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Saturday, July 28, 2012
Reading List: The First Commandment
- Thor, Brad.
The First Commandment.
New York: Pocket Books, 2007.
This is the sixth in the author's
Harvath series, which began with
The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010).
In the aftermath of the shocking conclusion to the previous
novel, Takedown (November 2011),
Department of Homeland Security agent Scot Harvath discovers
that he, personally, has become the target of a plot by
person or persons unknown, aimed at individuals
close to him in a series of attacks of Biblical proportions.
When he starts to follow the trail of evidence back to the source,
he is told to stand down by no less than the president of the
United States, who declines to specify a reason. Harvath is
not a man easily dissuaded, especially when convinced that his
loved ones and colleagues are in imminent danger simply due to
their association with him, and he goes rogue, enlisting friends
in the shadowy world of private security to dig into the mystery.
This doesn't sit well with the president, who puts Harvath on a
proscription list and dispatches a CIA “Omega Team”
to deal with him. At one point a CIA agent and friend, to whom
Harvath protests that he has every right to protect those close
to him, responds “You don't have any rights. Jack Rutledge
is the president of the United States. When he tells you to
do something, you do it.” (At this point, I'd have preferred
if Harvath decked the CIA goon and explained to him that his
rights come from God, not the president of the United States,
and that while a politician may try to infringe those rights,
they remain inherent to every person. But maybe Harvath has
been working so long for the slavers that he's forgotten that.)
As Harvath follows the murky threads, he comes across evidence
which suggests a cover-up extending into the oval office, and is
forced into an uneasy détente with his nemesis, the
pint-sized supervillain known as the Troll, whose data mining
prowess permits connecting the dots in an otherwise baffling
situation. (People in Harvath's line of work tend not to
lack for enemies, after all.)
I found this to be the best Brad Thor novel I've read so
far—it's lighter on the action and gadgets and more
concentrated on the mystery and the motivations of the malefactors.
I prefer to read a series of novels in the order in which
they describe the life of the protagonist.
This book does contain sufficient background
and context so that it will work as a stand-alone thriller, but
if you haven't read the previous novels, you'll miss a lot of
the complexity of Harvath's relationships with characters
who appear here.
Monday, July 23, 2012
Reading List: The Litigators
- Grisham, John.
New York: Bantam Books,  2012.
Every now and then you come across a novel where it's obvious,
from the first few pages, that the author had an absolute blast
telling the story, and when that's the case, the reader is
generally in for a treat. This is certainly the case here.
David Zinc appeared to have it all. A Harvard Law graduate,
senior associate at Chicago mega-firm Rogan Rothberg working
in international bond finance, earning US$300,000 a year, with
a good shot of making partner (where the real gravy train
pulls into the station); he had the house, the car, and a beautiful
wife pursuing her Ph.D. in art history. And then one grim
Chicago morning, heading to the office for another exhausting
day doing work he detested with colleagues he loathed, enriching
partners he considered odious (and knowing that, if he eventually
joined their ranks, the process of getting there would have made
him just the same), he snapped. Suddenly, as the
elevator ascended, he realised as clearly as anything he'd
ever known in his life, “I cannot do this any more”.
And so, he just walked away, found a nearby bar that was open
before eight in the morning, and decided to have breakfast. A
Bloody Mary would do just fine, thanks, and then another and
another. After an all day bender, blowing off a client meeting
and infuriating his boss, texting his worried wife that all
was well despite the frantic calls to her from the office asking
where he was, he hails a taxi not sure where he wants to go,
then, spotting an advertisement on the side of a bus, tells the
driver to take him to the law offices of Finley & Figg, Attorneys.
This firm was somewhat different than the one he'd walked out of
earlier that day. Oscar Finley and Wally Figg described their
partnership as a “boutique firm”, but their stock
in trade was quicky no-fault divorces, wills, drunk driving,
and that mainstay of ground floor lawyering, personal
accident cases. The firm's modest office was located near a
busy intersection which provided an ongoing source of business,
and the office was home to a dog named AC (for Ambulance Chaser),
whose keen ears could pick up the sound of a siren even before
a lawyer could hear it.
Staggering into the office, David offers his services as a new
associate and, by soused bravado more than Harvard Law credentials,
persuades the partners that the kid has potential, whereupon they
sign him up. David quickly discovers an entire world of lawyering
they don't teach at Harvard: where lawyers carry handguns in their
briefcases along with legal pads, and with good reason; where making
the rounds of prospective clients involves visiting emergency rooms
and funeral homes, and where dissatisfied clients express their
frustration in ways that go well beyond drafting a stern memorandum.
Soon, the firm stumbles onto what may be a once in a lifetime
bonanza: a cholesterol drug called Krayoxx (no relation to
at all) which seems to cause those who take it to drop dead with
heart attacks and strokes. This vaults the three-lawyer firm into
the high-rolling world of mass tort litigation, with players with
their own private jets and golf courses. Finley & Figg ends up
at the pointy end of the spear in the litigation, which doesn't precisely
go as they had hoped.
I'd like to quote one of the funniest paragraphs I've read in some
time, but as there are minor spoilers in it, I'll put it behind
the curtain. This is the kind of writing you'll be treated to in
This story is not just funny, but also a tale of how a lawyer, in
diving off the big law rat race into the gnarly world of retail
practice rediscovers his soul and that there are actually noble and
worthy aspects of the law. The characters are complex and interact
in believable ways, and the story unfolds as such matters might well
do in the real world. There is quite a bit in common between this
The King of Torts (March 2004),
but while that is a tragedy of hubris and nemesis, this is a tale of
While Wally doodled on a legal pad as if he were heavily
medicated, Oscar did most of the talking. “So, either we get rid of
these cases and face financial ruin, or we march into federal court
three weeks from Monday with a case that no lawyer in his right
mind would try before a jury, a case with no liability, no experts, no
decent facts, a client who's crazy half the time and stoned the other
half, a client whose dead husband weighed 320 pounds and basically
ate himself to death, a veritable platoon of highly paid and very
skilled lawyers on the other side with an unlimited budget and
experts from the finest hospitals in the country, a judge who strongly
favors the other side, a judge who doesn't like us at all because he
thinks we're inexperienced and incompetent, and, well, what else?
What am I leaving out here, David?”
“We have no cash for litigation expenses,” David said, but only to
complete the checklist.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Reading List: The True Gold Standard
- Lehrman, Lewis E.
The True Gold Standard.
Greenwich, CT: Lehrman Institute, 2011.
Nothing is more obvious than that the global financial
system is headed for an inevitable crack-up of epic proportions.
Fiat (paper) money systems usually last about forty years
before imploding in the collapse of the credit expansion
bubbles they predictably create. We are now 41 years
after the United States broke the link between the world's
reserve currency, the U.S. dollar, and gold. Since then,
every currency in the world has been “floating”—decoupled
from any physical backing, and valued only by comparison with
the others. Uniquely in human history, all of the world now uses
paper money, and they are all interlinked in a global market where
shifts in sentiment or confidence can cause trillion dollar excursions
in the wealth of nations in milliseconds. The risk of “contagion”,
where loss of confidence in one paper currency causes a rush to the
next, followed by attempts to limit its appreciation by its issuer, and
a cascading race to the bottom has never been greater. The great
currency and societal collapses of the past, while seeming
apocalyptic to those living through them, were local; the next
one is likely to be all-encompassing, with consequences which are
difficult to imagine without venturing into speculative fiction.
I believe the only way to avoid this cataclysm is to get rid of
all of the debt which can never be repaid and promises which can
never be met, pop the credit bubble, and replace the funny money
upon which the entire delusional system is based with the one
standard which has stood the test of millennia: gold. If you were
designing a simulation for people to live in and wanted to provide
an ideal form of money, it would be hard to come up with something
better than element 79. It doesn't corrode or degrade absent exposure
to substances so foul as to make even thrill-seeking chemists recoil;
it's easily divisible into quantities as small as one wishes,
easy to certify as genuine; and has few applications which consume
it, which means that the above-ground supply is essentially
constant. It is also very difficult and costly to mine, which
means that the supply grows almost precisely in synchronism with that
of the world's population and their wealth—consequently, as
a monetary standard it supports a stable price level, incapable of
manipulation by politicians, bankers, or other criminal classes,
and is freely exchangeable by free people everywhere without the
constraints imposed by the slavers upon users of their currencies.
Now, when one discusses the gold standard, there is a standard litany
of objections from those bought in to the status quo.
This book dispenses with these arguments in order. If we step back
from the abyss of a financial cataclysm into a past with stable
prices, global free trade, and the ability to make long-term investments
which benefitted everybody, what's so bad about that? It doesn't
matter how much gold there is—all that matters is that the
quantity doesn't change at the whim of politicians: existing
currencies will have to be revalued against gold, but the process of
doing so will write down unpayable debts and restore solvency to the
international financial system. A gold standard is inflexible by
design: that's its essential feature, not a bug. Flexibility in
a modern economy is provided by the myriad means of extension of credit,
all of which will be anchored to reality by a stable unit of exchange.
Finally, this work provides a roadmap for getting from here to there,
with a period of price discovery preceding full convertibility of
paper money to gold and the possibility of the implementation of
convertibility being done either by a single country (creating a
competitive advantage for its currency) or by a group of issuers of
currencies working together. The author assumes the first currency
to link to gold will be called the dollar, but I'll give equal odds
it will be called the dinar, yuan, or rouble. It is difficult to get
from here to there, but one must never forget the advantage that accrues
to he who gets there first.
The assumption throughout is that the transition from the present
paper money system to gold-backed currencies is continuous. While
this is an outcome much to be preferred, I think it is, given the
profligate nature of the ruling classes and their willingness to
postpone any difficult decisions even to buy a mere week or two,
not the way to bet. Still, even if we find ourselves crawling from the
wreckage of a profoundly corrupt international financial system, this
small book provides an excellent roadmap for rebuilding a moral,
equitable, and sustainable system which will last for five decades
or so…until the slavers win office again.
This is a plan which assumes existing institutions more or less stay in
place, and that government retains its power to mandate currency at
gunpoint. A softer path to hard currency might simply be allowing
competing currencies, all exempt from tax upon conversion, to be used
in transactions, contracts, and financial instruments. I might choose
to use grammes of gold; you may prefer Euros; my neighbour may opt for Saudi
certificates redeemable in barrels of crude oil; and the newlyweds
down the street may go for Iowa coins exchangeable for a bushel of corn.
The more the better! They'll all be seamlessly exchangeable for one
another at market rates when we beam them to one another with our mobile
phones or make payments, and the best ones will endure. The only losers will
be archaic institutions like central banks, governments, and their
treasuries. The winners will be people who created the wealth and are
empowered to store and exchange it as they wish.
- It's a step back into the past.
- There isn't enough gold to go around.
- It's inflexible and unable to cope with today's dynamic economy.
- There's no way to get from here to there.
Saturday, July 14, 2012
Reading List: Red Thunder
- Varley, John.
New York: Ace, 2003.
In my review of
Ark (June 2012),
I wrote that one of the most time-tested forms of
science fiction was assuming a counterfactual (based
upon present knowledge and conventional wisdom) and then
spinning out the consequences which follow logically from
it. While Ark was a disappointment, this
full-on romp shows just how well the formula works
when employed by a master of the genre. First, one
must choose the counterfactual carefully. In this
case Varley vaults over the stumbling block of most
near-future science fiction and harks back to
Skylark novels by asking,
“What if propulsion were not the problem?”.
This sets the stage for the kind of story many might have
thought laughably obsolete in the 21st century: a bunch of
intrepid misfits building their own spaceship and blasting
off for Mars, beating en-route Chinese and American
expeditions, and demonstrating their world-transforming
technology in a way that no government would be able to
seize for its own benefit. The characters are not supermen,
but rather people so like those you know that they're
completely believable, and they develop in the story as they
find themselves, largely through the luck of being in the
right place at the right time, able to accomplish
extraordinary things. There are plenty of laughs along
the way, as well as the deeply moving backstory of the
characters, especially that of the semi-autistic savant
Jubal Broussard who stumbles onto the discovery that
changes everything for humanity, forever.
His cousin, disgraced ex-astronaut Travis Broussard, gets to
experience the “heady feeling to put the President on hold,
refuse an order, and hang up on her, all in the space of ten
minutes.” (p. 392)
The novel, dedicated to
Robert A. Heinlein,
is the peer of their greatest works and an absolute hoot—enjoy!
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Reading List: Strange Angel
- Pendle, George.
New York: Harcourt, 2005.
For those who grew up after World War II
“rocket science” meant something extremely
difficult, on the very edge of the possible, pursued by
the brightest of the bright, often at risk of death
or dire injury. In the first half of the century,
however, “rocket” was a pejorative, summoning
images of pulp magazines full of “that Buck Rogers
stuff”, fireworks that went fwoosh—flash—bang
if all went well, and often in the other order when it
didn't, with aspiring rocketeers borderline lunatics who
dreamed of crazy things like travelling to the Moon but
usually ended blowing things up, including, but not limited
This was the era in which John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons
came of age. Parsons was born and spent most of his life in
Pasadena, California, a community close enough to Los Angeles
to participate in its frontier, “anything goes” culture,
but also steeped in well-heeled old wealth, largely made in the
East and seeking the perpetually clement climate of southern
California. Parsons was attracted to things that went fwoosh
and bang from the very start. While still a high school
senior, he was hired by the Hercules Powder Company, and continued
to support himself as an explosives chemist for the rest of his
life. He never graduated from college, no less pursued an
advanced degree, but his associates and mentors, including legends
Theodore von Kármán
were deeply impressed by his knowledge and meticulously
careful work with dangerous substances and gave him their
highest recommendations. On several occasions he was called
as an expert witness to testify in high-profile trials involving
And yet, at the time, to speak seriously about rockets was as
outré as to admit one was a fan of “scientifiction”
(later science fiction), or a believer in magic. Parsons was
all-in on all of them. An avid reader of science fiction and
member of the
Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Parsons rubbed shoulders with
Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Forrest J. Ackerman. On the
darker side, Parsons became increasingly involved in the
Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO),
Aleister Crowley, and
practitioners of his “magick”. One gets the sense that
Parsons saw no conflict whatsoever among these pursuits—all
were ways to transcend the prosaic everyday life and explore a
universe enormously larger and stranger than even that of Los Angeles
and its suburbs.
Parsons and his small band of rocket enthusiasts, “the
suicide squad”, formed an uneasy alliance with the aeronautical
laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and with
access to their resources and cloak of respectability, pursued
their dangerous experiments first on campus, and then after
a few embarrassing misadventures, in Arroyo Seco behind Pasadena.
With the entry of the United States into World War II, the armed
services had difficult problems to solve which overcame the
giggle factor of anything involving the word “rocket”.
In particular, the U.S. Navy had an urgent need to launch
heavily-laden strike aircraft from short aircraft carrier
decks (steam catapults were far in the future), and were
willing to consider even Buck Rogers rockets to get them
off the deck. Well, at least as long as you didn't call them
“rockets”! So, the Navy sought to procure “Jet
Assisted Take-Off” units, and Caltech created the
“Jet Propulsion Laboratory” with Parsons as
a founder to develop them, and then its members founded the
Aerojet Engineering Corporation to build them in
quantity. Nope, no rockets around here, nowhere—just
Even as Parsons' rocket dreams came true and began to make him
wealthy, he never forsook his other interests: they were all
integral to him. He advanced in Crowley's OTO, became a
regular correspondent of the Great Beast, and proprietor of
the OTO lodge in Pasadena, home to a motley crew of bohemians
who prefigured the beatniks and hippies of the 1950s and '60s.
And he never relinquished his interest in science fiction,
L. Ron Hubbard
into his community. Hubbard, a world class grifter even in his
early days, took off with Parsons' girlfriend and most of his
savings on the promise of buying yachts in Florida and selling them
at a profit in California. Uh-huh! I'd put it down to destructive
Amidst all of this turmoil, Parsons made one of the most
important inventions in practical rocketry of the 20th
century. Apart from the work of Robert Goddard, which
occurred largely disconnected from others due to Goddard's
obsessive secrecy due to his earlier humiliation by learned
ignoramuses, and the work by the German rocket team, conducted
in secrecy in Nazi Germany, rockets mostly meant
solid rockets, and solid rockets were little changed from
mediaeval China: tubes packed with this or that variant
of black powder which went fwoosh all at once when
ignited. Nobody before Parsons saw an alternative to this.
When faced by the need for a reliable, storable, long-duration burn
propellant for Navy JATO boosters, he came up with the idea of
castable solid propellant (initially based upon asphalt and
potassium perchlorate), which could be poured as a liquid into
a booster casing with a grain shape which permitted tailoring
the duration and thrust profile of the motor to the mission
requirements. Every single solid rocket motor used today
employs this technology, and Jack Parsons, high school graduate
and self-taught propulsion chemist, invented it all by
On June 17th, 1952, an explosion destroyed a structure on
Pasadena's Orange Grove Avenue where Jack Parsons had set up
his home laboratory prior to his planned departure with his
wife to Mexico. He said he had just one more job to do for
his client, a company producing explosives for Hollywood
special effects. Parsons was gravely injured and pronounced dead
at the hospital.
The life of Jack Parsons was one which could only have occurred
in the time and place he lived it. It was a time when a small
band of outcasts could have seriously imagined building a rocket
and travelling to the Moon; a time when the community they lived
in was aboil with new religions, esoteric cults, and alternative
lifestyles; and an entirely new genre of fiction was
exploring the ultimate limits of the destiny of humanity
and its descendents. Jack swam in this sea and relished it.
His short life (just 37 years) was lived in a time and place
which has never existed before and likely will never exist
again. The work he did, the people he influenced, and
the consequences cast a long shadow still visible today (every
time you see a solid rocket booster heave a launcher off
the pad, its coruscant light, casting that shadow, is Jack Parsons'
legacy). This is a magnificent account of a singular life
which changed our world, and is commemorated on the rock
next door. On the lunar far side the 40 kilometre diameter crater
is named for the man who dreamt of setting foot, by rocketry or
magick, upon that orb and, in his legacy, finally did with a
big footprint indeed—more than eight times larger than
the one named for that
Friday, July 6, 2012
Reading List: The Liberty Intrigue
- Grace, Tom.
The Liberty Intrigue.
Unknown: Dunlap Goddard, 2012.
This novel is a kind of parallel-universe account
of the 2012 presidential election in the United States.
Rather than the actual contest, featuring a GOP
challenger who inspires the kind of enthusiasm
as week-old left-over boiled broccoli, here an
engineer, Ross Egan, who has spent his adult life outside the U.S.
and shared the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a bloody
conflict in an African nation and helping to bring about
an economic renaissance for its people, returns to the
land of his birth and is persuaded to seek the
presidency in a grass-roots, no-party bid.
Intrigue swirls around the contest from all sides. The
incumbent and his foreign-born billionaire speculator
backer launch an “operation chaos” intervention
in open primary states intended to ensure no Republican
arrives at the convention with a majority; a shadowy
Internet group calling itself “WHO IS I” (based
upon the grammar, I'd start with looking at those who
frequent the Slashdot site) makes its presence known
by a series of highly visible hack attacks and then
sets itself up as an independent real-time fact-checker
of the pronouncements of politicians. Opposition
research turns up discrepancies in the origin of
Egan's vast fortune, and a potentially devastating
secret which can be sprung upon him in the last days
of the campaign.
This just didn't work for me. The novel attempts to be a
thriller but never actually manages to be thrilling. There
are unexplained holes in the plot (Egan's energy invention
is even more airy in its description than John Galt's motor)
and characters often seem to act in ways that just aren't
consistent with what we know of them and the circumstances
in which they find themselves. Finally, the novel ends with
the election, when the really interesting part would be
what happens in its aftermath. All in all, if you're looking
for a U.S. presidential election thriller and don't mind it
being somewhat dated, I'd recommend
Aaron Zelman and L. Neil Smith's
Hope (March 2002)
instead of this book.
I use “Unknown” as the publisher's domicile in
the citation above because neither the book nor the
on the publisher's
Web site provides
this information. A
on their domain name indicates it is hidden behind
a front named “Domain Discreet Privacy Service”
of Jacksonville, Florida. Way to go with the transparency
and standing up in public for what you believe, guys!
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Reading List: Did Muhammad Exist?
- Spencer, Robert.
Did Muhammad Exist?
Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012.
wrote that Islam
“was born in the full light of history…”. But
is this the case? What do we actually know of the origins of
Islam, the life of its prophet, and the provenance of
its holy book? In this thoroughly researched and documented
investigation the author argues that the answer to these questions
is very little indeed, and that contemporary
evidence for the existence of a prophet in Arabia who proclaimed
a scripture, led the believers into battle and prevailed,
unifying the peninsula, and lived the life documented in the
Muslim tradition is entirely nonexistent during the time of Muhammad's
supposed life, and did not emerge until decades, and in many
cases, more than a century later. Further, the historical record
shows clear signs, acknowledged by contemporary historians, of
having been fabricated by rival factions contending for power in
the emerging Arab empire.
What is beyond dispute is that in the century and a quarter
A.D. 622 and 750, Arab
armies erupted from the Arabian peninsula and
an empire spanning three continents, propagating a
change in culture, governance, and religion which remains
in effect in much of that region today. The conventional
story is that these warriors were the armies of Islam,
following their prophet's command to spread the word of
their God and bearing his holy writ, the Qur'an, before
them as they imposed it upon those they subdued by the
sword. But what is the evidence for this?
When you look for it, it's remarkably scanty. As the peoples
conquered by the Arab armies were, in many cases, literate, they
have left records of their defeat. And in every case, they
speak of the invaders as “Hagarians”,
“Ishmaelites”, “Muhajirun”, or
“Saracens”, and in none of these records is
there a mention of an Arab prophet, much less one named
“Muhammad”, or of “Islam”, or of
a holy book called the “Qur'an”.
Now, for those who study the historical foundations of
Christianity or Judaism, these results will be
familiar—when you trace the origins of a great
religious tradition back to its roots, you often discover
that they disappear into a fog of legend which believers
must ultimately accept on faith since historical confirmation,
at this remove, is impossible. This has been the implicit
assumption of those exploring the historical foundations of
the Bible for at least two centuries, but it is considered
extremely “edgy” to pose these questions
about Islam, even today. This is because when you do,
the believers are prone to use edgy weapons to cut your head off.
Jews and Christians have gotten beyond this, and just
shake their heads and chuckle. So some say it takes courage
to raise these questions about Islam. I'd say “some”
are the kind of cowards who opposed the translation of the
Bible into the vernacular, freeing it from the priesthood and
placing it in the hands of anybody who could read. And if
any throat-slitter should be irritated by these remarks and
be inclined to act upon them, be advised that I not only shoot back but,
circumstances depending, first.
I find the author's conclusion very plausible. After the Arab
conquest, its inheritors found themselves in command of a
multicontinental empire encompassing a large number of subject
peoples and a multitude of cultures and religious traditions.
If you were the ruler of such a newly-cobbled-together
empire, wouldn't you be motivated, based upon the experience
of those you have subdued, to promulgate a state religion,
proclaimed in the language of the conquerer, which demanded
submission? Would you not base that religion upon
the revelation of a prophet, speaking to the conquerers in
their own language, which came directly from God?
It is often observed that Islam, unlike the other Abrahamic
religions, is uniquely both a religious and political system,
leading inevitably to theocracy (which I've always believed
misnamed—I'd have no problem with theocracy: rule by
God; it's rule by people claiming to act in His name that
always seems to end badly). But what if Islam is so
intensely political precisely because it was invented
to support a political agenda—that of the Arabic
Empire of the
It's not that Islam is political because its doctrine encompasses
politics as well as religion; it's that's it's political because
it was designed that way by the political rulers who
directed the compilation of its sacred books, its traditions, and
spread it by the sword to further their imperial ambitions.