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Monday, August 26, 2013
Reading List: The Liberty Amendments
- Levin, Mark R.
The Liberty Amendments.
New York: Threshold Editions, 2013.
To many observers including this one, the United States
appear to be in a death spiral, guided by an
entrenched ruling class toward a future
where the only question is whether a financial collapse
will pauperise the citizenry before or after they are
delivered into tyranny. Almost all of the usual remedies
seem to have been exhausted. Both of the major political parties
are firmly in the control of the ruling class who defend
the status quo, and these parties so control access to the
ballot, media, and campaign funding that any attempt to
mount a third party challenge appears futile. Indeed, the
last time a candidate from a new party won the presidency
was in 1860, and that was because the Whig party was in
rapid decline and the Democrat vote was split two ways.
In this book Levin argues that the time is past when a solution
could be sought in electing the right people to offices in
Washington and hoping they would appoint judges and executive
department heads who would respect the constitution. The
ruling class, which now almost completely controls the parties,
has the tools to block any effective challenge from outside
their ranks, and even on the rare occasion an outsider is elected,
the entrenched administrative state and judiciary will continue
to defy the constitution, legislating from within the executive
and judicial branches. What does a written constitution
mean when five lawyers, appointed for life, can decide what it
means, with their decision not subject to appeal by any other
branch of government?
If a solution cannot be found by electing better people to
offices in Washington then, as Lenin asked,
“What is to
be done?” Levin argues that the framers of the
constitution (in particular
anticipated precisely the present situation and, in the final days
of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, added text
to Article Five
providing that the constitution can be amended when:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall
deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this
Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures
of two thirds of the several States, shall call a
Convention for proposing Amendments,…
Of the 27 amendments adopted so far, all have been proposed by
Congress—the state convention mechanism has never
been used (although in some cases Congress proposed an
amendment to preempt a convention when one appeared likely).
As Levin observes, the state convention process completely
bypasses Washington: a convention is called by the legislatures
of two thirds of the states, and amendments it proposes are
adopted if ratified by three quarters of the states. Congress,
the president, and the federal judiciary are completely out of
Levin proposes 11 amendments, all of which he argues
are consistent with the views of the framers of the constitution
and, in some cases, restore constitutional provisions which have
been bypassed by clever judges, legislators, and bureaucrats.
The amendments include term limits for all federal offices (including
the Supreme Court); repeal of the direct election of senators and
a return to their being chosen by state legislatures; super-majority
overrides of Supreme Court decisions, congressional legislation,
and executive branch regulations; restrictions on the taxing and spending
powers (including requiring a balanced budget);
reining in expansive interpretation of the
requiring compensation for takings of private property;
provisions to guard against voter fraud; and making it easier
for the states to amend the constitution.
In evaluating Levin's plan, the following questions arise:
I will address each of these questions below. Some these matters
will take us pretty deep into the weeds, and you may not completely
understand the discussion without having read the book (which, of
course, I heartily recommend you do).
- Is amending the constitution by the state
convention route politically achievable?
- Will the proposed amendments re-balance the
federal system sufficiently to solve (or at
least make it possible to begin to solve) its
- Are there problems requiring constitutional
change not addressed by the proposed amendments?
- Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new
constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its
constraints with impunity) as it has done with
the existing constitution?
Is amending the constitution by the state
convention route politically achievable?
Today, the answer to this is no. Calling a convention
to propose amendments requires requests by two thirds of
state legislatures, or at least 34. Let us assume none
of the 17 Democrat-controlled legislatures would vote to
call a convention. That leaves 27 Republican-controlled
legislatures, 5 split (one house Republican, one Democrat),
and quirky Nebraska, whose legislature is officially non-partisan.
Even if all of these voted for the convention, you're still
one state short. But it's unlikely any of the 5 split houses
would vote for a convention, and even in the 27 Republican-controlled
legislatures there will be a substantial number of legislators
sufficiently wedded to the establishment or fearful of loss of
federal funds propping up their state's budget that they'd
vote against the convention.
The author forthrightly acknowledges this, and states clearly
that this is a long-term process which may take decades to
accomplish. In fact, since three quarters of the states
must vote to ratify amendments adopted by a convention, it
wouldn't make sense to call one until there was some
confidence 38 or more states would vote to adopt them.
In today's environment, obtaining that kind of super-majority
seems entirely out of reach.
But circumstances can change. Any attempt to re-balance the constitutional
system to address the current dysfunction is racing against
financial collapse at the state and federal level and societal
collapse due to loss of legitimacy of the state in the eyes
of its subjects, a decreasing minority of whom believe it has
of the governed”. As states go bankrupt, pension obligations
are defaulted upon, essential services are curtailed, and attempts
to extract ever more from productive citizens through taxes, fees,
regulations, depreciation of the currency, and eventually
confiscation of retirement savings, the electorate in “blue”
states may shift toward a re-balancing of a clearly dysfunctional
and failing system.
Perhaps the question to ask is not whether this approach is
feasible at present or may be at some point in the
future, but rather whether any alternative plan has any
hope of working.
Will the proposed amendments re-balance the
federal system sufficiently to solve (or at
least make it possible to begin to solve) its
It seems to me that a constitution with these amendments adopted
will be far superior in terms of balance than the constitution
in effect today. I say “in effect” because the
constitution as intended by the framers has been so distorted
and in some cases ignored that the text has little to do with
how the federal government actually operates. These amendments
are intended in large part to restore the original intent of the
As an engineer, I am very much aware of the need for stable systems
when things veer off course,
there needs to be a restoring force exerted in the opposite direction
to steer back to the desired bearing. Many of these amendments
create negative feedback mechanisms to correct excesses the
framers did not anticipate. The congressional and state overrides
of Supreme Court decisions and regulations provide a check on
the making of law by judges and bureaucrats which were never
anticipated in the original constitution. The spending and taxing
amendments constrain profligate spending, runaway growth of debt,
and an ever-growing tax burden on the productive sector.
I have a number of quibbles with the details and drafting of
these amendments. I'm not much worried about these matters, since
I'm sure that before they are presented to the states in final
form for ratification they will be scrutinised in detail by
eminent constitutional law scholars parsing every word for
how it might be (mis)interpreted by mischievous judges. Still,
here's what I noted in reading the amendments.
Some of the amendments write into the constitution matters
which were left to statute in the original document. The
spending amendment fixes the start of the fiscal year and
cites the “Nation's gross domestic product” (defined
how?). The amendments to limit the bureaucracy, protect private
property, and grant the states the authority to check Congress
all cite specific numbers denominated in dollars. How is a
dollar to be defined in decades and centuries to come? Any
specification of a specific dollar amount in the constitution is
prone to becoming as quaint and irrelevant as the twenty dollars
clause of the
The amendment to limit the bureaucracy gives constitutional
status to the Government Accountability Office and the
Congressional Budget Office, which are defined nowhere
else in the document.
In the amendment to grant the states the authority to check Congress
there is a drafting error. In section 4, the cross-reference
(do we really want to introduce brackets into the text of
the constitution?) cites “An Amendment Establishing How
the States May Amend the Constitution”, while “An Amendment
to Limit the Federal Bureaucracy” is clearly intended. That
amendment writes the two party system into the constitution by
citing a “Majority Leader” and “Minority Leader”.
Yes, that's how it works now, but is it wise to freeze this
political structure (which I suspect would have appalled Washington)
into the fundamental document of the republic?
Are there problems requiring constitutional
change not addressed by the proposed amendments?
The economic amendments fail to address the question of sound money.
Ever since the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, the
dollar (which, as noted above, is cited in several of the
proposed amendments) has lost more than 95% of its purchasing power
according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
CPI Inflation Calculator.
Inflation is the most insidious tax of all, as it penalises
savers to benefit borrowers, encourages short-term
planning and speculation, and allows the federal government to
write down its borrowings by depreciating the monetary unit
in which they are to be repaid. Further, inflation runs the
risk of the U.S. dollar being displaced as the world reserve
currency (which is already happening, in slow motion
so far, as bilateral agreements between trading partners
to use their own currencies and bypass the dollar are
negotiated). A government which can print money at will can
evade the taxing constraints of the proposed amendment by
inflating its currency and funding its expenditures with
continually depreciating dollars. This is the route most countries
have taken as bankruptcy approaches.
Leaving this question unaddressed opens a dangerous loophole by
which the federal government can escape taxing and spending constraints by running
the printing press (as it is already doing at this writing). I
don't know what the best solution would be (well, actually, I do,
but they'd call me a nut if I proposed it), so let me suggest
an amendment banning all legal tender laws and allowing
parties to settle contracts in any unit of account they wish:
dollars, euros, gold, copper, baseball cards, or goats.
I fear that the taxing amendment may be a Trojan horse with as
much potential for mischief as the original commerce clause.
It leaves the entire incomprehensible and deeply corrupt
Internal Revenue Code in place, imposing only a limit on
the amount extracted from each taxpayer and eliminating the
estate tax. This means that Congress remains free to use
the tax code to arbitrarily coerce or penalise behaviour
as it has done ever since the passage of the
While the total take from each taxpayer is capped, the
legislature is free to favour one group against another,
subsidise activities by tax exemption or discourage them by
penalties (think the Obamacare mandate jujitsu of the Roberts
opinion), and penalise investment through punitive taxation of
interest, dividends, and capital gains. A prohibition of
a VAT or national sales tax is written into the constitution,
thus requiring another amendment to replace the income tax
(repealing the sixteenth amendment) with a consumption-based
tax. If you're going to keep the income tax, I'm all for
banning a VAT on top of it, but given how destructive and
costly the income tax as presently constituted is to
prosperity, I'd say if you're going to the trouble of
calling a convention and amending the constitution, drive a
stake through it and replace it with a consumption tax
which wouldn't require any individual to file any forms ever.
Write the maximum tax rate into the amendment, thus requiring
another amendment to change it. In note 55 to chapter 5 the
author states, “I do not object to ‘the Fair Tax,’
which functions as a national sales tax and eliminates all forms
of revenue-based taxation, should it be a preferred amendment by
delegates to a state convention.” Since eliminating the
income tax removes a key mechanism by which the central government
can coerce the individual citizen, I would urge it as a positive
recommendation to such a convention.
Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new
constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its
constraints with impunity) as it has done with
the existing constitution?
This is an issue which preoccupied delegates to the
constitutional convention, federalists and anti-federalists
alike, in the debate over ratification of the constitution, and
delegates to the ratification conventions in the states.
It should equally concern us now in regard to these
amendments. After all, only 14 years after the ratification
of the constitution the judicial branch made a power grab
Marbury v. Madison
and got away with it, establishing a precedent for
which has been the foundation for troublemaking to this day. In the New
Deal, the previously innocuous commerce clause was twisted to allow
the federal government to regulate a
farmer's growing wheat
for consumption on his own farm.
A key question is the extent to which the feedback mechanisms created
by these amendments will deter the kind of
the original constitution which have brought the U.S. to its present parlous
state. To my mind, they will improve things: certainly if the
Supreme Court or a regulatory agency knows its decisions can be
overruled, they will be deterred from overreaching even if the overrule
is rarely used. Knowing how things went wrong with the original
constitution will provide guidance in the course corrections to
come. One advantage of an amendment convention called by the states
is that the debate will be open, on the record, and ideally streamed
to anybody interested in it. Being a bottom-up process, the delegates
will have been selected by state legislatures close to their
constituents, and their deliberations will be closely followed and
commented upon by academics and legal professionals steeped in
constitutional and common law, acutely aware of how clever politicians
are in evading constitutional constraints.
Can the U.S. be saved? I have no idea. But this is the first plan I have
encountered which seems to present a plausible path to restoring its
original concept of a constitutional republic. It is a long shot; it
will certainly take a great deal of effort from the bottom-up and many
years to achieve; the U.S. may very well collapse before it can be
implemented; but can you think of any other approach? People in the U.S.
and those concerned with the consequences of its collapse will find a
blueprint here, grounded in history and thoroughly documented, for an
alternative path which just might work.
the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the
text, and references to Web documents in the notes are
linked directly to the on-line documents.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Reading List: Radical Abundance
- Drexler, K. Eric.
New York: PublicAffairs, 2013.
Nanotechnology burst into public awareness with the publication
of the author's
Engines of Creation
in 1986. (The author coined the word
“nanotechnology” to denote engineering at
the atomic scale, fabricating structures with the atomic
precision of molecules. A 1974 Japanese paper had used
the term “nano-technology”, but with an entirely
different meaning.) Before long, the popular media were
full of speculation about nanobots in the bloodstream,
self-replicating assemblers terraforming planets or
mining the asteroids, and a world economy transformed
into one in which scarcity, in the sense we know it
today, would be transcended. Those inclined to darker
speculation warned of
self-replicators which could devour the biosphere in 24
hours, or nanoengineered super weapons.
Those steeped in conventional wisdom scoffed at these
“futuristic” notions, likening them to earlier
predictions of nuclear power “too cheap to meter”
or space colonies, but detractors found it
difficult to refute Drexler's arguments that the systems he
proposed violated no law of physics and that the chemistry
of such structures was well-understood and predicted that,
if we figured out how to construct them, they would work.
Drexler's argument was reinforced when, in 1992, he
a detailed technical examination of molecular engineering
based upon his MIT Ph.D. dissertation.
As the 1990s progressed, there was an increasing consensus
that if nanosystems existed, we would be able to fabricate
nanosystems that worked as Drexler envisions, but the path
from our present-day crude fabrication technologies to
atomic precision on the macroscopic scale was unclear.
On the other hand, there were a number of potential pathways
which might get there, increasing the probability that
one or more might work. The situation is not unlike that
in the early days of integrated circuits. It was clear
from the laws of physics that were it possible to fabricate
a billion transistors on a chip they would work, but it was
equally clear that a series of increasingly difficult and
expensive to surmount hurdles would have to be cleared in
order to fabricate such a structure. Its feasibility then
became a question of whether engineers were clever enough to
solve all the problems along the way and if the market
for each generation of increasingly complex chips
would be large enough to fund the development of the
A number of groups around the world, both academic and
commercial, began to pursue potential paths toward
nanotechnology, laying the foundation for the next step
beyond conventional macromolecular chemical synthesis.
It seemed like the major impediment to a rapid take-off
of nanotechnology akin to that experienced in the
semiconductor field was a lack of funding. But, as
Eric Drexler remarked to me in a conversation in the
1990s, most of the foundation of nanotechnology was
chemistry and “You can buy a lot of chemistry
for a billion dollars.”
That billion dollars appeared to be at hand in 2000,
when the U.S. created a billion dollar National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NNI quickly
published an implementation plan which clearly stated
that “the essence of nanotechnology is the ability
to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create
large structures with fundamentally new molecular
organization”. And then it all went south. As is
almost inevitable with government-funded science and
technology programs, the usual grantmasters waddled up
to the trough, stuck their snouts into the new flow of
funds, and diverted it toward their research interests
which have nothing to do with the mission statement of
the NNI. They even managed to redefine “nanotechnology”
for their own purposes to exclude the construction of
objects with atomic precision. This is not to say that
some of the research NNI funds isn't worthwhile, but it's
not nanotechnology in the original sense of the word, and
doesn't advance toward the goal of molecular manufacturing.
(We often hear about government-funded research and
development “picking winners and losers”. In
fact, such programs pick only losers, since the winners will
already have been funded by the productive sector of the
economy based upon their potential return.)
In this book Drexler attempts a fundamental reset of the
vision he initially presented in
Engines of Creation. He concedes the word
“nanotechnology” to the hogs at the federal
trough and uses “atomically precise manufacturing”
(APM) to denote a fabrication technology which, starting from
simple molecular feedstocks, can make anything by
fabricating and assembling parts in a hierarchical fashion.
Just as books, music, and movies have become data
files which can be transferred around the globe in seconds,
copied at no cost, and accessed by a generic portable device,
physical objects will be encoded as fabrication instructions
which a generic factory can create as required, constrained
only that the size of the factory be large enough to assemble
the final product. But the same garage-sized factory can
crank out automobiles, motorboats, small aircraft, bicycles,
computers, furniture, and anything on that scale or smaller
just as your laser printer can print any document whatsoever
as long as you have a page description of it.
Further, many of these objects can be manufactured using
almost exclusively the most abundant elements on Earth,
reducing cost and eliminating resource constraints. And
atomic precision means that there will be no waste products
from the manufacturing process—all intermediate products
not present in the final product will be turned back into
feedstock. Ponder, for a few moments, the consequences of
this for the global economy.
In chapter 5 the author introduces a heuristic for visualising
the nanoscale. Imagine the world scaled up in size by a factor
of ten million, and time slowed down by the same factor. This
scaling preserves properties such as velocity, force, and mass,
and allows visualising nanoscale machines as the same size
and operating speed as those with which we are familiar. At this
scale a single transistor on a contemporary microchip would be
about as big as an iPad and the entire chip the size of Belgium.
Using this viewpoint, the author acquaints the reader with
the realities of the nanoscale and demonstrates that analogues
of macroscopic machines, when we figure out how to fabricate them,
will work and, because they will operate ten million times
faster, will be able to process macroscopic quantities of
material on a practical time scale.
But can we build them? Here, Drexler introduces the concept
using the known laws
of physics and conservative principles of engineering to
explore what is possible. Essentially, there is a landscape
of feasibility. One portion is what we have already accomplished,
another which is ruled out by the laws of physics. The rest is
that which we could accomplish if we could figure out how and
could afford it. This is a huge domain—given unlimited
funds and a few decades to work on the problem, there is
little doubt one could build a particle accelerator which circled
the Earth's equator. Drexler cites the work of
as a masterpiece of exploratory engineering highly relevant to
atomically precise manufacturing. By 1903, working alone, he had
demonstrated the feasibility of achieving Earth orbit by means of a
multistage rocket burning liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Now,
Tsiolkovsky had no idea how to build the necessary engines,
fuel tanks, guidance systems, launch facilities, etc., but from
basic principles he was able to show that no physical
law ruled out their construction and that known materials would
suffice for them to work. We are in much the same position with
The tone of this book is rather curious. Perhaps having
been burned by his earlier work being sensationalised, the
author is reserved to such an extent that on p. 275 he
includes a two pargraph aside urging readers to “curb
their enthusiasm”, and much of the text, while discussing
what may be the most significant development in human history
since the invention of agriculture, often reads like a white paper
from the Brookings Institution with half a dozen authors: “Profound
changes in national interests will call for a ground-up review of
grand strategy. Means and ends, risks and opportunities, the
future self-perceived interests of today's strategic competitors—none
of these can be taken for granted.” (p. 269)
I am also dismayed to see that Drexler appears to have bought in to
the whole anthropogenic global warming scam and repeatedly
genuflects to the whole “carbon is bad” nonsense.
The acknowledgements include a former advisor to the
anti-human World Wide Fund for Nature.
Despite quibbles, if you've been thinking “Hey, it's the
21st century, where's my nanotechnology?”, this
is the book to read. It chronicles steady progress on the
foundations of APM and multiple paths through which the intermediate
steps toward achieving it may be achieved. It is enlightening
and encouraging. Just don't get enthusiastic.
Monday, August 19, 2013
Reading List: Enjoy the Decline
- Clarey, Aaron.
Enjoy the Decline.
Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013.
Many readers may find this book deeply cynical, disturbing, and
immoral. I found it cynical, disturbing, and immoral,
but also important, especially for younger people who wish to
make the most of their lives and find themselves in a United
States in an epoch in which it is, with the consent of the
majority, descending into a grey collectivist tyranny and
surveillance state, where productive and creative people are
seen as subjects to be exploited to benefit an
ever-growing dependent class which supports the state which
I left the United States in 1991 and have only returned since
for brief visits with family or to attend professional conferences.
Since 2001, as the totalitarian vibe there has grown rapidly, I
try to make these visits as infrequent as possible, my last being
in 2011. Since the 1990s, I have been urging productive people
in the U.S. to consider emigrating but, with only a couple
of exceptions, nobody has taken this advice. I've always
considered this somewhat odd, since most people in the
U.S. are descended from those who left their countries of birth
and came there to escape tyranny and seek opportunity. But
most people in the U.S. seem to recoil from the idea of
leaving, even as their own government becomes more repressive
and exploits them to a greater extent than the regimes their
This book is addressed to productive people (primarily young
ones with few existing responsibilities) who have decided to
remain in the United States. (Chapter 10 discusses emigration,
and while it is a useful introduction to the topic, I'd
suggest those pondering that option read
Time to Emigrate? [January 2007],
even though it is addressed to people in the United Kingdom.)
The central message is that with the re-election of Obama in
2012, the U.S. electorate have explicitly endorsed a path which
will lead to economic and geopolitical decline and ever-increasing
exploitation of a shrinking productive class in favour of
a growing dependent population. How is a productive person,
what the author calls a “Real American”, to respond
to this? One could dedicate oneself to struggling to reverse
the trend through political activism, or grimly struggle to make
the best of the situation while working hard even as more of
the fruits of one's labour are confiscated. Alternatively,
one can seek to “enjoy the decline”: face the
reality that once a democratic society reaches the
where more than half of the electorate receives more in
government transfer payments than they pay in taxes it's
game over and a new set of incentives have been put in place
which those wishing to make the most of their lives must face
forthrightly unless they wish to live in a delusional state.
In essence, the author argues, the definition of the “good life”
is fundamentally transformed once a society begins the slide into
collectivist tyranny. It is a fool's errand to seek to get an
advanced education when that only burdens one with debt which will
take most of a lifetime to repay and make capital formation in
the most productive working years impossible. Home ownership,
once the goal of young people and families, and their main
financial asset, only indentures you to a state which can raise
property taxes at any time and confiscate your property if you cannot
pay. Marriage and children must be weighed, particularly by
men, against the potential downside in case things don't work
out, which is why, increasingly, men are
going on strike. Scrimping and saving to
contribute to a retirement plan is only piling up assets
a cash-strapped government may seize when it can't pay its bills,
as has already happened in Argentina and other countries.
What matters? Friends, family (if you can get along with them),
having a good time, making the most of the years when you can
hike, climb mountains, ride motorcycles way too fast, hunt,
fish, read books that interest you, and share all of this and
more with a compatible companion. And you're doing this while
your contemporaries are putting in 60 hour weeks, seeing half or
more of their income confiscated, and hoping to do these things
at some distant time in the future, assuming their pensions
don't default and their retirement funds aren't stolen or
There are a number of things here which people may find off-putting,
if not shocking. In chapter 7, the author discusses the
“ ‘Smith and Wesson’ Retirement Plan”—not
making any provision for retirement, living it up while you
can, and putting a bullet in your head when you begin to
fail. I suspect this sounds like a lot better idea when you're
young (the author was 38 years old at the publication date of this
book) than when you're getting closer to the checkered flag.
In chapter 8, introduced by a quote from Ayn Rand, he discusses
the strategy of minimising one's income and thereby qualifying
for as many government assistance programs as possible. Hey,
if the people have legitimately voted for them, why not be
a beneficiary instead of the sucker who pays for them?
Whatever you think of the advice in this book (which comes across
as sincere, not satirical), the thing to keep in mind is that
it is an accurate description of the incentives which now exist
in the U.S. While it's unlikely that many productive people will
read this book and dial their ambitions back into slacker territory
or become overt parasites, what's important is the decisions made
on the margin by those unsure how to proceed in their lives.
As the U.S. becomes poorer, weaker, and less free, perhaps the
winners, at least on a relative basis, will be those who do not
rage against the dying of the light or struggle to exist as
they are progressively enslaved, but rather people who opt out
to the extent possible and react rationally to the incentives
as they exist. I would (and have) emigrated, but if that's
not possible or thinkable, this book may provide a guide to making
the best of a tragic situation.
The book contains numerous citations of resources on
the Web, each of which is linked in the text: in the
Kindle edition, clicking the
link takes you to the cited Web page.
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Barely Radioactive Elements
“What is the heaviest stable element?” This question,
easily posed, is not so easy to answer. In fact, nobody
Barely Radioactive Elements
explores the stability of heavy
elements, the difficulty of experimentally confirming theoretical
predictions of very rare events, and elements whose half-lives are
longer than the lives of all stars in the universe.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Fourmilab Internet Connection Upgrade Complete
Today Fourmilab's fibre optic Internet connection was upgraded from 20 megabits/second symmetrical, at which speed it had run since it was installed in 2008
(which involved digging up the street
), to 100 megabits/second symmetrical. This time no civil engineering was required—simply swapping out the router on my end of the fibre link and re-configuring the connections in La Neuveville and Neuchâtel.
The downtime estimated to do this was around twenty minutes, but in fact the site was down from around 13:30 to 15:57 UTC due to a misconfiguration at the Neuchâtel point of presence. Everything has been running smoothly since then, and the above run from speedtest.net
indicates the results of the upgrade. The upload speed is slower than the download speed because the upload test is contending with traffic from the Web site outbound to requesters. Downloads need only contend with HTTP requests, which are small in size compared to the replies. This test was run from a client machine on the LAN, through the firewall. Most of the LAN infrastructure is 100 megabit/second Ethernet—I may upgrade some of this in the communication shack to gigabit Ethernet in order to have more headroom in switches and other network gear, but I have no plans to pull new cable to go gigabit on longer runs.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Reading List: Vacuum Tube Amplifier Basics
- Jurich, E. J.
Vacuum Tube Amplifier Basics.
Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013.
If you can get past the sloppy copy-editing and production values,
this book is a useful introduction for those interested in designing
and building their own vacuum tube audio equipment. Millennials
and others who have only ever listened to compressed audio will
wonder why anybody would want to use such an antiquated technology,
but those of us who appreciate it have a simple answer: it sounds
better. The reason for this is simple once you poke through the
mysticism surrounding the topic. It is in the nature of audio that
peaks in the signal are much higher than the mean value. Solid-state
amplifiers tend to be linear up until some signal level, but then
the signal into a square top,
introducing odd harmonics which the human ear finds
distasteful. Tube amplifiers, on the other hand, tend to round off
transients which exceed their capacity, introducing mostly second
harmonic distortion which the ear and brain deem “mellow”.
“Do you actually believe that?”, the silicon
purity police shriek. Well, as a matter of fact, I do, and I currently
use a 40 watt per channel tube amplifier I
built from a kit more than
a decade ago. It's a classic
design using EL34
output tubes, and it sounds much better than the 200 watt per
channel solid-state amplifier it replaced (after the silicon went
up in smoke).
This book will introduce you to vacuum tube circuitry, and those
accustomed to solid-state designs may be amazed at how few components
are needed to get the job done. Since every component in the signal path
has the potential to degrade its fidelity, the simplicity of vacuum tube
designs is one of the advantages that recommend them. A variety of worked-out
vacuum tube designs are presented, either to be built by the hobbyist or
as starting points for original designs, and detailed specifications are
presented for tubes widely used in audio gear.
The production quality is what we've sadly come to expect for inexpensive
Kindle-only books. I noted more than 40 typographical errors (many
involving the humble
and in the tube data at the end, information which was clearly
intended to be set in columns is just run together.
This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle
as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned
Friday, August 9, 2013
Reading List: Quartered Safe Out Here
- Fraser, George MacDonald.
Quartered Safe Out Here.
New York: Skyhorse Publishing, [1992, 2001] 2007.
George MacDonald Fraser
is best known as the author of the
historical novels set in the 19th century. This autobiographical account of
his service in the British Army in Burma during World War II is
fictionalised only in that he has changed the names of those who
served with him, tried to reconstruct dialogue from memory, and
reconstructed events as best he can from the snapshots the mind
retains from the chaos of combat and the boredom of army life
between contact with the enemy.
Fraser, though born to Scottish parents, grew up in Carlisle, England,
in the region of
Cumbria. When he
enlisted in the army, it was in the
composed almost entirely of Cumbrian troops. As the author notes,
“…Cumbrians of old lived by raid, cattle theft, extortion,
and murder; in war they were England's vanguard, and in peace her
most unruly and bloody nuisance. They hadn't changed much in four
centuries, either…”. Cumbrians of the epoch retained their
traditional dialect, which may seem nearly incomprehensible to those
accustomed to BBC English:
No offence, lad, but ye doan't 'alf ga broon. Admit it, noo. Put a
dhoti on ye, an' ye could get a job dishin 'oot egg banjoes at Wazir
Ali's. Any roads, w'at Ah'm sayin' is that if ye desert oot 'ere — Ah
mean, in India, ye'd 'ev to be dooally to booger off in Boorma —
the ridcaps is bound to cotch thee, an' court-martial gi'es thee the
choice o' five years in Teimulghari or Paint Joongle, or coomin' oop
t'road to get tha bollicks shot off. It's a moog's game. (p. 71)
A great deal of the text is dialogue in dialect, and if you find that
difficult to get through, it may be rough going. I usually dislike
reading dialect, but agree with the author that if it had been rendered
into standard English the whole flavour of his experience would have been
lost. Soldiers swear, and among Cumbrians profanity is as much a part
of speech as nouns and verbs; if this offends you, this is not your book.
This is one of the most remarkable accounts of infantry combat I
have ever read. Fraser was a grunt—he never rose above the
rank of lance corporal during the events chronicled in the book
and usually was busted back to private before long. The campaign
in Burma was largely ignored by the press while it was
underway and forgotten thereafter, but for those involved it
was warfare at the most visceral level: combat harking back to
the colonial era, fought by riflemen without armour or air
support. Kipling of the 1890s would have understood precisely
what was going on. On the ground, Fraser and his section had little
idea of the larger picture or where their campaign fit into the
overall war effort. All they knew is that they were charged with
chasing the Japanese out of Burma and that “Jap”
might be “half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon
was a bamboo stake, but he was in no mood to surrender.” (p. 191)
This was a time where the most ordinary men from Britain and the
Empire fought to defend what they confidently believed was
the pinnacle of civilisation from the forces of barbarism and
darkness. While constantly griping about everything, as soldiers
are wont to do, when the time came they shouldered their packs,
double-checked their rifles, and went out to do the job. From
time to time the author reflects on how far Britain, and the rest
of the West, has fallen, “One wonders how Londoners survived
the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargon-mumbling
‘counsellors’, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s
servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit
of brain-washing.” (p. 89)
Perhaps it helps that the author is a master of the historical
novel: this account does a superb job of relating events as
they happened and were perceived at the time without relying
on hindsight to establish a narrative. While he doesn't abjure the
occasional reflexion from decades later or reference to
regimental history documents, for most of the account you are
there—hot, wet, filthy, constantly assailed by
insects, and never knowing whether that little sound you heard
was just a rustle in the jungle or a Japanese patrol ready to
attack with the savagery which comes when an army knows its cause
is lost, evacuation is impossible, and surrender is unthinkable.
But this is not all boredom and grim combat. The account of the air
drop of supplies starting on p. 96 is one of the funniest
passages I've ever read in a war memoir. Cumbrians will be Cumbrians!
Monday, August 5, 2013
Reading List: Xenophobia
- Cawdron, Peter.
Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013.
This is the author's second novel of humanity's first contact
with an alien species, but it is not a sequel to his earlier
Anomaly (December 2011); the story
is completely unrelated, and the nature of the aliens and the
way in which the story plays out could not be more different,
not only from the earlier novel, but from the vast majority
of first contact fiction. To borrow terminology from John Brunner's
Stand on Zanzibar, most tales
of first contact are “the happening world”, cutting
back and forth between national capitals, military headquarters,
scientific institutions, and so on, while this story is all
about “tracking with closeups”. Far from the
seats of power, most of the story takes place in civil-war-torn
It works superbly.
Elizabeth Bower is a British doctor working with
Médecins Sans Frontières
at a hospital in a rural part of the country. Without warning, a
U.S. military contingent, operating under the U.N. flag, arrives
with orders to evacuate all personnel. Bower refuses to abandon those in
her care, and persuades a detachment of Army Rangers to accompany
her and the patients to a Red Cross station in
the journey, Bower and the Rangers learn that Western forces are
being evacuated world-wide following the announcement that an
alien spacecraft is bound for Earth, and military assets are being
regrouped in their home countries to defend them.
Bower and the Rangers then undertake the overland trek to the capital
they hope to catch an evacuation flight for U.S. Marines still
in the city. During the journey, things get seriously weird: the
alien mothership, as large as a small country, is seen passing overhead;
a multitude of probes rain down and land all around, seemingly
on most of the globe; and giant jellyfish-like “floaters”
enter the atmosphere and begin to cruise with unfathomable objectives.
Upon arrival at the capital, their problems are not with aliens
but with two-legged Terries—rebel forces. They are ambushed,
captured, and delivered into the hands of a delusional, megalomaniacal,
and sadistic “commander”. Bower and a Ranger who styles
himself as “Elvis” are forced into an impossible situation
in which their only hope is to make common cause with an alien.
This is a tautly plotted story in which the characters are
genuinely fleshed-out and engaging. It does a superb job of
sketching the mystery of a first contact situation: where humans
and aliens lack the means to communicate all but the most basic
concepts and have every reason to distrust each other's motives.
As is the case with many independently-published novels, there
are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 26. There
also some factual goofs: the Moon's gravity is about 1/6 of that
of the Earth, not 1/3; the verbal description of the computation
is incorrect; the chemical formula for water is given incorrectly; and
are described as gravitational hilltops, while the dynamics are
better described by thinking of them as valleys. None of these detracts
in any way from enjoying the story.
In the latter part of the book, the scale expands at a vertiginous pace
from a close-up personal story to sense of wonder on the interstellar
scale. There is a scene, reminiscent of one of the most harrowing
episodes in the
which I still find chilling when I recall it today (you'll know which
one I'm speaking of when you get there), in which the human future is
weighed in the balance.
This is a thoroughly satisfying novel which looks at first contact
in an entirely different way than any other treatment I've encountered. It
will also introduce you to a new meaning of the “tree of life”.