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Sunday, November 30, 2014
Reading List: The Martian
- Weir, Andy.
New York: Broadway Books,  2014.
Mark Watney was part of the six person crew of
Ares 3 which landed on Mars to carry out
an exploration mission in the vicinity of its landing
The crew made a precision landing at the target where
“presupply” cargo flights had already landed
their habitation module, supplies for their stay on
Mars, rovers and scientific instruments, and the ascent
vehicle they would use to return to the Earth-Mars transit
vehicle waiting for them in orbit. Just six days after
landing, having set up the habitation module and unpacked
the supplies, they are struck by a dust storm of unprecedented
ferocity. With winds up to 175 kilometres per hour, the
Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), already fuelled by propellant made on
Mars by reacting hydrogen brought from Earth with the Martian
atmosphere, was at risk of being blown over, which would destroy
the fragile spacecraft and strand the crew on Mars. NASA
gives the order to abort the mission and evacuate to orbit
in the MAV for an immediate return to Earth.
But the crew first has to get from the habitation module to the
MAV, which means walking across the surface in the midst of the
storm. (You'd find it very hard to walk in a 175 km/h wind on Earth, but
recall that the atmosphere pressure on Mars is only about 1/200
that of Earth at sea level, so the wind doesn't pack anywhere near
the punch.) Still, there was dust and flying debris from equipment
ripped loose from the landers. Five members of the crew made it to
the MAV. Mark Watney didn't.
As the crew made the traverse to the MAV, Watney was struck by
part of an antenna array torn from the habitation, puncturing his
suit and impaling him. He was carried away by the wind, and
the rest of the crew, seeing his vital signs go to zero before
his suit's transmitter failed, followed mission rules to leave him
behind and evacuate in the MAV while they still could.
But Watney wasn't dead. His injury was not fatal, and his blood loss
was sufficient to seal the leak in the suit where the antenna
had pierced it, as the water in the blood boiled off and the residue mostly
sealed the breach. Awakening after the trauma, he made an
immediate assessment of his situation. I'm alive. Cool!
I hurt like heck. Not cool. The habitation module is
intact. Yay! The MAV is gone—I'm alone on
“Dang” is not precisely how Watney put it. This book
contains quite a bit of profanity which I found gratuitous. NASA
astronauts in the modern era just don't swear like sailors, especially
on open air-to-ground links. Sure, I can imagine launching a full
salvo of F-bombs upon discovering I'd been abandoned on Mars,
especially when I'm just talking to myself, but everybody seems to do
it here on all occasions. This is the only reason I'd hesitate to
recommend this book to younger readers who would otherwise be inspired
by the story.
Watney is stranded on Mars with no way to communicate with Earth,
since all communications were routed through the MAV, which has
departed. He has all of the resources for a six-person mission,
so he has no immediate survival problems after he gets back to
the habitation and stitches up his wound, but he can work the
math: even if he can find a way to communicate to Earth that he's
still alive, orbital mechanics dictates that it will take around
two years to send a rescue mission. His supplies cannot be stretched
This sets the stage for a gripping story of survival, improvisation,
difficult decisions, necessity versus bureaucratic inertia,
trying to do the right thing in a media fishbowl, and all
done without committing any howlers in technology, orbital
mechanics, or the way people and organisations behave. Sure,
you can quibble about this or that detail, but then people
far in the future may regard a factual account of Apollo 13
as largely legend, given how many things had to go right to
rescue the crew. Things definitely do not go smoothly here: there
is reverse after reverse, and many inscrutable mysteries to be
unscrewed if Watney is to get home.
This is an inspiring tale of pioneering on a new world. People
have already begun to talk about
going to Mars to stay. These
settlers will face stark challenges though, one hopes, not
as dire as Watney, and with the confidence of regular re-supply
missions and new settlers to follow. Perhaps this novel will be
seen, among the first generation born on Mars, as inspiration
that the challenges they face in bringing a barren planet to life
are within the human capacity to solve, especially if their media
library isn't exclusively populated with 70s TV shows and disco.
A Kindle edition is available.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Reading List: Liberators
- Rawles, James Wesley.
New York: Dutton, 2014.
This novel is the fifth in the series which began with
Patriots (December 2008),
then continued with
Survivors (January 2012),
Founders (October 2012),
Expatriates (October 2013),
These books are not a conventional multi-volume narrative, in
that all describe events in the lives of their characters in
roughly the same time period surrounding “the
Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt
crisis and hyperinflation. Taking place at the same time,
you can read these books in any order, but if you haven't
read the earlier novels you'll miss much of the back-story of
the characters who appear here, which informs the parts they
play in this episode.
Here the story cuts back and forth between the United States,
where Megan LaCroix and her sister Malorie live on a farm in West
Virginia with Megan's two boys, and Joshua Kim works in security
at the National Security Agency where Megan is
an analyst. When the Crunch hits, Joshua and the LaCroix sisters
decide to team up to bug out to Joshua's childhood friend's
place in Kentucky, where survival from the urban Golden Horde
may be better assured. They confront the realities of a
collapsing society, where the rule of law is supplanted by
extractive tyrannies, and are forced to over-winter in a
wilderness, living by their wits and modest preparations.
In Western Canada, the immediate impact of the Crunch was less
severe because electrical power, largely hydroelectric,
remained on. At the McGregor Ranch, in inland
British Columbia (a harsh, northern continental climate
nothing like that of Vancouver), the family and those who have
taken refuge with them ride out the initial crisis only to
be confronted with an occupation of Canada by a nominally
United Nations force called UNPROFOR, which is effectively a
French colonial force which, in alliance with effete urban
eastern and francophone Canada, seeks to put down the fractious
westerners and control the resource-rich land they inhabit.
This leads to an asymmetrical war of resistance, aided by the fact
that when earlier faced with draconian gun registration and
prohibition laws imposed by easterners, a large number of
weapons in the west simply vanished, only to reappear when they
were needed most. As was demonstrated in Vietnam and
Algeria, French occupation forces can be tenacious and
brutal, but are ultimately no match for an indigenous insurgency
with the support of the local populace. A series of bold strikes
against UNPROFOR assets eventually turns the tide.
But just when Canada seems ready to follow the U.S. out of the
grip of tyranny, an emboldened China, already on the march
in Africa, makes a move to seize western Canada's abundant
natural resources. Under the cover of a UN resolution, a
massive Chinese force, with armour and air support, occupies
the western provinces. This is an adversary of an entirely
different order than the French, and will require the resistance,
supported by allies from the liberation struggle in the U.S.,
to audacious and heroic exploits, including one of the greatest
acts of monkey-wrenching ever described in a thriller.
As this story has developed over the five novels, the author
has matured into a first-rate thriller novelist. There is still
plenty of information on gear, tactics, intelligence
operations, and security, but the characters are interesting,
well-developed, and the action scenes both plausible and
exciting. In the present book, we encounter many characters we've
met in previous volumes, with their paths crossing
as events unfold. There is no triumphalism or glossing over the
realities of insurgent warfare against a tyrannical occupying
force. There is a great deal of misery and hardship, and
sometimes tragedy can result when you've taken every precaution,
made no mistake, but simply run out of luck.
Taken together, these five novels are an epic saga of survival
in hard and brutal times, painted on a global canvas. Reading
them, you will not only be inspired that you and your loved ones
can survive such a breakdown in the current economic
and social order, but you will also learn a great deal of the
details of how to do so. This is not a survival manual, but
attentive readers will find many things to research further for
their own preparations for an uncertain future. An excellent
place to begin that research is the author's own
survivalblog.com Web site,
whose massive archives you can spend months exploring.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Reading List: Undercover Mormon
- Metzger, Th.
New York: Roadswell Editions, 2013.
The author, whose spiritual journey had earlier led him to dabble
with becoming a Mennonite, goes weekly to an acupuncturist named
Rudy Kilowatt who believes in the power of crystals, attends neo-pagan
fertility rituals in a friend's suburban back yard, had been
oddly fascinated by Mormonism ever since, as a teenager, he attended
Mormon pageant at Hill Cumorah, near his home in upstate New York.
He returned again and again for the spectacle of the pageant,
and based upon his limited knowledge of Mormon doctrine,
found himself admiring how the religion seemed to have it all:
“All religion is either sword and sorcery or science
fiction. The reason Mormonism is growing so fast is that you
guys have both, and don't apologize for either.” He
decides to pursue this Mormon thing further, armouring himself
in white shirt, conservative tie, and black pants, and heading off to the
nearest congregation for the Sunday service.
Approached by missionaries who spot him as a newcomer, he masters
his anxiety (bolstered by the knowledge he has a couple of Xanax
pills in his pocket), gives a false name, and indicates he's
interested in learning more about the faith. Before long he's
attending Sunday school, reading tracts, and spinning into the
Mormon orbit, with increasing suggestions that he might convert.
All of this is described in a detached, ironic manner, in which the
reader (and perhaps the author) can't decide how seriously to take
it all. Metzger carries magic talismans to protect himself against
the fearful “Mormo”, describes his anxiety to his
psychoanalyst, who prescribes the pharmaceutical version of magic
bones. He struggles with paranoia about his deception being found
out and agonises over the consequences. He consults a friend who,
“For a while he was an old-order Quaker, then a Sufi, then
a retro-neo-pagan. Now he's a Unitarian-Universalist professor
The narrative is written in the tediously quaint
journalism” style where it's as much about
the author as the subject. This works poorly here because
the author isn't very interesting. He comes across as so
neurotic and self-absorbed as to make Woody Allen seem like
Clint Eastwood. His “discoveries” about the
content of LDS scripture could have been made just as
easily by reading the original documents on the
LDS Web site, and
his exploration of the history of Joseph Smith and the
early days of Mormonism in New York could have been accomplished
by consulting Wikipedia. His antics, such as burying chicken
bones around the obelisk of Moroni on Hill Cumorah and digging
up earth from the grave of
to spread it in the sacred grove, push irony
past the point of parody—does anybody believe the author
took such things seriously (and if he did, why should anybody
care what he thinks about anything)?
The book does not mock Mormonism, and treats the individuals he
encounters on his journey more or less respectfully (with just
that little [and utterly unjustified] “I'm better than
you” that the hip intellectual has for earnest, clean-cut,
industrious people who are “as white as angel food cake,
and almost as spongy.”) But you'll learn nothing about the
history and doctrine of the religion here that you won't find
elsewhere without all the baggage of the author's tiresome
Thursday, November 6, 2014
Reading List: Command and Control
- Schlosser, Eric.
Command and Control.
New York: Penguin, 2013.
On the evening of September 18th, 1980 two U.S. Air Force airmen,
members of a Propellant Transfer System (PTS) team, entered a
missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas to perform a routine maintenance
procedure. Earlier in the day they had been called to the site
because a warning signal had indicated that pressure in the missile's
second stage oxidiser tank was low. This was not unusual, especially
for a missile which had recently been refuelled, as this one had,
and the procedure of adding nitrogen gas to the tank to bring the
pressure up to specification was considered straightforward. That
is, if you consider any work involving a Titan II “routine”
or “straightforward”. The missile, in an underground silo,
protected by a door weighing more than 65 tonnes and able to withstand
the 300 psi
of a nearby nuclear detonation, stood more
than 31 metres high and contained 143 tonnes of highly toxic fuel
and oxidiser which, in addition to being poisonous to humans in small
concentrations, were hypergolic: they burst into flames upon
contact with one another, with no need of a source of ignition. Sitting
atop this volatile fuel was a
nuclear warhead with a yield of 9 megatons and high explosives in
the fission primary which were not, as more modern nuclear weapons,
insensitive to shock and fire. While it was unlikely in the extreme
that detonation of these explosives due to an accident would result
in a nuclear explosion, they could disperse the radioactive material
in the bomb over the local area, requiring a massive clean-up effort.
The PTS team worked on the missile wearing what amounted to space
suits with their own bottled air supply. One member was an experienced
technician while the other was a 19-year old rookie receiving on the
job training. Early in the procedure, the team was to remove the
pressure cap from the side of the missile. While the lead technician
was turning the cap with a socket wrench, the socket fell off the
wrench and down the silo alongside the missile.
The socket struck the thrust mount supporting the missile, bounced
back upward, and struck the side of the missile's first stage fuel
tank. Fuel began to spout outward as if from a garden hose. The
trainee remarked, “This is not good.”
Back in the control centre, separated from the silo by massive
blast doors, the two man launch team who had been following the
servicing operation, saw their status panels light up like a
Christmas tree decorated by somebody inordinately fond of the
colour red. The warnings were contradictory and clearly not
all correct. Had there indeed been both fuel and oxidiser leaks,
as indicated, there would already have been an earth-shattering
kaboom from the silo, and yet that had not happened. The
technicians knew they had to evacuate the silo as soon as possible,
but their evacuation route was blocked by dense fuel vapour.
The Air Force handles everything related to missiles by the book,
but the book was silent about procedures for a situation like
this, with massive quantities of toxic fuel pouring into the
silo. Further, communication between the technicians and
the control centre were poor, so it wasn't clear at first just
what had happened. Before long, the commander of the missile
wing, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha,
and the missile's manufacturer, Martin Marietta, were in conference
trying to decide how to proceed. The greatest risks were an
electrical spark or other source of ignition setting the fuel on
fire or, even greater, of the missile collapsing in the silo.
With tonnes of fuel pouring from the fuel tank and no vent at
its top, pressure in the tank would continue to fall. Eventually,
it would be below atmospheric pressure, and would be crushed,
likely leading the missile to crumple under the weight of the
intact and fully loaded first stage oxidiser and second stage
tanks. These tanks would then likely be breached, leading to
an explosion. No Titan II had ever exploded in a closed
silo, so there was no experience as to what the consequences
of this might be.
As the night proceeded, all of the Carter era military malaise
became evident. The Air Force lied to local law enforcement and
media about what was happening, couldn't communicate with
first responders, failed to send an evacuation helicopter
for a gravely injured person because an irrelevant piece of
equipment wasn't available, and could not come to a decision
about how to respond as the situation deteriorated. Also
on display was the heroism of individuals, in the Air Force
and outside, who took matters into their own hands on the spot,
rescued people, monitored the situation, evacuated nearby farms
in the path of toxic clouds, and improvised as events required.
Among all of this, nothing whatsoever had been done about the
situation of the missile. Events inevitably took their course.
In the early morning hours of September 19th, the missile
collapsed, releasing all of its propellants, which exploded.
The 65 tonne silo door was thrown 200 metres, shearing trees
in its path. The nuclear warhead was thrown two hundred metres
in another direction, coming to rest in a ditch. Its explosives
did not detonate, and no radiation was released.
While there were plenty of reasons to worry about nuclear weapons
during the Cold War, most people's concerns were about a
conflict escalating to the deliberate use of nuclear weapons
or the possibility of an accidental war. Among the general
public there was little concern about the tens of thousands
of nuclear weapons in depots, aboard aircraft, atop missiles,
or on board submarines—certainly every precaution had
been taken by the brilliant people at the weapons labs to make
them safe and reliable, right?
Well, that was often the view among “defence intellectuals”
until they were briefed in on the highly secret details of weapons
design and the command and control procedures in place to
govern their use in wartime. As documented in this book, which
uses the Damascus accident as a backdrop (a ballistic missile
explodes in rural Arkansas, sending its warhead through the air,
because somebody dropped a socket wrench), the reality
was far from reassuring, and it took decades, often against
obstructionism and foot-dragging from the Pentagon, to remedy
serious risks in the nuclear stockpile.
In the early days of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, it was assumed
that nuclear weapons were the last resort in a wartime situation.
Nuclear weapons were kept under the civilian custodianship of
the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and would only be released to the
military services by a direct order from the President of the
United States. Further, the nuclear cores (“pits”)
of weapons were stored separately from the rest of the weapon
assembly, and would only be inserted in the weapon, in the
case of bombers, in the air, after the order to deliver the
weapon was received. (This procedure had been used even for
the two bombs dropped on Japan.) These safeguards meant that
the probability of an accidental nuclear explosion was
essentially nil in peacetime, although the risk did exist of
radioactive contamination if a pit were dispersed due to fire or
As the 1950s progressed, and fears of a Soviet sneak attack grew,
pressure grew to shift the custodianship of nuclear weapons to
the military. The development of nuclear tactical and air
defence weapons, some of which were to be forward deployed
outside the United States, added weight to this argument. If
radar detected a wave of Soviet bombers heading for the United
States, how practical would it be to contact the President, get
him to sign off on transferring the anti-aircraft warheads to
the Army and Air Force, have the AEC deliver them to the
military bases, install them on the missiles, and prepare
the missiles for launch? The missile age only compounded
this situation. Now the risk existed for a “decapitation”
attack which could take out the senior political and military
leadership, leaving nobody with the authority to retaliate.
The result of all this was a gradual devolution of control over
nuclear weapons from civilian to military commands, with
fully-assembled nuclear weapons loaded on aircraft, sitting at the
ends of runways in the United States and Europe, ready to
take off on a few minutes' notice. As tensions continued to
increase, B-52s, armed with hydrogen bombs, were on continuous
“airborne alert”, ready at any time to head
toward their targets.
The weapons carried by these aircraft, however, had not been
designed for missions like this. They used high explosives which
could be detonated by heat or shock, often contained few
interlocks to prevent a stray electrical signal from triggering
a detonation, were not “one point safe” (guaranteed
that detonation of one segment of the high explosives could not
cause a nuclear yield), and did not contain locks
action links”) to prevent unauthorised use of a weapon.
Through much of the height of the Cold War, it was possible for a
rogue B-52 or tactical fighter/bomber crew to drop a weapon which
might start World War III; the only protection against this was
rigid psychological screening and the enemy's air defence systems.
The resistance to introducing such safety measures stemmed from
budget and schedule pressures, but also from what was called the
“always/never” conflict. A nuclear weapon should always
detonate when sent on a wartime mission. But it should never
detonate under any other circumstances, including an airplane
crash, technical malfunction, maintenance error, or through
the deliberate acts of an insane or disloyal individual or group.
These imperatives inevitably conflict with one another. The more
safeguards you design into a weapon to avoid an unauthorised
detonation, the greater the probability one of them may fail,
rendering the weapon inert. SAC commanders and air crews were not
enthusiastic about the prospect of risking their lives running
the gauntlet of enemy air defences only to arrive over their
target and drop a dud.
As documented here, it was only after the end of Cold War, as
nuclear weapon stockpiles were drawn down, that the more dangerous
weapons were retired and command and control procedures put into
place which seem (to the extent outsiders can assess such
highly classified matters) to provide a reasonable balance between
protection against a catastrophic accident or unauthorised launch
and a reliable deterrent.
Nuclear command and control extends far beyond the design of weapons.
The author also discusses in detail the development of war plans, how
civilian and military authorities interact in implementing them, how
emergency war orders are delivered, authenticated, and executed, and
how this entire system must be designed not only to be robust against
errors when intact and operating as intended, but in the aftermath of
This is a serious scholarly work and, at 632 pages, a long one.
There are 94 pages of end notes, many of which expand substantially
upon items in the main text.
A Kindle edition is available.