Thursday, July 30, 2015

Reading List: Superman: Red Son

Millar, Mark, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett. Superman: Red Son. New York: DC Comics, [2003] 2014. ISBN 978-1-4012-4711-9.
On June 30th, 1908, a small asteroid or comet struck the Earth's atmosphere and exploded above the Tunguska river 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 parody like 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.

Posted at 23:32 Permalink

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reading List: GPS Declassified

Easton, Richard D. and Eric F. Frazier. GPS Declassified. Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61234-408-9.
At the dawn of the space age, as the United States planned to launch its Vanguard satellites during the International 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, Minitrack, which would use the radio beacon of the satellite, received by multiple ground stations on the Earth, which by interferometry would 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 capable Spacecraft 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 Global Positioning System (GPS) which has become a ubiquitous part of our lives today.

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 atomic clocks (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 ship.

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 Timation, 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 Transit 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 precision-guided munitions.

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 state vector (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 Soviet/Russian GLONASS, European Galileo, 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.

Posted at 23:53 Permalink

Friday, July 17, 2015

Reading List: Code of Conduct

Thor, Brad. Code of Conduct. New York: Atria Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-1715-9.
This is the fifteenth in the author's Scot 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 bodies.

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”.

Posted at 23:54 Permalink

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reading List: StarTram

Powell, James, George Maise, and Charles Pellegrino. StarTram. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4935-7757-6.
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 Shanghai 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 re-use.

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 magnetohydrodynamic 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 free in this 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 “Rods 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 launcher.

Posted at 01:10 Permalink

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Leap Second

leapsecond1.png

Take that, alarm clock!

Posted at 02:22 Permalink

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.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, 2015-06-30

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.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter compared to the full Moon, 2015-06-30

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.

Update: 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.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, 2015-07-01

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)

Posted at 23:38 Permalink

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Reading List: Alas, Babylon

Frank, Pat [Harry Hart Frank]. Alas, Babylon. New York: Harper Perennial, [1959] 2005. ISBN 978-0-06-074187-7.
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 calamity.

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, deserves better.

Posted at 22:37 Permalink

Friday, May 29, 2015

Reading List: Redshirts

Scalzi, John. Redshirts. New York: Tor, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7653-3479-4.
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 mission.

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 meta itself.

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 Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013.

Posted at 22:04 Permalink

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Reading List: A Short History of Man

Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. A Short History of Man. Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2015. ISBN 978-1-61016-591-4.
The author is one of the most brilliant and original thinkers and eloquent contemporary expositors of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and Austrian economics. Educated in Germany, Hoppe came to the United States to study with Murray Rothbard 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 time preference among populations 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 “Malthusian trap”. Looked 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 Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, what is now called the Neolithic Revolution 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 free riding 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 Industrial Revolution. In societies which adopted the emerging industrial means of production, per capita income, which had been stagnant for almost two millennia, took 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 normal distribution, 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 phase transition 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 forgotten that 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 “state-property.”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 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 in PDF or EPUB formats, or read on-line in an HTML edition.

Posted at 15:38 Permalink

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reading List: Building the H Bomb

Ford, Kenneth W. Building the H Bomb. Singapore: World Scientific, 2015. ISBN 978-981-461-879-3.
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 John 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 Edward Teller, 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 Stanislaw Ulam, 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 Teller-Ulam 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 Andrei Sakharov and Yakov Zel'dovich.)

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 Card-Programmed Calculator and later the SEAC, which 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 heavily 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.

Posted at 23:07 Permalink