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Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Reading List: The Racketeer
- Grisham, John.
New York: Doubleday, 2012.
Malcolm Bannister was living the life of a retail lawyer in a
Virginia town, doing real estate transactions, wills, and
the other routine work which occupies a three partner firm,
paying the bills but never striking it rich. A law school
classmate contacts him and lets him know there's a potentially
large commission available for negotiating the purchase of a hunting
lodge in rural Virginia for an anonymous client. Bannister doesn't
like the smell of the transaction, especially after a number of odd
twists and turns during the negotiation, but bills must be
paid, and this fee will go a long way toward that goal. Without any
warning, during a civic function, costumed goons arrest
him and perp-walk him before previously-arranged state media.
He, based upon his holding funds in escrow for a real estate
transaction, is accused of “money laundering” and indicted
as part of a
prosecution of a Washington influence peddler. Railroaded through
the “justice system” by an ambitious federal prosecutor and
sentenced by a vindictive judge, he finds himself imprisoned for ten
years at a “Club Fed” facility along with
other nonviolent “criminals”.
Five years into his sentence, he has become the librarian and
“jailhouse lawyer” of the prison, filing motions on
behalf of his fellow inmates and, on occasion, seeing injustices
in their convictions reversed. He has lost everything else: his wife
has divorced him and remarried, and his law licence has been
revoked; he has little hope of resuming his career after release.
A jailhouse lawyer hears many things from his “clients”:
some boastful, others bogus, but some revealing secrets which
those holding them think might help to get them out. When a federal judge
is murdered, Bannister knows, from his
contacts in prison, precisely who committed the crime and leverages
his position to obtain his own release, disappearance into witness
protection, and immunity from prosecution for earlier acts. The
FBI, under pressure to solve the case and with no other leads, is
persuaded by what Bannister has to offer and takes him up on the deal.
A jailhouse lawyer, wrongly convicted on a bogus charge by a despotic
regime has a great deal of time to ponder how he has been wronged,
identify those responsible, and
and surely draw his plans against them.
This is one of the best revenge novels I've read, and it's
particularly appropriate since it takes down the tyrannical regime
a larger percentage of its population than any
serious country and shows how a clever individual can always outwit
the bumbling collectivist leviathan as long as he refuses to engage it
on level terrain but always exploits agility against the
saurian brain reaction time of the state.
The only goof I noticed is that on a flight from Puerto Rico to Atlanta,
passengers are required to go through passport control. As this is a
domestic flight from a U.S. territory to the U.S. mainland, no passport
check should be required (although in the age of
I wouldn't call this a libertarian novel, as the author accepts the
coercive structure of the state as a given, but it's a delightful tale
of somebody who has been wronged by that foul criminal enterprise
obtaining pay-back by wit and guile.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Reading List: Starship Century
- Benford, James and Gregory Benford, eds.
Reno, NV: Lucky Bat Books, 2013.
“Is this the century when we begin to build starships?”
So begins the book, produced in conjunction with the
Symposium held in May of 2013 at the University of California San
Diego. Now, in a sense, we built and launched starships in the
last century. Indeed, at this writing, eight objects
launched from Earth are on
These are the two
spacecraft, the two
Pluto flyby spacecraft, and its inert upper stage and two
spin-down masses. But these objects are not aimed at any particular
stars; they're simply flying outward from the solar system following whatever
trajectory they were on when they completed their missions, and even
if they were aimed at the nearest stars, it would take them tens of
thousands of years to get there, by which time their
sources would be long exhausted and they would be inert space junk.
As long as they are built and launched by beings like humans (all bets
are off should we pass the baton to immortal machines), starships or
interstellar probes will probably need to complete their mission
within the time scale of a human lifetime to be interesting. One can
imagine multi-generation colony ships (and they are discussed here),
but such ships are unlikely to be launched without confidence the
destination is habitable, which can only be obtained by direct
investigation by robotic probes launched previously. The closest star
is around 4.3 light years from Earth. This is a daunting distance.
To cross it in a human-scale time (say, within the career of a
research scientist), you'd need to accelerate your probe to something
on the order of 1/10 the speed of light. At this speed, each kilogram
of the probe would have a kinetic energy of around 100 kilotons of
TNT. A colony ship with a dry mass of 1,000 tonnes would, travelling
at a tenth of the speed of light, have kinetic energy which, at
a cost of USD 0.10 per kilowatt-hour, would be worth USD 12.5
trillion, which is impressive even by U.S. budget deficit standards.
But you can't transmit energy to a spacecraft with 100% efficiency
(the power cord is a killer!), and so the cost of a realistic
mission might be ten times this.
Is it then, silly, to talk about starships? Well, not so fast. Ever
since the Enlightenment, the
per capita has been rising rapidly. When
I was a kid, millionaires were exotic creatures, while today people
who bought houses in coastal California in the 1970s are all
millionaires. Now it's billionaires who are the movers and shakers,
and some of them are using their wealth to try to reduce the cost
of access to space. (Yes, currency depreciation has accounted for a
substantial part of the millionaire to billionaire transition, but the
scope of what one can accomplish with a billion dollar grubstake today
is still much greater than with a million dollars fifty years ago.)
If this growth continues, might it not be possible that before this
century is out there will be trillionaires who, perhaps in a consortium,
have the ambition to expand the human presence to other stars?
This book collects contributions from those who have thought in
great detail about the challenges of travel to the stars, both in
nuts and bolts hardware and economic calculations and in science
fictional explorations of what it will mean for the individuals
involved and the societies which attempt that giant leap. There
are any number of “Aha!” moments here.
Freeman Dyson points out that the void between the stars is
not as empty as many imagine it to be, but filled with
objects which may extend so far as to overlap the clouds of
neighbouring stars. Dyson imagines engineered organisms which
could render these bodies habitable to (perhaps engineered) humans,
which would expand toward the stars much like the Polynesians
in the Pacific: from island to island, with a population which would
dwarf both in numbers and productivity that of the inner system
rock where they originated.
We will not go to the stars with rockets like we use today. The most
rudimentary working of the numbers shows how absurd that would be.
nuclear thermal rockets, a technology developed and tested
in the 1960s and 1970s, are more than adequate to develop a solar
system wide economy which could support interstellar missions. Many
different approaches to building starships are explored here: some
defy the constraints of the
by keeping the power source in the solar system, as in
“sailships” driven by laser or microwave radiation.
A chapter explores “exotic propulsion”, beyond our
present understanding of physics, which might change the game.
(And before you dismiss such speculations, recall that according
to the consensus model of cosmology, around 95% of the universe is
made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” whose
nature is entirely unknown. Might it be possible that a
could be discovered which works against these pervasive media just as
a submarine's propeller acts upon the ocean?)
Leavening the technical articles are science fiction stories exploring
the transition from a planetary species to the stars. Science fiction
provides the dreams which are then turned into equations and
eventually hardware, and it has a place at this table. Indeed, many
of the scientists who spoke at the conference and authored chapters
in this book also write science fiction. We are far from being able
to build starships or even interstellar probes but, being human, we're
always looking beyond the horizon and not just imagining what's
there but figuring out how we'll go and see it for ourselves. To date, humans haven't
even learned how to live in space: our space stations are about
camping in space, with extensive support from the Earth.
We have no idea what it takes to create a self-sustaining closed
ecosystem (consider that around 90% of the cells in your body are not
human but rather symbiotic microbes: wouldn't you just hate it to be
half way to Alpha Centauri and discover you'd left some single-celled
critter behind?). If somebody waved a magic wand and handed us a
propulsion module that could take us to the nearest stars within a
human lifetime, there are many things we'd still need to know in order
to expect to survive the journey and establish ourselves when we
arrived. And, humans being humans, we'd go anyway, regardless.
Gotta love this species!
This is an excellent survey of current thinking about interstellar
missions. If you're interested in this subject, be sure to view the
video archive of the conference, which includes some
presentations which do not figure in this volume,
including the magnificent
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Reading List: Flashback
- Simmons, Dan.
New York: Little, Brown, 2011.
In the fourth decade of the 21st century, all of the dire
consequences predicted when the U.S. veered onto a
“progressive” path in 2008 have come to pass.
Exponentially growing entitlement spending and debt, a
depreciating currency being steadily displaced as the
world's reserve currency, and an increasingly hollowed-out
military unable to shoulder the burdens it had previously
assumed in maintaining world stability all came to a head
on The Day It All Hit The Fan. What is left of the United
States (the Republic of Texas has opted to go it alone, while
the southwest has become Nuevo Mexico, seeking to expand
its territory in the ongoing
reconquista) has become a
run-down, has-been nation. China, joined at the hip to the
U.S. economy and financial system, collapsed along with the
U.S., and its territory and resources are being fought over
by superpowers Japan and India, with U.S. mercenaries employed
by both sides. Japan, holder of a large portion of the debt on
which the U.S. defaulted, has effectively foreclosed, sending
in Japanese “Advisors” who, from fortified Green Zone
compounds, are the ultimate authority in their regions.
Islamic powers, with nothing to fear from a neutered U.S., make
good on their vow to wipe Israel off the map, and the New
Global Caliphate is mobilising Islamic immigrant communities
around the world to advance its goal of global conquest.
With the present so grim, millions in the U.S. have become
users of the drug “flashback”, which allows those
who take it to relive earlier, happier times in their lives. While
not physically addictive, the contrast between the happy experiences
“under the flash” and the squalid present causes
many to spend whatever money they can put their hands on to
escape to the past.
Nick Bottom was a Denver police department detective in charge
of the investigation of the murder of the son of the Japanese
Advisor in charge of the region. The victim was working on a
documentary on the impact of flashback on U.S. society when, at
a wrap party for the film, he and his girlfriend were killed in
what amounted to a locked room mystery. Nick found lead after
lead evaporating in the mysterious doings of the Japanese, and
while involved in the investigation, his wife was killed in a
horrific automobile accident. This tipped him over the edge, and
he turned to flashback to re-live his life with her, eventually
costing him his job.
Five years later, out of the blue, the Japanese Advisor summons
him and offers to employ him to re-open the investigation of
his son's death. Since Nick interviewed all of the persons of
interest in the investigation, only he has the ability to relive
those interrogations under the flash, and thus is in a unique
position to discover something he missed while distracted with
the case load of a busy homicide cop.
This is a gritty gumshoe procedural set in an all-too-plausible
future. (OK, the flashback drug may seem to be a reach, but
researchers are already talking about
editing drugs, so who knows?) Nick
discovers that all of the mysteries that haunt him may be
related in some way, and has to venture into dangerous corners
of this new world to follow threads which might make sense of
all the puzzles.
This is one of those novels where, as the pages dwindle, you wonder
how the author is going to pull everything together and begin to
fear you may be headed for a cliffhanger setting the stage for a
sequel. But in the last few chapters all is revealed and resolved,
concluding a thoroughly satisfying yarn. If you'd like to see how
noir mystery, science fiction, and a dystopian future can be blended
into a page-turner, here's how it's done.
Monday, November 18, 2013
ETSET Version 3.4 Posted
Version 3.4 of ETSET
, which translates electronic texts written in human readable form into LaTeX (and thence to PostScript and PDF, if you wish), HTML (either single document or individual chapters with navigation links), or Palm Markup Language (PML) to produce eReader
books which can be read on a variety of handheld platforms, is now available.
Version 3.4 is a minor update which corrects problems when building the program on 64-bit platforms. The result of various STL string
methods were stored into unsigned int
variables, which resulted in errors when a string::npos
value was not recognised because that 32-bit value was stored into a 64-bit unsigned int
. I changed all of the relevant declarations to std::size_t
, which adapts automatically to the width of values returned by STL string
ETSET is a C++/STL program written using the Literate Programming
methodology in the CWEB System
; the source code and complete documentation (both user-level and internal) may be read online
Friday, November 15, 2013
Reading List: First Contact
- Kaufman, Marc.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
How many fields of science can you think of which study something
for which there is no generally accepted experimental evidence
whatsoever? Such areas of inquiry certainly exist:
come immediately to mind, but those are
research programs motivated by self-evident shortcomings in the
theoretical foundations of physics which become apparent when our
current understanding is extrapolated to very high energies.
the study of life in the cosmos, has, to date, only one exemplar
to investigate: life on Earth. For despite the enormous diversity of
terrestrial life, it shares a common genetic code and molecular
machinery, and appears to be descended from a common ancestral
And yet in the last few decades astrobiology has been a field which,
although having not so far unambiguously identified extraterrestrial
life, has learned a great deal about life on Earth, the nature
of life, possible paths for the origin of life on Earth and
elsewhere, and the habitats in the universe where life might be
found. This book, by a veteran Washington Post
science reporter, visits the astrobiologists in their native
habitats, ranging from deep mines in South Africa, where organisms
separated from the surface biosphere for millions of years have been
identified; Antarctica, whose ice hosts microbes the likes of
which might flourish on the icy bodies of the outer solar system;
to planet hunters patiently observing stars from the ground and
space to discover worlds orbiting distant stars.
It is amazing how much we have learned in such a short
time. When I was a kid,
many imagined that Venus's clouds shrouded a world of steamy
jungles, and that Mars had plants which changed colour with
the seasons. No planet of another star had been detected, and
respectable astronomers argued that the solar system might have
been formed by a freak close approach between two stars and
that planets might be extremely rare. The genetic code of
life had not been decoded, and an
of Earthly life, bearing important clues for life's origin, was
unknown and unsuspected. This book describes the discoveries which
have filled in the blanks over the last few decades, painting
a picture of a galaxy in which planets abound, many in the
zone” of their stars. Life on Earth has been found to
have colonised habitats previously considered as inhospitable
to life as other worlds: absence of oxygen, no sunlight, temperatures
near freezing or above the boiling point of water, extreme acidity
or alkalinity: life finds a way.
We may have already discovered extraterrestrial life.
The author meets the thoroughly respectable scientists
who operated the life detection experiments of the Viking Mars
landers in the 1970s, sought microfossils of organisms in a
meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica, and searched for
evidence of life in carbonaceous meteorites. Each believes
the results of their work is evidence of life
beyond Earth, but the standard of evidence required for such
an extraordinary claim has not been met in the opinion of
While most astrobiologists seek evidence of simple life forms
(which exclusively inhabited Earth for most of its history),
for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) jumps
to the other end of evolution and seeks
interstellar communications from other technological
civilisations. While initial searches were extremely limited
in the assumptions about signals they might detect, progress in
computing has drastically increased the scope of these
investigations. In addition, other channels of communication,
such as very short optical pulses, are now being explored. While
no signals have been detected in 50 years of off and on searching,
only a minuscule fraction of the search space has been explored,
and it may be that in retrospect we'll realise that we've had
evidence of interstellar signals in our databases for years in the
form of transient pulses not recognised because
we were looking for narrowband continuous beacons.
Discovery of life beyond the Earth, whether humble microbes on other
bodies of the solar system or an extraterrestrial civilisation
millions of years older than our own spamming the galaxy with its
ETwitter feed, would arguably be the most significant discovery in
the history of science. If we have only one example of life in the
universe, its origin may have been a forbiddingly improbable
fluke which happened only once in our galaxy or in the entire universe.
But if there are two independent examples of the origin of life (note
that if we find life on Mars, it is crucial to determine whether it
shares a common origin with terrestrial life: since meteors exchange
material between the planets, it's possible Earth life originated on
Mars or vice versa), then there is every reason to believe life is as
common in the cosmos as we are now finding planets to be. Perhaps
in the next few decades we will discover the universe to be filled
with wondrous creatures awaiting our discovery. Or maybe not—we
may be alone in the universe, in which case it is our destiny to
bring it to life.
Monday, November 4, 2013
Reading List: Surrounded by Enemies
- Zabel, Bryce.
Surrounded by Enemies.
Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2013.
What if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt
in Dallas? That is the point of departure for this gripping
alternative history novel by reporter, author, and screenwriter
Spared an assassin's bullet by a heroic Secret Service agent,
a shaken Kennedy returns to Washington and convenes a small group
of his most trusted inner circle led by his brother Robert, the
attorney general, to investigate who might have launched such
an attack and what steps could be taken both to prevent a
second attempt and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Surveying the landscape, they conclude it might be easier to
make a list of powerful forces who might not wish to
kill the president. Kennedy's actions in office had given
actors ranging from Cuba, anti-Castro groups in the U.S., the
Mafia, FBI, CIA, senior military commanders, the Secret Service,
Texas oil interests, and even Vice President Johnson potential
motivations to launch or condone an attack. At the same time,
while pursuing their own quiet inquiry, they must try to avert
a Congressional investigation which might turn into a partisan
circus, diverting attention from their strategy for Kennedy's
1964 re-election campaign.
But in the snake pit which is Washington, there is more than one
way to assassinate a man, and Kennedy's almost grotesque
womanising and drug use (both he and his wife were regular
“Dr. Feelgood”, whose “tissue regenerator”
injections were laced with amphetamines) provided the ammunition
his enemies needed to try to bring him down by assassinating
his character in the court of public opinion.
A shadowy figure begins passing FBI files to two reporters of
Top Story, a recently-launched news magazine
struggling in the shadow of Time and
Newsweek. After investigating the allegations and
obtaining independent corroboration for some of them,
Top Story runs a cover story on “The Secret
Life of the President”, creating a firestorm of
scrutiny of the president's private life by media who
never before considered such matters worthy of investigation
The political implications quickly assume the dimensions of a
constitutional crisis, where the parties involved are forced
to weigh appropriate sanctions for a president whose behaviour
may have put the national security at risk versus taking
actions which may give those who plotted to kill the president
what they tried to achieve in Dallas with a bullet.
The plot deftly weaves historical events from the epoch with
twists and turns which all follow logically from the point of
departure, and the result is a very different history of the
1960s and 1970s which, to this reader who lived through those
decades, seems entirely plausible. The author, who identifies
himself in the introduction as “a lifelong Democrat”,
brings no perceptible ideological or political agenda to
the story—the characters are as complicated as the
real people were, and behave in ways which are believable
given the changed circumstances.
The story is told in a clever way: as a special issue of
Top Story commemorating the 50th anniversary
of the assassination attempt. Written in weekly news magazine
style, this allows it to cite memoirs, recollections by those
involved in years after the events described, and
documents which became available much later. There are a few
goofs regarding historical events in the sixties which shouldn't
have been affected by the alternative timeline, but readers
who notice them can just chuckle and get on with the story.
The book is almost entirely free of copy-editing errors.
This is a superb exemplar of alternative history,
the cosmic grand master of the genre, contributes a foreword to
Friday, November 1, 2013
Puzzle: Time zones
Alice, who is in an Atlantic seaboard state (one of the states of the U.S., that is) is talking on the phone to Bob, who is in a Pacific seaboard state (again, one of the states of the U.S.). “What time is it there?”, Alice says. Bob gives the correct time where he is. “Funny, it's the same time here” says Alice. How is that possible?
- A small part of Oregon is on mountain time, and the Florida panhandle is on central time, just one hour off.
- But how can these two different time zones be on the same time? In the fall, when we switch back an hour, away from daylight saving time, the switch happens at 2 A.M. local time. So when it's 2 A.M. on switch day in the central zone, the time switches back to 1 A.M.. And it's still 1 A.M. in the mountain zone (since the zone won't fall back until 2 A.M. in mountain).
I originally saw this puzzle on The Volokh Conspiracy
, where it was posted on March 3rd, 2005 by Eugene Volokh. The puzzle is attributed to Warren Usui. The links to show the hint and answer no longer work in the original post, so I am re-posting the puzzle here. I have made a few minor changes in typography to conform to Fourmilab's style guide.