Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading List: The Challenge of Dawa

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. The Challenge of Dawa. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2017.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969. In 1992 she was admitted to the Netherlands and granted political asylum on the basis of escaping an arranged marriage. She later obtained Dutch citizenship, and was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she served from 2001 through 2006. In 2004, she collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the short film Submission, about the abuse of women in Islamic societies. After release of the film, van Gogh was assassinated, with a note containing a death threat for Hirsi Ali pinned to his corpse with a knife. Thereupon, she went into hiding with a permanent security detail to protect her against ongoing threats. In 2006, she moved to the U.S., taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. She is currently a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

In this short book (or long pamphlet: it is just 105 pages, with 70 pages of main text), Hirsi Ali argues that almost all Western commentators on the threat posed by Islam have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the challenge it poses to Western civilisation and the heritage of the Enlightenment, and, failing to understand the tactics of Islam's ambition to dominate the world, dating to Mohammed's revelations in Medina and his actions in that period of his life, have adopted strategies which are ineffective and in some cases counterproductive in confronting the present danger.

The usual picture of Islam presented by politicians and analysts in the West (at least those who admit there is any problem at all) is that most Muslims are peaceful, productive people who have no problems becoming integrated in Western societies, but there is a small minority, variously called “radical”, “militant”, “Islamist”, “fundamentalist”, or other names, who are bent on propagating their religion by means of violence, either in guerrilla or conventional wars, or by terror attacks on civilian populations. This view has led to involvement in foreign wars, domestic surveillance, and often intrusive internal security measures to counter the threat, which is often given the name of “jihad”. A dispassionate analysis of these policies over the last decade and a half must conclude that they are not working: despite trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, turning air travel into a humiliating and intimidating circus, and invading the privacy of people worldwide, the Islamic world seems to be, if anything, more chaotic than it was in the year 2000, and the frequency and seriousness of so-called “lone wolf” terrorist attacks against soft targets does not seem to be abating. What if we don't really understand what we're up against? What if jihad isn't the problem, or only a part of something much larger?

Dawa (or dawah, da'wah, daawa, daawah—there doesn't seem to be anything associated with this religion which isn't transliterated at least three different ways—the Arabic is “دعوة”) is an Arabic word which literally means “invitation”. In the context of Islam, it is usually translated as “proselytising” or spreading the religion by nonviolent means, as is done by missionaries of many other religions. But here, Hirsi Ali contends that dawa, which is grounded in the fundamental scripture of Islam: the Koran and Hadiths (sayings of Mohammed), is something very different when interpreted and implemented by what she calls “political Islam”. As opposed to a distinction between moderate and radical Islam, she argues that Islam is more accurately divided into “spiritual Islam” as revealed in the earlier Mecca suras of the Koran, and “political Islam”, embodied by those dating from Medina. Spiritual Islam defines a belief system, prayers, rituals, and duties of believers, but is largely confined to the bounds of other major religions. Political Islam, however, is a comprehensive system of politics, civil and criminal law, economics, the relationship with and treatment of nonbelievers, and military strategy, and imposes a duty to spread Islam into new territories.

Seen through the lens of political Islam, dawa and those engaged in it, often funded today by the deep coffers of petro-tyrannies, is nothing like the activities of, say, Roman Catholic or Mormon missionaries. Implemented through groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), centres on Islamic and Middle East studies on university campuses, mosques and Islamic centres in communities around the world, so-called “charities” and non-governmental organisations, all bankrolled by fundamentalist champions of political Islam, dawa in the West operates much like the apparatus of Communist subversion described almost sixty years ago by J. Edgar Hoover in Masters of Deceit. You have the same pattern of apparently nonviolent and innocuously-named front organisations, efforts to influence the influential (media figures, academics, politicians), infiltration of institutions along the lines of Antonio Gramsci's “long march”, exploitation of Western traditions such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion to achieve goals diametrically opposed to them, and redefinition of the vocabulary and intimidation of any who dare state self-evident facts (mustn't be called “islamophobic”!), all funded from abroad. Unlike communists in the heyday of the Comintern and afterward the Cold War, Islamic subversion is assisted by large scale migration of Muslims into Western countries, especially in Europe, where the organs of dawa encourage them to form their own separate communities, avoiding assimilation, and demanding the ability to implement their own sharia law and that others respect their customs. Dawa is directed at these immigrants as well, with the goal of increasing their commitment to Islam and recruiting them for its political agenda: the eventual replacement of Western institutions with sharia law and submission to a global Islamic caliphate. This may seem absurdly ambitious for communities which, in most countries, aren't much greater than 5% of the population, but they're patient: they've been at it for fourteen centuries, and they're out-breeding the native populations in almost every country where they've become established.

Hirsi Ali argues persuasively that the problem isn't jihad: jihad is a tactic which can be employed as part of dawa when persuasion, infiltration, and subversion prove insufficient, or as a final step to put the conquest over the top, but it's the commitment to global hegemony, baked right into the scriptures of Islam, which poses the most dire risk to the West, especially since so few decision makers seem to be aware of it or, if they are, dare not speak candidly of it lest they be called “islamophobes” or worse. This is something about which I don't need to be persuaded: I've been writing about it since 2015; see “Clash of Ideologies: Communism, Islam, and the West”. I sincerely hope that this work by an eloquent observer who has seen political Islam from the inside will open more eyes to the threat it poses to the West. A reasonable set of policy initiatives to confront the threat is presented at the end. The only factual error I noted is the claim on p. 57 that Joseph R. McCarthy was in charge of the House Committee on Un-American Activities—in fact, McCarthy, a Senator, presided over the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

This is a publication of the Hoover Institution. It has no ISBN and cannot be purchased through usual booksellers. Here is the page for the book, whence you can download the PDF file for free.

Posted at 22:23 Permalink

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reading List: Ready Player One

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-88744-3.
By the mid-21st century, the Internet has become largely subsumed as the transport layer for the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a massively multiuser online virtual reality environment originally developed as a multiplayer game, but which rapidly evolved into a platform for commerce, education, social interaction, and entertainment used by billions of people around the world. The OASIS supports immersive virtual reality, limited only by the user's budget for hardware used to access the network. With top-of-the-line visors and sound systems, body motion sensors, and haptic feedback, coupled to a powerful interface console, a highly faithful experience was possible. The OASIS was the creation of James Halliday, a legendary super-nerd who made his first fortune designing videogames for home computers in the 1980s, and then re-launched his company in 2012 as Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), with the OASIS as its sole product. The OASIS was entirely open source: users could change things within the multitude of worlds within the system (within the limits set by those who created them), or create their own new worlds. Using a distributed computing architecture which pushed much of the processing power to the edge of the network, on users' own consoles, the system was able to grow without bound without requiring commensurate growth in GSS data centres. And it was free, or almost so. To access the OASIS, you paid only a one-time lifetime sign-up fee of twenty-five cents, just like the quarter you used to drop into the slot of an arcade videogame. Users paid nothing to use the OASIS itself: their only costs were the hardware they used to connect (which varied widely in cost and quality of the experience) and the bandwidth to connect to the network. But since most of the processing was done locally, the latter cost was modest. GSS made its money selling or renting virtual real estate (“surreal estate”) within the simulation. If you wanted to open, say, a shopping mall or build your own Fortress of Solitude on an asteroid, you had to pay GSS for the territory. GSS also sold virtual goods: clothes, magical artefacts, weapons, vehicles of all kinds, and buildings. Most were modestly priced, but since they cost nothing to manufacture, were pure profit to the company.

As the OASIS permeated society, GSS prospered. Halliday remained the majority shareholder in the company, having bought back the share once owned by his co-founder and partner Ogden (“Og”) Morrow, after what was rumoured to be a dispute between the two the details of which had never been revealed. By 2040, Halliday's fortune, almost all in GSS stock, had grown to more than two hundred and forty billion dollars. And then, after fifteen years of self-imposed isolation which some said was due to insanity, Halliday died of cancer. He was a bachelor, with no living relatives, no heirs, and, it was said, no friends. His death was announced on the OASIS in a five minute video titled Anaorak's Invitation (“Anorak” was the name of Halliday's all-powerful avatar within the OASIS). In the film, Halliday announces that his will places his entire fortune in escrow until somebody completes the quest he has programmed within the OASIS:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates,
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits,
And those with the skill to survive these straits,
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.

The prize is Halliday's entire fortune and, with it, super-user control of the principal medium of human interaction, business, and even politics. Before fading out, Halliday shows three keys: copper, jade, and crystal, which must be obtained to open the three gates. Only after passing through the gates and passing the tests within them, will the intrepid paladin obtain the Easter egg hidden within the OASIS and gain control of it. Halliday provided a link to Anorak's Almanac, more than a thousand pages of journal entries made during his life, many of which reflect his obsession with 1980s popular culture, science fiction and fantasy, videogames, movies, music, and comic books. The clues to finding the keys and the Egg were widely believed to be within this rambling, disjointed document.

Given the stakes, and the contest's being open to anybody in the OASIS, what immediately came to be called the Hunt became a social phenomenon, all-consuming to some. Egg hunters, or “gunters”, immersed themselves in Halliday's journal and every pop culture reference within it, however obscure. All of this material was freely available on the OASIS, and gunters memorised every detail of anything which had caught Halliday's attention. As time passed, and nobody succeeded in finding even the copper key (Halliday's memorial site displayed a scoreboard of those who achieved goals in the Hunt, so far blank), many lost interest in the Hunt, but a dedicated hard core persisted, often to the exclusion of all other diversions. Some gunters banded together into “clans”, some very large, agreeing to exchange information and, if one found the Egg, to share the proceeds with all members. More sinister were the activities of Innovative Online Industries—IOI—a global Internet and communications company which controlled much of the backbone that underlay the OASIS. It had assembled a large team of paid employees, backed by the research and database facilities of IOI, with their sole mission to find the Egg and turn control of the OASIS over to IOI. These players, all with identical avatars and names consisting of their six-digit IOI employee numbers, all of which began with the digit “6”, were called “sixers” or, more often in the gunter argot, “Sux0rz”.

Gunters detested IOI and the sixers, because it was no secret that if they found the Egg, IOI's intention was to close the architecture of the OASIS, begin to charge fees for access, plaster everything with advertising, destroy anonymity, snoop indiscriminately, and use their monopoly power to put their thumb on the scale of all forms of communication including political discourse. (Fortunately, that couldn't happen to us with today's enlightened, progressive Silicon Valley overlords.) But IOI's financial resources were such that whenever a rare and powerful magical artefact (many of which had been created by Halliday in the original OASIS, usually requiring the completion of a quest to obtain, but freely transferrable thereafter) came up for auction, IOI was usually able to outbid even the largest gunter clans and add it to their arsenal.

Wade Watts, a lone gunter whose avatar is named Parzival, became obsessed with the Hunt on the day of Halliday's death, and, years later, devotes almost every minute of his life not spent sleeping or in school (like many, he attends school in the OASIS, and is now in the last year of high school) on the Hunt, reading and re-reading Anorak's Almanac, reading, listening to, playing, and viewing everything mentioned therein, to the extent he can recite the dialogue of the movies from memory. He makes copious notes in his “grail diary”, named after the one kept by Indiana Jones. His friends, none of whom he has ever met in person, are all gunters who congregate on-line in virtual reality chat rooms such as that run by his best friend, Aech.

Then, one day, bored to tears and daydreaming in Latin class, Parzival has a flash of insight. Putting together a message buried in the Almanac that he and many other gunters had discovered but failed to understand, with a bit of Latin and his encyclopedic knowledge of role playing games, he decodes the clue and, after a demanding test, finds himself in possession of the Copper Key. His name, alone, now appears at the top of the scoreboard, with 10,000 points. The path to the First Gate was now open.

Discovery of the Copper Key was a sensation: suddenly Parzival, a humble level 10 gunter, is a worldwide celebrity (although his real identity remains unknown, as he refuses all media offers which would reveal or compromise it). Knowing that the key can be found re-energises other gunters, not to speak of IOI, and Parzival's footprints in the OASIS are scrupulously examined for clues to his achievement. (Finding a key and opening a gate does not render it unavailable to others. Those who subsequently pass the tests will receive their own copies of the key, although there is a point bonus for finding it first.)

So begins an epic quest by Parzival and other gunters, contending with the evil minions of IOI, whose potential gain is so high and ethics so low that the risks may extend beyond the OASIS into the real world. For the reader, it is a nostalgic romp through every aspect of the popular culture of the 1980s: the formative era of personal computing and gaming. The level of detail is just staggering: this may be the geekiest nerdfest ever published. Heck, there's even a reference to an erstwhile Autodesk employee! The only goof I noted is a mention of the “screech of a 300-baud modem during the log-in sequence”. Three hundred baud modems did not have the characteristic squawk and screech sync-up of faster modems which employ trellis coding. While there are a multitude of references to details which will make people who were there, then, smile, readers who were not immersed in the 1980s and/or less familiar with its cultural minutiæ can still enjoy the challenges, puzzles solved, intrigue, action, and epic virtual reality battles which make up the chronicle of the Hunt. The conclusion is particularly satisfying: there may be a bigger world than even the OASIS.

A movie based upon the novel, directed by Steven Spielberg, is scheduled for release in March 2018.

Posted at 20:40 Permalink

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Reading List: Time Travel

Gleick, James. Time Travel. New York: Pantheon Books, 2016. ISBN 978-0-307-90879-7.
In 1895, a young struggling writer who earned his precarious living by writing short humorous pieces for London magazines, often published without a byline, buckled down and penned his first long work, a longish novella of some 33,000 words. When published, H. G. Wells's The Time Machine would not only help to found a new literary genre—science fiction, but would introduce a entirely new concept to storytelling: time travel. Many of the themes of modern fiction can be traced to the myths of antiquity, but here was something entirely new: imagining a voyage to the future to see how current trends would develop, or back into the past, perhaps not just to observe history unfold and resolve its persistent mysteries, but possibly to change the past, opening the door to paradoxes which have been the subject not only of a multitude of subsequent stories but theories and speculation by serious scientists. So new was the concept of travel through time that the phrase “time travel” first appeared in the English language only in 1914, in a reference to Wells's story.

For much of human history, there was little concept of a linear progression of time. People lived lives much the same as those of their ancestors, and expected their descendants to inhabit much the same kind of world. Their lives seemed to be governed by a series of cycles: day and night, the phases of the Moon, the seasons, planting and harvesting, and successive generations of humans, rather than the ticking of an inexorable clock. Even great disruptive events such as wars, plagues, and natural disasters seemed to recur over time, even if not on a regular, predictable schedule. This led to the philosophical view of “eternal return”, which appears in many ancient cultures and in Western philosophy from Pythagoras to Neitzsche. In mathematics, the Poincaré recurrence theorem formally demonstrated that an isolated finite system will eventually (although possibly only after a time much longer than the age of the universe), return to a given state and repeat its evolution an infinite number of times.

But nobody (except perhaps a philosopher) who had lived through the 19th century in Britain could really believe that. Over the space of a human lifetime, the world and the human condition had changed radically and seemed to be careening into a future difficult to envision. Steam power, railroads, industrialisation of manufacturing, the telegraph and telephone, electricity and the electric light, anaesthesia, antiseptics, steamships and global commerce, submarine cables and near-instantaneous international communications, had all remade the world. The idea of progress was not just an abstract concept of the Enlightenment, but something anybody could see all around them.

But progress through what? In the fin de siècle milieu that Wells inhabited, through time: a scroll of history being written continually by new ideas, inventions, creative works, and the social changes flowing from these events which changed the future in profound and often unknowable ways. The intellectual landscape was fertile for utopian ideas, many of which Wells championed. Among the intellectual élite, the fourth dimension was much in vogue, often a fourth spatial dimension but also the concept of time as a dimension comparable to those of space. This concept first appears in the work of Edgar Allan Poe in 1848, but was fully fleshed out by Wells in The Time Machine: “ ‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration.’ ” But if we can move freely through the three spatial directions (although less so in the vertical in Wells's day than the present), why cannot we also move back and forth in time, unshackling our consciousness and will from the tyranny of the timepiece just as the railroad, steamship, and telegraph had loosened the constraints of locality?

Just ten years after The Time Machine, Einstein's special theory of relativity resolved puzzles in electrodynamics and mechanics by demonstrating that time and space mixed depending upon the relative states of motion of observers. In 1908, Hermann Minkowski reformulated Einstein's theory in terms of a four dimensional space-time. He declared, “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” (Einstein was, initially, less than impressed with this view, calling it “überflüssige Gelehrsamkeit”: superfluous learnedness, but eventually accepted the perspective and made it central to his 1915 theory of gravitation.) But further, embedded within special relativity, was time travel—at least into the future.

According to the equations of special relativity, which have been experimentally verified as precisely as anything in science and are fundamental to the operation of everyday technologies such as the Global Positioning System, a moving observer will measure time to flow more slowly than a stationary observer. We don't observe this effect in everyday life because the phenomenon only becomes pronounced at velocities which are a substantial fraction of the speed of light, but even at the modest velocity of orbiting satellites, it cannot be neglected. Due to this effect of time dilation, if you had a space ship able to accelerate at a constant rate of one Earth gravity (people on board would experience the same gravity as they do while standing on the Earth's surface), you would be able to travel from the Earth to the Andromeda galaxy and back to Earth, a distance of around four million light years, in a time, measured by the ship's clock and your own subjective and biological perception of time, in less than six and a half years. But when you arrived back at the Earth, you'd discover that in its reference frame, more than four million years of time would have elapsed. What wonders would our descendants have accomplished in that distant future, or would they be digging for grubs with blunt sticks while living in a sustainable utopia having finally thrown off the shackles of race, class, and gender which make our present civilisation a living Hell?

This is genuine time travel into the future and, although it's far beyond our present technological capabilities, it violates no law of physics and, to a more modest yet still measurable degree, happens every time you travel in an automobile or airplane. But what about travel into the past? Travel into the future doesn't pose any potential paradoxes. It's entirely equivalent to going into hibernation and awaking after a long sleep—indeed, this is a frequently-used literary device in fiction depicting the future. Travel into the past is another thing entirely. For example, consider the grandfather paradox: suppose you have a time machine able to transport you into the past. You go back in time and kill your own grandfather (it's never the grandmother—beats me). Then who are you, and how did you come into existence in the first place? The grandfather paradox exists whenever altering an event in the past changes conditions in the future so as to be inconsistent with the alteration of that event.

Or consider the bootstrap paradox or causal loop. An elderly mathematician (say, age 39), having struggled for years and finally succeeded in proving a difficult theorem, travels back in time and provides a key hint to his twenty year old self to set him on the path to the proof—the same hint he remembers finding on his desk that morning so many years before. Where did the idea come from? In 1991, physicist David Deutsch demonstrated that a computer incorporating travel back in time (formally, a closed timelike curve) could solve NP problems in polynomial time. I wonder where he got that idea….

All of this would be academic were time travel into the past just a figment of fictioneers' imagination. This has been the view of many scientists, and the chronology protection conjecture asserts that the laws of physics conspire to prevent travel to the past which, in the words of a 1992 paper by Stephen Hawking, “makes the universe safe for historians.” But the laws of physics, as we understand them today, do not rule out travel into the past! Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity, which so far has withstood every experimental test for over a century, admits solutions, such as the Gödel metric, discovered in 1949 by Einstein's friend and colleague Kurt Gödel, which contain closed timelike curves. In the Gödel universe, which consists of a homogeneous sea of dust particles, rotating around a centre point and with a nonzero cosmological constant, it is possible, by travelling on a closed path and never reaching or exceeding the speed of light, to return to a point in one's own past. Now, the Gödel solution is highly contrived, and there is no evidence that it describes the universe we actually inhabit, but the existence of such a solution leaves the door open that somewhere in the other exotica of general relativity such as spinning black holes, wormholes, naked singularities, or cosmic strings, there may be a loophole which allows travel into the past. If you discover one, could you please pop back and send me an E-mail about it before I finish this review?

This book is far more about the literary and cultural history of time travel than scientific explorations of its possibility and consequences. Thinking about time travel forces one to confront questions which can usually be swept under the rug: is the future ours to change, or do we inhabit a block universe where our perception of time is just a delusion as the cursor of our consciousness sweeps out a path in a space-time whose future is entirely determined by its past? If we have free will, where does it come from, when according to the laws of physics the future can be computed entirely from the past? If we can change the future, why not the past? If we changed the past, would it change the present for those living in it, or create a fork in the time line along which a different history would develop? All of these speculations are rich veins to be mined in literature and drama, and are explored here. Many technical topics are discussed only briefly, if at all, for example the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory, which resolves a mystery in electrodynamics by positing a symmetrical solution to Maxwell's equations in which the future influences the past just as the present influences the future. Gleick doesn't go anywhere near my own experiments with retrocausality or the “presponse” experiments of investigators such as Dick Bierman and Dean Radin. I get it—pop culture beats woo-woo on the bestseller list.

The question of time has puzzled people for millennia. Only recently have we thought seriously about travel in time and its implications for our place in the universe. Time travel has been, and will doubtless continue to be the source of speculation and entertainment, and this book is an excellent survey of its short history as a genre of fiction and the science upon which its founded.

Posted at 19:33 Permalink

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Reading List: The Spartan Regime

Rahe, Paul A. The Spartan Regime. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-300-21901-2.
This thin volume (just 232 pages in the hardcover edition, only around 125 of which are the main text and appendices—the rest being extensive source citations, notes, and indices of subjects and people and place names) is intended as the introduction to an envisioned three volume work on Sparta covering its history from the archaic period through the second battle of Mantinea in 362 b.c. where defeat of a Sparta-led alliance at the hands of the Thebans paved the way for the Macedonian conquest of Sparta.

In this work, the author adopts the approach to political science used in antiquity by writers such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Aristotle: that the principal factor in determining the character of a political community is its constitution, or form of government, the rules which define membership in the community and which its members were expected to obey, their character being largely determined by the system of education and moral formation which shape the citizens of the community.

Discerning these characteristics in any ancient society is difficult, but especially so in the case of Sparta, which was a society of warriors, not philosophers and historians. Almost all of the contemporary information we have about Sparta comes from outsiders who either visited the city at various times in its history or based their work upon the accounts of others who had. Further, the Spartans were famously secretive about the details of their society, so when ancient accounts differ, it is difficult to determine which, if any, is correct. One gets the sense that all of the direct documentary information we have about Sparta would fit on one floppy disc: everything else is interpretations based upon that meagre foundation. In recent centuries, scholars studying Sparta have seen it as everything from the prototype of constitutional liberty to a precursor of modern day militaristic totalitarianism.

Another challenge facing the modern reader and, one suspects, many ancients, in understanding Sparta was how profoundly weird it was. On several occasions whilst reading the book, I was struck that rarely in science fiction does one encounter a description of a society so thoroughly alien to those with which we are accustomed from our own experience or a study of history. First of all, Sparta was tiny: there were never as many as ten thousand full-fledged citizens. These citizens were descended from Dorians who had invaded the Peloponnese in the archaic period and subjugated the original inhabitants, who became helots: essentially serfs who worked the estates of the Spartan aristocracy in return for half of the crops they produced (about the same fraction of the fruit of their labour the helots of our modern enlightened self-governing societies are allowed to retain for their own use). Every full citizen, or Spartiate, was a warrior, trained from boyhood to that end. Spartiates not only did not engage in trade or work as craftsmen: they were forbidden to do so—such work was performed by non-citizens. With the helots outnumbering Spartiates by a factor of from four to seven (and even more as the Spartan population shrunk toward the end), the fear of an uprising was ever-present, and required maintenance of martial prowess among the Spartiates and subjugation of the helots.

How were these warriors formed? Boys were taken from their families at the age of seven and placed in a barracks with others of their age. Henceforth, they would return to their families only as visitors. They were subjected to a regime of physical and mental training, including exercise, weapons training, athletics, mock warfare, plus music and dancing. They learned the poetry, legends, and history of the city. All learned to read and write. After intense scrutiny and regular tests, the young man would face a rite of passage, krupteίa, in which, for a full year, armed only with a dagger, he had to survive on his own in the wild, stealing what he needed, and instilling fear among the helots, who he was authorised to kill if found in violation of curfew. Only after surviving this ordeal would the young Spartan be admitted as a member of a sussιtίon, a combination of a men's club, a military mess, and the basic unit in the Spartan army. A Spartan would remain a member of this same group all his life and, even after marriage and fatherhood, would live and dine with them every day until the age of forty-five.

From the age of twelve, boys in training would usually have a patron, or surrogate father, who was expected to initiate him into the world of the warrior and instruct him in the duties of citizenship. It was expected that there would be a homosexual relationship between the two, and that this would further cement the bond of loyalty to his brothers in arms. Upon becoming a full citizen and warrior, the young man was expected to take on a boy and continue the tradition. As to many modern utopian social engineers, the family was seen as an obstacle to the citizen's identification with the community (or, in modern terminology, the state), and the entire process of raising citizens seems to have been designed to transfer this inherent biological solidarity with kin to peers in the army and the community as a whole.

The political structure which sustained and, in turn, was sustained by these cultural institutions was similarly alien and intricate—so much so that I found myself wishing that Professor Rahe had included a diagram to help readers understand all of the moving parts and how they interacted. After finishing the book, I found this one on Wikipedia.

Structure of Government in Sparta
Image by Wikipedia user Putinovac licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The actual relationships are even more complicated and subtle than expressed in this diagram, and given the extent to which scholars dispute the details of the Spartan political institutions (which occupy many pages in the end notes), it is likely the author may find fault with some aspects of this illustration. I present it purely because it provides a glimpse of the complexity and helped me organise my thoughts about the description in the text.

Start with the kings. That's right, “kings”—there were two of them—both traditionally descended from Hercules, but through different lineages. The kings shared power and acted as a check on each other. They were commanders of the army in time of war, and high priests in peace. The kingship was hereditary and for life.

Five overseers, or ephors were elected annually by the citizens as a whole. Scholars dispute whether ephors could serve more than one term, but the author notes that no ephor is known to have done so, and it is thus likely they were term limited to a single year. During their year in office, the board of five ephors (one from each of the villages of Sparta) exercised almost unlimited power in both domestic and foreign affairs. Even the kings were not immune to their power: the ephors could arrest a king and bring him to trial on a capital charge just like any other citizen, and this happened. On the other hand, at the end of their one year term, ephors were subject to a judicial examination of their acts in office and liable for misconduct. (Wouldn't be great if present-day “public servants” received the same kind of scrutiny at the end of their terms in office? It would be interesting to see what a prosecutor could discover about how so many of these solons manage to amass great personal fortunes incommensurate with their salaries.) And then there was the “fickle meteor of doom” rule.

Every ninth year, the five [ephors] chose a clear and moonless night and remained awake to watch the sky. If they saw a shooting star, they judged that one or both kings had acted against the law and suspended the man or men from office. Only the intervention of Delphi or Olympia could effect a restoration.

I can imagine the kings hoping they didn't pick a night in mid-August for their vigil!

The ephors could also summon council of elders, or gerousίa, into session. This body was made up of thirty men: the two kings, plus twenty-eight others, all sixty years or older, who were elected for life by the citizens. They tended to be wealthy aristocrats from the oldest families, and were seen as protectors of the stability of the city from the passions of youth and the ambition of kings. They proposed legislation to the general assembly of all citizens, and could veto its actions. They also acted as a supreme court in capital cases. The general assembly of all citizens, which could also be summoned by the ephors, was restricted to an up or down vote on legislation proposed by the elders, and, perhaps, on sentences of death passed by the ephors and elders.

All of this may seem confusing, if not downright baroque, especially for a community which, in the modern world, would be considered a medium-sized town. Once again, it's something which, if you encountered it in a science fiction novel, you might expect the result of a Golden Age author, paid by the word, making ends meet by inventing fairy castles of politics. But this is how Sparta seems to have worked (again, within the limits of that single floppy disc we have to work with, and with almost every detail a matter of dispute among those who have spent their careers studying Sparta over the millennia). Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which was the product of a group of people toiling over a hot summer in Philadelphia, the Spartan constitution, like that of Britain, evolved organically over centuries, incorporating tradition, the consequences of events, experience, and cultural evolution. And, like the British constitution, it was unwritten. But it incorporated, among all its complexity and ambiguity, something very important, which can be seen as a milestone in humankind's millennia-long struggle against arbitrary authority and quest for individual liberty: the separation of powers. Unlike almost all other political systems in antiquity and all too many today, there was no pyramid with a king, priest, dictator, judge, or even popular assembly at the top. Instead, there was a complicated network of responsibility, in which any individual player or institution could be called to account by others. The regimentation, destruction of the family, obligatory homosexuality, indoctrination of the youth into identification with the collective, foundation of the society's economics on serfdom, suppression of individual initiative and innovation were, indeed, almost a model for the most dystopian of modern tyrannies, yet darned if they didn't get the separation of powers right! We owe much of what remains of our liberties to that heritage.

Although this is a short book and this is a lengthy review, there is much more here to merit your attention and consideration. It's a chore getting through the end notes, as much of them are source citations in the dense jargon of classical scholars, but embedded therein are interesting discussions and asides which expand upon the text.

In the Kindle edition, all of the citations and index references are properly linked to the text. Some Greek letters with double diacritical marks are rendered as images and look odd embedded in text; I don't know if they appear correctly in print editions.

Posted at 00:06 Permalink

Friday, July 28, 2017

Reading List: Blade of p'Na

Smith, L. Neil. Blade of p'Na. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2017. ISBN 978-1-61242-218-3.
This novel is set in the “Elders” universe, originally introduced in the 1990 novels Contact and Commune and Converse and Conflict, and now collected in an omnibus edition with additional material, Forge of the Elders. Around four hundred million years ago the Elders, giant mollusc-like aquatic creatures with shells the size of automobiles, conquered aging, and since then none has died except due to accident or violence. And precious few have succumbed to those causes: accident because the big squid are famously risk averse, and violence because, after a societal adolescence in which they tried and rejected many political and economic bad ideas, they settled on p'Na as the central doctrine of their civilisation: the principle that nobody has the right to initiate physical force against anybody else for any reason—much like the Principle of Non-Aggression, don't you know.

On those rare occasions order is disturbed, the services of a p'Nan “debt assessor” are required. Trained in the philosophy of p'Na, martial arts, psychology, and burnished through a long apprenticeship, assessors are called in either after an event in which force has been initiated or by those contemplating a course which might step over the line. The assessor has sole discretion in determining culpability, the form and magnitude of restitution due, and when no other restitution is possible, enforcing the ultimate penalty on the guilty. The assessor's sword, the Blade of p'Na, is not just a badge of office but the means of restitution in such cases.

The Elders live on one of a multitude, possibly infinite, parallel Earths in a multiverse where each planet's history has diverged due to contingent events in its past. Some millennia after adopting p'Na, they discovered the means of observing, then moving among these different universes and their variant Earths. Some millennia after achieving biological immortality and peace through p'Na, their curiosity and desire for novelty prompted them to begin collecting beings from across the multiverse. Some were rescues of endangered species, while others would be more accurately described as abductions. They referred to this with the euphemism of “appropriation”, as if that made any difference. The new arrivals: insectoid, aquatic, reptilian, mammalian, avian, and even sentient plants, mostly seemed happy in their new world, where the Elders managed to create the most diverse and peaceful society known in the universe.

This went on for a million years or so until, just like the revulsion against slavery in the 19th century in our timeline, somesquid happened to notice that the practice violated the fundamental principle of their society. Appropriations immediately ceased, debt assessors were called in, and before long all of the Elders implicated in appropriation committed suicide (some with a little help). But that left the question of restitution to the appropriated. Dumping them back into their original universes, often war-torn, barbarous, primitive, or with hostile and unstable environments after up to a million years of peace and prosperity on the Elders' planet didn't make the ethical cut. They settled on granting full citizenship to all the appropriated, providing them the gift of biological immortality, cortical implants to upgrade the less sentient to full intelligence, and one more thing…. The Elders had developed an unusual property: the tips of their tentacles could be detached and sent on errands on behalf of their parent bodies. While not fully sentient, the tentacles could, by communicating via cortical implants, do all kinds of useful work and allow the Elders to be in multiple places at once (recall that the Elders, like terrestrial squid, have ten tentacles—if they had twelve, they'd call them twelvicles, wouldn't they?). So for each of the appropriated species, the Elders chose an appropriate symbiote who, upgraded in intelligence and self-awareness and coupled to the host by their own implant, provided a similar benefit to them. For humanoids, it was dogs, or their species' canids.

(You might think that all of this constitutes spoilers, but it's just the background for the Elders' universe which is laid out in the first few chapters for the benefit of readers who haven't read the earlier books in the series.)

Hundreds of millions of years after the Great Restitution Eichra Oren (those of his humanoid species always use both names) is a p'Na debt assessor. His symbiote, Oasam Otusam, a super-intelligent, indiscriminately libidinous, and wisecracking dog, prefers to go by “Sam”. So peaceful is the planet of the Elders that most of the cases Eichra Oren is called upon to resolve are routine and mundane, such as the current client, an arachnid about the size of a dinner table, seeking help in tracking down her fiancé, who has vanished three days before the wedding. This raises some ethical issues because, among their kind, traditionally “Saying ‘I do’ is the same as saying ‘bon appétit’ ”. Many, among sapient spiders, have abandoned the Old Ways, but some haven't. After discussion, in which Sam says, “You realize that in the end, she's going to eat him”, they decide, nonetheless, to take the case.

The caseload quickly grows as the assessor is retained by investors in a project led by an Elder named Misterthoggosh, whose fortune comes from importing reality TV from other universes (there is no multiverse copyright convention—the p'Na is cool with cultural appropriation) and distributing it to the multitude of species on the Elders' world. He (little is known of the Elders' biology…some say the females are non-sentient and vestigial) is now embarking on a new project, and the backers want a determination by an assessor that it will not violate p'Na, for which they would be jointly and separately responsible. The lead investor is a star-nosed mole obsessed by golf.

Things become even more complicated after a mysterious attack which appears to have been perpetrated by the “greys”, creatures who inhabit the mythology and nightmares of a million sapient species, and the suspicion and fear that somewhere else in the multiverse, another species has developed the technology of opening gates between universes, something so far achieved only by the now-benign Elders, with wicked intent by the newcomers.

What follows is a romp filled with interesting questions. Should you order the vegan plate in a restaurant run by intelligent plants? What are the ethical responsibilities of a cyber-assassin who is conscious yet incapable of refusing orders to kill? What is a giant squid's idea of a pleasure yacht? If two young spiders are amorously attracted, it only pupæ love? The climax forces the characters to confront the question of the extent to which beings which are part of a hive mind are responsible for the actions of the collective.

L. Neil Smith's books have sometimes been criticised for being preachy libertarian tracts with a garnish of science fiction. I've never found them to be such, but you certainly can't accuse this one of that. It's set in a world governed for æons by the principle of non-aggression, but that foundation of civil society works so well that it takes an invasion from another universe to create the conflict which is central to the plot. Readers are treated to the rich and sometime zany imagination of a world inhabited by almost all imaginable species where the only tensions among them are due to atavistic instincts such as those of dogs toward tall plants, combined with the humour, ranging from broad to wry, of our canine narrator, Sam.

Posted at 12:23 Permalink

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reading List: HTML5 Canvas

Fulton, Steve and Jeff Fulton. HTML5 Canvas. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2013. ISBN 978-1-449-33498-7.
I only review computer books if I've read them in their entirety, as opposed to using them as references while working on projects. For much of 2017 I've been living with this book open, referring to it as I performed a comprehensive overhaul of my Fourmilab site, and I just realised that by now I have actually read every page, albeit not in linear order, so a review is in order; here goes.

The original implementation of World Wide Web supported only text and, shortly thereafter, embedded images in documents. If you wanted to do something as simple as embed an audio or video clip, you were on your own, wading into a morass of browser- and platform-specific details, plug-ins the user may have to install and then forever keep up to date, and security holes due to all of this non-standard and often dodgy code. Implementing interactive content on the Web, for example scientific simulations for education, required using an embedded language such as Java, whose initial bright promise of “Write once, run anywhere” quickly added the rejoinder “—yeah, right” as bloat in the language, incessant security problems, cross-platform incompatibilities, the need for the user to forever keep external plug-ins updated lest existing pages cease working, caused Java to be regarded as a joke—a cruel joke upon those who developed Web applications based upon it. By the latter half of the 2010s, the major browsers had either discontinued support for Java or announced its removal in future releases.

Fortunately, in 2014 the HTML5 standard was released. For the first time, native, standardised support was added to the Web's fundamental document format to support embedded audio, video, and interactive content, along with Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in the JavaScript language, interacting with the document via the Document Object Model (DOM), which has now been incorporated into the HTML5 standard. For the first time it became possible, using only standards officially adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium, to create interactive Web pages incorporating multimedia content. The existence of this standard provides a strong incentive for browser vendors to fully implement and support it, and increases the confidence of Web developers that pages they create which are standards-compliant will work on the multitude of browsers, operating systems, and hardware platforms which exist today.

(That encomium apart, I find much to dislike about HTML5. In my opinion its sloppy syntax [not requiring quotes on tag attributes nor the closing of many tags] is a great step backward from XHTML 1.0, which strictly conforms to XML syntax and can be parsed by a simple and generic XML parser, without the Babel-sized tower of kludges and special cases which are required to accommodate the syntactic mumbling of HTML5. A machine-readable language should be easy to read and parse by a machine, especially in an age where only a small minority of Web content creators actually write HTML themselves, as opposed to using a content management system of some kind. Personally, I continue to use XHTML 1.0 for all content on my Web site which does not require the new features in HTML5, and I observe that the home page of the World Wide Web Consortium is, itself, in XHTML 1.0 Strict. And there's no language version number in the header of an HTML5 document. Really—what's up with that? But HTML5 is the standard we've got, so it's the standard we have to use in order to benefit from the capabilities it provides: onward.)

One of the most significant new features in HTML5 is its support for the Canvas element. A canvas is a rectangular area within a page which is treated as an RGBA bitmap (the “A” denotes “alpha”, which implements transparency for overlapping objects). A canvas is just what its name implies: a blank area on which you can draw. The drawing is done in JavaScript code via the Canvas API, which is documented in this book, along with tutorials and abundant examples which can be downloaded from the publisher's Web site. The API provides the usual functions of a two-dimensional drawing model, including lines, arcs, paths, filled objects, transformation matrices, clipping, and colours, including gradients. A text API allows drawing text on the canvas, using a subset of CSS properties to define fonts and their display attributes.

Bitmap images may be painted on the canvas, scaled and rotated, if you wish, using the transformation matrix. It is also possible to retrieve the pixel data from a canvas or portion of it, manipulate it at low-level, and copy it back to that or another canvas using JavaScript typed arrays. This allows implementation of arbitrary image processing. You might think that pixel-level image manipulation in JavaScript would be intolerably slow, but with modern implementations of JavaScript in current browsers, it often runs within a factor of two of the speed of optimised C code and, unlike the C code, works on any platform from within a Web page which requires no twiddling by the user to build and install on their computer.

The canvas API allows capturing mouse and keyboard events, permitting user interaction. Animation is implemented using JavaScript's standard setTimeout method. Unlike some other graphics packages, the canvas API does not maintain a display list or refresh buffer. It is the responsibility of your code to repaint the image on the canvas from scratch whenever it changes. Contemporary browsers buffer the image under construction to prevent this process from being seen by the user.

HTML5 audio and video are not strictly part of the canvas facility (although you can display a video on a canvas), but they are discussed in depth here, each in its own chapter. Although the means for embedding this content into Web pages are now standardised, the file formats for audio and video are, more than a quarter century after the creation of the Web, “still evolving”. There is sage advice for developers about how to maximise portability of pages across browsers and platforms.

Two chapters, 150 pages of this 750 page book (don't be intimidated by its length—a substantial fraction is code listings you don't need to read unless you're interested in the details), are devoted to game development using the HTML5 canvas and multimedia APIs. A substantial part of this covers topics such as collision detection, game physics, smooth motion, and detecting mouse hits in objects, which are generic subjects in computer graphics and not specific to its HTML5 implementation. Reading them, however, may give you some tips useful in non-game applications.

Projects at Fourmilab which now use HTML5 canvas are:

Numerous other documents on the site have been updated to HTML5, using the audio and video embedding capabilities described in the book.

All of the information on the APIs described in the book is available on the Web for free. But you won't know what to look for unless you've read an explanation of how they work and looked at sample code which uses them. This book provides that information, and is useful as a desktop reference while you're writing code.

A Kindle edition is available, which you can rent for a limited period of time if you only need to refer to it for a particular project.

Posted at 13:30 Permalink

Monday, July 24, 2017

Reading List: Wool

Howey, Hugh. Wool. New York: Simon & Schuster, [2011] 2013. ISBN 978-1-4767-3395-1.
Wool was originally self-published as a stand-alone novella. The series grew into a total of six novellas, collected into three books. This “Omnibus Edition” contains all three books, now designated “Volume 1 of the Silo Trilogy”. Two additional volumes in the series: Shift and Dust are respectively a prequel and sequel to the present work.

The Silo is the universe to its inhabitants. It consists of a cylinder whose top is level with the surrounding terrain and extends downward into the Earth for 144 levels, with a central spiral staircase connecting them. Transport among the levels is purely by foot traffic on the staircase, and most news and personal messages are carried by porters who constantly ascend and descend the stairs. Electronic messages can be sent, but are costly and rarely used. Levels are divided by functionality, and those who live in them essentially compose castes defined by occupation. Population is strictly controlled and static. Administration is at the top (as is usually the case), while the bottom levels are dedicated to the machines which produce power, circulate and purify the air, pump out ground water which would otherwise flood the structure, and drill for energy and mine resources required to sustain the community. Intermediate levels contain farms, hospitals and nurseries, schools, and the mysterious and secretive IT (never defined, but one assumes “Information Technology”, which many suspect is the real power behind the scenes [isn't it always?]). There is some mobility among levels and occupations, but many people live most of their lives within a few levels of where they were born, taking occasional rare (and exhausting) trips to the top levels for special occasions.

The most special of occasions is a “cleaning”. From time to time, some resident of the silo demands to leave or, more often, is deemed a threat to the community due to challenging the social order, delving too deeply into its origins, or expressing curiosity about what exists outside, and is condemned to leave the silo wearing a protective suit against the forbiddingly hostile environment outside, to clean the sensors which provide denizens their only view of the surroundings: a barren landscape with a ruined city in the distance. The suit invariably fails, and the cleaner's body joins those of others scattered along the landscape. Why do those condemned always clean? They always have, and it's expected they always will.

The silo's chief is the mayor, and order is enforced by the sheriff, to whom deputies in offices at levels throughout the silo report. The current sheriff's own wife was sent to cleaning just three years earlier, after becoming obsessed with what she believed to be a grand deception by IT and eventually breaking down in public. Sheriff Holston's own obsession grows until he confronts the same fate.

This is a claustrophobic, dystopian novel in which the reader begins as mystified with what is going on and why as are the residents of the silo, at least those who dare to be curious. As the story progresses, much of which follows the career of a new sheriff appointed from the depths of the silo, we piece together, along with the characters, what is happening and how it came to be and, with them, glimpse a larger world and its disturbing history. The writing is superb and evocative of the curious world in which the characters find themselves.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
There are numerous mysteries in this story, many of which are explained as the narrative progresses, but there's one central enigma which is never addressed. I haven't read the prequel nor the sequel, and perhaps they deal with it, but this book was written first as a stand-alone, and read as one, it leaves this reader puzzled.

The silo has abundant energy produced from oil wells drilled from the lower levels, sufficient to provide artificial lighting throughout including enough to grow crops on the farm levels. There is heavy machinery: pumps, generators, air circulation and purification systems, advanced computer technology in IT, and the infrastructure to maintain all of this along with a logistics, maintenance, and spares operation to keep it all running. And, despite all of this, there's no elevator! The only way to move people and goods among the levels is to manually carry them up and down the circular staircase. Now, I can understand how important this is to the plot of the novel, but it would really help if the reader were given a clue why this is and how it came to be. My guess is that it was part of the design of the society: to impose a stratification and reinforce its structure like the rule of a monastic community (indeed, we later discover the silo is regulated according to a book of Order). I get it—if there's an elevator, much of the plot goes away, but it would be nice to have a clue why there isn't one, when it would be the first thing anybody with the technology to build something like the silo would design into what amounts to a 144 storey building.

Spoilers end here.  

The Kindle edition is presented in a very unusual format. It is illustrated with drawings, some of which are animated—not full motion, but perspectives change, foregrounds and backgrounds shift, and light sources move around. The drawings do not always correspond to descriptions in the text. The illustrations appear to have been adapted from a graphic novel based upon the book. The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 13:46 Permalink

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Reading List: Out of the Blue

Cowie, Ian, Dim Jones, and Chris Long, eds. Out of the Blue. Farnborough, UK, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9570928-0-8.
Flying an aircraft has long been described by those who do it for a living as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. The ratio of terror to boredom depends upon the equipment and mission the pilot is flying, and tends to be much higher as these approach the ragged edge, as is the case for military aviation in high-performance aircraft. This book collects ninety anecdotes from pilots in the Royal Air Force, most dating from the Cold War era, illustrating that you never know for sure what is going to happen when you strap into an airplane and take to the skies, and that any lapse in attention to detail, situational awareness, or resistance to showing off may be swiftly rewarded not only with stark terror but costly, unpleasant, and career-limiting consequences. All of the stories are true (or at least those relating them say they are—with pilots you never know for sure), and most are just a few pages. You can pick the book up at any point; except for a few two-parters, the chapters are unrelated to one another. This is thus an ideal “bathroom book”, or way to fill a few minutes' downtime in a high distraction environment.

Because most of the flying takes place in Britain and in NATO deployments in Germany and other countries in northern Europe, foul weather plays a part in many of these adventures. Those who fly in places like Spain and California seldom find themselves watching the fuel gauge count down toward zero while divert field after divert field goes RED weather just as they arrive and begin their approach—that happens all the time in the RAF.

Other excitement comes from momentary lapses of judgment or excessive enthusiasm, such as finding yourself at 70,000 feet over Germany in a Lightning whose two engines have flamed out after passing the plane's service ceiling of 54,000 feet. While in this case the intrepid aeronaut got away without a scratch (writing up the altimeter as reading much too high), other incidents ended up in ejecting from aircraft soon to litter the countryside with flaming debris. Then there's ejecting from a perfectly good Hunter after a spurious fire warning light and the Flight Commander wingman ordering an ejection after observing “lots of smoke” which turned out, after the fact, to be just hydraulic fluid automatically dumped after a precautionary engine shutdown.

Sometimes you didn't do anything wrong and still end up in a spot of bother. There's the crew of a Victor which, shortly after departing RAF Gan in the Maldive Islands had a hydraulic system failure. No big thing—the Victor has two completely independent hydraulic systems, so there wasn't any great worry as the plane turned around to return to Gan. But when the second hydraulic system then proceeded to fail, there was worry aplenty, because that meant there was no nose-wheel steering and a total of eight applications of the brakes before residual pressure in the system was exhausted. Then came the call from Gan: a series of squalls were crossing the atoll, with crosswinds approaching the Victor's limit and heavy rain on the runway. On landing, a gust of wind caught the drag parachute and sent the bomber veering off the edge of the runway, and without nose-wheel steering, nothing could be done to counteract it. The Victor ended up ploughing a furrow in the base's just-refurbished golf course before coming to a stop. Any landing you walk away from…. The two hydraulic systems were determined to have failed from completely independent and unrelated causes, something that “just can't happen”—until it happens to you.

Then there's RAF pilot Alan Pollock, who, upset at the RAF's opting in 1968 not to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its founding, decided to mount his own celebration of the milestone. He flew his Hunter at high subsonic speed and low altitude down the Thames, twisting and turning with the river, and circling the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben struck noon. He then proceeded up the Thames and, approaching Tower Bridge, became the first and so far only pilot to fly between the two spans of the London landmark. This concluded his RAF career: he was given a medical discharge, which avoided a court martial that would have likely have sparked public support for his unauthorised aerial tattoo. His first-hand recollection of the exploit appears here.

Other stories recount how a tiny blob of grease where it didn't belong turned a Hunter into rubble in Cornwall, the strange tale of the world's only turbine powered biplane, the British pub on the Italian base at Decimomannu, Sardinia: “The Pig and Tapeworm”, and working as an engineer on the Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft: “Along the way, you will gain the satisfaction of ensuring the continued airworthiness of a bona fide museum piece, so old that the pointed bit is at the back, and so slow that birds collide with the trailing edge of the wing.” There's nothing profound here, but it's a lot of fun.

The paperback is currently out of print, but used copies are available at reasonable cost. The Kindle edition is available, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 22:27 Permalink

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading List: Hitler in Hell

van Creveld, Martin. Hitler in Hell. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2017. ASIN B0738YPW2M.
Martin van Creveld is an Israeli military theorist and historian, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of seventeen books of military history and strategy, including The Transformation of War, which has been hailed as one of the most significant recent works on strategy. In this volume he turns to fiction, penning the memoirs of the late, unlamented Adolf Hitler from his current domicile in Hell, “the place to which the victors assign their dead opponents.” In the interest of concision, in the following discussion I will use “Hitler” to mean the fictional Hitler in this work.

Hitler finds Hell more boring than hellish—“in some ways it reminds me of Landsberg Prison”. There is no torture or torment, just a never-changing artificial light and routine in which nothing ever happens. A great disappointment is that neither Eva Braun nor Blondi is there to accompany him. As to the latter, apparently all dogs go to heaven. Rudolf Hess is there, however, and with that 1941 contretemps over the flight to Scotland put behind them, has resumed helping Hitler with his research and writing as he did during the former's 1924 imprisonment. Hell has broadband!—Hitler is even able to access the “Black Internetz” and read, listen to, and watch everything up to the present day. (That sounds pretty good—my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.)

Hitler tells the story of his life: from childhood, his days as a struggling artist in Vienna and Munich, the experience of the Great War, his political awakening in the postwar years, rise to power, implementation of his domestic and foreign policies, and the war and final collapse of Nazi Germany. These events, and the people involved in them, are often described from the viewpoint of the present day, with parallels drawn to more recent history and figures.

What makes this book work so well is that van Creveld's Hitler makes plausible arguments supporting decisions which many historians argue were irrational or destructive: going to war over Poland, allowing the British evacuation from Dunkirk, attacking the Soviet Union while Britain remained undefeated in the West, declaring war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, forbidding an orderly retreat from Stalingrad, failing to commit armour to counter the Normandy landings, and fighting to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences to Germany and the German people. Each decision is justified with arguments which are plausible when viewed from what is known of Hitler's world view, the information available to him at the time, and the constraints under which he was operating.

Much is made of those constraints. Although embracing totalitarianism (“My only regret is that, not having enough time, we did not make it more totalitarian still”), he sees himself surrounded by timid and tradition-bound military commanders and largely corrupt and self-serving senior political officials, yet compelled to try to act through them, as even a dictator can only dictate, then hope others implement his wishes. “Since then, I have often wondered whether, far from being too ruthless, I had been too soft and easygoing.” Many apparent blunders are attributed to lack of contemporary information, sometimes due to poor intelligence, but often simply by not having the historians' advantage of omniscient hindsight.

This could have been a parody, but in the hands of a distinguished historian like the author, who has been thinking about Hitler for many years (he wrote his 1971 Ph.D. thesis on Hitler's Balkan strategy in World War II), it provides a serious look at how Hitler's policies and actions, far from being irrational or a madman's delusions, may make perfect sense when one starts from the witches' brew of bad ideas and ignorance which the real Hitler's actual written and spoken words abundantly demonstrate. The fictional Hitler illustrates this in many passages, including this particularly chilling one where, after dismissing those who claim he was unaware of the extermination camps, says “I particularly needed to prevent the resurgence of Jewry by exterminating every last Jewish man, woman, and child I could. Do you say they were innocent? Bedbugs are innocent! They do what nature has destined them to, no more, no less. But is that any reason to spare them?” Looking backward, he observes that notwithstanding the utter defeat of the Third Reich, the liberal democracies that vanquished it have implemented many of his policies in the areas of government supervision of the economy, consumer protection, public health (including anti-smoking policies), environmentalism, shaping the public discourse (then, propaganda, now political correctness), and implementing a ubiquitous surveillance state of which the Gestapo never dreamed.

In an afterword, van Creveld explains that, after on several occasions having started to write a biography of Hitler and then set the project aside, concluding he had nothing to add to existing works, in 2015 it occurred to him that the one perspective which did not exist was Hitler's own, and that the fictional device of a memoir from Hell, drawing parallels between historical and contemporary events, would provide a vehicle to explore the reasoning which led to the decisions Hitler made. The author concludes, “…my goal was not to set forth my own ideas. Instead, I tried to understand Hitler's actions, views, and thoughts as I think he, observing the past and the present from Hell, would have explained them. So let the reader judge how whether I have succeeded in this objective.” In the opinion of this reader, he has succeeded, and brilliantly.

This book is presently available only in a Kindle edition; it is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 20:49 Permalink

Little Wars by H. G. Wells

In 1913, H. G. Wells essentially single-handedly invented the modern pastime of miniature wargaming, providing a (tin soldier) battle-tested set of rules which makes for exciting, well-balanced, and unpredictable games that can be played by two or more people in an afternoon and part of an evening. Interestingly, he avoids much of the baggage that burdens contemporary games such as icosahedral dice and indirect fire calculations, and strictly minimises the rôle of chance, using nothing fancier than a coin toss, and that only in rare circumstances.

This new public domain Web edition of Little Wars includes all of the photographs and marginal drawings from the 1913 first edition of the book. Some readers may find the marginal illustrations, which are mostly purely decorative, distracting, while others consider them charming. There's a check box at the top of the document that lets you hide them if you wish. Radical feminists of the dour and scornful persuasion should be sure to take their medication before reading the subtitle or the sixth paragraph of chapter II.

The book is published using XHTML 1.0 Strict with CSS3 and Unicode typography.

Posted at 12:25 Permalink