the pathogen responsible for influenza. Heroic efforts were made, but the state of medical science in 1918 was simply not up to the challenge posed by influenza.

A century later, influenza continues to defeat every attempt to prevent or cure it, and another global pandemic remains a distinct possibility. Supportive treatment in the developed world and the availability of antibiotics to prevent secondary infection by pneumonia will reduce the death toll, but a mass outbreak of the virus on the scale of 1918 would quickly swamp all available medical facilities and bring society to the brink as it did then. Even regular influenza kills between a quarter and a half million people a year. The emergence of a killer strain like that of 1918 could increase this number by a factor of ten or twenty.

Influenza is such a formidable opponent due to its structure. It is an RNA virus which, unusually for a virus, has not a single strand of genetic material but seven or eight separate strands of RNA. Some researchers argue that in an organism infected with two or more variants of the virus these strands can mix to form new mutants, allowing the virus to mutate much faster than other viruses with a single strand of genetic material (this is controversial). The virus particle is surrounded by proteins called hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA). HA allows the virus to break into a target cell, while NA allows viruses replicated within the cell to escape to infect others.

What makes creating a vaccine for influenza so difficult is that these HA and NA proteins are what the body's immune system uses to identify the virus as an invader and kill it. But HA and NA come in a number of variants, and a specific strain of influenza may contain one from column H and one from column N, creating a large number of possibilities. For example, H1N2 is endemic in birds, pigs, and humans. H5N1 caused the bird flu outbreak in 2004, and H1N1 was responsible for the 1918 pandemic. It gets worse. As a child, when you are first exposed to influenza, your immune system will produce antibodies which identify and target the variant to which you were first exposed. If you were infected with and recovered from, say, H3N2, you'll be pretty well protected against it. But if, subsequently, you encounter H1N1, your immune system will recognise it sufficiently to crank out antibodies, but they will be coded to attack H3N2, not the H1N1 you're battling, against which they're useless. Influenza is thus a chameleon, constantly changing its colours to hide from the immune system.

Strains of influenza tend to come in waves, with one HxNy variant dominating for some number of years, then shifting to another. Developers of vaccines must play a guessing game about which you're likely to encounter in a given year. This explains why the 1918 pandemic particularly hit healthy adults. Over the decades preceding the 1918 outbreak, the primary variant had shifted from H1N1, then decades of another variant, and then after 1900 H1N1 came back to the fore. Consequently, when the deadly strain of H1N1 appeared in the fall of 1918, the immune systems of both young and elderly people were ready for it and protected them, but those in between had immune systems which, when confronted with H1N1, produced antibodies for the other variant, leaving them vulnerable.

With no medical defence against or cure for influenza even today, the only effective response in the case of an outbreak of a killer strain is public health measures such as isolation and quarantine. Influenza is airborne and highly infectious: the gauze face masks you see in pictures from 1918 were almost completely ineffective. The government response to the outbreak in 1918 could hardly have been worse. After creating military camps which were nothing less than a culture medium containing those in the most vulnerable age range packed in close proximity, once the disease broke out and reports began to arrive that this was something new and extremely lethal, the troop trains and ships continued to run due to orders from the top that more and more men had to be fed into the meat grinder that was the Western Front. This inoculated camp after camp. Then, when the disease jumped into the civilian population and began to devastate cities adjacent to military facilities such as Boston and Philadelphia, the press censors of Wilson's proto-fascist war machine decided that honest reporting of the extent and severity of the disease or measures aimed at slowing its spread would impact “morale” and war production, so newspapers were ordered to either ignore it or print useless happy talk which only accelerated the epidemic. The result was that in the hardest-hit cities, residents confronted with the reality before their eyes giving to lie to the propaganda they were hearing from authorities retreated into fear and withdrawal, allowing neighbours to starve rather than risk infection by bringing them food.

As was known in antiquity, the only defence against an infectious disease with no known medical intervention is quarantine. In Western Samoa, the disease arrived in September 1918 on a German steamer. By the time the disease ran its course, 22% of the population of the islands was dead. Just a few kilometres across the ocean in American Samoa, authorities imposed a rigid quarantine and not a single person died of influenza.

We will never know the worldwide extent of the 1918 pandemic. Many of the hardest-hit areas, such as China and India, did not have the infrastructure to collect epidemiological data and what they had collapsed under the impact of the crisis. Estimates are that on the order of 500 million people worldwide were infected and that between 50 and 100 million died: three to five percent of the world's population.

Researchers do not know why the 1918 second wave pathogen was so lethal. The genome has been sequenced and nothing jumps out from it as an obvious cause. Understanding its virulence may require recreating the monster and experimenting with it in animal models. Obviously, this is not something which should be undertaken without serious deliberation beforehand and extreme precautions, but it may be the only way to gain the knowledge needed to treat those infected should a similar wild strain emerge in the future. (It is possible this work may have been done but not published because it could provide a roadmap for malefactors bent on creating a synthetic plague. If this be the case, we'll probably never know about it.)

Although medicine has made enormous strides in the last century, influenza, which defeated the world's best minds in 1918, remains a risk, and in a world with global air travel moving millions between dense population centres, an outbreak today would be even harder to contain. Let us hope that in that dire circumstance authorities will have the wisdom and courage to take the kind of dramatic action which can make the difference between a regional tragedy and a global cataclysm.

Posted at 21:34 Permalink

Friday, October 3, 2014

Reading List: The Box

Levinson, Marc. The Box. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [2006] 2008. ISBN 978-0-691-13640-0.
When we think of developments in science and technology which reshape the world economy, we often concentrate upon those which build on fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of the world we live in, or technologies which employ them to do things never imagined. Examples of these are electricity and magnetism, which gave us the telegraph, electric power, the telephone, and wireless communication. Semiconductor technology, the foundation of the computer and Internet revolutions, is grounded in quantum mechanics, elaborated only in the early 20th century. The global positioning satellites which you use to get directions when you're driving or walking wouldn't work if they did not compensate for the effects of special and general relativity upon the rate at which clocks tick in moving objects and those in gravitational fields.

But sometimes a revolutionary technology doesn't require a scientific breakthrough, nor a complicated manufacturing process to build, but just the realisation that people have been looking at a problem all wrong, or have been earnestly toiling away trying to solve some problem other than the one which people are ready to pay vast sums of money to have solved, once the solution is placed on the market.

The cargo shipping container may be, physically, the one of the least impressive technological achievements of the 20th century, right up there with the inanimate carbon rod, as it required no special materials, fabrication technologies, or design tools which did not exist a century before, and yet its widespread adoption in the latter half of the 20th century was fundamental to the restructuring of the global economy which we now call “globalisation”, and changed assumptions about the relationship between capital, natural resources, labour, and markets which had existed since the start of the industrial revolution.

Ever since the start of ocean commerce, ships handled cargo in much the same way. The cargo was brought to the dock (often after waiting for an extended period in a dockside warehouse for the ship to arrive), then stevedores (or longshoremen, or dockers) would load the cargo into nets, or onto pallets hoisted by nets into the hold of the ship, where other stevedores would unload it and stow the individual items, which might consist of items as varied as bags of coffee beans, boxes containing manufactured goods, barrels of wine or oil, and preserved food items such as salted fish or meat. These individual items were stored based upon the expertise of the gangs working the ship to make the most of the irregular space of the ship's cargo hold, and if the ship was to call upon multiple ports, in an order so cargo could be unloaded with minimal shifting of that bound for subsequent destinations on the voyage. Upon arrival at a port, this process was reversed to offload cargo bound there, and then the loading began again. It was not unusual for a cargo ship to spend 6 days or more in each port, unloading and loading, before the next leg on its voyage.

Shipping is both capital- and labour-intensive. The ship has to be financed and incurs largely fixed maintenance costs, and the crew must be paid regardless of whether they're at sea or waiting in port for cargo to be unloaded and loaded. This means that what engineers call the “duty cycle” of the ship is critical to its cost of operation and, consequently, what the shipowner must charge shippers to make a profit. A ship operating coastal routes in the U.S., say between New York and a port in the Gulf, could easily spend half its time in ports, running up costs but generating no revenue. This model of ocean transport, called break bulk cargo, prevailed from the age of sail until the 1970s.

Under the break bulk model, ocean transport was very expensive. Further, with cargos sitting in warehouses waiting for ships to arrive on erratic schedules, delivery times were not just long but also unpredictable. Goods shipped from a factory in the U.S. midwest to a destination in Europe would routinely take three months to arrive end to end, with an uncertainty measured in weeks, accounting for trucking, railroads, and ocean shipping involved in getting them to their destination. This meant that any importation of time-sensitive goods required keeping a large local inventory to compensate for unpredictable delivery times, and paying the substantial shipping cost included in their price. Economists, going back to Ricardo, often modelled shipping as free, but it was nothing of the kind, and was often the dominant factor in the location and structure of firms.

When shipping is expensive, firms have an advantage in being located in proximity to both their raw materials (or component suppliers) and customers. Detroit became the Motor City in large part because its bulk inputs: iron ore and coal, could be transported at low cost from mines to factories by ships plying the Great Lakes. Industries dependent on imports and exports would tend to cluster around major ports, since otherwise the cost of transporting their inputs and outputs overland from the nearest port would be prohibitive. And many companies simply concentrated on their local market, where transportation costs were not a major consideration in their cost structure. In 1964, when break bulk shipping was the norm, 40% of exports from Britain originated within 25 miles of their port of export, and two thirds of all imports were delivered to destinations a similar distance from their port of arrival.

But all of this was based upon the cost structure of break bulk ocean cargo shipping, and a similarly archaic way of handling rail and truck cargo. A manufacturing plant in Iowa might pack its goods destined for a customer in Belgium into boxes which were loaded onto a truck, driven to a terminal in Chicago where they were unloaded and reloaded into a boxcar, then sent by train to New Jersey, where they were unloaded and put onto a small ship to take them to the port of New York, where after sitting in a warehouse they'd be put onto a ship bound for a port in Germany. After arrival, they'd be transported by train, then trucked to the destination. Three months or so later, plus or minus a few, the cargo would arrive—at least that which wasn't stolen en route.

These long delays, and the uncertainty in delivery times, required those engaging in international commerce to maintain large inventories, which further increased the cost of doing business overseas. Many firms opted for vertical integration in their own local region.

Malcom McLean started his trucking company in 1934 with one truck and one driver, himself. What he lacked in capital (he often struggled to pay bridge tolls when delivering to New York), he made up in ambition, and by 1945, his company operated 162 trucks. He was a relentless cost-cutter, and from his own experience waiting for hours on New York docks for his cargo to be unloaded onto ships, in 1953 asked why shippers couldn't simply put the entire truck trailer on a ship rather than unload its cargo into the ship's hold, then unload it piece by piece at the destination harbour and load it back onto another truck. War surplus Liberty ships were available for almost nothing, and they could carry cargo between the U.S. northeast and south at a fraction of the cost of trucks, especially in the era before expressways.

McLean immediately found himself in a tangled web of regulatory and union constraints. Shipping, trucking, and railroads were all considered completely different businesses, each of which had accreted its own, often bizarre, government regulation and union work rules. The rate a carrier could charge for hauling a ton of cargo from point A to point B depended not upon its mass or volume, but what it was, with radically different rates for say, coal as opposed to manufactured goods. McLean's genius was in seeing past all of this obstructionist clutter and realising that what the customer—the shipper—wanted was not to purchase trucking, railroad, and shipping services, but rather delivery of the shipment, however accomplished, at a specified time and cost.

The regulatory mess made it almost impossible for a trucking company to own ships, so McLean created a legal structure which would allow his company to acquire a shipping line which had fallen on hard times. He then proceeded to convert a ship to carry containers, which would not be opened from the time they were loaded on trucks at the shipper's location until they arrived at the destination, and could be transferred between trucks and ships rapidly. Working out the details of the construction of the containers, setting their size, and shepherding all of this through a regulatory gauntlet which had never heard of such concepts was daunting, but the potential payoff was enormous. Loading break bulk cargo onto a ship the size of McLean's first container vessel cost US$ 5.83 per ton. Loading freight in containers cost US$ 0.16 per ton. This reduction in cost, passed on to the shipper, made containerised freight compelling, and sparked a transformation in the global economy.

Consider Barbie. Her body is manufactured in China, using machines from Japan and Europe and moulds designed in the U.S. Her hair comes from Japan, the plastic for her body from Taiwan, dyed with U.S. pigments, and her clothes are produced in other factories in China. The final product is shipped worldwide. There are no large inventories anywhere in the supply chain: every step depends upon reliable delivery of containers of intermediate products. Managers setting up such a supply chain no longer care whether the products are transported by truck, rail, or sea, and since transportation costs for containers are so small compared to the value of their contents (and trade barriers such as customs duties have fallen), the location of suppliers and factories is based almost entirely upon cost, with proximity to resources and customers almost irrelevant. We think of the Internet as having abolished distance, but the humble ocean cargo container has done so for things as much as the Internet has for data.

This is a thoroughly researched and fascinating look at how the seemingly most humble technological innovation can have enormous consequences, and also how the greatest barriers to restructuring economies may be sclerotic government and government-enabled (union) structures which preserve obsolete models long after they have become destructive of prosperity. It also demonstrates how those who try to freeze innovation into a model fixed in the past will be bypassed by those willing to embrace a more efficient way of doing business. The container ports which handle most of the world's cargo are, for the most part, not the largest ports of the break bulk era. They are those which, unencumbered by history, were able to build the infrastructure required to shift containers at a rapid rate.

The Kindle edition has some flaws. In numerous places, spaces appear within words which don't belong there (perhaps words hyphenated across lines in the print edition and not re-joined?) and the index is just a list of searchable terms, not linked to references in the text.

Posted at 23:46 Permalink

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reading List: Destination Moon

Byers, Bruce K. Destination Moon. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1977. NASA TM X-3487.
In the mid 1960s, the U.S. Apollo lunar landing program was at the peak of its budget commitment and technical development. The mission mode had already been chosen and development of the flight hardware was well underway, along with the ground infrastructure required to test and launch it and the global network required to track missions in flight. One nettlesome problem remained. The design of the lunar module made assumptions about the properties of the lunar surface upon which it would alight. If the landing zone had boulders which were too large, craters sufficiently deep and common that the landing legs could not avoid, or slopes too steep to avoid an upset on landing or tipping over afterward, lunar landing missions would all be aborted by the crew when they reached decision height, judging there was no place they could set down safely. Even if all the crews returned safely without having landed, this would be an ignominious end to the ambitions of Project Apollo.

What was needed in order to identify safe landing zones was high-resolution imagery of the Moon. The most capable Earth-based telescopes, operating through Earth's turbulent and often murky atmosphere, produced images which resolved objects at best a hundred times larger that those which could upset a lunar landing mission. What was required was a large area, high resolution mapping of the Moon and survey of potential landing zones, which could only be done, given the technology of the 1960s, by going there, taking pictures, and returning them to Earth. So was born the Lunar Orbiter program, which in 1966 and 1967 sent lightweight photographic reconnaissance satellites into lunar orbit, providing both the close-up imagery needed to select landing sites for the Apollo missions, but also mapping imagery which covered 99% of the near side of the Moon and 85% of the far side, In fact, Lunar Orbiter provided global imagery of the Moon far more complete than that which would be available for the Earth many years thereafter.

Accomplishing this goal with the technology of the 1960s was no small feat. Electronic imaging amounted to analogue television, which, at the altitude of a lunar orbit, wouldn't produce images any better than telescopes on Earth. The first spy satellites were struggling to return film from Earth orbit, and returning film from the Moon was completely impossible given the mass budget of the launchers available. After a fierce competition, NASA contracted with Boeing to build the Lunar Orbiter, designed to fit on NASA's workhorse Atlas-Agena launcher, which seriously constrained its mass. Boeing subcontracted with Kodak to build the imaging system and RCA for the communications hardware which would relay the images back to Earth and allow the spacecraft to be controlled from the ground.

The images were acquired by a process which may seem absurd to those accustomed to present-day digital technologies but which seemed miraculous in its day. In lunar orbit, the spacecraft would aim its cameras (it had two: a mapping camera which produced overlapping wide-angle views and a high-resolution camera that photographed clips of each frame with a resolution of about one metre) at the Moon and take a series of photos. Because the film used had a very low light sensitivity (ASA [now ISO] 1.6), on low-altitude imaging passes the film would have to be moved to compensate for the motion of the spacecraft to avoid blurring. (The low light sensitivity of the film was due to its very high spatial resolution, but also reduced its likelihood of being fogged by exposure to cosmic rays or energetic particles from solar flares.)

After being exposed, the film would subsequently be processed on-board by putting it in contact with a band containing developer and fixer, and then the resulting negative would be read back for transmission to Earth by scanning it with a moving point of light, measuring the transmission through the negative, and sending the measured intensity back as an analogue signal. At the receiving station, that signal would be used to modulate the intensity of a spot of light scanned across film which, when developed and assembled into images from strips, revealed the details of the Moon. The incoming analogue signal was recorded on tape to provide a backup for the film recording process, but nothing was done with the tapes at the time. More about this later….

Five Lunar Orbiter missions were launched, and although some experienced problems, all achieved their primary mission objectives. The first three missions provided all of the data required by Apollo, so the final two could be dedicated to mapping the Moon from near-polar orbits. After the completion of their primary imaging missions, Lunar Orbiters continued to measure the radiation and micrometeoroid environment near the Moon, and contributed to understanding the Moon's gravitational field, which would be important in planning later Apollo missions that would fly in very low orbits around the Moon. On August 23rd, 1966, the first Lunar Orbiter took one of the most iconic pictures of the 20th century: Earthrise from the Moon. The problems experienced by Lunar Orbiter missions and the improvisation by ground controllers to work around them set the pattern for subsequent NASA robotic missions, with their versatile, reconfigurable flight hardware and fine-grained control from the ground.

You might think the story of Lunar Orbiter a footnote to space exploration history which has scrolled off the screen with subsequent Apollo lunar landings and high-resolution lunar mapping by missions such as Clementine and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, but that fails to take into account the exploits of 21st century space data archaeologists. Recall that I said that all of the image data from Lunar Orbiter missions was recorded on analogue tapes. These tapes contained about 10 bits of dynamic range, as opposed to the 8 bits which were preserved by the optical recording process used in receiving the images during the missions. This, combined with contemporary image processing techniques, makes for breathtaking images recorded almost half a century ago, but never seen before. Here are a document and video which record the exploits of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP). Please visit the LOIRP Web site for more restored images and details of the process of restoration.

Posted at 00:37 Permalink

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reading List: My Sweet Satan

Cawdron, Peter. My Sweet Satan. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2014. ASIN B00NBA6Y1A.
Here the author adds yet another imaginative tale of first contact to his growing list of novels in that genre, a puzzle story which the viewpoint character must figure out having lost memories of her entire adult life. After a botched attempt at reanimation from cryo-sleep, Jasmine Holden finds herself with no memories of her life after the age of nineteen. And yet, here she is, on board Copernicus, in the Saturn system, closing in on the distant retrograde moon Bestla which, when approached by a probe from Earth, sent back an audio transmission to its planet of origin which was mostly gibberish but contained the chilling words: “My sweet Satan. I want to live and die for you, my glorious Satan!”. A follow-up unmanned probe to Bestla is destroyed as it approaches, and the Copernicus is dispatched to make a cautious investigation of what appears to be an alien probe with a disturbing theological predisposition.

Back on Earth, sentiment has swung back and forth about the merits of exploring Bestla and fears of provoking an alien presence in the solar system which, by its very capability of interstellar travel, must be far in advance of Earthly technology. Jasmine, a key member of the science team, suddenly finds herself mentally a 19 year old girl far from her home, and confronted both by an unknown alien presence but also conflict among her crew members, who interpret the imperatives of the mission in different ways.

She finds the ship's computer, an early stage artificial intelligence, the one being in which she can confide, and the only one who comprehends her predicament and is willing to talk her through procedures she learned by heart in her training but have been lost to an amnesia she feels compelled to conceal from human members of the crew.

As the ship approaches Bestla, conflict erupts among the crew, and Jasmine must sort out what is really going on and choose sides without any recollections of her earlier interactions with her crew members. In a way, this is three first contact novels in one: 19 year old Jasmine making contact with her fellow crew members about which she remembers nothing, the Copernicus and whatever is on Bestla, and a third contact about which I cannot say anything without spoiling the story.

This is a cracking good first contact novel which, just when you're nearing the end and beginning to worry “Where's the sense of wonder?” delivers everything you'd hoped for and more.

I read a pre-publication manuscript edition which the author kindly shared with me.

Posted at 01:14 Permalink

Friday, September 19, 2014

Reading List: Superintelligence

Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-967811-2.
Absent the emergence of some physical constraint which causes the exponential growth of computing power at constant cost to cease, some form of economic or societal collapse which brings an end to research and development of advanced computing hardware and software, or a decision, whether bottom-up or top-down, to deliberately relinquish such technologies, it is probable that within the 21st century there will emerge artificially-constructed systems which are more intelligent (measured in a variety of ways) than any human being who has ever lived and, given the superior ability of such systems to improve themselves, may rapidly advance to superiority over all human society taken as a whole. This “intelligence explosion” may occur in so short a time (seconds to hours) that human society will have no time to adapt to its presence or interfere with its emergence. This challenging and occasionally difficult book, written by a philosopher who has explored these issues in depth, argues that the emergence of superintelligence will pose the greatest human-caused existential threat to our species so far in its existence, and perhaps in all time.

Let us consider what superintelligence may mean. The history of machines designed by humans is that they rapidly surpass their biological predecessors to a large degree. Biology never produced something like a steam engine, a locomotive, or an airliner. It is similarly likely that once the intellectual and technological leap to constructing artificially intelligent systems is made, these systems will surpass human capabilities to an extent greater than those of a Boeing 747 exceed those of a hawk. The gap between the cognitive power of a human, or all humanity combined, and the first mature superintelligence may be as great as that between brewer's yeast and humans. We'd better be sure of the intentions and benevolence of that intelligence before handing over the keys to our future to it.

Because when we speak of the future, that future isn't just what we can envision over a few centuries on this planet, but the entire “cosmic endowment” of humanity. It is entirely plausible that we are members of the only intelligent species in the galaxy, and possibly in the entire visible universe. (If we weren't, there would be abundant and visible evidence of cosmic engineering by those more advanced that we.) Thus our cosmic endowment may be the entire galaxy, or the universe, until the end of time. What we do in the next century may determine the destiny of the universe, so it's worth some reflection to get it right.

As an example of how easy it is to choose unwisely, let me expand upon an example given by the author. There are extremely difficult and subtle questions about what the motivations of a superintelligence might be, how the possession of such power might change it, and the prospects for we, its creator, to constrain it to behave in a way we consider consistent with our own values. But for the moment, let's ignore all of those problems and assume we can specify the motivation of an artificially intelligent agent we create and that it will remain faithful to that motivation for all time. Now suppose a paper clip factory has installed a high-end computing system to handle its design tasks, automate manufacturing, manage acquisition and distribution of its products, and otherwise obtain an advantage over its competitors. This system, with connectivity to the global Internet, makes the leap to superintelligence before any other system (since it understands that superintelligence will enable it to better achieve the goals set for it). Overnight, it replicates itself all around the world, manipulates financial markets to obtain resources for itself, and deploys them to carry out its mission. The mission?—to maximise the number of paper clips produced in its future light cone.

“Clippy”, if I may address it so informally, will rapidly discover that most of the raw materials it requires in the near future are locked in the core of the Earth, and can be liberated by disassembling the planet by self-replicating nanotechnological machines. This will cause the extinction of its creators and all other biological species on Earth, but then they were just consuming energy and material resources which could better be deployed for making paper clips. Soon other planets in the solar system would be similarly disassembled, and self-reproducing probes dispatched on missions to other stars, there to make paper clips and spawn other probes to more stars and eventually other galaxies. Eventually, the entire visible universe would be turned into paper clips, all because the original factory manager didn't hire a philosopher to work out the ultimate consequences of the final goal programmed into his factory automation system.

This is a light-hearted example, but if you happen to observe a void in a galaxy whose spectrum resembles that of paper clips, be very worried.

One of the reasons to believe that we will have to confront superintelligence is that there are multiple roads to achieving it, largely independent of one another. Artificial general intelligence (human-level intelligence in as many domains as humans exhibit intelligence today, and not constrained to limited tasks such as playing chess or driving a car) may simply await the discovery of a clever software method which could run on existing computers or networks. Or, it might emerge as networks store more and more data about the real world and have access to accumulated human knowledge. Or, we may build “neuromorphic“ systems whose hardware operates in ways similar to the components of human brains, but at electronic, not biologically-limited speeds. Or, we may be able to scan an entire human brain and emulate it, even without understanding how it works in detail, either on neuromorphic or a more conventional computing architecture. Finally, by identifying the genetic components of human intelligence, we may be able to manipulate the human germ line, modify the genetic code of embryos, or select among mass-produced embryos those with the greatest predisposition toward intelligence. All of these approaches may be pursued in parallel, and progress in one may advance others.

At some point, the emergence of superintelligence calls into the question the economic rationale for a large human population. In 1915, there were about 26 million horses in the U.S. By the early 1950s, only 2 million remained. Perhaps the AIs will have a nostalgic attachment to those who created them, as humans had for the animals who bore their burdens for millennia. But on the other hand, maybe they won't.

As an engineer, I usually don't have much use for philosophers, who are given to long gassy prose devoid of specifics and for spouting complicated indirect arguments which don't seem to be independently testable (“What if we asked the AI to determine its own goals, based on its understanding of what we would ask it to do if only we were as intelligent as it and thus able to better comprehend what we really want?”). These are interesting concepts, but would you want to bet the destiny of the universe on them? The latter half of the book is full of such fuzzy speculation, which I doubt is likely to result in clear policy choices before we're faced with the emergence of an artificial intelligence, after which, if they're wrong, it will be too late.

That said, this book is a welcome antidote to wildly optimistic views of the emergence of artificial intelligence which blithely assume it will be our dutiful servant rather than a fearful master. Some readers may assume that an artificial intelligence will be something like a present-day computer or search engine, and not be self-aware and have its own agenda and powerful wiles to advance it, based upon a knowledge of humans far beyond what any single human brain can encompass. Unless you believe there is some kind of intellectual élan vital inherent in biological substrates which is absent in their equivalents based on other hardware (which just seems silly to me—like arguing there's something special about a horse which can't be accomplished better by a truck), the mature artificial intelligence will be the superior in every way to its human creators, so in-depth ratiocination about how it will regard and treat us is in order before we find ourselves faced with the reality of dealing with our successor.

Posted at 23:11 Permalink

Friday, September 5, 2014

Reading List: The South Pole

Amundsen, Roald. The South Pole. New York: Cooper Square Press, [1913] 2001. ISBN 978-0-8154-1127-7.
In modern warfare, it has been observed that “generals win battles, but logisticians win wars.” So it is with planning an exploration mission to a remote destination where no human has ever set foot, and the truths are as valid for polar exploration in the early 20th century as they will be for missions to Mars in the 21st. On December 14th, 1911, Roald Amundsen and his five-man southern party reached the South Pole after a trek from the camp on the Ross Ice Shelf where they had passed the previous southern winter, preparing for an assault on the pole as early as the weather would permit. By over-wintering, they would be able to depart southward well before a ship would be able to land an expedition, since a ship would have to wait until the sea ice dispersed sufficiently to make a landing.

Amundsen's plan was built around what space mission architects call “in-situ resource utilisation” and “depots”, as well as “propulsion staging”. This allowed for a very lightweight push to the pole, both in terms of the amount of supplies which had to be landed by their ship, the Fram, and in the size of the polar party and the loading of their sledges. Upon arriving in Antarctica, Amundsen's party immediately began to hunt the abundant seals near the coast. More than two hundred seals were killed, processed, and stored for later use. (Since the temperature on the Ross Ice Shelf and the Antarctic interior never rises above freezing, the seal meat would keep indefinitely.) Then parties were sent out in the months remaining before the arrival of winter in 1911 to establish depots at every degree of latitude between the base camp and 82° south. These depots contained caches of seal meat for the men and dogs and kerosene for melting snow for water and cooking food. The depot-laying journeys familiarised the explorers with driving teams of dogs and operating in the Antarctic environment.

Amundsen had chosen dogs to pull his sledges. While his rival to be first at the pole, Robert Falcon Scott, experimented with pulling sledges by ponies, motorised sledges, and man-hauling, Amundsen relied upon the experience of indigenous people in Arctic environments that dogs were the best solution. Dogs reproduced and matured sufficiently quickly that attrition could be made up by puppies born during the expedition, they could be fed on seal meat, which could be obtained locally, and if a dog team were to fall into a crevasse (as was inevitable when crossing uncharted terrain), the dogs could be hauled out, no worse for wear, by the drivers of other sledges. For ponies and motorised sledges, this was not the case.

Further, Amundsen adopted a strategy which can best be described as “dog eat dog”. On the journey to the pole, he started with 52 dogs. Seven of these had died from exhaustion or other causes before the ascent to the polar plateau. (Dogs who died were butchered and fed to the other dogs. Greenland sled dogs, being only slightly removed from wolves, had no hesitation in devouring their erstwhile comrades.) Once reaching the plateau, 27 dogs were slaughtered, their meat divided between the surviving dogs and the five men. Only 18 dogs would proceed to the pole. Dog carcasses were cached for use on the return journey.

Beyond the depots, the polar party had to carry everything required for the trip. but knowing the depots would be available for the return allowed them to travel lightly. After reaching the pole, they remained for three days to verify their position, send out parties to ensure they had encircled the pole's position, and built a cairn to commemorate their achievement. Amundsen left a letter which he requested Captain Scott deliver to King Haakon VII of Norway should Amundsen's party be lost on its return to base. (Sadly, that was the fate which awaited Scott, who arrived at the pole on January 17th, 1912, only to find the Amundsen expedition's cairn there.)

This book is Roald Amundsen's contemporary memoir of the expedition. Originally published in two volumes, the present work includes both. Appendices describe the ship, the Fram, and scientific investigations in meteorology, geology, astronomy, and oceanography conducted during the expedition. Amundsen's account is as matter-of-fact as the memoirs of some astronauts, but a wry humour comes through when discussing dealing with sled dogs who have will of their own and also the foibles of humans cooped up in a small cabin in an alien environment during a night which lasts for months. He evinces great respect for his colleagues and competitors in polar exploration, particularly Scott and Shackleton, and worries whether his own approach to reaching the pole would be proved superior to theirs. At the time the book was published, the tragic fate of Scott's expedition was not known.

Today, we might not think of polar exploration as science, but a century ago it was as central to the scientific endeavour as robotic exploration of Mars is today. Here was an entire continent, known only in sketchy detail around its coast, with only a few expeditions into the interior. When Amundsen's party set out on their march to the pole, they had no idea whether they would encounter mountain ranges along the way and, if so, whether they could find a way over or around them. They took careful geographic and meteorological observations along their trek (as well as oceanographical measurements on the trip to Antarctica and back), and these provided some of the first data points toward understanding weather in the southern hemisphere.

In Norway, Amundsen was hailed as a hero. But it is clear from this narrative he never considered himself such. He wrote:

I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

This work is in the public domain, and there are numerous editions of it available, in print and in electronic form, many from independent publishers. The independent publishers, for the most part, did not distinguish themselves in their respect for this work. Many of their editions were produced by running an optical character recognition program over a print copy of the book, then putting it together with minimal copy-editing. Some (including the one I was foolish enough to buy) elide all of the diagrams, maps, and charts from the original book, which renders parts of the text incomprehensible. The paperback edition cited above, while expensive, is a facsimile edition of the original 1913 two volume English translation of Amundsen's original work, including all of the illustrations. I know of no presently-available electronic edition which has comparable quality and includes all of the material in the original book. Be careful—if you follow the link to the paperback edition, you'll see a Kindle edition listed, but this is from a different publisher and is rife with errors and includes none of the illustrations. I made the mistake of buying it, assuming it was the same as the highly-praised paperback. It isn't; don't be fooled.

Posted at 15:17 Permalink

Friday, August 29, 2014

Reading List: The Man Who Changed Everything

Mahon, Basil. The Man Who Changed Everything. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. ISBN 978-0-470-86171-4.
In the 19th century, science in general and physics in particular grew up, assuming their modern form which is still recognisable today. At the start of the century, the word “scientist” was not yet in use, and the natural philosophers of the time were often amateurs. University research in the sciences, particularly in Britain, was rare. Those working in the sciences were often occupied by cataloguing natural phenomena, and apart from Newton's monumental achievements, few people focussed on discovering mathematical laws to explain the new physical phenomena which were being discovered such as electricity and magnetism.

One person, James Clerk Maxwell, was largely responsible for creating the way modern science is done and the way we think about theories of physics, while simultaneously restoring Britain's standing in physics compared to work on the Continent, and he created an institution which would continue to do important work from the time of his early death until the present day. While every physicist and electrical engineer knows of Maxwell and his work, he is largely unknown to the general public, and even those who are aware of his seminal work in electromagnetism may be unaware of the extent his footprints are found all over the edifice of 19th century physics.

Maxwell was born in 1831 to a Scottish lawyer, John Clerk, and his wife Frances Cay. Clerk subsequently inherited a country estate, and added “Maxwell” to his name in honour of the noble relatives from whom he inherited it. His son's first name, then was “James” and his surname “Clerk Maxwell”: this is why his full name is always used instead of “James Maxwell”. From childhood, James was curious about everything he encountered, and instead of asking “Why?” over and over like many children, he drove his parents to distraction with “What's the go o' that?”. His father did not consider science a suitable occupation for his son and tried to direct him toward the law, but James's curiosity did not extend to legal tomes and he concentrated on topics that interested him. He published his first scientific paper, on curves with more than two foci, at the age of 14. He pursued his scientific education first at the University of Edinburgh and later at Cambridge, where he graduated in 1854 with a degree in mathematics. He came in second in the prestigious Tripos examination, earning the title of Second Wrangler.

Maxwell was now free to begin his independent research, and he turned to the problem of human colour vision. It had been established that colour vision worked by detecting the mixture of three primary colours, but Maxwell was the first to discover that these primaries were red, green, and blue, and that by mixing them in the correct proportion, white would be produced. This was a matter to which Maxwell would return repeatedly during his life.

In 1856 he accepted an appointment as a full professor and department head at Marischal College, in Aberdeen Scotland. In 1857, the topic for the prestigious Adams Prize was the nature of the rings of Saturn. Maxwell's submission was a tour de force which proved that the rings could not be either solid nor a liquid, and hence had to be made of an enormous number of individually orbiting bodies. Maxwell was awarded the prize, the significance of which was magnified by the fact that his was the only submission: all of the others who aspired to solve the problem had abandoned it as too difficult.

Maxwell's next post was at King's College London, where he investigated the properties of gases and strengthened the evidence for the molecular theory of gases. It was here that he first undertook to explain the relationship between electricity and magnetism which had been discovered by Michael Faraday. Working in the old style of physics, he constructed an intricate mechanical thought experiment model which might explain the lines of force that Faraday had introduced but which many scientists thought were mystical mumbo-jumbo. Maxwell believed the alternative of action at a distance without any intermediate mechanism was wrong, and was able, with his model, to explain the phenomenon of rotation of the plane of polarisation of light by a magnetic field, which had been discovered by Faraday. While at King's College, to demonstrate his theory of colour vision, he took and displayed the first colour photograph.

Maxwell's greatest scientific achievement was done while living the life of a country gentleman at his estate, Glenair. In his textbook, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, he presented his famous equations which showed that electricity and magnetism were two aspects of the same phenomenon. This was the first of the great unifications of physical laws which have continued to the present day. But that isn't all they showed. The speed of light appeared as a conversion factor between the units of electricity and magnetism, and the equations allowed solutions of waves oscillating between an electric and magnetic field which could propagate through empty space at the speed of light. It was compelling to deduce that light was just such an electromagnetic wave, and that waves of other frequencies outside the visual range must exist. Thus was laid the foundation of wireless communication, X-rays, and gamma rays. The speed of light is a constant in Maxwell's equations, not depending upon the motion of the observer. This appears to conflict with Newton's laws of mechanics, and it was not until Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity that the mystery would be resolved. In essence, faced with a dispute between Newton and Maxwell, Einstein decided to bet on Maxwell, and he chose wisely. Finally, when you look at Maxwell's equations (in their modern form, using the notation of vector calculus), they appear lopsided. While they unify electricity and magnetism, the symmetry is imperfect in that while a moving electric charge generates a magnetic field, there is no magnetic charge which, when moved, generates an electric field. Such a charge would be a magnetic monopole, and despite extensive experimental searches, none has ever been found. The existence of monopoles would make Maxwell's equations even more beautiful, but sometimes nature doesn't care about that. By all evidence to date, Maxwell got it right.

In 1871 Maxwell came out of retirement to accept a professorship at Cambridge and found the Cavendish Laboratory, which would focus on experimental science and elevate Cambridge to world-class status in the field. To date, 29 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work done at the Cavendish.

Maxwell's theoretical and experimental work on heat and gases revealed discrepancies which were not explained until the development of quantum theory in the 20th century. His suggestion of Maxwell's demon posed a deep puzzle in the foundations of thermodynamics which eventually, a century later, showed the deep connections between information theory and statistical mechanics. His practical work on automatic governors for steam engines foreshadowed what we now call control theory. He played a key part in the development of the units we use for electrical quantities.

By all accounts Maxwell was a modest, generous, and well-mannered man. He wrote whimsical poetry, discussed a multitude of topics (although he had little interest in politics), was an enthusiastic horseman and athlete (he would swim in the sea off Scotland in the winter), and was happily married, with his wife Katherine an active participant in his experiments. All his life, he supported general education in science, founding a working men's college in Cambridge and lecturing at such colleges throughout his career.

Maxwell lived only 48 years—he died in 1879 of the same cancer which had killed his mother when he was only eight years old. When he fell ill, he was engaged in a variety of research while presiding at the Cavendish Laboratory. We shall never know what he might have done had he been granted another two decades.

Apart from the significant achievements Maxwell made in a wide variety of fields, he changed the way physicists look at, describe, and think about natural phenomena. After using a mental model to explore electromagnetism, he discarded it in favour of a mathematical description of its behaviour. There is no theory behind Maxwell's equations: the equations are the theory. To the extent they produce the correct results when experimental conditions are plugged in, and predict new phenomena which are subsequently confirmed by experiment, they are valuable. If they err, they should be supplanted by something more precise. But they say nothing about what is really going on—they only seek to model what happens when you do experiments. Today, we are so accustomed to working with theories of this kind: quantum mechanics, special and general relativity, and the standard model of particle physics, that we don't think much about it, but it was revolutionary in Maxwell's time. His mathematical approach, like Newton's, eschewed explanation in favour of prediction: “We have no idea how it works, but here's what will happen if you do this experiment.” This is perhaps Maxwell's greatest legacy.

This is an excellent scientific biography of Maxwell which also gives the reader a sense of the man. He was such a quintessentially normal person there aren't a lot of amusing anecdotes to relate. He loved life, loved his work, cherished his friends, and discovered the scientific foundations of the technologies which allow you to read this. In the Kindle edition, at least as read on an iPad, the text appears in a curious, spidery, almost vintage, font in which periods are difficult to distinguish from commas. Numbers sometimes have spurious spaces embedded within them, and the index cites pages in the print edition which are useless since the Kindle edition does not include real page numbers.

Posted at 23:45 Permalink

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reading List: Savage Continent

Lowe, Keith. Savage Continent. New York: Picador, [2012] 2013. ISBN 978-1-250-03356-7.
On May 8th, 1945, World War II in Europe formally ended when the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany. In popular myth, especially among those too young to have lived through the war and its aftermath, the defeat of Italy and Germany ushered in, at least in Western Europe not occupied by Soviet troops, a period of rebuilding and rapid economic growth, spurred by the Marshall Plan. The French refer to the three decades from 1945 to 1975 as Les Trente Glorieuses. But that isn't what actually happened, as this book documents in detail. Few books cover the immediate aftermath of the war, or concentrate exclusively upon that chaotic period. The author has gone to great lengths to explore little-known conflicts and sort out conflicting accounts of what happened still disputed today by descendants of those involved.

The devastation wreaked upon cities where the conflict raged was extreme. In Germany, Berlin, Hanover, Duisburg, Dortmund, and Cologne lost more than half their habitable buildings, with the figure rising to 70% in the latter city. From Stalingrad to Warsaw to Caen in France, destruction was general with survivors living in the rubble. The transportation infrastructure was almost completely obliterated, along with services such as water, gas, electricity, and sanitation. The industrial plant was wiped out, and along with it the hope of employment. This was the state of affairs in May 1945, and the Marshall Plan did not begin to deliver assistance to Western Europe until three years later, in April 1948. Those three years were grim, and compounded by score-settling, revenge, political instability, and multitudes of displaced people returning to areas with no infrastructure to support them.

And this was in Western Europe. As is the case with just about everything regarding World War II in Europe, the further east you go, the worse things get. In the Soviet Union, 70,000 villages were destroyed, along with 32,000 factories. The redrawing of borders, particularly those of Poland and Germany, set the stage for a paroxysm of ethnic cleansing and mass migration as Poles were expelled from territory now incorporated into the Soviet Union and Germans from the western part of Poland. Reprisals against those accused of collaboration with the enemy were widespread, with murder not uncommon. Thirst for revenge extended to the innocent, including children fathered by soldiers of occupying armies.

The end of the War did not mean an end to the wars. As the author writes, “The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race, and a war of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for purely local reasons.” Defeat of Germany did nothing to bring these other conflicts to an end. Guerrilla wars continued in the Baltic states annexed by the Soviet Union as partisans resisted the invader. An all-out civil war between communists and anti-communists erupted in Greece and was ended only through British and American aid to the anti-communists. Communist agitation escalated to violence in Italy and France. And country after country in Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination as puppet regimes were installed through coups, subversion, or rigged elections.

When reading a detailed history of a period most historians ignore, one finds oneself exclaiming over and over, “I didn't know that!”, and that is certainly the case here. This was a dark period, and no group seemed immune from regrettable acts, including Jews liberated from Nazi death camps and slave labourers freed as the Allies advanced: both sometimes took their revenge upon German civilians. As the author demonstrates, the aftermath of this period still simmers beneath the surface among the people involved—it has become part of the identity of ethnic groups which will outlive any person who actually remembers the events of the immediate postwar period.

In addition to providing an enlightening look at this neglected period, the events in the years following 1945 have much to teach us about those playing out today around the globe. We are seeing long-simmering ethnic and religious strife boil into open conflict as soon as the system is perturbed enough to knock the lid off the kettle. Borders drawn by politicians mean little when people's identity is defined by ancestry or faith, and memories are very long, measured sometimes in centuries. Even after a cataclysmic conflict which levels cities and reduces populations to near-medieval levels of subsistence, many people do not long for peace but instead seek revenge. Economic growth and prosperity can, indeed, change the attitude of societies and allow for alliances among former enemies (imagine how odd the phrase “Paris-Berlin axis”, heard today in discussions of the European Union, would have sounded in 1946), but the results of a protracted conflict can prevent the emergence of the very prosperity which might allow consigning it to the past.

Posted at 22:53 Permalink

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reading List: Black List

Thor, Brad. Black List. New York: Pocket Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-9302-0.
This is the twelfth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Brad Thor has remarked in interviews that he strives to write thrillers which anticipate headlines which will break after their publication, and with this novel he hits a grand slam.

Scot Harvath is ambushed in Paris by professional killers who murder a member of his team. After narrowly escaping, he goes to ground and covertly travels to a remote region in Basque country where he has trusted friends. He is then attacked there, again by trained killers, and he has to conclude that the probability is high that the internal security of his employer, the Carlton Group, has been breached, perhaps from inside.

Meanwhile, his employer, Reed Carlton, is attacked at his secure compound by an assault team and barely escapes with his life. When Carlton tries to use his back channels to contact members of his organisation, they all appear to have gone dark. To Carlton, a career spook with tradecraft flowing in his veins, this indicates his entire organisation has been wiped out, for no apparent motive and by perpetrators unknown.

Harvath, Carlton, and the infovore dwarf Nicholas, operating independently, must begin to pick up the pieces to figure out what is going on, while staying under the radar of a pervasive surveillance state which employs every technological means to track them down and target them for summary extra-judicial elimination.

If you pick up this book and read it today, you might think it's based upon the revelations of Edward Snowden about the abuses of the NSA conducting warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens. But it was published in 2012, a full year before the first of Snowden's disclosures. The picture of the total information awareness state here is, if anything, more benign than what we now know to be the case in reality. What is different is that when Harvath, Carlton, and Nicholas get to the bottom of the mystery, the reaction in high places is what one would hope for in a constitutional republic, as opposed to the “USA! USA! USA!” cheerleading or silence which has greeted the exposure of abuses by the NSA on the part of all too many people.

This is a prophetic thriller which demonstrates how the smallest compromises of privacy: credit card transactions, telephone call metadata, license plate readers, facial recognition, Web site accesses, search engine queries, etc. can be woven into a dossier on any person of interest which makes going dark to the snooper state equivalent to living technologically in 1950. This not just a cautionary tale for individuals who wish to preserve a wall of privacy around themselves from the state, but also a challenge for writers of thrillers. Just as mobile telephones would have wrecked the plots of innumerable mystery and suspense stories written before their existence, the emergence of the panopticon state will make it difficult for thriller writers to have both their heroes and villains operating in the dark. I am sure the author will rise to this challenge.

Posted at 23:30 Permalink

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reading List: Conversations with My Agent (and Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke)

Long, Rob. Conversations with My Agent (and Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke). London: Bloomsbury Publishing, [1996, 2005] 2014. ISBN 978-1-4088-5583-6.
Hollywood is a strange place, where the normal rules of business, economics, and personal and professional relationships seem to have been suspended. When he arrived in Hollywood in 1930, P. G. Wodehouse found the customs and antics of its denizens so bizarre that he parodied them in a series of hilarious stories. After a year in Hollywood, he'd had enough and never returned. When Rob Long arrived in Hollywood to attend UCLA film school, the television industry was on the threshold of a technology-driven change which would remake it and forever put an end to the domination by three large networks which had existed since its inception. The advent of cable and, later, direct to home satellite broadcasting eliminated the terrestrial bandwidth constraints which had made establishing a television outlet forbiddingly expensive and, at the same time, side-stepped many of the regulatory constraints which forbade “edgy” content on broadcast channels. Long began his television career as a screenwriter for Cheers in 1990, and became an executive producer of the show in 1992. After the end of Cheers, he created and produced other television projects, including Sullivan & Son, which is currently on the air.

Television ratings measure both “rating points”: the absolute number of television sets tuned into the program, and “share points”: the fraction of television sets turned on at the time viewing the program. In the era of Cheers, a typical episode might have a rating equivalent to more than 22 million viewers and a share of 32%, meaning it pulled in around one third of all television viewers in its time slot. The proliferation of channels makes it unlikely any show will achieve numbers like this again. The extremely popular 24 attracted between 9 and 14 million viewers in its eight seasons, and the highly critically regarded Mad Men never topped a mean viewership of 2.7 million in its best season.

It was into this new world of diminishing viewership expectations but voracious thirst for content to fill all the new channels that the author launched his post-Cheers career. The present volume collects two books originally published independently, Conversations with My Agent from 1998, and 2005's Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke, written as Hollywood's перестро́йка was well-advanced. The volumes fit together almost seamlessly, and many readers will barely notice the transition.

This is a very funny book, but there is also a great deal of wisdom about the ways of Hollywood, how television projects are created, pitched to a studio, marketed to a network, and the tortuous process leading from concept to script to pilot to series and, all too often, to cancellation. The book is written as a screenplay, complete with scene descriptions, directions, dialogue, transitions, and sound effect call-outs. Most of the scenes are indeed conversations between the author and his agent in various circumstances, but we also get to be a fly on the wall at story pitches, meetings with the network, casting, shooting an episode, focus group testing, and many other milestones in the life cycle of a situation comedy. The circumstances are fictional, but are clearly informed by real-life experience. Anybody contemplating a career in Hollywood, especially as a television screenwriter, would be insane not to read this book. You'll laugh a lot, but also learn something on almost every page.

The reader will also begin to appreciate the curious ways of Hollywood business, what the author calls “HIPE”: the Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics. “The HIPE, as it will come to be known, postulates that every commonly understood, standard business practice of the outside world has its counterpart in the entertainment industry. Only it's backwards.” And anybody who thinks accounting is not a creative profession has never had experience with a Hollywood project. The culture of the entertainment business is also on display—an intricate pecking order involving writers, producers, actors, agents, studio and network executives, and “below the line” specialists such as camera operators and editors, all of whom have to read the trade papers to know who's up and who's not.

This book provides an insider's perspective on the strange way television programs come to be. In a way, it resembles some aspects of venture capital: most projects come to nothing, and most of those which are funded fail, losing the entire investment. But the few which succeed can generate sufficient money to cover all the losses and still yield a large return. One television show that runs for five years, producing solid ratings and 100+ episodes to go into syndication, can set up its writers and producers for life and cover the studio's losses on all of the dogs and cats.

Posted at 22:15 Permalink