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Monday, November 26, 2012
Reading List: Agenda 21
- Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke.
New York: Threshold Editions, 2012.
In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment
and Development (“Earth Summit”) in Rio de
Janeiro, an action plan for “sustainable
was adopted. It has since been endorsed by the governments of
178 countries, including the United States, where it was
signed by president George H. W. Bush (not being a formal
treaty, it was not submitted to the Senate for ratification).
An organisation called
Governments for Sustainability currently has more than
1200 member towns, cities, and counties
in 70 countries, including
more than 500
in the United States signed on to the program. Whenever you hear a
politician talking about environmental “sustainability” or
the “precautionary principle”, it's a good bet the ideas
they're promoting can be traced back to Agenda 21 or its progenitors.
When you read the U.N.
Agenda 21 document
(which I highly encourage you to
do—it is very likely your own national government has endorsed it),
it comes across as the usual gassy international bureaucratese you expect
from a U.N. commission, but if you read between the lines and project
the goals and mechanisms advocated to their logical conclusions, the
implications are very great indeed. What is envisioned is nothing
less than the extinction of the developed world and the roll-back of the
entire project of the enlightenment. While speaking of the lofty goal
of lifting the standard of living of developing nations to that of the
developed world in a manner that does not damage the environment, it
is an inevitable consequence of the report's assumption of finite resources
and an environment already stressed beyond the point of sustainability that
the inevitable outcome of achieving “equity” will be a global
levelling of the standard of living to one well below the present-day mean,
necessitating a catastrophic decrease in the quality of life in developed
nations, which will almost certainly eliminate their ability to invest in
the research and technological development which have been the engine of human
advancement since the Renaissance. The implications of this are so dire that
somebody ought to write a dystopian novel about the ultimate consequences
of heading down this road.
Somebody has. Glenn Beck and Harriet Parke (it's pretty clear from the
acknowledgements that Parke is the principal author, while Beck
contributed the afterword and lent his high-profile name to the project)
have written a dark and claustrophobic view of what awaits at the end
of The Road to Serfdom
(May 2002). Here, as opposed to an incremental shift over
decades, the United States experiences a cataclysmic socio-economic
collapse which is exploited to supplant it with the Republic, ruled
by the Central Authority, in which all Citizens are equal. The goals
of Agenda 21 have been achieved by depopulating much of the land, letting
it return to nature, packing the humans who survived the crises and
conflict as the Republic consolidated its power into identical
densely-packed Living Spaces, where they live their lives according
to the will of the Authority and its Enforcers. Citizens are divided
into castes by job category; reproductive age Citizens are “paired”
by the Republic, and babies are taken from mothers at birth to be
raised in Children's Villages, where they are indoctrinated to serve the
Republic. Unsustainable energy sources are replaced by humans who
have to do their quota of walking on “energy board”
treadmills or riding “energy bicycles” everywhere, and
public transportation consists of bus boxes, pulled by teams of six
Emmeline has grown up in this grim and grey world which, to her, is way
things are, have always been, and always will be. Just old enough at
the establishment of Republic to escape
the Children's Village, she is among the final cohort of Citizens to have
been raised by their parents, who told her very little of the before-time;
speaking of that could imperil both parents and child. After she loses both
parents (people vanishing, being “killed in industrial accidents”,
or led away by Enforcers never to be seen again is common in the
Republic), she discovers a legacy from her mother which provides a tenuous
link to the before-time. Slowly and painfully she begins to piece
together the history of the society in which she lives and what life was like
before it descended to crush the human spirit. And then she must decide
what to do about it.
I am sure many reviewers will dismiss this novel as a cartoon-like
portrayal of ideas taken to an absurd extreme. But much the same could
have been said of
But the thing about dystopian novels based upon trends already in
place is that they have a disturbing tendency to get things
right. As I observed in my review of
Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), when I first
read it in 1968, it seemed to evoke a dismal future entirely
different from what I expected. When I read it the
third time in 2010, my estimation was that real-world events had taken
us about 500 pages into the 1168 page tome. I'd probably up that number
today. What is particularly disturbing about the scenario in this
novel, as opposed to the works cited above, is that it describes what
may be a very strong attractor for human society once rejection of
progress becomes the doctrine and the population stratifies into
a small ruling class and subjects entirely dependent upon the
state. After all, that's how things have more or less been over most
of human history and around the globe, and the brief flash of liberty,
innovation, and prosperity we assume to be the normal state of affairs
may simply be an ephemeral consequence of the opening of a frontier
which, now having closed, concludes that aberrant chapter of history,
soon to be expunged and forgotten.
This is a book which begs for one or more sequels. While the story is
satisfying by itself, you put it down wondering what happens next,
and what is going on outside the confines of the human hive its
characters inhabit. Who are the members of the Central Authority?
How do they live? How do they groom their successors? What is
happening on other continents? Is there any hope the torch of liberty
might be reignited?
While doubtless many will take fierce exception to the entire premise
of the story, I found only one factual error. In chapter 14 Emmeline
discovers a photograph which provides a link to the before-time. On
it is the word “KODACHROME”. But
Kodachrome was a
colour slide (reversal) film, not a colour print film. Even if the
print that Emmeline found had been made from a Kodachrome slide, the print
wouldn't say “KODACHROME”. I did not spot a single
typographical error, and if you're a regular reader of this chronicle, you'll
know how rare that is. In the Kindle edition,
links to documents and resources cited in the factual afterword are
live and will take you directly to the cited page.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Reading List: Feynman Lectures on Gravitation
- Feynman, Richard P., Fernando B. Morinigo, and William G. Wagner.
Feynman Lectures on Gravitation.
Edited by Brian Hatfield.
Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.
In the 1962–63 academic year at Caltech, Richard Feynman taught a
course on gravitation for graduate students and postdoctoral
fellows. For many years the blackboard in Feynman's office
contained the epigram, “What I cannot create, I do not
understand.” In these lectures, Feynman discards the entire
geometric edifice of Einstein's theory of gravitation (general
relativity) and starts from scratch, putting himself and his students
in the place of physicists from Venus (who he calls
“Venutians”—Feynman was famously sloppy with
spelling: he often spelled “gauge” as “guage”)
who have discovered the full quantum theories of electromagnetism
and the strong and weak nuclear forces but have just discovered
there is a
very weak attractive force
between all masses, regardless of their composition. (Feynman doesn't
say so, but putting on the science fiction hat one might suggest that
the “Venutians” hadn't previously discovered universal gravitation
because the dense clouds that shroud their planet deprived them of the
ability to make astronomical observations and the lack of a moon
prevented them from discovering tidal effects.)
Feynman then argues that the alien physicists would suspect that this
new force worked in a manner analogous to those already known, and
seek to extrapolate their knowledge of electrodynamics (the quantum
theory of which Feynman had played a central part in discovering,
for which he would share a Nobel prize in 1965). They would then
guess that the force was mediated by particles they might dub
“gravitons”. Since the force appeared to follow an
inverse square law, these particles must be massless (or at least have
such a small mass that deviations from the inverse square law eluded
all existing experiments). Since the force was universally attractive,
the spin of the graviton must be even (forces mediated by odd spin
bosons such as the photon follow an attraction/repulsion rule as with
static electricity; no evidence of antigravity has ever been
found). Spin 0 can be ruled out because it would not couple to
the spin 1 photon, which would mean gravity would not deflect
light, which experiment demonstrates it does.
So, we're left with a spin 2 graviton. (It might be spin 4, or 6, or
higher, but there's no reason to proceed with such an assumption
and the horrific complexities it entails unless we find something
which rules out spin 2.)
A spin 2 graviton implies a field with a tensor potential function,
and from the behaviour of gravitation we know that the tensor
must be symmetric. All of this allows us, by direct analogy with
electrodynamics, to write down the first draft of a field theory of
gravitation which, when explored, predicts the existence of
gravitational radiation, the gravitational red shift, the deflection
of light by massive objects, and the precession of Mercury. Eventually
Feynman demonstrates that this field theory is isomorphic to Einstein's
geometrical theory, and could have been arrived at without ever
invoking the concept of spacetime curvature.
In this tour de force, we get to look
over the shoulder of one of the most brilliant physicists of all
time as he reinvents the theory of gravitation, at a time when his
goal was to produce a consistent and finite quantum theory of
gravitation. Feynman's intuition was that since gravity was a
far weaker force than electromagnetism, it should be easier to find
a quantum theory, since the higher order terms would diminish in
magnitude much more rapidly. Although Feynman's physical intuition
was legendary and is much on display in these lectures, in this case
it led him astray: his quest for quantum gravity failed and he soon
abandoned it, and fifty years later nobody has found a suitable
theory (although we've discovered a great number of things
which don't work). Feynman identifies one of the key problems here—since
gravitation is a universally attractive force which couples to
mass-energy, and a gravitational field itself has energy,
gravity gravitates, and this means that the higher order
terms stretch off to infinity and can't be eliminated by clever
mathematics. While these effects are negligible in laboratory
experiments or on the scale of the solar system
(although the first-order effect can be teased out of
ranging experiments), in strong field
situations they blow up and the theory produces nonsense results.
These lectures were given just as the renaissance of gravitational
physics was about to dawn. Discovery of extragalactic radio
sources with stupendous energy output had sparked speculation
about relativistic “superstars”, discussed here in
chapters 13 and 14, and would soon lead to observations of
quasars, which would eventually be explained by that quintessential
object of general relativity, the black hole. On the theoretical
side, Feynman's thesis advisor John A. Wheeler was beginning to
breathe life into the long-moribund field of general relativity,
and would coin the phrase “black hole” in 1967.
This book is a period piece. Some of the terminology in use at
the time has become obsolete: Feynman uses
“wormhole” for a black hole and
“Schwarzschild singularity” for what we now call
its event horizon. The discussion of “superstars”
is archaic now that we understand the energy source of active
galactic nuclei to be accretion onto supermassive black
holes. In other areas, Feynman's insights are simply breathtaking,
especially when you consider they date from half a century ago.
He explores Mach's principle as the origin of inertia, cosmology
and the global geometry of the universe, and gravitomagnetism.
This is not the book to read if you're interested in learning the
contemporary theory of gravitation. For the most commonly used
geometric approach, an excellent place to start is
Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's
Gravitation. A field theory
approach closer to Feynman's is presented in Weinberg's
Gravitation and Cosmology.
These are both highly technical works, intended for postgraduates
in physics. For a popular introduction, I'd recommend
A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime,
which is now out of print, but used copies are usually available.
It's only if you understand the theory, ideally at a technical level,
that you can really appreciate the brilliance of Feynman's work and
how prescient his insights were for the future of the field. I
first read this book in 1996 and re-reading it now, having a much deeper
understanding of the geometrical formulation of general relativity,
I was repeatedly awestruck watching Feynman leap from insight to insight
of the kind many physicists might hope to have just once in their entire
Feynman gave a total of 27 lectures in the seminar. Two of the postdocs
who attended, Fernando B. Morinigo and William G. Wagner, took notes
for the course, from which this book is derived. Feynman corrected the
notes for the first 11 lectures, which were distributed in typescript
by the Caltech bookstore but never otherwise published. In 1971 Feynman
approved the distribution of lectures 12–16 by the bookstore, but
by then he had lost interest in gravitation and did not correct the notes.
This book contains the 16 lectures Feynman approved for distribution.
The remaining 11 are mostly concerned with Feynman's groping for a
theory of quantum gravity. Since he ultimately failed in this effort,
it's plausible to conclude he didn't believe them worthy of
circulation. John Preskill and Kip S. Thorne contribute a foreword
which interprets Feynman's work from the perspective of the
contemporary view of gravitation.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Reading List: Rainbows End
- Vinge, Vernor.
New York: Tor Books, 2006.
As I have remarked upon several occasions, I read very little contemporary
science fiction, apart from works by authors I trust to deliver thoughtful
and entertaining yarns. This novel is an excellent example of why.
Vernor Vinge is a former professor of mathematics, a pioneer in envisioning
the advent and consequences of a
and serial winner of the most prestigious awards for science
fiction. This book won the 2007
for best novel.
And therein lies my problem with much of present-day science fiction.
The fans (the Hugo is awarded based on a vote of members of the
World Science Fiction Society) loved it, but I consider it entirely
devoid of merit. Now authors, or at least those who view their
profession as a business, are well advised to write what the
audience wants to read, and evidently this work met that criterion,
but it didn't work for me—in fact, I found it tedious slogging
to the end, hoping it would get better or that some brilliant
plot twist would redeem all the ennui of getting there. Nope: didn't
Interestingly, while this book won the Hugo, it wasn't even nominated for
which is chosen by professional writers, not the fans. I guess the writers
are closer to my stick-in-the-mud preferences than the more edgy fans.
This is a story set in a 21st century society on the threshold of a technological
singularity. Robert Gu, a celebrated poet felled by Alzheimer's disease, has
been cured by exponentially advancing medical technology, but now he finds
himself in a world radically different from the one in which his cognition faded
out. He has to reconcile himself with his extended and complicated family,
many of whom he treated horridly, and confront the fact that while his
recovery from dementia has been complete, he seems to have lost the talent
of looking at the world from an oblique angle that made his poetry compelling.
Further, in a world of ubiquitous computing, haptic interfaces, augmented
reality, and forms of social interaction that seemingly come and go from moment
to moment, he is but a baby among the plugged-in children with whom he shares
a classroom as he attempts to come up to speed.
Then, a whole bunch of stuff happens which is completely absurd,
involving a mischievous rabbit which may be an autonomous artificial
intelligence, a library building that pulls up its columns and walks,
shadowy intelligence agencies, a technology which might be the key to
large-scale mind control, battles between people committed to
world-views which might be likened to an apocalyptic yet trivial
conflict between My Little Pony and SpongeBob, and a “Homeland
Security” agency willing to use tactical nukes on its own
homeland. (Well, I suppose, the last isn't so far fetched….)
My citation of the title above is correct—I did not omit an
The final chapter of the novel is titled “The Missing Apostrophe”.
Think about it: you can read it either way.
Finally, it ends. And so, thankfully, does this review.
I have no problem with augmented reality and the emergence of artificial intelligence.
Daemon (August 2010)
Freedom™ (January 2011)
limn a future far more engaging and immeasurably less silly than
that of the present work. Nor does a zany view of the singularity
put me off in the least: Charles Stross's
Singularity Sky (February 2011)
is such a masterpiece
of the genre that I was reproached by some readers for having
committed the sin of spoilers because I couldn't restrain myself
from citing some of its many delights. This can be done well, but in
my opinion it isn't here.
Friday, November 9, 2012
Reading List: The Long Earth
- Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter.
The Long Earth.
New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
Terry Pratchett is my favourite author of satirical fantasy and
Stephen Baxter is near the top of my list of contemporary
hard science fiction writers, so I expected this collaboration
to be outstanding. It is.
Larry Niven's Ringworld created
a breathtakingly large arena for story telling, not spread among
the stars but all reachable, at least in principle, just by
walking. This novel expands the stage many orders of magnitude
beyond that, and creates a universe in which any number of
future stories may be told. The basic premise is that the
multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics literally
exists (to be technical, Max Tegmark's
Level III parallel universes),
and that some humans possess a native ability to
step from one universe to the next. The stepper
arrives at the same location on Earth, at the same local
time (there is apparently a universal clock like that assumed
in quantum theory), but on a branch where the history of the
Earth has diverged due to contingent events in the past. Adjacent
universes tend to be alike, but the further one steps the more
they differ from the original, or Datum Earth.
The one huge difference between Datum Earth and all of the others
is that, as far as is known, humans evolved only on the Datum.
Nobody knows why this is—perhaps there was some event
in the chain of causality that produced modern humans which was
so improbable it happened only once in what may be an
infinite number of parallel Earths.
The ability to step was extremely rare, genetically transmitted, and
often discovered only when an individual was in peril and stepped
to an adjacent Earth as the ultimate flight response. All of this
changed on Step Day, when Willis Linsay, a physicist in Madison,
Wisconsin, posted on the Internet plans for a “stepper”
which could be assembled from parts readily available from Radio
Shack, plus a potato. (Although entirely solid state, it did
include a tuber.) A rocker switch marked
“WEST — OFF — EAST”
was on the top, and when activated moved the holder of the box to
an adjacent universe in the specified notional direction.
Suddenly people all over the Earth began cobbling together steppers
of their own and departing for adjacent Earths. Since all of these
Earths were devoid of humans (apart from those who stepped there
from the Datum), they were in a state of nature, including all of
those dangerous wild beasts that humans had eradicated from their
world of origin. Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper,
distinguishes himself by rescuing children from the Madison
area who used their steppers and were so bewildered they
did not know how to get back.
This brings Joshua to the attention of the shadowy Black Corporation,
who recruits him (with a bit of blackmail) to explore the far reaches
of the Long Earth: worlds a million or more steps from the Datum. His
companion on the voyage is Lobsang, who may or may not have been a
Tibetan motorcycle repairman, now instantiated in a distributed
computer network, taking on physical forms ranging from a drinks
machine, a humanoid, and an airship. As they explore, they encounter
hominid species they call “trolls” and
“elves”, which they theorise are natural steppers which
evolved on the Datum and then migrated outward along the Long Earth
without ever developing human-level intelligence (perhaps due to lack
of selective pressure, since they could always escape competition by
stepping away). But, as Joshua and Lobsang explore the Western
frontier, they find a migration of trolls and elves toward the East.
What are they fleeing, or what is attracting them in that direction?
They also encounter human communities on the frontier, both
homesteaders from the Datum and natural steppers who have established
themselves on other worlds.
I enjoyed this book immensely, but that may be in part because
I've been thinking about
for many years, albeit in a different context and without the
potato. This is a somewhat strange superposition of fantasy and
hard science fiction (which is what you'd expect, given the authors),
and your estimation of it, like any measurement in quantum mechanics,
will depend upon the criteria you're measuring. I note that the
reviews on Amazon have a strikingly flat distribution in stars
assigned—this is rare; usually a book will have a cluster
at the top or bottom, or for controversial books a bimodal
distribution depending upon the reader's own predisposition.
I have no idea if you'll like this book, but I did. And I want a
The concept of stepping to adjacent universes is one of those
plot devices that, while opening up a huge scope for
fiction, also, like the Star Trek transporter, threatens
to torpedo drama. If you can escape peril simply by stepping
away to another universe, how can characters be placed
in difficult circumstances? In Star Trek, there always has to
be some reason (“danged pesky polaron particles!”)
why the transporter can't be used to beam the away team out
of danger. Here, the authors appear to simply ignore the
problem. In chapter 30, Joshua is attacked by elves riding
giant hogs and barely escapes with his life. But, being a
natural stepper, he could simply step away and wait for
Lobsang to find him in an adjacent Earth. But he doesn't,
and there is no explanation of why he didn't.
Saturday, November 3, 2012
Reading List: The Alcoholic Republic
- Rorabaugh, W. J.
The Alcoholic Republic.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
This book was
by Prof. Paul Rahe after I
during a discussion on
about drug (and other forms of) prohibition, using the commonplace libertarian
argument that regardless of what one believes about the principle
of self-ownership and the dangers to society if its members ingest certain
substances, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, the evidence is that
prohibition of anything simply makes the problem worse—in many cases
not only increasing profits to traffickers in the banned substance,
spawning crime among those who contend to provide it to those who
seek it in the absence of an open market, promoting contempt for the law
(the president of the United States, as of this writing, admitted in his
autobiography to have used a substance whose possession, had he been
apprehended, was a felony), and most of all that post-prohibition, use of
the forbidden substance increases, and hence however satisfying prohibition
may be to those who support, enact, and enforce it, it is ultimately
counterproductive, as it increases the number of people who taste the
I read every book my readers
albeit not immediately, and so I put this book on my queue, and have now
digested it. This is a fascinating view of a very different America: a
newly independent nation in the first two decades of the nineteenth century,
still mostly a coastal nation with a vast wilderness to the West, but beginning
to expand over the mountains into the fertile land beyond. The one thing
all European visitors to America remarked upon was that people in this
brave new republic, from strait-laced New Englanders, to Virginia patricians, to
plantation barons of the South, to buckskin pioneers and homesteaders across
the Appalachians, drank a lot, reaching a peak around 1830 of
five gallons (19 litres) of hard spirits (in excess of 45%
alcohol) per capita per annum—and that “per capita”
includes children and babies in a rapidly growing population, so the
adults, and particularly the men, disproportionately contributed to this
As the author teases out of the sketchy data of the period, there were a
number of social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Prior to the
revolution, America was a rum drinking nation, but after the break with
Britain whiskey made from maize (corn, in the American vernacular) became
the beverage of choice. As Americans migrated and settled the West,
maize was their crop of choice, but before the era of canals and
railroads, shipping their crop to the markets of the East cost
more than its value. Distilling into a much-sought beverage, however,
made the arduous trek to market profitable, and justified the round
trip. In the rugged western frontier, drinking water was not to be
trusted, and a sip of contaminated water could condemn one to a
debilitating and possibly fatal bout of dysentery or cholera. None of
these bugs could survive in whiskey, and hence it was seen as the
healthy beverage. Finally, whiskey provides 83 calories per
fluid ounce, and is thus a compact way to store and transmit food
value without need for refrigeration.
Some things never change. European visitors to America remarked upon the
phenomenon of “rapid eating” or, as we now call it,
“fast food”. With the fare at most taverns outside the
cities limited to fried corn cakes, salt pork, and whiskey, there was
precious little need to linger over one's meal, and hence it was
in-and-out, centuries before
But then, things change. Starting around 1830, alcohol
consumption in the United States began to plummet, and temperance
societies began to spring up across the land. From a peak of
about 5 gallons per capita, distilled spirits consumption fell to
between 1 and 2 gallons and has remained more or less constant ever since.
But what is interesting is that the widespread turn away from hard liquor
was not in any way produced by top-down or coercive prohibition. Instead,
it was a bottom-up social movement largely coupled with the
awakening. While this movement certainly did result in
some forms of restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol,
much more effective were its opprobrium against public drunkenness and those
who enabled it.
This book is based on a Ph.D. thesis, and in places shows it. There is a painful
attempt, based on laughably incomplete data, to quantify alcohol consumption
during the early 19th century. This, I assume, is because at the epoch
“social scientists” repeated the mantra “numbers are
good”. This is all nonsense; ignore it. Far more credible are the
reports of contemporary observers quoted in the text.
As to Prof. Rahe's assertion that prohibition reduces the consumption of a
substance, I don't think this book advances that case. The collapse in
the consumption of strong drink in the 1830s was a societal and moral
revolution, and any restrictions on the availability of alcohol were the
result of that change, not its cause. That said, I do not dispute that
did reduce the reported level of alcohol consumption, but at the cost
of horrific criminality and disdain for the rule of law and, after
repeal, a return to the status quo ante.
If you're interested in prohibition in all of its manifestations, I
recommend this book, even though it has little to do with prohibition.
It is an object lesson in how a free society self-corrects from excess
and re-orients itself toward behaviour which benefits its citizens.