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Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Reading List: Full Black
- Thor, Brad.
New York: Pocket Books, 2011.
This is the eleventh in the author's
Harvath series, which began with
The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010).
Unlike the previous novel,
The Athena Project (December 2013), in
which Harvath played only an incidental part, here Harvath once again
occupies centre stage. The author has also dialed back on some of the
science-fictiony stuff which made Athena less than
satisfying to me: this book is back in the groove of the geopolitical
thriller we've come to expect from Thor.
A high-risk covert operation to infiltrate a terrorist cell operating
in Uppsala, Sweden to identify who is calling the shots on terror
attacks conducted by sleeper cells in the U.S. goes horribly wrong,
and Harvath not only loses almost all of his team, but fails to
capture the leaders of the cell. Meanwhile, a ruthless and carefully
scripted hit is made on a Hollywood producer, killing two filmmakers
which whom he is working on a documentary project: evidence points to
the hired killers being Russian spetsnaz, which indicates whoever
ordered the hit has both wealth and connections.
When a coordinated wave of terror attacks against soft targets in
the U.S. is launched, Harvath, aided by his former nemesis turned
ally Nicholas (“the troll”), must uncover the clues which
link all of this together, working against time, as evidence suggests
additional attacks are coming. This requires questioning the loyalty
of previously-trusted people and investigating prominent figures
generally considered above suspicion.
With the exception of chapter 32, which gets pretty deep into the
weeds of political economy and reminded me a bit of John Galt's
speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010)
(thankfully, it is much shorter), the story moves right along and
comes to a satisfying conclusion. The plot is in large part based
upon the Chinese concept of
which is genuine (this is not a spoiler, as the author
mentions it in the front material of the book).
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Reading List: Our Mathematical Universe
- Tegmark, Max.
Our Mathematical Universe.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner wrote an essay titled
Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural
in which he observed that “the enormous usefulness of
mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering
on the mysterious and that there is no rational
explanation for it”. Indeed, each time physics has
expanded the horizon of its knowledge from the human
scale, whether outward to the planets, stars, and galaxies; or
inward to molecules, atoms, nucleons, and quarks it has been
found that mathematical theories which precisely model these
levels of structure can be found, and that these theories
almost always predict new phenomena which are subsequently
observed when experiments are performed to look for them. And yet
it all seems very odd. The universe seems to obey laws written
in the language of mathematics, but when we look at the universe
we don't see anything which itself looks like mathematics. The
mystery then, as posed by Stephen Hawking, is “What is it
that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for
them to describe?”
This book describes the author's personal journey to answer these deep
questions. Max Tegmark, born in Stockholm, is a professor of physics
at MIT who, by his own description, leads a double life. He has
been a pioneer in developing techniques to tease out data about the
early structure of the universe from maps of the cosmic background
radiation obtained by satellite and balloon experiments and, in
doing so, has been an important contributor to the emergence of
precision cosmology: providing precise information on the age
of the universe, its composition, and the seeding of large scale
structure. This he calls his Dr. Jekyll work, and it is
described in detail in the first part of the book. In the balance,
his Mr. Hyde persona asserts itself and he delves deeply into the
ultimate structure of reality.
He argues that just as science has in the past shown our universe
to be far larger and more complicated than previously imagined,
our contemporary theories suggest that everything we observe is
part of an enormously greater four-level hierarchy of multiverses,
arranged as follows.
The level I multiverse consists of all the regions of
space outside our
from which light has not yet
had time to reach us. If, as precision cosmology suggests,
the universe is, if not infinite, so close as to be
enormously larger than what we can observe, there will be a
multitude of volumes of space as large as the one we can
observe in which the laws of physics will be identical but
the randomly specified initial conditions will vary. Because
there is a finite number of possible quantum states within
each observable radius and the number of such regions is likely
to be much larger, there will be a multitude of observers just
like you, and even more which will differ in various ways.
This sounds completely crazy, but it is a straightforward
prediction from our understanding of the Big Bang and
the measurements of precision cosmology.
The level II multiverse follows directly from the
inflation, which explains many otherwise mysterious
aspects of the universe, such as why its curvature is so
close to flat, why the cosmic background radiation has
such a uniform temperature over the entire sky, and why the
constants of physics appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to
permit the development of complex structures including life.
Eternal (or chaotic) inflation argues that our level I multiverse
(of which everything we can observe is a tiny bit) is
a single “bubble” which nucleated when a pre-existing
“false vacuum” phase decayed to a lower energy
state. It is this decay which ultimately set off the enormous
expansion after the Big Bang and provided the energy to create
all of the content of the universe. But eternal inflation seems
to require that there be an infinite series of bubbles created,
all causally disconnected from one another. Because the process which
causes a bubble to begin to inflate is affected by quantum
fluctuations, although the fundamental physical laws in all
of the bubbles will be the same, the initial conditions,
including physical constants, will vary from bubble to bubble.
Some bubbles will almost immediately recollapse into a black
hole, others will expand so rapidly stars and galaxies never
form, and in still others primordial nucleosynthesis may result
in a universe filled only with helium. We find ourselves in a
bubble which is hospitable to our form of life because we can
only exist in such a bubble.
The level III multiverse is implied by the unitary
evolution of the wave function in quantum mechanics and
the multiple worlds interpretation which replaces collapse
of the wave function with continually splitting universes
in which every possible outcome occurs. In this view of
quantum mechanics there is no randomness—the evolution
of the wave function is completely deterministic. The results
of our experiments appear to contain randomness because in
the level III multiverse there are copies of each of us
which experience every possible outcome of the experiment and
we don't know which copy we are. In the author's
words, “…causal physics will produce the illusion
of randomness from your subjective viewpoint in any circumstance
where you're being cloned. … So how does it feel when
you get cloned? It feels random! And every time something
fundamentally random appears to happen to you, which couldn't
have been predicted even in principle, it's a sign that you've
In the level IV multiverse, not only do the initial
conditions, physical constants, and the results of measuring
an evolving quantum wave function vary, but the fundamental
equations—the mathematical structure—of
physics differ. There might be a different number of
spatial dimensions, or two or more time dimensions, for
example. The author argues that the ultimate ensemble theory
is to assume that every mathematical structure exists as a
physical structure in the level IV multiverse (perhaps with
some constraints: for example, only computable structures
may have physical representations). Most of these structures
would not permit the existence of observers like ourselves,
but once again we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves
living in a structure which allows us to exist. Thus, finally,
the reason mathematics is so unreasonably effective in describing
the laws of physics is just that mathematics and the laws
of physics are one and the same thing. Any observer,
regardless of how bizarre the universe it inhabits, will
discover mathematical laws underlying the phenomena within
that universe and conclude they make perfect sense.
Tegmark contends that when we try to discover the mathematical
structure of the laws of physics, the outcome of quantum
measurements, the physical constants which appear to be
free parameters in our models, or the detailed properties
of the visible part of our universe, we are simply trying to
find our address in the respective levels of these
multiverses. We will never find a reason from first principles
for these things we measure: we observe what we do because
that's the way they are where we happen to find ourselves.
Observers elsewhere will see other things.
The principal opposition to multiverse arguments is that they
are unscientific because they posit phenomena which are
unobservable, perhaps even in principle, and hence cannot be
falsified by experiment. Tegmark takes a different tack. He
says that if you have a theory (for example, eternal
inflation) which explains observations which otherwise
do not make any sense and has made falsifiable predictions
(the fine-scale structure of the cosmic background
radiation) which have subsequently been confirmed by
experiment, then if it predicts other inevitable consequences
(the existence of a multitude of other Hubble volume universes
outside our horizon and other bubbles with different
physical constants) we should take these predictions
seriously, even if we cannot think of any way at
present to confirm them. Consider
radiation: Einstein predicted it in 1916 as a consequence
of general relativity. While general relativity has passed
every experimental test in subsequent years, at the time of
Einstein's prediction almost nobody thought a gravitational
wave could be detected, and yet the consistency of the theory,
validated by other tests, persuaded almost all physicists that
gravitational waves must exist. It was not until the 1980s
for this phenomenon was detected, and to this date, despite
the construction of
and the efforts of hundreds of researchers over decades, no
direct detection of gravitational radiation has been achieved.
There is a great deal more in this enlightening book. You will
learn about the academic politics of doing highly speculative
research, gaming the
to get your paper listed as the first in the day's publications,
the nature of consciousness and perception and its
complex relation to consensus and external reality,
the measure problem as an unappreciated deep mystery of
cosmology, whether humans are alone in our observable
universe, the continuum versus an underlying discrete
structure, and the ultimate fate of our observable part of
In the Kindle edition, everything is properly
linked, including the comprehensive index. Citations of documents
on the Web are live links which may be clicked to display them.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Reading List: Avogadro Corp.
- Hertling, William.
Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2011.
Avogadro Corporation is an American corporation
specializing in Internet search. It generates
revenue from paid advertising on search, email
(AvoMail), online mapping, office productivity,
etc. In addition, the company develops a mobile
phone operating system called AvoOS. The company
name is based upon Avogadro's Number, or 6
followed by 23 zeros.
Now what could that be modelled on?
David Ryan is a senior developer on a project which
Portland-based Internet giant Avogadro hopes will be
the next “killer app” for its
Communication Products division. ELOPe, the
Email Language Optimization Project, is to be an
extension to the company's AvoMail service which
will take the next step beyond spelling and grammar
checkers and, by applying the kind of statistical
analysis of text which allowed IBM's
to become a Jeopardy champion, suggest to
a user composing an E-mail message alternative language
which will make the message more persuasive and
effective in obtaining the desired results from its
recipient. Because AvoMail has the ability to analyse
all the traffic passing through its system, it can
tailor its recommendations based on specific analysis
of previous exchanges it has seen between the recipient
and other correspondents.
After an extended period of development, the pilot test
has shown ELOPe to be uncannily effective, with messages
containing its suggested changes in wording being
substantially more persuasive, even when those receiving
them were themselves ELOPe project members aware that
the text they were reading had been “enhanced”.
Despite having achieved its design goal, the project was
in crisis. The process of analysing text, even with the
small volume of the in-house test, consumed tremendous
computing resources, to such an extent that the head of
Communication Products saw the load ELOPe generated on
his server farms as a threat to the reserve capacity he
needed to maintain AvoMail's guaranteed uptime. He issues
an ultimatum: reduce the load or be kicked off the servers.
This would effectively kill the project, and the developers
saw no way to speed up ELOPe, certainly not before the
Ryan, faced with impending disaster for the project into
which he has poured so much of his life, has an idea.
The fundamental problem isn't performance but
persuasion: convincing those in charge to
obtain the server resources required by ELOPe and
devote them to the project. But persuasion is precisely
what ELOPe is all about. Suppose ELOPe were allowed
to examine all Avogadro in-house E-mail and silently
modify it with a goal of defending and advancing the
ELOPe project? Why, that's something he could do in
one all-nighter! Hack, hack, hack….
Before long, ELOPe finds itself with 5000 new servers
diverted from other divisions of the company. Then, even
more curious things start to happen: those who look too
closely into the project find themselves locked out of
their accounts, sent on wild goose chases, or worse.
Major upgrades are ordered for the company's offshore
data centre barges, which don't seem to make any obvious
sense. Crusty techno-luddite Gene Keyes, who works amidst
mountains of paper print-outs (“paper doesn't change”),
toiling alone in an empty building during the company's
two week holiday shutdown, discovers one discrepancy after
another and assembles the evidence to present to senior
Has ELOPe become conscious? Who knows? Is Watson conscious?
Almost everybody would say, “certainly not”, but
it is a formidable Jeopardy contestant,
nonetheless. Similarly, ELOPe, with the ability to
read and modify all the mail passing through the AvoMail
system, is uncannily effective in achieving its goal of
promoting its own success.
The management of Avogadro, faced with an existential risk to
their company and perhaps far beyond, must decide upon a
course of action to try to put this genie back into the
bottle before it is too late.
This is a gripping techno-thriller which gets the feel of
working in a high-tech company just right. Many stories
have explored society being taken over by an
artificial intelligence, but it is beyond clever to envision
it happening purely through an E-mail service, and
masterful to make it seem plausible. In its own way, this
novel is reminiscent of the
Kelvin R. Throop
Analog, illustrating the power of words within
a large organisation.
A Kindle edition is available.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat updated, EPUB added
All 25 of the public domain Tom Swift novels have been posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library
collection. I am now returning to the earlier novels, which I began to post in 2005, upgrading them to use the more modern typography of those I've done in the last few years. The second novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat
, has now been updated. Several typographical errors in the original edition have been corrected, and Unicode text entities are used for special characters such as single and double quotes and dashes.
I have posted an EPUB edition of this novel which may be downloaded to compatible reader devices; the details of how to do this differ from device to device—please consult the documentation for your reader for details.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Reading List: The Green Flame
- Dequasie, Andrew.
The Green Flame.
Washington: American Chemical Society, 1991.
The 1950s were a time of things which seem, to our
present day safety-obsessed viewpoint, the purest
insanity: exploding multi-megaton thermonuclear bombs
in the atmosphere, keeping bombers with nuclear
weapons constantly in the air waiting for the order
to go to war, planning for
powered aircraft, and building up stockpiles of
chemical weapons. Amidst all of this madness, motivated
by fears that the almost completely opaque Soviet Union
might be doing even more crazy things, one of the most
remarkable episodes was the boron fuels project,
chronicled here from the perspective of a young
chemical engineer who, in 1953, joined the effort at Olin
Mathieson Chemical Corporation, a contractor developing
a pilot plant to furnish boron fuels to the Air Force.
Jet aircraft in the 1950s were notoriously thirsty and,
before in-flight refuelling became commonplace, had
which the Air Force called High Energy Fuel (HEF) and the Navy
called “zip fuel”, based upon compounds of
boron and hydrogen called
were believed to permit planes to deliver range and
performance around 40% greater than conventional jet fuel.
This bright promise, as is so often the case in
engineering, was marred by several catches.
First of all, boranes are extremely dangerous chemicals.
they burst into flame on contact with the air. They are
also prone to forming shock-sensitive explosive compounds
with any impurities they interact with during processing or
storage. Further, they are neurotoxins, easily absorbed by
inhalation or contact with the skin, with some having
toxicities as great as chemical weapon nerve agents.
The instability of the boranes rules them out as fuels,
but molecules containing a borane group bonded to a hydrocarbon
such as an ethyl, methyl, or propyl group were believed
to be sufficiently well-behaved to be usable.
But first, you had to make the stuff, and just about every
step in the process involved something which wanted to kill
you in one way or another. Not only were the inputs and
outputs of the factory highly toxic, the by-products of
the process were prone to burst into flames or explode at
the slightest provocation, and this gunk regularly needed
to be cleaned out from the tanks and pipes. This task fell
to the junior staff. As the author notes, “The younger
generation has always been the cat's paw of humanity…”.
This book chronicles the harrowing history of the boron
fuels project as seen from ground level. Over the seven
years the author worked on the project, eight people died in
five accidents (however, three of these were workers at
another chemical company who tried, on a lark, to make a
boron-fuelled rocket which blew up in their faces; this
was completely unauthorised by their employer and the
government, so it's stretching things to call this
an industrial accident). But, the author observes,
in the epoch fatal accidents at chemical plants, even those
working with substances less hazardous than boranes, were
far from uncommon.
The boron fuels program was cancelled in 1959, and in 1960
the author moved on to other things. In the end, it was the
physical characteristics of the fuels and their cost which
did in the project. It's one thing for a small group of
qualified engineers and researchers to work with a
dangerous substance, but another entirely to contemplate
airmen in squadron service handling tanker truck loads of
fuel which was as toxic as nerve gas. When burned, one of the
combustion products was boric oxide, a solid which would
coat and corrode the turbine blades in the hot section of
a jet engine. In practice, the boron fuel could be used
only in the afterburner section of engines, which meant a
plane using it would have to have separate fuel tanks and
plumbing for turbine and afterburner fuel, adding weight
and complexity. The solid products in the exhaust reduced
the exhaust velocity, resulting in lower performance than
expected from energy considerations, and caused the
exhaust to be smoky, rendering the plane more easily spotted.
It was calculated, based upon the cost of fuel produced by
the pilot plant, if the
were to burn boron fuel continuously, the fuel cost would amount to
around US$ 4.5 million 2010 dollars per hour. Even by
the standards of extravagant cold war defence spending, this was hard
to justify for what proved to be a small improvement in performance.
While the chemistry and engineering is covered in detail,
this book is also a personal narrative which immerses the
reader in the 1950s, where a newly-minted engineer, just
out of his hitch in the army, could land a job, buy a car,
be entrusted with great responsibility on a secret project
considered important to national security, and set out on
a career full of confidence in the future. Perhaps we don't do
such crazy things today (or maybe we do—just different
ones), but it's also apparent from opening this time capsule
how much we've lost.
I have linked the Kindle edition to the title above, since it
is the only edition still in print. You can find the original
hardcover and paperback editions from the ISBN, but they are scarce
and expensive. The index in the Kindle edition is completely useless:
it cites page numbers from the print edition, but no page
numbers are included in the Kindle edition.