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Friday, May 30, 2008

Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon Updated

Although it is the sixteenth book in the series, Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon was the first to be posted in Fourmilab's Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. Over the years since it was prepared in 2004, I've accumulated a number of mark-ups for typographical errors reported by eagle-eyed readers. All of these corrections, including several for items I spotted while integrating the changes, are included in the updated edition now available from the Pocket Library page. This edition was prepared with the current (version 3.3) release of ETset. The HTML document is XHTML 1.0 Strict with Unicode text entities for dashes, opening and closing quotes, and other special characters.

Posted at 14:53 Permalink

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

King of the Stump

Click image to enlarge.

As spring passes into summer and interesting sights abound in the countryside around Lignières, I'll be posting occasional pictures which caught my eye. Pas grand chose, just the odd bright image bobbing on the grey river of text which dominates this chronicle.

These bad actors were spotted in the parc à chèvres of the Métairie du Landeron on Sunday, May 25th, 2008. I usually walk up to there on Sunday afternoons: it's a 5.3 km round trip with a total of about 145 metres of ascent which takes about an hour.

This is the six hundredth posting on Fourmilog.

Posted at 00:35 Permalink

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Farming with Dynamite

From 1910:
No mule to feed.
No hands to pay.
You're farming now,
the modern way:
with dynamite!

Posted at 00:58 Permalink

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Perl: Finance::YahooQuote Update

If you're using the Perl module Finance::YahooQuote to retrieve financial quotes, you may discover that your program broke today. This is due to a change in the URL used to request quotes from Yahoo Finance. The previous URL base of:
    http://quote.yahoo.com/d?f=    (Obsolete–don't use!)
has been changed to:
Apparently, Yahoo had previously accepted the old URL, but starting today it no longer works. If you're using Finance::YahooQuote version 0.21 or earlier, your program will probably break. If you update to Finance::YahooQuote 0.22, the problem should be fixed. Depending on how you've installed Perl on your machine and access this module from your program, the location of the module you need to update will vary.

Posted at 00:08 Permalink

Friday, May 23, 2008

Global Warming on Jupiter!

According to a paper published in Nature on April 22, 2008, Jupiter's spots are disappearing due to global warming. Environmentalists on Jupiter blame the rapid temperature rise on Earth politicians and celebrities flying to global warming conferences on private jets. Neither Al Gore nor ManBearPig could be reached for comment.

Posted at 18:12 Permalink

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reading List: Lockheed F-104 Starfighter

Upton, Jim. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-069-0.
In October 1951, following a fact-finding trip to Korea where he heard fighter pilots demand a plane with more speed and altitude capability than anything in existence, Kelly Johnson undertook the design of a fighter that would routinely operate at twice the speed of sound and altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet. Note that this was just four years after Chuck Yeager first flew at Mach 1 in the rocket-powered X-1, and two years before the Douglas Skyrocket research plane first achieved Mach 2. Kelly Johnson was nothing if not ambitious. He was also a man to deliver on his promises: in December 1952 he presented the completed design to the Air Force, which in March 1953 awarded a contract to build two experimental prototypes. On March 4, 1954, just a year later, the first XF-104 Starfighter made its first flight, and within another year it had flown at Mach 1.79. (The prototypes used a less powerful engine than the production model, and were consequently limited in speed.) In April 1956 the YF-104 production prototype reached Mach 2, and production models routinely operated at that speed thereafter. (In fact, the F-104 had the thrust to go faster: it was limited to Mach 2 by thermal limits on its aluminium construction and engine inlet temperature.)

The F-104 became one of the most successful international military aircraft programs of all time. A total of 2578 planes were manufactured in seven countries, and served in the air forces of 14 nations. The F-104 remained in service with the Italian Air Force until 2004, half a century after the flight of the first prototype.

Looking at a history like this, you begin to think that the days must have been longer in the 1950s, so compressed were the schedules for unprecedentedly difficult and complex engineering projects. Compare the F-104's development history with that of the current U.S. air superiority fighter, the F-22, for which a Pentagon requirement was issued in 1981, contractor proposals were solicited in 1986, and the winner of the design competition (Lockheed, erstwhile builder of the F-104) selected in 1991. And when did the F-22 enter squadron service with the Air Force? Well, that would be December 2005, twenty-four years after the Air Force launched the program. The comparable time for the F-104 was a little more than six years. Now, granted, the F-22 is a fantastically more complicated and capable design, but also consider that Kelly Johnson's team designed the F-104 with slide rules, mechanical calculators, and drawing boards, while present day aircraft use modeling and simulation tools which would have seemed like science fiction to designers of the fifties.

This prolifically illustrated book, written by a 35 year veteran of flight test engineering at Lockheed with a foreword by a former president of Lockheed-California who was the chief aerodynamicist of the XF-104 program, covers all aspects of this revolutionary airplane, from design concepts, flight testing, weapons systems, evolution of the design over the years, international manufacturing and deployment, and modifications and research programs. Readers interested in the history and technical details of one of Kelly Johnson's greatest triumphs, and a peek into the hands-on cut and try engineering of the 1950s will find this book a pure delight.

Posted at 22:26 Permalink

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading List: The Revolution

Paul, Ron. The Revolution. New York: Grand Central, 2008. ISBN 978-0-446-53751-3.
Ron Paul's campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination has probably done more to expose voters in the United States to the message of limited, constitutional governance, individual liberty, non-interventionist foreign policy, and sound money than any political initiative in decades. Although largely ignored by the collectivist legacy media, the stunning fund-raising success of the campaign, even if not translated into corresponding success at the polls, is evidence that this essentially libertarian message (indeed, Dr. Paul ran for president in 1988 as the standard bearer of the Libertarian Party) resonates with a substantial part of the American electorate, even among the “millennial generation”, which conventional wisdom believes thoroughly indoctrinated with collectivist dogma and poised to vote away the last vestiges of individual freedom in the United States. In the concluding chapter, the candidate observes:
The fact is, liberty is not given a fair chance in our society, neither in the media, nor in politics, nor (especially) in education. I have spoken to many young people during my career, some of whom had never heard my ideas before. But as soon as I explained the philosophy of liberty and told them a little American history in light of that philosophy, their eyes lit up. Here was something they'd never heard before, but something that was compelling and moving, and which appealed to their sense of idealism. Liberty had simply never been presented to them as a choice. (p. 158)
This slender (173 page) book presents that choice as persuasively and elegantly as anything I have read. Further, the case for liberty is anchored in the tradition of American history and the classic conservatism which characterised the Republican party for the first half of the 20th century. The author repeatedly demonstrates just how recent much of the explosive growth in government has been, and observes that people seemed to get along just fine, and the economy prospered, without the crushing burden of intrusive regulation and taxation. One of the most striking examples is the discussion of abolishing the personal income tax. “Impossible”, as other politicians would immediately shout? Well, the personal income tax accounts for about 40% of federal revenue, so eliminating it would require reducing the federal budget by the same 40%. How far back would you have to go in history to discover an epoch where the federal budget was 40% below that of 2007? Why, you'd have to go all the way back to 1997! (p. 80)

The big government politicians who dominate both major political parties in the United States dismiss the common-sense policies advocated by Ron Paul in this book by saying “you can't turn back the clock”. But as Chesterton observed, why not? You can turn back a clock, and you can replace disastrous policies which are bankrupting a society and destroying personal liberty with time-tested policies which have delivered prosperity and freedom for centuries wherever adopted. Paul argues that the debt-funded imperial nanny state is doomed in any case by simple economic considerations. The only question is whether it is deliberately and systematically dismantled by the kinds of incremental steps he advocates here, or eventually collapses Soviet-style due to bankruptcy and/or hyperinflation. Should the U.S., as many expect, lurch dramatically in the collectivist direction in the coming years, it will only accelerate the inevitable debacle.

Anybody who wishes to discover alternatives to the present course and that limited constitutional government is not a relic of the past but the only viable alternative for a free people to live in peace and prosperity will find this book an excellent introduction to the libertarian/constitutionalist perspective. A five page reading list cites both classics of libertarian thought and analyses of historical and contemporary events from a libertarian viewpoint.

Posted at 20:32 Permalink

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reading List: Fallen Angels

Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. Fallen Angels. New York: Baen Books, 1991. ISBN 978-0-7434-7181-7.
I do not have the slightest idea what the authors were up to in writing this novel. All three are award-winning writers of “hard” science fiction, and the first two are the most celebrated team working in that genre of all time. I thought I'd read all of the Niven and Pournelle (and assorted others) collaborations, but I only discovered this one when the 2004 reprint edition was mentioned on Jerry Pournelle's Web log.

The premise is interesting, indeed delicious: neo-Luddite environmentalists have so crippled the U.S. economy (and presumably that of other industrialised nations, although they do not figure in the novel) that an incipient global cooling trend due to solar inactivity has tipped over into an ice age. Technologists are actively persecuted, and the U.S. and Soviet space stations and their crews have been marooned in orbit, left to fend for themselves without support from Earth. (The story is set in an unspecified future era in which the orbital habitats accommodate a substantially larger population than space stations envisioned when the novel was published, and have access to lunar resources.)

The earthbound technophobes, huddling in the cold and dark as the glaciers advance, and the orbiting technophiles, watching their meagre resources dwindle despite their cleverness, are forced to confront one another when a “scoop ship” harvesting nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere is shot down by a missile and makes a crash landing on the ice cap descending on upper midwest of the United States. The two “angels”—spacemen—are fugitives sought by the Green enforcers, and figures of legend to that small band of Earthlings who preserve the dream of a human destiny in the stars.

And who would they be? Science fiction fans, of course! Sorry, but you just lost me, right about when I almost lost my lunch. By “fans”, we aren't talking about people like me, and probably many readers of this chronicle, whose sense of wonder was kindled in childhood by science fiction and who, even as adults, find it almost unique among contemporary literary genera in being centred on ideas, and exploring “what if” scenarios that other authors do not even imagine. No, here we're talking about the subculture of “fandom”, a group of people, defying parody by transcending the most outrageous attempts, who invest much of their lives into elaborating their own private vocabulary, writing instantly forgotten fan fiction and fanzines, snarking and sniping at one another over incomprehensible disputes, and organising conventions whose names seem ever so clever only to other fans, where they gather to reinforce their behaviour. The premise here is that when the mainstream culture goes South (literally, as the glaciers descend from the North), “who's gonna save us?”—the fans!

I like to think that more decades of reading science fiction than I'd like to admit to has exercised my ability to suspend disbelief to such a degree that I'm willing to accept just about any self-consistent premise as the price of admission to an entertaining yarn. Heck, last week I recommended a zombie book! But for the work of three renowned hard science fiction writers, there are a lot of serious factual flubs here. (Page numbers are from the mass market paperback edition cited above.)

  • The Titan II (not “Titan Two”) uses Aerozine 50 and Nitrogen tetroxide as propellants, not RP-1 (kerosene) and LOX. One could not fuel a Titan II with RP-1 and LOX, not only because the sizes of the propellant tanks would be incorrect for the mixture ratio of the propellants, but because the Titan II lacks the ignition system for non-hypergolic propellants. (pp. 144–145)
  • “Sheppard reach in the first Mercury-Redstone?” It's “Shepard”, and it was the third Mercury-Redstone flight. (p. 151)
  • “Schirra's Aurora 7”. Please: Aurora 7 was Carpenter's capsule (which is in the Chicago museum); Schirra's was Sigma 7. (p. 248)
  • “Dick Rhutan”. It's “Rutan”. (p, 266)
  • “Just hydrogen. But you can compress it, and it will liquify. It is not that difficult.”. Well, actually, it is. The critical point for hydrogen is 23.97° K, so regardless of how much you compress it, you still need to refrigerate it to a temperature less than half that of liquid nitrogen to obtain the liquid phase. For liquid hydrogen at one atmosphere, you need to chill it to 20.28° K. You don't just need a compressor, you need a powerful cryostat to liquefy hydrogen.
    “…letting the O2 boil off.” Oxygen squared? Please, it's O2. (p. 290)
  • “…the jets were brighter than the dawn…“. If this had been in verse, I'd have let it stand as metaphorical, but it's descriptive prose and dead wrong. The Phoenix is fueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which burn with an almost invisible flame. There's no way the rocket exhaust would have been brighter than the dawn.

Now it seems to me there are three potential explanations of the numerous lapses of this story from the grounded-in-reality attention to detail one expects in hard science fiction.

  1. The authors deliberately wished to mock science fiction fans who, while able to reel off the entire credits of 1950s B movie creature features from memory, pay little attention to the actual history and science of the real world, and hence they get all kinds of details wrong while spouting off authoritatively.
  2. The story is set is an alternative universe, just a few forks from the one we inhabit. Consequently, the general outline is the same, but the little details differ. Like, for example, science fiction fans being able to work together to accomplish something productive.
  3. This manuscript, which, the authors “suspect that few books have ever been delivered this close to a previously scheduled publication date” (p. 451) was never subjected to the intensive fact-checking scrutiny which the better kind of obsessive-compulsive fan will contribute out of a sense that even fiction must be right where it intersects reality.

I'm not gonna fingo any hypotheses here. If you have no interest whatsoever in the world of science fiction fandom, you'll probably, like me, consider this the “Worst Niven and Pournelle—Ever”. On the other hand, if you can reel off every Worldcon from the first Boskone to the present and pen Feghoots for the local 'zine on days you're not rehearsing with the filk band, you may have a different estimation of this novel.

Posted at 23:17 Permalink

Monday, May 12, 2008

Reading List: Decline and Fall

Thornton, Bruce. Decline and Fall. New York: Encounter Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59403-206-6.
This slim volume (135 pages of main text, 161 pages in its entirety—the book is erroneously listed on Amazon.com as 300 pages in length) is an epitaph for the postwar European experiment. The author considers Europe, as defined by the post-Christian, post-national “EUtopia” envisioned by proponents of the European Union as already irretrievably failed, facing collapse in the coming decades due to economic sclerosis from bloated and intrusive statist policies, unsustainable welfare state expenditures, a demographic death spiral already beyond recovery, and transformation by a burgeoning Islamic immigrant population which Europeans lack the will to confront and compel to assimilate as a condition of residence. The book is concise, well-argued, and persuasive, but I'm not sure why it is ultimately necessary.

The same issues are discussed at greater length, more deeply, and with abundant documentation in recent books such as Mark Steyn's America Alone (November 2006), Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe (July 2006), and Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept (June 2007), all of which are cited as sources in this work. If you're looking for a very brief introduction and overview of Europe's problems, this book provides one, but readers interested in details of the present situation and prospects for the future will be better served by one of the books mentioned above.

A video interview with the author is available.

Posted at 18:41 Permalink

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Linux: Installing Microsoft Core Fonts on Fedora 7 Linux

Well-designed Web pages do not require specific fonts, but use generic font family specifications such as “serif”, “sans-serif”, and “monospace”, allowing users to specify which fonts on their own machines will be used for text of each style. Unfortunately, not only do many Web pages specify particular fonts by name without any generic alternative, some prescribe Windows-specific fonts which are not available, by default, to users viewing such pages on other platforms.

Users of non-Windows machines have become accustomed not only to pages designed and tested only on Microsoft Internet Explorer which fall on their face when displayed by competently implemented standards compliant browsers, but also pages which pass HTML/XHTML/CSS validation yet display infelicitously because they request and assume the availability of Windows-specific fonts.

While page designers should not, under any circumstances, require proprietary fonts for their pages and, when expressing a preference for a platform-specific font, always test that the page displays properly when the browser falls back to a generic alternative, Linux users who view pages not designed for portability can mitigate the ugliness on their screens by installing the msttcorefonts package, which includes a collection of commonly-specified Microsoft fonts which are “redistributable”, including Andalemo, Arial, Comic Sans, Courier, Georgia, Impact, Tahoma, Times, Trebuchet, Verdana, and Webdings.

Users of Fedora 7 Linux can install this package on their systems with the following commands, executed as super-user:

    cd /tmp
    wget http://corefonts.sourceforge.net/msttcorefonts-2.0-1.spec
    yum install rpm-build  # May be already installed
    yum install cabextract # May be already installed
    rpmbuild -ba msttcorefonts-2.0-1.spec
    yum localinstall --nogpgcheck \
If you do not understand what these commands do, don't try them!

After installing the new fonts, you'll have to log out and log back in (but not reboot) in order to use them when displaying Web pages.

While this may be considered as accommodating, if not enabling, designers of non-portable Web pages, the fact is that installing these fonts will make many frequently-visited sites much more legible on the screen. I wish it were otherwise, but eyestrain on your part punishes only you, not the page designer who specified a Microsoft font, so why not at least mitigate the problem on your end?

Hat tip: Little Green Footballs, where the original posting includes instructions for other Linux distributions.

Posted at 23:38 Permalink

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reading List: The Peloponnesian War, Vol. 1

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
Not only is The Peloponnesian War the first true work of history to have come down to us from antiquity, in writing it Thucydides essentially invented the historical narrative as it is presently understood. Although having served as a general (στρατηγός) on the Athenian side in the war, he adopts a scrupulously objective viewpoint and presents the motivations, arguments, and actions of all sides in the conflict in an even-handed manner. Perhaps his having been exiled from Athens due to arriving too late to save Amphipolis from falling to the Spartans contributed both to his dispassionate recounting of the war as well as providing the leisure to write the work. Thucydides himself wrote:
It was also my fate to be an exile from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and being present with both parties, and more especially with the Peloponnesians by reason of my exile, I had leisure to observe affairs somewhat particularly.

Unlike earlier war narratives in epic poetry, Thucydides based his account purely upon the actions of the human participants involved. While he includes the prophecies of oracles and auguries, he considers them important only to the extent they influenced decisions made by those who gave them credence. Divine intervention plays no part whatsoever in his description of events, and in his account of the Athenian Plague he even mocks how prophecies are interpreted to fit subsequent events. In addition to military and political affairs, Thucydides was a keen observer of natural phenomena: his account of the Athenian Plague reads like that of a modern epidemiologist, including his identifying overcrowding and poor sanitation as contributing factors and the observation that surviving the disease (as he did himself) conferred immunity. He further observes that solar eclipses appear to occur only at the new Moon, and may have been the first to identify earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis.

In the text, Thucydides includes lengthy speeches made by figures on all sides of the conflict, both in political assemblies and those of generals exhorting their troops to battle. He admits in the introduction that in many cases no contemporary account of these speeches exists and that he simply made up what he believed the speaker would likely have said given the circumstances. While this is not a technique modern historians would employ, Greeks, from their theatre and poetry, were accustomed to narratives presented in this form and Thucydides, inventing the concept of history as he wrote it, saw nothing wrong with inventing words in the absence of eyewitness accounts. What is striking is how modern everything seems. There are descriptions of the strategy of a sea power (Athens) confronted by a land power (Sparta), the dangers of alliances which invite weaker allies to take risks that involve their guarantors in unwanted and costly conflicts, the difficulties in mounting an amphibious assault on a defended shore, the challenge a democratic society has in remaining focused on a long-term conflict with an authoritarian opponent, and the utility of economic warfare (or, as Thucydides puts it [over and over again], “ravaging the countryside”) in sapping the adversary's capacity and will to resist. Readers with stereotyped views of Athens and Sparta may be surprised that many at the time of the war viewed Sparta as a liberator of independent cities from the yoke of the Athenian empire, and that Thucydides, an Athenian, often seems sympathetic to this view. Many of the speeches could have been given by present-day politicians and generals, except they would be unlikely to be as eloquent or argue their case so cogently. One understands why Thucydides was not only read over the centuries (at least prior to the present Dark Time, when the priceless patrimony of Western culture has been jettisoned and largely forgotten) for its literary excellence, but is still studied in military academies for its timeless insights into the art of war and the dynamics of societies at war. While modern readers may find the actual campaigns sporadic and the battles on a small scale by present day standards, from the Hellenic perspective, which saw their culture of city-states as “civilisation” surrounded by a sea of barbarians, this was a world war, and Thucydides records it as such a momentous event.

This is Volume 1 of the audiobook, which includes the first four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided, covering the prior history of Greece and the first nine years of the war, through the Thracian campaigns of the Spartan Brasidas in 423 B.C. (Here is Volume 2, with the balance.) The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 14 hours and 50 minutes with more than a hour of introductory essays including a biography of Thucydides and an overview of the work. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by the versatile Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

Posted at 18:23 Permalink

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Reading List: World War Z

Brooks, Max. World War Z. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-307-34661-2.
Few would have believed in the early years of the twenty-first century, as people busied themselves with their various concerns and little affairs, while their “leaders” occupied themselves with “crises” such as shortages of petroleum, mountains of bad debt, and ManBearPig, that in rural China a virus had mutated, replicating and spreading among the human population like creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water, slowly at first, with early outbreaks covered up to avoid bad publicity before the Chicom Olympics, soon thereafter to explode into a global contagion that would remake the world, rewrite human history, and sweep away all of the prewar concerns of mankind as trivialities while eliminating forever the infinite complacency humans had of their empire over matter and dominion over nature.

This book is an oral history of the Zombie War, told in the words of those who survived, fought, and ultimately won it. Written just ten years after victory was declared in China, with hotspots around the globe remaining to be cleared, it is a story of how cultures around the globe came to terms with a genuine existential threat, and how people and societies rise to a challenge inconceivable to a prewar mentality. Reading much like Studs Terkel's The Good War, the individual voices, including civilians, soldiers, researchers, and military and political leaders trace how unthinkable circumstances require unthinkable responses, and how ordinary people react under extraordinary stress. The emergence of the Holy Russian Empire, the evacuation and eventual reconquest of Japan, the rise of Cuba to a global financial power, the climactic end of the Second Chinese Revolution, and the enigma of the fate of North Korea are told in the words of eyewitnesses and participants.

Now, folks, this a zombie book, so if you're someone inclined to ask, “How, precisely, does this work?”, or to question the biological feasibility of the dead surviving in the depths of the ocean or freezing in the arctic winter and reanimating come spring, you're going to have trouble with this story. Suspending your disbelief and accepting the basic premise is the price of admission, but if you're willing to pay it, this is an enjoyable, unsettling, and ultimately rewarding read—even inspiring in its own strange way. It is a narrative of an apocalyptic epoch which works, and is about ten times better than Stephen King's The Stand. The author is a recognised global authority on the zombie peril.

(Yes, the first paragraph of these remarks is paraphrased from this; I thought it appropriate.)

Posted at 16:17 Permalink

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Reading List: Millennial Makeover

Winograd, Morley and Michael D. Hais. Millennial Makeover. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8135-4301-7.
This is a disturbing book on a number of different levels. People, especially residents of the United States or subject to its jurisdiction, who cherish individual liberty and economic freedom should obtain a copy of this work (ideally, by buying a used copy to avoid putting money in the authors' pockets), put a clothespin on their noses, and read the whole thing (it only takes a day or so), being warned in advance that it may induce feelings of nausea and make you want to take three or four showers when you're done.

The premise of the book is taken from Strauss and Howe's Generations, which argues that American history is characterised by a repeating pattern of four kinds of generations, alternating between “idealistic” and “civic” periods on a roughly forty year cycle (two generations in each period). These periods have nothing to do with the notions of “right” and “left”—American history provides examples of periods of both types identified with each political tendency.

The authors argue that the United States are approaching the end of an idealistic period with a rightward tendency which began in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon, which supplanted the civic leftward period which began with the New Deal and ended in the excesses of the 1960s. They argue that the transition between idealistic and civic periods is signalled by a “realigning election”, in which the coalitions supporting political parties are remade, defining a new alignment and majority party which will dominate government for the next four decades or so.

These realignment elections usually mark the entrance of a new generation into the political arena (initially as voters and activists, only later as political figures), and the nature of the coming era can be limned, the authors argue, by examining the formative experiences of the rising generation and the beliefs they take into adulthood. Believing that a grand realignment is imminent, if not already underway, and that its nature will be determined by what they call the “Millennial Generation” (the cohort born between 1982 through 2003: a group larger in numbers than the Baby Boom generation), the authors examine the characteristics and beliefs of this generation, the eldest members of which are now entering the electorate, to divine the nature of the post-realignment political landscape. If they are correct in their conclusions, it is a prospect to induce fear, if not despair, in lovers of liberty. Here are some quotes.

The inevitable loss in privacy and freedom that has been a constant characteristic of the nation's reaction to any crisis that threatens America's future will more easily be accepted by a generation that willingly opts to share personal information with advertisers just for the sake of earning a few “freebies.” After 9/11 and the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, Millennials are not likely to object to increased surveillance and other intrusions into their private lives if it means increased levels of personal safety. The shape of America's political landscape after a civic realignment is thus more likely to favor policies that involve collective action and individual accountability than the libertarian approaches so much favored by Gen-Xers. (p. 200)
Note that the authors applaud these developments. Digital Imprimatur, here we come!
As the newest civic realignment evolves, the center of America's public policy will continue to shift away from an emphasis on individual rights and public morality toward a search for solutions that benefit the entire community in as equitable and orderly way as possible. Majorities will coalesce around ideas that involve the entire group in the solution and downplay the right of individuals to opt out of the process. (p. 250)
Millennials favor environmental protection even at the cost of economic growth by a somewhat wider margin than any other generation (43% for Millennials vs. 40% for Gen-Xers and 38% for Baby Boomers), hardly surprising, given the emphasis this issue received in their favorite childhood television programs such as “Barney” and “Sesame Street” (Frank N. Magid Associates, May 2007). (p. 263)
Deep thinkers, those millennials! (Note that these “somewhat wider” margins are within the statistical sampling error of the cited survey [p. xiv].)

The whole scheme of alternating idealist and civic epochs is presented with a historicist inevitability worthy of Hegel or Marx. While one can argue that this kind of cycle is like the oscillation between crunchy and soggy, it seems to me that the authors must be exceptionally stupid, oblivious to facts before their faces, or guilty of a breathtaking degree of intellectual dishonesty to ignore the influence of the relentless indoctrination of this generation with collectivist dogma in government schools and the legacy entertainment and news media—and I do not believe the authors are either idiots nor imperceptive. What they are, however, are long-term activists (since the 1970s) in the Democratic party, who welcome the emergence of a “civic” generation which they view as the raw material for advancing the agenda which FDR launched with the aid of the previous large civic generation in the 1930s.

Think about it. A generation which has been inculcated with the kind of beliefs illustrated by the quotations above, and which is largely ignorant of history (and much of the history they've been taught is bogus, agenda-driven propaganda), whose communications are mostly “peer-to-peer”—with other identically-indoctrinated members of the same generation, is the ideal putty in the hands of a charismatic leader bent on “unifying” a nation by using the coercive power of the state to enforce the “one best way”.

The authors make an attempt to present the millenials as a pool of potential voters in search of a political philosophy and party embodying it which, once chosen, they will likely continue to identify with for the rest of their lives (party allegiance, they claim, is much stronger in civic than in idealist eras). But it's clear that the book is, in fact, a pitch to the Democratic party to recruit these people: Republican politicians and conservative causes are treated with thinly veiled contempt.

This is entirely a book about political strategy aimed at electoral success. There is no discussion whatsoever of the specific policies upon which campaigns will be based, how they are to be implemented, or what their consequences will be for the nation. The authors almost seem to welcome catastrophes such as a “major terrorist attack … major environmental disaster … chronic, long-lasting war … hyperinflation … attack on the U.S. with nuclear weapons … major health catastrophe … major economic collapse … world war … and/or a long struggle like the Cold War” as being “events of significant magnitude to trigger a civic realignment” (p. 201).

I've written before about my decision to get out of the United States in the early 1990s, which decision I have never regretted. That move was based largely upon economic fundamentals, which I believed, and continue to believe, are not sustainable and will end badly. Over the last decade, I have been increasingly unsettled by my interactions with members of the tail-end of Generation X and the next generation, whatever you call it. If the picture presented in this book is correct (and I have no way to know whether it is), and their impact upon the U.S. political scene is anything like that envisioned by the authors, anybody still in the U.S. who values their liberty and autonomy has an even more urgent reason to get out, and quickly.

Posted at 23:17 Permalink

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone Now Online

The seventeenth installment in the Tom Swift adventures, Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available.

This is one of the geekier of the original Tom Swift adventures. Tom, despite his father's conviction that “it can't be done” sets out to build a picturephone in 1914, with a few added features including what amounts to a surveillance camera and FAX machine. He describes how a flat plate sensor made of selenium could be used to encode an image for transmission, which isn't a bad guess based upon the state of knowledge at the time. The invention, as usual, figures in an adventure in which frequent companion Wakefield “bless my imprudent investment” Damon is fleeced by a con-man, who then makes off with Tom's airship and then the unfortunate Mr. Damon himself. While Mr. Damon is offstage for most of the story, Ned Newton, the giant Koku, and Eradicate Sampson play major parts, with Eradicate inadvertently making the key insight which gets Tom's invention working.

I have corrected typographical and formatting errors I spotted while editing the text, but have deferred close proofreading until I get around to reading the book on my PDA. Corrections from readers are more than welcome; please cite the context of the correction rather than a page number, as these differ from edition to edition. Please note the comments in the main Pocket Library page before reporting archaic spelling (for example, “gasolene”, “to-morrow”, or “clew”) as an error.

This book brings the Tom Swift saga from its inception in 1910 through 1914 for a total of seventeen books. While the first novels in the series came fast and furious, starting in 1912 one book per year in the series was published. Eight public domain Tom Swift novels remain, and I'll continue to add them to this collection at the rate of two or three a year. There are a total of forty adventures in the original Tom Swift series, but those published between 1923 and 1941 will not enter the public domain until 95 years after their copyright date (assuming the law isn't changed before then), so none of these can be posted before 2019.

Posted at 23:55 Permalink

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Reading List: Spying on the Bomb

Richelson, Jeffrey T. Spying on the Bomb. New York: W. W. Norton, [2006] 2007. ISBN 978-0-393-32982-7.
I had some trepidation about picking up this book. Having read the author's The Wizards of Langley (May 2002), expecting an account of “Q Branch” spy gizmology and encountering instead a tedious (albeit well-written and thorough) bureaucratic history of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, I was afraid this volume might also reduce one of the most critical missions of U.S. intelligence in the post World War II era to another account of interagency squabbling and budget battles. Not to worry—although such matters are discussed where appropriate (especially when they led to intelligence failures), the book not only does not disappoint, it goes well beyond the mission of its subtitle, “American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea” in delivering not just an account of intelligence activity but also a comprehensive history of the nuclear programs of each of the countries upon which the U.S. has focused its intelligence efforts: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, France, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

The reader gets an excellent sense of just how difficult it is, even in an age of high-resolution optical and radar satellite imagery, communications intelligence, surveillance of commercial and financial transactions, and active efforts to recruit human intelligence sources, to determine the intentions of states intent (or maybe not) on developing nuclear weapons. The ease with which rogue regimes seem to be able to evade IAEA safeguards and inspectors, and manipulate diplomats loath to provoke a confrontation, is illustrated on numerous occasions. An entire chapter is devoted to the enigmatic double flash incident of September 22nd, 1979 whose interpretation remains in dispute today. This 2007 paperback edition includes a new epilogue with information on the October 2006 North Korean “fissile or fizzle” nuclear test, and recent twists and turns in the feckless international effort to restrain Iran's nuclear program.

Posted at 17:30 Permalink