Monday, June 13, 2016
Reading List: The Religion War
- Adams, Scott.
The Religion War.
Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2004
This a sequel to the author's 2001 novel
God's Debris. In that work,
which I considered profound and made my hair stand on
end on several occasions, a package delivery man happens to
encounter the smartest man in the world and finds his own
view of the universe and his place in it up-ended, and
his destiny to be something he'd never imagined. I believe
that it's only because Scott Adams is also the creator of
that he is not appreciated as one of the most original and
insightful thinkers of our time. His
blog has been consistently right
about the current political season in the U.S. while all of the
double-domed mainstream pundits have fallen on their faces.
Forty years have passed since the events in God's Debris.
The erstwhile delivery man has become the Avatar, thinking at a
higher level and perceiving patterns which elude his contemporaries.
These talents have made him one of the wealthiest people on Earth,
but he remains unknown, dresses shabbily, wearing a red plaid blanket
around his shoulders. The world has changed. A leader, al-Zee,
arising in the Palestinian territories, has achieved his goal of
eliminating Israel and consolidated the Islamic lands into a new
Great Caliphate. Sitting on a large fraction of the world's oil supply,
he funds “lone wolf”, modest scale terror attacks
always deniable and never so large as to invite reprisal. With the
advent of model airplanes and satellite guidance able to deliver
explosives to a target with precision over a long range,
nobody can feel immune from the reach of the Caliphate.
In 2040, General Horatio Cruz came to power as Secretary of War of
the Christian Alliance, with all of the forces of NATO at his command.
The political structures of the western nations remained in
place, but they had delegated their defence to Cruz, rendering
him effectively a dictator in the military sphere. Cruz was not a
man given to compromise. Faced with an opponent he evaluated as two
billion people willing to die in a final war of conquest, he viewed
the coming conflict not as one of preserving territory or self-defence,
but of extermination—of one side or the other. There were dark
rumours that al-Zee had in place his own plan of retaliation, with sleeper
cells and weapons of mass destruction ready should a
frontal assault begin.
The Avatar sees the patterns emerging, and sets out to avert the
approaching cataclysm. He knows that bad ideas can only be opposed
by better ones, but bad ideas first must be subverted by sowing doubt among
those in thrall to them. Using his preternatural powers of
persuasion, he gains access to the principals of the conflict and
begins his work. But that may not be enough.
There are two overwhelming forces in the world. One is chaos;
the other is order. God—the original singular speck—is
forming again. He's gathering together his bits—we call it
gravity. And in the process he is becoming self-aware to defeat chaos,
to defeat evil if you will, to battle the devil. But something has
gone terribly wrong.
Sometimes, when your computer is in a loop, the only thing you can do
is reboot it: forcefully get it out of the destructive loop back to a
starting point from which it can resume making progress. But how do
you reboot a global technological civilisation on the brink of war?
The Avatar must find the reboot button as time is running out.
Thirty years later, a delivery man rings the door. An old man with
a shabby blanket answers and invites him inside.
There are eight questions to ponder at the end which expand upon the
shiver-up-your-spine themes raised in the novel. Bear in mind, when
pondering how prophetic this novel is of current and near-future
events, that it was published twelve years ago.
Saturday, June 11, 2016
Reading List: Humans to Mars
- Portree, David S. F.
Humans to Mars.
Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2001.
Ever since, in the years following World War II, people began
to think seriously about the prospects for space travel,
visionaries have looked beyond the near-term prospects
for flights into Earth orbit, space stations, and even
journeys to the Moon, toward the red planet: Mars. Unlike
Venus, eternally shrouded by clouds, or the other
planets which were too hot or cold to sustain life as we
know it, Mars, about half the size of the Earth, had an atmosphere,
a day just a little longer than the Earth's, seasons, and polar
caps which grew and shrank with the seasons. There were no oceans,
but water from the polar caps might sustain life on the surface,
and there were dark markings which appeared to change during
the Martian year, which some interpreted as plant life that flourished
as polar caps melted in the spring and receded as they grew in the fall.
In an age where we have high-resolution imagery of the entire planet,
obtained from orbiting spacecraft, telescopes orbiting Earth, and
ground-based telescopes with advanced electronic instrumentation, it
is often difficult to remember just how little was known about Mars in the 1950s,
when people first started to think about how we might go there.
Mars is the next planet outward from the Sun, so its
distance and apparent size vary substantially depending upon its
relative position to Earth in their respective orbits. About every
two years, Earth “laps” Mars and it is
closest (“at opposition”) and
most easily observed. But because the orbit of Mars is
elliptic, its distance varies from one opposition to the next,
and it is only every 15 to 17 years that a near-simultaneous
opposition and perihelion render Mars most accessible to Earth-based
But even at a close opposition, Mars is a challenging telescopic
target. At a close encounter, such as the one which will occur
in the summer of 2018, Mars has an apparent diameter of only
By comparison, the full Moon is about half a degree, or 1800 arc seconds:
72 times larger than Mars. To visual observers, even at a favourable
opposition, Mars is a difficult object. Before the advent of electronic
sensors in the 1980s, it was even more trying to photograph. Existing
photographic film and plates were sufficiently insensitive
that long exposures, measured in seconds, were required, and even
from the best observing sites, the turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere
smeared out details, leaving only the largest features recognisable.
Visual observers were able to glimpse more detail in transient moments
of still air, but had to rely upon their memory to sketch them. And
the human eye is subject to optical illusions, seeing patterns
where none exist. Were the extended linear features called
“canals” real? Some observers saw and sketched
them in great detail, while others saw nothing. Photography could
not resolve the question.
Further, the physical properties of the planet were largely unknown.
If you're contemplating a mission to land on Mars, it's essential to
know the composition and density of its atmosphere, the temperatures
expected at potential landing sites, and the terrain which a lander
would encounter. None of these were known much beyond the level of
educated guesses, which turned out to be grossly wrong once spacecraft
probe data started to come in.
But ignorance of the destination didn't stop people from planning,
or at least dreaming. In 1947–48, Wernher von Braun,
then working with the U.S. Army at the White Sands Missile Range
in New Mexico, wrote a novel called The Mars Project
based upon a hypothetical Mars mission. A technical
appendix presented detailed designs of the spacecraft and mission.
While von Braun's talent as an engineer was legendary, his prowess
as a novelist was less formidable, and the book never saw print, but
in 1952 the appendix was published by itself.
One thing of which von Braun was never accused was thinking small,
and in this first serious attempt to plan a Mars mission, he
envisioned something more like an armada than the lightweight
spacecraft we design today. At a time when the largest operational
rocket, the V-2, had a payload of just one tonne, which it could
throw no further than 320 km on a suborbital trajectory, von Braun's
Mars fleet would consist of ten ships, each with a mass of 4,000
tons, and a total crew of seventy. The Mars ships would be
assembled in orbit from parts launched on 950 flights of reusable
three-stage ferry rockets. To launch all of the components of
the Mars fleet and the fuel they would require would burn a total
of 5.32 million tons of propellant in the ferry ships. Note that
when von Braun proposed this, nobody had ever flown even a two stage
rocket, and it would be ten years before the first unmanned Earth
satellite was launched.
Von Braun later fleshed out his mission plans for an illustrated
article in Collier's magazine as part of
their series on the future of space flight. Now he envisioned
assembling the Mars ships at the toroidal space station in
Earth orbit which had figured in earlier installments of
the series. In 1956, he published a book co-authored with
Willy Ley, The Exploration of Mars, in which
he envisioned a lean and mean expedition with just two ships
and a crew of twelve, which would require “only”
four hundred launches from Earth to assemble, provision, and
Not only was little understood about the properties of the destination,
nothing at all was known about what human crews would experience
in space, either in Earth orbit or en route to Mars and back. Could
they even function in weightlessness? Would be they be zapped by
cosmic rays or solar flares? Were meteors a threat to their craft and,
if so, how serious a one? With the dawn of the space age after the
launch of Sputnik in October, 1957, these data started to trickle in,
and they began to inform plans for Mars missions at NASA and elsewhere.
Radiation was much more of a problem than had been anticipated.
The discovery of the
Van Allen radiation belts
around the Earth and measurement of radiation from solar
flares and galactic cosmic rays indicated that short voyages
were preferable to long ones, and that crews would need
shielding from routine radiation and a “storm shelter”
during large solar flares. This motivated research into nuclear
thermal and ion propulsion systems, which would not only reduce the
transit time to and from Mars, but also, being much more fuel
efficient than chemical rockets, dramatically reduce the mass
of the ships compared to von Braun's flotilla.
Ernst Stuhlinger had been studying electric (ion) propulsion since
1953, and developed a design for constant-thrust, ion powered ships.
These were featured in Walt Disney's 1957 program,
“Mars and Beyond”,
which aired just two months after the launch of Sputnik.
This design was further developed by NASA in a 1962 mission
design which envisioned five ships with nuclear-electric propulsion,
departing for Mars in the early 1980s with a crew of fifteen and
cargo and crew landers permitting a one month stay on the red planet.
The ships would rotate to provide artificial gravity for the crew
on the trip to and from Mars.
In 1965, the arrival of the
spacecraft seemingly drove a stake through the heart of the
romantic view of Mars which had persisted since
Flying by the southern hemisphere of the planet as close as
9600 km, it returned 21 fuzzy pictures which seemed to show
Mars as a dead, cratered world resembling the Moon far more than
the Earth. There was no evidence of water, nor of life. The
atmosphere was determined to be only 1% as dense as that of
Earth, not the 10% estimated previously, and composed mostly of
carbon dioxide, not nitrogen. With such a thin and hostile
atmosphere, there seemed no prospects for advanced life (anything
more complicated than bacteria), and all of the ideas for
winged Mars landers went away: the martian atmosphere proved just
dense enough to pose a problem when slowing down on arrival, but
not enough to allow a soft landing with wings or a parachute.
The probe had detected more radiation than expected on its way to
Mars, indicating crews would need more protection than anticipated,
and it showed that robotic probes could do science at Mars without
the need to put a crew at risk. I remember staying up and watching
these pictures come in (the local television station didn't carry the
broadcast, so I watched even more static-filled pictures than the
original from a distant station). I can recall thinking, “Well,
that's it then. Mars is dead. We'll probably never go there.”
Mars mission planning went on the back burner as the Apollo
Moon program went into high gear in the 1960s. Apollo was
conceived not as a single-destination project to land on
the Moon, but to create the infrastructure for human
expansion from the Earth into the solar system, including development
of nuclear propulsion and investigation of planetary missions
using Apollo derived hardware, mostly for flyby missions.
In January of 1968, Boeing completed a study of a Mars landing
mission, which would have required six launches of an uprated
Saturn V, sending a crew of six to Mars in a 140 ton ship for
a landing and a brief “flags and footprints” stay on
Mars. By then, Apollo funding (even before the first lunar
orbit and landing) was winding down, and it was clear there was
no budget nor political support for such grandiose plans.
After the success of Apollo 11, NASA retrenched, reducing its
ambition to a Space Shuttle. An ambitious Space Task Group plan
for using the Shuttle to launch a Mars mission in the early 1980s
was developed, but in an era of shrinking budgets and additional
fly-by missions returning images of a Moon-like Mars, went nowhere.
The Saturn V and the nuclear rocket which could have taken crews
to Mars had been cancelled. It appeared the U.S. would remain
stuck going around in circles in low Earth orbit. And so it
While planning for manned Mars missions stagnated, the 1970s dramatically
changed the view of Mars. In 1971,
went into orbit around Mars and returned 7329 sharp images
which showed the planet to be a complex world, with very different
northern and southern hemispheres, a
almost as long
as the United States, and features which suggested the existence,
at least in the past, of liquid water. In 1976, two
orbiters and landers arrived at Mars, providing detailed imagery
of the planet and ground truth. The landers were equipped with
instruments intended to detect evidence of life, and they reported
positive results, but later analyses attributed this to unusual
soil chemistry. This conclusion is still disputed, including by
for the experiment, but in any case the Viking results revealed a much more
complicated and interesting planet than had been imagined from
earlier missions. I had been working as a consultant at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory during the first Viking landing, helping to keep
mission critical mainframe computers running, and I had the privilege
of watching the first images from the surface of Mars arrive. I
revised my view from 1965: now Mars was a place which didn't
look much different from the high desert of California, where you
could imagine going to explore and live some day. More importantly,
detailed information about the atmosphere and surface of Mars was now
in hand, so future missions could be planned accordingly.
And then…nothing. It was a time of malaise and retreat.
After the last Viking landing in September of 1975, it would be more than
twenty-one years until
Mars Global Surveyor
would orbit Mars and
would land there in 1996. And yet, with detailed information about Mars
in hand, the intervening years were a time of great ferment in manned
Mars mission planning, when the foundation of what may be the next
great expansion of the human presence into the solar system was laid down.
President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative
on July 20th, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on
the Moon. This was, in retrospect, the last gasp of the
“Battlestar” concepts of missions to Mars. It became a
bucket into which every NASA centre and national laboratory could
throw their wish list: new heavy launchers, a Moon base, nuclear propulsion,
space habitats: for a total price tag on the order of half a trillion
dollars. It died, quietly, in congress.
But the focus was moving from leviathan bureaucracies of the
coercive state to innovators in the private sector. In the 1990s,
spurred by work of members of the
including Robert Zubrin and David Baker, the
mission concept emerged. Earlier Mars missions assumed that all
resources needed for the mission would have to be launched from Earth.
But Zubrin and Baker realised that the martian atmosphere, based upon
what we had learned from the Viking missions, contained everything needed
to provide breathable air for the stay on Mars and rocket fuel for the
return mission (with the addition of lightweight hydrogen brought from
Earth). This turned the weight budget of a Mars mission upside-down.
Now, an Earth return vehicle could be launched to Mars with empty
propellant tanks. Upon arrival, it would produce fuel for the return
mission and oxygen for the crew. After it was confirmed to have produced
the necessary consumables, the crew of four would be sent in the next
launch window (around 26 months later) and land near the return vehicle.
They would use its oxygen while on the planet, and its fuel to return to
Earth at the end of its mission. There would be no need for a space
station in Earth orbit, nor orbital assembly, nor for nuclear propulsion:
the whole mission could be done with hardware derived from that already
This would get humans to Mars, but it ran into institutional barriers
at NASA, since many of its pet projects, including the International
Space Station and Space Shuttle proved utterly unnecessary to
getting to Mars. NASA responded with the
Design Reference Mission, published in various revisions between
1993 and 2014, which was largely based upon Mars Direct, but up-sized
to a larger crew of six, and incorporating a new Earth Return Vehicle
to bring the crew back to Earth in less austere circumstances than
envisioned in Mars Direct.
NASA claim they are on a #JourneyToMars. They must be: there's a
But of course to anybody who reads this sad chronicle of government
planning for planetary exploration over half a century, it's obvious
they're on no such thing. If they were truly on a journey to Mars,
they would be studying and building the infrastructure to get there
using technologies such as propellant depots and in-orbit assembly
which would get the missions done economically using resources already
at hand. Instead, it's all about building a
cost so much it will fly every other year, at best, employing a
standing army which will not only be costly but so infrequently used
in launch operations they won't have the experience to operate the
system safely, and whose costs will vacuum out the funds which might have
been used to build payloads which would extend the human presence into
The lesson of this is that when the first humans set foot upon Mars,
they will not be civil servants funded by taxes paid by cab drivers
and hairdressers, but employees (and/or shareholders) of a private
venture that sees Mars as a profit centre which, as its potential is
developed, can enrich them beyond the dreams of avarice and provide a
backup for human civilisation. I trust that when the history of that
great event is written, it will not be as exasperating to read as this
chronicle of the dead-end of government space programs making futile
efforts to get to Mars.
This is an excellent history of the first half century of manned Mars
mission planning. Although many proposed missions are omitted or
discussed only briefly, the evolution of mission plans with knowledge
of the destination and development of spaceflight hardware is
described in detail, culminating with current NASA thinking about how
best to accomplish such a mission. This book was published in 2001,
but since existing NASA concepts for manned Mars missions are still
largely based upon the Design Reference Mission described here, little
has changed in the intervening fifteen years. In September of 2016,
SpaceX plans to reveal its concepts for manned Mars missions, so we'll
have to wait for the details to see how they envision doing it.
As a NASA publication, this book is in the public domain. The book
can be downloaded for free
as a PDF file from the NASA History Division. There is a paperback
republication of this book available at Amazon, but at an
outrageous price for such a short public domain work. If you require a
paper copy, it's probably cheaper to download the PDF and print
Saturday, May 28, 2016
Reading List: The Cosmic Web
- Gott, J. Richard.
The Cosmic Web.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
Some works of popular science, trying to impress the reader with the
scale of the universe and the insignificance of humans on the
cosmic scale, argue that there's nothing special about our place
in the universe: “an ordinary planet orbiting an
ordinary star, in a typical orbit within an ordinary galaxy”, or
something like that. But this is wrong! Surfaces of planets
make up a vanishingly small fraction of the volume of the universe,
and habitable planets, where beings like ourselves are neither frozen
nor fried by extremes of temperature, nor suffocated or poisoned by
a toxic atmosphere, are rarer still. The Sun is far from an ordinary star:
it is brighter than 85% of the stars in the galaxy, and only 7.8% of stars
in the Milky Way share its spectral class. Fully 76% of stars are dim
red dwarves, the heavens' own 25 watt bulbs.
What does a typical place in the universe look like? What would you see
if you were there? Well, first of all, you'd need a space suit
and air supply, since the universe is mostly empty. And you'd see
nothing. Most of the volume of the universe consists of
great voids with few galaxies. If you were at a typical place in
the universe, you'd be in one of these voids, probably far enough
from the nearest galaxy that it wouldn't be visible to the unaided
eye. There would be no stars in the sky, since stars are only formed
within galaxies. There would only be darkness. Now look out the
window: you are in a pretty special place after all.
One of the great intellectual adventures of the last century is
learning our place in the universe and coming to understand its
large scale structure. This book, by an astrophysicist who has
played an important role in discovering that structure, explains
how we pieced together the evidence and came to learn the details
of the universe we inhabit. It provides an insider's look at how
astronomers tease insight out of the messy and often confusing
data obtained from observation.
It's remarkable not just how much we've learned, but how recently
we've come to know it. At the start of the 20th century, most
astronomers believed the solar system was part of a disc of
stars which we see as the Milky Way. In 1610, Galileo's telescope
revealed that the Milky Way was made up of a multitude of faint stars,
and since the galaxy makes a band all around the sky, that the
Sun must be within it. In 1918, by observing variable stars in
which orbit the Milky Way, Harlow Shapley was able to measure the size
of the galaxy, which proved much larger than previously estimated, and
determine that the Sun was about half way from the centre of the
galaxy to its edge. Still, the universe was the galaxy.
There remained the mystery of the “spiral nebulæ”.
These faint smudges of light had been revealed by photographic
time exposures through large telescopes to be discs, some with
prominent spiral arms, viewed from different angles. Some astronomers
believed them to be gas clouds within the galaxy, perhaps other
solar systems in the process of formation, while others argued they
were galaxies like the Milky Way, far distant in the universe.
In 1920 a
debate pitted the two views against one another, concluding that
insufficient evidence existed to decide the matter.
That evidence would not be long in coming. Shortly thereafter,
using the new
inch telescope on Mount Wilson in California,
Edwin Hubble was able to photograph the Andromeda Nebula and
resolve it into individual stars. Just as Galileo had done three
centuries earlier for the Milky Way, Hubble's photographs proved
Andromeda was not a gas cloud, but a galaxy composed of a multitude
of stars. Further, Hubble was able to identify variable stars
which allowed him to estimate its distance: due to details about
the stars which were not understood at the time, he underestimated
the distance by about a factor of two, but it was clear the galaxy
was far beyond the Milky Way. The distances to other nearby
galaxies were soon measured.
In one leap, the scale of the universe had become breathtakingly
larger. Instead of one galaxy comprising the universe, the Milky
Way was just one of a multitude of galaxies scattered around an
enormous void. When astronomers observed the spectra of these
galaxies, they noticed something odd: spectral lines from stars
in most galaxies were shifted toward the red end of the spectrum
compared to those observed on Earth. This was interpreted as a
due to the galaxy's moving away from the Milky Way. Between 1929
and 1931, Edwin Hubble measured the distances and redshifts of
a number of galaxies and discovered there was a linear
relationship between the two. A galaxy twice as distant as another
would be receding at twice the velocity. The universe was
expanding, and every galaxy (except those sufficiently close to
be gravitationally bound) was receding from every other
The discovery of the redshift-distance relationship provided
astronomers a way to chart the cosmos in three dimensions. Plotting
the position of a galaxy on the sky and measuring its distance
via redshift allowed building up a model of how galaxies were
distributed in the universe. Were they randomly scattered, or
would patterns emerge, suggesting larger-scale structure?
Galaxies had been observed to cluster: the
nearest cluster, in
the constellation Virgo, is made up of at least 1300 galaxies,
and is now known to be part of a
of which the
Milky Way is an outlying member. It was not until the 1970s and
1980s that large-scale redshift surveys allowed plotting the
positions of galaxies in the universe, initially in thin slices,
and eventually in three dimensions. What was seen was striking.
Galaxies were not sprinkled at random through the universe, but
seemed to form filaments and walls, with great voids containing
little or no galaxies. How did this come to be?
In parallel with this patient observational work, theorists were
working out the history of the early universe based upon
increasingly precise observations of the
microwave background radiation, which provides a glimpse of
the universe just 380,000 years after the Big Bang. This ushered
in the era of precision cosmology, where the age and scale of the
universe were determined with great accuracy, and the tiny
fluctuations in temperature of the early universe were mapped in
detail. This led to a picture of the universe very different from
that imagined by astronomers over the centuries. Ordinary matter:
stars, planets, gas clouds, and you and me—everything we
observe in the heavens and the Earth—makes up less than 5% of the
mass-energy of the universe.
which interacts with ordinary matter only through gravitation, makes
up 26.8% of the universe. It can be detected through its gravitational
effects on the motion of stars and galaxies, but at present we don't
have any idea what it's composed of. (It would be more accurate to
call it “transparent matter” since it does not interact with
light, but “dark matter” is the name we're stuck with.)
The balance of the universe, 68.3%, is
a form of energy filling empty space and causing the expansion of
the universe to accelerate. We have no idea at all about the nature
of dark energy. These three components: ordinary matter, dark matter,
and dark energy add up to give the universe a flat topology. It is
humbling to contemplate the fact that everything we've learned in
all of the sciences is about matter which makes up less than 5% of
the universe: the other 95% is invisible and we don't know anything
about it (although there are abundant guesses or, if you prefer,
This may seem like a flight of fancy, or a case of theorists making up
invisible things to explain away observations they can't otherwise
interpret. But in fact, dark matter and dark energy, originally
inferred from astronomical observations, make predictions about the
properties of the cosmic background radiation, and these predictions
have been confirmed with increasingly high precision by successive
space-based observations of the microwave sky. These observations
are consistent with a period of
inflation in which a tiny portion of the universe expanded to encompass
the entire visible universe today. Inflation magnified tiny quantum
fluctuations of the density of the universe to a scale where they
could serve as seeds for the formation of structures in the present-day
universe. Regions with greater than average density would begin to
collapse inward due to the gravitational attraction of their contents,
while those with less than average density would become voids as
material within them fell into adjacent regions of higher density.
Dark matter, being more than five times as abundant as ordinary
matter, would take the lead in this process of gravitational collapse,
and ordinary matter would follow, concentrating in denser regions
and eventually forming stars and galaxies. The galaxies formed would
associate into gravitationally bound clusters and eventually
superclusters, forming structure at larger scales. But what does
the universe look like at the largest scale? Are galaxies
distributed at random; do they clump together like meatballs in
a soup; or do voids occur within a sea of galaxies like the holes
in Swiss cheese? The answer is, surprisingly, none of the above,
and the author explains the research, in which he has been a
key participant, that discovered the large scale structure of
As increasingly more comprehensive redshift surveys of galaxies
were made, what appeared was a network of filaments which connected
to one another, forming extended structures. Between filaments were
voids containing few galaxies. Some of these structures, such as the
Sloan Great Wall,
at 1.38 billion light years in length, are 1/10 the radius of
the observable universe. Galaxies are found along filaments, and where
filaments meet, rich clusters and superclusters of galaxies are
observed. At this large scale, where galaxies are represented by single
dots, the universe resembles a neural network like the human brain.
As ever more extensive observations mapped the three-dimensional
structure of the universe we inhabit, progress in computing allowed
running increasingly detailed simulations of the evolution of structure
in models of the universe. Although the implementation of these
simulations is difficult and complicated, they are conceptually
simple. You start with a region of space, populate it with particles
representing ordinary and dark matter in a sea of dark energy with
random positions and density variations corresponding to those observed
in the cosmic background radiation, then let the simulation run,
computing the gravitational attraction of each particle on the others
and tracking their motion under the influence of gravity. In 2005,
Volker Springel and the Virgo Consortium ran the
Simulation, which started from the best estimate of the initial
conditions of the universe known at the time and tracked the motion
of ten billion particles of ordinary and dark matter in a cube
two billion light years on a side. As the simulation clock ran, the
matter contracted into filaments surrounding voids, with the filaments
joined at nodes rich in galaxies. The images produced by the
simulation and the statistics calculated were strikingly similar
to those observed in the real universe. The behaviour of this and
other simulations increases confidence in the existence of dark matter
and dark energy; if you leave them out of the simulation, you get
results which don't look anything like the universe we inhabit.
At the largest scale, the universe isn't made of galaxies sprinkled
at random, nor meatballs of galaxy clusters in a sea of voids, nor
a sea of galaxies with Swiss cheese like voids. Instead, it resembles
a sponge of denser filaments and knots interpenetrated by less dense
voids. Both the denser and less dense regions percolate: it
is possible to travel from one edge of the universe to another
staying entirely within more or less dense regions. (If the universe
were arranged like a honeycomb, for example, with voids surrounded by
denser walls, this would not be possible.) Nobody imagined this
before the observational results started coming in, and now we've
discovered that given the initial conditions of the universe after the
Big Bang, the emergence of such a structure is inevitable.
All of the structure we observe in the universe has evolved from a
remarkably uniform starting point in the 13.8 billion years since the
Big Bang. What will the future hold? The final chapter explores
various scenarios for the far future. Because these depend upon the
properties of dark matter and dark energy, which we don't understand,
they are necessarily speculative.
The book is written for the general reader, but at a level
substantially more difficult than many works of science
popularisation. The author, a scientist involved in this research for
decades, does not shy away from using equations when they illustrate
an argument better than words. Readers are assumed to be comfortable
with scientific notation, units like light years and parsecs, and
logarithmically scaled charts. For some
reason, in the Kindle edition dozens of
hyphenated phrases are run together without any punctuation.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Reading List: The B-58 Blunder
- Holt, George, Jr.
The B-58 Blunder.
Randolph, VT: George Holt, 2015.
was a breakthrough aircraft. The first generation of U.S. Air Force
heavy bombers—were revolutionary for their time, but were
becoming increasingly vulnerable to high-performance interceptor
aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles on the deep penetration bombing
missions within the communist bloc for which they were intended. In
the 1950s, it was believed the best way to reduce the threat was to
fly fast and at high altitude, with a small aircraft that would be
more difficult to detect with radar.
Preliminary studies of a next generation bomber began in 1949, and in 1952
Convair was selected to develop a prototype of what would become the
B-58. Using a delta wing and four turbojet engines, the aircraft could
cruise at up to twice the speed of sound (Mach 2, 2450 km/h) with a
service ceiling of 19.3 km. With a small
compared to the enormous B-52 (although still large compared to present-day
stealth designs), the idea was that flying so fast and at high altitude, by
the time an enemy radar site detected the B-58, it would be too late to
scramble an interceptor to attack it. Contemporary anti-aircraft missiles
lacked the capability to down targets at its altitude and speed.
The first flight of a prototype was in November 1956, and after a protracted
development and test program, plagued by problems due to its radical design,
the bomber entered squadron service in March of 1960. Rising costs caused
the number purchased to be scaled back to just 116 (by comparison, 2,032
B-47s and 744 B-52s were built), deployed in two
Strategic Air Command
(SAC) bomber wings.
The B-58 was built to deliver nuclear bombs. Originally, it carried one
megaton weapon mounted below the fuselage. Subsequently, the ability
to carry four
on hardpoints beneath the wings was added. The B43 and B61 were variable
yield weapons, with the B43 providing yields from 70 kilotons to 1 megaton
and the B61 300 tons to 340 kilotons. The B-58 was not intended to carry
conventional (non-nuclear, high explosive) bombs, and although some studies
were done of conventional missions, its limited bomb load would have made it
uncompetitive with other aircraft. Defensive weaponry was a single 20 mm
radar-guided cannon in the tail. This was a last-ditch option: the B-58 was
intended to outrun attackers, not fight them off. The crew of three
consisted of a pilot, bombardier/navigator, and a defensive systems
operator (responsible for electronic countermeasures [jamming] and
the tail gun), each in their own cockpit with an ejection capsule.
The navigation and bombing system included an
navigation platform with a star tracker for correction, a Doppler radar,
and a search radar.
The nuclear weapon pod beneath the fuselage could be replaced with
a pod for photo reconnaissance. Other pods were considered, but never
The B-58 was not easy to fly. Its delta wing required high
takeoff and landing speeds, and a steep angle of attack (nose-up
attitude), but if the pilot allowed the nose to rise too high, the
aircraft would pitch up and spin. Loss of an engine, particularly
one of the outboard engines, was, as they say, a very dynamic event,
requiring instant response to counter the resulting yaw. During
its operational history, a total of 26 B-58s were lost in accidents:
22.4% of the fleet.
During its ten years in service, no operational bomber equalled
or surpassed the performance of the B-58. It set nineteen speed
records, some which still stand today, and won prestigious awards for
its achievements. It was a breakthrough, but ultimately a dead end:
no subsequent operational bomber has exceeded its performance in speed
and altitude, but that's because speed and altitude were judged
insufficient to accomplish the mission. With the introduction of
supersonic interceptors and high-performance anti-aircraft missiles
by the Soviet Union, the B-58 was determined to be vulnerable in its
original supersonic, high-altitude mission profile. Crews were
retrained to fly penetration missions at near-supersonic speeds
and very low altitude, making it difficult for enemy radar to
acquire and track the bomber. Although it was not equipped with
radar like the B-52, an accurate radar altimeter allowed crews
to perform these missions. The large, rigid delta wing made the
B-58 relatively immune to turbulence at low altitudes. Still,
abandoning the supersonic attack profile meant that many of the
capabilities which made the B-58 so complicated and expensive to
operate and maintain were wasted.
This book is the story of the
decision to retire the B-58, told by a crew member and Pentagon
staffer who strongly dissented and argues that
the B-58 should have remained in service much longer.
George “Sonny” Holt, Jr. served for thirty-one years in the
U.S. Air Force, retiring with the rank of colonel. For three years he
was a bombardier/navigator on a B-58 crew and later, in the Plans Division
at the Pentagon, observed the process which led to the retirement of the
bomber close-up, doing his best to prevent it. He would disagree with
many of the comments about the disadvantages of the aircraft mentioned
in previous paragraphs, and addresses them in detail. In his
view, the retirement of the B-58 in 1970, when it had been originally
envisioned as remaining in the fleet until the mid-1970s, was part of
a deal by SAC, which offered the retirement of all of the B-58s in return
for retaining four B-52 wings which were slated for retirement. He
argues that SAC never really wanted to operate the B-58, and that they
did not understand its unique capabilities. With such a small fleet,
it did not figure large in their view of the bomber force (although with
its large nuclear weapon load, it actually represented about half the
yield of the bomber leg of the
He provides an insider's perspective on Pentagon politics, and how
decisions are made at high levels, often without input from those
actually operating the weapon systems. He disputes many of the
claimed disadvantages of the B-58 and, in particular, argues that it
performed superbly in the low-level penetration mission, something for
which it was not designed.
What is not discussed is the competition posed to manned bombers of all
kinds in the nuclear mission by the
which began to be deployed in 1962. By June 1965, 800 missiles were on
alert, each with a 1.2 megaton
W56 warhead. Solid-fueled
missiles like the Minuteman require little maintenance and are ready
to launch immediately at any time. Unlike bombers, where one worries
about the development of interceptor aircraft and surface to air
missiles, no defense against a mass missile attack existed or was
expected to be developed in the foreseeable future. A missile in a
silo required only a small crew of launch and maintenance personnel,
as opposed to the bomber which had flight crews, mechanics, a spare
parts logistics infrastructure, and had to be supported by refueling
tankers with their own overhead. From the standpoint of
cost-effectiveness, a word very much in use in the 1960s Pentagon, the
missiles, which were already deployed, were dramatically better than
any bomber, and especially the most expensive one in the inventory.
The bomber generals in SAC were able to save the B-52, and were willing
to sacrifice the B-58 in order to do so.
The book is self-published by the author and is sorely in need of the attention
of a copy editor. There are numerous spelling and grammatical errors, and
nouns are capitalised in the middle of sentences for no apparent reason. There
are abundant black and white illustrations from Air Force files.
Monday, May 23, 2016
Reading List: Arkwright
- Steele, Allen.
New York: Tor, 2016.
Nathan Arkwright was one of the “Big Four” science fiction
writers of the twentieth century, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C.
Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. Launching his career in the
Golden Age of science fiction,
he created the Galaxy Patrol
space adventures, with 17 novels from 1950 to 1988, a
radio drama, television series, and three movies. The royalties from
his work made him a wealthy man. He lived quietly in his home in
rural Massachusetts, dying in 2006.
Arkwright was estranged from his daughter and granddaughter, Kate
Morressy, a freelance science journalist. Kate attends the funeral
and meets Nathan's long-term literary agent, Margaret (Maggie) Krough,
science fiction writer Harry Skinner, and George Hallahan, a
research scientist long involved with military and aerospace projects.
After the funeral, the three meet with Kate, and Maggie explains
that Arkwright's will bequeaths all of his assets including future
royalties from his work to the non-profit Arkwright Foundation, which
Kate is asked to join as a director representing the family. She asks
the mission of the foundation, and Maggie responds by saying it's
a long and complicated story which is best answered by her reading the
manuscript of Arkwright's unfinished autobiography, My Life in
It is some time before Kate gets around to reading the manuscript.
When she does, she finds herself immersed in the Golden Age of
science fiction, as her father recounts attending the first World's
Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939. An avid science
fiction fan and aspiring writer, Arkwright rubs elbows with figures
he'd known only as names in magazines such as Fred Pohl, Don Wollheim,
Cyril Kornbluth, Forrest Ackerman, and Isaac Asimov. Quickly learning
that at a science fiction convention it isn't just elbows that rub
but also egos, he runs afoul of one of the clique wars that are
incomprehensible to those outside of fandom and finds himself ejected
from the convention, sitting down for a snack at the Automat across
the street with fellow banished fans Maggie, Harry, and George. The four
discuss their views of the state of science fiction and their
ambitions, and pledge to stay in touch. Any group within fandom needs
a proper name, and after a brief discussion “The Legion of Tomorrow”
was born. It would endure for decades.
The manuscript comes to an end, leaving Kate still in 1939. She then meets
in turn with the other three surviving members of the Legion, who carry the story
through Arkwright's long life, and describe the events which shaped his view
of the future and the foundation he created. Finally,
Kate is ready to hear the mission of the foundation—to make the future
Arkwright wrote about during his career a reality—to move humanity off
the planet and enter the era of space colonisation, and not just the
planets but, in time, the stars. And the foundation will be going it alone.
As Harry explains (p. 104), “It won't be made public, and there
won't be government involvement either. We don't want this to become another
NASA project that gets scuttled because Congress can't get off its dead ass
and give it decent funding.”
The strategy is bet on the future: invest in the technologies which will be
needed for and will profit from humanity's expansion from the home planet,
and then reinvest the proceeds in research and development and new generations
of technology and enterprises as space development proceeds. Nobody expects
this to be a short-term endeavour: decades or generations may be required before
the first interstellar craft is launched, but the structure of the foundation
is designed to persist for however long it takes. Kate signs on, “Forward
So begins a grand, multi-generation saga chronicling humanity's leap to the
stars. Unlike many tales of interstellar flight, no arm-waving about
faster than light warp drives or other technologies requiring new physics
is invoked. Based upon information presented at the DARPA/NASA
100 Year Starship Symposium
in 2011 and the 2013
Starship Century conference, the author
uses only technologies based upon well-understood physics which, if
economic growth continues on the trajectory of the last century, are
plausible for the time in the future at which the story takes place.
And lest interstellar travel and colonisation be dismissed as
wasteful, no public resources are spent on it: coercive governments have
neither the imagination nor the attention span to achieve such grand and
long-term goals. And you never know how important the technological spin-offs
from such a project may prove in the future.
As noted, the author is scrupulous in using only technologies
consistent with our understanding of physics and biology and plausible
extrapolations of present capabilities. There are a few goofs, which
I'll place behind the curtain since some are plot spoilers.
This is an inspiring and very human story, with realistic and flawed characters,
venal politicians, unanticipated adversities, and a future very different than
envisioned by many tales of the great human expansion, even those by the
legendary Nathan Arkwright. It is an optimistic tale of the human future,
grounded in the achievements of individuals who build it, step by step, in
the unbounded vision of the Golden Age of science fiction. It is ours to
Here is a
with the author by James Pethokoukis.
On p. 61, a C-53 transport plane is called a Dakota. The C-53 is a
troop transport variant of the
referred to as the
Skytrooper. But since the planes were externally almost identical,
the observer may have confused them. “Dakota” was the
RAF designation for the C-47; the U.S. Army Air Forces called it
On the same page, planes arrive from “Kirtland Air Force Base in
Texas”. At the time, the facility would have been called
“Kirtland Field”, part of the Albuquerque Army Air Base,
which is located in New Mexico, not Texas. It was not renamed
Kirtland Air Force Base
In the description of the launch of
on p. 71, after the
long delay, the count is recycled to T−30 seconds. That isn't
how it happened. After the cutoff in the original countdown at thirty
seconds, the count was recycled to the T−22 minute mark, and
after the problem was resolved, resumed from there. There would have
been plenty of time for people who had given up and gone to bed to be
awakened when the countdown was resumed and observe the launch.
On p. 214, we're told the
of the ship's velocity
“caused the stars around and in front of the Galactique
to redshift”. In fact, the stars in front of the ship would be
blueshifted, while those behind it would be redshifted.
On p. 230, the ship, en route, is struck by a particle of interstellar
dust which is described as “not much larger than a piece of gravel”,
which knocks out communications with the Earth. Let's assume it wasn't the
size of a piece of gravel, but only that of a grain of sand, which is around
20 milligrams. The
released in the collision
with the grain of sand
is 278 gigajoules, or 66 tons of TNT. The damage to the ship would have been
catastrophic, not something readily repaired.
On the same page, “By the ship's internal chronometer, the repair job
probably only took a few days, but time dilation made it seem much longer to
observers back on Earth.” Nope—at half the speed of light,
is only 15%. Three days' ship's time would be less than three and a half
days on Earth.
On p. 265, “the DNA of its organic molecules was left-handed, which was
crucial to the future habitability…”. What's important isn't the
handedness of DNA, but rather the
of the organic molecules used in
cells. The chirality of DNA is many levels above this fundamental property of
biochemistry and, in fact, the DNA helix of terrestrial organisms is right-handed.
(The chirality of DNA actually depends upon the nucleotide sequence, and there is
a form, called
in which the helix is left-handed.)
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Reading List: Cuckservative
- Red Eagle, John and Vox Day [Theodore Beale].
Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015.
Yes, I have read it. So read me out of the polite genteel “conservative”
movement. But then
I am not a
conservative. Further, I enjoyed it. The authors say things forthrightly
that many people think and maybe express in confidence to their like-minded
friends, but reflexively cringe upon even hearing in public. Even more
damning, I found it enlightening on a number of topics, and I believe that
anybody who reads it dispassionately is likely to find it
the same. And finally, I am reviewing it. I have
reviewed (or noted) every book
I have read since January of 2001. Should I exclude this one because it makes
some people uncomfortable? I exist to make people uncomfortable. And so,
The authors have been called “racists”, which is rather odd since
both are of Native American ancestry and Vox Day also has Mexican ancestors.
Those who believe ancestry determines all will have to come to terms with the
fact that these authors defend the values which largely English settlers
brought to America, and were the foundation of American culture until it
all began to come apart in the 1960s.
In the view of the authors, as explained in chapter 4, the modern conservative
movement in the U.S. dates from the 1950s. Before that time both the Democrat
and Republican parties contained politicians and espoused policies which were
both conservative and progressive (with the latter word used in the modern
sense), often with regional differences. Starting with the progressive era
early in the 20th century and dramatically accelerating during the New Deal,
the consensus in both parties was centre-left liberalism (with “liberal”
defined in the corrupt way it is used in the U.S.): a belief in a
strong central government, social welfare programs, and active
intervention in the economy. This view was largely shared by Democrat
and Republican leaders, many of whom came from the same patrician
class in the Northeast. At its outset, the new conservative movement,
with intellectual leaders such as Russell Kirk and advocates
like William F. Buckley, Jr., was outside the mainstream of both
parties, but more closely aligned with the Republicans due to their
wariness of big government. (But note that the Eisenhower
administration made no attempt to roll back the New Deal, and thus
effectively ratified it.)
They argue that since the new conservative movement was a coalition of
disparate groups such as libertarians, isolationists, southern agrarians,
as well as ex-Trotskyites and former Communists, it was an uneasy alliance, and
in forging it Buckley and others believed it was essential that the
movement be seen as socially respectable. This led to a pattern of
conservatives ostracising those who they feared might call down the
scorn of the mainstream press upon them. In 1957, a devastating review
by Whittaker Chambers marked the break with
and in 1962 Buckley denounced the
John Birch Society
and read it out of the conservative movement. This established a pattern
which continues to the present day: when an individual or group is seen
as sufficiently radical that they might damage the image of conservatism
as defined by the New York and Washington magazines and think tanks, they
are unceremoniously purged and forced to find a new home in institutions
viewed with disdain by the cultured intelligentsia. As the authors note,
this is the exact opposite of the behaviour of the Left, which fiercely
defends its most radical extremists. Today's
largely exists because its founders were purged from conservatism in
The search for respectability and the patient construction of conservative
institutions were successful in aligning the Republican party with the new
conservatism. This first manifested itself in the nomination of Barry
Goldwater in 1964. Following his disastrous defeat, conservatives continued
their work, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But
even then, and in the years that followed, including congressional triumphs
in 1994, 2010, and 2014, Republicans continued to behave as a minority
party: acting only to slow the rate of growth of the Left's agenda rather
than roll it back and enact their own. In the words of the authors, they are
“calling for the same thing as the left, but less of it and twenty
The authors call these Republicans “cuckservative” or
“cuck” for short. The word is a portmanteau of “cuckold”
and “conservative”. “Cuckold” dates back to
A.D. 1250, and means the husband of an
unfaithful wife, or a weak and ineffectual man. Voters who elect these
so-called conservatives are cuckolded by them, as through their
fecklessness and willingness to go along with the Left, they bring
into being and support the collectivist agenda which they were elected
to halt and roll back. I find nothing offensive in the definition of this
word, but I don't like how it sounds—in part because it rhymes with an
obscenity which has become an all-purpose word in the vocabulary of the Left
and, increasingly, the young. Using the word induces a blind rage
in some of those to whom it is applied, which may be its principal merit.
But this book, despite bearing it as a title, is not about the word: only three pages
are devoted to defining it. The bulk of the text is devoted to what the authors
believe are the central issues facing the U.S. at present and an examination of
how those calling themselves conservatives have ignored, compromised away, or
sold out the interests of their constituents on each of these issues,
including immigration and the consequences of a change in demographics
toward those with no experience of the rule of law, the consequences of
mass immigration on workers in domestic industries, globalisation and the flight
of industries toward low-wage countries, how immigration has caused other
societies in history to lose their countries, and how mainstream Christianity
has been subverted by the social justice agenda and become an ally of the Left
at the same time its pews are emptying in favour of evangelical denominations.
There is extensive background information about the history of immigration in
the United States, the bizarre
theory (that, for example,
transplanting a Mexican community across the border will, simply by changing
its location, transform its residents, in time, into Americans or, conversely,
that “blighted neighbourhoods” are so because there's something about
the dirt [or buildings] rather than the behaviour of those who inhabit them),
and the overwhelming and growing scientific evidence for human biodiversity
and the coming crack-up of the “blank slate” dogma. If the Left
continues to tighten its grip upon the academy, we can expect to see research
in this area be attacked as dissent from the party line on climate science is
This is an excellent book: well written, argued, and documented. For those who
have been following these issues over the years and observed the evolution of
the conservative movement over the decades, there may not be much here that's new, but
it's all tied up into one coherent package. For the less engaged who've
just assumed that by voting for Republicans they were advancing the
conservative cause, this may prove a revelation. If you're looking to find
racism, white supremacy, fascism, authoritarianism, or any of the other
epithets hurled against the dissident right, you won't find them here unless,
as the Left does, you define the citation of well-documented facts as those
things. What you will find is two authors who love America and believe that
American policy should put the interests of Americans before those of
others, and that politicians elected by Americans should be expected to
act in their interest. If politicians call themselves “conservatives”,
they should act to conserve what is great about America, not compromise it
away in an attempt to, at best, delay the date their constituents are
delivered into penury and serfdom.
You may have to read this book being careful nobody looks over your
shoulder to see what you're reading. You may have to never admit
you've read it. You may have to hold your peace when somebody goes on
a rant about the “alt-right”. But read it, and judge for
yourself. If you believe the facts cited are wrong, do the research,
refute them with evidence, and publish a response (under a pseudonym,
if you must). But before you reject it based upon what you've heard,
read it—it's only five bucks—and make up your own mind.
That's what free citizens do.
As I have come to expect in publications from Castalia House, the
production values are superb. There are only a few (I found just
three) copy editing errors. At present the book is available only in
Audible audiobook editions.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Reading List: The Relic Master
- Buckley, Christopher.
The Relic Master.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
The year is 1517. The Holy Roman Empire sprawls across
central Europe, from the Mediterranean in the south to
the North Sea and Baltic in the north, from the Kingdom
of France in the west to the Kingdoms of Poland and
Hungary in the east. In reality the structure of the
empire is so loose and complicated it defies easy description:
independent kings, nobility, and prelates all have their
domains of authority, and occasionally go to war against
one another. Although the Reformation is about to burst
upon the scene, the Roman Catholic Church is supreme,
and religion is big business. In particular, the
business of relics and indulgences.
Commit a particularly heinous sin? If you're sufficiently
well-heeled, you can obtain an
through prayer, good works, or making a pilgrimage to a holy
site. Over time, “good works”
increasingly meant, for the prosperous, making a contribution
to the treasury of the local prince or prelate, a percentage of which was
kicked up to higher-ranking clergy, all the way to Rome. Or,
an enterprising noble or churchman could collect relics such as
the toe bone of a saint, a splinter from the True Cross, or a lock
of hair from one of the camels the Magi rode to Bethlehem.
Pilgrims would pay a fee to see, touch, have their sins erased,
and be healed by these holy trophies. In short, the indulgence and
relic business was selling “get out of purgatory for a price”.
The very best businesses are those in which the product is delivered
only after death—you have no problems with
To flourish in this trade, you'll need a collection of relics, all
traceable to trustworthy sources. Relics were in great demand, and
demand summons supply into being. All the relics of the
True Cross, taken together, would have required the wood from a
medium-sized forest, and even the most sacred and unique of relics,
the burial shroud of Christ, was on display in several different locations.
It's the “trustworthy” part that's difficult, and that's
where Dismas comes in. A former Swiss mercenary, his resourcefulness
in obtaining relics had led to his appointment as Relic Master to His
Grace Albrecht, Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mainz, and also to
Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. These two customers were
rivals in the relic business, allowing Dismas to play one against the
other to his advantage. After visiting the Basel Relic Fair and
obtaining some choice merchandise, he visits his patrons to exchange
them for gold. While visiting Frederick, he hears that a
has nailed ninety-five denunciations of the Church, including
the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church. This is
interesting, but potentially bad for business.
Dismas meets his friend,
who he calls “Nars” due to Dürer's narcissism: among
other things including his own visage in most of his paintings. After
months in the south hunting relics, he returns to visit Dürer and
learns that the Swiss banker with whom he's deposited his fortune has
been found to be a 16th century
and that he has only the money on his person.
Destitute, Dismas and Dürer devise a scheme to get back into
the game. This launches them into a romp across central Europe
visiting the castles, cities, taverns, dark forbidding forests,
dungeons, and courts of nobility. We encounter historical figures
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus), who lends his
scientific insight to the effort. All of this is recounted with the
mix of wry and broad humour which Christopher Buckley uses so
effectively in all of his novels. There is a tableau of the Last
Supper, identity theft, and bombs. An appendix gives background on
the historical figures who appear in the novel.
This is a pure delight and illustrates how versatile is the talent of
the author. Prepare yourself for a treat; this novel delivers.
Here is an
with the author.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Reading List: Abandoned in Place
- Miller, Roland.
Abandoned in Place.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016.
Between 1945 and 1970 humanity expanded from the surface of Earth into
the surrounding void, culminating in 1969 with the first
landing on the Moon. Centuries from now, when humans and
their descendents populate the solar system and exploit resources
dwarfing those of the thin skin and atmosphere of the home planet, these
first steps may be remembered as the most significant event of our
age, with all of the trivialities that occupy our quotidian attention
forgotten. Not only were great achievements made, but grand structures
built on Earth to support them; these may be looked upon in the future
as we regard the pyramids or the great cathedrals.
Or maybe not. The launch pads, gantry towers, assembly buildings, test
facilities, blockhouses, bunkers, and control centres were not
built as monuments for the ages, but rather to accomplish time-sensitive
goals under tight budgets, by the lowest bidder, and at the behest of
a government famous for neglecting infrastructure. Once the job was done,
the mission accomplished, the program concluded; the facilities that
supported it were simply left at the mercy of the elements which, in
locations like coastal Florida, immediately began to reclaim them.
Indeed, half of the facilities pictured here no longer exist.
For more than two decades, author and photographer Roland Miller has been
documenting this heritage before it succumbs to rust, crumbling concrete, and
invasive vegetation. With unparalleled access to the sites, he has assembled
this gallery of these artefacts of a great age of
exploration. In a few decades, this may be all we'll have to remember them.
Although there is rudimentary background information from a variety of authors,
this is a book of photography, not a history of the facilities. In some
cases, unless you know from other sources what you're looking at, you might
interpret some of the images as abstract.
The hardcover edition is a “coffee table book”: large format and
beautifully printed, with a corresponding price. The
Kindle edition is, well, a Kindle book, and grossly
overpriced for 193 pages with screen-resolution images and a useless
index consisting solely of search terms.
A selection of images from
the book may be viewed on the
Abandoned in Place
Sunday, May 15, 2016
Reading List: The Circle
- Eggers, Dave.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
There have been a number of novels, many in recent years, which explore the
possibility of human society being taken over by intelligent machines.
Some depict the struggle between humans and machines, others
envision a dystopian future in which the machines have triumphed, and
a few explore the possibility that machines might create a “new
operating system” for humanity which works better than the dysfunctional
social and political systems extant today. This novel goes off in a
different direction: what might happen, without artificial
intelligence, but in an era of exponentially growing computer power and
data storage capacity, if an industry leading company with tendrils
extending into every aspect of personal interaction and commerce worldwide,
decided, with all the best intentions, “What the heck? Let's be evil!”
Mae Holland had done everything society had told her to do. One of only
twelve of the 81 graduates of her central California high school to
go on to college, she'd been accepted by a prestigious college
and graduated with a degree in psychology and massive student loans
she had no prospect of paying off. She'd ended up moving
back in with her parents and taking a menial cubicle job at the local
utility company, working for a creepy boss. In frustration and
desperation, Mae reaches out to her former college roommate, Annie, who
has risen to an exalted position at the hottest technology company on
the globe: The Circle. The Circle had started by creating the Unified
Operating System, which combined all aspects of users'
interactions—social media, mail, payments, user names—into
a unique and verified identity called TruYou. (Wonder where they got
Before long, anonymity on the Internet was a thing of the past as
merchants and others recognised the value of knowing their
customers and of information collected across their activity on
all sites. The Circle and its associated businesses supplanted
existing sites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and with the
tight integration provided by TruYou, created new kinds of
interconnection and interaction not possible when information
was Balkanised among separate sites. With the end of anonymity,
spam and fraudulent schemes evaporated, and with all posters
personally accountable, discussions became civil and trolls
slunk back under the bridge.
With an effective monopoly on electronic communication and
commercial transactions (if everybody uses TruYou to pay, what
option does a merchant have but to accept it and pay The Circle's
fees?), The Circle was assured a large, recurring, and growing
revenue stream. With the established businesses generating so
much cash, The Circle invested heavily in research and development
of new technologies: everything from sustainable housing, access
to DNA databases, crime prevention, to space applications.
Mae's initial job was far more mundane. In Customer Experience, she
was more or less working in a call centre, except her communications
with customers were over The Circle's message services. The work
was nothing like that at the utility company, however. Her work
was monitored in real time, with a satisfaction score computed from
follow-ups surveys by clients. To advance, a score near 100 was
required, and Mae had to follow-up any scores less than that to satisfy
the customer and obtain a perfect score. On a second screen,
internal “zing” messages informed her of activity on
the campus, and she was expected to respond and contribute.
As she advances within the organisation, Mae begins to comprehend
the scope of The Circle's ambitions. One of the founders unveils a
plan to make always-on cameras and microphones available at very
low cost, which people can install around the world. All the feeds will
be accessible in real time and archived forever. A new slogan
“All that happens must be known.”
At a party, Mae meets a mysterious character, Kalden, who appears to have
access to parts of The Circle's campus unknown to her associates and
yet doesn't show up in the company's exhaustive employee social
networks. Her encounters and interactions with him become increasingly
Mae moves up, and is chosen to participate to a greater extent in the
social networks, and to rate products and ideas. All of this activity
contributes to her participation rank, computed and displayed in real time.
She swallows a sensor which will track her health and vital signs in real
time, display them on a wrist bracelet, and upload them for analysis and
early warning diagnosis.
Eventually, she volunteers to “go transparent”: wear a body
camera and microphone every waking moment, and act as a window into
The Circle for the general public. The company had pushed transparency
for politicians, and now was ready to deploy it much more widely.
Secrets Are Lies
To Mae's family and few remaining friends outside The Circle, this all
seems increasingly bizarre: as if the fastest growing and most
prestigious high technology company in the world has become a kind of
grotesque cult which consumes the lives of its followers and
aspires to become universal. Mae loves her sense of being connected,
the interaction with a worldwide public, and thinks it is just
wonderful. The Circle internally tests and begins to roll out a
system of direct participatory democracy to replace existing political
institutions. Mae is there to report it. A plan to put an end to
most crime is unveiled: Mae is there.
The Circle is closing. Mae is contacted by her mysterious acquaintance,
and presented with a moral dilemma: she has become a central
actor on the stage of a world which is on the verge of changing,
This is a superbly written story which I found both realistic and chilling.
You don't need artificial intelligence or malevolent machines to create
an eternal totalitarian nightmare. All it takes a few years' growth and
wider deployment of technologies which exist today, combined with good
intentions, boundless ambition, and fuzzy thinking. And
the latter three commodities are abundant among today's technology
Lest you think the technologies which underlie this novel are fantasy or
far in the future, they were discussed in detail in David Brin's
1999 The Transparent Society and my 1994
“The Digital Imprimatur”.
All that has changed is that the massive computing, communication, and data storage
infrastructure envisioned in those works now exists or will within a few years.
What should you fear most? Probably the millennials who will read this and think,
“Wow! This will be great.”
“Democracy is mandatory here!”
Sharing Is Caring
Privacy Is Theft
Monday, May 9, 2016
Transit of Mercury
I was clouded out for most of today's transit of Mercury, but in mid-afternoon the skies cleared briefly and I was able to observe the transit visually and capture the following picture through thin clouds.
Mercury is the dark black dot at the left, along the 10 o'clock direction from the centre of the Sun. The shading on the Sun's surface is due to the thin clouds through which I took this picture. Note how much darker Mercury's disc is than the sunspot group (Active Region 12542
The photo was taken at 13:43 UTC from the Fourmilab driveway with a Nikon D600
camera. Exposure was 1/1250 second at the fixed f/8 aperture of the Nikon 500 mm
catadioptric "mirror lens" with ISO 400 sensitivity. A full aperture Orion solar filter
was mounted on the front of the lens. This image is cropped from the full frame and scaled down to fit on the page. Minor contrast stretching and sharpening was done with GIMP
For comparison, below is an image of the transit from space, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory
's (SDO) Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager
The image appears rotated with respect to mine because solar north is up in the SDO image, while mine shows the Sun as it appears from my location at 47° north latitude.