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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reading List: Questioning Einstein

Bethell, Tom. Questioning Einstein. Pueblo West, CO: Vales Lake Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-971-48459-7.
Call it my guilty little secret. Every now and then, I enjoy nothing more than picking up a work of crackpot science, reading it with the irony lobe engaged, and figuring out precisely where the author went off the rails and trying to imagine how one might explain to them the blunders which led to the poppycock they expended so much effort getting into print. In the field of physics, for some reason Einstein's theory of special relativity attracts a disproportionate number of such authors, all bent on showing that Einstein was wrong or, in the case of the present work's subtitle, asking “Is Relativity Necessary?”. With a little reflexion, this shouldn't be a surprise: alone among major theories of twentieth century physics, special relativity is mathematically accessible to anybody acquainted with high school algebra, and yet makes predictions for the behaviour of objects at high velocity which are so counterintuitive to the expectations based upon our own personal experience with velocities much smaller than that they appear, at first glance, to be paradoxes. Theories more dubious and less supported by experiment may be shielded from crackpots simply by the forbidding mathematics one must master in order to understand and talk about them persuasively.

This is an atypical exemplar of the genre. While most attacks on special relativity are written by delusional mad scientists, the author of the present work, Tom Bethell, is a respected journalist whose work has been praised by, among others, Tom Wolfe and George Gilder. The theory presented here is not his own, but one developed by Petr Beckmann, whose life's work, particularly in advocating civil nuclear power, won him the respect of Edward Teller (who did not, however, endorse his alternative to relativity). As works of crackpot science go, this is one of the best I've read. It is well written, almost free of typographical and factual errors, clearly presents its arguments in terms a layman can grasp, almost entirely avoids mathematical equations, and is thoroughly documented with citations of original sources, many of which those who have learnt special relativity from modern textbooks may not be aware. Its arguments against special relativity are up to date, tackling objections including the Global Positioning System, the Brillet-Hall experiment, and the Hafele-Keating “travelling clock” experiments as well as the classic tests. And the author eschews the ad hominem attacks on Einstein which are so common in the literature of opponents to relativity.

Beckmann's theory posits that the luminiferous æther (the medium in which light waves propagate), which was deemed “superfluous” in Einstein's 1905 paper, in fact exists, and is simply the locally dominant gravitational field. In other words, the medium in which light waves wave is the gravity which makes things which aren't light heavy. Got it? Light waves in any experiment performed on the Earth or in its vicinity will propagate in the æther of its gravitational field (with only minor contributions from those of other bodies such as the Moon and Sun), and hence attempts to detect the “æther drift” due to the Earth's orbital motion around the Sun such as the Michelson-Morley experiment will yield a null result, since the æther is effectively “dragged” or “entrained” along with the Earth. But since the gravitational field is generated by the Earth's mass, and hence doesn't rotate with it (Huh—what about the Lense-Thirring effect, which is never mentioned here?), it should be possible to detect the much smaller æther drift effect as the measurement apparatus rotates around the Earth, and it is claimed that several experiments have made such a detection.

It's traditional that popular works on special relativity couch their examples in terms of observers on trains, so let me say that it's here that we feel the sickening non-inertial-frame lurch as the train departs the track and enters a new inertial frame headed for the bottom of the canyon. Immediately, we're launched into a discussion of the Sagnac effect and its various manifestations ranging from the original experiment to practical applications in laser ring gyroscopes, to round-the-world measurements bouncing signals off multiple satellites. For some reason the Sagnac effect seems to be a powerful attractor into which special relativity crackpottery is sucked. Why it is so difficult to comprehend, even by otherwise intelligent people, entirely escapes me. May I explain it to you? This would be easier with a diagram, but just to show off and emphasise how simple it is, I'll do it with words. Imagine you have a turntable, on which are mounted four mirrors which reflect light around the turntable in a square: the light just goes around and around. If the turntable is stationary and you send a pulse of light in one direction around the loop and then send another in the opposite direction, it will take precisely the same amount of time for them to complete one circuit of the mirrors. (In practice, one uses continuous beams of monochromatic light and combines them in an interferometer, but the effect is the same as measuring the propagation time—it's just easier to do it that way.) Now, let's assume you start the turntable rotating clockwise. Once again you send pulses of light around the loop in both directions; this time we'll call the one which goes in the same direction as the turntable's rotation the clockwise pulse and the other the counterclockwise pulse. Now when we measure how long it took for the clockwise pulse to make it one time around the loop we find that it took longer than for the counterclockwise pulse. OMG!!! Have we disproved Einstein's postulate of the constancy of the speed of light (as is argued in this book at interminable length)? Well, of course not, as a moment's reflexion will reveal. The clockwise pulse took longer to make it around the loop because it had farther to travel to arrive there: as it was bouncing from each mirror to the next, the rotation of the turntable was moving the next mirror further away, and so each leg it had to travel was longer. Conversely, as the counterclockwise pulse was in flight, its next mirror was approaching it, and hence by the time it made it around the loop it had travelled less far, and consequently arrived sooner. That's all there is to it, and precision measurements of the Sagnac effect confirm that this analysis is completely consistent with special relativity. The only possible source of confusion is if you make the self-evident blunder of analysing the system in the rotating reference frame of the turntable. Such a reference frame is trivially non-inertial, so special relativity does not apply. You can determine this simply by tossing a ball from one side of the turntable to another, with no need for all the fancy mirrors, light pulses, or the rest.

Other claims of Beckmann's theory are explored, all either dubious or trivially falsified. Bethell says there is no evidence for the length contraction predicted by special relativity. In fact, analysis of heavy ion collisions confirm that each nucleus approaching the scene of the accident “sees” the other as a “pancake” due to relativistic length contraction. It is claimed that while physical processes on a particle moving rapidly through a gravitational field slow down, that an observer co-moving with that particle would not see a comparable slow-down of clocks at rest with respect to that gravitational field. But the corrections applied to the atomic clocks in GPS satellites incorporate this effect, and would produce incorrect results if it did not occur.

I could go on and on. I'm sure there is a simple example from gravitational lensing or propagation of electromagnetic radiation from gamma ray bursts which would falsify the supposed classical explanation for the gravitational deflection of light due to a refractive effect based upon strength of the gravitational field, but why bother when so many things much easier to dispose of are hanging lower on the tree. Should you buy this book? No, unless, like me, you enjoy a rare example of crackpot science which is well done. This is one of those, and if you're well acquainted with special relativity (if not, take a trip on our C-ship!) you may find it entertaining finding the flaws in and identifying experiments which falsify the arguments here.

Posted at 22:16 Permalink

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reading List: Chrysler's Turbine Car

Lehto, Steve. Chrysler's Turbine Car. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-56976-549-4.
There were few things so emblematic of the early 1960s as the jet airliner. Indeed, the period was often referred to contemporarily as the “jet age”, and products from breakfast cereal to floor wax were positioned as modern wonders of that age. Anybody who had experienced travel in a piston powered airliner and then took their first flight in a jet felt that they had stepped into the future: gone was the noise, rattling, and shaking from the cantankerous and unreliable engines that would knock the fillings loose in your teeth, replaced by a smooth whoosh which (although, in the early jets, deafening to onlookers outside), allowed carrying on a normal conversation inside the cabin. Further, notwithstanding some tragic accidents in the early days as pilots became accustomed to the characteristics of the new engines and airframes, it soon became apparent that these new airliners were a great deal safer and more reliable than their predecessors: they crashed a lot less frequently, and flights delayed and cancelled due to mechanical problems became the rare exception rather than something air travellers put up with only because the alternative was so much worse.

So, if the jet age had arrived, and jet power had proven itself to be so superior to the venerable and hideously overcomplicated piston engine, where were the jet cars? This book tells the long and tangled story of just how close we came to having turbine powered automobiles in the 1960s, how a small group of engineers plugging away at problem after problem over twenty years managed to produce an automotive powerplant so clearly superior to contemporary piston engines that almost everybody who drove a vehicle powered by it immediately fell in love and wished they could have one of their own, and ultimately how financial problems and ill-considered government meddling destroyed the opportunity to replace automotive powerplants dependent upon petroleum-based fuels (which, at the time, contained tetraethyl lead) with one which would run on any combustible liquid, emit far less pollution from the tailpipe, run for hundreds of thousands of miles without an oil change or need for a tune-up, start instantly and reliably regardless of the ambient temperature, and run so smoothly and quietly that for the first time passengers were aware of the noise of the tires rolling over the road.

In 1945, George Huebner, who had worked on turboprop aircraft for Chrysler during World War II, returned to the civilian automotive side of the company as war work wound down. A brilliant engineer as well as a natural-born promoter of all things he believed in, himself most definitely included, by 1946 he was named Chrysler's chief engineer and used his position to champion turbine propulsion, which he had already seen was the future in aviation, for automotive applications. The challenges were daunting: turboshaft engines (turbines which delivered power by turning a shaft coupled to the turbine rotor, as used in turboprop airplanes and helicopters) gulped fuel at a prodigious rate, including when at “idle”, took a long time to “spool up” to maximum power, required expensive exotic materials in the high-temperature section of the engine, and had tight tolerances which required parts to be made by costly and low production rate investment casting, which could not produce parts in the quantity, nor at a cost acceptable for a mass market automotive powerplant.

Like all of the great engineers, Huebner was simultaneously stubborn and optimistic: stubborn in his belief that a technology so much simpler and inherently more thermodynamically efficient must eventually prevail, and optimistic that with patient engineering, tackling one problem after another and pursuing multiple solutions in parallel, any challenge could be overcome. By 1963, coming up on the twentieth year of the effort, progress had been made on all fronts to the extent that Huebner persuaded Chrysler management that the time had come to find out whether the driving public was ready to embrace the jet age in their daily driving. In one of the greatest public relations stunts of all time, Chrysler ordered 55 radically styled (for the epoch) bodies from the Ghia shop in Italy, and mated them with turbine drivetrains and chassis in a Michigan factory previously used to assemble taxicabs. Fifty of these cars (the other five being retained for testing and promotional purposes) were loaned, at no charge, for periods of three months each, to a total of 203 drivers and their families. Delivery of one of these loaners became a media event, and the lucky families instant celebrities in their communities: a brief trip to the grocery store would turn into several hours fielding questions about the car and offering rides around the block to gearheads who pleaded for them.

The turbine engines, as turbine engines are wont to, once the bugs have been wrung out, performed superbly. Drivers of the loaner cars put more than a million miles on them with only minor mechanical problems. One car was rear-ended at a stop light, but you can't blame the engine for that. (Well, perhaps the guilty party was transfixed by the striking design of the rear of the car!) Drivers did notice slower acceleration from a stop due to “turbine lag”—the need for the turbine to spool up in RPM from idle, and poorer fuel economy in city driving. Fuel economy on the highway was comparable to contemporary piston engine cars. What few drivers noticed in the era of four gallons a buck gasoline, was that the turbine could run on just about any fuel you can imagine: unleaded gasoline, kerosene, heating oil, ethanol, methanol, aviation jet fuel, diesel, or any mix thereof. As a stunt, while visiting a peanut festival in Georgia, a Chrysler Turbine filled up with peanut oil, with tequila during a tour through Mexico, and with perfume at a French auto show; in each case the engine ran perfectly on the eccentric fuel (albeit with a distinctive aroma imparted to the exhaust).

So, here we are all these many years later in the twenty-first century. Where are our jet cars? That's an interesting story which illustrates the unintended consequences of well-intended public policy. Just as the turbine engine was being refined and perfected as an automotive power plant, the U.S. government started to obsess about air quality, and decided, in the spirit of the times, to impose detailed mandates upon manufacturers which constrained the design of their products. (As opposed, say, to imposing an excise tax upon vehicles based upon their total emissions and allowing manufacturers to weigh the trade-offs across their entire product line, or leaving it to states and municipalities most affected by pollution to enforce their own standards on vehicles licensed in their jurisdiction.) Since almost every vehicle on the road was piston engine powered, it was inevitable that regulators would draft their standards around the characteristics of that powerplant. In doing so, they neglected to note that the turbine engine already met all of the most stringent emissions standards they then envisioned for piston engines (and in addition, ran on unleaded fuels, completely eliminating the most hazardous emission of piston engines) with a single exception: oxides of nitrogen (NOx). The latter was a challenge for turbine engineers, because the continuous combustion in a turbine provides a longer time for nitrogen to react with oxygen. Engineers were sure they'd be able to find a way to work around this single remaining challenge, having already solved all of the emission problems the piston engine still had to overcome.

But they never got the chance. The government regulations were imposed with such short times for compliance that automakers were compelled to divert all of their research, development, and engineering resources to modifying their existing engines to meet the new standards, which proved to be ever-escalating: once a standard was met, it was made more stringent with another near-future deadline. At Chrysler, the smallest of the Big Three, this hit particularly hard, and the turbine project found its budget and engineering staff cannibalised to work on making ancient engines run rougher, burn more fuel, perform more anæmicly, and increase their cost and frequency of maintenance to satisfy a tailpipe emission standard written into law by commissars in Washington who probably took the streetcar to work. Then the second part of the double whammy hit: the oil embargo and the OPEC cartel hike in the price of oil, which led to federal fuel economy standards, which pulled in the opposite direction from the emissions standards and consumed all resources which might have been devoted to breakthroughs in automotive propulsion which would have transcended the increasingly baroque tweaks to the piston engine. A different time had arrived, and increasingly people who once eagerly awaited the unveiling of the new models from Detroit each fall began to listen to their neighbours who'd bought one of those oddly-named Japanese models and said, “Well, it's tiny and it looks odd, but it costs a whole lot less, goes almost forever on a gallon of gas, and it never, ever breaks”. From the standpoint of the mid-1970s, this began to sound pretty good to a lot of folks, and Detroit, the city and the industry which built it, began its descent from apogee to the ruin it is today.

If we could go back and change a few things in history, would we all be driving turbine cars today? I'm not so sure. At the point the turbine was undone by ill-advised public policy, one enormous engineering hurdle remained, and in retrospect it isn't clear that it could have been overcome. All turbine engines, to the present day, require materials and manufacturing processes which have never been scaled up to the volumes of passenger car manufacturing. The pioneers of the automotive turbine were confident that could be done, but they conceded that it would require at least the investment of building an entire auto plant from scratch, and that is something that Chrysler could not remotely fund at the time. It's much like building a new semiconductor fabrication facility with a new scaling factor, but without the confidence that if it succeeds a market will be there for its products. At the time the Chrysler Turbine cars were tested, Huebner estimated their cost of manufacturing at around US$50,000: roughly half of that the custom-crafted body and the rest the powertrain—the turbine engines were essentially hand-built. Such has been the depreciation of the U.S. dollar that this is equivalent to about a third of a million present-day greenbacks. Then or now, getting this cost down to something the average car buyer could afford was a formidable challenge, and it isn't obvious that the problem could have been solved, even without the resources needed to do so having been expended to comply with emissions and fuel economy diktats.

Further, turbine engines become less efficient as you scale them down—in the turbine world, the bigger the better, and they work best when run at a constant load over a long period of time. Consequently, turbine power would seem optimal for long-haul trucks, which require more power than a passenger car, run at near-constant speed over highways for hours on end, and already run on the diesel fuel which is ideal for turbines. And yet, despite research and test turbine vehicles having been built by manufacturers in the U.S., Britain, and Sweden, the diesel powerplant remains supreme. Truckers and trucking companies understand long-term investment and return, and yet the apparent advantages of the turbine haven't allowed it to gain a foothold in that market. Perhaps the turbine passenger car was one of those great ideas for which, in the final analysis, the numbers just didn't work.

I actually saw one of these cars on the road in 1964, doubtlessly driven by one the lucky drivers chosen to test it. There was something sweet about seeing the Jet Car of the Future waiting to enter a congested tunnel while we blew past it in our family Rambler station wagon, but that's just cruel. In the final chapter, we get to vicariously accompany the author on a drive in the Chrysler Turbine owned by Jay Leno, who contributes the foreword to this book.

Mark Olson's turbinecar.com has a wealth of information, photographs, and original documents relating to the Chrysler Turbine Car. The History Channel's documentary, The Chrysler Turbine, is available on DVD.

Posted at 23:54 Permalink

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading List: Back to the Moon

Taylor, Travis S. and Les Johnson. Back to the Moon. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3405-4.
Don't you just hate it when you endure the protracted birthing process of a novel set in the near future and then, with the stroke of a politician's pen, the entire premise of the story goes ker-plonk into the dustbin of history? Think about the nuclear terror novel set in the second Carter administration, or all of the Cold War thrillers in the publishing pipeline that collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Well, that's more or less what we have here. This novel is set in, shall we say, the 2020s in a parallel universe where NASA's Constellation program (now cancelled in our own timeline) remained on track and is ready to launch its first mission to return humans to the Moon. Once again, there is a Moon race underway: this time a private company, Space Excursions, hopes to be the first enterprise to send paying passengers on a free return loop around the Moon, while the Chinese space agency hopes to beat NASA to the Moon with their own landing mission.

Space Excursions is ready to win the race with their (technologically much less demanding) mission then discovers, to the horror of their passengers and the world, that a secret Chinese landing mission has crashed near the lunar limb, and the Chinese government has covered up the disaster and left their taikonauts to die unmourned to avoid their space program's losing face. Bill Stetson (try to top that for a Texas astronaut name!), commander of the soon-to-launch NASA landing mission, realises that his flight can be re-purposed into a rescue of the stranded Chinese, and the NASA back-room experts, with the clock ticking on the consumables remaining in the Chinese lander, devise a desperate but plausible plan to save them.

Thus, the first U.S. lunar mission since Apollo 17 launches with an entirely different flight plan than that envisioned and for which the crew trained. Faced with a crisis, the sclerotic NASA bureaucracy is jolted back into the “make it so” mindset they exemplified in returning the crew of Apollo 13 safely to the Earth. In the end, it takes co-operation between NASA, the Chinese space agency, and Space Excursions, along with intrepid exploits by spacemen and -women of all of those contenders in Moon Race II to pull off the rescue, leading one to wonder “why can't we all get along?”

Do not confuse this novel with the laughably inept book with the same title by Homer Hickam (April 2010). This isn't remotely as bad, but then it isn't all that good either. I don't fault it for describing a NASA program which was cancelled while the novel was in press—author Taylor vents his frustration over that in an afterword included here. What irritates me is how many essential details the authors got wrong in telling the story. They utterly mis-describe the configuration of the Constellation lunar spacecraft, completely forgetting the service module of the Orion spacecraft, which contains the engine used to leave lunar orbit and to which the solar arrays are attached. They assume the ascent stage of the Altair lunar lander remains attached to the Orion during the return from the Moon, which is insane from a mass management standpoint. Their use of terminology is just sloppy, confusing orbital and escape velocity, trans-lunar injection with lunar orbit insertion maneuvers, and a number of other teeth-grinding goofs. The orbital mechanics are a thing of fantasy: spacecraft perform plane change maneuvers which no chemical rocket could possibly execute, and the Dreamscape lunar flyby tourist vehicle is said to brake with rockets into Earth orbit before descending for a landing which is energetically and mass budget wise crazy as opposed to a direct aerobraking entry.

What is odd is that author Taylor has a doctorate in science and engineering and has worked on NASA and DOD programs for two decades, and author Johnson works for NASA. NASA is rife with science fiction fans—SF is the “literature of recruitment” for NASA. Without a doubt, hundreds of NASA people intimately acquainted with the details of the Constellation Program would have been thrilled at the chance to review and fact-check this manuscript (especially because it portrays their work in an adulatory light), and almost none of the revisions required to get it right would have had any significant impact upon the story. (The heat shield repair is an exception, but I could scribble a more thrilling chapter about doing that after jettisoning the service module with the Earth looming nearer and nearer than the one in this novel.)

This is a well-crafted thriller which will keep you turning the pages, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny if you really understand orbital mechanics or the physical constraints in going to the Moon. What is regrettable is that all of the goofs could have been remedied without compromising the story in any way.

Posted at 22:17 Permalink

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Hacker's Diet now available for iPad, iPhone, and other EPUB devices

I have just posted, for “bleeding edge” early adopters who wish to give it a try, a test edition of my book, The Hacker's Diet, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. This fifth edition is in the EPUB open document format which is compatible with the iBooks application on the Apple iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch; Sony Reader; Barnes and Noble Nook; and a variety of other electronic book devices and mobile platforms. EPUB books may be opened directly with a Web browser using the EPUBReader add-on for Firefox or the eBook Reader widget for Opera, although users of desktop and notebook computers with Internet connectivity will probably prefer to read the Web edition of the book, due to its more flexible navigation options.

If your Web browser has an EPUB-compatible plug-in installed, you can open the book simply by clicking on the The Hacker's Diet EPUB Edition link. Otherwise, use your browser's idiom to download the abovementioned file to your computer and then transfer it to your reading device according to the manufacturer's directions. For the iPad and iPhone (etc.), just drag the downloaded hackdiet.epub file to iTunes, where you should see it in the “Books” section. Then connect your reading device to the computer and the book should be transferred to it by the Sync process. If the book is not installed, make sure that you've enabled syncing books to that device, and that if you've opted not to sync all books in your library to the device, that The Hacker's Diet is checked to be copied. You must also, of course, have the Apple iBooks application installed on the device; if it's missing, go to the App Store and install it—it's free.

The Hacker's Diet EPUB edition contains no “Digital Rights Management” constraints: you are free to install it on as many devices as you wish, transfer it among them (if their hardware and software so permit), and pass on copies to others. It should be compatible with any EPUB reader hardware and software which can open standards-compliant unrestricted files. But, of course, one never knows, does one? I have tested this edition extensively on the iPad, to a cursory extent on the iPhone (where it works surprisingly well, although for some of the busier tables you'll want to turn the phone into landscape mode), with the EPUBReader add-on for Firefox, and with the built-in viewing tools of the Calibre and Sigil applications I used in producing this edition. If it doesn't work on your device or looks awful, that's why there's a Feedback button!

This edition was produced by converting the original HTML fourth edition to an EPUB archive with Calibre, then editing with Sigil (both applications cited above). After that, the results were extensively hand-edited and batch processed with custom Perl programs to obtain a document which passed XHTML and CSS validation with the W3C validators and steered clear of formatting and rendering eccentricities, at least on the iPad. In the latter stages of the production process, all editing and packaging was done by hand, as I've discovered the editing applications are inclined to unexpectedly improvise upon one's theme, leading unto surprises in the final document. So it has always been with WYSIWYG tools, and so, I suspect, it always shall be. But, hey, I've been saying that for a quarter of a century, and still nobody listens.

The one important thing I've learned from this experience is just how much work is required to turn a Web XHTML document tree which I consider completely satisfactory into an electronic book which meets my standards to release even in a test edition. A good deal of this is due to ill-defined standards, flaky and eccentric interpretations of them by reader software, and unstable production tools. But even putting all of these aside, the presentation is different on a reading device, and the user's expectations are different as to how one navigates the document, and the document structure must be adjusted to meet them. Now I understand why there are so many terrible Kindle editions of excellent books for sale on Amazon's site (often as expensive as the printed book): publishers are not investing what it takes to turn their pre-press edition into a genuinely useful electronic edition (which, hey guys, means that at a minimum the cross-references, notes, table of contents, and index are properly linked to the text. I propose that we denote those costly electronic editions of books which do not do this as BozoBooks™, identify them as such in reviews, and refuse to pay anything close to the print edition price for them).

And to answer the inevitable question, no I do not envision publishing a Kindle edition of this book until and unless the Kindle properly supports HTML/XHTML elements which have been ubiquitous on the Web for a decade and a half. The Hacker's Diet is not a novel. It contains a wealth of information in illustrations and tabular form (a total of 113 tables), and the Kindle doesn't support tables or, to the limited extent it does, mangles even the simplest examples. So, to get your document to display anything remotely useful to the user, you have to convert each table to an image, but then you don't know the resolution or screen size of the device on which the user will be viewing it (as there are a variety of screen sizes on Kindle hardware and Kindle applications for computers can have any screen size at all). I wasted far more time trying to create what I considered an acceptable Kindle edition of this book than it took to produce the EPUB edition I now offer for your scrutiny. I consider the Kindle one of the most important innovations so far in this century, and I buy most of the books I read in that format (although these days I read them with the Kindle application on my iPad). But until there's a way to transfer content to that platform which would have displayed just fine with any screen size or resolution in a Web browser 15 years ago, I don't see it as a viable platform for publishing or reading this book.

Read or download the The Hacker's Diet EPUB Edition.

Posted at 21:17 Permalink

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading List: Freedomâ„¢

Suarez, Daniel. Freedom™. New York: Signet, 2010. ISBN 978-0-451-23189-5.
You'll see this book described as the sequel to the author's breakthrough first novel Daemon (August 2010), but in fact this is the second half of a long novel which happened to be published in two volumes. As such, if you pick up this book without having read Daemon, you will have absolutely no idea what is going on, who the characters are, and why they are motivated to do the things they do. There is little or no effort to fill in the back story or bring the reader up to speed. So read Daemon first, then this book, ideally not too long afterward so the story will remain fresh in your mind. Since that's the way the author treats these two books, I'm going to take the same liberty and assume you've read my review of Daemon to establish the context for these remarks.

The last two decades have demonstrated, again and again, just how disruptive ubiquitous computing and broadband data networks can be to long-established and deeply entrenched industries such as book publishing and distribution, music recording and retailing, newspapers, legacy broadcast media, domestic customer service call centres, travel agencies, and a host of other businesses which have seen their traditional business models supplanted by something faster, more efficient, and with global reach. In this book the author explores the question of whether the fundamental governance and economic system of the last century may be next domino to fall, rendered impotent and obsolete and swept away by a fundamentally new way of doing things, impossible to imagine in the pre-wired world, based on the principles used in massively multiplayer online game engines and social networks.

Of course, governments and multinational corporations are not going to go gently into the night, and the Daemon (a distributed mesh networked game engine connected to the real world) and its minions on the “darknet” demonstrate the ruthlessness of a machine intelligence when threatened, which results in any number of scenes just begging to be brought to the big screen. In essence, the Daemon is creating a new operating system for humans, allowing them to interact in ways less rigid, more decentralised and resilient, and less hierarchical than the institutions they inherited from an era when goods and information travelled no faster than a horse.

In my estimation, this is a masterwork: the first compelling utopian/dystopian (depending on how you look at it, which is part of its genius) novel of the Internet era. It is as good, in its own way, as Looking Backward, Brave New World, or 1984, and it is a much more thrilling read than any of them. Like those classics, Suarez gets enough of the details right that you find yourself beginning to think that things might actually turn out something like this, and what kind of a world it would be to live in were that to happen.

Ray Kurzweil argues that The Singularity Is Near. In this novel, the author gets the reader to wonder whether it might not be a lot closer than Kurzweil envisions, and not require the kind of exponential increase in computing power he assumes to be the prerequisite. Might the singularity—a phase transition in the organisation of human society as profound as the discovery of agriculture—actually be about to happen in the next few years, not brought about by superhuman artificial intelligence but rather the synthesis of and interconnection of billions of human intelligences connected by a “social network” encompassing all of society? (And if you think sudden transitions like that can't happen, just ask anybody who used to own a record store or the boss of a major newspaper.) Would this be a utopian solution to a system increasingly perceived as unsustainable and inexorably crushing individuality and creativity, or would it be a descent into a potentially irreversible dark age in which humans would end up as peripherals in a vast computing grid using them to accomplish its own incomprehensible agenda? You'll probably close this book undecided on that question, and spend a good deal of time afterward pondering it. That is what makes this novel so great.

If the author can continue to rise to this standard in subsequent novels, we have a new grandmaster on the scene.

Posted at 00:34 Permalink

Monday, January 10, 2011

Reading List: Magnificent Desolation

Aldrin, Buzz. Magnificent Desolation. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4088-0416-2.
What do you do with the rest of your life when you were one of the first two humans to land on the Moon before you celebrated your fortieth birthday? This relentlessly candid autobiography answers that question for Buzz Aldrin (please don't write to chastise me for misstating his name: while born as Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., he legally changed his name to Buzz Aldrin in 1979). Life after the Moon was not easy for Aldrin. While NASA trained their astronauts for every imaginable in-flight contingency, they prepared them in no way for their celebrity after the mission was accomplished, and detail-oriented engineers were suddenly thrust into the public sphere, sent as goodwill ambassadors around the world with little or no concern for the effects upon their careers or family lives.

All of this was not easy for Aldrin, and in this book he chronicles his marriages (3), divorces (2), battles against depression and alcoholism, search for a post-Apollo career, which included commanding the U.S. Air Force test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, writing novels, serving as a corporate board member, and selling Cadillacs. In the latter part of the book he describes his recent efforts to promote space tourism, develop affordable private sector access to space, and design an architecture which will permit exploration and exploitation of the resources of the Moon, Mars and beyond with budgets well below those of the Apollo era.

This book did not work for me. Buzz Aldrin has lived an extraordinary life: he developed the techniques for orbital rendezvous used to this day in space missions, pioneered underwater neutral buoyancy training for spacewalks then performed the first completely successful extra-vehicular activity on Gemini 12, demonstrating that astronauts can do useful work in the void, and was the second man to set foot on the Moon. But all of this is completely covered in the first three chapters, and then we have 19 more chapters describing his life after the Moon. While I'm sure it's fascinating if you've lived though it yourself, it isn't necessarily all that interesting to other people. Aldrin comes across as, and admits to being, self-centred, and this is much in evidence here. His adventures, ups, downs, triumphs, and disappointments in the post-Apollo era are those that many experience in their own lives, and I don't find them compelling to read just because the author landed on the Moon forty years ago.

Buzz Aldrin is not just an American hero, but a hero of the human species: he was there when the first naked apes reached out and set foot upon another celestial body (hear what he heard in his headphones during the landing). His life after that epochal event has been a life well-lived, and his efforts to open the high frontier to ordinary citizens are to be commended. This book is his recapitulation of his life so far, but I must confess I found the post-Apollo narrative tedious. But then, they wouldn't call him Buzz if there wasn't a buzz there! Buzz is 80 years old and envisions living another 20 or so. Works for me: I'm around 60, so that gives me 40 or so to work with. Given any remotely sane space policy, Buzz could be the first man to set foot on Mars in the next 15 years, and Lois could be the first woman. Maybe I and the love of my life will be among the crew to deliver them their supplies and the essential weasels for their planetary colonisation project.

A U.S. edition is available.

Posted at 01:53 Permalink

Friday, January 7, 2011

Reading List: The Confession

Grisham, John. The Confession. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52804-7.
Just days before the scheduled execution of Donté Drumm, a black former high school football star who confessed (during a highly dubious and protracted interrogation) to the murder of white cheerleader Nicole Yarber, a serial sex offender named Travis Boyette, recently released to a nearby halfway house, shows up in the office of Lutheran pastor Keith Schroeder and, claiming to be dying of an inoperable brain tumour, confesses to the murder and volunteers to go to Texas to take responsibility for the crime, reveal where he buried the victim's body (which was never found), and avert the execution of Donté. Schroeder is placed in a near-impossible dilemma: he has little trust in the word of Boyette, whose erratic behaviour is evident from the outset, and even less desire to commit a crime assisting Boyette in violating his parole by leaving the state to travel to Texas, but he knows that if what Boyette says is true and he fails to act, an innocent man is certain to be killed by the state.

Schroeder decides to do what he can to bring Boyette's confession to the attention of the authorities in Texas, and comes into direct contact with the ruthless efficiency of the Texas killing machine. This is a story with many twists, turns, surprises, and revelations, and there's little I can say about it without spoiling the plot, so I'll leave it at that. Grisham is clearly a passionate opponent of the death penalty, and this is as much an advocacy document as a thriller. The victim's family is portrayed in an almost cartoon-like fashion, exploiting an all-too-willing media with tears and anguish on demand, and the police, prosecutors, court system, and politicians as uniformly venal villains, while those on the other side are flawed, but on the side of right. Now, certainly, there are without doubt people just as bad and as good on the sides of the issue where Grisham places them, but I suspect that most people in those positions in the real world are conflicted and trying to do their best to obtain justice for all concerned.

Taken purely as a thriller, this novel works, but in my opinion it doesn't come up to the standard set by Grisham's early work. The arcana of the law and the legal system, which Grisham excels in working into his plots, barely figure here, with racial tensions, a media circus, and a Texas town divided into two camps taking centre stage.

A mass market paperback edition will be released in July, 2011. A Kindle edition is available, and substantially less expensive than the hardcover.

Posted at 21:21 Permalink

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders Now Online

The twentieth installment in the Tom Swift adventures, Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders, 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 an atypical Tom Swift novel, as it is a pure adventure, not centred around one of Tom's inventions. Inventions from previous novels figure in the story, to be sure, but this is a tale of a small band of intrepid adventurers seeking the archæological treasures of a buried city in Honduras, faced with the elements, monstrous mosquitoes, blood-sucking bats, esurient saurians, immense iguanas, concealed constrictors, double-dealing guides, and competition from a rival party led by an ambitious professor who is not only out to make his name in the field but is also a rival for the affections of Mary Nestor, who Tom is increasingly sure is the one for him. This is, to be sure, a “juvenile pulp novel” in the dismissive terminology applied to the genre. And yet (having produced twenty of these books for the Web and, in the process, read them closely and multiple times), what we have here is an older, more mature, and more interesting Tom. It's not just that he's “getting serious” about Mary; it's that his affection for her and antipathy toward his perceived rival makes him impetuous and prone to jump to conclusions and ill-considered action, which is restrained by the wise counsel of his friends Ned Newton and “bless my ratiocination” Wakefield Damon, who in earlier novels were comic foils to Tom. Professor Swyington Bumper, a caricature in the previous novel, is a figure of restraint here, scrupulously respecting the rules of scientific priority and the rule of law when Tom is inclined to bulldoze through them.

Five public domain Tom Swift novels remain to be posted. When all are complete (this is a long-term project; I started in 2004 and have averaged between two and three novels a year), I will revise the already-posted books, bringing their production standards up to those of the more recent postings and incorporating corrections to typographical errors spotted by eagle-eyed readers.

Posted at 23:55 Permalink