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Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Reading List: Hunger: An Unnatural History
- Russell, Sharman Apt.
Hunger: An Unnatural History.
New York: Basic Books, 2005.
As the author begins this volume, “Hunger is a country we enter
every day…”. Our bodies (and especially our hypertrophied
brains) require a constant supply of energy, and have only a limited
and relatively inefficient means to store excesses and release it
upon demand, and consequently we have evolved to have a strong and
immediate sense for inadequate nutrition, which in the normal
course of things causes us to find something to eat. When we do
not eat, regardless of the cause, we experience hunger, which is
one of the strongest of somatic sensations. Whether hunger is
caused by famine, fasting from ritual or in search of transcendence,
forgoing food in favour of others, a deliberate hunger strike with
the goal of effecting social or political change, deprivation at the
hands of a coercive regime, or self-induced by a dietary regime
aimed at improving one's health or appearance, it has the same grip
upon the gut and the brain. As I wrote in
The Hacker's Diet:
Hunger is a command, not a request. Hunger is looking at your dog
curled up sleeping on the rug and thinking, “I wonder how much
meat there is beneath all that fur?”
Here, the author explores hunger both at the level of
biochemistry (where you may be amazed how much has been learned
in the past few decades as to how the body regulates appetite
and the fall-back from glucose-based metabolism from food to
ketone body energy produced from stored fat, and how the ratio
of energy from consumption of muscle mass differs between lean
and obese individuals and varies over time) and the historical
and social context of hunger. We encounter mystics and saints
who fast to discover a higher wisdom or their inner essence;
political activists (including Gandhi) willing to starve
themselves to the point of death to shame their oppressors into
capitulation; peoples whose circumstances have created a
perverse (to us, the well-fed) culture built around hunger
as the usual state of affairs; volunteers who participated in
projects to explore the process of starvation and means to
rescue those near death from its consequences; doctors in the
Warsaw ghetto who documented the effects of starvation in
patients they lacked the resources to save; and the millions
of victims of famine in the last two centuries.
In discussing famine, the author appears uncomfortable with the
fact, reluctantly alluded to, that famine in the modern era
is almost never the result of a shortage of food, but rather
the consequence of coercive government either constraining the supply
of food or blocking its delivery to those in need. Even in the
great Irish famine of the 1840s, Ireland continued to export
food even as its population starved. (The author argues that
even had the exports been halted, the food would have been inadequate
to feed the Irish, but even so, they could have saved some,
and this is before considering potential food shipments from the
rest of the “Union” to a starving Ireland. [Pardon
me if this gets me going—ancestors….]) Certainly today
it is beyond dispute that the world produces far more food (at least
as measured by calories and principal nutrients) than is needed to
feed its population. Consequently, whenever there is a famine,
the cause is not a shortage of food but rather an interruption
in its delivery to those who need it. While aid programs can
help to alleviate crises, and “re-feeding” therapy can
rescue those on the brink of death by hunger, the problem will
persist until the dysfunctional governments that starve their
people and loot aid intended for them are eliminated. Given how
those who've starved in recent decades have usually been
disempowered minorities, perhaps it would be more effective
in the long term to arm them than to feed them.
You will not find such gnarly sentiments in this book, which is very
much aligned with the NGO view that famine due to evil coercive
dictatorships is just one of those things that happens, like
hurricanes. That said, I cannot recommend this book too highly.
The biochemical view of hunger and energy storage and release in
times of feast and famine alone is worth the price of admission,
and the exploration of hunger in religion, politics, and even
entertainment puts it over the top. If you're dieting, this may
not be the book to read, but on the other hand, maybe it's just
The author is the
Milburn G. “Mel” Apt,
the first human to fly faster than Mach 3, who died when his
research plane crashed after its record-setting flight.
Friday, February 24, 2012
Reading List: Launch On Need
- Guiteras, Daniel.
Launch On Need.
Unknown: T-Cell Books, 2010.
An almost universal convention of the alternative history genre
is that there is a single point of departure (which I call “the
veer”) where an event or fact in the narrative differs from
that in the historical record, whence the rest of the story plays
out with the same logic and plausibility as what actually
happened in our timeline. When this is done well, it makes for
engaging and thought-provoking fiction, as there are few things
which so engage the cognitive veneer of our ancient brains as
asking “what if?” This book is a superb exemplar of
this genre, which works both as a thriller and an exploration of
how the Space Shuttle program might have coped with the damage
to orbiter Columbia due to foam shed from the bipod ramp of
the external tank during its launch on
Here, the veer is
imagining NASA remained the kind of “can do”,
“whatever it takes” organisation that it was in
the early days of space flight through the rescue of Apollo 13
instead of the sclerotic bureaucracy it had become in
the Shuttle era (and remains today). Dismissing evidence
of damage to Columbia's thermal protection system (TPS) due to a
foam strike, and not even seeking imagery from spy satellites,
NASA's passive “managers” sighed and said
“nothing could be done anyway” and allowed
the crew to complete their mission and
This needn't have happened. The
Columbia Accident Investigation Board
(CAIB) explored whether a
(PDF, scroll down to page 173),
mounted as soon as possible after
the possible damage to Columbia's TPS was detected, might
have been able to rescue the crew before the expendables aboard
Columbia were exhausted. Their conclusion? A rescue mission
was possible, but only at the cost of cutting corners on
safety margins and assuming nothing went wrong in the process of
bringing the rescue shuttle, Atlantis, to the pad and launching
In this novel, the author takes great care to respect the dead,
only referring to members of Columbia's crew by their crew
positions such as “commander” or “mission specialist”,
and invents names for those in NASA involved in the management of
the actual mission. He draws upon the CAIB-envisioned rescue mission,
including tables and graphics from their report, while humanising
their dry prose with views of events as they
unfold by fallible humans living them.
You knew this was coming, didn't you? You were waiting
for it—confess! So here we go, into the quibbles.
Some of these are substantial spoilers, so be warned.
While it's fun to spot and research goofs like these, I found they did not
detract in any way from enjoyment of the novel, which is a perfectly plausible
alternative history of Columbia's last mission.
Page numbers in the items below are from the
, in which page numbers
and their correspondence to print editions tend to be
somewhat fluid. Consequently, depending upon how you arrive
there, the page number in your edition may differ by ±1 page.
- On p. 2, Brown “knew E208 was a high-resolution
video camera…” which “By T-plus-240 seconds
… had run through 1,000 feet of film.”
- Video cameras do not use film. The confusion between video
and film persists for several subsequent chapters.
- On p. 5 the fifth Space Shuttle orbiter constructed
is referred to as “Endeavor”.
- In fact, this
ship's name is properly spelled “Endeavour”,
named after the
- On p. 28 “…the crew members spent an additional 3,500 hundred
hours studying and training…”
- That's forty years—I think not.
- On p. 55 Kalpana Chawla is described as a “female
- While Chawla was born in India,
she became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and presumably relinquished
her Indian citizenship in the process of naturalisation.
- On p. 57 “Both [STS-107] astronauts selected for this
EVA have previous spacewalk experience…”.
- In fact, none of the STS-107 astronauts had ever performed
- On p. 65 “Normally, when spacewalks were part of
the mission plan, the entire cabin of the orbiter was
decompressed at least 24 hours prior to the start of
- Are you crazy! EVA crewmembers pre-breathe pure
oxygen in the cabin, then adapt to the low pressure of
the spacesuit in the airlock, but the Shuttle cabin is
never depressurised. If it were what would the other
crewmembers breathe—Fireball XL5
- On p. 75 the EVA astronaut looks out from
Columbia's airlock and sees Cape Horn.
- But the mission has been launched into an inclination of
39 degrees, so Cape Horn (55°59' S) should be out
of sight to the South. Here is the
view from Columbia's altitude
on a pass over South America at the latitude of Cape Horn.
- On p. 221 the countdown clock is said to have been
“stuck on nine minutes zero seconds for the past
three hours and twenty-seven minutes.”
- The T−9 minute hold is never remotely that long. It's
usually on the order of 10 to 20 minutes. If there were
a reason for such a long hold, it would have been performed
much earlier in the count. In any case, given the short
launch window for the rendezvous, there'd be no reason
for a long planned hold, and an unplanned hold would have
resulted in a scrub of the mission until the next alignment
with the plane of Columbia's orbit.
- On p. 271 the crew of Atlantis open the
payload bay doors shortly before the rendezvous with
- This makes no sense. Shuttles have to open their payload bay
doors shortly after achieving orbit so that the radiators
can discard heat. Atlantis would have opened its
payload bay doors on the first orbit, not 24 hours later
whilst approaching Columbia.
- On p. 299 the consequences of blowing
the crew ingress/egress hatch with the pyrotechnics is discussed.
- There is no reason to consider doing this. From the
inception of the shuttle program, the orbiter hatch
has been able to be opened from the inside. The crew
need only depressurise the orbiter and then operate the
hatch opening mechanism.
- On p. 332 “Standing by for communications
- The communications blackout is a staple of spaceflight
drama but, in the shuttle era described in this novel,
a thing of the past. While communications from the
ground are blocked by plasma during reentry,
communications from the shuttle routed through
satellites are available throughout reentry except for
brief periods when the orbiter's antennas are not aimed
at the relay satellite overhead.
- On p. 349 an Aegis guided missile cruiser shoots down
the abandoned Columbia.
- Where do I start? A
shuttle orbiter weighs about 100 tonnes. An
has a kinetic kill energy of around 130 megajoules, which is
impressive, but is likely to pass through the structure of the
shuttle, dispersing some debris, but leaving most of the
But let's suppose
Columbia were dispersed
into her component parts. Well, then the massive parts, such as
the three main engines, would remain in orbit even longer,
freed of the high-drag encumbrance of the rest of the
structure, and come down hot and hard at random
places around the globe. Probably, they'd splash in the
ocean, but maybe they wouldn't—we'll never know.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Reading List: The End
- Kershaw, Ian.
New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
Ian Kershaw is the author of the definitive two-volume
biography of Hitler:
Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris
Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis
(both of which I read before I began keeping this list).
In the present volume he tackles one of the greatest puzzles
of World War II: why did Germany continue fighting to the
bitter end, when the Red Army was only blocks from Hitler's
bunker, and long after it was apparent to those in the
Nazi hierarchy, senior military commanders, industrialists,
and the general populace that the war was lost and
continuing the conflict would only prolong the suffering,
inflict further casualties, and further devastate the
infrastructure upon which survival in a postwar world would
depend? It is, as the author notes, quite rare in the history
of human conflict that the battle has to be taken all the way
to the leader of an opponent in his capital city: Mussolini
was deposed by his own Grand Council of Fascism and the
king of Italy, and Japan surrendered before a single Allied
soldier set foot upon the Home Islands (albeit after the
imposition of a total blockade, the entry of the Soviet Union
into the war against Japan, and the destruction of two
cities by atomic bombs).
In addressing this question, the author recounts the last year of
the war in great detail, starting with the
which attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler on
July 20th, 1944. In the aftermath of this plot, a ruthless
purge of those considered unreliable in the military and
party ensued (in the Wehrmacht alone, around 700 officers were
arrested and 110 executed), those who survived were forced to
swear personal allegiance to Hitler, and additional informants
and internal repression were unleashed to identify and mete out
summary punishment for any perceived disloyalty or defeatist
sentiment. This, in effect, aligned those
who might have opposed Hitler with his own personal destiny
and made any overt expression of dissent from his will to
hold out to the end tantamount to suicide.
But the story does not end there. Letters from soldiers at the
front, meticulously catalogued by the censors of the
and summarised in reports to Goebbels's propaganda ministry,
indicate that while morale deteriorated in the last year of the
war, fear of the consequences of a defeat, particularly at the
hands of the Red Army, motivated many to keep on fighting.
Propaganda highlighted the atrocities committed by the
“Asian Bolshevik hordes” but, if exaggerated, was
grounded in fact, as the Red Army was largely given a free hand
if not encouraged to exact revenge for German war crimes on
approached, those in Hitler's inner circle, who might
have otherwise moved against him under other circumstances, were
paralysed by the knowledge that their own authority flowed
entirely from him, and that any hint of disloyalty would cause
them to be dismissed or worse (as had already happened to several).
With the Party and its informants and enforcers having thoroughly
infiltrated the military and civilian population, there was simply
no chance for an opposition movement to establish itself. Certainly
there were those, particularly on the Western front, who did as
little as possible and waited for the British and Americans to
arrive (the French—not so much: reprisals under the zones
they occupied had already inspired fear among those in their
path). But finally, as long as Hitler was determined to
resist to the very last and willing to accept the total
destruction of the German people who he deemed to have
“failed him”, there was simply no counterpoise
which could oppose him and put an end to the conflict.
Tellingly, only a week after Hitler's death, his successor,
ordered the surrender of Germany.
This is a superb, thoughtful, and thoroughly documented (indeed,
almost 40% of the book is source citations and notes) account of
the final days of the Third Reich and an enlightening and
persuasive argument as to why things ended as they did.
As with all insightful works of history, the reader may be prompted to
see parallels in other epochs and current events. Personally, I
gained a great deal of insight into the ongoing
and the increasingly futile efforts of those who
brought it about to (as the tired phrase, endlessly repeated)
“kick the can down the road” rather than make
the structural changes which might address the actual causes
of the problem. Now, I'm not calling the central bankers,
politicians, or multinational bank syndicates Nazis—I'm
simply observing that as the financial apocalypse approaches
they're behaving in much the same way as the Hitler regime did
in its own final days: trying increasingly desperate measures to
buy first months, then weeks, then days, and ultimately hours
before “The End”. Much as was the case with
Hitler's inner circle, those calling the shots in the
international financial system simply cannot imagine a world
in which it no longer exists, or their place in such a world,
so they continue to buy time, whatever the cost or how small
the interval, to preserve the reference frame in which they
exist. The shudder of artillery can already be felt in
Monday, February 13, 2012
Reading List: Lunar Impact
- Hall, R. Cargill.
Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1977.
ISBN 978-0-486-47757-2. NASA SP-4210.
One of the wonderful things about the emergence of electronic
books is that long out-of-print works from publishers'
back-lists are becoming available once again since the cost
of keeping them in print, after the initial conversion to an
electronic format, is essentially zero. The U.S. civilian
space agency NASA is to be commended for their efforts to
make publications in their NASA history series available
electronically at a bargain price. Many of these documents,
chronicling the early days of space exploration from a perspective
only a few years after the events, have been out of print for
decades and some command forbidding prices on used book markets.
Those interested in reading them, as opposed to collectors, now
have an option as inexpensive as it is convenient to put these
works in their hands.
The present volume, originally published in 1977, chronicles
NASA's first attempt to obtain “ground truth” about
the surface of the Moon by sending probes to crash on its surface,
radioing back high-resolution pictures, measuring
its composition, and hard-landing scientific instruments on the
surface to study the Moon's geology. When the project was
begun in 1959, it was breathtakingly ambitious—so much
so that one gets the sense those who set its goals did not
fully appreciate the difficulty of accomplishing them. Ranger
was to be not just a purpose-built lunar probe, but rather a
general-purpose “bus” for lunar and planetary missions
which could be equipped with different scientific instruments
depending upon the destination and goals of the flight. It would
incorporate, for the first time in a deep space mission,
three-axis stabilisation, a steerable high-gain antenna, midcourse
and terminal trajectory correction, an onboard (albeit extremely
primitive) computer, real-time transmission of television
imagery, support by a global
Deep Space Network
of tracking stations which did not exist before Ranger, sterilisation
of the spacecraft to protect against contamination of celestial bodies
by terrestrial organisms, and a retro-rocket and landing capsule which
would allow rudimentary scientific instruments to survive thumping
down on the Moon and transmit their results back to Earth.
This was a great deal to bite off, and as those charged with delivering
upon these lofty goals discovered, extremely difficult to chew,
especially in a period where NASA was still in the process of
organising itself and lines of authority among NASA Headquarters,
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (charged with developing the
spacecraft and conducting the missions) and the Air Force (which
launch vehicle that propelled Ranger to the Moon) were
ill-defined and shifting frequently. This, along with the
inherent difficulty of what was being attempted, contributed to
results which can scarcely be imagined in an era of
super-conservative mission design: six consecutive failures
between 1961 and 1964, with a wide variety of causes. Even in
the early days of spaceflight, this was enough to get the
attention of the press, politicians, and public, and it
was highly probable that had
also failed, it would be the end of the program.
But it didn't—de-scoped to just a camera platform,
it performed flawlessly and provided the first close-up glimpse
of the Moon's surface. Rangers 8 and 9 followed, both complete
successes, with the latter relaying pictures “live from the Moon”
to televisions of viewers around the world. To this day I
recall seeing them and experiencing a sense of wonder which is
difficult to appreciate in our jaded age.
Project Ranger provided both the technology and experience
base used in the
missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury. While the scientific
results of Ranger were soon eclipsed by those of the
soft landers, it is unlikely that program would have succeeded
without learning the painful lessons from Ranger.
The electronic edition of this book appears to have been
created by scanning a print copy and running it through
an optical character recognition program, then performing
a spelling check and fixing errors it noted. However, no
close proofreading appears to have been done, so that
scanning errors which resulted in words in the spelling
dictionary were not corrected. This results in a number of
goofs in the text, some of which are humorous. My favourite
is the phrase “midcourse correction bum [burn]”
which occurs on several occasions. I imagine a dissipated
wino with his trembling finger quivering above a big red
“FIRE” button at a console at JPL. British
readers may…no, I'm not going there. Illustrations
from the original book are scanned and included as tiny thumbnails
which cannot be enlarged. This is adequate for head shots of
people, but for diagrams, charts, and photographs of hardware
and the lunar surface, next to useless. References to
endnotes in the text look like links but (at least reading
the Kindle edition on an iPad) do nothing. These minor flaws
do not seriously detract from the glimpse this work provides
of unmanned planetary exploration at its moment of creation
or the joy that this account is once again readily available.
Unlike many of the NASA history series, a paperback
reprint edition is available, published
by Dover. It is, however, much more expensive than the
Update: Reader J. Peterson writes that a
edition of this book is available on NASA's Web site,
in which the illustrations may be clicked to view
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Recipes: Fourmilab Can't Fail Paleo Egg Salad
You don't need to give up egg salad when you go paleo
! Yes, you'll have to forgo the sandwich, but the best part is the yummy filling, not the bread, so prepare to feast upon the unalloyed core, which is totally paleo. Here's what you need:
|Hard boiled eggs ||4
|Omega 3 Mayonnaise ||4 Tbsp
|Chopped green onion ||2 Tbsp
|Dijon mustard ||1 tsp
|Cayenne pepper ||1/8 tsp
As a fervent believer in division of labour, I buy “pique-nique
” eggs already hard boiled. These often run to the small side, and if they're seriously dinky, you might want to use five instead of four. If you prefer to boil your own eggs, here are foolproof instructions
Peel the hard boiled eggs and throw them and the rest of the ingredients into a bowl and mash and stir until they're well mixed.
If you can't handle the heat, dispense with the cayenne pepper; if you're a hothead (like me) go wild with it. If you can't get green onions, or you prefer a crunchier onion experience, use chopped hard yellow onion instead.
This is best if you make it up, put it in the frigo, and serve it the next day, stirring it immediately before bringing it to the table. This makes about two servings, or one if it's your one meal a day