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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reading List: The Martian

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, [2011] 2014. ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6.
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 site in Acidalia Planitia. 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 Mars. Dang!

“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 that far.

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.

Posted at 23:48 Permalink

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reading List: Liberators

Rawles, James Wesley. Liberators. New York: Dutton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-525-95391-3.
This novel is the fifth in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008), then continued with Survivors (January 2012), Founders (October 2012), and 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.

Posted at 23:37 Permalink

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Reading List: Undercover Mormon

Metzger, Th. Undercover Mormon. 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 the spectacular annual 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 of history.”

The narrative is written in the tediously quaint “new 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 Luman Walter 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 “adventures”.

Posted at 15:56 Permalink

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reading List: Command and Control

Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control. New York: Penguin, 2013. ISBN 978-0-14-312578-5.
On the evening of September 18th, 1980 two U.S. Air Force airmen, members of a Propellant Transfer System (PTS) team, entered a Titan II 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 overpressure 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 W-53 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 explosion.

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 (“permissive 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 an attack.

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.

Posted at 23:49 Permalink