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Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Reading List: Rockets and People. Vol. 1
- Chertok, Boris E.
Rockets and People. Vol. 1.
Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration,  2005.
ISBN 978-1-4700-1463-6 NASA SP-2005-4110.
This is the first book of the author's monumental
four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile
and space program.
was a survivor, living
through the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin's purges of the
1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between
chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians,
and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland
in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring
from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age
of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999.
Originally published in Russian in 1999, this
annotated English translation was prepared by the
NASA History Office under the direction of
Asif A. Siddiqi, author of
Challenge to Apollo (April 2008),
the definitive Western history of the Soviet space
Chertok saw it all, from the earliest Soviet experiments with
rocketry in the 1930s, uncovering the secrets of the
German V-2 amid the rubble of postwar Germany (he was
the director of the
where German and Soviet specialists worked side by side laying
the foundations of postwar Soviet rocketry), the glory days of
Sputnik and Gagarin, the anguish of losing the Moon race, and the
emergence of Soviet preeminence in long-duration space station
The first volume covers Chertok's career up to the conclusion of his
work in Germany in 1947. Unlike Challenge to Apollo,
which is a scholarly institutional and technical history (and
consequently rather dry reading), Chertok gives you a visceral sense
of what it was like to be there: sometimes chilling, as in his
descriptions of the 1930s where he matter-of-factly describes his
supervisors and colleagues as having been shot or sent to Siberia
just as an employee in the West would speak of somebody being
transferred to another office, and occasionally funny, as when he
recounts the story of the imperious
showing up at his door in a car belching copious smoke. It turns out
that Glushko had driven all the way with the handbrake on, and
his subordinate hadn't dared mention it because Glushko didn't like
to be distracted when at the wheel.
When the Soviets began to roll out their space spectaculars in the
late 1950s and early '60s, some in the West attributed their
success to the Soviets having gotten the “good German”
rocket scientists while the West ended up with the second team.
Chertok's memoir puts an end to such speculation. By the time
the Americans and British vacated the V-2 production areas,
they had packed up and shipped out hundreds of rail cars of
V-2 missiles and components and captured von Braun and all of his
senior staff, who delivered extensive technical documentation
as part of their surrender. This left the Soviets with pretty slim
pickings, and Chertok and his staff struggled to find components,
documents, and specialists left behind. This put them at
a substantial disadvantage compared to the U.S., but forced them
to reverse-engineer German technology and train their own people
in the disciplines of guided missilery rather than rely upon a
German rocket team.
History owes a great debt to Boris Chertok not only for the
achievements in his six decade career (for which he was
awarded Hero of Socialist Labour, the Lenin Prize, the
Order of Lenin [twice], and the USSR State Prize), but for
living so long and undertaking to document the momentous
events he experienced at the first epoch at which such
a candid account was possible. Only after the fall of the
Soviet Union could the events chronicled here be freely
discussed, and the merits and shortcomings of the Soviet system
in accomplishing large technological projects be weighed.
As with all NASA
publications, the work is in the public domain, and an
PDF edition is available.
A Kindle edition is available which is perfectly
readable but rather cheaply produced. Footnotes simply appear in
the text in-line somewhere after the reference, set in small red
type. Words are occasionally run together and capitalisation is
missing on some proper nouns. The index references page numbers
from the print edition which are not included in the Kindle
version, and hence are completely useless. If you have a
workable PDF application on your reading device, I'd go with the
NASA PDF, which is not only better formatted but free.
Russian edition is available online.
Friday, May 18, 2012
In the mail: Fitness for Geeks
Fitness for Geeks
by Bruce W. Perry is now out from O'Reilly. I am interviewed on page 63 about The Hacker's Diet
. You can find the interview in Amazon's “search inside” by searching for “Walker”. A Kindle edition
is also available.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Reading List: Soft Target
- Hunter, Stephen.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
This has to be among the worst nightmares of those few functionaries
tasked with the “anti-terrorist” mission in the West who
are not complacent seat-warmers counting the days until their retirement
or figuring out how to advance their careers or gain additional power
over the citizens whose taxes fund their generous salaries and benefits.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a group of Somali militants infiltrate
and stage a hostage-taking raid on “America, the Mall” in a
suburb of Minneapolis (having nothing to do, of course, with another
mega-mall in the
vicinity). Implausibly, given the apparent provenance of the
perpetrators, they manage to penetrate the mall's
system and impose a full lock-down, preventing escape and diverting
surveillance cameras for their own use.
This happens on the watch of Douglas Obobo, commandant of the
Minnesota State Police, the son of a Kenyan graduate student and
a U.S. anthropologist who, after graduating from Harvard Law
School, had artfully played the affirmative action card and traded
upon his glibness to hop from job to job, rising in the
hierarchy without ever actually accomplishing anything. Obobo
views this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate how
his brand of conciliation and leading from behind can defuse a
high-profile confrontation, and thwarts efforts of those under
his command to even prepare backup plans should negotiations with
the hostage takers fail.
Meanwhile, the FBI tries to glean evidence of how the mall's security
systems were bypassed and how the attackers were armed and infiltrated,
and comes across clues which suggest a very different spin on
the motivation of the attack—one which senior law enforcement
personnel may have to seek the assistance of their grandchildren to
explain. Marine veteran Ray Cruz finds himself the man on the
style, and must rely upon his own resources to take down the
perpetrator of the atrocities.
I have a few quibbles. These are minor, and constitute only marginal
spoilers, but I'll put them behind the curtain to avoid peeving
the easily irritated.
Had, say, 200 of the 1000 patrons of the mall taken hostage availed themselves
of Minnesota's concealed carry law, and had the mall not abridged
citizens' God-given right to self-defence, the 16 terrorists would
have been taken down in the first 90 seconds after their initial
assault. Further, had the would-be terrorists known that one
in five of their intended victims were packing, do you think they
would have tried it? Just sayin'.
This is an excellent thriller, which puts into stark contrast just how
vulnerable disarmed populations are in the places they gather in
everyday life, and how absurd the humiliating security theatre is
at barn doors where the horses have fled more than a decade ago.
It is in many ways deeply cynical, but that cynicism is well-justified
by the reality of the society in which the story is set.
interview with the author is available.
- On p. 97, FBI sniper Dave McElroy fires at Ray Cruz, who
he takes to be one of the terrorists. Firing down from the
roof into the mall, he fails to
the angle of the
shot (which requires one to hold low compared to a horizontal
shot, since the distance over which the acceleration of gravity
acts is reduced as the cosine of the angle of the shot). I
find it very difficult to believe that a trained FBI sniper
would make such an error, even under the pressure of combat.
Hunters in mountain country routinely make this correction.
- On p. 116 the garbage bag containing Reed Hobart's head is
said to weigh four pounds. The mass of an average adult human
head is around 5 kg, or around 11 pounds. Since Hobart
has been described as a well-fed person with a “big head”
(p. 112), he is unlikely to be a four pound pinhead. I'd
put this down to the ever-green problem of converting between
republican and imperial units.
- Nikki Swagger's television call sign switches back and forth between
WUFF and WUSS throughout the book. I really like the idea of a
WUSS-TV, especially in Minneapolis.
- On p. 251, as the lawyers are handing out business cards to
escapees from the mall, the telephone area code on the cards is
309, which is in Illinois. Although I grant that it's more likely
such bipedal intestinal parasites would inhabit that state than
nice Minnesota, is it plausible they could have gotten to the
scene in time?
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Reading List: Ameritopia
- Levin, Mark R.
New York: Threshold Editions, 2012.
Mark Levin seems to have a particularly virtuous kind of multiple
personality disorder. Anybody who has listened to his radio
program will know him as a combative
advocate for the causes of individual liberty and civil society.
In print, however, he comes across as a scholar, deeply versed
in the texts he is discussing, who builds his case as the lawyer
he is, layer by layer, into a persuasive argument which is difficult
to refute except by recourse to denial and emotion, which are the
ultimate refuge of the slavers.
In this book, Levin examines the utopian temptation, exploring
four utopian visions: Plato's
and Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto
in detail, with lengthy quotations from the original texts.
He then turns to the philosophical foundations of the
American republic, exploring the work of
and the observations of
on the reality of democracy in America.
Levin argues that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were well
aware of utopian visions, and explicitly rejected
them in favour of a system, based upon the wisdom of Locke
and Montesquieu, which was deliberately designed to operate
in spite of the weaknesses of the fallible humans which would
serve as its magistrates. As Freeman Dyson observed, “The
American Constitution is designed to be operated by crooks, just as
the British constitution is designed to be operated by
gentlemen.” Engineers who value inherent robustness in
systems will immediately grasp the wisdom of this: gentlemen are
scarce and vulnerable to corruption, while crooks are an
For some crazy reason, most societies choose lawyers as legislators
and executives. I think they would be much better advised to opt
for folks who have designed, implemented, and debugged two or more
operating systems in their careers. A political system is, after
all, just an operating system that sorts out the rights and responsibilities
of a multitude of independent agents, all acting in their own
self interest, and equipped with the capacity to game the system and
exploit any opportunity for their own ends. Looking at the classic
utopias, what strikes this operating system designer is how sadly
static they all are—they assume that, uniquely after
billions of years of evolution and thousands of generations of
humans, history has come to an end and that a wise person can now
figure out how all people in an indefinite future should live
their lives, necessarily forgoing improvement through disruptive
technologies or ideas, as that would break the perfect system.
The American founding was the antithesis of utopia: it was a minimal
operating system which was intended to provide the rule of law which
enabled civil society to explore the frontiers of not just a
continent but the human potential. Unlike the grand design of
utopian systems, the U.S. Constitution was a lean operating system
which devolved almost all initiative to “apps” created
by the citizens living under it.
In the 20th century, as the U.S. consolidated itself as a continental
power, emerged as a world class industrial force, and built a two
ocean navy, the utopian temptation rose among the political class, who
saw in the U.S. not just the sum of the individual creativity and
enterprise of its citizens but the potential to build heaven on Earth
if only those pesky constitutional constraints could be shed. Levin
cites Wilson and FDR as exemplars of this temptation, but for most of
the last century both main political parties more or less bought
into transforming America into Ameritopia.
In the epilogue, Levin asks whether it is possible to reverse
the trend and roll back Ameritopia into a society which values
the individual above the collective and restores the essential
liberty of the citizen from the intrusive state. He cites hopeful
indications, such as the rise of the “Tea Party”
movement, but ultimately I find these unpersuasive. Collectivism
always collapses, but usually from its own internal contradictions;
the way to bet in the long term is on individual liberty and free
enterprise, but I expect it will take a painful and protracted
economic and societal collapse to flense the burden of bad ideas
which afflict us today.
the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the
text, but the note citations in the main text are so
tiny (at least when read with the Kindle application
on the iPad) that it is almost impossible to tap
Monday, May 7, 2012
Reading List: Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?
- Gergel, Max G.
Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like
to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?
Rockford, IL: Pierce Chemical Company, 1979.
Throughout Max Gergel's long career he has been an
unforgettable character for all who encountered
him in the many rôles he has played: student, bench
chemist, instructor of aviation cadets, entrepreneur,
supplier to the Manhattan Project, buyer and seller of
obscure reagents to a global clientele, consultant to
industry, travelling salesman peddling products ranging
to roach killer and toilet bowl cleaner, and evangelist
persuading young people to pursue careers in chemistry.
With family and friends (and no outside capital) he founded
Columbia Organic Chemicals, a specialty chemical supplier
specialising in halocarbons but, operating on a shoestring,
willing to make almost anything a customer was ready to
purchase (even Max drew the line, however, when the
silver-tongued director of the Naval Research Laboratory
tried to persuade him to make
The narrative is as rambling and entertaining as one imagines
sharing a couple (or a couple dozen) drinks with Max at
an American Chemical Society meeting would have been. He
jumps from family to friends to finances to business to
professional colleagues to suppliers to customers to
nuggets of wisdom for starting and building a business to
eccentric characters he has met and worked with to his
love life to the exotic and sometimes bone-chilling chemical
syntheses he did in his company's rough and ready facilities.
Many of Columbia's contracts involved production of moderate
quantities (between a kilogram and several 55 gallon drums) of
substances previously made only in test tube batches. This
“medium scale chemistry”—situated between
the laboratory bench and an industrial facility making
tank car loads of the stuff—involves as much art
(or, failing that, brute force and cunning) as it does
science and engineering, and this leads to many of the
adventures and misadventures chronicled here. For example,
an exothermic reaction may be simple to manage when you're
making a few grams of something—the liberated heat is simply
conducted to the walls to the test tube and dissipated: at
worst you may only need to add the reagent slowly, stir well,
and/or place the reaction vessel in a water bath. But when
DuPont placed an order for
in gallon quantities, this posed a problem which Max resolved as
When one treats
with alkali and a little water the reaction is violent; there
is a tendency to deposit the reaction product, the raw
materials and the apparatus on the ceiling and the attending
chemist. I solved this by setting up duplicate 12 liter flasks,
each equipped with double reflux condensers and surrounding
each with half a dozen large tubs. In practice, when the
reaction “took off” I would flee through the door
or window and battle the eruption with water from a garden hose.
The contents flying from the flasks were deflected by the ceiling
and collected under water in the tubs. I used towels to wring
out the contents which separated, shipping the lower level to
DuPont. They complained of solids suspended in the
liquid, but accepted the product and ordered more. I increased
the number of flasks to four, doubled the number of wash tubs
and completed the new order.
They ordered a 55 gallon drum. … (p. 127)
All of this was in the days before the EPA, OSHA, and the rest
of the suffocating blanket of soft despotism descended upon
entrepreneurial ventures in the United States that actually
did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and '50s, when Gergel
was building his business in South Carolina, he was free to
adopt the “whatever it takes” attitude which is
the quintessential ingredient for success in start-ups and
small business. The
flexibility and ingenuity which allowed Gergel not only
to compete with the titans of the chemical industry but
become a valued supplier to them is precisely what is
extinguished by intrusive regulation, which accounts for why
sclerotic dinosaurs are so comfortable with it. On the
other hand, Max's experience with
illustrates why some of these regulations were imposed:
There is no description adequate for the revulsion I felt
over handling this musky smelling, high density, deadly
liquid. As residue of the toxicity I had chronic insomnia
for years, and stayed quite slim. The government had me
questioned by Dr. Rotariu of Loyola University for there
had been a number of cases of methyl bromide poisoning and the
victims were either too befuddled or too dead to be
questioned. He asked me why I had not committed suicide
which had been the final solution for some of the afflicted
and I had to thank again the patience and wisdom of Dr. Screiber.
It is to be noted that another factor was our lack of a
replacement worker. (p. 130)
Whatever it takes.
This book was published by Pierce Chemical Company and
was never, as best I can determine, assigned either an ISBN
or Library of Congress catalogue number. I cite it above by
Control Number. The book is hopelessly out of print, and used
copies, when available, sell for forbidding prices. Your
only alternative to lay hands on a print copy is an inter-library
loan, for which the OCLC number is a useful reference. (I hear
members of the write-off generation asking, “What is
this ‘library’ of which you speak?”) I found
a scanned PDF edition in the
site; the scanned pages are sometimes a little gnarly around the
bottom, but readable. You will also find the second volume
of Gergel's memoirs, The Ageless Gergel, among
the works in this collection.
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Tom Swift and His Undersea Search Now Online
The twenty-third installment of the Tom Swift saga, Tom Swift and His Undersea Search
, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library
collection. As usual, HTML
, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available.
In this adventure, Tom's eccentric friend, Wakefield (“bless my treasure chest”) Damon has joined forces with a a smooth operator named Dixwell Hardley who claims to know, being the only survivor of the wreck, the location of the Pandora
, sunk in the West Indies carrying gold worth millions of dollars on its way to finance a revolution in a South American country. Although Tom is put off by Hardley's behaviour, his friendship with Damon persuades him, after he has verified that the ship did indeed exist and was lost in the region claimed, to update his submarine and set off to recover the fortune.
Before departure, however, Tom discovers that this Dixwell Hardley is the very same person who swindled his sweetheart Mary Nestor's uncle out of his share in a Texas oil well whose discovery and development he financed. With this, the undersea mission becomes as much about payback as payoff. Many hazards lurk under even the most placid sea, and Tom and his intrepid crew encounter an assortment of them, the playing out of which unmasks Hardley's character. In the end, despite surprises, everybody gets what's coming to them.
Tom Swift novels are generally accurate when it comes to technical details (while freely bending things as required to make Tom's inventions work, of course). In this book, I noticed two apparent lapses which could have been remedied without affecting the plot in any way.
In chapter 15, Tom fires his electric gun, which sends “a powerful
charge of electricity, like a flash of lightning, in a straight line
toward the object aimed at” toward the attacking creature. It is dubious in the extreme that firing such a weapon in the salt water of the ocean would result in anything other than a short circuit, which may prove more detrimental to Tom than the intended target.
In chapter 17, when the compressed air supply has been exhausted and the crew are at risk of suffocation, Tom exhorts them to lie down with their faces near the floor because “The freshest air is near the floor; the bad air rises, being lighter with carbonic acid.” In fact, carbon dioxide is around 50% denser than air, so it would be concentrated
near the floor. Perhaps the author is confused by the counsel, when escaping a fire, to crouch near the floor, but that's because the heated combustion products will rise above the cooler, uncontaminated air.
Two public domain Tom Swift novels remain to be posted. When all are complete (this is a long-term project begun in 2004; I 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 readers.