Last 10 Books Read, Newest to Oldest

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January 2018

Hamilton, Eric M. An Inconvenient Presidency. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5368-7363-4.
This novella (89 pages in the Kindle edition) is a delightful romp into alternative history and the multiverse. Al Gore was elected president in 2000 and immediately informed of a capability so secret he had never been told of it, even as Vice President. He was handed a gadget, the METTA, which allowed a limited kind of time travel. Should he, or the country, find itself in a catastrophic and seemingly unrecoverable situation, he could press its red button and be mentally transported back in time to a reset point, set just after his election, to give it another try. But, after the reset, he would retain all of his knowledge of the events which preceded it.

Haven't you imagined going back in time and explaining to your younger self all of the things you've learned by trial and error and attendant bruises throughout your life? The shadowy Government Apperception Liberation Authority—GALA—has endowed presidents with this capability. This seems so bizarre the new president Gore pays little attention to it. But when an unanticipated and almost unimaginable event occurs, he presses the button.

~KRRZKT~

Well, we won't let that happen! And it doesn't, but something else does: reset. This job isn't as easy as it appeared: reset, reset, reset.

We've often joked about the “Gore Effect”: the correlation between unseasonably cold weather and Al Gore's appearance to promote his nostrums of “anthropogenic global warming”. Here, Al Gore begins to think there is a greater Gore Effect: that regardless of what he does and what he learns from previous experience and a myriad of disasters, something always goes wrong with catastrophic consequences.

Can he escape this loop? Who are the mysterious people behind GALA? He is determined to find out, and he has plenty of opportunities to try: ~KRRZKT~.

You will be amazed at how the author brings this tale to a conclusion. Throughout, everything was not as it seemed, but in the last few pages, well golly! Unusually for a self-published work, there are no typographical or grammatical errors which my compulsive copy-editor hindbrain detected. The author does not only spin a fine yarn, but respects his audience enough to perfect his work before presenting it to them: this is rare, and I respect and applaud that. Despite Al Gore and other U.S. political figures appearing in the story, there is no particular political tilt to the narrative: the goal is fun, and it is superbly achieved.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

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Bracken, Matthew. The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9728310-5-5.
We first met Dan Kilmer in Castigo Cay (February 2014), where the retired U.S. Marine sniper (I tread cautiously on the terminology: some members of the Corps say there's no such thing as a “former Marine” and, perhaps, neither is there a “former sniper”) had to rescue his girlfriend from villains in the Caribbean. The novel is set in a world where the U.S. is deteriorating into chaos and the malevolent forces suppressed by civilisation have begun to assert their power on the high seas.

As this novel begins, things have progressed, and not for the better. The United States has fractured into warring provinces as described in the author's “Enemies” trilogy. Japan and China are in wreckage after the global economic crash. Much of Europe is embroiled in civil wars between the indigenous population and inbred medieval barbarian invaders imported by well-meaning politicians or allowed to land upon their shores or surge across their borders by the millions. The reaction to this varies widely depending upon the culture and history of the countries invaded. Only those wise enough to have said “no” in time have been spared.

But even they are not immune to predation. The plague of Islamic pirates on the high seas and slave raiders plundering the coasts of Europe was brought to an end only by the navies of Christendom putting down the corsairs' primitive fleets. But with Europe having collapsed economically, drawn down its defence capability to almost nothing, and daring not even to speak the word “Christendom” for fear of offending its savage invaders, the pirates are again in ascendence, this time flying the black flag of jihad instead of the Jolly Roger.

When seventy young girls are kidnapped into sex slavery from a girls' school in Ireland by Islamic pirates and offered for auction to the highest bidder among their co-religionists, a group of those kind of hard men who say things like “This will not stand”, including a retired British SAS colonel and a former Provisional IRA combatant (are either ever “retired” or “former”?) join forces, not to deploy a military-grade fully-automatic hashtag, but to get the girls back by whatever means are required.

Due to exigent circumstances, Dan Kilmer's 18 metre steel-hulled schooner, moored in a small port in western Ireland to peddle diesel fuel he's smuggled in from a cache in Greenland, becomes one of those means. Kilmer thinks the rescue plan to be folly, but agrees to transport the assault team to their rendezvous point in return for payment for him and his crew in gold.

It's said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In this case, the plan doesn't even get close to that point. Improvisation, leaders emerging in the midst of crisis, and people rising to the occasion dominate the story. There are heroes, but not superheroes—instead people who do what is required in the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is an inspiring story.

This book has an average review rating of 4.9 on Amazon, but you're probably hearing of it here for the first time. Why? Because it presents an accurate view of the centuries-old history of Islamic slave raiding and trading, and the reality that the only way this predation upon civilisation can be suppressed is by civilised people putting it down in with violence commensurate to its assault upon what we hold most precious.

The author's command of weapons and tactics is encyclopedic, and the novel is consequently not just thrilling but authentic. And, dare I say, inspiring.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

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December 2017

Schantz, Hans G. The Hidden Truth. Huntsville, AL: ÆtherCzar, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5327-1293-7.
This is a masterpiece of alternative history techno-thriller science fiction. It is rich in detail, full of interesting characters who interact and develop as the story unfolds, sound in the technical details which intersect with our world, insightful about science, technology, economics, government and the agenda of the “progressive” movement, and plausible in its presentation of the vast, ruthless, and shadowy conspiracy which lies under the surface of its world. And, above all, it is charming—these are characters you'd like to meet, even some of the villains because you want understand what motivates them.

The protagonist and narrator is a high school junior (senior later in the tale), son of an electrical engineer who owns his own electrical contracting business, married to a chemist, daughter of one of the most wealthy and influential families in their region of Tennessee, against the wishes of her parents. (We never learn the narrator's name until the last page of the novel, so I suppose it would be a spoiler if I mentioned it here, so I won't, even if it makes this review somewhat awkward.) Our young narrator wants to become a scientist, and his father not only encourages him in his pursuit, but guides him toward learning on his own by reading the original works of great scientists who actually made fundamental discoveries rather than “suffering through the cleaned-up and dumbed-down version you get from your teachers and textbooks.” His world is not ours: Al Gore, who won the 2000 U.S. presidential election, was killed in the 2001-09-11 attacks on the White House and Capitol, and President Lieberman pushed through the “Preserving our Planet's Future Act”, popularly known as the “Gore Tax”, in his memory, and its tax on carbon emissions is predictably shackling the economy.

Pursuing his study of electromagnetism from original sources, he picks up a copy at the local library of a book published in 1909. The library was originally the collection of a respected institute of technology until destroyed by innovative educationalists and their pointy-headed progressive ideas. But the books remained, and in one of them, he reads an enigmatic passage about Oliver Heaviside having developed a theory of electromagnetic waves bouncing off one another in free space, which was to be published in a forthcoming book. This didn't make any sense: electromagnetic waves add linearly, and while they can be reflected and refracted by various media, in free space they superpose without interaction. He asks his father about the puzzling passage, and they look up the scanned text on-line and find the passage he read missing. Was his memory playing tricks?

So, back to the library where, indeed, the version of the book there contains the mention of bouncing waves. And yet the publication date and edition number of the print and on-line books were identical. As Isaac Asimov observed, many great discoveries aren't heralded by an exclamation of “Eureka!” but rather “That's odd.” This was odd….

Soon, other discrepancies appear, and along with his best friend and computer and Internet wizard Amit Patel, he embarks on a project to scan original print editions of foundational works on electromagnetism from the library and compare them with on-line versions of these public domain works. There appears to be a pattern: mentions of Heaviside's bouncing waves appear to have been scrubbed out of the readily-available editions of these books (print and on-line), and remain only in dusty volumes in forgotten provincial libraries.

As their investigations continue, it's increasingly clear they have swatted a hornets' nest. Fake feds start to follow their trail, with bogus stories of “cyber-terrorism”. And tragically, they learn that those who dig too deeply into these curiosities have a way of meeting tragic ends. Indeed, many of the early researchers into electromagnetism died young: Maxwell at age 48, Hertz at 36, FitzGerald at 39. Was there a vast conspiracy suppressing some knowledge about electromagnetism? And if so, what was the hidden truth, and why was it so important to them they were willing to kill to keep it hidden? It sure looked like it, and Amit started calling them “EVIL”: the Electromagnetic Villains International League.

The game gets deadly, and deadly serious. The narrator and Amit find some powerful and some ambiguous allies, learn about how to deal with the cops and other authority figures, and imbibe a great deal of wisdom about individuality, initiative, and liberty. There's even an attempt to recruit our hero to the dark side of collectivism where its ultimate anti-human agenda is laid bare. Throughout there are delightful tips of the hat to libertarian ideas, thinkers, and authors, including some as obscure as a reference to the Books on Benefit bookshop in Providence, Rhode Island.

The author is an inventor, entrepreneur, and scientist. He writes, “I appreciate fiction that shows how ordinary people with extraordinary courage and determination can accomplish remarkable achievements.” Mission accomplished. As the book ends, the central mystery remains unresolved. The narrator vows to get to the bottom of it and avenge those destroyed by the keepers of the secret. In a remarkable afterword and about the author section, there is a wonderful reading list for those interested in the technical topics discussed in the book and fiction with similarly intriguing and inspiring themes. When it comes to the technical content of the book, the author knows of what he writes: he has literally written the book on the design of ultrawideband antennas and is co-inventor of Near Field Electromagnetic Ranging (NFER), which you can think of as “indoor GPS”.

For a self-published work, there are only a few copy editing errors (“discrete” where “discreet” was intended, and “Capital” for “Capitol”). The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. A sequel is now available: A Rambling Wreck which takes our hero and the story to—where else?—Georgia Tech. I shall certainly read that book. Meanwhile, go read the present volume; if your tastes are anything like mine, you're going to love it.

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Mills, Kyle. Order to Kill. New York: Pocket Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-8349-9.
This is the second novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. In the first novel by Mills, The Survivor (July 2017), he picked up the story of the last Vince Flynn installment, The Last Man (February 2013), right where it left off and seemed to effortlessly assume the voice of Vince Flynn and his sense for the character of Mitch Rapp. This was a most promising beginning, which augured well for further Mitch Rapp adventures.

In this, the fifteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp series (Flynn's first novel, Term Limits [November 2009], is set in the same world and shares characters with the Mitch Rapp series, but Rapp does not appear in it, so it isn't considered a Rapp novel), Mills steps out of the shadow of Vince Flynn's legacy and takes Rapp and the story line into new territory. The result is…mixed.

In keeping with current events and the adversary du jour, the troublemakers this time are the Russkies, with President Maxim Vladimirovich Krupin at the top of the tottering pyramid. And tottering it is, as the fall in oil prices has undermined Russia's resource-based economy and destabilised the enterprises run by the oligarchs who keep him in power. He may be on top, but he is as much a tool of those in the shadows as master of his nation.

But perhaps there is a grand coup, or one might even say in the new, nominally pious Russia, a Hail Mary pass, which might simultaneously rescue the Russian economy and restore Russia to its rightful place on the world stage.

The problem is those pesky Saudis. Sitting atop a large fraction of the Earth's oil, they can turn the valve on and off and set the price per barrel wherever they wish and, recently, have chosen to push the price down to simultaneously appease their customers in Europe and Asia, but also to drive the competition from hydraulic fracturing (which has a higher cost of production than simply pumping oil out from beneath the desert) out of the market. Suppose the Saudis could be taken out? But Russia could never do it directly. There would need to be a cut-out, and perfect deniability.

Well, the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever they're calling this week in the Court Language of the Legacy Empire) is sworn to extend its Caliphate to the holiest places of Islam and depose the illegitimate usurpers who rule them, so what better puppet to take down the Saudi petro-hegemony? Mitch Rapp finds himself in the middle of this conspiracy, opting to endure grave physical injury to insinuate himself into its midst.

But it's the nature of the plot where everything falls apart, in one of those details which Vince Flynn and his brain trust would never have flubbed. This isn't a quibble, but a torpedo below the water line. We must, perforce, step behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
You clicked the Spoiler link, right? Now I'm going to spoil the whole thing so if you clicked it by accident, please close this box and imagine you never saw what follows.

The central plot of this novel is obtaining plutonium from Pakistani nuclear weapons and delivering it to ISIS, not to build a fission weapon but rather a “dirty bomb” which uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material to contaminate an area and deny it to the enemy.

But a terrorist who had done no more research than reading Wikipedia would know that plutonium is utterly useless as a radiological contaminant for a dirty bomb. The isotope of plutonium used in nuclear weapons has a half-life of around 24,000 years, and hence has such a low level of radioactivity that dispersing the amount used in the pits of several bombs would only marginally increase the background radiation in the oil fields. In other words, it would have no effect whatsoever.

If you want to make a dirty bomb, the easiest way is to use spent fuel rods from civil nuclear power stations. These are far easier to obtain (although difficult to handle safely), and rich in highly-radioactive nuclides which can effectively contaminate an area into which they are dispersed. But this blows away the entire plot and most of the novel.

Vince Flynn would never, and never did, make such a blunder. I urge Kyle Mills to reconnect with Mr Flynn's brain trust and run his plots past them, or develop an equivalent deep well of expertise to make sure things fundamentally make sense.

Spoilers end here.  

All right, we're back from the spoilers. Whether you've read them or not, this is a well-crafted thriller which works as such as long as you don't trip over the central absurdity in the plot. Rapp not only suffers grievous injury, but encounters an adversary who is not only his equal but better. He confronts his age, and its limitations. It happens to us all.

The gaping plot hole could have been easily fixed—not in the final manuscript but in the outline. Let's hope that future Mitch Rapp adventures will be subjected to the editorial scrutiny which makes them not just page-turners but ones where, as you're turning the pages, you don't laugh out loud at easily-avoided blunders.

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Serling, Robert J. The Electra Story. New York: Bantam Books, [1963] 1991. ISBN 978-0-553-28845-2.
As the jet age dawned for commercial air transport, the major U.S. aircraft manufacturers found themselves playing catch-up to the British, who had put the first pure jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, into service in 1952, followed shortly thereafter by the turboprop Vickers Viscount in 1953. The Comet's reputation was seriously damaged by a series of crashes caused by metal fatigue provoked by its pressurisation system, and while this was remedied in subsequent models, the opportunity to scoop the Americans and set the standard for passenger jet transportation was lost. The Viscount was very successful with a total of 445 built. In fact, demand so surpassed its manufacturer's production rate that delivery time stretched out, causing airlines to seek alternatives.

All of this created a golden opportunity for the U.S. airframers. Boeing and Douglas opted for four engine turbojet designs, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which were superficially similar, entering service in 1958 and 1959 respectively. Lockheed opted for a different approach. Based upon its earlier experience designing the C-130 Hercules military transport for the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed decided to build a turboprop airliner instead of a pure jet design like the 707 or DC-8. There were a number of reasons motivating this choice. First of all, Lockheed could use essentially the same engines in the airliner as in the C-130, eliminating the risks of mating a new engine to a new airframe which have caused major troubles throughout the history of aviation. Second, a turboprop, although not as fast as a pure jet, is still much faster than a piston engined plane and able to fly above most of the weather. Turboprops are far more fuel efficient than the turbojet engines used by Boeing and Douglas, and can operate from short runways and under high altitude and hot weather conditions which ground the pure jets. All of these properties made a turboprop airliner ideal for short- and medium-range operations where speed en route was less important than the ability to operate from smaller airports. (Indeed, more than half a century later, turboprops account for a substantial portion of the regional air transport market for precisely these reasons.)

The result was the Lockheed L-188 Electra, a four engine airliner powered by Allison 501-D13 turboprop engines, able to carry 98 passengers a range of 3450 to 4455 km (depending on payload mass) at a cruise speed of 600 km/h. (By comparison, the Boeing 707 carried 174 passengers in a single class configuration a range of 6700 km at a cruise speed of 977 km/h.)

A number of U.S. airlines saw the Electra as an attractive addition to their fleet, with major orders from American Airlines, Eastern Air Lines, Braniff Airways, National Airlines, and Pacific Southwest Airlines. A number of overseas airlines placed orders for the plane. The entry into service went smoothly, and both crews and passengers were satisfied with the high speed, quiet, low-vibration, and reliable operation of the turboprop airliner.

Everything changed on the night of September 29th, 1959. Braniff Airways flight 542, an Electra bound for Dallas and then on to Washington, D.C. and New York, disintegrated in the skies above Buffalo, Texas. There were no survivors. The accident investigation quickly determined that the left wing of the airplane had separated near the wing root. But how, why? The Electra had been subjected to one of the most rigorous flight test and certification regimes of its era, and no problems had been discovered. The flight was through clear skies with no violent weather. Clearly, something terrible went wrong, but there was little evidence to suggest a probable cause. One always suspects a bomb (although less in those days before millions of medieval savages were admitted to civilised countries as “refugees”), but that was quickly ruled out due to the absence of explosive residues on the wreckage.

This was before the era of flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders, so all the investigators had to go on was the wreckage, and intense scrutiny of it failed to yield an obvious clue. Often in engineering, there are mysteries which simply require more data, and meanwhile the Electras continued to fly. Most people deemed it “just one of those things”—airliner crashes were not infrequent in the era.

Then, on March 17th, 1960, in clear skies above Tell City, Indiana, Northwest Airlines flight 710 fell out of the sky, making a crater in a soybean field in which almost nothing was recognisable. Investigators quickly determined that the right wing had separated in flight, dooming the aircraft.

Wings are not supposed to fall off of airliners. Once is chance, but twice is indicative of a serious design or operational problem. This set into motion one of the first large-scale investigations of aircraft accidents in the modern era. Not only did federal investigators and research laboratories and Lockheed invest massive resources, even competitors Boeing and Douglas contributed expertise and diagnostic hardware because they realised that the public perception of the safety of passenger jet aviation was at stake.

After an extensive and protracted investigation, it was concluded that the Electra was vulnerable to a “whirl mode” failure, where oscillations due to a weakness in the mounting of the outboard engines could resonate with a mode of the wing and lead to failure of its attachment point to the fuselage. This conclusion was highly controversial: Lockheed pointed out that no such problem had been experienced in the C-130, while Allison, the engine manufacturer, cited the same experience to argue that Lockheed's wing design was deficient. Lawsuits and counter-suits erupted, amid an avalanche of lawsuits against Lockheed, Allison, and the airlines by families of those killed in the accidents.

The engine mountings and wings were strengthened, and the modified aircraft were put through a grueling series of tests intended to induce the whirl mode failures. They passed without incident, and the Electra was returned to service without any placard limitations on speed. No further incidents occurred, although a number of Electras were lost in accidents which had nothing to do with the design, but causes all too common in commercial aviation at the time.

Even before the Tell City crash, Lockheed had decided to close down the Electra production line. Passenger and airline preference had gone in favour of pure jet airliners (in an age of cheap oil, the substantial fuel economy of turboprops counted less than the speed of pure jets and how cool it was to fly without propellers). A total of 170 Electras were sold. Remarkably, almost a dozen remain in service today, mostly as firefighting water bombers. A derivative, the P-3 Orion marine patrol aircraft, remains in service today with a total of 757 produced.

This is an excellent contemporary view of the history of a controversial airliner and of one of the first in-depth investigations of accidents under ambiguous circumstances and intense media and political pressure. The author, an aviation journalist, is the brother of Rod Serling.

The paperback is currently out of print but used copies are available, albeit expensive. The Kindle edition is available, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The Kindle edition was obviously scanned from a print edition, and exhibits the errors you expect in scanned text not sufficiently scrutinised by a copy editor, for example “modem” where “modern” appeared in the print edition.

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Cox, Joseph. The City on the Heights. Modiin, Israel: Big Picture Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9764659-6-6.
For more than two millennia the near east (which is sloppily called the “middle east” by ignorant pundits who can't distinguish north Africa from southwest Asia) has exported far more trouble than it has imported from elsewhere. You need only consult the chronicles of the Greeks, the Roman Empire, the histories of conflicts among them and the Persians, the expansion of Islam into the region, internecine conflicts among Islamic sects, the Crusades, Israeli-Arab wars, all the way to recent follies of “nation building” to appreciate that this is a perennial trouble spot.

People, and peoples hate one another there. It seems like whenever you juxtapose two religions (even sects of one), ethnicities, or self-identifications in the region, before long sanguinary conflict erupts, with each incident only triggering even greater reprisals and escalation. In the words of Lenin, What is to be done?

Now, my inclination would be simply to erect a strong perimeter around the region, let anybody who wished enter, but nobody leave without extreme scrutiny to ensure they were not a risk and follow-up as long as they remained as guests in the civilised regions of the world. This is how living organisms deal with threats to their metabolism: encyst upon it!

In this novel, the author explores another, more hopeful and optimistic, yet perhaps less realistic alternative. When your computer ends up in a hopeless dead-end of resource exhaustion, flailing software, and errors in implementation, you reboot it, or turn it off and on again. This clears out the cobwebs and provides a fresh start. It's difficult to do this in a human community, especially one where grievances are remembered not just over generations but millennia.

Here, archetypal NGO do-gooder Steven Gold has another idea. In the midst of the European religious wars, Amsterdam grew and prospered by being a place that people of any faith could come together and do business. Notwithstanding having a nominal established religion, people of all confessions were welcome as long as they participated in the peaceful commerce and exchange which made the city prosper.

Could this work in the near east? Steven Gold thought it was worth a try, and worth betting his career upon. But where should such a model city be founded? The region was a nightmarish ever-shifting fractal landscape of warring communities with a sole exception: the state of Israel. Why on Earth would Israel consider ceding some of its territory (albeit mostly outside its security perimeter) for such an idealistic project which might prove to be a dagger aimed at its own heart? Well, Steven Gold is very persuasive, and talented at recruiting allies able to pitch the project in terms those needed to support it understand.

And so, a sanctuary city on the Israel-Syria border is born. It is anything but a refugee camp. Residents are expected to become productive members of a multicultural, multi-ethnic community which will prosper along the lines of renaissance Amsterdam or, more recently, Hong Kong and Singapore. Those who wish to move to the City are carefully vetted, but they include a wide variety of people including a former commander of the Islamic State, a self-trained engineer and problem solver who is an escapee from a forced marriage, religious leaders from a variety of faiths, and supporters including a billionaire who made her fortune in Internet payment systems.

And then, since it's the near east, it all blows up. First there are assassinations, then bombings, then a sorting out into ethnic and sectarian districts within the city, and then reprisals. It almost seems like an evil genius is manipulating the communities who came there to live in peace and prosper into conflict among one another. That this might be possible never enters the mind of Steven Gold, who probably still believes in the United Nations and votes for Democrats, notwithstanding their resolute opposition to the only consensual democracy in the region.

Can an act of terrorism redeem a community? Miryam thinks so, and acts accordingly. As the consequences play out, and the money supporting the city begins to run out, a hierarchical system of courts which mix up the various contending groups is established, and an economic system based upon electronic payments which provides a seamless transition between subsidies for the poor (but always based upon earned income: never a pure dole) and taxation for the more prosperous.

A retrospective provides a look at how it all might work. I remain dubious at the prospect. There are many existing communities in the near east which are largely homogeneous in terms of religion and ethnicity (as seen by outsiders) which might be prosperous if they didn't occupy themselves with bombing and killing one another by any means available, and yet the latter is what they choose to do. Might it be possible, by establishing sanctuaries, to select for those willing to set ancient enmities aside? Perhaps, but in this novel, grounded in reality, that didn't happen.

The economic system is intriguing but, to me, ultimately unpersuasive. I understand how the income subsidy encourages low-income earners to stay within the reported income economy, but the moment you cross the tax threshold, you have a powerful incentive to take things off the books and, absent some terribly coercive top-down means to force all transactions through the electronic currency system, free (non-taxed) exchange will find a way.

These quibbles aside, this is a refreshing and hopeful look at an alternative to eternal conflict. In the near east, “the facts on the ground” are everything and the author, who lives just 128 km from the centre of civil war in Syria is far more acquainted with the reality than somebody reading his book far away. I hope his vision is viable. I hope somebody tries it. I hope it works.

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Benford, Gregory. The Berlin Project. New York: Saga Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4814-8765-8.
In September 1938, Karl Cohen returned from a postdoctoral position in France to the chemistry department at Columbia University in New York, where he had obtained his Ph.D. two years earlier. Accompanying him was his new wife, Marthe, daughter of a senior officer in the French army. Cohen went to work for Harold Urey, professor of chemistry at Columbia and winner of the 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of deuterium. At the start of 1939, the fields of chemistry and nuclear physics were stunned by the discovery of nuclear fission: researchers at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin had discovered that the nucleus of Uranium-235 could be split into two lighter nuclei when it absorbed a neutron, releasing a large amount of energy and additional neutrons which might be able to fission other uranium nuclei, creating a “chain reaction” which might permitting tapping the enormous binding energy of the nucleus to produce abundant power—or a bomb.

The discovery seemed to open a path to nuclear power, but it was clear from the outset that the practical challenges were going to be daunting. Natural uranium is composed of two principal isotopes, U-238 and U-235. The heavier U-238 isotope makes up 99.27% of natural uranium, while U-235 accounts for only 0.72%. Only U-235 can readily be fissioned, so in order to build a bomb, it would be necessary to separate the two isotopes and isolate near-pure U-235. Isotopes differ only in the number of neutrons in their nuclei, but have the same number of protons and electrons. Since chemistry is exclusively determined by the electron structure of an atom, no chemical process can separate two isotopes: it must be done physically, based upon their mass difference. And since U-235 and U-238 differ in mass only by around 1.25%, any process, however clever, would necessarily be inefficient and expensive. It was clear that nuclear energy or weapons would require an industrial-scale effort, not something which could be done in a university laboratory.

Several candidate processes were suggested: electromagnetic separation, thermal or gaseous diffusion, and centrifuges. Harold Urey believed a cascade of high-speed centrifuges, fed with uranium hexafluoride gas, was the best approach, and he was the world's foremost expert on gas centrifuges. The nascent uranium project, eventually to become the Manhattan Project, was inclined toward the electromagnetic and gaseous diffusion processes, since they were believed to be well-understood and only required a vast scaling up as opposed to demonstration of a novel and untested technology.

Up to this point, everything in this alternative history novel is completely factual, and all of the characters existed in the real world (Karl Cohen is the author's father in-law). Historically, Urey was unable to raise the funds to demonstrate the centrifuge technology, and the Manhattan project proceeded with the electromagnetic and gaseous diffusion routes to separate U-235 while, in parallel, pursuing plutonium production from natural uranium in graphite-moderated reactors. Benford adheres strictly to the rules of the alternative history game in that only one thing is changed, and everything else follows as consequences of that change.

Here, Karl Cohen contacts a prominent Manhattan rabbi known to his mother who, seeing a way to combine protecting Jews in Europe from Hitler, advancing the Zionist cause, and making money from patents on a strategic technology, assembles a syndicate of wealthy and like-minded investors, raising a total of a hundred thousand dollars (US$ 1.8 million in today's funny money) to fund Urey's prototype centrifuge project in return for rights to patents on the technology. Urey succeeds, and by mid-1941 the centrifuge has been demonstrated and contacts made with Union Carbide to mass-produce and operate a centrifuge separation plant. Then, in early December of that year, everything changed, and by early 1942 the Manhattan Project had bought out the investors at a handsome profit and put the centrifuge separation project in high gear. As Urey's lead on the centrifuge project, Karl Cohen finds himself in the midst of the rapidly-developing bomb project, meeting and working with all of the principals.

Thus begins the story of a very different Manhattan Project and World War II. With the centrifuge project starting in earnest shortly after Pearl Harbor, by June 6th, 1944 the first uranium bomb is ready, and the Allies decide to use it on Berlin as a decapitation strike simultaneous with the D-Day landings in Normandy. The war takes a very different course, both in Europe and the Pacific, and a new Nazi terror weapon, first hinted at in a science fiction story, complicates the conflict. A different world is the outcome, seen from a retrospective at the end.

Karl Cohen's central position in the Manhattan Project introduces us to a panoply of key players including Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Freeman Dyson, John W. Campbell, Jr., and Samuel Goudsmit. He participates in a secret mission to Switzerland to assess German progress toward a bomb in the company of professional baseball catcher become spy Moe Berg, who is charged with assassinating Heisenberg if Cohen judges he knows too much.

This is a masterpiece of alternative history, based firmly in fact, and entirely plausible. The description of the postwar consequences is of a world in which I would prefer to have been born. I won't discuss the details to avoid spoiling your discovery of how they all work out in the hands of a master storyteller who really knows his stuff (Gregory Benford is a Professor Emeritus of physics at the University of California, Irvine).

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October 2017

Morton, Oliver. The Planet Remade. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-691-17590-4.
We live in a profoundly unnatural world. Since the start of the industrial revolution, and rapidly accelerating throughout the twentieth century, the actions of humans have begun to influence the flow of energy and materials in the Earth's biosphere on a global scale. Earth's current human population and standard of living are made possible entirely by industrial production of nitrogen-based fertilisers and crop plants bred to efficiently exploit them. Industrial production of fixed (chemically reactive) nitrogen from the atmosphere now substantially exceeds all of that produced by the natural soil bacteria on the planet which, prior to 1950, accounted for almost all of the nitrogen required to grow plants. Fixing nitrogen by the Haber-Bosch process is energy-intensive, and consumes around 1.5 percent of all the world's energy usage and, as a feedstock, 3–5% of natural gas produced worldwide. When we eat these crops, or animals fed from them, we are, in a sense, eating fossil fuels. On the order of four out of five nitrogen molecules that make up your body were made in a factory by the Haber-Bosch process. We are the children, not of nature, but of industry.

The industrial production of fertiliser, along with crops tailored to use them, is entirely responsible for the rapid growth of the Earth's population, which has increased from around 2.5 billion in 1950, when industrial fertiliser and “green revolution” crops came into wide use, to more than 7 billion today. This was accompanied not by the collapse into global penury predicted by Malthusian doom-sayers, but rather a broad-based rise in the standard of living, with extreme poverty and malnutrition falling to all-time historical lows. In the lifetimes of many people, including this scribbler, our species has taken over the flow of nitrogen through the Earth's biosphere, replacing a process mediated by bacteria for billions of years with one performed in factories. The flow of nitrogen from atmosphere to soil, to plants and the creatures who eat them, back to soil, sea, and ultimately the atmosphere is now largely in the hands of humans, and their very lives have become dependent upon it.

This is an example of “geoengineering”—taking control of what was a natural process and replacing it with an engineered one to produce a desired outcome: in this case, the ability to feed a much larger population with an unprecedented standard of living. In the case of nitrogen fixation, there wasn't a grand plan drawn up to do all of this: each step made economic sense to the players involved. (In fact, one of the motivations for developing the Haber-Bosch process was not to produce fertiliser, but rather to produce feedstocks for the manufacture of military and industrial explosives, which had become dependent on nitrates obtained from guano imported to Europe from South America.) But the outcome was the same: ours is an engineered world. Those who are repelled by such an intervention in natural processes or who are concerned by possible detrimental consequences of it, foreseen or unanticipated, must come to terms with the reality that abandoning this world-changing technology now would result in the collapse of the human population, with at least half of the people alive today starving to death, and many of the survivors reduced to subsistence in abject poverty. Sadly, one encounters fanatic “greens” who think this would be just fine (and, doubtless, imagining they'd be among the survivors).

Just mentioning geoengineering—human intervention and management of previously natural processes on a global scale—may summon in the minds of many Strangelove-like technological megalomania or the hubris of Bond villains, so it's important to bear in mind that we're already doing it, and have become utterly dependent upon it. When we consider the challenges we face in accommodating a population which is expected to grow to ten billion by mid-century (and, absent catastrophe, this is almost a given: the parents of the ten billion are mostly alive today), who will demand and deserve a standard of living comparable to what they see in industrial economies, and while carefully weighing the risks and uncertainties involved, it may be unwise to rule out other geoengineering interventions to mitigate undesirable consequences of supporting the human population.

In parallel with the human takeover of the nitrogen cycle, another geoengineering project has been underway, also rapidly accelerating in the 20th century, driven both by population growth and industrialisation of previously agrarian societies. For hundreds of millions of years, the Earth also cycled carbon through the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and lithosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO₂) was metabolised from the atmosphere by photosynthetic plants, extracting carbon for their organic molecules and producing oxygen released to the atmosphere, then passed along as plants were eaten, returned to the soil, or dissolved in the oceans, where creatures incorporated carbonates into their shells, which eventually became limestone rock and, over geological time, was subducted as the continents drifted, reprocessed far below the surface, and expelled back into the atmosphere by volcanoes. (This is a gross oversimplification of the carbon cycle, but we don't need to go further into it for what follows. The point is that it's something which occurs on a time scale of tens to hundreds of millions of years and on which humans, prior to the twentieth century, had little influence.)

The natural carbon cycle is not leakproof. Only part of the carbon sequestered by marine organisms and immured in limestone is recycled by volcanoes; it is estimated that this loss of carbon will bring the era of multicellular life on Earth to an end around a billion years from now. The carbon in some plants is not returned to the biosphere when they die. Sometimes, the dead vegetation accumulates in dense beds where it is protected against oxidation and eventually forms deposits of peat, coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Other than natural seeps and releases of the latter substances, their carbon is also largely removed from the biosphere. Or at least it was until those talking apes came along….

The modern technological age has been powered by the exploitation of these fossil fuels: laid down over hundreds of millions of years, often under special conditions which only existed in certain geological epochs, in the twentieth century their consumption exploded, powering our present technological civilisation. For all of human history up to around 1850, world energy consumption was less than 20 exajoules per year, almost all from burning biomass such as wood. (What's an exajoule? Well, it's 1018 joules, which probably tells you absolutely nothing. That's a lot of energy: equivalent to 164 million barrels of oil, or the capacity of around sixty supertankers. But it's small compared to the energy the Earth receives from the Sun, which is around 4 million exajoules per year.) By 1900, the burning of coal had increased this number to 33 exajoules, and this continued to grow slowly until around 1950 when, with oil and natural gas coming into the mix, energy consumption approached 100 exajoules. Then it really took off. By the year 2000, consumption was 400 exajoules, more than 85% from fossil fuels, and today it's more than 550 exajoules per year.

Now, as with the nitrogen revolution, nobody thought about this as geoengineering, but that's what it was. Humans were digging up, or pumping out, or otherwise tapping carbon-rich substances laid down long before their clever species evolved and burning them to release energy banked by the biosystem from sunlight in ages beyond memory. This is a human intervention into the Earth's carbon cycle of a magnitude even greater than the Haber-Bosch process into the nitrogen cycle. “Look out, they're geoengineering again!” When you burn fossil fuels, the combustion products are mostly carbon dioxide and water. There are other trace products, such as ash from coal, oxides of nitrogen, and sulphur compounds, but other than side effects such as various forms of pollution, they don't have much impact on the Earth's recycling of elements. The water vapour from combustion is rapidly recycled by the biosphere and has little impact, but what about the CO₂?

Well, that's interesting. CO₂ is a trace gas in the atmosphere (less than a fiftieth of a percent), but it isn't very reactive and hence doesn't get broken down by chemical processes. Once emitted into the atmosphere, CO₂ tends to stay there until it's removed via photosynthesis by plants, weathering of rocks, or being dissolved in the ocean and used by marine organisms. Photosynthesis is an efficient consumer of atmospheric carbon dioxide: a field of growing maize in full sunlight consumes all of the CO₂ within a metre of the ground every five minutes—it's only convection that keeps it growing. You can see the yearly cycle of vegetation growth in measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere as plants take it up as they grow and then release it after they die. The other two processes are much slower. An increase in the amount of CO₂ causes plants to grow faster (operators of greenhouses routinely enrich their atmosphere with CO₂ to promote growth), and increases the root to shoot ratio of the plants, tending to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere where it will be recycled more slowly into the biosphere.

But since the start of the industrial revolution, and especially after 1950, the emission of CO₂ by human activity over a time scale negligible on the geological scale by burning of fossil fuels has released a quantity of carbon into the atmosphere far beyond the ability of natural processes to recycle. For the last half billion years, the CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere has varied between 280 parts per million in interglacial (warm periods) and 180 parts per million during the depths of the ice ages. The pattern is fairly consistent: a rapid rise of CO₂ at the end of an ice age, then a slow decline into the next ice age. The Earth's temperature and CO₂ concentrations are known with reasonable precision in such deep time due to ice cores taken in Greenland and Antarctica, from which temperature and atmospheric composition can be determined from isotope ratios and trapped bubbles of ancient air. While there is a strong correlation between CO₂ concentration and temperature, this doesn't imply causation: the CO₂ may affect the temperature; the temperature may affect the CO₂; they both may be caused by another factor; or the relationship may be even more complicated (which is the way to bet).

But what is indisputable is that, as a result of our burning of all of that ancient carbon, we are now in an unprecedented era or, if you like, a New Age. Atmospheric CO₂ is now around 410 parts per million, which is a value not seen in the last half billion years, and it's rising at a rate of 2 parts per million every year, and accelerating as global use of fossil fuels increases. This is a situation which, in the ecosystem, is not only unique in the human experience; it's something which has never happened since the emergence of complex multicellular life in the Cambrian explosion. What does it all mean? What are the consequences? And what, if anything, should we do about it?

(Up to this point in this essay, I believe everything I've written is non-controversial and based upon easily-verified facts. Now we depart into matters more speculative, where squishier science such as climate models comes into play. I'm well aware that people have strong opinions about these issues, and I'll not only try to be fair, but I'll try to stay away from taking a position. This isn't to avoid controversy, but because I am a complete agnostic on these matters—I don't think we can either measure the raw data or trust our computer models sufficiently to base policy decisions upon them, especially decisions which might affect the lives of billions of people. But I do believe that we ought to consider the armanentarium of possible responses to the changes we have wrought, and will continue to make, in the Earth's ecosystem, and not reject them out of hand because they bear scary monikers like “geoengineering”.)

We have been increasing the fraction of CO₂ in the atmosphere to levels unseen in the history of complex terrestrial life. What can we expect to happen? We know some things pretty well. Plants will grow more rapidly, and many will produce more roots than shoots, and hence tend to return carbon to the soil (although if the roots are ploughed up, it will go back to the atmosphere). The increase in CO₂ to date will have no physiological effects on humans: people who work in greenhouses enriched to up to 1000 parts per million experience no deleterious consequences, and this is more than twice the current fraction in the Earth's atmosphere, and at the current rate of growth, won't be reached for three centuries. The greatest consequence of a growing CO₂ concentration is on the Earth's energy budget. The Earth receives around 1360 watts per square metre on the side facing the Sun. Some of this is immediately reflected back to space (much more from clouds and ice than from land and sea), and the rest is absorbed, processed through the Earth's weather and biosphere, and ultimately radiated back to space at infrared wavelengths. The books balance: the energy absorbed by the Earth from the Sun and that it radiates away are equal. (Other sources of energy on the Earth, such as geothermal energy from radioactive decay of heavy elements in the Earth's core and energy released by human activity are negligible at this scale.)

Energy which reaches the Earth's surface tends to be radiated back to space in the infrared, but some of this is absorbed by the atmosphere, in particular by trace gases such as water vapour and CO₂. This raises the temperature of the Earth: the so-called greenhouse effect. The books still balance, but because the temperature of the Earth has risen, it emits more energy. (Due to the Stefan-Boltzmann law, the energy emitted from a black body rises as the fourth power of its temperature, so it doesn't take a large increase in temperature [measured in degrees Kelvin] to radiate away the extra energy.)

So, since CO₂ is a strong absorber in the infrared, we should expect it to be a greenhouse gas which will raise the temperature of the Earth. But wait—it's a lot more complicated. Consider: water vapour is a far greater contributor to the Earth's greenhouse effect than CO₂. As the Earth's temperature rises, there is more evaporation of water from the oceans and lakes and rivers on the continents, which amplifies the greenhouse contribution of the CO₂. But all of that water, released into the atmosphere, forms clouds which increase the albedo (reflectivity) of the Earth, and reduce the amount of solar radiation it absorbs. How does all of this interact? Well, that's where the global climate models get into the act, and everything becomes very fuzzy in a vast panel of twiddle knobs, all of which interact with one another and few of which are based upon unambiguous measurements of the climate system.

Let's assume, arguendo, that the net effect of the increase in atmospheric CO₂ is an increase in the mean temperature of the Earth: the dreaded “global warming”. What shall we do? The usual prescriptions, from the usual globalist suspects, are remarkably similar to their recommendations for everything else which causes their brows to furrow: more taxes, less freedom, slower growth, forfeit of the aspirations of people in developing countries for the lifestyle they see on their smartphones of the people who got to the industrial age a century before them, and technocratic rule of the masses by their unelected self-styled betters in cheap suits from their tawdry cubicle farms of mediocrity. Now there's something to stir the souls of mankind!

But maybe there's an alternative. We've already been doing geoengineering since we began to dig up coal and deploy the steam engine. Maybe we should embrace it, rather than recoil in fear. Suppose we're faced with global warming as a consequence of our inarguable increase in atmospheric CO₂ and we conclude its effects are deleterious? (That conclusion is far from obvious: in recorded human history, the Earth has been both warmer and colder than its present mean temperature. There's an intriguing correlation between warm periods and great civilisations versus cold periods and stagnation and dark ages.) How might we respond?

Atmospheric veil. Volcanic eruptions which inject large quantities of particulates into the stratosphere have been directly shown to cool the Earth. A small fleet of high-altitude airplanes injecting sulphate compounds into the stratosphere would increase the albedo of the Earth and reflect sufficient sunlight to reduce or even cancel or reverse the effects of global warming. The cost of such a programme would be affordable by a benevolent tech billionaire or wannabe Bond benefactor (“Greenfinger”), and could be implemented in a couple of years. The effect of the veil project would be much less than a volcanic eruption, and would be imperceptible other than making sunsets a bit more colourful.

Marine cloud brightening. By injecting finely-dispersed salt water from the ocean into the atmosphere, nucleation sites would augment the reflectivity of low clouds above the ocean, increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of the Earth. This could be accomplished by a fleet of low-tech ships, and could be applied locally, for example to influence weather.

Carbon sequestration. What about taking the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? This sounds like a great idea, and appeals to clueless philanthropists like Bill Gates who are ignorant of thermodynamics, but taking out a trace gas is really difficult and expensive. The best place to capture it is where it's densest, such as the flue of a power plant, where it's around 10%. The technology to do this, “carbon capture and sequestration” (CCS) exists, but has not yet been deployed on any full-scale power plant.

Fertilising the oceans. One of the greatest reservoirs of carbon is the ocean, and once carbon is incorporated into marine organisms, it is removed from the biosphere for tens to hundreds of millions of years. What constrains how fast critters in the ocean can take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into shells and skeletons? It's iron, which is rare in the oceans. A calculation made in the 1990s suggested that if you added one tonne of iron to the ocean, the bloom of organisms it would spawn would suck a hundred thousand tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. Now, that's leverage which would impress even the most jaded Wall Street trader. Subsequent experiments found the ratio to be maybe a hundred times less, but then iron is cheap and it doesn't cost much to dump it from ships.

Great Mambo Chicken. All of the previous interventions are modest, feasible with existing technology, capable of being implemented incrementally while monitoring their effects on the climate, and easily and quickly reversed should they be found to have unintended detrimental consequences. But when thinking about affecting something on the scale of the climate of a planet, there's a tendency to think big, and a number of grand scale schemes have been proposed, including deploying giant sunshades, mirrors, or diffraction gratings at the L1 Lagrangian point between the Earth and the Sun. All of these would directly reduce the solar radiation reaching the Earth, and could be adjusted as required to manage the Earth's mean temperature at any desired level regardless of the composition of its atmosphere. Such mega-engineering projects are considered financially infeasible, but if the cost of space transportation falls dramatically in the future, might become increasingly attractive. It's worth observing that the cost estimates for such alternatives, albeit in the tens of billions of dollars, are small compared to re-architecting the entire energy infrastructure of every economy in the world to eliminate carbon-based fuels, as proposed by some glib and innumerate environmentalists.

We live in the age of geoengineering, whether we like it or not. Ever since we started to dig up coal and especially since we took over the nitrogen cycle of the Earth, human action has been dominant in the Earth's ecosystem. As we cope with the consequences of that human action, we shouldn't recoil from active interventions which acknowledge that our environment is already human-engineered, and that it is incumbent upon us to preserve and protect it for our descendants. Some environmentalists oppose any form of geoengineering because they feel it is unnatural and provides an alternative to restoring the Earth to an imagined pre-industrial pastoral utopia, or because it may be seized upon as an alternative to their favoured solutions such as vast fields of unsightly bird shredders. But as David Deutsch says in The Beginning of Infinity, “Problems are inevitable“; but “Problems are soluble.” It is inevitable that the large scale geoengineering which is the foundation of our developed society—taking over the Earth's natural carbon and nitrogen cycles—will cause problems. But it is not only unrealistic but foolish to imagine these problems can be solved by abandoning these pillars of modern life and returning to a “sustainable” (in other words, medieval) standard of living and population. Instead, we should get to work solving the problems we've created, employing every tool at our disposal, including new sources of energy, better means of transmitting and storing energy, and geoengineering to mitigate the consequences of our existing technologies as we incrementally transition to those of the future.

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September 2017

Scoles, Sarah. Making Contact. New York: Pegasus Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-68177-441-1.
There are few questions in our scientific inquiry into the universe and our place within it more profound than “are we alone?” As we have learned more about our world and the larger universe in which it exists, this question has become ever more fascinating. We now know that our planet, once thought the centre of the universe, is but one of what may be hundreds of billions of planets in our own galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Not long ago, we knew only of the planets in our own solar system, and some astronomers believed planetary systems were rare, perhaps formed by freak encounters between two stars following their orbits around the galaxy. But now, thanks to exoplanet hunters and, especially, the Kepler spacecraft, we know that it's “planets, planets, everywhere”—most stars have planets, and many stars have planets where conditions may be suitable for the origin of life.

If this be the case, then when we gaze upward at the myriad stars in the heavens, might there be other eyes (or whatever sense organs they use for the optical spectrum) looking back from planets of those stars toward our Sun, wondering if they are alone? Many are the children, and adults, who have asked themselves that question when standing under a pristine sky. For the ten year old Jill Tarter, it set her on a path toward a career which has been almost coterminous with humanity's efforts to discover communications from extraterrestrial civilisations—an effort which continues today, benefitting from advances in technology unimagined when she undertook the quest.

World War II had seen tremendous advancements in radio communications, in particular the short wavelengths (“microwaves”) used by radar to detect enemy aircraft and submarines. After the war, this technology provided the foundation for the new field of radio astronomy, which expanded astronomers' window on the universe from the traditional optical spectrum into wavelengths that revealed phenomena never before observed nor, indeed, imagined, and hinted at a universe which was much larger, complicated, and violent than previously envisioned.

In 1959, Philip Morrison and Guiseppe Cocconi published a paper in Nature in which they calculated that using only technologies and instruments already existing on the Earth, intelligent extraterrestrials could send radio messages across the distances to the nearby stars, and that these messages could be received, detected, and decoded by terrestrial observers. This was the origin of SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In 1960, Frank Drake used a radio telescope to search for signals from two nearby star systems; he heard nothing.

As they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and this is acutely the case in SETI. First of all, consider that you must first decide what kind of signal aliens might send. If it's something which can't be distinguished from natural sources, there's little hope you'll be able to tease it out of the cacophony which is the radio spectrum. So we must assume they're sending something that doesn't appear natural. But what is the variety of natural sources? There's a dozen or so Ph.D. projects just answering that question, including some surprising discoveries of natural sources nobody imagined, such as pulsars, which were sufficiently strange that when first observed they were called “LGM” sources for “Little Green Men”. On what frequency are they sending (in other words, where do we have to turn our dial to receive them, for those geezers who remember radios with dials)? The most efficient signals will be those with a very narrow frequency range, and there are billions of possible frequencies the aliens might choose. We could be pointed in the right place, at the right time, and simply be tuned to the wrong station.

Then there's that question of “the right time”. It would be absurdly costly to broadcast a beacon signal in all directions at all times: that would require energy comparable to that emitted by a star (which, if you think about it, does precisely that). So it's likely that any civilisation with energy resources comparable to our own would transmit in a narrow beam to specific targets, switching among them over time. If we didn't happen to be listening when they were sending, we'd never know they were calling.

If you put all of these constraints together, you come up with what's called an “observational phase space”—a multidimensional space of frequency, intensity, duration of transmission, angular extent of transmission, bandwidth, and other parameters which determine whether you'll detect the signal. And that assumes you're listening at all, which depends upon people coming up with the money to fund the effort and pursue it over the years.

It's beyond daunting. The space to be searched is so large, and our ability to search it so limited, that negative results, even after decades of observation, are equivalent to walking down to the seashore, sampling a glass of ocean water, and concluding that based on the absence of fish, the ocean contained no higher life forms. But suppose you find a fish? That would change everything.

Jill Tarter began her career in the mainstream of astronomy. Her Ph.D. research at the University of California, Berkeley was on brown dwarfs (bodies more massive than gas giant planets but too small to sustain the nuclear fusion reactions which cause stars to shine—a brown dwarf emits weakly in the infrared as it slowly radiates away the heat from the gravitational contraction which formed it). Her work was supported by a federal grant, which made her uncomfortable—what relevance did brown dwarfs have to those compelled to pay taxes to fund investigating them? During her Ph.D. work, she was asked by a professor in the department to help with an aged computer she'd used in an earlier project. To acquaint her with the project, the professor asked her to read the Project Cyclops report. It was a conversion experience.

Project Cyclops was a NASA study conducted in 1971 on how to perform a definitive search for radio communications from intelligent extraterrestrials. Its report [18.2 Mb PDF], issued in 1972, remains the “bible” for radio SETI, although advances in technology, particularly in computing, have rendered some of its recommendations obsolete. The product of a NASA which was still conducting missions to the Moon, it was grandiose in scale, envisioning a large array of radio telescope dishes able to search for signals from stars up to 1000 light years in distance (note that this is still a tiny fraction of the stars in the galaxy, which is around 150,000 light years in diameter). The estimated budget for the project was between 6 and 10 billion dollars (multiply those numbers by around six to get present-day funny money) spent over a period of ten to fifteen years. The report cautioned that there was no guarantee of success during that period, and that the project should be viewed as a long-term endeavour with ongoing funding to operate the system and continue the search.

The Cyclops report arrived at a time when NASA was downsizing and scaling back its ambitions: the final three planned lunar landing missions had been cancelled in 1970, and production of additional Saturn V launch vehicles had been terminated the previous year. The budget climate wasn't hospitable to Apollo-scale projects of any description, especially those which wouldn't support lots of civil service and contractor jobs in the districts and states of NASA's patrons in congress. Unsurprisingly, Project Cyclops simply landed on the pile of ambitious NASA studies that went nowhere. But to some who read it, it was an inspiration. Tarter thought, “This is the first time in history when we don't just have to believe or not believe. Instead of just asking the priests and philosophers, we can try to find an answer. This is an old and important question, and I have the opportunity to change how we try to answer it.” While some might consider searching the sky for “little green men” frivolous and/or absurd, to Tarter this, not the arcana of brown dwarfs, was something worthy of support, and of her time and intellectual effort, “something that could impact people's lives profoundly in a short period of time.”

The project to which Tarter had been asked to contribute, Project SERENDIP (a painful acronym of Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations) was extremely modest compared to Cyclops. It had no dedicated radio telescopes at all, nor even dedicated time on existing observatories. Instead, it would “piggyback” on observations made for other purposes, listening to the feed from the telescope with an instrument designed to detect the kind of narrow-band beacons envisioned by Cyclops. To cope with the problem of not knowing the frequency on which to listen, the receiver would monitor 100 channels simultaneously. Tarter's job was programming the PDP 8/S computer to monitor the receiver's output and search for candidate signals. (Project SERENDIP is still in operation today, employing hardware able to simultaneously monitor 128 million channels.)

From this humble start, Tarter's career direction was set. All of her subsequent work was in SETI. It would be a roller-coaster ride all the way. In 1975, NASA had started a modest study to research (but not build) technologies for microwave SETI searches. In 1978, the program came into the sights of senator William Proxmire, who bestowed upon it his “Golden Fleece” award. The program initially survived his ridicule, but in 1982, the budget zeroed out the project. Carl Sagan personally intervened with Proxmire, and in 1983 the funding was reinstated, continuing work on a more capable spectral analyser which could be used with existing radio telescopes.

Buffeted by the start-stop support from NASA and encouraged by Hewlett-Packard executive Bernard Oliver, a supporter of SETI from its inception, Tarter decided that SETI needed its own institutional home, one dedicated to the mission and able to seek its own funding independent of the whims of congressmen and bureaucrats. In 1984, the SETI Institute was incorporated in California. Initially funded by Oliver, over the years major contributions have been made by technology moguls including William Hewlett, David Packard, Paul Allen, Gordon Moore, and Nathan Myhrvold. The SETI Institute receives no government funding whatsoever, although some researchers in its employ, mostly those working on astrobiology, exoplanets, and other topics not directly related to SETI, are supported by research grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation. Fund raising was a skill which did not come naturally to Tarter, but it was mission critical, and so she mastered the art. Today, the SETI Institute is considered one of the most savvy privately-funded research institutions, both in seeking large donations and in grass-roots fundraising.

By the early 1990s, it appeared the pendulum had swung once again, and NASA was back in the SETI game. In 1992, a program was funded to conduct a two-pronged effort: a targeted search of 800 nearby stars, and an all-sky survey looking for stronger beacons. Both would employ what were then state-of-the-art spectrum analysers able to monitor 15 million channels simultaneously. After just a year of observations, congress once again pulled the plug. The SETI Institute would have to go it alone.

Tarter launched Project Phoenix, to continue the NASA targeted search program using the orphaned NASA spectrometer hardware and whatever telescope time could be purchased from donations to the SETI Institute. In 1995, observations resumed at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia, and subsequently a telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, and the 300 metre dish at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The project continued through 2004.

What should SETI look like in the 21st century? Much had changed since the early days in the 1960s and 1970s. Digital electronics and computers had increased in power a billionfold, not only making it possible to scan a billion channels simultaneously and automatically search for candidate signals, but to combine the signals from a large number of independent, inexpensive antennas (essentially, glorified satellite television dishes), synthesising the aperture of a huge, budget-busting radio telescope. With progress in electronics expected to continue in the coming decades, any capital investment in antenna hardware would yield an exponentially growing science harvest as the ability to analyse its output grew over time. But to take advantage of this technological revolution, SETI could no longer rely on piggyback observations, purchased telescope time, or allocations at the whim of research institutions: “SETI needs its own telescope”—one optimised for the mission and designed to benefit from advances in electronics over its lifetime.

In a series of meetings from 1998 to 2000, the specifications of such an instrument were drawn up: 350 small antennas, each 6 metres in diameter, independently steerable (and thus able to be used all together, or in segments to simultaneously observe different targets), with electronics to combine the signals, providing an effective aperture of 900 metres with all dishes operating. With initial funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (and with his name on the project, the Allen Telescope Array), the project began construction in 2004. In 2007, observations began with the first 42 dishes. By that time, Paul Allen had lost interest in the project, and construction of additional dishes was placed on hold until a new benefactor could be found. In 2011, a funding crisis caused the facility to be placed in hibernation, and the observatory was sold to SRI International for US$ 1. Following a crowdfunding effort led by the SETI Institute, the observatory was re-opened later that year, and continues operations to this date. No additional dishes have been installed: current work concentrates on upgrading the electronics of the existing antennas to increase sensitivity.

Jill Tarter retired as co-director of the SETI Institute in 2012, but remains active in its scientific, fundraising, and outreach programs. There has never been more work in SETI underway than at the present. In addition to observations with the Allen Telescope Array, the Breakthrough Listen project, funded at US$ 100 million over ten years by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, is using thousands of hours of time on large radio telescopes, with a goal of observing a million nearby stars and the centres of a hundred galaxies. All data are available to the public for analysis. A new frontier, unimagined in the early days of SETI, is optical SETI. A pulsed laser, focused through a telescope of modest aperture, is able to easily outshine the Sun in a detector sensitive to its wavelength and pulse duration. In the optical spectrum, there's no need for fancy electronics to monitor a wide variety of wavelengths: all you need is a prism or diffraction grating. The SETI Institute has just successfully completed a US$ 100,000 Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund the first phase of the Laser SETI project, which has as its ultimate goal an all-sky, all-the-time search for short pulses of light which may be signals from extraterrestrials or new natural phenomena to which no existing astronomical instrument is sensitive.

People often ask Jill Tarter what it's like to spend your entire career looking for something and not finding it. But she, and everybody involved in SETI, always knew the search would not be easy, nor likely to succeed in the short term. The reward for engaging in it is being involved in founding a new field of scientific inquiry and inventing and building the tools which allow exploring this new domain. The search is vast, and to date we have barely scratched the surface. About all we can rule out, after more than half a century, is a Star Trek-like universe where almost every star system is populated by aliens chattering away on the radio. Today, the SETI enterprise, entirely privately funded and minuscule by the standards of “big science”, is strongly coupled to the exponential growth in computing power and hence, roughly doubles its ability to search around every two years.

The question “are we alone?” is one which has profound implications either way it is answered. If we discover one or more advanced technological civilisations (and they will almost certainly be more advanced than we—we've only had radio for a little more than a century, and there are stars and planets in the galaxy billions of years older than ours), it will mean it's possible to grow out of the daunting problems we face in the adolescence of our species and look forward to an exciting and potentially unbounded future. If, after exhaustive searches (which will take at least another fifty years of continued progress in expanding the search space), it looks like we're alone, then intelligent life is so rare that we may be its only exemplar in the galaxy and, perhaps, the universe. Then, it's up to us. Our destiny, and duty, is to ensure that this spark, lit within us, will never be extinguished.

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August 2017

Casey, Doug and John Hunt. Drug Lord. Charlottesville, VA: HighGround Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-947449-07-7.
This is the second novel in the authors' “High Ground” series, chronicling the exploits of Charles Knight, an entrepreneur and adventurer determined to live his life according to his own moral code, constrained as little as possible by the rules and regulations of coercive and corrupt governments. The first novel, Speculator (October 2016), follows Charles's adventures in Africa as an investor in a junior gold exploration company which just might have made the discovery of the century, and in the financial markets as he seeks to profit from what he's learned digging into the details. Charles comes onto the radar of ambitious government agents seeking to advance their careers by collecting his scalp.

Charles ends up escaping with his freedom and ethics intact, but with much of his fortune forfeit. He decides he's had enough of “the land of the free” and sets out on his sailboat to explore the world and sample the pleasures and opportunities it holds for one who thinks for himself. Having survived several attempts on his life and prevented a war in Africa in the previous novel, seven years later he returns to a really dangerous place, Washington DC, populated by the Morlocks of Mordor.

Charles has an idea for a new business. The crony capitalism of the U.S. pharmaceutical-regulatory complex has inflated the price of widely-used prescription drugs to many times that paid outside the U.S., where these drugs, whose patents have expired under legal regimes less easily manipulated than that of the U.S., are manufactured in a chemically-identical form by thoroughly professional generic drug producers. Charles understands, as fully as any engineer, that wherever there is nonlinearity the possibility for gain exists, and when that nonlinearity is the result of the action of coercive government, the potential profits from circumventing its grasp on the throat of the free market can be very large, indeed.

When Charles's boat docked in the U.S., he had an undeclared cargo: a large number of those little blue pills much in demand by men of a certain age, purchased for pennies from a factory in India through a cut-out in Africa he met on his previous adventure. He has the product, and a supplier able to obtain much more. Now, all he needs is distribution. He must venture into the dark underside of DC to make the connections that can get the product to the customers, and persuade potential partners that they can make much more and far more safely by distributing his products (which don't fall under the purview of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and to which local cops not only don't pay much attention, but may be potential customers).

Meanwhile, Charles's uncle Maurice, who has been managing what was left of his fortune during his absence, has made an investment in a start-up pharmaceutical company, Visioryme, whose first product, VR-210, or Sybillene, is threading its way through the FDA regulatory gauntlet toward approval for use as an antidepressant. Sybillene works through a novel neurochemical pathway, and promises to be an effective treatment for clinical depression while avoiding the many deleterious side effects of other drugs. In fact, Sybillene doesn't appear to have any side effects at all—or hardly any—there's that one curious thing that happened in animal testing, but not wishing to commit corporate seppuku, Visioryme hasn't mentioned it to the regulators or even their major investor, Charles.

Charles pursues his two pharmaceutical ventures in parallel: one in the DC ghetto and Africa; the other in the tidy suburban office park where Visioryme is headquartered. The first business begins to prosper, and Charles must turn his ingenuity to solving the problems attendant to any burgeoning enterprise: supply, transportation, relations with competitors (who, in this sector of the economy, not only are often armed but inclined to shoot first), expanding the product offerings, growing the distribution channels, and dealing with all of the money that's coming in, entirely in cash, without coming onto the radar of any of the organs of the slavers and their pervasive snooper-state.

Meanwhile, Sybillene finally obtains FDA approval, and Visioryme begins to take off and ramp up production. Charles's connections in Africa help the company obtain the supplies of bamboo required in production of the drug. It seems like he now has two successful ventures, on the dark and light sides, respectively, of the pharmaceutical business (which is dark and which is light depending on your view of the FDA).

Then, curious reports start to come in about doctors prescribing Sybillene off-label in large doses to their well-heeled patients. Off-label prescription is completely legal and not uncommon, but one wonders what's going on. Then there's the talk Charles is picking up from his other venture of demand for a new drug on the street: Sybillene, which goes under names such as Fey, Vatic, Augur, Covfefe, and most commonly, Naked Emperor. Charles's lead distributor reports, “It helps people see lies for what they are, and liars too. I dunno. I never tried it. Lots of people are asking though. Society types. Lawyers, businessmen, doctors, even cops.” It appears that Sybillene, or Naked Emperor, taken in a high dose, is a powerful nootropic which doesn't so much increase intelligence as, the opposite of most psychoactive drugs, allows the user to think more clearly, and see through the deception that pollutes the intellectual landscape of a modern, “developed”, society.

In that fœtid city by the Potomac, the threat posed by such clear thinking dwarfs that of other “controlled substances” which merely turn their users into zombies. Those atop an empire built on deceit, deficits, and debt cannot run the risk of a growing fraction of the population beginning to see through the funny money, Ponzi financing, Potemkin military, manipulation of public opinion, erosion of the natural rights of citizens, and the sham which is replacing the last vestiges of consensual government. Perforce, Sybillene must become Public Enemy Number One, and if a bit of lying and even murder is required, well, that's the price of preserving the government's ability to lie and murder.

Suddenly, Charles is involved in two illegal pharmaceutical ventures. As any wise entrepreneur would immediately ask himself, “might there be synergies?”

Thus begins a compelling, instructive, and inspiring tale of entrepreneurship and morality confronted with dark forces constrained by no limits whatsoever. We encounter friends and foes from the first novel, as once again Charles finds himself on point position defending those in the enterprises he has created. As I said in my review of Speculator, this book reminds me of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, but it is even more effective because Charles Knight is not a super-hero but rather a person with a strong sense of right and wrong who is making up his life as he goes along and learning from the experiences he has: good and bad, success and failure. Charles Knight, even without Naked Emperor, has that gift of seeing things precisely as they are, unobscured by the fog, cant, spin, and lies which are the principal products of the city in which it is set.

These novels are not just page-turning thrillers, they're simultaneously an introductory course in becoming an international man (or woman), transcending the lies of the increasingly obsolescent nation-state, and finding the liberty that comes from seizing control of one's own destiny. They may be the most powerful fictional recruiting tool for the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist world view since the works of Ayn Rand and L. Neil Smith. Speculator was my fiction book of the year for 2016, and this sequel is in the running for 2017.

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