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Monday, January 30, 2012
Reading List: 11/22/63
- King, Stephen.
New York: Scribner, 2011.
I gave up on Stephen King in the early 1990s. I had become
weary of what seemed to me self-indulgent doorstops of novels
which could have been improved by a sharp-pencilled editor
cutting them by one third to one half, but weren't because what
editor would dare strike words by such a celebrated (and
profitable to the publisher) author? I never made it through
and after that I stopped trying. Recently I heard good things
from several sources I respect about the
present work and, despite its formidable
length (850 pages in hardcover), decided to give it a try
(especially since I've always been a fan of time travel
to see if, a decade and a half later, King still “has it”.
The title is the date of the assassination of the U.S. president John F. Kennedy: November the 22nd of 1963 (written in the quaint American
way). In the novel, Jake Epping,
a school teacher in Maine, happens to come across a splice in
time or wormhole or whatever you choose to call it which allows
bidirectional travel between his world in 2011 and September of
1958. Persuaded by the person who discovered the inexplicable
transtemporal portal and revealed it to him, Jake takes upon himself
the mission of returning to the past and living there until November
of 1963 with the goal of averting the assassination and preventing
the pernicious sequelæ which he believed to have originated
in that calamity.
Upon arrival in the past, he discovers from other lesser wrongs he
seeks to right that while the past can be changed, it doesn't
like to be changed and pushes back—it is
mutable but “obdurate”. As he lives his life in
that lost and largely forgotten country which was the U.S.
in the middle of the 20th century, he discovers how much has
been lost compared to our times, and also how far we have
come from commonplace and unperceived injustices and
assaults upon the senses and health of that epoch. Still,
with a few rare exceptions, King forgoes the smug “look
at how much better we are than those rubes” tone that so many
contemporary authors adopt when describing the 1950s; you get
the sense that King has a deep affection for the era
in which he (and I) grew up, and it's apparent here.
I'm going to go behind the curtain now to discuss some of the
details of the novel and the (remarkably few) quibbles I have
with it. I don't consider any of these “big spoilers”,
but others may dissent, so I'd rather err on the side of caution
lest some irritated time traveller come back and….
There is a poignant sense of the momentum of events
in the past here which I have not felt in any time travel fiction
since Michael Moorcock's masterpiece
Behold The Man.
Bottom line? King's still got it.
As I got into the novel, I was afraid I'd end up hurling it
across the room (well, not actually, since I was reading the
Kindle edition and I'm rather fond of my iPad) because the
model of time travel employed just didn't make any sense. But
before long, I began to have a deeper respect for what King
was doing, and by the end of the book I came to appreciate
that what he'd created was largely compatible with the
past/future multiverse picture presented in David Deutsch's
The Fabric of Reality
and my own concept of conscious yet constrained
multiverse navigation in
toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena
If this gets made into a movie or miniseries (and that's the way
to bet), I'll bet
that scene on p. 178
where the playground roundy-round slowly spins with no kids in
sight on a windless day makes the cut—brrrrr
A few minutes' reflection will yield several ways that
Jake, given access to the Internet in 2011 and the properties
of the time portal, could have accumulated unlimited funds
to use in the past without taking the risks he did. I'll
avert my eyes here; removing the constraints he
found himself under would torpedo a large part of the plot.
On p. 457 et seq.
refers to an “omnidirectional microphone” when
what is meant is a “directional” or “parabolic”
On p. 506 the author states that during the Cuban missile
crisis “American missile bases and the Strategic Air
Command had gone to DEFCON-4 for the first time in history.”
This makes the common error in popular fiction that a higher
number indicates a greater alert condition or closeness to war.
In fact, it goes the other way:
corresponds to peacetime—the lowest state of readiness,
while DEFCON 1 means nuclear war is imminent. During the
Cuban missile crisis, SAC was ordered to DEFCON 2 while
the balance of the military was at DEFCON 3.
On p. 635, the righthand man of the dictator of Haiti is
identified as Jean-Claude
boss of the tonton macoute
But Baby Doc was born in 1951, and at the time would have been
twelve years old, unlikely to wield such powers.
If the ending doesn't make your eyes mist up, you're probably,
like the protagonist, “not a crying [person]”.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Reading List: The Saturn V F-1 Engine
- Young, Anthony.
The Saturn V F-1 Engine.
Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2009.
The F-1 rocket engine
which powered the first
stage of the
booster, which launched all of the Apollo missions to the Moon
and, as a two stage variant, the
station, was one of the singular engineering achievements
of the twentieth century, which this magnificent book chronicles
in exquisite detail. When the U.S. Air Force contracted with
Rocketdyne in 1958 for the preliminary design of a single
chamber engine with between 1 and 1.5 million pounds of thrust,
the largest existing U.S. rocket engine had less than a quarter the
maximum thrust of the proposed new powerplant, and there was no experience
base to provide confidence that problems such as ignition
transients and combustion instability which bedevil liquid
rockets would not prove insuperable when scaling an engine
to such a size. (The Soviets were known to have heavy-lift
boosters, but at the time nobody knew their engine configuration.
In fact, when their details came to be known in the West, they
were discovered to use multiple combustion chambers and/or
clustering of engines precisely to avoid the challenges of
very large engines.)
When the F-1 development began, there was no rocket on the drawing
board intended to use it, nor any mission defined which would
require it. The Air Force had simply established that such an
engine would be adequate to accomplish any military mission
in the foreseeable future. When NASA took over responsibility
for heavy launchers from the Air Force, the F-1 engine became
central to the evolving heavy lifters envisioned for missions
beyond Earth orbit. After Kennedy's decision to mount a manned
lunar landing mission, NASA embarked on a furious effort to define
how such a mission could be accomplished and what hardware would
be required to perform it. The only alternative to heavy lift would
be a large number of launches which assembled the Moon ship
in Earth orbit, which was a daunting prospect at a time when not
only were rockets famously unreliable and difficult to launch on
time, but nobody had ever so much as attempted rendezvous in space,
no less orbital assembly or refuelling operations.
With the eventual choice of
lunar orbit rendezvous
as the mission mode, it became apparent
that it would be possible to perform the lunar landing mission with
a single launch of a booster with 7.5 million pounds of sea level
thrust, which could be obtained from a cluster of five F-1 engines
(which by that time NASA had specified as 1.5 million pounds of
thrust). From the moment the preliminary design of the Saturn V
was defined until Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the definition,
design, testing, and manufacturing of the F-1 engine was squarely
on the critical path of the Apollo project. If the F-1 did not work,
or was insufficiently reliable to perform in a cluster of five and
launch on time in tight lunar launch windows, or could not have been
manufactured in the quantities required, there would be no
lunar landing. If the schedule of the F-1 slipped, the Apollo project
would slip day-for-day along with its prime mover.
This book recounts the history, rationale, design, development,
testing, refinement, transition to serial production, integration
into test articles and flight hardware, and service history of
this magnificent machine. Sadly, at this remove, some of the key
individuals involved in this project are no longer with us, but
the author tracked down those who remain and discovered
interviews done earlier by other researchers with the departed,
and he stands back and lets them speak, in lengthy quotations,
not just about the engineering and management challenges they
faced and how they were resolved, but what it felt like
to be there, then. You get the palpable sense from these
accounts that despite the tension, schedule and budget
pressure, long hours, and frustration as problem after problem
had to be diagnosed and resolved, these people were having
the time of their lives, and that they knew it
at the time and cherish it even at a half century's remove.
The author has collected more than a hundred contemporary
photographs, many in colour, which complement the text.
A total of sixty-five F-1 engines powered 13 Saturn V flight
vehicles. They performed with 100% reliability.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Heads up! Transit of Venus, 2012 June 5-6th
One of the rarest of celestial spectacles is the transit of the planet Venus in
front of the disc of the Sun as viewed from the Earth. Indeed, this event did
not occur at all in the twentieth century and takes place only twice in the twenty-first,
the first of which
, on June 8th, 2004, you've already missed.
So it's either catch the big show on June 5–6th of 2012 or plan to hang in there
until the next transit of Venus on the 11th of December 2117.
Fortunately, the 2012 transit of Venus occurs near the June solstice, when the Earth's
northern hemisphere is tilted the most toward the Sun, and since the southern
hemisphere is mostly water and ice, the vast majority of the human population
will, given clear skies, be able to observe this celestial show. With the exception of
people in western Africa, the west of Spain, Portugal, the eastern three quarters
of South America, and Antarctica, the transit will be visible, although to many
viewers the transit (which lasts about six hours) will already be in progress at
sunrise or still be in progress at sunset. So while you may not be able to observe
the whole thing, unless you happen to be in one of the sadly deprived regions
this time, you'll at least be able to see Venus as “a spot, not a dot”
crossing the disc of the Sun. The following map courtesy of
Espenak and NASA/GSFC
shows visibility of the transit. As long as you're
not in the darkest shaded area, you'll be able to see it if the weather cooperates.
You can observe the transit of Venus without any optical aid whatsoever
apart from a safe solar filter to protect your eyes. For direct viewing
with the unaided eye,
will do the job. If you want
to view or photograph the transit through binoculars, a telescope, or a camera
lens, you'll need a full-aperture solar filter securely fastened in front of the
objective. Polymer film filters
are the most economical, but a
glass, metal-coated filter
will provide a sharper image and better contrast. Whatever filter you choose,
be sure it is securely attached to your viewing device, as even
instantaneous exposure to unfiltered sunlight through optics can result in
blindness or destruction of camera equipment.
You may think this posting precocious, but if you're interested in observing,
photographing, or recording the transit on video, now is the time to decide
on the equipment and techniques you'll use, order any gear you don't have
on hand, and practice observing and imaging the Sun with the equipment
you'll use for the transit. And if, like mine, your full aperture solar filter is
showing its age, take a close look at it and see how much
its many adventures may have degraded its performance and consider
retiring it in favour of one with fewer pinhole defects.
Transits—you want 'em all now?
Happy to oblige!
Monday, January 9, 2012
Reading List: Survivors
- Rawles, James Wesley.
New York: Atria Books, 2011.
This novel is frequently described as a sequel to the author's
Patriots (December 2008), but in
fact is set in the same time period and broadens the scope
from a small group of scrupulously prepared families coping
with a “grid down” societal collapse in an isolated
and defensible retreat to people all around the U.S. and the
globe in a wide variety of states of readiness dealing with the
day to day exigencies after a hyperinflationary blow-off destroys
paper money worldwide and leads to a breakdown in the just-in-time
economy upon which life in the developed world has become
The novel tracks a variety of people in different circumstances:
an Army captain mustered out of active duty in Afghanistan,
an oil man seeking to ride out the calamity doing what he
knows best, a gang leader seeing the collapse of the old
order as the opportunity of a lifetime, and ordinary people
forced to summon extraordinary resources from within themselves
when confronted with circumstances nobody imagined plausible.
Their stories illustrate how even a small degree of preparation
(most importantly, the knowledge and skills you possess, not
the goods and gear you own [although the latter should not be
neglected—without a source of clean water, in 72 hours you're
a refugee, and as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote in
Lucifer's Hammer, “No
place is more than two meals from a revolution”]) can make
all the difference when all the rules change overnight.
Rawles is that rarest of authors: a know-it-all who actually
knows it all—embedded in this story, which can be
read simply as a periapocalyptic thriller, is a wealth of information
for those who wish to make their own preparations for such
discontinuities in their own future light cones. You'll want to
read this book with a browser window open to look up terms and
references to gear dropped in the text (acronyms are defined in the
glossary at the end, but you're on your own in researching
Some mylar-thin thinkers welcome societal collapse; they
imagine it will sweep away the dysfunction and corruption that
surrounds us today and usher in a more honourable and moral
order. Well, that may be the ultimate result (or maybe it won't:
a dark age has its own momentum, and once a culture has not
only forgotten what it knew, but forgotten what it has forgotten,
recovery can take as long or longer than it took to initially
discover what has been lost). Societal collapse, whatever the
cause, will be horrific for those who endure it, many
of whom will not survive and end their days in misery and terror.
Civilisation is a thin veneer on the red in tooth and claw heritage
of our species, and the predators among us will be the first to exploit
the opportunity that a breakdown in order presents.
This novel presents a ruthlessly realistic picture of what
societal collapse looks like to those living it. In a way,
it is airbrushed—we see the carnage in the major metropolitan
areas only from a distance. But for those looking at the
seemingly endless list of “unsustainable” trends
underway at present and wise enough to note that something
which is unsustainable will, perforce, end, this book will
help them think about the aftermath of that end and suggest
preparations which may help riding it out and positioning
themselves to prosper in the inevitable recovery.
Saturday, January 7, 2012
Reading List: Early Warning
- Walsh, Michael.
New York: Pinnacle Books, 2010.
This is the second novel in the author's “Devlin”
series of thrillers. When I read the first,
Hostile Intent, I described it
as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author
“may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any
of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did
go ahead and read the next book in the series, and I'm
pleased to report that the versatile and accomplished author
(see the review of Hostile Intent for
a brief biography and summary of his other work) has indeed
now mastered the genre and this novel is as tightly plotted, action
packed, and bristling with detail as the work of
Vince Flynn and
In this novel, renegade billionaire Emanuel Skorzeny, after having
escaped justice for the depredations he unleashed in the previous
novel, has been reduced to hiding out in jurisdictions which
have no extradition treaty with the United States. NSA covert
agent “Devlin” is on his trail when a coordinated
series of terrorist attacks strike New York City. Feckless
U.S. President Jeb Tyler decides to leave New York's police
Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) to fend for itself to avoid the
débâcle being laid at his feet, but allows
Devlin to be sent in covertly to track down and take out
the malefactors. Devlin assumes his “angel of death”
persona and goes to work, eventually becoming also the
guardian angel of the head of CTU, old school second generation
Irish cop Francis Xavier Byrne.
Devlin and the CTU eventually help the perpetrators achieve
the martyrdom to which they aspire, but not before massive damage is
inflicted upon the city and one terrorist goal accomplished
which may cause even more in the future. How this fits into
Skorzeny's evil schemes still remains to be discovered, as
the mastermind's plot seems to involve not only mayhem on
the streets of Manhattan but also the Higgs boson.
The action and intrigue are leavened by excursions into
cryptography (did you know about the
Poe Cryptographic Challenge?),
the music of
and Devlin's developing relationship with the
enigmatic Iranian expatriate “Maryam”. This is
an entertaining and satisfying thriller, and I'm planning
to read the next episode,
in due time.