Thursday, July 30, 2015
Reading List: Superman: Red Son
- Millar, Mark, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett.
Superman: Red Son.
New York: DC Comics,  2014.
On June 30th, 1908, a small asteroid or comet struck the Earth's atmosphere
and exploded above the
in Siberia. The impact is estimated to have released energy equivalent
to 10 to 15 megatons of TNT; it is the largest impact event in recorded
history. Had the impactor been so aligned as to hit the Earth three hours
later, it would have exploded above the city of Saint Petersburg,
completely destroying it.
In a fictional universe, an alien spaceship crashes in rural Kansas in
the United States, carrying an orphan from the stars who, as he
matures, discovers he has powers beyond those of inhabitants of Earth,
and vows to use these gifts to promote and defend truth, justice, and
the American way. Now, like Tunguska, imagine the spaceship arrived a few
hours earlier. Then, the baby Kal-El would have landed in Stalin's
Soviet Union and, presumably, imbibed its values and culture just as
Superman did in the standard canon. That is the premise of this
delightful alternative universe take on the Superman legend, produced
by DC Comics and written and illustrated up the standards one expects
from the publisher. The Soviet Superman becomes an extraterrestrial
embodiment of the Stakhanovite
ideal, and it is only natural that when the beloved Stalin dies, he is
succeeded by another Man of Steel.
The Soviet system may have given lip service to the masses, but beneath it
was the Russian tradition of authority, and what better authority than
a genuine superman? A golden age ensues, with Soviet/Superman communism
triumphant around the globe, apart from recalcitrant holdouts Chile and the
United States. But all are not happy with this situation, which some see
as subjugation to an alien ruler. In the Soviet Union Batman becomes the
symbol and leader of an underground resistance. United States president
and supergenius Lex Luthor hatches scheme after scheme to bring down his
arch-enemy, enlisting other DC superheroes as well as his own creations
in the effort. Finally, Superman is forced to make a profound choice
about human destiny and his own role in it. The conclusion to the
story is breathtaking.
This is a well-crafted and self-consistent alternative to the
fictional universe with which we're well acquainted. It is not a
Tales of the Bizarro World (November 2007),
and in no way played for laughs. The
Kindle edition is superbly produced, but you
may have to zoom into some of the pages containing the introductory
material to be able to read the small type. Sketches of characters
under development by the artists are included in an appendix.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Reading List: GPS Declassified
- Easton, Richard D. and Eric F. Frazier.
Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2013.
At the dawn of the space age, as the United States planned to launch its
satellites during the
Geophysical Year (1957–1958), the need to track the orbit of
the satellites became apparent. Optical and radar tracking were considered
(and eventually used for various applications), but for the first very
small satellites would have been difficult. The Naval Research Laboratory
proposed a system,
which would use the radio beacon of the satellite, received
by multiple ground stations on the Earth, which by
determine the position and velocity of a satellite with great precision. For
the scheme to work, a “fence” of receiving stations would
have to be laid out which the satellite would regularly cross in its orbit,
the positions of each of the receiving stations would have to be known
very accurately, and clocks at all of the receiving stations would have to
be precisely synchronised with a master clock at the control station which
calculated the satellite's orbit.
The technical challenges were overcome, and Minitrack stations were placed
into operation at locations within the United States and as far flung
as Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Australia, and in the Caribbean.
Although designed to track the U.S. Vanguard satellites, after the unexpected
launch of Sputnik, receivers were hastily modified to receive the frequency
on which it transmitted its beeps, and the system successfully proved itself
tracking the first Earth satellite. Minitrack was used to track subsequent
U.S. and Soviet satellites until it was supplanted in 1962 by the more
Tracking and Data Acquisition Network.
An important part of creative engineering is discovering that once you've
solved one problem, you may now have the tools at hand to address
other tasks, sometimes more important that the one which motivated the
development of the enabling technologies in the first place. It didn't
take long for a group of engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to
realise that if you could determine the precise position and velocity of a satellite
in orbit by receiving signals simultaneously at multiple stations on the
ground with precisely-synchronised clocks, you could invert the problem and,
by receiving signals from multiple satellites in known orbits, each with an
accurate and synchronised clock on board, it would be possible to determine
the position, altitude, and velocity of the receiver on or above the Earth
(and, in addition, provide a precise time signal). With a sufficiently
extensive constellation of satellites, precision navigation and time signals
could be extended to the entire planet. This was the genesis of the
Positioning System (GPS) which has become a ubiquitous part of our
At the start, this concept was “exploratory engineering”: envisioning
what could be done (violating no known law of physics) if and when
technology advanced to a stage which permitted it. The timing
accuracy required for precision navigation could be achieved by
(quartz frequency standards were insufficiently stable and subject to
drift due to temperature, pressure, and age of the crystal), but
in the 1950s and early '60s, atomic clocks were large, heavy, and
delicate laboratory apparatus which nobody imagined could be put
on top of a rocket and shot into Earth orbit. Just launching
single satellites into low Earth orbit was a challenge, with
dramatic launch failures and in-orbit malfunctions all too common.
The thought of operating a constellation of dozens of satellites in
precisely-specified high orbits seemed like science fiction. And
even if the satellites with atomic clocks could somehow be launched,
the radio technology to receive the faint signals from space and
computation required to extract position and velocity information
from the signal was something which might take a room full of
equipment: hardly practical for a large aircraft or even a small
But the funny thing about an exponentially growing technology is
if something seems completely infeasible today, just wait a few
years. Often, it will move from impossible to difficult to
practical for limited applications to something in everybody's
pocket. So it has been with GPS, as this excellent book recounts.
In 1964, engineers at NRL (including author Easton's father,
Roger L. Easton)
proposed a system called
in which miniaturised and ruggedised atomic clocks on board
satellites would provide time signals which could be used
for navigation on land, sea, and air. After ground
based tests and using aircraft to simulate the satellite signal,
in 1967 the Timation I satellite was launched to demonstrate
the operation of an atomic clock in orbit and use of its signals
on the ground. With a single satellite in a relatively low orbit,
the satellite would only be visible from a given location for
thirteen minutes at a time, but this was sufficient to demonstrate
the feasibility of the concept.
As the Timation concept was evolving (a second satellite test was
launched in 1969, demonstrating improved accuracy), it was not
without competition. The U.S. had long been operating the
LORAN system for
coarse-grained marine and aircraft navigation, and had beacons
marking airways across the country. Starting in 1964, the U.S. Navy's
satellite navigation system (which used a Doppler measurement system
and did not require a precise clock on the satellites) provided
periodic position fixes for Navy submarines and surface ships, but
was inadequate for aircraft navigation. In the search for a more capable
system, Timation competed with an Air Force proposal for regional
satellite constellations including geosynchronous and inclined
elliptical orbit satellites.
The development of GPS began in earnest in 1973, with the Air Force
designated as the lead service. This project launch occurred in the
midst of an inter-service rivalry over navigation systems which did not
abate with the official launch of the project. Indeed, even in retrospect,
participants in the program dispute how much the eventually deployed
system owes to its various precursors. Throughout the 1970s the design
of the system was refined and pathfinder technology development missions
launched, with the first launch of an experimental satellite in February
1978. One satellite is a stunt, but by 1985 a constellation of 10
experimental satellites were in orbit, allowing the performance of the
system to be evaluated, constellation management tools to be
developed and tested, and receiver hardware to be checked out. Starting
in 1989 operational satellites began to be launched, but it was not until
1993 that worldwide, round-the clock coverage was available, and the
high-precision military signal was not declared operational until 1995.
Even though GPS coverage was spotty and not continuous, GPS played an
important part in the first Gulf War of 1990–1991. Because the
military had lagged in procuring GPS receivers for the troops, large numbers
of commercial GPS units were purchased and pressed into service for
navigating in the desert. A few GPS-guided weapons were used in the
conflict, but their importance was insignificant compared to other
Prior to May 2000 the civilian GPS signal was deliberately degraded in
accuracy (can't allow the taxpayers who paid for it to have the same
quality of navigation as costumed minions of the state!) This
so-called “selective availability” was finally discontinued, making
GPS practical for vehicle and non-precision air navigation. GPS units
began to appear on the consumer market, and like other electronic
gadgets got smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more capable with
every passing year. Adoption of GPS for tracking of fleets of trucks,
marine navigation, and aircraft use became widespread.
Now that GPS is commonplace and hundreds of millions of people are
walking around with GPS receivers in their smartphones, there is a great
deal of misunderstanding about precisely what GPS entails. GPS—the Global
Positioning System—is precisely that: a system which allows anybody
with a compatible receiver and a view of the sky which allows them to see
four or more satellites to determine their
(latitude, longitude, and altitude, plus velocity in each of those three
directions) in a specified co-ordinate system (where much additional complexity
lurks, which I'll gloss over here), along with the precise time of the measurement.
That's all it does. GPS is entirely passive: the GPS receiver sends
nothing back to the satellite, and hence the satellite system is able to
accommodate an unlimited number of GPS receivers simultaneously. There is
no such thing as a “GPS tracker” which can monitor the position
of something via satellite. Trackers use GPS to determine their position,
but then report the position by other means (for example, the mobile phone
network). When people speak of “their GPS” giving directions,
GPS is only telling them where they are and where they're going at each
instant. All the rest: map display, turn-by-turn directions, etc. is a
“big data” application running either locally on the GPS
receiver or using resources in the “cloud”: GPS itself plays
no part in this (and shouldn't be blamed when “your GPS” sends
you the wrong way down a one-way street).
So successful has GPS been, and so deeply has it become embedded in our
technological society and economy, that there are legitimate worries about
such a system being under the sole control of the U.S. Air Force which
could, if ordered, shut down the civilian GPS signals worldwide or
regionally (because of the altitude of the satellites, fine-grained
denial of GPS availability would not be possible). Also, the U.S. does
not have the best record of maintaining vital infrastructure and has
often depended upon weather satellites well beyond their expected lifetimes
due to budget crunches. Consequently, other players have entered the
global positioning market, with the
and Chinese BeiDou
systems operational or under construction. Other countries, including
Japan, India, and Iran, are said to be developing their own regional
navigation systems. So far, cooperation among these operators has been
relatively smooth, reducing the likelihood of interference and making
it possible for future receivers to use multiple constellations for better
coverage and precision.
This is a comprehensive history of navigation systems and GPS from inception
to the present day, with a look into the future. Extensive source
citations are given (almost 40% of the book is end notes), and in the
Kindle edition the notes, Web documents cited within
them, and the index are all properly linked. There are abundant technical
details about the design and operation of the system, but the book is
entirely accessible to the intelligent layman. In the lifetimes of all but
the youngest people on Earth, GPS has transformed our world into a place
where nobody need ever be lost. We are just beginning to see the ramifications
of this technology on the economy and how we live our day-to-day lives (for
example, the emerging technology of self-driving cars would be impossible
without GPS). This book is an essential history of how this technology
came to be, how it works, and where it may be going in the future.
Friday, July 17, 2015
Reading List: Code of Conduct
- Thor, Brad.
Code of Conduct.
New York: Atria Books, 2015.
This is the fifteenth in the author's
Harvath series, which began with
The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010).
In this novel, the author “goes big”, with a thriller
whose global implications are soundly grounded in genuine documents of
the anti-human “progressive” fringe and endorsed, at least
implicitly, by programmes of the United Nations.
A short video, recorded at a humanitarian medical clinic in the Congo, shows
a massacre of patients and staff which seems to make no sense at all. The
operator of the clinic retains the Carlton Group to investigate the attack on
its facility, and senior operative Scot Harvath is dispatched to lead a
team to find out what happened and why. Murphy's Law applies
at all times and places, but Murphy seems to pull extra shifts in the Congo,
and Harvath's team must overcome rebels, the elements, and a cast-iron
humanitarian to complete its mission.
As pieces of evidence are assembled, it becomes clear that the Congo massacre
was a side-show of a plot with global implications, orchestrated by a cabal
of international élites and supported by bien
pensants in un-elected senior administrative positions in governments.
Having bought into the anti-human agenda, they are willing to implement a
plan to “restore equilibrium” and “ensure sustainability”
whatever the human toll.
This is less a shoot-'em-up action thriller (although there is some of that, to
be sure), than the unmasking of a hideous plot and take-down of it once it is
already unleashed. It is a thoroughly satisfying yarn, and many readers may not
be aware of the extent to which the goals advocated by the villains have been
openly stated by senior officials of both the U.S. government and international
This is not one of those thrillers where once the dust settles things are left
pretty much as they were before. The world at the end of this book will have
been profoundly changed from that at the start. It will be interesting to see how
the author handles this in the next volume in the series.
For a high-profile summer thriller by a blockbuster author from a major publishing
house (Atria is an imprint of Simon & Schuster), which debuted at number 3
on the New York Times Best Sellers list, there are a surprising number
of copy editing and factual errors, even including the platinum standard, an idiot
“It's” on p. 116. Something odd appears to have happened in formatting
the Kindle edition (although I haven't confirmed that it doesn't also affect the
print edition): a hyphen occasionally appears at the end of lines, separated by a
space from the preceding word, where no hyphenation is appropriate, for example:
“State - Department”.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Reading List: StarTram
- Powell, James, George Maise, and Charles Pellegrino.
Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013.
Magnetic levitation allows suspending a vehicle above a guideway
by the force of magnetic repulsion. A train using magnetic levitation
avoids the vibration, noise, and rolling resistance of wheels on
rails, and its speed is limited only by air resistance and the
amount of acceleration passengers consider tolerable. The
Maglev Train, in service since 2004, is the fastest train in
commercial passenger service today, and travels at 431 kilometres
per hour in regular operation. Suppose you were able to somehow
get rid of the air resistance and carry only cargo,
which can tolerate high acceleration. It would appear that if the
technical challenges could be met, the sky would be the limit. In
this book the authors argue that the sky is just the start.
They propose a space launch system called StarTram, to be developed in
two technological generations. The Generation 1 (Gen-1) system is for cargo
only, and uses an evacuated launch tube 110 km long in an underground
tunnel. This sounds ambitious, but the three tunnels under the English
Channel total 150 km, and are much larger than that required for
StarTram. The launcher will be located at a site which allows
the tube to run up a mountain, emerging in the thinner air at an
altitude between 3 and 7 kilometres. There will be an extreme sonic
boom as the launch vehicle emerges from the launch tube at a velocity
of around 8 kilometres per second and flies upward through the atmosphere,
so the launcher will have to be located in a region where the trajectory
downrange for a sufficient distance is unpopulated. Several candidate
sites on different continents are proposed.
The Gen-1 cargo craft is levitated by means of high (liquid
nitrogen) temperature superconducting magnets which are chilled immediately
before launch. They need only remain superconducting for the launch itself,
around 30 seconds, so a small on-board supply of liquid nitrogen will
suffice for refrigeration. These superconducting magnets repel loops of
aluminium in the evacuated guideway tube; no refrigeration of these
loops is required. One of the greatest technical challenges of the
system is delivering the electric power needed to accelerate the
cargo craft. In the 30 seconds or so of acceleration at 30 gravities,
the average power requirement is 47 gigawatts, with a peak of 94
gigawatts as orbital velocity is approached. A typical commercial
grid power plant produces around 1 gigawatt of power, so it is
utterly impractical to generate this power on site. But the total
energy required for a launch is only about 20 minutes' output from
a 1 gigawatt power station. The StarTram design, therefore, incorporates
sixty superconducting energy storage loops, which accumulate the energy
for a launch from the grid over time, then discharge to propel the
vehicle as it is accelerated. The authors note that the energy
storage loops are comparable in magnitude to the superconducting
magnets of the Large Hadron Collider, and require neither the
extreme precision nor the liquid helium refrigeration those magnets do.
You wouldn't want to ride a Gen-1 cargo launcher. It accelerates
at around 30 gravities as it goes down the launch tube, then when it
emerges into the atmosphere, decelerates at a rate between 6 and 12g
until it flies into the thinner atmosphere. Upon reaching orbital
altitude, a small rocket kick motor circularises the orbit. After
delivering the payload into orbit (if launching to a higher orbit or
one with a different inclination, the payload would contain its own
rocket or electric propulsion to reach the desired orbit), the
cargo vehicle would make a deorbit burn with the same small rocket
it used to circularise its orbit, extend wings, and glide back for
You may be wondering how a tunnel, evacuated to a sufficiently low
pressure to allow a craft to accelerate to orbital velocity without
being incinerated, works exactly when one end has to be open to allow
the vehicle to emerge into the atmosphere. That bothers me too, a
lot. The authors propose that the exit end of the tube will have
a door which pops open just before the vehicle is about to emerge.
The air at the exit will be ionised by seeding with a conductive
material, such as cæsium vapour, then pumped outward by a strong
DC current, operating as the inverse of a
generator. Steam generators at the exit of the launch tube force
away the ambient air, reducing air pressure as is done for testing
upper stage rocket motors. This is something I'd definitely want to
see prototyped in both small and full scale before proceeding. Once
the cargo craft has emerged, the lid slams shut.
Launching 10 cargo ships a day, the Gen-1 system could deliver 128,000
tons of payload into orbit a year, around 500 times that of all
existing rocket launch systems combined. The construction cost of
the Gen-1 system is estimated at around US$20 billion, and with all
major components reusable, its operating cost is electricity, maintenance,
staff, and the small amount of rocket fuel expended in circularising
the orbit of craft and deorbiting them. The estimated all-up cost of
launching a kilogram of payload is US$43, which is about one hundredth
of current launch costs. The launch capacity is adequate to build a
robust industrial presence in space, including solar power satellites
which beam power to the Earth.
Twenty billion dollars isn't small change, but it's comparable to
the development budget for NASA's grotesque
Space Launch System,
which will fly only every few years and cost on the order of US$2
billion per launch, with everything being thrown away on each mission.
As noted, the Gen-1 system is unsuited to launching people. You
could launch people in it, but they wouldn't still be people
when they arrived on orbit, due to the accelerations experienced.
To launch people, a far more ambitious Gen-2 system is proposed. To
reduce launch acceleration to acceptable levels, the launch tunnel
would have to be around 1500 km long. To put this into perspective,
that's about the distance from Los Angeles to Seattle. To avoid the
bruising deceleration (and concomitant loss of velocity) when the
vehicle emerges from the launch tube, the end of the launch tube will
be magnetically levitated by superconducting magnets (restrained by tethers)
so that the end is at an altitude of 20 km. Clearly there'll have to be
a no-fly zone around the levitated launch tube, and you really
don't want the levitation system to fail. The authors estimate the
capital cost of the Gen-2 system at US$67 billion, which seems wildly
optimistic to me. Imagine how many forms you'll have to fill out to
dig a 1500 km tunnel anywhere in the world, not to speak of actually
building one, and then you have to develop that massive magnetically
levitated launch tube, which has never been demonstrated.
Essentially everything I have described so far appears in chapter
2 of this book, which makes up less than 10% of its 204 pages.
You can read a complete description of the StarTram system for
technical paper from 2010. The rest of the book is, well,
a mess. With its topic, magnetic levitation space launch,
dispensed with by the second chapter, it then veers into describing
all of the aspects of our bright future in space such a system will
open, including solar power satellites, protecting the Earth from
asteroid and comet impacts, space tourism, colonising Mars, exploring
the atmosphere of Jupiter, searching for life on the moons of the
outer planets, harvesting helium-3 from the atmospheres of the outer
planets for fusion power, building a telescope at the gravitational
lensing point of the Sun, and interstellar missions. Dark
scenarios are presented in which the country which builds StarTram
first uses it to establish a global hegemony enforced by
all-seeing surveillance from space and
from God”, orbited in their multitudes by StarTram, and
a world where the emerging empire is denied access to space by a
deliberate effort by one or more second movers to orbit debris to
make any use of low orbits impossible, imprisoning humanity on this
planet. (But for how long? Small particles in low orbit decay
pretty quickly.) Even wilder speculations about intelligent life in
the universe and an appropriate strategy for humans in the face
of a potentially hostile universe close the book.
All of this is fine, but none of it is new. The only new concept here is
StarTram itself, and if the book concentrated just on that, it would be a
mere 16 pages. The rest is essentially filler, rehashing other aspects
of the human future in space, which would be enabled by any means of
providing cheap access to low Earth orbit. The essential question is
whether the key enabling technologies of StarTram will work, and that
is a matter of engineering which can be determined by component tests
before committing to the full-scale project. Were I the NASA administrator
and had the power to do so (which, in reality, the NASA administrator
does not, being subordinate to the will of appropriators in Congress
who mandate NASA priorities in the interest of civil service and contractor
jobs in their districts and states), I would cancel the Space Launch System
in an instant and use a small part of the savings to fund risk reduction
and component tests of the difficult parts of a Gen-1 StarTram
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
, alarm clock!
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Venus and Jupiter at Dusk
Look toward the west a little after sunset today to see a spectacle in the sky: a close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.
Brilliant Venus is at the bottom and bright, but less dazzling, Jupiter is above. This picture was taken with a 50 mm normal lens and approximates the visual appearance. Tonight the planets are separated by only 0.3°, less than the width of the full Moon. To illustrate this, the following is a composite of an image of the conjunction and tonight's near-full Moon, which was rising as the planets were setting. I photographed both at the same scale and overlaid the images.
If you miss the closest conjunction tonight, the planets will remain strikingly close together in the sky for the next few days.
The juxtaposition of the two planets is only apparent. Venus is about 90 million kilometres from the Earth while Jupiter is 890 million kilometres away. Venus is so much brighter than Jupiter (which is more than ten times its size) because it is closer to the Sun and the Earth.
On July 1st, 2015, the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter has widened to around 0.6°, just a bit more than the mean apparent diameter of the full Moon (it varies
, due to the Moon's elliptical orbit), but it is still a spectacular sight in the western sky after sunset. Tonight I decided to see if I could take a picture which showed the two planets as they'd appear in a modest telescope. This is somewhat challenging, since Venus is presently 11.5 times brighter (on a linear scale) than Jupiter, and any exposure which shows Jupiter well will hopelessly overexpose Venus. So, I did what any self-respecting astrophotographer would do: cheat. I took two exposures, one best suited for Venus and one for Jupiter, and composited them. This is the result.
You can easily see that Venus is a fat crescent, while Jupiter's disc is fully illuminated. The apparent angular diameter of two two planets is almost identical (because enormously larger Jupiter is so much more distant). This was still in late twilight, and I wasn't able to pop out the Galilean satellites. Jupiter would have set before those 4th magnitude objects became accessible.
Both images were taken with a Nikon D600 camera and 25 year old Nikkor 300 mm f/4.5 prime (non-zoom) lens. The image of Venus was taken at f/8 with ISO 1250 sensitivity and 1/1600 second exposure. (Why such high ISO and short exposure? The lens is sharper stopped down to f/8, and the short exposure minimises the chance of vibration or movement of the planet on the sky blurring the image.) The venerable lens has a substantial amount of chromatic aberration
, which causes a red fringe around the bright image of Venus. I eliminated this by decomposing the image into its three colour components and using only the green channel, where the lens is sharpest. Since there is no apparent colour visible on Venus, this lost no information.
The Jupiter image was taken with the same camera, lens, aperture, and ISO setting, but at 1/400 second. I clipped the colour image of Jupiter from it and pasted it over the dim smudge which was Jupiter in the Venus image, preserving the relative position of the two planets.
All exposures were made from a fixed (non-guided) tripod in the Fourmilab driveway. (2015-07-01 21:42 UTC)
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Reading List: Alas, Babylon
- Frank, Pat [Harry Hart Frank].
New York: Harper Perennial,  2005.
This novel, originally published in 1959, was one the first realistic
fictional depictions of an all-out nuclear war and its aftermath.
While there are some well-crafted thriller scenes about the origins
and catastrophic events of a one day spasm war between the Soviet
Union and the United States (the precise origins of which are
not described in detail; the reader is led to conclude that it
was an accident waiting to happen, much like the outbreak of
World War I), the story is mostly set in Fort Repose, a small
community on a river in the middle of Florida, in an epoch when
Florida was still, despite some arrivals from the frozen north,
very much part of the deep south.
Randy Bragg lives in the house built by his ancestors on
River Road, with neighbours including long-time Floridians
and recent arrivals. some of which were scandalised to
discover one of their neighbours, the Henry family, were
descended from slaves to whom Randy's grandfather had sold
their land long before the first great Florida boom, when
land was valued only by the citrus it could grow. Randy,
nominally a lawyer, mostly lived on proceeds from his
orchards, a trust established by his father, and occasional
legal work, and was single, largely idle, and seemingly
without direction. Then came The Day.
From the first detonations of Soviet bombs above cities and
military bases around Fort Repose, the news from outside
dwindled to brief bulletins from Civil Defense and what one of
Randy's neighbours could glean from a short wave radio. As
electrical power failed and batteries were exhausted, little
was known of the fate of the nation and the world. At least,
after The Day, there were no more visible nuclear detonations.
Suddenly Fort Repose found itself effectively in the 19th
century. Gasoline supplies were limited to what people had
in the tanks of their cars, and had to be husbanded for only
the most essential purposes. Knowledge of how to hunt, trap,
fish, and raise crops, chickens, and pigs became much more
important than the fancy specialties of retirees in the area.
Fortunately, by the luck of geography and weather, Fort Repose
was spared serious fallout from the attack, and the very
fact that the large cities surrounding it were directly targeted
(and that it was not on a main highway) meant it would be
spared invasion by the “golden horde” of starving
urban and suburban refugees which figure in many post-apocalyptic
stories. Still, cut off from the outside, “what you have
is all you've got”, and people must face the reality
that medical supplies, their only doctor, food the orchards
cannot supply, and even commodities as fundamental as salt
are limited. But people, especially rural people in the middle
of the 20th century, are resourceful, and before long a barter
market springs up in which honey, coffee, and whiskey prove
much more valuable than gold or silver.
Wherever there are things of value and those who covet them,
predators of the two footed variety will be manifest. While
there is no mass invasion, highwaymen and thieves appear
to prey upon those trying to eke out a living for their families.
Randy Bragg, now responsible for three families living under
his own roof and neighbours provided by his artesian water
well, is forced to grow into a protector of these people and
the community, eventually defending them from those who would
destroy everything they have managed to salvage from the
They learn that all of Florida has been designated as one of
the Contaminated Zones, and hence that no aid can be anticipated
from what remains of the U.S. government. Eventually a cargo
plane flies over and drops leaflets informing residents that
at some time in the future aid may be forthcoming, “It
was proof that the government of the United States still functioned.
It was also useful as toilet paper. Next day, ten leaflets would
buy an egg, and fifty a chicken. It was paper, and it was money.”
This is a tale of the old, weird, stiff-spined, rural America
which could ultimately ride out what Herman Kahn called the
“destruction of the A country” and keep on going.
We hear little of the fate of those in the North, where with
The Day occurring near mid-winter, the outcome for those who
escaped the immediate attack would have been much more calamitous.
Ultimately it is the resourcefulness, fundamental goodness, and
growth of these people under extreme adversity which makes this
tale of catastrophe ultimately one of hope.
The Kindle edition appears to have been
created by scanning a print edition and processing it through an
optical character recognition program. The result of this
seems to have been run through a spelling checker, but not subjected
to detailed copy editing. As a result, there are numerous
scanning errors, some obvious, some humorous, and some real
head scratchers. This classic work, from a major publisher,
Friday, May 29, 2015
Reading List: Redshirts
- Scalzi, John.
New York: Tor, 2012.
Ensign Andrew Dahl thought himself extremely fortunate when, just out
of the Academy, he was assigned to Universal Union flagship
Intrepid in the xenobiology lab. Intrepid has
a reputation for undertaking the most demanding missions of
exploration, diplomacy, and, when necessary, enforcement of
order among the multitude of planets in the Union, and it was
the ideal place for an ambitious junior officer to begin his career.
But almost immediately after reporting aboard, Dahl began to discover
there was something distinctly off about life aboard
the ship. Whenever one of the senior officers walked through the
corridors, crewmembers would part ahead of them, disappearing
into side passages or through hatches. When the science
officer visited a lab, experienced crew would vanish before
he appeared and return only after he departed. Crew
would invent clever stratagems to avoid being assigned to a
post on the bridge or to an away mission.
Seemingly, every away mission would result in the death of a
crew member, often in gruesome circumstances involving Longranian
ice sharks, Borgovian land worms, the Merovian plague, or
other horrors. But senior crew: the captain, science officer,
doctor, and chief engineer were never killed, although astrogator
Lieutenant Kerensky, a member of the bridge crew and regular on
away parties, is frequently grievously injured but invariably
makes a near-miraculous and complete recovery.
Dahl sees all of this for himself when he barely escapes with his life
from a rescue mission to a space station afflicted with killer
robots. Four junior crew die and Kerensky is injured once again. Upon
returning to the ship, Dahl and his colleagues vow to get to the
bottom of what is going on. They've heard the legends of, and one may
have even spotted, Jenkins, who disappeared into the bowels of the
ship after his wife, a fellow crew member, died meaninglessly by a
stray shot of an assassin trying to kill a Union ambassador on an away
Dahl undertakes to track down Jenkins, who is rumoured to have a
theory which explains everything that is happening. The theory turns
out to be as bizarre or more so than life on the Intrepid,
but Dahl and his fellow ensigns concede that it does
explain what they're experiencing and that applying it allows them to
make sense of events which are otherwise incomprehensible (I
love “the Box”).
But a theory, however explanatory, does not address the immediate
problem: how to avoid being devoured by Pornathic crabs or the Great
Badger of Tau Ceti on their next away mission. Dahl and his fellow
junior crew must figure out how to turn the nonsensical reality they
inhabit toward their own survival and do so without overtly engaging
in, you know, mutiny, which could, like death, be career limiting.
The story becomes so meta it will make you question the metaness of
This is a pure romp, often laugh-out-loud funny, having a
delightful time immersing itself in the lives of characters
in one of our most beloved and enduring science fiction
universes. We all know the bridge crew and department heads,
but what's it really like below decks, and how does it feel to
experience that sinking feeling when the first officer points
to you and says “You're with me!” when forming
an away team?
The novel has three codas written, respectively, in the first,
second, and third person. The last, even in this very funny book,
will moisten your eyes. Redshirts won the
Award for Best Novel in 2013.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Reading List: A Short History of Man
- Hoppe, Hans-Hermann.
A Short History of Man.
Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2015.
The author is one of the most brilliant and original thinkers
and eloquent contemporary expositors
of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and
Educated in Germany, Hoppe came to
the United States to study with
and in 1986 joined Rothbard on the faculty of the University
of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught until his retirement in 2008.
Hoppe's 2001 book,
Democracy: The God That Failed
(June 2002), made the argument that democratic election of
temporary politicians in the modern all-encompassing state
will inevitably result in profligate spending and runaway
debt because elected politicians have every incentive to
buy votes and no stake in the long-term solvency and prosperity of
the society. Whatever the drawbacks (and historical examples of how
things can go wrong), a hereditary monarch has no need to buy votes
and every incentive not to pass on a bankrupt state to his descendants.
This short book (144 pages) collects three essays previously published
elsewhere which, taken together, present a comprehensive picture
of human development from the emergence of modern humans in
Africa to the present day. Subtitled “Progress and Decline”,
the story is of long periods of stasis, two enormous breakthroughs,
with, in parallel, the folly of ever-growing domination of society by
a coercive state which, in its modern incarnation, risks halting or
reversing the gains of the modern era.
Members of the collectivist and politically-correct mainstream in the
fields of economics, anthropology, and sociology who can abide
Prof. Hoppe's adamantine libertarianism will probably have their
skulls explode when they encounter his overview of human economic and
social progress, which is based upon genetic selection for increased
intelligence and low
forced to migrate due to population pressure from the tropics where
the human species originated into more demanding climates north and
south of the Equator, and onward toward the poles. In the tropics,
every day is about the same as the next; seasons don't differ much from
one another; and the variation in the length of the day is not great.
In the temperate zone and beyond, hunter-gatherers must cope with
plant life which varies along with the seasons, prey animals that
migrate, hot summers and cold winters, with the latter requiring the
knowledge and foresight of how to make provisions for the lean season.
Predicting the changes in seasons becomes important, and in this may
have been the genesis of astronomy.
A hunter-gatherer society is essentially parasitic upon the natural
environment—it consumes the plant and animal bounty of nature
but does nothing to replenish it. This means that for a given
territory there is a maximum number (varying due to details of terrain,
climate, etc.) of humans it can support before an increase in population
leads to a decline in the per-capita standard of living of its inhabitants.
This is what the author calls the
at from the other end, a human population which is growing as human
populations tend to do, will inevitably reach the carrying capacity
of the area in which it lives. When this happens, there are only three
options: artificially limit the growth in population to the land's
carrying capacity, split off one or more groups which migrate to new
territory not yet occupied by humans, or conquer new land from adjacent
groups, either killing them off or driving them to migrate. This was
the human condition for more than a hundred millennia, and it is this
population pressure, the author contends, which drove human migration from
tropical Africa into almost every niche on the globe in which humans could
survive, even some of the most marginal.
While the life of a hunter-gatherer band in the tropics is relatively
easy (or so say those who have studied the few remaining populations
who live that way today), the further from the equator the more intelligence,
knowledge, and the ability to transmit it from generation to
generation is required to survive. This creates a selection pressure for
intelligence: individual members of a band of hunter-gatherers who are
better at hunting and gathering will have more offspring which survive to
maturity and bands with greater intelligence produced in this manner
will grow faster and by migration and conquest displace those less endowed.
This phenomenon would cause one to expect that (discounting the effects
of large-scale migrations) the mean intelligence of human populations would
be the lowest near the equator and increase with latitude (north or south).
This, in general terms, and excluding marginal environments, is
precisely what is observed, even today.
After hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers parasitic upon
nature, sometime around 11,000 years ago, probably first in the
in the Middle East, what is now called the
occurred. Humans ceased to wander in search of plants and game, and
settled down into fixed communities which supported themselves by cultivating
plants and raising animals they had domesticated. Both the plants
and animals underwent selection by humans who bred those most adapted to
their purposes. Agriculture was born. Humans who adopted the new means
of production were no longer parasitic upon nature: they produced their
sustenance by their own labour, improving upon that supplied by nature through
their own actions. In order to do this, they had to invent a series of
new technologies (for example, milling grain and fencing pastures) which
did not exist in nature. Agriculture was far more efficient than the
hunter-gatherer lifestyle in that a given amount of land (if suitable
for known crops) could support a much larger human population.
While agriculture allowed a large increase in the human population, it
did not escape the Malthusian trap: it simply increased the population
density at which the carrying capacity of the land would be reached.
Technological innovations such as irrigation and crop rotation could further increase
the capacity of the land, but population increase would eventually surpass
the new limit. As a result of this, from 1000 B.C.
to A.D. 1800, income per capita (largely
measured in terms of food) barely varied: the benefit of each innovation was
quickly negated by population increase. To be sure, in all of this epoch
there were a few wealthy people, but the overwhelming majority of the
population lived near the subsistence level.
But once again, slowly but surely, a selection pressure was being applied
upon humans who adopted the agricultural lifestyle. It is cognitively more
difficult to be a farmer or rancher than to be a member of a
hunter-gatherer band, and success depends strongly upon having a low
time preference—to be willing to forgo immediate consumption for
a greater return in the future. (For example, a farmer who does not reserve and
protect seeds for the next season will fail. Selective breeding of plants
and amimals to improve their characteristics takes years to produce
results.) This creates an evolutionary
pressure in favour of further increases in intelligence and, to the extent that
such might be genetic rather than due to culture, for low
time preference. Once the family
emerged as the principal unit of society rather than the hunter-gatherer band,
selection pressure was amplified since those with the selected-for characteristics
would produce more offspring and the phenomenon of
which exists in communal bands is less likely to occur.
Around the year 1800, initially in Europe and later elsewhere, a startling
change occurred: the
In societies which adopted the emerging industrial means of
production, per capita income, which had been stagnant for almost two millennia,
off like a skyrocket,
while at the same time population began to
grow exponentially, rising from around 900 million in 1800 to 7 billion today.
The Malthusian trap had been escaped; it appeared for the first time that an increase
in population, far from consuming the benefits of innovation, actually contributed
to and accelerated it.
There are some deep mysteries here. Why did it take so long for humans to
invent agriculture? Why, after the invention of agriculture, did it take
so long to invent industrial production? After all, the natural resources
extant at the start of both of these
revolutions were present in all of the preceding period, and there were people
with the leisure to think and invent at all times in history. The author
argues that what differed was the people. Prior to the advent of
agriculture, people were simply not sufficiently intelligent to invent it
(or, to be more precise, since intelligence follows something close to a
there was an insufficient fraction of the population with the requisite
intelligence to discover and implement the idea of agriculture). Similarly,
prior to the Industrial Revolution, the intelligence of the general population
was insufficient for it to occur. Throughout the long fallow periods, however,
natural selection was breeding smarter humans and, eventually, in some place
and time, a sufficient fraction of smart people, the required natural resources, and
a society sufficiently open to permit innovation and moving beyond tradition
would spark the fire. As the author notes, it's much easier to copy a good
idea once you've seen it working than to come up with it in the first place and get
it to work the first time.
Some will argue that Hoppe's hypothesis that human intelligence has
been increasing over time is falsified by the fact that societies much
closer in time to the dawn of agriculture produced works of art,
literature, science, architecture, and engineering which are
comparable to those of modern times. But those works were produced
not by the average person but rather outliers which exist in all times
and places (although in smaller numbers when mean intelligence is
lower). For a general
in society, it is a necessary condition that the bulk of the
population involved have intelligence adequate to work in the new way.
After investigating human progress on the grand scale over long periods of time,
the author turns to the phenomenon which may cause this progress to cease and
turn into decline: the growth of the coercive state. Hunter-gatherers had little
need for anything which today would be called governments. With bands on the
order of 100 people sharing resources in common, many sources of dispute would not
occur and those which did could be resolved by trusted elders or, failing that,
combat. When humans adopted agriculture and began to live in settled
communities, and families owned and exchanged property with one another,
a whole new source of problems appeared. Who has the right to use this land?
Who stole my prize animal? How are the proceeds of a joint effort to be
distributed among the participants? As communities grew and trade among them
flourished, complexity increased apace. Hoppe traces how the resolution of these
conflicts has evolved over time. First, the parties to the dispute would turn to
a member of an aristocracy, a member of the community respected because of their
intelligence, wisdom, courage, or reputation for fairness, to settle the matter.
(We often think of an aristocracy as hereditary but, although many aristocracies
evolved into systems of hereditary nobility, the word originally meant “rule by
the best”, and that is how the institution began.)
With growing complexity, aristocrats (or nobles) needed a way to
resolve disputes among themselves, and this led to the emergence of
kings. But like the nobles, the king was seen to apply a law which
was part of nature (or, in the English common law tradition,
discovered through the experience of precedents). It was with the
emergence of absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, and finally
democracy that things began to go seriously awry. In time, law became
seen not as something which those given authority apply, but
rather something those in power create. We have largely
legislation is not law,
and that rights are not granted
to us by those in power, but inhere in us and are taken away and/or
constrained by those willing to initiate force against others to work
their will upon them.
The modern welfare state risks undoing a thousand centuries of human
progress by removing the selection pressure for intelligence and low
time preference. Indeed, the welfare state punishes (taxes) the
productive, who tend to have these characteristics, and subsidises
those who do not, increasing their fraction within the population.
Evolution works slowly, but inexorably. But the effects of shifting
incentives can manifest themselves long before biology has its way.
When a population is told “You've made enough”, “You
didn't build that”, or sees working harder to earn more as
simply a way to spend more of their lives supporting those who don't
(along with those who have gamed the system to extract resources
confiscated by the state), that glorious exponential curve which took
off in 1800 may begin to bend down toward the horizontal and perhaps
eventually turn downward.
I don't usually include lengthy quotes, but the following passage from
the third essay, “From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy”,
is so brilliant and illustrative of what you'll find herein
I can't resist.
Assume now a group of people aware of the reality of interpersonal
conflicts and in search of a way out of this predicament. And assume
that I then propose the following as a solution: In every case of
conflict, including conflicts in which I myself am involved, I will
have the last and final word. I will be the ultimate judge as to who
owns what and when and who is accordingly right or wrong in any
dispute regarding scarce resources. This way, all conflicts can be
avoided or smoothly resolved.
What would be my chances of finding your or anyone else's
agreement to this proposal?
My guess is that my chances would be virtually zero, nil. In fact, you
and most people will think of this proposal as ridiculous and likely
consider me crazy, a case for psychiatric treatment. For you will
immediately realize that under this proposal you must literally fear
for your life and property. Because this solution would allow me to
cause or provoke a conflict with you and then decide this conflict in
my own favor. Indeed, under this proposal you would essentially give
up your right to life and property or even any pretense to such a
right. You have a right to life and property only insofar as I grant
you such a right, i.e., as long as I decide to let you live and keep
whatever you consider yours. Ultimately, only I have a right to life
and I am the owner of all goods.
And yet—and here is the puzzle—this obviously crazy solution
is the reality. Wherever you look, it has been put into effect in the
form of the institution of a State. The State is the ultimate judge in
every case of conflict. There is no appeal beyond its verdicts. If you
get into conflicts with the State, with its agents, it is the State
and its agents who decide who is right and who is wrong. The State has
the right to tax you. Thereby, it is the State that makes the decision
how much of your property you are allowed to keep—that is, your
property is only “fiat” property. And the State can make
laws, legislate—that is, your entire life is at the mercy of the
State. It can even order that you be killed—not in defense of
your own life and property but in the defense of the State or whatever
the State considers “defense” of its
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons
International License and may be redistributed pursuant to the
terms of that license. In addition to the paperback and
Kindle editions available from Amazon
The book may be downloaded for free from the
Library of the Mises Institute
formats, or read on-line in an
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Reading List: Building the H Bomb
- Ford, Kenneth W.
Building the H Bomb.
Singapore: World Scientific, 2015.
In the fall of 1948, the author entered the graduate program in physics
at Princeton University, hoping to obtain a Ph.D. and pursue a
career in academia. In his first year, he took a course in
classical mechanics taught by
Archibald Wheeler and realised that, despite the dry material
of the course, he was in the presence of an extraordinary
teacher and thinker, and decided he wanted Wheeler as his thesis
advisor. In April of 1950, after Wheeler returned from an extended
visit to Europe, the author approached him to become his advisor,
not knowing in which direction his research would proceed. Wheeler
immediately accepted him as a student, and then said that he (Wheeler)
would be absent for a year or more at Los Alamos to work on the
hydrogen bomb, and that he'd be pleased if Ford could join him on
the project. Ford accepted, in large part because he believed that
working on such a challenge would be “fun”, and that it
would provide a chance for daily interaction with Wheeler and other
senior physicists which would not exist in a regular Ph.D. program.
Well before the Manhattan project built the first fission weapon,
there had been interest in fusion as an alternative source of
nuclear energy. While fission releases energy by splitting heavy
atoms such as uranium and plutonium into lighter atoms, fusion
merges lighter atoms such as hydrogen and its isotopes deuterium
and tritium into heavier nuclei like helium. While nuclear fusion
can be accomplished in a desktop apparatus, doing so requires vastly
more energy input than is released, making it impractical as an
energy source or weapon. Still, compared to enriched uranium or
plutonium, the fuel for a fusion weapon is abundant and inexpensive
and, unlike a fission weapon whose yield is limited by the critical
mass beyond which it would predetonate, in principle a fusion weapon
could have an unlimited yield: the more fuel, the bigger the bang.
Once the Manhattan Project weaponeers became confident they could
build a fission weapon, physicists, most prominent among them
realised that the extreme temperatures created by a nuclear
detonation could be sufficient to ignite a fusion reaction in
light nuclei like deuterium and that reaction, once
started, might propagate by its own energy release just like
the chemical fire in a burning log. It seemed plausible—the
temperature of an exploding fission bomb exceeded that of the
centre of the Sun, where nuclear fusion was known to occur. The
big question was whether the fusion burn, once started, would
continue until most of the fuel was consumed or fizzle out as its
energy was radiated outward and the fuel dispersed by the explosion.
Answering this question required detailed computations of a rapidly
evolving system in three dimensions with a time slice measured in
nanoseconds. During the Manhattan Project, a “computer”
was a woman operating a mechanical calculator, and even with
large rooms filled with hundreds of “computers” the
problem was intractably difficult. Unable to directly model the
system, physicists resorted to analytical models which produced
ambiguous results. Edward Teller remained optimistic that the
design, which came to be called the “Classical Super”,
would work, but many others, including
J. Robert Oppenheimer,
Enrico Fermi, and
based upon the calculations that could be done at the time, concluded
it would probably fail. Oppenheimer's opposition to the Super or
hydrogen bomb project has been presented as a moral opposition to
development of such a weapon, but the author's contemporary recollection
is that it was based upon Oppenheimer's belief that the classical
super was unlikely to work, and that effort devoted to it would
be at the expense of improved fission weapons which could be
deployed in the near term.
All of this changed on March 9th, 1951. Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam
published a report which presented a new approach to a fusion bomb.
Unlike the classical super, which required the fusion fuel to burn
on its own after being ignited, the new design, now called the
design, compressed a capsule of fusion fuel by the radiation pressure of
a fission detonation (usually, we don't think of radiation as having
pressure, but in the extreme conditions of a nuclear explosion it
far exceeds pressures we encounter with matter), and then ignited it
with a “spark plug” of fission fuel at the centre of
the capsule. Unlike the classical super, the fusion fuel would burn at
thermodynamic equilibrium and, in doing so, liberate abundant
neutrons with such a high energy they would induce fission in
Uranium-238 (which cannot be fissioned by the less energetic neutrons of
a fission explosion), further increasing the yield.
Oppenheimer, who had been opposed to work upon fusion, pronounced the
Teller-Ulam design “technically sweet” and immediately
endorsed its development. The author's interpretation is that once
a design was in hand which appeared likely to work, there was no
reason to believe that the Soviets who had, by that time, exploded
their own fission bomb, would not also discover it and proceed to
develop such a weapon, and hence it was important that the U.S.
give priority to the fusion bomb to get there first. (Unlike the
Soviet fission bomb, which was a copy of the U.S. implosion design
based upon material obtained by espionage, there is no evidence the
Soviet fusion bomb, first tested in 1955, was based upon espionage, but
rather was an independent invention of the radiation implosion concept by
With the Teller-Ulam design in hand, the author, working with Wheeler's
group, first in Los Alamos and later at Princeton, was charged with
working out the details: how precisely would the material in the bomb
behave, nanosecond by nanosecond. By this time, calculations could
be done by early computing machinery: first the IBM
and later the
was, at the time, one of the most advanced electronic computers in
the world. As with computer nerds until the present day, the author spent
many nights babysitting the machine as it crunched the numbers.
On November 1st, 1952, the
Ivy Mike device was
detonated in the Pacific, with a yield of 10.4 megatons of TNT. John
Wheeler witnessed the test from a ship at a safe distance
from the island which was obliterated by the explosion. The test
completely confirmed the author's computations of the behaviour
of the thermonuclear burn and paved the way for deliverable
thermonuclear weapons. (Ivy Mike was a physics experiment, not
a weapon, but once it was known the principle was sound, it was basically
a matter of engineering to design bombs which could be air-dropped.)
With the success, the author concluded his work on the weapons project
and returned to his dissertation, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953.
This is about half a personal memoir and half a description of the
physics of thermonuclear weapons and the process by which the first
weapon was designed. The technical sections are entirely accessible
to readers with only a basic knowledge of physics (I was about to say
“high school physics”, but I don't know how much physics,
if any, contemporary high school graduates know.) There is no
secret information disclosed here. All of the technical information
is available in much greater detail from sources (which the author
cites) such as Carey Sublette's
Nuclear Weapon Archive,
which is derived entirely from unclassified sources. Curiously, the
U.S. Department of Energy (which has, since its inception, produced
not a single erg of energy) demanded that the author
redact material in the manuscript, all derived from unclassified
sources and dating from work done more than half a century ago. The only
reason I can imagine for this is that a weapon scientist who was
there, by citing information which has been in the public domain for
two decades, implicitly confirms that it's correct. But it's not like
the Soviets/Russians, British, French, Chinese, Israelis, and
Indians haven't figured it out by themselves or that others
suitably motivated can't. The author told them to stuff it, and here
we have his unexpurgated memoir of the origin of the weapon which
shaped the history of the world in which we live.