Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Reading List: Escape from Camp 14
- Harden, Blaine.
Escape from Camp 14.
New York: Viking Penguin, 2012.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean prison camp. The
doctrine of that collectivist Hell-state, as enunciated by
tyrant Kim Il Sung, is that “[E]nemies of class,
whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three
generations.” Shin (I refer to him by his family name,
as he prefers) committed no crime, but was born into slavery
in a labour camp because his parents had been condemned to
servitude there due to supposed offences. Shin grew up in an
environment so anti-human it would send shivers of envy down the spines
of Western environmentalists. In school, he saw a teacher beat
a six-year-old classmate to death with a blackboard pointer
because she had stolen and hidden five kernels of maize. He
witnessed the hanging of his mother and the execution by firing
squad of his brother because they were caught contemplating
escape from the camp, and he felt only detestation of them because
their actions would harm him.
Shin was imprisoned and tortured due to association with his mother
and brother, and assigned to work details where accidents which
killed workers were routine. Shin accepted this as simply the way
life was—he knew nothing of life outside the camp or in the
world beyond his slave state. This changed when he made the
acquaintance of Park Yong Chul, sent to the camp for some reason
after a career which had allowed him to travel abroad and meet
senior people in the North Korean ruling class. While working
together in the camp's garment factory, Park introduced Shin to a
wider world and set him to thinking about escaping the camp. The fact
that Shin, who had been recruited to observe Park and inform upon
any disloyalty he observed, instead began to conspire with him to
escape the camp was the signal act of defiance against tyranny
which changed Shin's life.
Shin pulled off a harrowing escape from the camp which left him
severely injured, lived by his wits crossing the barren countryside
of North Korea, and made it across the border to China, where he worked
as a menial farm hand and yet lived in luxury unheard of in North
Korea. Raised in the camp, his expectations for human behaviour
had nothing to do with the reality outside. As the author observes,
“Freedom, in Shin's mind, was just another word for
Freedom, beyond grilled meat, was something Shin found difficult
to cope with. After making his way to South Korea (where the state
has programs to integrate North Korean escapees into the society)
and then the United States (where, as the only person born in a
North Korean prison camp to ever escape, he was a celebrity among
groups advocating for human rights in North Korea). But growing up
in an intensely anti-human environment, cut off from all information
about the outside world, makes it difficult to cope with normal
human interactions and the flood of information those born into
liberty consider normal.
Much as with Nothing to Envy (September 2011),
this book made my blood boil. It is not just the injustice visited
upon Shin and all the prisoners of the regime who did not manage to escape,
but those in our own societies who would condemn us to comparable
servitude in the interest of a “higher good” as they define it.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
My Trip to CERN
I have just posted a photo essay
of my visit to CERN on April 22nd, 2013. Taking advantage of the long shutdown of the Large Hadron Collider to upgrade it to operate at its design centre of mass energy of 14 TeV, we were able to visit the underground detector halls of the CMS and ATLAS experiments and tour the Accelerator Technologies Laboratory where components of the LHC were developed and tested before being placed into service.
I include photo tips for folks fortunate enough to visit CERN who wish to capture images of these colossal machines.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Reading List: The High Frontier
- O'Neill, Gerard K.
The High Frontier.
Mojave, CA: Space Studies Institute, [1976, 1977, 1982, 1989] 2013.
In the tumultuous year of 1969, Prof. Gerard K. O'Neill of Princeton
University was tapped to teach the large freshman physics course at
that institution. To motivate talented students who might find the
pace of the course tedious, he organised an informal seminar which
would explore challenging topics to which the basic physics taught
in the main course could be applied. For the first topic of the
seminar he posed the question, “Is a planetary surface the
right place for an expanding technological civilisation?”. So
fascinating were the results of investigating this question that
the seminar never made it to the next topic, and working out its
ramifications would occupy the rest of O'Neill's life.
By 1974, O'Neill and his growing group of informal collaborators had
come to believe not only that the answer to that 1969 question was a
definitive “no”, but that a large-scale expansion of the
human presence into space, using the abundant energy and material
resources available outside the Earth's gravity well was not a goal
for the distant future but rather something which could be accomplished
using only technologies already proved or expected in the next
few years (such as the NASA's space shuttle, then under development).
Further, the budget to bootstrap the settlement of space until the
point at which the space settlements were self-sustaining and able
to expand without further support was on the order of magnitude of the
Apollo project and, unlike Apollo, would have an economic pay-off
which would grow exponentially as space settlements proliferated.
As O'Neill wrote, the world economy had just been hit by the first of
what would be a series of “oil shocks”, which would lead to
a massive transfer of wealth from productive, developed economies to
desert despotisms whose significance to the world economy and
geopolitics would be precisely zero did they not happen to sit atop
a pool of fuel (which they lacked the ability to discover and
produce). He soon realised that the key to economic feasibility of
space settlements was using them to construct
satellites to beam energy back to Earth.
Solar power satellites are just barely economically viable if the
material from which they are made must be launched from the Earth,
and many design concepts assume a dramatic reduction in launch
costs and super-lightweight structure and high
efficiency solar cells for the satellites, which adds to their
capital cost. O'Neill realised that the materials which make up
around 99% of the mass of a solar power satellite are available on
the Moon, and a space settlement, with access to lunar material at
a small fraction of the cost of launching from Earth and the
ability to fabricate the very large power satellite structures in
weightlessness would reduce the cost of space solar power to well
below electricity prices of the mid-1970s (which were much lower
than those of today).
In this book, a complete architecture is laid out, starting with
initial settlements of “only” 10,000 people in a
sphere about half a kilometre in diameter, rotating to provide
Earth-normal gravity at the equator. This would be nothing like
what one thinks of as a “space station”: people
would live in apartments at a density comparable to small towns
on Earth, surrounded by vegetation and with a stream running around
the equator of the sphere. Lunar material would provide radiation
shielding and mirrors would provide sunlight and a normal cycle
of day and night.
This would be just a first step, with subsequent settlements much
larger and with amenities equal to or exceeding those of Earth. Once
access to the resources of asteroids (initially those in near-Earth or
Earth-crossing orbits, and eventually the main belt) was opened,
the space economy's reliance on the Earth would be only for settlers
and lightweight, labour-intensive goods which made more sense to
import. (For example, it might be some time before a space settlement
built its own semiconductor fabrication facility rather than importing
chips from those on Earth.)
This is the future we could be living in today, but turned our backs
upon. Having read this book shortly after it first came out, it is
difficult to describe just how bracing this optimistic, expansive
view of the future was in the 1970s, when everything was brown and
the human prospect suddenly seemed constrained by limited resources,
faltering prosperity, and shrinking personal liberty. The curious
thing about re-reading it today is that almost nothing has
changed. Forty years later, O'Neill's roadmap for the future
is just as viable an option for a visionary society as it was when
initially proposed, and technological progress and understanding of
the space environment has only improved its plausibility. The
International Space Station, although a multi-decade detour from
true space settlements, provides a testbed where technologies for
those settlements can be explored (for example, solar powered
closed-cycle Brayton engines as an alternative to photovoltaics
for power generation, and high-yield agricultural techniques in
a closed-loop ecosystem).
The re-appearance of this book in an electronic edition is timely,
as O'Neill's ideas and the optimism for a better future they
inspired seem almost forgotten today. Many people assume there
was some technological flaw in his argument or that an
economic show-stopper was discovered, yet none was. It was more
like the reaction O'Neill encountered when he first tried to
get his ideas into print in 1972. One reviewer, recommending
against publication, wrote, “No one else is thinking in
these terms, therefore the ideas must be wrong.” Today,
even space “visionaries” imagine establishing human
settlements on the Moon, Mars, and among the asteroids, with
space travel seen as a way to get to these destinations and
sustain pioneer communities there. This is a vision akin to long
sea voyages to settle distant lands. O'Neill's High Frontier is
something very different and epochal: the expansion of a species
which evolved on the surface of a planet into the space around
it and eventually throughout the solar system, using the abundant
solar energy and material resources available there. This is like
life expanding from the sea where it originated onto the land.
It is the next step in the human adventure, and it can begin,
just as it could have in 1976, within a decade of a developed
society committing to make it so.
For some reason the Kindle edition, at least when
viewed with the iPad Kindle application, displays with tiny type. I
found I had to increase the font size by four steps to render it easily
readable. Since font size is a global setting, that means than if you
view another book, it shows up with giant letters like a first grade
reader. The illustrations are dark and difficult to interpret
in the Kindle edition—I do not recall whether this was also the
case in the paperback edition I read many years ago.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Reading List: Merchants of Despair
- Zubrin, Robert
Merchants of Despair.
New York: Encounter Books, 2012.
This is one of the most important paradigm-changing books since
Liberal Fascism (January 2008).
Zubrin seeks the common thread which unites radical environmentalism,
eugenics, population control, and opposition to readily available means
of controlling diseases due to hysteria engendered by overwrought
prose in books written by people with no knowledge of the
Zubrin identifies the central thread of all of these malign belief
systems: anti-humanism. In 1974, the Club of Rome, in
Mankind at the Turning Point,
“The world has cancer and the cancer is man.”
A foul synthesis of the ignorant speculations of
and a misinterpretation of the work of
to a pernicious doctrine which asserted that an increasing human
population would deplete a fixed pool of resources, leading to conflict
and selection among a burgeoning population for those most able to
secure the resources they needed to survive.
But human history since the dawn of civilisation belies this. In fact,
per capita income has grown as population has increased,
demonstrating that the static model is bogus. Those who want to constrain
the human potential are motivated by a quest for power, not a desire
to seek the best outcome for the most people. The human condition has
improved over time, and at an accelerating pace since the Industrial
Revolution in the 19th century, because of human action: the
creativity of humans in devising solutions to problems and ways to
meet needs often unperceived before the inventions which soon
became seen as essentials were made. Further, the effects of human
invention in the modern age are cumulative: any at point
in history humans have access to all the discoveries of the past and,
once they build upon them to create a worthwhile innovation, it is
rapidly diffused around the world—in our days at close to the
speed of light. The result of this is that in advanced technological
societies the poor, measured by income compared to the societal mean,
would have been considered wealthy not just by the standards of the
pre-industrial age, but compared to those same societies in the
memory of people now alive. The truly poor in today's world are those
whose societies, for various reasons, are not connected to the engine
of technological progress and the social restructuring it inevitably
And yet the anti-humanists have consistently argued for limiting the
rate of growth of population and in many cases actually reducing
the total population, applying a “precautionary principle”
to investigation of new technologies and their deployment, and
relinquishment of technologies deemed to be “unsustainable”.
In short, what they advocate is reversing the progress since the year
1800 (and in many ways, since the Enlightenment), and returning to an
imagined bucolic existence (except for, one suspects, the masters in
their gated communities, attended to by the serfs as in times of
What Malthus and all of his followers to the present day missed is
that the human population is not at all like the population of
bacteria in a Petri dish or rabbits in the wild. Uniquely, humans
invent things which improve their condition, create new resources
by finding uses for natural materials previously regarded as
“dirt”, and by doing so allow a larger population to
enjoy a standard of living much better than that of previous
generations. Put aside the fanatics who wish to reduce the human
population by 80% or 90% (they exist, they are frighteningly
influential in policy-making circles, and they are called out by
name here). Suppose, for a moment, the author asks, societies in
the 19th century had listened to Malthus and limited the human
population to half of the historical value. Thomas Edison and Louis
Pasteur did work which contributed to the well-being of their
contemporaries around the globe and continue to benefit us today.
In a world with half as many people, perhaps only one would have ever
lived. Which would you choose?
But the influence of the anti-humans did not stop at theory. The book
chronicles the sorry, often deceitful, and tragic consequences when
their policies were put into action by coercive governments. The destruction
wrought by “population control” measures approached, in some
cases, the level of genocide. By 1975, almost one third of Puerto Rican
women of childbearing age had been sterilised by programs funded by
the U.S. federal government, and a similar program on Indian reservations
sterilised one quarter of Native American women of childbearing age,
often without consent. Every purebred woman of the Kaw tribe of
Oklahoma was sterilised in the 1970s: if that isn't genocide, what is?
If you look beneath the hood of radical environmentalism, you'll find
anti-humanism driving much of the agenda. The introduction of
DDT in the 1940s
immediately began to put an end to the age-old scourge of malaria.
Prior to World War II, between one and six million cases of
malaria were reported in the U.S. every year. By 1952, application of
DDT to the interior walls of houses (as well as other uses of the
insecticide) had reduced the total number of confirmed cases of
malaria that year to two. By the early 1960s, use of DDT had
cut malaria rates in Asia and Latin America by 99%. By 1958, Malthusian
decried this, arguing that “Quick death by malaria has been
abolished; but life made miserable by undernourishment and over-crowding
is now the rule, and slow death by outright starvation threatens
ever greater numbers.”
Huxley did not have long to wait to see his desires fulfilled. After
the publication of Rachel Carson's
in 1962, a masterpiece of pseudoscientific deception and fraud,
politicians around the world moved swiftly to ban DDT. In Sri Lanka,
where malaria cases had been cut from a million or more per year
to 17 in 1963, DDT was banned in 1964, and by 1969 malaria cases had
increased to half a million a year. Today, DDT is banned or effectively
banned in most countries, and the toll of unnecessary death due to
malaria in Africa alone since the DDT ban is estimated as in excess of
100 million. Arguably, Rachel Carson and her followers are the greatest
mass murderers of the 20th century. There is no credible scientific evidence
whatsoever that DDT is harmful to humans and other mammals, birds,
reptiles, or oceanic species. To the anti-humanists, the carnage wrought
by the banning of this substance is a feature, not a bug.
If you thought
Agenda 21 (November 2012)
was over the top, this volume will acquaint you with the real-world
evil wrought by anti-humanists, and their very real agenda to
exterminate a large fraction of the human population and reduce the
rest (except for themselves, of course, they believe) to pre-industrial
serfdom. As the author concludes:
If the idea is accepted that the world's resources are fixed
with only so much to go around, then each new life is unwelcome,
each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is
fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or
nation is the enemy of every other race of nation. The ultimate
outcome of such a worldview can only be enforced stagnation,
tyranny, war, and genocide.
This is a book which should have an impact, for the better, as great
as Silent Spring had for the worse. But so deep is the
infiltration of the anti-human ideologues into the cultural
institutions that you'll probably never hear it mentioned except
here and in similar venues which cherish individual liberty and
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Reading List: Quantum Man
- Krauss, Lawrence.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.
A great deal has been written about the life, career, and antics
but until the present book there was not a proper scientific
biography of his work in physics and its significance in the
field and consequences for subsequent research. Lawrence Krauss
has masterfully remedied this lacuna with this work, which
provides, at a level comprehensible to the intelligent layman,
both a survey of Feynman's work, both successful and not, and
also a sense of how Feynman achieved what he did and
what ultimately motivated him in his often lonely quest to
One often-neglected contributor to Feynman's success is
discussed at length: his extraordinary skill in
mathematical computation, intuitive sense of the best way
to proceed toward a solution (he would often skip several
intermediate steps and only fill them in when preparing work
for publication), and tireless perseverance in performing
daunting calculations which occupied page after page of
forbidding equations. This talent was quickly recognised
by those with whom he worked, and as one of the most junior
physicists on the project, he was placed in charge of all
computation at Los Alamos during the final phases of the
said of Feynman, “He's
Only this time human.”
Feynman's intuition and computational prowess was best demonstrated
by his work on
for which he shared a Nobel prize in 1965. (Initially Feynman didn't think
too much of this work—he considered it mathematical mumbo-jumbo
which swept the infinities which had plagued earlier attempts at a
relativistic quantum theory of light and matter under the carpet. Only
later did it become apparent that Feynman's work had laid the foundation
upon which a comprehensive quantum field theory of the strong and
electroweak interactions could be built.) His invention of
defined the language now universally used by particle physicists to
describe events in which particles interact.
Feynman was driven to understand things, and to him understanding meant
being able to derive a phenomenon from first principles. Often he
ignored the work of others and proceeded on his own, reinventing as
he went. In numerous cases, he created new techniques and provided
alternative ways of looking at a problem which provided a deeper
insight into its fundamentals. A monumental illustration of Feynman's
ability to do this is
The Feynman Lectures on Physics,
based on an undergraduate course in physics Feynman taught at Caltech
in 1961–1964. Few physicists would have had the audacity to
reformulate all of basic physics, from vectors and statics to
quantum mechanics from scratch, and probably only Feynman could have
pulled it off, which he did magnificently. As undergraduate pedagogy,
the course was less than successful, but the transcribed lectures have
remained in print ever since, and working physicists (and even humble
engineers like me) are astounded at the insights to be had in
reading and re-reading Feynman's work.
Even when Feynman failed, he failed gloriously and left behind work
that continues to inspire. His
to find a quantum theory of gravitation showed that Einstein's
geometric theory was completely equivalent to a field
theory developed from first principles and knowledge of the
properties of gravity. Feynman's foray into computation produced the
Feynman Lectures On Computation,
one of the first comprehensive expositions of the theory of
A chapter is devoted to the predictions of Feynman's 1959 lecture,
of Room at the Bottom”, which is rightly viewed as the
founding document of molecular nanotechnology, but, as Krauss
describes, also contained the seeds of genomic biotechnology, ultra-dense
data storage, and quantum material engineering. Work resulting in more
than fifteen subsequent Nobel prizes is suggested in this blueprint
for research. Although Feynman would go on to win his own Nobel
for other work, one gets the sense he couldn't care less that others
pursued the lines of investigation he sketched and were rewarded for
doing so. Feynman was in the game to understand, and
often didn't seem to care whether what he was pursuing was of
great importance or mundane, or whether the problem he was working
on from his own unique point of departure had already been solved
by others long before.
Feynman was such a curious character that his larger than life
personality often obscures his greatness as a scientist. This
book does an excellent job of restoring that balance and showing
how much his work contributed to the edifice of science in the
20th century and beyond.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Reading List: Fiat Money Inflation in France
- White, Andrew Dickson.
Fiat Money Inflation in France.
Bayonne, NJ: Blackbird Books, [1876, 1896, 1912, 1914] 2011.
One of the most sure ways to destroy the economy, wealth, and
morals of a society is monetary inflation: an inexorable and
accelerating increase in the supply of money, which inevitably
(if not always immediately) leads to ever-rising prices, collapse in
saving and productive investment, and pauperisation of the working
classes in favour of speculators and those with connections to the
regime issuing the money.
In ancient times, debasement of the currency was accomplished
by clipping coins or reducing their content of precious metal.
Ever since Marco Polo
returned from China
with news of the
tremendous innovation of paper money, unbacked paper currency
has been the vehicle of choice for states to loot their
productive and thrifty citizens.
Between 1789 and 1796, a period encompassing the French
Revolution, the French National Assembly issued
paper putatively backed by the value of public lands
seized from the Roman Catholic Church in the revolution.
Assignats could theoretically be used to purchase these
lands, and initially paid interest—they were thus a
hybrid between a currency and a bond. The initial issue
revived the French economy and rescued the state from
bankruptcy but, as always happens, was followed by a
second, third, and then a multitude of subsequent issues
totally decoupled from the value of the land which
was supposed to back them. This sparked an inflationary
and eventually hyperinflationary spiral with savers wiped out,
manufacturing and commerce grinding to a halt (due to uncertainty,
inability to invest, and supply shortages) which caused wages
to stagnate even as prices were running away to the upside,
an enormous transfer of wealth from the general citizenry to
speculators and well-connected bankers, and rampant corruption
within the political class. The sequelæ of monetary
debasement all played out as they always have and always
will: wage and price controls, shortages, rationing, a rush to
convert paper money into tangible assets as quickly as possible,
capital and foreign exchange controls, prohibition on the
ownership of precious metals and their confiscation, and a one-off
“wealth tax” until the second, and the third, and so
on. Then there was the inevitable replacement of the discredited
assignats with a new paper currency, the
which rapidly blew up. Then came Napoleon, who restored
precious metal currency; hyperinflation so often ends up with a
dictator in power.
What is remarkable about this episode is that it happened
in a country which had experienced the disastrous
paper money bubble in 1716–1718, within the living memory
of some in the assignat era and certainly in the minds of the
geniuses who decided to try paper money again because “this
time is different”. When it comes to paper money, this
time is never different.
This short book
(or long pamphlet—the 1896 edition is just 92 pages)
was originally written in 1876 by the author, a president
of Cornell University, as a cautionary tale against advocates of
paper money and
in the United States.
It was subsequently revised and republished on each occasion the
U.S. veered further toward unbacked or “elastic”
paper money. It remains one of the most straightforward
accounts of a hyperinflationary episode ever written, with
extensive citations of original sources. For a more detailed
account of the Weimar Republic inflation in 1920s Germany, see
When Money Dies (May 2011);
although the circumstances were very different, the similarities
will be apparent, confirming that the laws of economics manifest
here are natural laws just as much as gravitation and electromagnetism,
and ignoring them never ends well.
If you are looking for a Kindle edition of this book, be sure to download
a free sample of the book before purchasing. As the original editions
of this work are in the public domain, anybody is free to produce an
electronic edition, and there are some hideous ones available; look
before you buy.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Reading List: Bargaining Position
- Bussjaeger, Carl.
Lyndeborough, NH: http://www.bussjaeger.us/,  2011.
Net Assets (October 2002)
the author chronicled the breakout of lovers of liberty from
the Earth's gravity well by a variety of individual initiatives
and their defeat of the forces of coercive government which
wished to keep them in chains. In this sequel, set in
the mid-21st century, the expansion into the solar system
is entirely an economy of consensual actors, some ethical and
some rogue, but all having escaped the shackles of the state, left to
stew in its own stagnating juices on Earth.
The Hunters are an amorous couple who have spent the last decade
on their prospecting ship, Improbable, staking claims
in the asteroid belt and either working them or selling the larger
ones to production companies. After a successful strike, they decide
to take a working vacation exploring Jupiter's leading
Trojan position. At this
the equilibrium between the gravity of Jupiter and the Sun creates a
family of stable orbits around that point. The Trojan position can be
thought of as an
toward which objects in similar orbits will approach and
The Hunters figure that region, little-explored, might collect all
kinds of interesting and potentially lucrative objects, and finance
their expedition with a contract to produce a documentary about their
voyage of exploration. What they discover exceeds anything they imagined
to find: what appears to be an alien interstellar probe, disabled
by an impact after arrival in the solar system, but with most of its
systems and advanced technology intact.
This being not only an epochal discovery in human history, but
valuable beyond the dreams of avarice, the Hunters set out to
monetise the discovery, protect it against claim jumpers, and
discover as much as they can to increase the value of what they've
found to potential purchasers. What they discover makes the
bargaining process even more complicated and with much higher stakes.
This is a tremendous story, and I can't go any further describing it
without venturing into spoiler territory, which would desecrate
this delightful novel. The book is available from the
author's Web site
free PDF download;
use your favourite PDF reader application on your computer or mobile
device to read it. As in common in self-published works, there are a
number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 25 and I was reading
for enjoyment, not doing a close-proof. None of them detract in any way
from the story.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Reading List: Colossus
- Copeland, B. Jack, ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
During World War II the British codebreakers at
provided intelligence to senior political officials and
military commanders which was vital in winning the
Battle of the Atlantic
and discerning German strategic intentions in the build-up to
the invasion of France and the subsequent campaign in Europe.
Breaking the German codes was just barely on the edge of
possibility with the technology of the time, and required
recruiting a cadre of exceptionally talented and often highly
eccentric individuals and creating tools which laid the
foundations for modern computer technology.
At the end of the war, all of the work of the codebreakers
remained under the seal of secrecy: in Winston Churchill's
history of the war it was never
mentioned. Part of this was due to the inertia of the
state to relinquish its control over information, but also
because the Soviets, emerging as the new adversary, might adopt
some of the same cryptographic techniques used by the Germans and
concealing that they had been compromised might yield valuable
information from intercepts of Soviet communications.
As early as the 1960s, publications in the United States began to
describe the exploits of the codebreakers, and gave the mistaken
impression that U.S. codebreakers were in the vanguard simply
because they were the only ones allowed to talk about their
wartime work. The heavy hand of the Official Secrets Act suppressed
free discussion of the work at Bletchley Park until June 2000, when
the key report, written in 1945, was allowed to be published.
Now it can be told. Fortunately, many of the participants in the work
at Bletchley were young and still around when finally permitted to
discuss their exploits. This volume is largely a collection of their
recollections, many in great technical detail. You will finally understand
precisely which vulnerabilities of the German cryptosystems permitted
them to be broken (as is often the case, it was all-too-clever innovations
by the designers intended to make the encryption “unbreakable”
which provided the door into it for the codebreakers) and how sloppy
key discipline among users facilitated decryption. For example,
it was common to discover two or more messages encrypted with the
same key. Since encryption was done by a binary exclusive or (XOR)
of the bits of the
Baudot teleprinter code,
with that of the key (generated mechanically from a specified
starting position of the code machine's wheels), if you have two messages
encrypted with the same key, you can XOR them together, taking out the
key and leaving you with the XOR of the
of the two messages. This, of course, will be gibberish,
but you can then take common words and phrases which occur in
messages and “slide” them along the text, XORing as
you go, to see if the result makes sense. If it does, you've recovered
part of the other message, and by XORing with either message, that
part of the key. This is something one could do in microseconds
today with the simplest of computer programs, but in the day was done
in kiloseconds by clerks looking up the XOR of Baudot codes in
tables one by one (at least until they memorised them, which the
better ones did).
The chapters are written by people with expertise in the topic discussed,
many of whom were there. The people at Bletchley had to
make up the terminology for the unprecedented things they were
doing as they did it. Due to the veil of secrecy dropped over their
work, many of their terms were orphaned. What we call “bits”
they called “pulses”, “binary addition” XOR,
and ones and zeroes of binary notation crosses and dots. It is all
very quaint and delightful, and used in most of these documents.
After reading this book you will understand precisely how
the German codes were broken, what Colossus did, how it was built
and what challenges were overcome in constructing it, and how it
was integrated into a system incorporating large numbers of intuitive
humans able to deliver near-real-time intelligence to decision makers.
The level of detail may be intimidating to some, but for the first
time it's all there. I have never before read any description
of the key flaw in the Lorenz cipher which Colossus exploited and
how it processed messages punched on loops of paper tape to break
into them and recover the key.
The aftermath of Bletchley was interesting. All of the participants
were sworn to secrecy and all of their publications kept under high
security. But the know-how they had developed in electronic computation
was their own, and many of them went to
to develop the
pioneering digital computers
developed there. The developers of much of this technology could not speak
of whence it came, and until recent years the history of computing has been
disconnected from its roots.
As a collection of essays, this book is uneven and occasionally repetitive.
But it is authentic, and an essential document for anybody interested in
how codebreaking was done in World War II and how electronic computation
came to be.
Friday, March 29, 2013
Reading List: A Time for War
Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner].
A Time for War.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D.
in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books
under his own name, is best known for his political works,
four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list
including one which reached the top of that list. This is
his second foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting
a style reminiscent of
in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her,
is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a
San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth
and getting it to the public by whatever means available,
immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and
banned in Britain for daring to transgress
the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?
After saving his beloved San Francisco from an existential threat in
the first novel, Abuse of Power (June 2012),
Hatfield's profile on the national stage has become higher than ever,
but that hasn't helped him get back into the media game, where his
propensity for telling the truth without regard to political correctness
or offending the perennially thin-skinned makes him radioactive to mainstream outlets.
He manages to support himself as a free-lance investigative reporter,
working from his boat in a Sausalito marina, producing and selling
stories to venues willing to run them. When a Chinook helicopter
goes down in a remote valley in Afghanistan killing all 39 on board
and investigators attribute the crash to total failure of
all electronics on board with no evidence of enemy action, Jack's
ears perk up. When he later learns of an FBI vehicle performing
a routine tail of a car from the Chinese consulate being disabled
by “total electronic failure” he begins to get
really interested. Then strange things begin to happen
in Chinatown, prompting Jack to start looking for a China connection
between these incidents.
Meanwhile, Dover Griffith, a junior analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence,
is making other connections. She recalled that a proposed wireless
Internet broadband system developed by billionaire industrialist
Richard Hawke's company had to be abandoned when it was discovered
its signal could induce catastrophic electrical failure in
aircraft electronics. (Clearly Savage is well-acquainted with the
sorry history of
and GPS interference!) When she begins to follow the trail, she
is hauled into her boss's office and informed she is being placed
on “open-ended unpaid furlough”: civil service speak
for being fired. Clearly Hawke has plenty of pull in high places
and probably something to hide. Since Hatfield had been all over
the story of interference caused by the broadband system and
the political battle over whether to deploy it, she decides to fly
to California and join forces with Hatfield to discover what is
really going on. As they, along with Jack's associates, begin to
peel away layer after layer of the enigma, they begin to suspect
that something even more sinister may be underway.
This is a thoroughly satisfying thriller. There is a great deal of
technical detail, all meticulously researched. There are a few dubious
aspects of some of the gadgets, but that's pretty much a given in
the thriller genre. What distinguishes these novels from other
high-profile thrillers is that Jack Hatfield isn't a superhero
in the sense of
Mitch Rapp or
Scot Harvath: he is a largely washed-up journalist, divorced, living on a boat
with a toy poodle, hanging out with a bunch of eccentric characters
at an Italian restaurant in North Beach, who far from gunplay and derring-do,
repairs watches for relaxation. This makes for a different kind of thriller,
but one which is no less satisfying. I'm sure Jack Hatfield will be
back, and I'm looking forward to the next outing.
You can read this novel as a stand-alone thriller without having
first read Abuse of Power, but be warned that
it contains major plot spoilers for the first novel; to
fully enjoy them both, it's best to start there.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Reading List: The Vatican Diaries
- Thavis, John.
The Vatican Diaries.
New York: Viking, 2013.
Law of Bureaucracy states that:
…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two
kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals
of the organization, and those who work for the organization
itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work
and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives
who work to protect any teacher including the most
incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the
second type of person will always gain control of the
organization, and will always write the rules under
which the organization functions.
Imagine a bureaucracy in which the Iron Law has been working
inexorably since the Roman Empire.
The author has covered the Vatican for the
Catholic News Service
for the last thirty years. He has travelled with popes and other
Vatican officials to more than sixty countries and, developing
his own sources within a Vatican which is simultaneously opaque
to an almost medieval level in its public face, yet leaks like a sieve
as factions try to enlist journalists in advancing their agendas.
In this book he uses his access to provide a candid look inside the
Vatican, at a time when the church is in transition and crisis.
He begins with a peek inside the mechanics of the conclave
which chose Pope Benedict XVI: from how the black or white
smoke is made to how the message indicating the selection of
a new pontiff is communicated (or not) to the person responsible
for ringing the bell to announce the event to the crowds
thronging St Peter's Square.
There is a great deal of description, bordering on gonzo, of the
reality of covering papal visits to various countries: in
summary, much of what you read from reporters accredited to the
Vatican comes from their watching events on television, just as
you can do yourself.
The author does not shy from controversy. He digs deeply into the
sexual abuse scandals and cover-up which rocked the church, the
revelations about the founder of the
Legion of Christ,
the struggle between then traditionalists of the
Society of St Pius X
and supporters of the Vatican II reforms in Rome, and the
battle over the beatification of
Pope Pius XII.
On the lighter side, we encounter the custodians of Latin,
including the Vatican Bank ATM which displays its instructions
in Latin: “Inserito scidulam
quaeso ut faciundum cognoscas rationem”.
This is an enlightening look inside one of the most influential,
yet least understood, institutions in what remains of Western
civilisation. On the event of the announcement of the selection
of Pope Francis,
James Lileks wrote:
…if you'd turned the sound down on the set and shown
the picture to Julius Cæsar, he would have smiled broadly.
For the wrong reasons, of course—his order did not survive
in its specific shape, but in another sense it did. The
architecture, the crowds, the unveiling would have been
unmistakable to someone from Cæsar's time. They
would have known exactly what was going on.
Indeed—the Vatican gets ceremony. What is clear
from this book is that it doesn't get public relations in
an age where the dissemination of information cannot be
controlled, and that words, once spoken, cannot be taken back,
even if a “revised and updated” transcript of
them is issued subsequently by the bureaucracy.
In the Kindle edition the index cites
page numbers in the hardcover print edition which are
completely useless since the Kindle edition does not
contain real page numbers.