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Friday, August 29, 2008

Reading List: AK47: The Story of the People's Gun

Hodges, Michael. AK47: The Story of the People's Gun. London: Sceptre, 2007. ISBN 978-0-340-92106-7.
The AK-47 (the author uses “AK47” in this book, except for a few places in the last chapter; I will use the more common hyphenated designation here) has become an iconic symbol of rebellion in the six decades since Mikhail Kalashnikov designed this simple (just 8 moving parts), rugged, inexpensive to manufacture, and reliable assault rifle. Iconic? Yes, indeed—for example the flag and coat of arms of Mozambique feature this weapon which played such a large and tragic rôle in its recent history. Wherever violence erupts around the world, you'll probably see young men brandishing AK-47s or one of its derivatives. The AK-47 has become a global brand as powerful as Coca-Cola, but symbolising insurgency and rebellion, and this book is an attempt to recount how that came to be.

Toward that end it is a total, abject, and utter failure. In a total of 225 pages, only about 35 are devoted to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the history of the weapon he invented, its subsequent diffusion and manufacture around the world, and its derivatives. Instead, what we have is a collection of war stories from Vietnam, Palestine, the Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and New Orleans (!), all told from a relentlessly left-wing, anti-American, and anti-Israel perspective, in which the AK-47 figures only peripherally. The author, as a hard leftist, believes, inter alia, in the bizarre notion that an inanimate object made of metal and wood can compel human beings to behave in irrational and ultimately self-destructive ways. You think I exaggerate? Well, here's an extended quote from p. 131.

The AK47 moved from being a tool of the conflict to the cause of the conflict, and by the mid-1990s it had become the progenitor of indiscriminate terror across huge swaths of the continent. How could it be otherwise? AKs were everywhere, and their ubiquity made stability a rare commodity as even the smallest groups could bring to bear a military pressure out of proportion to their actual size.
That's right—the existence of weapons compels human beings, who would presumably otherwise live together in harmony, to murder one another and rend their societies into chaotic, blood-soaked Hell-holes. Yup, and why do the birds always nest in the white areas? The concept that one should look at the absence of civil society as the progenitor of violence never enters the picture here. It is the evil weapon which is at fault, not the failed doctrines to which the author clings, which have wrought such suffering across the globe. Homo sapiens is a violent species, and our history has been one of constant battles. Notwithstanding the horrific bloodletting of the twentieth century, on a per-capita basis, death from violent conflict has fallen to an all-time low in the nation-state era, notwithstanding the advent of of weapons such as General Kalashnikov's. When bad ideas turn murderous, machetes will do.

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

Posted at 23:44 Permalink

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reading List: Against the Gods

Bernstein, Peter L. Against the Gods. New York: John Wiley & Sons, [1996] 1998. ISBN 978-0-471-29563-1.
I do not use the work “masterpiece” lightly, but this is what we have here. What distinguishes the modern epoch from all of the centuries during which humans identical to us trod this Earth? The author, a distinguished and erudite analyst and participant in the securities markets over his long career, argues that one essential invention of the modern era, enabling the vast expansion of economic activity and production of wealth in Western civilisation, is the ability to comprehend, quantify, and ultimately mitigate risk, either by commingling independent risks (as does insurance), or by laying risk off from those who would otherwise bear it onto speculators willing to assume it in the interest of financial gains (for example, futures, options, and other financial derivatives). If, as in the classical world, everyone bears the entire risk of any undertaking, then all market players will be risk-averse for fear of ruin. But if risk can be shared, then the society as a whole will be willing to run more risks, and it is risks voluntarily assumed which ultimately lead (after the inevitable losses) to net gain for all.

So curious and counterintuitive are the notions associated with risk that understanding them took centuries. The ancients, who made such progress in geometry and other difficult fields of mathematics, were, while avid players of games of chance, inclined to attribute the outcome to the will of the Gods. It was not until the Enlightenment that thinkers such as Pascal, Cardano, the many Bernoullis, and others worked out the laws of probability, bringing the inherent randomness of games of chance into a framework which predicted the outcome, not of any given event—that was unknowable in principle, but the result of a large number of plays with arbitrary precision as the number of trials increased. Next was the understanding of the importance of uncertainty in decision making. It's one thing not to know whether a coin will come up heads or tails. It's entirely another to invest in a stock and realise that however accurate your estimation of the probabilistic unknowns affecting its future (for example, the cost of raw materials), it's the “unknown unknowns” (say, overnight bankruptcy due to a rogue trader in an office half way around the world) that can really sink your investment. Finally, classical economics always assumed that participants in the market behave rationally, but they don't. Anybody who thinks their fellow humans are rational need only visit a casino or watch them purchasing lottery tickets; they are sure in the long term to lose, and yet they still line up to make the sucker bet.

Somehow, I'd gotten it into my head that this was a “history of insurance”, and as a result this book sat on my shelf quite some time before I read it. It is much, much more than that. If you have any interest at all in investing, risk management in business ventures, or in the history of probability, statistics, game theory, and investigations of human behaviour in decision making, this is an essential book. Chapter 18 is one of the clearest expositions for its length that I've read of financial derivatives and both the benefits they have for prudent investors as well as the risks they pose to the global financial system. The writing is delightful, and sources are well documented in end notes and an extensive bibliography.

Posted at 23:57 Permalink

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Nuclear Ninety North: Fourmilab North Pole and Eclipse Expedition Images Posted

Polar bear                 Solar eclipse

After an absurdly long delay, due to sorting through more than 2000 pictures snapped on the expedition, the photo gallery of Fourmilab's expedition to the North Pole and the total eclipse of the Sun on August 1st, 2008 is now available for your viewing pleasure.

I may add some narrative to this collection of photos, but I don't really have a lot more to say. If you have any questions or quibbles, there's always our notorious feedback form.

Posted at 01:35 Permalink

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reading List: Exile—and Glory

Pournelle, Jerry. Exile—and Glory. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-5563-6.
This book collects all of Jerry Pournelle's stories of Hansen Enterprises and other mega-engineering projects, which were originally published in Analog, Galaxy, and Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1972 and 1977. The stories were previously published in two books: High Justice and Exiles to Glory, which are now out of print—if you have those books, don't buy this one unless you want to upgrade to hardcover or can't resist the delightfully space-operatic cover art by Jennie Faries.

The stories take place in a somewhat dystopian future in which the “malaise” of the 1970s never ended. Governments worldwide are doing what governments do best: tax the productive, squander the revenue and patrimony of their subjects, and obstruct innovation and progress. Giant international corporations have undertaken the tasks needed to bring prosperity to a world teeming with people in a way which will not wreck the Earth's environment. But as these enterprises implement their ambitious projects on the sea floor, in orbit, and in the asteroid belt, the one great invariant, human nature, manifests itself and they find themselves confronted with the challenges which caused human societies to institute government in the first place. How should justice be carried out on the technological frontier? And, more to the point, how can it be achieved without unleashing the malign genie of coercive government? These stories are thoughtful explorations of these questions without ever ceasing to be entertaining yarns with believable characters. And you have to love what happens to the pesky lawyer on pp. 304–305!

I don't know if these stories have been revised between the time they were published in the '70s and this edition; there is no indication that they have either in this book or on Jerry Pournelle's Web site. If not, then the author was amazingly prescient about a number of subsequent events which few would have imagined probable thirty years ago. It's a little disheartening to think that one of the reasons these stories have had such a long shelf life is that none of the great projects we expected to be right around the corner in the Seventies have come to pass. As predicted here, governments have not only failed to undertake the challenges but been an active impediment to those trying to solve them, but also the business culture has become so risk-averse and oriented toward the short term that there appears to be no way to raise the capital needed to, for example, deploy solar power satellites, even though such capital is modest compared to that consumed in military adventures in Mesopotamia.

The best science fiction makes you think. The very best science fiction makes you think all over again when you re-read it three decades afterward. This is the very best, and just plain fun as well.

Posted at 22:11 Permalink

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reading List: Miami and the Siege of Chicago

Mailer, Norman. Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: New York Review Books, [1968] 2008. ISBN 978-1-59017-296-4.
In the midst of the societal, political, and cultural chaos which was 1968 in the United States, Harper's magazine sent Norman Mailer to report upon the presidential nominating conventions in August of that year: first the Republicans in Miami Beach and then the Democrats in Chicago. With the prospect, forty years later, of two U.S. political conventions in which protest and street theatre may play a role not seen since 1968 (although probably nowhere near as massive or violent, especially since the political establishments of both parties appear bent upon presenting the appearance of unity), and a watershed election which may change the direction of the United States, New York Review Books have reissued this long out-of-print classic of “new journalism” reportage of the 1968 conventions. As with the comparable, but edgier, account of the 1972 campaign by Hunter S. Thompson, a good deal of this book is not about the events but rather “the reporter”, who identifies himself as such in the narrative.

If you're looking for detailed documentation of what transpired at the conventions, this is not the book to read. Much of Mailer's reporting took place in bars, in the streets, in front of the television, and on two occasions, in custody. This is an impressionistic account of events which leaves you with the feeling of what it was like to be there (at least if you were there and Norman Mailer), not what actually happened. But, God, that man could write! As reportage (the work was completed shortly after the conventions and long before the 1968 election) and not history, there is no sense of perspective, just immersion in the events. If you're old enough to recall them, as I am, you'll probably agree that he got it right, and that this recounting both stands the test of time and summons memories of the passions of that epoch.

On the last page, there are two phrases which have a particular poignancy four decades hence. Mailer, encountering Eugene McCarthy's daughter just before leaving Chicago thinks of telling her “Dear Miss, we will be fighting for forty years.” And then he concludes the book by observing, “We yet may win, the others are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do.” Wise words for the partisans of hope and change in the 2008 campaign!

Posted at 21:08 Permalink

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Harvest Time

Click image to enlarge.

A moissonneuse-batteuse harvests wheat in a field above Lignières. In the distance, directly above the combine, is snow-capped Mont Blanc, at 4807 metres (or so—I'm not going to get into that debate!) the highest peak in Western Europe. The mountains aren't all that visible through the haze; for more detail, see the Lignières and the Alps panorama from February 2007.

The picture was taken from around here on the old Roman road, looking due South.

Posted at 00:13 Permalink

Monday, August 11, 2008

Reading List: The Peloponnesian War, Vol. 2

[Audiobook] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Vol. 2. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Thomasville, GA: Audio Connoisseur, [c. 400 B.C.] 2005.
This is the second volume of the audiobook edition of Thucydides's epic history of what was, for Hellenic civilisation, a generation-long world war, describing which the author essentially invented historical narrative as it has been understood ever since. For general comments about the work, see my notes for Volume I.

Although a work of history (albeit with the invented speeches Thucydides acknowledges as a narrative device), this is as much a Greek tragedy as any of the Athenian plays. The war, which began, like so many, over a peripheral conflict between two regional hegemonies, transformed both Athens and Sparta into “warfare states”, where every summer was occupied in military campaigns, and every winter in planning for the next season's conflict. The Melian dialogue, which appears in Book V of the history, is one of the most chilling exemplars of raw power politics ever expressed—even more than two millennia later, it makes the soul shiver and, considering its consequences, makes one sympathetic to those, then and now, who decry the excesses of direct democracy.

Perhaps the massacre of the Melians offended the gods (although Thucydides would never suggest divine influence in the affairs of men), or maybe it was just a symptom of imperial overreach heading directly for the abyss, but not long afterward Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, which ultimately resulted in a defeat which, on the scale of classical conflict, was on the order of Stalingrad and resulted in the end of democracy in Athens and its ultimate subjugation by Sparta.

Weapons, technologies, and political institutions change, but the humans who invent them are invariant under time translation. There is wisdom in this narrative of a war fought so very long ago which contemporary decision makers on the global stage ignore only at the peril of the lives and fortune entrusted to them by their constituents. If I could put up a shill at the “town hall” meetings of aspiring politicians, I'd like to ask them “Have you read Thucydides?”, and when they predictably said they had, then “Do you approve of the Athenian democracy's judgement as regards the citizens of Melos?”

This recording includes the second four of the eight books into which Thucydides's text is conventionally divided. The audiobook is distributed in two parts, totalling 11 hours and 29 minutes with an epilogue describing the events which occurred after the extant text of Thucydides ends in mid-paragraph whilst describing events of 410 B.C., six years before the end of the war. The Benjamin Jowett translation is used, read by Charlton Griffin. A print edition of this translation is available.

Posted at 02:12 Permalink

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Reading List: The Archimedes Codex

Netz, Reviel and William Noel. The Archimedes Codex. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-306-81580-5.
Sometimes it is easy to forget just how scanty is the material from which we know the origins of Western civilisation. Archimedes was one of the singular intellects of antiquity, with contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering which foreshadowed achievements not surpassed until the Enlightenment. And yet all we know of the work of Archimedes in the original Greek (as opposed to translations into Arabic and Latin, which may have lost information due to translators' lack of comprehension of Archimedes's complex arguments) can be traced to three manuscripts: one which disappeared in 1311, another which vanished in the 1550s, and a third: the Archimedes Palimpsest, which surfaced in Constantinople at the start of the 20th century, and was purchased at an auction for more than USD 2 million by an anonymous buyer who deposited it for conservation and research with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. (Note that none of these manuscripts was the original work of Archimedes: all were copies made by scribes, probably around the tenth century. But despite being copies, their being in the original Greek means they are far more likely to preserve the sense of the original text of Archimedes, even if the scribe did not understand what he was copying.)

History has not been kind to this work of Archimedes. Only two centuries after the copy of his work was made, the parchment on which it was written was scrubbed of its original content and re-written with the text of a Christian prayer book, which to the unaided eye appears to completely obscure the Archimedes text in much of the work. To compound the insult, sometime in the 20th century four full-page religious images in Byzantine style were forged over pages of the book, apparently in an attempt to increase its market value. This, then, was a bogus illustration painted on top of the prayer book text, which was written on top of the precious words of Archimedes. In addition to these depredations of mankind, many pages had been attacked by mold, and an ill-advised attempt to conserve the text, apparently in the 1960s, had gummed up the binding, including the gutter of the page where Archimedes's text was less obscured, with an intractable rubbery glue.

But from what could be read, even in fragments, it was clear that the text, if it could be extracted, would be of great significance. Two works, “The Method” and “Stomachion”, have their only known copies in this text, and the only known Greek text of “On Floating Bodies” appears here as well. Fortunately, the attempt to extract the Archimedes text was made in the age of hyperspectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence, and other nondestructive technologies, not with the crude and often disastrous chemical potions applied to attempt to recover such texts a century before.

This book, with alternating chapters written by the curator of manuscripts at the Walters and a Stanford professor of Classics and Archimedes scholar, tells the story of the origin of the manuscript, how it came to be what it is and where it resides today, and the painstaking efforts at conservation and technological wizardry (including time on the synchrotron light source beamline at SLAC) which allowed teasing the work of Archimedes from the obscuration of centuries.

What has been found so far has elevated the reputation of Archimedes even above the exalted position he already occupied in the pantheon of science. Analysis of “The Method” shows that Archimedes anticipated the use of infinitesimals and hence the calculus in his proof of the volume of curved solids. The “Stomachion”, originally thought to be a puzzle devoid of serious mathematical interest, turns out to be the first and only known venture of Greek mathematics into the realm of combinatorics.

If you're interested in rare books, the origins of mathematical thought, applications of imaging technology to historical documents, and the perilous path the words of the ancients traverse to reach us across the ages, there is much to fascinate in this account. Special thanks to frequent recommender of books Joe Marasco, who not only brought this book to my attention but mailed me a copy! Joe played a role in the discovery of the importance of the “Stomachion”, which is chronicled in the chapter “Archimedes at Play”.

Posted at 00:24 Permalink

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Reading List: Real Change

Gingrich, Newt. Real Change. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59698-053-2.
Conventional wisdom about the political landscape in the United States is that it's split right down the middle (evidenced by the last two extremely close Presidential elections), with partisans of the Left and Right increasingly polarised, unwilling and/or unable to talk to one another, both committed to a “no prisoners” agenda of governance should they gain decisive power. Now, along comes Newt Gingrich who argues persuasively in this book, backed by extensive polling performed on behalf of his American Solutions organisation (results of these polls are freely available to all on the site), that the United States have, in fact, a centre-right majority which agrees on many supposedly controversial issues in excess of 70%, with a vocal hard-left minority using its dominance of the legacy media, academia, and the activist judiciary and trial lawyer cesspits to advance its agenda through non-democratic means.

Say what you want about Newt, but he's one of the brightest intellects to come onto the political stage in any major country in the last few decades. How many politicians can you think of who write what-if alternative history novels? I think Newt is onto something here. Certainly there are genuinely divisive issues upon which the electorate is split down the middle. But on the majority of questions, there is a consensus on the side of common sense which only the legacy media's trying to gin up controversy obscures in a fog of bogus conflict.

In presenting solutions to supposedly intractable problems, the author contrasts “the world that works”: free citizens and free enterprise solving problems for the financial rewards from doing so, with “the world that fails”: bureaucracies seeking to preserve and expand their claim upon the resources of the productive sector of the economy. Government, as it has come to be understood in our foul epoch, exclusively focuses upon the latter. All of this can be seen as consequences of Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which states that in any bureaucratic organisation there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organisation, and those who work for the organisation itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who seek to protect and augment the compensation of all teachers, including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organisation, and will thence write the rules under which the organisation functions, to the detriment of those who are coerced to fund it.

Bureaucracy and bureaucratic government can be extremely efficient and effective, as long as its ends are understood! Gingrich documents how the Detroit school system, for example, delivers taxpayer funds to the administrators, union leaders, and unaccountable teachers who form its political constituency. Educating the kids? Well, that's not on the agenda! The world that fails actually works quite well for those it benefits—the problem is that without the market feedback which obtains in the world that works, the supposed beneficiaries of the system have no voice in obtaining the services they are promised.

This is a book so full of common sense that I'm sure it will be considered “outside the mainstream” in the United States. But those who live there, and residents of other industrialised countries facing comparable challenges as demographics collide with social entitlement programs, should seriously ponder the prescriptions here which, if presented by a political leader willing to engage the population on an intellectual level, might command majorities which remake the political map.

Posted at 00:45 Permalink

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I'm Back; More Soon

This evening I returned from the Fourmilab North Pole and Solar Eclipse expedition about which I wrote previously. All went well, and despite thin clouds in the sky and vibration transmitted through the deck of the icebreaker as it pushed at maximum hull velocity toward a clear patch of sky, I came away with not only a memorable visual impression of the eclipse but a few photos worth sharing.

As I write this post, I'm in the process of transferring the 34 Gb of photos archived on CompactFlash memory cards and a backup external USB hard drive onto the Fourmilab RAID array. When that's done, I'll commence assembling a photo gallery for the expedition, complete with the chatty captions you've come to expect from the 1999 and 2001 eclipses.

To tide you over, here are a few images from the trip. When I post the complete journal, these will be linked to the corresponding chapters of the chronicle.

Posted at 22:23 Permalink