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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reading List: Experimental and Prototype U.S. Air Force Jet Fighters

Landis, Tony R. and Dennis R. Jenkins. Experimental and Prototype U.S. Air Force Jet Fighters. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58007-111-6.
This beautifully produced book covers every prototype jet fighter developed by the U.S. Air Force from the beginning of the jet age in the 1940s through the present day. Only concepts which at least entered the stage of prototype fabrication are included: “paper airplane” conceptual studies are not discussed, except in conjunction with designs which were actually built. The book is lavishly illustrated, with many photographs in colour, and the text is well written and almost free of typographical errors. As the title states, only Air Force prototypes are discussed—Navy and CIA development projects are covered only if Air Force versions were subsequently manufactured.

The first decade of the jet age was a wild and woolly time in the history of aeronautical engineering; we'll probably never see its like again. Compared to today's multi-decade development projects, many of the early jet designs went from contract award to flying hardware in less than a year. Between May 1953 and December 1956, no fewer than six operational jet fighter prototypes (F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-105, and F-106) made their first flights. Among prototypes which never entered into serial production were concepts which illustrate the “try anything” spirit of the age. Consider, for example, the XP-81 which had a turboprop engine in the nose and a turbojet in the tail; the XF-84H with a turbine driven propeller whose blade tips exceeded the speed of sound and induced nausea in pilots and ground crews, who nicknamed it “Thunderscreech”; or the tiny XP-85 which was intended to be carried in the bomb bay of a B-36 and launched to defend the bomber should enemy interceptors attack.

So slow has been the pace of fighter development since 1960 that the first 200 pages of the book cover events up to 1960 and everything since occupies only forty pages. Recent designs are covered in the same detail as those of the golden age—it's just that there haven't been all that many of them.

If you enjoy this book, you'll probably also want to read the companion, U.S. Air Force Prototype Jet Fighters Photo Scrapbook, which collects hundreds of photographs of the planes featured in the main work which, although often fascinating, didn't make the cut for inclusion in it. Many photos, particularly of newer planes, are in colour, although some older colour shots have noticeably faded.

Posted at 21:52 Permalink

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reading List: Back to the Moon

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Back to the Moon. New York: Island Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-440-23538-5.
Jerry Pournelle advises aspiring novelists to plan to throw away their first million words before mastering the craft and beginning to sell. (Not that writing a million words to the best of your ability and failing to sell them guarantees success, to be sure. It's just that most novelists who eventually become successful have a million words of unsold manuscripts in the trunk in the attic by the time they break into print and become well known.) When lightning strikes and an author comes from nowhere to bestseller celebrity overnight, there is a strong temptation, not only for the author but also for the publisher, to dig out those unsold manuscripts, perhaps polish them up a bit, and rush them to market to capitalise upon the author's newfound name recognition. Pournelle writes, “My standard advice to beginning writers is that if you do hit it big, the biggest favor you can do your readers is to burn your trunk; but in fact most writers don't, and some have made quite a bit of money off selling what couldn't be sold before they got famous.”

Here, I believe, we have an example of what happens when an author does not follow that sage advice. Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys (July 2005), a memoir of his childhood in West Virginia coal country at the dawn of the space age, burst onto the scene in 1998, rapidly climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and was made into the 1999 film October Sky. Unknown NASA engineer Hickam was suddenly a hot literary property, and pressure to “sell the trunk” was undoubtedly intense. Out of the trunk, onto the press, into the bookshops—and here we have it, still in print a decade later.

The author joined NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1981 as an aerospace engineer and worked on a variety of projects involving the Space Shuttle, including training astronauts for a number of demanding EVA missions. In the Author's Note, he observes that, while initially excited to work on the first reusable manned spacecraft, he, like many NASA engineers, eventually became frustrated with going in circles around the Earth and wished that NASA could once again send crews to explore as they had in the days of Apollo. He says, “I often found myself lurking in the techno-thriller or science fiction area of bookstores looking unsuccessfully for a novel about a realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon. I never found it. One day it occurred to me that if I wanted to read such a book, I would have to write it myself.”

Well, here it is. And if you're looking for a thriller about a “realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon”, sadly, you still haven't found it. Now, the odd thing is that this book is actually quite well written—not up to the standard of Rocket Boys, but hardly the work of a beginner. It is tightly plotted, the characters are interesting and develop as the story progresses, and the author deftly balances multiple plot lines with frequent “how are they going to get out of this?” cliffhangers, pulling it all together at the end. These are things you'd expect an engineer to have difficulty mastering as a novelist. You'd figure, however, that somebody with almost two decades of experience going to work every day at NASA and with daily contacts with Shuttle engineers and astronauts would get the technical details right, or at least make them plausible. Instead, what we have is a collection of laugh-out-loud howlers for any reader even vaguely acquainted with space flight. Not far into the book (say, fifty or sixty pages, or about a hundred “oh come on”s), I realised I was reading the literary equivalent of the Die Hard 2 movie, which the Wall Street Journal's reviewer dubbed “aviation for airheads”. The present work, “spaceflight for space cases”, is much the same: it works quite well as a thriller as long as you know absolutely nothing about the technical aspects of what's going on. It's filled with NASA jargon and acronyms (mostly used correctly) which lend it a feeling of authenticity much like Tom Clancy's early books. However, Clancy (for the most part), gets the details right: he doesn't, for example, have a submarine suddenly jump out of the water, fly at Mach 5 through the stratosphere, land on a grass runway in a remote valley in the Himalayas, then debark an assault team composed of amateurs who had never before fired a gun.

Shall we go behind the spoiler curtain and take a peek at a selection of the most egregious and side splitting howlers in this yarn?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow region, not “Frau [sic] Mauro”. Apollo 14 landed at Fra Mauro.
  • In the description of the launch control centre, it is stated that Houston will assume control “the moment Columbia lifted a millimeter off the Cape Canaveral pad”. In fact, Houston assumes control once the launch pad tower has been cleared.
  • During the description of the launch, the ingress team sees the crew access arm start to retract and exclaims “Automatic launch sequence! We've got to go!”. In fact, the ingress team leaves the pad before the T−9 minute hold, and the crew access arm retracts well before the automatic sequence starts at T−31 seconds.
  • There are cameras located all over the launch complex which feed into the launch control centre. Disabling the camera in the white room would still leave dozens of other cameras active which would pick up the hijinks underway at the pad.
  • NASA human spaceflight hardware is manufactured and prepared for flight under the scrutiny of an army of inspectors who verify every aspect of the production process. Just how could infiltrators manage to embed payload in the base of the shuttle's external tank in the manufacturing plant at Michoud, and how could this extra cargo not be detected anywhere downstream? If the cargo was of any substantial size, the tank would fail fit tests on the launch platform, and certainly some pad rat would have said “that's not right” just looking at it.
  • Severing the data cable between the launch pad and the firing room would certainly cause the onboard automatic sequencer to halt the countdown. Even though the sequencer controls the launch process, it remains sensitive to a cutoff signal from the control centre, and loss of communications would cause it to abort the launch sequence. Further, the fact that the shuttle hatch was not closed would have caused the auto-sequencer to stop due to a cabin pressure alarm. And the hatch through which one boards the shuttle is not an “airlock”.
  • The description of the entire terminal countdown and launch process suffers from the time dilation common in bad movie thrillers: where several minutes of furious activity occur as the bomb counts down the last ten seconds.
  • The intended crew of the shuttle remains trapped in the pad elevator when the shuttle lifts off. They are described as having temporary hearing loss due to the noise. In fact, their innards would have been emulsified by the acoustic energy of the solid rocket boosters, then cremated and their ashes scattered by the booster plume.
  • The shuttle is said to have entered a 550 mile orbit with the external tank (ET) still attached. This is impossible; the highest orbit ever achieved by the shuttle was around 385 miles on the Hubble deployment and service missions, and this was a maximum-performance effort. Not only could the shuttle not reach 550 miles on the main engines, the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) would not have the velocity change capability (delta-V) required to circularise the orbit at this altitude with the ET still attached. And by the way, who modified the shuttle computer ascent software to change the launch trajectory and bypass ET jettison, and who loaded the modified software into the general purpose computers, and why was the modified software not detected by the launch control centre's pre-launch validation of the software load?
  • If you're planning a burn to get on a trans-lunar injection trajectory, you want to do it in as low an Earth orbit as possible in order to get the maximum assist to the burn. An orbit as low as used by the later Apollo missions probably wouldn't work due to the drag of having the ET attached, but there's no reason you'd want to go as high as 550 miles; that's just wasting energy.
  • The “Big Dog” and “Little Dog” engines are supposed to have been launched on an Indian rocket, with the mission being camouflaged as a failed communication satellite launch. But, whatever the magical properties of Big Dog, a storable propellant rocket (which it must be, since it's been parked in orbit for months waiting for the shuttle to arrive) with sufficient delta-V to boost the entire shuttle onto a trans-lunar trajectory, enter lunar orbit, and then leave lunar orbit to return to Earth would require a massive amount of fuel, be physically very large, and hence require a heavy lift launcher which (in addition to the Indians not possessing one) would not be used for a communications satellite mission. The Saturn S-IV B stage which propelled Apollo to the Moon was 17.8 metres long, 6.6 metres in diameter, and massed 119,000 kg fully fueled, and it was boosting a stack less massive than a space shuttle, and used only for trans-lunar injection, not lunar orbit entry and exit, and it used higher performance hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Big Dog would not be a bolt-in replacement engine for the shuttle, but rather a massive rocket stage which could hardly be disguised as a communications satellite.
  • On the proposed “rescue” mission by Endeavour, commander Grant proposes dropping the space station node in the cargo bay in a “parking orbit”, whence the next shuttle mission could capture it and move it to the Space Station. But in order to rendezvous with Columbia, Endeavour would have to launch into its 28.7 degree inclination orbit, leaving the space station node there. The shuttle OMS does not remotely have the delta-V for a plane change to the 51 degree orbit of the station, so there is no way the node could be delivered to the station.
  • A first-time astronaut is a “rookie”, not “rooky”. A rook is a kind of crow or a chess piece.
  • Removing a space shuttle main engine (SSME) is a complicated and lengthy procedure on the ground, requiring special tools and workstands. It is completely impossible that this could be done in orbit, especially by two people with no EVA experience, working in a part of the shuttle where there are no handgrips or restraints for EVA work, and where the shuttle's arm (remote manipulator system) cannot reach. The same goes for attaching Big Dog as a replacement.
  • As Endeavour closes in, her commander worries that “[t]oo much RCS propellant had been used to sneak up on Columbia”. But it's the orbital maneuvering system (OMS), not the reaction control system (RCS) which is used in rendezvous orbit-change maneuvers.
  • It's “Chernobyl” (Чорнобиль), not “Chernoble”.
  • Why, on a mission where all the margins are stretched razor-thin, would you bring along a spare lunar lander when you couldn't possibly know you'd need it?
  • Olivia Grant flies from Moscow to Alma-Ata on a “TU-144 transport”. The TU-144 supersonic transport was retired from service in 1978 after only 55 scheduled passenger flights. Even if somebody put a TU-144 back into service, it certainly wouldn't take six hours for the flight.
  • Vice President Vanderheld says, “France, for one, has spent trillions on thermonuclear energy. Fusion energy would destroy that investment overnight.” But fusion is thermonuclear energy!
  • When the tethered landing craft is dropped on the Moon from the shuttle, its forward velocity will be 3,700 miles per hour, the same as the shuttle's. The only way for it to “hit the lunar surface at under a hundred miles per hour” would be for the shuttle to cancel its entire orbital velocity before dropping the lander and then, in order to avoid crashing into the lunar surface, do a second burn as it was falling to restore its orbital velocity. Imparting such a delta-V to the entire shuttle would require a massive burn, for which there would be no reason to have provided the fuel in the mission plan. Also, at the moment the shuttle started the burn to cancel its orbital velocity, the tether would string out behind the shuttle, not remain at its altitude above the Moon.
  • The Apollo 17 lunar module Challenger's descent stage is said to have made a quick landing and hence have “at least half its propellant left”. Nonsense—while Cernan and Schmitt didn't land on fumes like Apollo 11 (and, to a lesser extent, Apollo 14), no Apollo mission landed with the tanks anywhere near half-full. In any case, unless I'm mistaken, residual descent engine propellant was dumped shortly after landing; this was certainly done on Apollo 11 (you can hear the confirmation on my re-mix of the Apollo 11 landing as heard in the Eagle's cabin), and I've never heard if it not being done on later missions.
  • Jack connects an improvised plug to the “electronic port used to command the descent engine” on Challenger. But there were no such “ports”—connections between the ascent and descent stages were hard-wired in a bundle which was cut in two places by a pyrotechnic “guillotine” when the ascent stage separated. The connections to the descent engine would be a mass of chopped cables which would take a medusa of space Barney clips and unavailable information to connect to.
  • Even if there were fuel and oxidiser left in the tanks of the descent stage, the helium used to pressure-feed the propellants to the engine would have been long gone. And the hypergolic combustion wouldn't make a “plume of orange and scarlet” (look at the Apollo 17 liftoff video), and without a guidance system for the descent engine, there would be no chance of entering lunar orbit.
  • The tether is supposed to be used to generate electrical power after the last fuel cell fails. But this is done far from the Earth, where the gradient in the Earth's magnetic field across the length of the tether would be much too small to generate the required power.
  • Using the tether as an aerodynamic brake at reentry is absurd. The tether would have to dissipate the entire energy of a space shuttle decelerating from Mach 36 to Mach 25. Even if the tether did not immediately burn away (which it would), it would not have the drag to accomplish this in the time available before the shuttle hit the atmosphere (with the payload bay doors still open!). And the time between the tethered satellite entering the atmosphere and the shuttle hitting the stony blue would be a matter of seconds, far too little to close the payload bay doors.
  • “The space agency had gotten out of the operations business and moved into the forefront of research and development, handing over its scientific and engineering knowledge to American commercial space operators.” Now here we have an actually prophetic passage. Let's hope it comes to pass!
  • “[W]hen the sun goes down into the sea, just as it sinks out of sight, its rays flash up through the water. If you look fast, you'll see it—a green flash.” Well, no—actually the green flash is due to atmospheric refraction and has nothing to do with water.

Apart from these particulars (and they are just a selection from a much larger assortment in the novel), the entire story suffers from what I'll call the “Tom Swift, let's go!” fallacy of science fiction predating the golden age of the 1930s. The assumption throughout this book is that people can design fantastically complicated hardware which interfaces with existing systems, put it into service by people with no training on the actual hardware and no experience in the demanding environment in which it will be used, cope with unexpected reverses on the fly, always having the requisite resources to surmount the difficulties, and succeed in the end. Actually, I'm being unfair to Tom Swift in identifying such fiction with that character. The original Tom Swift novels always had him testing his inventions extensively before putting them into service, and modifying them based upon the test results. Not here: everything is not only good to go on the first shot, it is able to overcome disasters because the necessary hardware has always providentially been brought along.

Spoilers end here.  
If you've trudged through the spoiler block at my side, you may be exasperated and wondering why I'd spend so much time flensing such a bad novel. Well, it's because I'd hoped for so much and was sorely disappointed. Had the author not said the goal was to be “realistic”, I'd have put it down after the first fifty pages or so and, under the rules of engagement of this chronicle, you'd have never seen it here. Had it been presented as a “spaceflight fantasy”, I might have finished it and remarked about how well the story was told; hey, I give my highest recommendation to a story about a trip to the Moon launched from a 900 foot long cannon!

I'll confess: I've been wanting to write a back to the Moon novel myself for at least thirty years. My scenario was very different (and I hereby place it into the public domain for scribblers more talented and sedulous than I to exploit): a signal is detected originating from the Moon with a complex encoding originating at a site where no known probe has landed. The message is a number: "365", "364", 363",… decrementing every day. Now what it would it take to go there and find out what was sending it before the countdown reaches zero? The story was to be full of standing in line to file forms to get rocket stages and capsules out of museums, back channel discussions between Soviet and U.S. space officials, and eventual co-operation on a cobbled together mission which would end up discovering…but then you'd have to have read the story. (Yes, much of this has been done in movies, but they all postdate this treatment.)

Since I'll probably never write that story, I'd hoped this novel would fill the niche, and I'm disappointed it didn't. If you know nothing about spaceflight and don't care about the details, this is a well-crafted thriller, which accounts for its many five star reviews at Amazon. If you care about technical plausibility, you can take this as either one of those books to hurl into the fireplace to warm you up on a cold winter evening or else as a laugh riot to enjoy for what it is and pass on to others looking for a diversion from the uncompromising physics of the real world.

Successful novelists, burn the trunk!

Posted at 02:56 Permalink

Friday, April 23, 2010

Reading List: Atlas Shrugged

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Dutton, [1957, 1992] 2005. ISBN 978-0-525-94892-6.
There is nothing I could possibly add by way of commentary on this novel, a classic of twentieth century popular fiction, one of the most discussed books of the epoch, and, more than fifty years after publication, still (at this writing) in the top two hundred books by sales rank at Amazon.com. Instead, I will confine my remarks to my own reactions upon reading this work for the third time and how it speaks to events of the present day.

I first read Atlas Shrugged in the summer of that most eventful year, 1968. I enjoyed it immensely, finding it not just a gripping story, but also, as Rand intended, a thorough (and in some ways, too thorough) exposition of her philosophy as glimpsed in The Fountainhead, which I'd read a few years earlier. I took it as an allegorical story about the pernicious effects and ultimate consequences of collectivism and the elevation of altruism over self-interest and need above earned rewards, but viewed the world in which it was set and the events which occurred there much as I did those of Orwell's 1984 and Heinlein's If This Goes On—: a cautionary tale showing the end point of trends visible in the contemporary world. But the world of Atlas Shrugged, like those of Orwell and Heinlein, seemed very remote from that of 1968—we were going to the Moon, and my expectations for the future were more along the lines of 2001 than Rand's dingy and decaying world. Also, it was 1968, for Heaven's sake, and I perceived the upheavals of the time (with a degree of naïveté and wrongheadedness I find breathtaking at this remove) as a sovereign antidote to the concentration of power and oppression of the individual, which would set things aright long before productive people began to heed Galt's call to shed the burden of supporting their sworn enemies.

My next traverse through Atlas Shrugged was a little before 1980. The seventies had taken a lot of the gloss off the bright and shiny 1968 vision of the future, and having run a small business for the latter part of that sorry decade, the encroachment of ever-rising taxes, regulation, and outright obstruction by governments at all levels was very much on my mind, which, along with the monetary and financial crises created by those policies plus a rising swamp of mysticism, pseudoscience, and the ascendant anti-human pagan cult of environmentalism, made it entirely plausible to me that the U.S. might tip over into the kind of accelerating decline described in the middle part of the novel. This second reading of the book left me with a very different impression than the first. This time I could see, from my own personal experience and in the daily news, precisely the kind of events foreseen in the story. It was no longer a cautionary tale but instead a kind of hitch-hiker's guide to the road to serfdom. Curiously, this reading the book caused me to shrug off the funk of demoralisation and discouragement and throw myself back into the entrepreneurial fray. I believed that the failure of collectivism was so self-evident that a turning point was at hand, and the landslide election of Reagan shortly thereafter appeared to bear this out. The U.S. was committed to a policy of lower taxes, rolling back regulations, standing up to aggressive collectivist regimes around the world, and opening the High Frontier with economical, frequent, and routine access to space (remember that?). While it was hardly the men of the mind returning from Galt's Gulch, it was good enough for me, and I decided to make the best of it and contribute what I could to what I perceived as the turnaround. As a footnote, it's entirely possible that if I hadn't reread Atlas Shrugged around this time, I would have given up on entrepreneurship and gone back to work for the Man—so in a way, this book was in the causal tree which led to Autodesk and AutoCAD. In any case, although working myself to exhaustion and observing the sapping of resources by looters and moochers after Autodesk's initial public stock offering in 1985, I still felt myself surfing on a wave of unbounded opportunity and remained unreceptive to Galt's pitch in 1987. In 1994? Well….

What with the eruption of the most recent financial crisis, the veer toward the hard left in the United States, and increasing talk of productive people opting to “go Galt”, I decided it was time for another pass through Atlas Shrugged, so I started reading it for the third time in early April 2010 and finished it in a little over two weeks, including some marathon sessions where I just didn't want to put it down, even though I knew the characters, principal events, and the ending perfectly well. What was different, and strikingly so, from the last read three decades ago, was how astonishingly prescient this book, published in 1957, was about events unfolding in the world today. As I noted above, in 1968 I viewed it as a dystopia set in an unspecified future. By 1980, many of the trends described in the book were clearly in place, but few of their ultimate dire consequences had become evident. In 2010, however, the novel is almost like reading a paraphrase of the history of the last quarter century. “Temporary crises”, “states of emergency”, “pragmatic responses”, calls to “sacrifice for the common good” and to “share the wealth” which seemed implausible then are the topics of speeches by present day politicians and news headlines. Further, the infiltration of academia and the news media by collectivists, their undermining the language and (in the guise of “postmodernism”) the foundations of rational thought and objective reality, which were entirely beneath the radar (at least to me) as late as 1980, are laid out here as clear as daylight, with the simultaneously pompous and vaporous prattling of soi-disant intellectuals which doubtless made the educated laugh when the book first appeared now having become commonplace in the classrooms of top tier universities and journals of what purport to be the humanities and social sciences. What once seemed a fantastic nightmare painted on a grand romantic canvas is in the process of becoming a shiveringly accurate prophecy.

So, where are we now? Well (if you'll allow me to use the word) objectively, I found the splice between our real-life past and present to be around the start of chapter 5 of part II, “Account Overdrawn”. This is about 500 pages into the hardback edition of 1168 pages, or around 40%. Obviously, this is the crudest of estimates—many things occur before that point which haven't yet in the real world and many afterward have already come to pass. Yet still, it's striking: who would have imagined piracy on the high seas to be a headline topic in the twenty-first century? On this reading I was also particularly struck by chapter 8 of part III, “The Egoist” (immediately following Galt's speech), which directly addresses a question I expect will soon intrude into the public consciousness: the legitimacy or lack thereof of nominally democratic governments. This is something I first wrote about in 1988, but never expected to actually see come onto the agenda. A recent Rasmussen poll, however, finds that just 21% of voters in the United States now believe that their federal government has the “consent of the governed”. At the same time, more than 40% of U.S. tax filers pay no federal income tax at all, and more than a majority receive more in federal benefits than they pay in taxes. The top 10% of taxpayers (by Adjusted Gross Income) pay more than 70% of all personal income taxes collected. This makes it increasingly evident that the government, if not already, runs the risk of becoming a racket in which the non-taxpaying majority use the coercive power of the state to shake down a shrinking taxpaying minority. This is precisely the vicious cycle which reaches its endpoint in this chapter, where the government loses all legitimacy in the eyes of not only its victims, but even its beneficiaries and participants. I forecast that should this trend continue (and that's the way to bet), within two years we will see crowds of people in the U.S. holding signs demanding “By what right?”.

In summary, I very much enjoyed revisiting this classic; given that it was the third time through and I don't consider myself to have changed all that much in the many years since the first time, this didn't come as a surprise. What I wasn't expecting was how differently the story is perceived based on events in the real world up to the time it's read. From the current perspective, it is eerily prophetic. It would be amusing to go back and read reviews at the time of its publication to see how many anticipated that happening. The ultimate lesson of Atlas Shrugged is that the looters subsist only by the sanction of their victims and through the product of their minds, which cannot be coerced. This is an eternal truth, which is why this novel, which states it so clearly, endures.

The link above is to the hardbound “Centennial Edition”. There are trade paperback, mass market paperback, and Kindle editions available as well. I'd avoid the mass market paperback, as the type is small and the spines of books this thick tend to disintegrate as you read them. At current Amazon prices, the hardcover isn't all that much more than the trade paperback and will be more durable if you plan to keep it around or pass it on to others. I haven't seen the Kindle transfer; if it's well done, it would be marvellous, as any print edition of this book is more than a handful.

Posted at 00:09 Permalink

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mars Approaches the Beehive Cluster (M44)


Click image to enlarge.

There's a glorious spectacle in the evening sky this week for observers with binoculars or small telescopes. Mars, shining brightly high in the west-southwest sky, glides past the Beehive (Præsepe) Cluster (M44), with closest approach on April 16th, just a little over a degree (the width of two full Moons) from the centre of the cluster.

Even a few days before closest approach, it's a magnificent sight. Since clear skies are a rare commodity this time of year at Fourmilab, I took advantage of tonight's pellucid seeing to photograph Mars closing in upon the Beehive. Mars is the bright blob toward the right (overexposed and blown out in colour by an exposure long enough to capture the fainter stars). The Beehive, as an open cluster, lacks clearly defined boundaries—it kind of fizzles out until it blends into the background stars. It's difficult to determine the distance of objects such as this; the cluster is estimated to be somewhere between 520 and 610 light years from the solar system. Mars is, at the moment, about nine and a quarter light minutes from Fourmilab: in the foreground as photographers are wont to say.

This photo was taken with a Leica M9 digital camera and Noctilux ASPH 50mm lens at f/0.95, with a four second exposure time and sensitivity of ISO 800. The camera was mounted on an unguided tripod, with the shutter tripped with a mechanical cable release. Hey, who said the Noctilux at full aperture doesn't have depth of field!

Posted at 00:24 Permalink

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Reading List: Après la démocratie

Todd, Emmanuel. Après la démocratie. Paris: Gallimard, 2009. ISBN 978-2-07-078683-1.
This book is simultaneously enlightening, thought-provoking, and infuriating. The author is known for having forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1976 and, in 2002, the end of U.S. hegemony in the political, military, and financial spheres, as we are currently witnessing. In the present work, he returns his focus to Europe, and France in particular, and examines how the economic consequences of globalisation, the emergence of low-wage economies such as China and India in direct competition with workers in the developed West, the expansion of college education from a small fraction to around a third of the population, changes in the structure of the family due to a longer lifespan and marital customs, the near eclipse of Christianity as a social and moral force in Western Europe, and the collapse of traditional political parties with which individuals would identify over long periods of time have led to a crisis in confidence among the voting public in the élites who (especially in France) have traditionally governed them, escalating to a point where serious thinkers question the continued viability of democratic governance.

Dubiety about democracy is neither limited to the author nor to France: right-like-a-stopped-clock pundit Thomas Friedman has written admiringly of China's autocracy compared to the United States, Gaia theorist James Lovelock argues that “climate change” may require the West to “put democracy on hold for a while” while other ManBearPig fabulists argue that the “failure of democracy” on this issue requires it to give way to “a form of authoritarian government by experts”.

The take in the present book is somewhat different, drawing on Todd's demographic and anthropological approach to history and policy. He argues that liberal democracy, as it emerged in Britain, France, and the United States, had as a necessary condition a level of literacy among the population of between one third and two thirds. With a lower level of literacy the general population is unable to obtain the information they need to form their own conclusions, and if a society reaches a very high level of literacy without having adopted democratic governance (for example Germany from Bismarck through World War II or the Soviet Union), then the governing structure is probably sufficiently entrenched so as to manage the flow of information to the populace and suppress democratic movements. (Actually, the author would like to believe that broad-based literacy is a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy in the long run, but to this reader he didn't make the sale.)

Once democratic governance is established, literacy tends to rise toward 100% both because governments promote it by funding education and because the citizenry has an incentive to learn to read and write in order to participate in the political process. A society with universal literacy and primary education, but only a very small class with advanced education tends to be stable, because broad political movements can communicate with the population, and the élites which make up the political and administrative class must be responsive to the electorate in order to keep their jobs. With the broad population starting out with pretty much the same educational and economic level, the resulting society tends toward egalitarianism in wealth distribution and opportunity for advancement based upon merit and enterprise. Such a society will be an engine of innovation and production, and will produce wealth which elevates the standard of living of its population, yielding overall contentment which stabilises the society against radical change.

In the twentieth century, and particularly in the latter half, growing prosperity in developed nations led to a social experiment on a massive scale entirely unprecedented in human history. For the first time, universal secondary education was seen as a social good (and enforced by compulsory education and rising school-leaving ages), with higher (college/university) education for the largest possible fraction of the population becoming the ultimate goal. Indeed, political rhetoric in the United States presently advocates making college education available for all. In France, the number of students in “tertiary” education (the emerging term of art, to avoid calling it “superior”, which would imply that those without it are inferior) burgeoned from 200,000 in 1950 to 2,179,000 in 1995, an increase of 990%, while total population grew just 39% (p. 56). Since then, the rate of higher education has remained almost constant, with the number of students growing only 4% between 1995 and 2005, precisely the increase in population during that decade. The same plateau was achieved earlier in the U.S., while Britain, which began the large-scale expansion of higher education later, only attained a comparable level in recent years, so it's too early to tell whether that will also prove a ceiling there as well.

The author calls this “stagnation” in education and blames it for a cultural pessimism afflicting all parts of the political spectrum. (He does not discuss the dumbing-down of college education which has accompanied its expansion and the attendant devaluing of the credential; this may be less the case on the Continent than in the Anglosphere.) At the same time, these societies now have a substantial portion of their population, around one third, equipped nominally with education previously reserved for a tiny élite, whose career prospects are limited simply because there aren't enough positions at the top to go around. At the same time, the educational stratification of the society into a tiny governing class, a substantial educated class inclined to feel entitled to economic rewards for all the years of their lives spent sitting in classrooms, and a majority with a secondary education strikes a blow at egalitarianism, especially in France where broad-based equality of results has been a central part of the national identity since the Revolution.

The pessimism created by this educational stagnation has, in the author's view, been multiplied to the point of crisis by what he considers to be a disastrous embrace of free trade. While he applauds the dismantling of customs barriers in Europe and supported the European “Constitution”, he blames the abundance of low-wage workers in China and India for what he sees as relentless pressure on salaries in Europe and the loss of jobs due to outsourcing of manufacturing and, increasingly, service and knowledge worker jobs. He sees this as benefiting a tiny class, maybe 1% of the population, to the detriment of all the rest. Popular dissatisfaction with this situation, and frustration in an environment where all major political parties across the ideological spectrum are staunch defenders of free trade, has led to the phenomenon of “wipeout” elections, where the dominant political party is ejected in disgust, only to be replaced by another which continues the same policies and in turn is rejected by the electorate.

Where will it all end? Well, as the author sees it, with Nicholas Sarkozy. He regards Sarkozy and everything he represents with such an actinic detestation that one expects the crackling of sparks and odour of ozone when opening the book. Indeed, he uses Sarkozy's personal shortcomings as a metaphor for what's wrong with France, and as the structure of the book as a whole. And yet he is forced to come to terms with the fact that Sarkozy was elected with the votes of 53% of French voters after, in the first round, effectively wiping out the National Front, Communists, and Greens. And yet, echoing voter discontent, in the municipal elections a year later, the left was seen as the overall winner.

How can a democratic society continue to function when the electorate repeatedly empowers people who are neither competent to govern nor aligned with the self-interest of the nation and its population? The author sees only three alternatives. The first (p. 232) is the redefinition of the state from a universal polity open to all races, creeds, and philosophies to a racially or ethnically defined state united in opposition to an “other”. The author sees Sarkozy's hostility to immigrants in France as evidence for such a redefinition in France, but does not believe that it will be successful in diverting the electorate's attention from a falling standard of living due to globalisation, not from the immigrant population. The second possibility he envisions (p. 239) is the elimination, either outright or effectively, of universal suffrage at the national level and its replacement by government by unelected bureaucratic experts with authoritarian powers, along the general lines of the China so admired by Thomas Friedman. Elections would be retained for local officials, preserving the appearance of democracy while decoupling it from governance at the national level. Lest this seem an absurd possibility, as the author notes on p. 246, this is precisely the model emerging for continental-scale government in the European Union. Voters in member states elect members to a European “parliament” which has little real power, while the sovereignty of national governments is inexorably ceded to the unelected European Commission. Note that only a few member states allowed their voters a referendum on the European “constitution” or its zombie reanimation, the Treaty of Lisbon.

The third alternative, presented in the conclusion to the work, is the only one the author sees as preserving democracy. This would be for the economic core of Europe, led by France and Germany, to adopt an explicit policy of protectionism, imposing tariffs on imports from low-wage producers with the goal of offsetting the wage differential and putting an end to the pressure on European workers, the outsourcing of jobs, and the consequent destruction of the middle class. This would end the social and economic pessimism in European societies, realign the policies of the governing class with the electorate, and restore the confidence among voters in those they elect which is essential for democracy to survive. (Due to its centuries-long commitment to free trade and alignment with the United States, Todd does not expect Great Britain to join such a protectionist regime, but believes that if France and Germany were to proclaim such a policy, their economic might and influence in the European Union would be sufficient to pull in the rest of the Continent and build a Wirtschaftsfestung Europa from the Atlantic to the Russian border.) In such a case, and only in that case, the author contends, will what comes after democracy be democracy.

As I noted at the start of these comments, I found this book, among other things, infuriating. If that's all it were, I would neither have finished it nor spent the time to write such a lengthy review, however. The work is worth reading, if for nothing else, to get a sense of the angst and malaise in present-day Europe, where it is beginning to dawn upon the architects and supporters of the social democratic welfare state that it is not only no longer competitive in the global economy but also unsustainable within its own borders in the face of a demographic collapse and failure to generate new enterprises and employment brought about by its own policies. Amidst foreboding that there are bad times just around the corner iTunes Store, and faced with an electorate which empowers candidates which leftists despise for being “populist”, “crude”, and otherwise not the right kind of people, there is a tendency among the Left to claim that “democracy is broken”, and that only radical, transformative change (imposed from the top down, against the will of the majority, if necessary) can save democracy from itself. This book is, I believe, an exemplar of this genre. I would expect several such books authored by leftist intellectuals to appear in the United States in the first years of a Palin administration.

What is particularly aggravating about the book is its refusal to look at the causes of the problems it proposes to address through a protectionist policy. Free trade did not create the regime of high taxation, crushing social charges, inability to dismiss incompetent workers, short work weeks and long vacations, high minimum wages and other deterrents to entry level jobs, and regulatory sclerosis which have made European industry uncompetitive, and high tariffs alone will not solve any of these problems, but rather simply allow them to persist for a while within a European bubble increasingly decoupled from the world economy. That's pretty much what the Soviet Union did for seventy years, if you think about it, and how well did that work out for the Soviet people?

Todd is so focused on protectionism as panacea that he Panglosses over major structural problems in Europe which would be entirely unaffected by its adoption. He dismisses demographic collapse as a problem for France, noting that the total fertility rate has risen over the last several years back to around 2 children per woman, the replacement rate. What he doesn't mention is that this is largely due to a high fertility rate among Muslim immigrants from North Africa, whose failure to assimilate and enter the economy is a growing crisis in France along with other Western European countries. The author dismisses this with a wave of the hand, accusing Sarkozy of provoking the “youth” riots of 2005 to further his own career, and argues that episode was genuinely discouraged young versus the ruling class and had little to do with Islam or ethnic conflict. One wonders how much time Dr. Todd has spent in the “no go” Muslim banlieues of Paris and other large European cities.

Further, Todd supports immigration and denounces restrictionists as opportunists seeking to distract the electorate with a scapegoat. But how is protectionism (closing the border to products from low wage countries) going to work, precisely, if the borders remain open to people from the Third World, many lacking any skills equipping them to participate in a modern industrialised society, and bringing with them, in many cases, belief systems hostile to the plurality, egalitarianism, secularism, and tolerance of European nations? If the descendants of immigrants do not assimilate, they pose a potentially disastrous social and political problem, while if they do, their entry into the job market will put pressure on wages just as surely as goods imported from China.

Given Todd's record in predicting events conventional wisdom deemed inconceivable, one should be cautious in dismissing his analysis here, especially as it drawn from the same kind of reasoning based in demographics, anthropology, and economics which informs his other work. If nothing else, it provides an excellent view of how more than fifty years journey down the social democratic road to serfdom brings into doubt how long the “democratic” part, as well as the society, can endure.

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