January 2005

Lamont, Peter. The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. ISBN 1-56025-661-3.
Charmed by a mysterious swami, the end of a rope rises up of its own accord high into the air. A small boy climbs the rope and, upon reaching the top, vanishes. The Indian rope trick: ancient enigma of the subcontinent or 1890 invention by a Chicago newspaper embroiled in a circulation war? Peter Lamont, magician and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, traces the origin and growth of this pervasive legend. Along the way we encounter a cast of characters including Marco Polo; a Chief of the U.S. Secret Service; Madame Blavatsky; Charles Dickens; Colonel Stodare, an Englishman who impersonated a Frenchman performing Indian magic; William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State; Professor Belzibub; General Earl Haig and his aptly named aide-de-camp, Sergeant Secrett; John Nevil Maskelyne, conjurer, debunker of spiritualism, and inventor of the pay toilet; and a host of others. The author's style is occasionally too clever for its own good, but this is a popular book about the Indian rope trick, not a quantum field theory text after all, so what the heck. I read the U.K. edition.


Orsenna, Erik. La grammaire est une chanson douce. Paris: Poche, 2001. ISBN 2-253-14910-1.
Ten year old Jeanne and her insufferable fourteen year old brother survive a shipwreck and find themselves on an enchanted island where words come alive and grammar escapes the rationalistic prison of Madame Jargonos and her Cartesian colleagues in the black helicopters (nice touch, that) to emerge as the intuitive music of thought and expression. As Jeanne recovers her ability to speak, we discover the joy of forging phrases from the raw material of living words with the tools of grammar. The result of Jeanne's day in the factory on page 129 is a pure delight. The author is a member of l'Académie française.


Crichton, Michael. State of Fear. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-621413-0.
Ever since I read his 2003 Commonwealth Club speech, I've admired Michael Crichton's outspoken defence of rationality against the junk science, elitist politics, and immoral anti-human policies of present-day Big Environmentalism. In State of Fear, he enlists his talent as a techno-thriller writer in the cause, debunking the bogus fear-mongering of the political/legal/media/academic complex which is increasingly turning the United States into a nation of safety-obsessed sheeple, easily manipulated by the elite which constructs the fact-free virtual reality they inhabit. To the extent this book causes people to look behind the green curtain of environmentalism, it will no doubt do a world of good. Scientific integrity is something which matters a great deal to Crichton—when's the last time you read a thriller which included dozens of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers, charts based on public domain climate data, a list of data sources for independent investigation, a twenty page annotated bibliography, and an explicit statement of the author's point of view on the issues discussed in the novel?

The story is a compelling page-turner, but like other recent Crichton efforts, requires somewhat more suspension of disbelief than I'm comfortable with. I don't disagree with the scientific message—I applaud it—but I found myself less than satisfied with how the thing worked as a thriller. As in Prey (January 2003), the characters often seemed to do things which simply weren't the way real people would actually behave. It is plausible that James Bond like secret agent John Kenner would entrust a raid on an eco-terrorist camp to a millionaire's administrative assistant and a lawyer who'd never fired a gun, or that he'd include these two, along with an actor who played a U.S. president on television, sent to spy for the bad guys, on an expedition to avert a horrific terrorist strike? These naïve, well-intentioned, but clueless characters provide convenient foils for Crichton's scientific arguments and come to deliciously appropriate ends, at least in one case, but all the time you can't help but thinking they're just story devices who don't really belong there. The villains' grand schemes also make this engineer's reality detector go bzzzt! In each case, they're trying to do something on an unprecedented scale, involving unconfirmed theories and huge uncertainties in real-world data, and counting on it working the very first time, with no prior prototyping or reduced-scale tests. In the real world, heroics wouldn't be necessary—you could just sit back and wait for something to go wrong, as it always does in such circumstances.


Schmitt, Christopher. CSS Cookbook. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2004. ISBN 0-596-00576-8.
It's taken a while, but Cascading Style Sheets have finally begun to live up to their promise of separating content from presentation on the Web, allowing a consistent design, specified in a single place and easily modified, to be applied to large collections of documents, and permitting content to be rendered in different ways depending on the media and audience: one style for online reading, another for printed output, an austere presentation for handheld devices, large type for readers with impaired vision, and a text-only format tailored for screen reader programs used by the blind. This book provides an overview of CSS solutions for common Web design problems, with sample code and screen shots illustrating what can be accomplished. It doesn't purport to be a comprehensive reference—you'll want to have Eric Meyer's Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide at hand as you develop your own CSS solutions, but Schmitt's book is valuable in showing how common problems can be solved in ways which aren't obvious from reading the specification or a reference book. Particularly useful for the real-world Web designer are Schmitt's discussion of which CSS features work and don't work in various popular browsers and suggestions of work-arounds to maximise the cross-platform portability of pages.

Many of the examples in this book are more or less obvious, and embody techniques which folks who've rolled their own Movable Type style sheets will be familiar, but every chapter has one or more gems which caused this designer of minimalist Web pages to slap his forehead and exclaim, “I didn't know you could do that!” Chapter 9, which presents a collection of brutal hacks, many involving exploiting parsing bugs, for working around browser incompatibilities may induce nausea in those who cherish standards compliance or worry about the consequences of millions of pages on the Web containing ticking time bombs which will cause them to fall flat on their faces when various browser bugs are fixed. One glimpses here the business model of the Web site designer who gets paid when the customer is happy with how the site looks in Exploder and views remediation of incompatibilities down the road as a source of recurring revenue. Still, if you develop and maintain Web sites at the HTML level, there are many ideas here which can lead to more effective Web pages, and encourage you to dig deeper into the details of CSS.


Weinberg, Steven. Facing Up. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-674-01120-1.
This is a collection of non-technical essays written between 1985 and 2000 by Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg. Many discuss the “science wars”—the assault by postmodern academics on the claim that modern science is discovering objective truth (well, duh), but many other topics are explored, including string theory, Zionism, Alan Sokal's hoax at the expense of the unwitting (and witless) editors of Social Text, Thomas Kuhn's views on scientific revolutions, science and religion, and the comparative analysis of utopias. Weinberg applies a few basic principles to most things he discusses—I counted six separate defences of reductionism in modern science, most couched in precisely the same terms. You may find this book more enjoyable a chapter at a time over an extended period rather than in one big cover-to-cover gulp.


Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-175-7.
Here's where it all began—the first episode of the original Tom Swift saga. Here we encounter Tom, his father Barton Swift, Mrs. Baggert, Ned Newton, Eradicate Sampson and his mule Boomerang, Wakefield “bless my hatband” Damon, Happy Harry, and the rest of the regulars for the first time. In this first outing, Appleton is still finding his voice: a good deal of the narration occurs as Tom's thinking or talking out loud, and there are way too many references to Tom as “our hero” for the cynical modern reader. But it's a rip-snorting, thoroughly enjoyable yarn, and the best point of departure to explore the world of Tom Swift and American boyhood in the golden years before the tragically misnamed Great War. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects a few typographical and formatting errors I noted whilst reading the novel.


Allitt, Patrick. I'm the Teacher, You're the Student. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8122-1887-6.
This delightfully written and enlightening book provides a look inside a present-day university classroom. The author, a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, presents a diary of a one semester course in U.S. history from 1877 to the present. Descriptions of summer programs at Oxford and experiences as a student of Spanish in Salamanca Spain (the description of the difficulty of learning a foreign language as an adult [pp. 65–69] is as good as any I've read) provide additional insight into the life of a professor. I wish I'd had a teacher explain the craft of expository writing as elegantly as Allitt in his “standard speech” (p. 82). The sorry state of undergraduate prose is sketched in stark detail, with amusing howlers like, “Many did not survive the harsh journey west, but still they trekked on.” Although an introductory class, students were a mix of all four undergraduate years; one doesn't get a sense the graduating seniors thought or wrote any more clearly than the freshmen. Along the way, Allitt provides a refresher course in the historical period covered by the class. You might enjoy answering the factual questions from the final examination on pp. 215–218 before and after reading the book and comparing your scores (answers are on p. 237—respect the honour code and don't peek!). The darker side of the educational scene is discussed candidly: plagiarism in the age of the Internet; clueless, lazy, and deceitful students; and the endless spiral of grade inflation. What grade would you give to students who, after a semester in an introductory undergraduate course, “have no aptitude for history, no appreciation for the connection between events, no sense of how a historical situation changes over time, [who] don't want to do the necessary hard work, … skimp on the reading, and can't write to save their lives” (p. 219)—certainly an F? Well, actually, no: “Most of them will get B− and a few really hard cases will come in with Cs”. And, refuting the notion that high mean grade point averages at elite schools simply reflect the quality of the student body and their work, about a quarter of Allitt's class are these intellectual bottom feeders he so vividly evokes.


Sinclair, Upton. Mental Radio. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, [1930, 1962] 2001. ISBN 1-57174-235-2.
Upton Sinclair, self-described (p. 8) “Socialist ‘muckraker’” is best known for his novels such as The Jungle (which put a generation off eating sausage), Oil!, and The Moneychangers, and his social activism. His 1934 run for Governor of California was supported by young firebrand Robert A. Heinlein, whose 1938-1939 “lost first novel” For Us, The Living (February 2004) was in large part a polemic for Sinclair's “Social Credit” platform.

Here, however, the focus is on the human mind, in particular the remarkable experiments in telepathy and clairvoyance performed in the late 1920s with his wife, Mary Craig Sinclair. The experiments consisted of attempts to mentally transmit or perceive the content of previously drawn images. Some experiments were done with the “sender” and “receiver” separated by more than 40 kilometres, while others involved Sinclair drawing images in a one room with the door closed, while his wife attempted to receive them in a different room. Many of the results are simply astonishing, so much so that given the informal conditions of the testing, many sceptics (especially present-day CSICOPs who argue that any form of cheating or sensory information transfer, whether deliberate or subconscious, which cannot be definitively excluded must be assumed to have occurred), will immediately discard them as flawed. But the Sinclair experiments took place just as formal research in parapsychology was getting underway—J.B. Rhine's Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University was not founded until 1935—five years after the publication of Mental Radio, with the support of William McDougall, chairman of the Duke psychology department who, in 1930, himself performed experiments with Mary Craig Sinclair and wrote the introduction to the present volume.

This book is a reprint of the 1962 edition, which includes a retrospective foreword by Upton Sinclair, the analysis of the Sinclair experiments by Walter Franklin Prince published in the Bulletin of the Boston Society for Psychic Research in 1932, and a preface by Albert Einstein.


Smith, L. Neil. Ceres. Unpublished manuscript, January 2005.
I read this book in manuscript form; I'll add the ISBN when it is published. An online plot summary is available.


Landis, Tony R. and Dennis R. Jenkins. X-15 Photo Scrapbook. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-074-4.

This companion to Hypersonic: The Story of the North American X-15 (March 2004) contains more than 400 photos, 50 in colour, which didn't make the cut for the main volume, as well as some which came to hand only after its publication. There's nothing really startling, but if you can't get enough of this beautiful flying machine, here's another hefty dose of well-captioned period photos, many never before published. The two page spread on pp. 58–59 is interesting. It's a North American Aviation presentation from 1962 on how the X-15 could be used for various advanced propulsion research programs, including ramjets, variable cycle turboramjets, scramjets, and liquid air cycle engines (LACE) burning LH2 and air liquefied on board. More than forty years later, these remain “advanced propulsion” concepts, with scant progress to show for the intervening decades. None of the X-15 propulsion research programs were ever flown.


Smith, L. Neil and Scott Bieser. The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel. Round Rock, TX: Big Head Press, 2004. ISBN 0-9743814-1-1.
What a tremendous idea! Here is L. Neil Smith's classic libertarian science fiction novel, Prometheus Award winning The Probability Broach, transformed into a comic book—er—graphic novel—with story by Smith and artwork by Scott Bieser. The artwork and use of colour are delightful—particularly how Win Bear's home world is rendered in drab collectivist grey and the North American Confederacy in vibrant hues. Lucy Kropotkin looks precisely as I'd imagined her. Be sure to look at all the detail and fine print in the large multi-panel spreads. After enjoying a couple of hours back in the Confederacy, why not order copies to give to all the kids in the family who've never thought about what it would be like to live in a world where free individuals entirely owned their own lives?


February 2005

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-14-200161-9.
You may think this a dry topic, but the history of salt is a microcosm of the history of human civilisation. Carnivorous animals and human tribes of hunters get all the salt they need from the meat they eat. But as soon as humans adopted a sedentary agricultural lifestyle and domesticated animals, they and their livestock had an urgent need for salt—a cow requires ten times as much salt as a human. The collection and production of salt was a prerequisite for human settlements and, as an essential commodity required by every individual, the first to be taxed and regulated by that chronic affliction of civilisation, government. Salt taxes supported the Chinese empire for almost two millennia, the Viennese and Genoan trading empires and the Hanseatic League, precipitated the French Revolution and India's struggle for independence from the British empire. Salt was a strategic commodity in the Roman Empire: most Roman cities were built near saltworks, and the words “salary” and “soldier” are both derived from the Latin word for salt. This and much more is covered in this fascinating look at human civilisation through the crystals of a tasty and essential inorganic compound composed of two poisonous elements. Recipes for salty specialities of cultures around the world and across the centuries are included, along with recommendations for surviving that “surprisingly pleasant” Swedish speciality surströmming (p. 139): “The only remaining problem is how to get the smell out of the house…”.


Kopparapu, Chandra. Load Balancing Servers, Firewalls, and Caches. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. ISBN 0-471-41550-2.
Don't even think about deploying a server farm or geographically dispersed mirror sites without reading this authoritative book. The Internet has become such a mountain of interconnected kludges that something as conceptually simple as spreading Web and other Internet traffic across a collection of independent servers or sites in the interest of increased performance and fault tolerance becomes a matter of enormous subtlety and hideous complexity. Most of the problems come from the need for “session persistence”: when a new user arrives at your site, you can direct them to any available server based on whatever load balancing algorithm you choose, but if the user's interaction with the server involves dynamically generated content produced by the server (for example, images generated by Earth and Moon Viewer, or items the user places in their shopping cart at a commerce site), subsequent requests by the user must be directed to the same server, as only it contains the state of the user's session.

(Some load balancer vendors will try to persuade you that session persistence is a design flaw in your Web applications which you should eliminate by making them stateless or by using a common storage pool shared by all the servers. Don't believe this. I defy you to figure out how an application as simple as Earth and Moon Viewer, which does nothing more complicated than returning a custom Web page which contains a dynamically generated embedded image, can be made stateless. And shared backing store [for example, Network Attached Storage servers] has its own scalability and fault tolerance challenges.)

Almost any simple scheme you can come up with to get around the session persistence problem will be torpedoed by one or more of the kludges and hacks through which a user's packet traverses between client and server: NAT, firewalls, proxy servers, content caches, etc. Consider what at first appears to be a foolproof scheme (albeit sub-optimal for load distribution): simply hash the client's IP address into a set of bins, one for each server, and direct the packets accordingly. Certainly, that would work, right? Wrong: huge ISPs such as AOL and EarthLink have farms of proxy servers between their customers and the sites they contact, and these proxy servers are themselves load balanced in a non-persistent manner. So even two TCP connections from the same browser retrieving, say, the text and an image from a single Web page, may arrive at your site apparently originating from different IP addresses!

This and dozens of other gotchas and ways to work around them are described in detail in this valuable book, which is entirely vendor-neutral, except for occasionally mentioning products to illustrate different kinds of architectures. It's a lot better to slap your forehead every few pages as you discover something else you didn't think of which will sabotage your best-laid plans than pull your hair out later after putting a clever and costly scheme into production and discovering that it doesn't work. When I started reading this book, I had no idea how I was going to solve the load balancing problem for the Fourmilab site, and now I know precisely how I'm going to proceed. This isn't a book you read for entertainment, but if you need to know this stuff, it's a great place to learn it.


Smith, Edward E. First Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1950] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-10-7.
There's no better way to escape for a brief respite from the world of session persistence, subnet masks, stateful fallover, gratuitous ARP packets, and the like than some coruscating, actinic space opera, and nobody does it better than the guy who invented it, Doc Smith. About every decade I re-read the Lensman series, of which this is the second of six volumes (seven if you count Masters of the Vortex) and never cease to be amazed at Smith's talent for thinking big—really big. I began this fourth expedition through the Lensman saga with the first installment, Triplanetary, in June 2004. Old Earth Books are to be commended for this reprint, which is a facsimile of the original 1950 Fantasy Press edition including all the illustrations.


Roosevelt, Theodore. The Rough Riders. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, [1899] 2004. ISBN 1-4145-0492-6.
This is probably, by present-day standards, the most politically incorrect book ever written by a United States President. The fact that it was published and became a best-seller before his election as Vice President in 1900 and President in 1904 indicates how different the world was in the age in which Theodore Roosevelt lived and helped define. T.R. was no chicken-hawk. After advocating war with Spain as assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, as war approached, he left his desk job in Washington to raise a volunteer regiment from the rough and ready horse- and riflemen of his beloved Wild West, along with number of his fellow Ivy Leaguers hungry for a piece of the action. This book chronicles his adventures in raising, equipping, and training the regiment, and its combat exploits in Cuba in 1898. The prose is pure T.R. passionate purple; it was rumoured that when the book was originally typeset the publisher had to send out for more copies of the upper-case letter “I”. Almost every page contains some remark or other which would end the career of what passes for politicians in today's pale, emasculated world. What an age. What a man! The bloodthirsty warrior who wrote this book would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering an end to the war between Russia and Japan.

This paperback edition from Pavilion Press is a sorry thing physically. The text reads like something that's been OCR scanned and never spelling checked or proofread—on p. 171, for example, “antagonists” is printed as “antagon1sts”, and this is one of many such errors. There's no excuse for this at all, since there's an electronic text edition of The Rough Riders freely available from Project Gutenberg which is free of these errors, and an on-line edition which lacks these flaws. The cover photo of T.R. on his horse is a blow-up of a low-resolution JPEG image with obvious pixels and compression artefacts.

Roosevelt's report to his commanding general (pp. 163–170) detailing the logistical and administrative screwups in the campaign is an excellent illustration of the maxim that the one area in which government far surpasses the capabilities of free enterprise is in the making of messes.


Sullivan, Scott P. Virtual LM. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2004. ISBN 1-894959-14-0.
I closed my comments about the author's earlier Virtual Apollo (July 2004) expressing my hope he would extend the project to the Lunar Module (LM). Well, here it is! These books are based on intricate computer solid models created by Sullivan from extensive research, then rendered to show how subsystems fit into the tightly-packed and weight-constrained spacecraft. The differences between the initial “H mission” modules (Apollo 9–14) and the extended stay “J mission” landers of Apollo 15–17 are shown in comparison renderings. In addition, the Lunar Roving Vehicle (moon buggy) used on the J missions is dissected in the same manner as the LM, along with the life support backpack worn by astronauts on the lunar surface. Nothing about the Lunar Module was simple, and no gory detail is overlooked in this book—there are eight pages (40–47) devoted to the door of the scientific equipment bay and the Rube Goldberg-like mechanism used to open it.

Sadly, like Virtual Apollo, this modeling and rendering labour of love is marred by numerous typographical errors in text and captions. From the point where I started counting, I noted 25, which is an unenviable accomplishment in a 250 page book which is mostly pictures. A companion CD-ROM includes the Apollo Operations Handbook, Lunar Module flight documents from Apollo 14–16, and photographs of the LM simulator and test article.


Kuhns, Elizabeth. The Habit. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN 0-385-50588-4.
For decades I've been interested in and worried about how well-intentioned “modernisations” might interrupt the chain of transmission of information and experience between generations and damage, potentially mortally, the very institutions modernisers were attempting to adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps my concern with this somewhat gloomy topic stems from having endured both “new math” in high school and “new chemistry” in college, in both cases having to later re-learn the subject matter in the traditional way which enables one to, you know, actually solve problems.

Now that the radicals left over from the boomer generation are teachers and professors, we're into the second or third generation of a feedback cycle in which students either never learn the history of their own cultures or are taught contempt and hatred for it. The dearth of young people in the United States and U.K. who know how to think and have the factual framework from which to reason (or are aware what they don't know and how to find it out) is such that I worry about a runaway collapse of Western civilisation there. The very fact that it's impolitic to even raise such an issue in most of academia today only highlights how dire the situation is. (In continental Europe the cultural and educational situation is nowhere near as bad, but given that the population is aging and dying out it hardly matters. I read a prediction a couple of weeks ago that, absent immigration or change in fertility, the population of Switzerland, now more than seven million, could fall to about one million before the end of this century, and much the same situation obtains elsewhere in Europe. There is no precedent in human history for this kind of population collapse unprovoked by disaster, disease, or war.)

When pondering “macro, macro” issues like this, it's often useful to identify a micro-model to serve as a canary in the mineshaft for large-scale problems ahead. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a top to bottom modernisation of the Roman Catholic Church. In that same year, there were around 180,000 Catholic nuns in the U.S.—an all time historical high—whose lifestyle, strongly steeped in tradition, began to immediately change in many ways far beyond the clothes they wore. Increasingly, orders opted for increasing invisibility—blending into the secular community. The result: an almost immediate collapse in their numbers, which has continued to the present day (graph). Today, there are only about 70,000 left, and with a mean age of 69, their numbers are sure to erode further in the future. Now, it's impossible to separate the consequences of modernisation of tradition from those of social changes in society at large, but it gives one pause to see an institution which, as this book vividly describes, has tenaciously survived two millennia of rising and falling empires, war, plague, persecution, inquisition, famine, migration, reformation and counter-reformation, disappearing like a puff of smoke within the space of one human lifetime. It makes you wonder about how resilient other, far more recent, components of our culture may be in the face of changes which discard the experience and wisdom of the past.

A paperback edition is scheduled for publication in April 2005.


Purdy, Gregor N. Linux iptables Pocket Reference. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2004. ISBN 0-596-00569-5.
Sure, you could just read the manual pages, but when your site is under attack and you're the “first responder”, this little book is just what you want in your sweaty fingers. It's also a handy reference to the fields in IP, TCP, UDP, and ICMP packets, which can be useful in interpreting packet dumps. Although intended as a reference, it's well worth taking the time (less than an hour) to read cover to cover. There are a number of very nice facilities in iptables/Netfilter which permit responding to common attacks. For example, the iplimit match allows blocking traffic from the bozone layer (yes, you—I know who you are and I know where you live) which ties up all of your HTTP server processes by connecting to them and then letting them time out or, slightly more sophisticated, feeding characters of a request every 20 seconds or so to keep it alive. The solution is:
    /sbin/iptables -A INPUT -p tcp --syn --dport 80 -m iplimit \
    	--iplimit-above 20 --iplimit-mask 32 -j REJECT
Anybody who tries to open more than 20 connections will get whacked on each additional SYN packet. You can see whether this rule is affecting too many legitimate connections with the status query:
    /sbin/iptables -L -v
Geekly reading, to be sure, but just the thing if you're responsible for defending an Internet server or site from malefactors in the Internet Slum.


Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. New York: Pantheon Books, [2002, 2003] 2004. ISBN 0-375-42288-9.
Having escaped from Iran in the middle of Iran/Iraq war to secular, decadent Austria, Marjane Satrapi picks up her comic book autobiography with the culture shock of encountering the amoral West. It ends badly. She returns to Tehran in search of her culture, and finds she doesn't fit there either, eventually abandoning a failed marriage to escape to the West, where she has since prospered as an author and illustrator. This intensely personal narrative brings home both why the West is hated in much of the world, and why, at the same time, so many people dream of escaping the tyranny of dull conformity for the light of liberty and reason in the West. Like Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (November 2004), this is a re-lettered English translation of the original French edition published in two volumes: (3, 4).


Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English. London: Sceptre, 2003. ISBN 0-340-82993-1.
How did a language spoken by 150,000 or so Germanic warriors who invaded the British Isles in the fifth century A.D. become the closest thing so far to a global language, dominating the worlds of science and commerce which so define the modern age? Melvyn Bragg, who earlier produced a television series (which I haven't seen) with the same name for the British ITV network follows the same outline in this history of English. The tremendous contingency in the evolution of a language is much to be seen here: had Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, or William Tyndale (who first translated the Bible into English and paid with his life for having done so) died in infancy, how would we speak today, and in what culture would we live? The assembly of the enormous vocabulary of English by devouring words from dozens of other languages is well documented, as well as the differentiation of British English into distinct American, Caribbean, Australian, South African, Indian, and other variants which enrich the mother tongue with both vocabulary and grammar. Fair dinkum, innit man?

As English has grown by accretion, it has also cast out a multitude of words into the “Obs.” bin of the OED, many in the “Inkhorn Controversy” in the 16th century. What a loss! The more words, the richer the language, and I hereby urge we reinstate “abstergify”, last cited in the OED in 1612, defined as the verb “To cleanse”. I propose this word to mean “to clean up, æsthetically, without any change in function”. For example, “I spent all day abstergifying the configuration files for the Web server”.

The mystery of why such an ill-structured language with an almost anti-phonetic spelling should have become so widespread is discussed here only on the margin, often in apologetic terms invoking the guilt of slavery and colonialism. (But speakers of other languages pioneered these institutions, so why didn't they triumph?) Bragg suggests, almost in passing, what I think is very significant. The very irregularity of English permits it to assimilate the vocabulary of every language it encounters. In Greek, Latin, Spanish, or French, there are rules about the form of verbs and the endings of nouns and agreement of adjectives which cannot accommodate words from fundamentally different languages. But in English, there are no rules whatsoever—bring your own vocabulary—there's room for everybody and every word. Come on in, it's great—the more the better!

A U.S edition is now available, but as of this date only in hardcover.


March 2005

Smith, Edward E. Galactic Patrol. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1937-1938, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-11-5.
Although this is the third volume of the Lensman series, it was written first; Triplanetary (June 2004) and First Lensman (February 2005) are “prequels”, written more than a decade after Galactic Patrol ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction beginning in September 1937. This was before John W. Campbell, Jr. assumed the editor's chair, the event usually considered to mark the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction. This volume is a facsimile of the illustrated 1950 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat by the author from the original magazine version.

While I enjoy the earlier books, and read them in order in this fourth lifetime trip through the saga, Galactic Patrol is where the story really takes off for me. If you're new to Doc Smith, you might want to begin here to experience space opera at its best, then go back and read the two slower-paced prior installments afterward. Having been written first, this novel is completely self-contained; everything introduced in the earlier books is fully explained when it appears here.


Hayek, Friedrich A. The Fatal Conceit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-226-32066-9.
The idiosyncratic, if not downright eccentric, synthesis of evolutionary epistemology, spontaneous emergence of order in self-organising systems, free markets as a communication channel and feedback mechanism, and individual liberty within a non-coercive web of cultural traditions which informs my scribblings here and elsewhere is the product of several decades of pondering these matters, digesting dozens of books by almost as many authors, and discussions with brilliant and original thinkers it has been my privilege to encounter over the years.

If, however, you want it all now, here it is, in less than 160 pages of the pellucid reasoning and prose for which Hayek is famed, ready to be flashed into your brain's philosophical firmware in a few hours' pleasant reading. This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I picked it up a couple of days ago and devoured it, exclaiming “Yes!”, “Bingo!”, and “Precisely!” every few pages. The book is subtitled “The Errors of Socialism”, which I believe both misstates and unnecessarily restricts the scope of the actual content, for the errors of socialism are shared by a multitude of other rationalistic doctrines (including the cult of design in software development) which, either conceived before biological evolution was understood, or by those who didn't understand evolution or preferred the outlook of Aristotle and Plato for aesthetic reasons (“evolution is so messy, and there's no rational plan to it”), assume, as those before Darwin and those who reject his discoveries today, that the presence of apparent purpose implies the action of rational design. Hayek argues (and to my mind demonstrates) that the extended order of human interaction: ethics, morality, division of labour, trade, markets, diffusion of information, and a multitude of other components of civilisation fall between biological instinct and reason, poles which many philosophers consider a dichotomy.

This middle ground, the foundation of civilisation, is the product of cultural evolution, in which reason plays a part only in variation, and selection occurs just as brutally and effectively as in biological evolution. (Cultural and biological evolution are not identical, of course; in particular, the inheritance of acquired traits is central in the development of cultures, yet absent in biology.)

The “Fatal Conceit” of the title is the belief among intellectuals and social engineers, mistaking the traditions and institutions of human civilisation for products of reason instead of evolution, that they can themselves design, on a clean sheet of paper as it were, a one-size-fits-all eternal replacement which will work better than the product of an ongoing evolutionary process involving billions of individuals over millennia, exploring a myriad of alternatives to find what works best. The failure to grasp the limits of reason compared to evolution explains why the perfectly consistent and often tragic failures of utopian top-down schemes never deters intellectuals from championing new (or often old, already discredited) ones. Did I say I liked this book?


Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-679-45443-8.
This is simply a monumental piece of work. I can't think of any comparable book published in the last century, or any work with such an ambitious goal which pulls it off so well. In this book, Roger Penrose presents the essentials of fundamental physics as understood at the turn of the century to the intelligent layman in the way working theoretical physicists comprehend them. Starting with the Pythagorean theorem, the reader climbs the ladder of mathematical abstraction to master complex numbers, logarithms, real and complex number calculus, Fourier decomposition, hyperfunctions, quaternions and octionions, manifolds and calculus on manifolds, symmetry groups, fibre bundles and connections, transfinite numbers, spacetime, Hamiltonians and Lagrangians, Clifford and Grassman algebras, tensor calculus, and the rest of the mathematical armamentarium of the theoretical physicist. And that's before we get to the physics, where classical mechanics and electrodynamics, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the standard models of particle physics and cosmology are presented in the elegant and economical notation into which the reader has been initiated in the earlier chapters.

Authors of popular science books are cautioned that each equation they include (except, perhaps E=mc²) will halve the sales of their book. Penrose laughs in the face of such fears. In this “big damned fat square book” of 1050 pages of main text, there's an average of one equation per page, which, according to conventional wisdom should reduce readership by a factor of 2−1050 or 8.3×10−317, so the single copy printed would have to be shared by among the 1080 elementary particles in the universe over an extremely long time. But, according to the Amazon sales ranking as of today, this book is number 71 in sales—go figure.

Don't deceive yourself; in committing to read this book you are making a substantial investment of time and brain power to master the underlying mathematical concepts and their application to physical theories. If you've noticed my reading being lighter than usual recently, both in terms of number of books and their intellectual level, it's because I've been chewing through this tome for last two and a half months and it's occupied my cerebral capacity to the exclusion of other works. But I do not regret for a second the time I've spent reading this work and working the exercises, and I will probably make a second pass through it in a couple of years to reinforce the mathematical toolset into my aging neurons. As an engineer whose formal instruction in mathematics ended with differential equations, I found chapters 12–15 to be the “hump”—after making it through them (assuming you've mastered their content), the rest of the book is much more physical and accessible. There's kind of a phase transition between the first part of the book and chapters 28–34. In the latter part of the book, Penrose gives free rein to his own view of fundamental physics, introducing his objective reduction of the quantum state function (OR) by gravity, twistor theory, and a deconstruction of string theory which may induce apoplexy in researchers engaged in that programme. But when discussing speculative theories, he takes pains to identify his own view when it differs from the consensus, and to caution the reader where his own scepticism is at variance with a widely accepted theory (such as cosmological inflation).

If you really want to understand contemporary physics at the level of professional practitioners, I cannot recommend this book too highly. After you've mastered this material, you should be able to read research reports in the General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology preprint archives like the folks who write and read them. Imagine if, instead of two or three hundred taxpayer funded specialists, four or five thousand self-educated people impassioned with figuring out how nature does it contributed every day to our unscrewing of the inscrutable. Why, they'll say it's a movement. And that's exactly what it will be.


Bear, Greg. Moving Mars. New York: Tor, 1993. ISBN 0-812-52480-2.
I received an electronic edition of this novel several years ago as part of a bundle when I purchased a reader program for my PalmOS PDA, and only got around to reading it in odd moments over the last few months. I've really enjoyed some of Greg Bear's recent work, such as 1999's Darwin's Radio, so I was rather surprised to find this story disappointing. However, that's just my opinion, and clearly at variance with the majority of science fiction authors and fans, for this book won the 1994 Nebula and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for best novel and was nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Campbell awards that year. The electronic edition I read remains available.


Fort, Adrian. Prof: The Life of Frederick Lindemann. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003. ISBN 0-224-06317-0.
Frederick Lindemann is best known as Winston Churchill's scientific advisor in the years prior to and during World War II. He was the central figure in what Churchill called the “Wizard War”, including the development and deployment of radar, antisubmarine warfare technologies, the proximity fuze, area bombing techniques, and nuclear weapons research (which was well underway in Britain before the Manhattan Project began in the U.S.). Lindemann's talents were so great and his range of interests so broad that if he had settled into the cloistered life of an Oxford don after his appointment as Professor of Experimental Philosophy and chief of the Clarendon Laboratory in 1919, he would still be remembered for his scientific work in quantum mechanics, X-ray spectra, cryogenics, photoelectric photometry in astronomy, and isotope separation, as well as for restoring Oxford's reputation in the natural sciences, which over the previous half century “had sunk almost to zero” in Lindemann's words.

Educated in Germany, he spoke German and French like a native. He helped organise the first historic Solvay Conference in 1911, which brought together the pioneers of the relativity and quantum revolutions in physics. There he met Einstein, beginning a life-long friendship. Lindemann was a world class tennis champion and expert golfer and squash player, as well as a virtuoso on the piano. Although a lifetime bachelor, he was known as a ladies' man and never lacked female companionship.

In World War I Lindemann tackled the problem of spin recovery in aircraft, then thought to be impossible (this in an era when pilots were not issued parachutes!). To collect data and test his theories, he learned to fly and deliberately induced spins in some of the most notoriously dangerous aircraft types and confirmed his recovery procedure by putting his own life on the line. The procedure he developed is still taught to pilots today.

With his close contacts in Germany, Lindemann was instrumental in arranging and funding the emigration of Jewish and other endangered scientists after Hitler took power in 1933. The scientists he enabled to escape not only helped bring Oxford into the first rank of research universities, many ended up contributing to the British and U.S. atomic projects and other war research. About the only thing he ever failed at was his run for Parliament in 1937, yet his influence as confidant and advisor to Churchill vastly exceeded that of a Tory back bencher. With the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined Churchill at the Admiralty, where he organised and ran the Statistical Branch, which applied what is now called Operations Research to the conduct of the war, which rôle he expanded as chief of “S Department” after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. Many of the wartime “minutes” quoted in Churchill's The Second World War were drafted by Lindemann and sent out verbatim over Churchill's signature, sometimes with the addition “Action this day”. Lindemann finally sat in Parliament, in the House of Lords, after being made Lord Cherwell in 1941, and joined the Cabinet in 1942 and became a Privy Counsellor in 1943.

After the war, Lindemann returned to Oxford, continuing to champion scientific research, taking leave to serve in Churchill's cabinet from 1951–1953, where he almost single-handedly and successfully fought floating of the pound and advocated the establishment of an Atomic Energy Authority, on which he served for the rest of his life.

There's an atavistic tendency when writing history to focus exclusively on the person at the top, as if we still lived in the age of warrior kings, neglecting those who obtain and filter the information and develop the policies upon which the exalted leader must ultimately decide. (This is as common, or more so, in the business press where the cult of the CEO is well entrenched.) This biography, of somebody many people have never heard of, shows that the one essential skill a leader must have is choosing the right people to listen to and paying attention to what they say.

A paperback edition is now available.


Lebeau, Caroline. Les nouvelles preuves sur l'assassinat de J. F. Kennedy. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04915-9.
If you don't live in Europe, you may not be fully aware just how deranged the Looney Left can be in their hatred of Western civilisation, individual liberty, and the United States in particular. This book, from the same publisher who included a weasel-word disclaimer in each copy of Oriana Fallaci's La Force de la Raison (December 2004), bears, on its cover, in 42 point white type on a red background, the subtitle «Le clan Bush est-il coupable?»—“Is the Bush clan guilty?” This book was prominently displayed in French language bookstores in 2004. The rambling narrative and tangled illogic finally pile up to give an impression reminiscent of the JFK assassination headline in The Onion's Our Dumb Century: “Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, Teamsters, Freemasons”. Lebeau declines to implicate the Masons, but fleshes out the list, adding multinational corporations, defence contractors, the Pentagon, Khrushchev, anti-Casto Cuban exiles, a cabal within the Italian army (I'm not making this up—see pp. 167–168), H.L. Hunt, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, the mayor of Dallas … and the Bush family, inter alia. George W. Bush, who was 17 years old at the time, is not accused of being a part of the «énorme complot», but his father is, based essentially on the deduction: “Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Dallas is in Texas. George H. W. Bush lived in Texas at the time—guilty, guilty, guilty!

“Independent investigative journalist” Lebeau is so meticulous in her “investigations” that she confuses JFK's older brother's first and middle names, misspells Nixon's middle name, calls the Warren Report the product of a Republican administration, confuses electoral votes with Senate seats, consistently misspells “grassy knoll”, thinks a “dum-dum” bullet is explosive, that Gerald Ford was an ex-FBI agent, and confuses H. L. Hunt and E. Howard Hunt on the authority of “journalist” Mumia Abu-Jamal, not noting that he is a convicted cop killer. Her studies in economics permit her to calculate (p. 175) that out of a total cost of 80 billion dollars, the Vietnam war yielded total profits to the military-industrial complex and bankers of 220 trillion dollars, which is about two centuries worth of the U.S. gross national product as of 1970. Some of the illustrations in the book appear to have been photographed off a television screen, and many of the original documents reproduced are partially or entirely illegible.


Pickover, Clifford A. The Loom of God. New York: Perseus Books, 1997. ISBN 0-306-45411-4.
Clifford Pickover has more than enough imagination for a hundred regular people. An enormously prolific author, his work includes technical books on computing and scientific visualisation, science fiction, and popular works on mathematics and a wide variety of scientific topics. This book explores the boundary between mathematics and religion, including Pythagorean cults, Stonehenge, cave paintings from 20,000 years ago which may be the first numbers, the Kabala, the quipu of the Incas, numerology, eschatology, and real-world doomsday scenarios, along with a wide variety of puzzles in number theory, geometry, and other mathematical topics. One of the many fascinating unsolved problems he discusses is the “integer brick”, which seems to be more often referred to as the “perfect cuboid”: can you find a three-dimensional rectangular parallelopiped in which all the edges and face and space diagonals are integers? Computer searches have shown than no cuboid with a smallest edge less than 1,281,000,000 satisfies this requirement but, who knows, you may find it in just a few more compute cycles! (I'll pass on this one, after spending three years of computer time pursuing another unicorn of recreational mathematics.) As with Pickover's other popular books, this one includes source code for programs to explore topics raised in the text, explanation of the science and history behind the science fiction narrative, and extensive literature citations for those interested in digging deeper.


April 2005

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? New York: Perennial, 2002. ISBN 0-06-051605-4.
Bernard Lewis is the preeminent Western historian of Islam and the Middle East. In his long career, he has written more than twenty volumes (the list includes those currently in print) on the subject. In this book he discusses the causes of the centuries-long decline of Islamic civilisation from a once preeminent empire and culture to the present day. The hardcover edition was in press when the September 2001 terrorist attacks took place. So thoroughly does Lewis cover the subject matter that a three page Afterword added in October 2002 suffices to discuss their causes and consequences. This is an excellent place for anybody interested in the “clash of civilisations” to discover the historical context of Islam's confrontation with modernity. Lewis writes with a wit which is so dry you can easily miss it if you aren't looking. For example, “Even when the Ottoman Turks were advancing into southeastern Europe, they were always able to buy much needed equipment for their fleets and armies from Christian European suppliers, to recruit European experts, and even to obtain financial cover from Christian European banks. What is nowadays known as ‘constructive engagement’ has a long history.” (p. 13).


Scalzi, John. Old Man's War. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-30940-8.
I don't read a lot of contemporary science fiction, but the review by Glenn Reynolds and those of other bloggers he cited on Instapundit motivated me to do the almost unthinkable—buy a just-out science fiction first novel in hardback—and I'm glad I did. It's been a long time since I last devoured a three hundred page novel in less than 36 hours in three big gulps, but this is that kind of page-turner. It will inevitably be compared to Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Remarkably, it stands up well beside the work of the Master, and also explores the kinds of questions of human identity which run through much of Heinlein's later work. The story is in no way derivative, however; this is a thoroughly original work, and even more significant for being the author's first novel in print. Here's a writer to watch.


Healy, Gene, ed. Go Directly to Jail. Washington: Cato Institute, 2004. ISBN 1-930865-63-5.
Once upon a time, when somebody in the U.S. got carried away and started blowing something out of proportion, people would chide them, “Don't make a federal case out of it.” For most of U.S. history, “federal cases”—criminal prosecutions by the federal government—were a big deal because they were about big things: treason, piracy, counterfeiting, bribery of federal officials, and offences against the law of nations. With the exception of crimes committed in areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction such as the District of Columbia, Indian reservations, territories, and military bases, all other criminal matters were the concern of the states. Well, times have changed. From the 17 original federal crimes defined by Congress in 1790, the list of federal criminal offences has exploded to more than 4,000 today, occupying 27,000 pages of the U.S. Code, the vast majority added since 1960. But it's worse than that—many of these “crimes” consist of violations of federal regulations, which are promulgated by executive agencies without approval by Congress, constantly changing, often vague and conflicting, and sprawling through three hundred thousand or so pages of the Code of Federal Regulations.

This creates a legal environment in which the ordinary citizen or, for that matter, even a professional expert in an area of regulation cannot know for certain what is legal and what is not. And since these are criminal penalties and prosecutors have broad discretion in charging violators, running afoul of an obscure regulation can lead not just to a fine but serious downtime at Club Fed, such as the seafood dealers facing eight years in the pen for selling lobster tails which violated no U.S. law. And don't talk back to the Eagle—a maintenance supervisor who refused to plead guilty to having a work crew bury some waste paint cans found himself indicted on 43 federal criminal counts (United States v. Carr, 880 F.2d 1550 (1989)). Stir in enforcement programs which are self-funded by the penalties and asset seizures they generate, and you have a recipe for entrepreneurial prosecution at the expense of liberty.

This collection of essays is frightening look at criminalisation run amok, trampling common law principles such as protection against self-incrimination, unlawful search and seizure, and double jeopardy, plus a watering down of the rules of evidence, standard of proof, and need to prove both criminal intent (mens rea) and a criminal act (actus reus). You may also be amazed and appalled at how the traditional discretion accorded trial judges in sentencing has been replaced by what amount to a “spreadsheet of damnation” of 258 cells which, for example, ranks possession of 150 grams of crack cocaine a more serious offence than second-degree murder (p. 137). Each essay concludes with a set of suggestions as to how the trend can be turned around and something resembling the rule of law re-established, but that's not the way to bet. Once the ball of tyranny starts to roll, even in the early stage of the soft tyranny of implied intimidation, it gains momentum all by itself. I suppose we should at be glad they aren't torturing people. Oh, right….


Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.


Orsenna, Erik. Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif. Paris: Stock, 2004. ISBN 2-234-05698-5.
Two years have passed since Jeanne and her brother Thomas were marooned on the enchanted island of words in La grammaire est une chanson douce (January 2005). In this sequel, Jeanne takes to the air in a glider with a diminutive cartographer to map the Archipelago of Conjugation and search for her brother who has vanished. Jeanne's luck with voyages hasn't changed—the glider crashes on the Island of the Subjunctives, where Jeanne encounters its strange inhabitants, guardians of the verbs which speak of what may be, or may not—the mode of dreams and love (for what is love if not hope and doubt?), the domain of the subjunctive. To employ a subjunctive survival from old French, oft-spoken but rarely thought of as such, « Vive le subjonctif ! ».

The author has been a member of the French Conseil d'État since 1985, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, is an accomplished sailor and president of the Centre de la mer, and was elected to l'Académie française in 1998. For additional information, visit his beautiful and creatively designed Web site, where you will find a map of the Archipelago of Conjugation and the first chapter of the book in both text and audio editions.

Can you spot the perspective error made by the artist on the front cover? (Hint: the same goof occurs in the opening title sequence of Star Trek: Voyager.)


Pais, Abraham. The Genius of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-850614-7.
In this volume Abraham Pais, distinguished physicist and author of Subtle Is the Lord, the definitive scientific biography of Einstein, presents a “portrait gallery” of eminent twentieth century physicists, including Bohr, Dirac, Pauli, von Neumann, Rabi, and others. If you skip the introduction, you may be puzzled at some of the omissions: Heisenberg, Fermi, and Feynman, among others. Pais wanted to look behind the physics to the physicist, and thus restricted his biographies to scientists he personally knew; those not included simply didn't cross his career path sufficiently to permit sketching them in adequate detail. Many of the chapters were originally written for publication in other venues and revised for this book; consequently the balance of scientific and personal biography varies substantially among them, as does the length of the pieces: the chapter on Victor Weisskopf, adapted from an honorary degree presentation, is a mere two and half pages, while that on George Eugene Uhlenbeck, based on a lecture from a memorial symposium, is 33 pages long. The scientific focus is very much on quantum theory and particle physics, and the collected biographies provide an excellent view of the extent to which researchers groped in the dark before discovering phenomena which, presented in a modern textbook, seem obvious in retrospect. One wonders whether the mysteries of present-day physics will seem as straightforward a century from now.


Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, [1936] 1959. ISBN 0-451-18784-9.
This is Ayn Rand's first novel, which she described to be “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write”. It is a dark story of life in the Soviet Union in 1925, a year after the death of Lenin and a year before Ayn Rand's own emigration to the United States from St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad, the city in which the story is set. Originally published in 1936, this edition was revised by Rand in 1958, shortly after finishing Atlas Shrugged. Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading this novel before, and was surprised to discover that the characters were, in many ways, more complex and believable and the story less preachy than her later work. Despite the supposedly diametrically opposed societies in which they are set and the ideologies of their authors, this story and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle bear remarkable similarities and are worth reading together for an appreciation of how horribly things can go wrong in any society in which, regardless of labels, ideals, and lofty rhetoric, people do not truly own their own lives.


Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Astérix chez les Helvètes. Paris: Hachette, [1970] 2004. ISBN 2-01-210016-3.


May 2005

Dembski, William A. No Free Lunch. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2002. ISBN 0-7425-1297-5.
It seems to be the rule that the softer the science, the more rigid and vociferously enforced the dogma. Physicists, confident of what they do know and cognisant of how much they still don't, have no problems with speculative theories of parallel universes, wormholes and time machines, and inconstant physical constants. But express the slightest scepticism about Darwinian evolution being the one, completely correct, absolutely established beyond a shadow of a doubt, comprehensive and exclusive explanation for the emergence of complexity and diversity in life on Earth, and outraged biologists run to the courts, the legislature, and the media to suppress the heresy, accusing those who dare to doubt their dogma as being benighted opponents of science seeking to impose a “theocracy”. Funny, I thought science progressed by putting theories to the test, and that all theories were provisional, subject to falsification by experimental evidence or replacement by a more comprehensive theory which explains additional phenomena and/or requires fewer arbitrary assumptions.

In this book, mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski attempts to lay the mathematical and logical foundation for inferring the presence of intelligent design in biology. Note that “intelligent design” needn't imply divine or supernatural intervention—the “directed panspermia” theory of the origin of life proposed by co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick is a theory of intelligent design which invokes no deity, and my perpetually unfinished work The Rube Goldberg Variations and the science fiction story upon which it is based involve searches for evidence of design in scientific data, not in scripture.

You certainly won't find any theology here. What you will find is logical and mathematical arguments which sometimes ascend (or descend, if you wish) into prose like (p. 153), “Thus, if P characterizes the probability of E0 occurring and f characterizes the physical process that led from E0 to E1, then Pf −1 characterizes the probability of E1 occurring and P(E0) ≤ Pf −1(E1) since f(E0) = E1 and thus E0 ⊂ f −1(E1).” OK, I did cherry-pick that sentence from a particularly technical section which the author advises readers to skip if they're willing to accept the less formal argument already presented. Technical arguments are well-supplemented by analogies and examples throughout the text.

Dembski argues that what he terms “complex specified information” is conclusive evidence for the presence of design. Complexity (the Shannon information measure) is insufficient—all possible outcomes of flipping a coin 100 times in a row are equally probable—but presented with a sequence of all heads, all tails, alternating heads and tails, or a pattern in which heads occurred only for prime numbered flips, the evidence for design (in this case, cheating or an unfair coin) would be considered overwhelming. Complex information is considered specified if it is compressible in the sense of Chaitin-Kolmogorov-Solomonoff algorithmic information theory, which measures the randomness of a bit string by the length of the shortest computer program which could produce it. The overwhelming majority of 100 bit strings cannot be expressed more compactly than simply by listing the bits; the examples given above, however, are all highly compressible. This is the kind of measure, albeit not rigorously computed, which SETI researchers would use to identify a signal as of intelligent origin, which courts apply in intellectual property cases to decide whether similarity is accidental or deliberate copying, and archaeologists use to determine whether an artefact is of natural or human origin. Only when one starts asking these kinds of questions about biology and the origin of life does controversy erupt!

Chapter 3 proposes a “Law of Conservation of Information” which, if you accept it, would appear to rule out the generation of additional complex specified information by the process of Darwinian evolution. This would mean that while evolution can and does account for the development of resistance to antibiotics in bacteria and pesticides in insects, modification of colouration and pattern due to changes in environment, and all the other well-confirmed cases of the Darwinian mechanism, that innovation of entirely novel and irreducibly complex (see chapter 5) mechanisms such as the bacterial flagellum require some external input of the complex specified information they embody. Well, maybe…but one should remember that conservation laws in science, unlike invariants in mathematics, are empirical observations which can be falsified by a single counter-example. Niels Bohr, for example, prior to its explanation due to the neutrino, theorised that the energy spectrum of nuclear beta decay could be due to a violation of conservation of energy, and his theory was taken seriously until ruled out by experiment.

Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Darwinian evolution does explain the emergence of all the complexity of the Earth's biosphere, starting with a single primordial replicating lifeform. Then one still must explain how that replicator came to be in the first place (since Darwinian evolution cannot work on non-replicating organisms), and where the information embodied in its molecular structure came from. The smallest present-day bacterial genomes belong to symbiotic or parasitic species, and are in the neighbourhood of 500,000 base pairs, or roughly 1 megabit of information. Even granting that the ancestral organism might have been much smaller and simpler, it is difficult to imagine a replicator capable of Darwinian evolution with an information content 1000 times smaller than these bacteria, Yet randomly assembling even 500 bits of precisely specified information seems to be beyond the capacity of the universe we inhabit. If you imagine every one of the approximately 1080 elementary particles in the universe trying combinations every Planck interval, 1045 times every second, it would still take about a billion times the present age of the universe to randomly discover a 500 bit pattern. Of course, there are doubtless many patterns which would work, but when you consider how conservative all the assumptions are which go into this estimate, and reflect upon the evidence that life seemed to appear on Earth just about as early as environmental conditions permitted it to exist, it's pretty clear that glib claims that evolution explains everything and there are just a few details to be sorted out are arm-waving at best and propaganda at worst, and that it's far too early to exclude any plausible theory which could explain the mystery of the origin of life. Although there are many points in this book with which you may take issue, and it does not claim in any way to provide answers, it is valuable in understanding just how difficult the problem is and how many holes exist in other, more accepted, explanations. A clear challenge posed to purely naturalistic explanations of the origin of terrestrial life is to suggest a prebiotic mechanism which can assemble adequate specified information (say, 500 bits as the absolute minimum) to serve as a primordial replicator from the materials available on the early Earth in the time between the final catastrophic bombardment and the first evidence for early life.


Suprynowicz, Vin. The Black Arrow. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2005. ISBN 0-9762516-0-4.
For more than a decade, Vin Suprynowicz's columns in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (collected in Send In The Waco Killers and The Ballad of Carl Drega) have chronicled the closing circle of individual freedom in the United States. You may find these books difficult to finish, not due to any fault in the writing, which is superb, but because reading of the treatment of citizens at the hands of a government as ignorant as it is imperious makes your blood boil. Here, however, in his first venture into fiction, the author has written a book which is difficult to put down.

The year is 2030, and every complacent person who asked rhetorically, “How much worse can it get?” has seen the question answered beyond their worst nightmares. What's left of the United States is fighting to put down the secessionist mountain states of New Columbia, and in the cities of the East, people are subject to random searches by jackbooted Lightning Squads, when they aren't shooting up clandestine nursery schools operated by anarchist parents who refuse to deliver their children into government indoctrination. This is the kind of situation which cries out for a superhero and, lo and behold, onto the stage steps The Black Arrow and his deadly serious but fun-loving band to set things right through the time-tested strategy of killing the bastards. The Black Arrow has a lot in common with Batman—actually maybe a tad too much. Like Batman, he's a rich and resourceful man with a mission (but no super powers), he operates in New York City, which is called “Gotham” in the novel, and he has a secret lair in a cavern deep beneath the city.

There is a modicum of libertarian background and philosophy, but it never gets in the way of the story. There is enough explicit violence and copulation for an R rated movie—kids and those with fragile sensibilities should give this one a miss. Some of the verbal imagery in the story is so vivid you can almost see it erupting from the page—this would make a tremendous comic book adaptation or screenplay for an alternative universe Hollywood where stories of liberty were welcome.


Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2005. ISBN 1-414-24253-0.
This is the second installment in the Tom Swift saga. These early volumes are more in the genre of juvenile adventure than the science fiction which emerges later in the series. I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical and formatting errors I noted in reading the novel.


Herken. Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. ISBN 0-8050-6589-X.
What more's to be said about the tangled threads of science, politics, ego, power, and history that bound together the lives of Ernest O. Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller from the origin of the Manhattan Project through the postwar controversies over nuclear policy and the development of thermonuclear weapons? In fact, a great deal, as declassification of FBI files, including wiretap transcripts, release of decrypted Venona intercepts of Soviet espionage cable traffic, and documents from Moscow archives opened to researchers since the collapse of the Soviet Union have provide a wealth of original source material illuminating previously dark corners of the epoch.

Gregg Herken, a senior historian and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, draws upon these resources to explore the accomplishments, conflicts, and controversies surrounding Lawrence, Oppenheimer, and Teller, and the cold war era they played such a large part in defining. The focus is almost entirely on the period in which the three were active in weapons development and policy—there is little discussion of their prior scientific work, nor of Teller's subsequent decades on the public stage. This is a serious academic history, with almost 100 pages of source citations and bibliography, but the story is presented in an engaging manner which leaves the reader with a sense of the personalities involved, not just their views and actions. The author writes with no discernible ideological bias, and I noted only one insignificant technical goof.


Entine, Jon. Taboo. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. ISBN 1-58648-026-X.

A certain segment of the dogma-based community of postmodern academics and their hangers-on seems to have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Darwinian evolution explains every aspect of the origin and diversification of life on Earth while, at the same time, denying that genetics—the mechanism which underlies evolution—plays any part in differentiating groups of humans. Doublethink is easy if you never think at all. Among those to whom evidence matters, here's a pretty astonishing fact to ponder. In the last four Olympic games prior to the publication of this book in the year 2000, there were thirty-two finalists in the men's 100-metre sprint. All thirty-two were of West African descent—a region which accounts for just 8% of the world's population. If finalists in this event were randomly chosen from the entire global population, the probability of this concentration occurring by chance is 0.0832 or about 8×10−36, which is significant at the level of more than twelve standard deviations. The hardest of results in the flintiest of sciences—null tests of conservation laws and the like—are rarely significant above 7 to 8 standard deviations.

Now one can certainly imagine any number of cultural and other non-genetic factors which predispose those with West African ancestry toward world-class performance in sprinting, but twelve standard deviations? The fact that running is something all humans do without being taught, and that training for running doesn't require any complicated or expensive equipment (as opposed to sports such as swimming, high-diving, rowing, or equestrian events), and that champions of West African ancestry hail from countries around the world, should suggest a genetic component to all but the most blinkered of blank slaters.

Taboo explores the reality of racial differences in performance in various sports, and the long and often sordid entangled histories of race and sports, including the tawdry story of race science and eugenics, over-reaction to which has made most discussion of human biodiversity, as the title of book says, taboo. The equally forbidden subject of inherent differences in male and female athletic performance is delved into as well, with a look at the hormone dripping “babes from Berlin” manufactured by the cruel and exploitive East German sports machine before the collapse of that dismal and unlamented tyranny.

Those who know some statistics will have no difficulty understanding what's going on here—the graph on page 255 tells the whole story. I wish the book had gone into a little more depth about the phenomenon of a slight shift in the mean performance of a group—much smaller than individual variation—causing a huge difference in the number of group members found in the extreme tail of a normal distribution. Another valuable, albeit speculative, insight is that if one supposes that there are genes which confer advantage to competitors in certain athletic events, then given the intense winnowing process world-class athletes pass through before they reach the starting line at the Olympics, it is plausible all of them at that level possess every favourable gene, and that the winner is determined by training, will to win, strategy, individual differences, and luck, just as one assumed before genetics got mixed up in the matter. It's just that if you don't have the genes (just as if your legs aren't long enough to be a runner), you don't get anywhere near that level of competition.

Unless research in these areas is suppressed due to an ill-considered political agenda, it is likely that the key genetic components of athletic performance will be identified in the next couple of decades. Will this mean that world-class athletic competition can be replaced by DNA tests? Of course not—it's just that one factor in the feedback loop of genetic endowment, cultural reinforcement of activities in which group members excel, and the individual striving for excellence which makes competitors into champions will be better understood.


Sharansky, Natan with Ron Dermer. The Case for Democracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004. ISBN 1-58648-261-0.
Every now and then you come across a book which cuts through the fog of contemporary political discourse with pure clarity of thought. Well of course, the programmer peanut gallery shouts in unison, Sharansky was a computer scientist before becoming a Soviet dissident and political prisoner, then Israeli politician! In this book Sharansky draws a line of unambiguous binary distinction between “free societies” and “fear societies”. In a free society, you can walk into the town square and express your views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm (p. 41); in a “fear society”, you can't—it's that simple. Note that, as Sharansky is quick to observe, this counts as free societies without a trace of democracy, with dirigiste economies, and which discriminate against minorities and women—yet permit those who live there to protest these and other shortcomings without fear of recrimination. A society which he deems “free” may not be just, but a society which doesn't pass this most basic test of freedom is always unjust.

From this viewpoint, every compromise with fear societies and their tyrants in the interest of “stability” and “geopolitics” is always ill-considered, not just in terms of the human rights of those who live there, but in the self-interest of all free people. Fear societies require an enemy, internal or external, to unite their victims behind the tyrant, and history shows how fickle the affections of dictators can be when self-interest is at stake.

The disastrous example of funding Arafat's ugly dictatorship over the Palestinian people is dissected in detail, but the message is applicable everywhere diplomats argue for a “stable partner” over the inherent human right of people to own their own lives and govern themselves. Sharansky is forthright in saying it's better to face a democratically elected fanatic opponent than a dictator “we can do business with”, because ultimately the democratic regime will converge on meeting the needs of its citizens, while the dictator will focus on feathering his own nest at the expense of those he exploits.

If you're puzzled about which side to back in all the myriad conflicts around the globe, you could do a lot worse that simply picking the side which comes out best in Sharansky's “town square test”. Certainly, the world would be a better place if the diplomats who prattle on about “complexity” and realpolitik were hit over the head with the wisdom of an author who spent 13 years in Siberian labour camps rather than compromise his liberty.


Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father. New York: Free Press, 1996. ISBN 0-684-83142-2.
This thin (less than 200 pages of main text) volume is an enlightening biography of George Washington. It is very much a moral biography in the tradition of Plutarch's Lives; the focus is on Washington's life in the public arena and the events in his life which formed his extraordinary character. Reading Washington's prose, one might assume that he, like many other framers of the U.S. Constitution, had an extensive education in the classics, but in fact his formal education ended at age 15, when he became an apprentice surveyor—among U.S. presidents, only Andrew Johnson had less formal schooling. Washington's intelligence and voracious reading—his library numbered more than 900 books at his death—made him the intellectual peer of his just sprouting Ivy League contemporaries. One historical footnote I'd never before encountered is the tremendous luck the young U.S. republic had in escaping the risk of dynasty—among the first five U.S. presidents, only John Adams had a son who survived to adulthood (and his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth president).


Levin, Mark R. Men in Black. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-050-6.
Let's see—suppose we wanted to set up a system of self-government—a novus ordo seclorum as it were—which would be immune to the assorted slippery slopes which delivered so many other such noble experiments into the jaws of tyranny, and some dude shows up and suggests, “Hey, what you really need is a branch of government composed of non-elected people with lifetime tenure, unable to be removed from office except for the most egregious criminal conduct, granted powers supreme above the legislative and executive branches, and able to define and expand the scope of their own powers without constraint.”

What's wrong with this picture? Well, it's pretty obvious that it's a recipe for an imperial judiciary, as one currently finds ascendant in the United States. Men in Black, while focusing on recent abuses of judicial power, demonstrates that there's nothing new about judges usurping the prerogatives of democratically elected branches of government—in fact, the pernicious consequences of “judicial activism” are as old as America, winked at by each generation of politicians as long as it advanced their own agenda more rapidly than the ballot box permitted, ignoring (as politicians are inclined to do, never looking beyond the next election), that when the ideological pendulum inevitably swings back the other way, judges may thwart the will of elected representatives in the other direction for a generation or more.

But none of this is remotely new. Robert Yates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who came to oppose the ratification of that regrettable document, wrote in 1788:

They will give the sense of every article of the constitution, that may from time to time come before them. And in their decisions they will not confine themselves to any fixed or established rules, but will determine, according to what appears to them, the reason and spirit of the constitution. The opinions of the supreme court, whatever they may be, will have the force of law; because there is no power provided in the constitution, that can correct their errors, or controul [sic] their adjudications. From this court there is no appeal.
The fact that politicians are at loggerheads over the selection of judges has little or nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with judges having usurped powers explicitly reserved for representatives accountable to their constituents in regular elections.

How to fix it? Well, I proposed my own humble solution here not so long ago, and the author of this book suggests 12 year terms for Supreme Court judges staggered with three year expiry. Given how far the unchallenged assertion of judicial supremacy has gone, a constitutional remedy in the form of a legislative override of judicial decisions (with the same super-majority as required to override an executive veto) might also be in order.


June 2005

Rolfe, Fr. Hadrian the Seventh. New York: New York Review Books, [1904] 2001. ISBN 0-940322-62-5.
This is a masterpiece of eccentricity. The author, whose full name is Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, deliberately abbreviated his name to “Fr.” not just in the interest of concision, but so it might be mistaken for “Father” and the book deemed the work of a Catholic priest. (Rolfe also used the name “Baron Corvo” and affected a coat of arms with a raven.) Having twice himself failed in aspirations to the priesthood, in this novel the protagonist, transparently based upon the author, finds himself, through a sequence of events straining even the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit, vaulted from the humble estate of debt-ridden English hack writer directly to the papacy, taking the name Hadrian the Seventh in honour of Hadrian IV, the first, last, and only English pope to date.

Installed on the throne of Saint Peter, Hadrian quickly moves to remedy the discrepancies his erstwhile humble life has caused to him to perceive between the mission of the Church and the policies of its hierarchy. Dodging intrigue from all sides, and wielding his intellect, wit, and cunning along with papal authority, he quickly becomes what now would be called a “media pope” and a major influence on the world political stage, which he remakes along lines which, however alien and ironic they may seem today, might have been better than what actually happened a decade after this novel was published in 1904.

Rolfe, like Hadrian, is an “artificer in verbal expression”, and his neologisms and eccentric spelling (“saxificous head of the Medoysa”) and Greek and Latin phrases—rarely translated—sprinkle the text. Rolfe/Hadrian doesn't think too highly of the Irish, the French, Socialists, the press, and churchmen who believe their mission is building cathedrals and accumulating treasure rather than saving souls, and he skewers these and other targets on every occasion—if such barbs irritate you, you will find plenty here at which to take offence. The prose is simply beautiful, and thought provoking as well as funny. The international politics of a century ago figures in the story, and if you're not familiar with that now rather obscure era, you may wish to refresh your memory as to principal players and stakes in the Great Game of that epoch.


Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Airship. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-177-3.
Following his adventures on land and lake, in this third volume of the Tom Swift series, our hero takes to the air in his hybrid dirigible/airplane, the Red Cloud. (When this book was written, within a decade of the Wright Brothers' first flight, “airship” referred to any flying craft, lighter or heavier than air.) Along the way he survives a forest fire, thunderstorm, flying bullets, false accusation of a crime, and an irritable schoolmarm not amused by having an airship crash into her girls' school, and solves the crime, bags the perpetrators, and clears his good name. Bless my seltzer bottle—never get on the wrong side of Mr. Wakefield Damon!

Apart from the arm-waving about new inventions which is the prerogative of the science fiction writer, Victor Appleton is generally quite careful about the technical details—All American Boys in the early 20th century knew their machinery and would be all over a scribbler who didn't understand how a carburetor worked! Here, however, he misunderstands lighter than air flight. He describes the Red Cloud as supported by a rigid aluminium gas container filled with “a secret gas, made partly of hydrogen, being very light and powerful”. But since the only thing that matters in generating lift is the weight of the air displaced compared to the weight of the gas displacing it, and since hydrogen is the lightest of elements (can't have fewer than one proton, mate!), then any mixture of hydrogen with anything else would have less lift than hydrogen alone. (You might mix hydrogen with helium to obtain a nonflammable gas lighter than pure helium—something suggested by Arthur C. Clarke a few years ago—but here Tom's secret gas is claimed to have more lift than hydrogen, and the question of flammability is never raised. Also, the gas is produced on demand by a “gas generator”. That rules out helium as a component, as it is far too noble to form compounds.) Later, Tom increases the lift on the ship by raising the pressure in the gas cells: “when an increased pressure of the vapor was used the ship was almost as buoyant as before” (chapter 21). But increasing the pressure of any gas in a fixed volume cell reduces the lift, as it increases the weight of the gas within without displacing any additional air. One could make this work by assuming a gas cell with a flexible bladder which permitted the volume occupied by the lift gas to expand and contract as desired, the rest being filled with ambient air, but even then the pressure of the lift gas would not increase, but simply stay the same as atmospheric pressure as more air was displaced. Feel free to berate me for belabouring such a minor technical quibble in a 95 year old story, but I figure that Tom Swift fans probably, like myself, enjoy working out this kind of stuff. The fact that this is only such item I noticed is a testament to the extent Appleton sweated the details.

I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a month or so. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I spotted while reading the yarn.


Stenhoff, Mark. Ball Lightning. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-306-46150-1.
Reports of ball lightning—glowing spheres of light which persist for some number of seconds, usually associated with cloud to ground lightning strikes during thunderstorms, date back to the classical Greeks. Since 1838, when physicist and astronomer Dominique Arago published a survey of twenty reports of ball lightning, a long list of scientists, many eminent, have tried their hands at crafting a theory which might explain such an odd phenomenon yet, at the start of the twenty-first century ball lightning remains, as Arago said in 1854, “One of the most inexplicable problems of physics today.”

Well, actually, ball lightning only poses problems to the physics of yesterday and today if it, you know, exists, and the evidence that it does is rather weak, as this book demonstrates. (Its author does come down in favour of the existence of ball lightning, and wrote the 1976 Nature paper which helped launched the modern study of the phenomenon.) As of the date this book was published, not a single unambiguous photograph, movie, or video recording of ball lightning was known to exist, and most of the “classic” photographs illustrated in chapter 9 are obvious fakes created by camera motion and double exposure. It is also difficult when dealing with reports by observers unacquainted with the relevant phenomena to sort out genuine ball lightning (if such exists) from other well-documented and understood effects such as corona discharges (St. Elmo's fire), that perennial favourite of UFO debunkers: ignis fatuus or swamp gas, and claims of damage caused by the passage of ball lightning or its explosive dissipation from those produced by conventional lightning strikes. See the author's re-casting of a lightning strike to a house which he personally investigated into “ball lightning language” on pp. 105–106 for an example of how such reports can originate.

Still, after sorting out the mis-identifications, hoaxes, and other dross, a body of reports remains, some by expert observers of atmospheric phenomena, which have a consistency not to be found, for example, in UFO reports. A number of observations of ball lightning within metallic aircraft fuselages are almost identical and pose a formidable challenge to most models. The absence of unambiguous evidence has not in any way deterred the theoretical enterprise, and chapters 11–13 survey models based on, among other mechanisms, heated air, self-confining plasma vortices and spheroids, radial charge separation, chemical reactions and combustion, microwave excitation of metastable molecules of atmospheric gases, nuclear fusion and the production of unstable isotopes of oxygen and nitrogen, focusing of cosmic rays, antimatter meteorites, and microscopic black holes. One does not get the sense of this converging upon a consensus. Among the dubious theories, there are some odd claims of experimental results such as the production of self-sustaining plasma balls by placing a short burning candle in a kitchen microwave oven (didn't work for me, anyway—if you must try it yourself, please use common sense and be careful), and reports of producing ball lightning sustained by fusion of deuterium in atmospheric water vapour by short circuiting a 200 tonne submarine accumulator battery. (Don't try this one at home, kids!)

The book concludes with the hope that with increasing interest in ball lightning, as evidenced by conferences such as the International Symposia on Ball Lightning, and additional effort in collecting and investigating reports, this centuries-old puzzle may be resolved within this decade. I'm not so sure—the UFO precedent does not incline one to optimism. For those motivated to pursue the matter further, a bibliography of more than 75 pages and 2400 citations is included.


Barlow, Connie. The Ghosts of Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-00552-7.
Ponder the pit of the avocado; no, actually ponder it—hold it in your hand and get a sense of how big and heavy it is. Now consider that due to its toughness, slick surface, and being laced with toxins, it was meant to be swallowed whole and deposited far from the tree in the dung of the animal who gulped down the entire fruit, pit and all. Just imagine the size of the gullet (and internal tubing) that requires—what on Earth, or more precisely, given the avocado's range, what in the Americas served to disperse these seeds prior to the arrival of humans some 13,000 years ago?

The Western Hemisphere was, in fact, prior to the great extinction at the end of the Pleistocene, (coincident with the arrival of humans across the land bridge with Asia, and probably the result of their intensive hunting), home to a rich collection of megafauna: mammoths and mastodons, enormous ground sloths, camels, the original horses, and an armadillo as large as a bear, now all gone. Plants with fruit which doesn't seem to make any sense—which rots beneath the tree and isn't dispersed by any extant creature—may be the orphaned ecological partners of extinct species with which they co-evolved. Plants, particularly perennials and those which can reproduce clonally, evolve much more slowly than mammal and bird species, and may survive, albeit in a limited or spotty range, through secondary dispersers of their seeds (seed hoarders and predators, water, and gravity) long after the animal vectors their seeds evolved to employ have departed the scene. That is the fascinating premise of this book, which examines how enigmatic, apparently nonsensical fruit such as the osage orange, Kentucky coffee tree, honey locust, ginkgo, desert gourd, and others may be, figuratively, ripening their fruit every year waiting for the passing mastodon or megatherium which never arrives, some surviving because they are attractive, useful, and/or tasty to the talking apes who killed off the megafauna.

All of this is very interesting, and along the way one learns a great deal about the co-evolution of plants and their seed dispersal partners and predators—an endless arms race involving armour, chemical warfare (selective toxins and deterrents in pulp and seeds), stealth, and co-optation (burrs which hitch a ride on the fur of animals). However, this 250 page volume is basically an 85 page essay struggling to get out of the rambling, repetitious, self-indulgent, pretentious prose and unbridled speculations of the author, which results in a literary bolus as difficult to masticate as the seed pods of some of the plants described therein. This book desperately needed the attention of an editor ready to wield the red pencil and Basic Books, generally a quality publisher of popularisations of science, dropped the ball (or, perhaps I should say, spit out the seed) here. The organisation of the text is atrocious—we encounter the same material over and over, frequently see technical terms such as indehiscent used four or five times before they are first defined, only to then endure a half-dozen subsequent definitions of the same word (a brief glossary of botanical terms would be a great improvement), and on occasions botanical jargon is used apparently because it rolls so majestically off the tongue or lends authority to the account—which authority is sorely lacking. While there is serious science and well-documented, peer-reviewed evidence for anachronism in certain fruits, Barlow uses the concept as a launching pad for wild speculation in which any apparent lack of perfect adaptation between a plant and its present-day environment is taken as evidence for an extinct ecological partner.

One of many examples is the suggestion on p. 164 that the fact that the American holly tree produces spiny leaves well above the level of any current browser (deer here, not Internet Exploder or Netscrape!) is evidence it evolved to defend itself against much larger herbivores. Well, maybe, but it may just be that a tree lacks the means to precisely measure the distance from the ground, and those which err on the side of safety are more likely to survive. The discussion of evolution throughout is laced with teleological and anthropomorphic metaphors which will induce teeth-grinding among Darwinists audible across a large lecture hall.

At the start of chapter 8, vertebrate paleontologist Richard Tedford is quoted as saying, “Frankly, this is not really science. You haven't got a way of testing any of this. It's more metaphysics.”—amen. The author tests the toxicity of ginkgo seeds by feeding them to squirrels in a park in New York City (“All the world seems in tune, on a spring afternoon…”), and the attractiveness of maggot-ridden overripe pawpaw fruit by leaving it outside her New Mexico trailer for frequent visitor Mrs. Foxie (you can't make up stuff like this) and, in the morning, it was gone! I recall a similar experiment from childhood involving milk, cookies, and flying reindeer; she does, admittedly, acknowledge that skunks or raccoons might have been responsible. There's an extended discourse on the possible merits of eating dirt, especially for pregnant women, then in the very next chapter the suggestion that the honey locust has “devolved” into the swamp locust, accompanied by an end note observing that a professional botanist expert in the genus considers this nonsense.

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of interesting material here, and much to think about in the complex intertwined evolution of animals and plants, but this is a topic which deserves a more disciplined author and a better book.


Mack, John E. Abduction. New York: Ballantine Books, [1994] 1995. ISBN 0-345-39300-7.
I started this book, as I recall, sometime around 1998, having picked it up to get a taste for the “original material” after reading C.D.B. Bryan's excellent Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, describing an MIT conference on the alien abduction phenomenon. I made it most of the way through Abduction on the first attempt, but ran out of patience and steam about 100 pages from the finish line while reading the material “recovered” from “experiencer” Carlos, which is the literary equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld with a custard pudding. A mercifully brief excerpt with Mack's interpolations in parentheses goes as follows (p. 355).
Their bodies go from being the little white creatures they are to light. But when they become light, they first become like cores of light, like molten light. The appearance (of the core of light) is one of solidity. They change colors and a haze is projected around the (interior core which is centralized; surrounding this core in an immediate environment is a denser, tighter) haze (than its outer peripheries). The eyes are the last to go (as one perceives the process of the creatures disappearing into the light), and then they just kind of disappear or are absorbed into this. … We are or exist through our flesh, and they are or exist through whatever it is they are.
Got that? If not, there is much, much more along these lines in the extended babblings of this and a dozen other abductees, developed during the author's therapy sessions with them. Now, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (Mack was killed in a traffic accident in 2004), and having won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of T.E. Lawrence in addition to his career as a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and founder of the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital, his credentials incline one to hear him out, however odd the message may seem to be.

One's mind, however, eventually summons up Thomas Jefferson's (possibly apocryphal) remark upon hearing of two Yale professors who investigated a meteor fall in Connecticut and pronounced it genuine, “Gentlemen, I would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from heaven.” Well, nobody's accusing Professor Mack of lying, but the leap from the oh-wow, New Age accounts elicited by hypnotic regression and presented here, to the conclusion that they are the result of a genuine phenomenon of some kind, possibly contact with “another plane of reality” is an awfully big one, and simply wading through the source material proved more than I could stomach on my first attempt. So, the book went back on the unfinished shelf, where it continued to glare at me balefully until a few days ago when, looking for something to read, I exclaimed, “Hey, if I can make it through The Ghosts of Evolution, surely I can finish this one!” So I did, picking up from the bookmark I left where my first assault on the summit petered out.

In small enough doses, much of this material can be quite funny. This paperback edition includes two appendices added to address issues raised after the publication of the original hardcover. In the first of these (p. 390), Mack argues that the presence of a genuine phenomenon of some kind is strongly supported by “…the reports of the experiencers themselves. Although varied in some respects, these are so densely consistent as to defy conventional psychiatric explanations.” Then, a mere three pages later, we are informed:

The aliens themselves seem able to change or disguise their form, and, as noted, may appear initially to the abductees as various kinds of animals, or even as ordinary human beings, as in Peter's case. But their shape-shifting abilities extend to their vehicles and to the environments they present to the abductees, which include, in this sample, a string of motorcycles (Dave), a forest and conference room (Catherine), images of Jesus in white robes (Jerry), and a soaring cathedral-like structure with stained glass windows (Sheila). One young woman, not written about in this book, recalled at age seven seeing a fifteen-foot kangaroo in a park, which turned out to be a small spacecraft.
Now that's “densely consistent”! One is also struck by how insipidly banal are the messages the supposed aliens deliver, which usually amount to New Age cerebral suds like “All is one”, “Treat the Earth kindly”, and the rest of the stuff which appeals to those who are into these kinds of things in the first place. Occam's razor seems to glide much more smoothly over the supposition that we are dealing with seriously delusional people endowed with vivid imaginations than that these are “transformational” messages sent by superior beings to avert “planetary destruction” by “for-profit business corporations” (p. 365, Mack's words, not those of an abductee). Fifteen-foot kangaroo? Well, anyway, now this book can hop onto the dubious shelf in the basement and stop making me feel guilty! For a sceptical view of the abduction phenomenon, see Philip J. Klass's UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game.


Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster, Vol. 3. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 1998. ISBN 1-875671-34-X.
In the early 1970s I worked for a company that sold remote batch computing services on UNIVAC mainframes. Our management visited Boeing headquarters in Seattle to pitch for some of their business (unlikely, as Boeing had their own computer service bureau at the time, but you never know unless you try). Part of the presentation focused on how reliable our service was, averaging better than 99.5% uptime. The Boeing data processing manager didn't seem too impressed with this. He asked, “When you came up here from San Francisco, did you fly on one of our airplanes?” “As a matter of fact, we did.”, answered the president of our company. The Boeing guy then asked, “Well, how would you feel if I told you Boeing airplanes only crash about once every two hundred flights?” The meeting moved on to other topics; we never did get any business from Boeing.

Engineering is an art we learn from failure, and the aviation safety community is the gold standard when it comes to getting to the probable cause of a complicated disaster and defining achievable steps to prevent it from recurring. There is much for practitioners of other branches of engineering to admire and learn from looking over the shoulders of their colleagues in air accident investigation, and Macarthur Job's superb Air Disaster series, of which this is the third volume (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) provides precisely such a viewpoint. Starting from the official accident reports, author Job and illustrator Matthew Tesch recreate the circumstances which led to each accident and the sometimes tortuous process through which investigators established what actually happened. The presentation is not remotely sensationalistic, yet much more readable than the dry prose of most official accident reports. If detail is required, Job and Tesch do not shrink from providing it; four pages of text and a detailed full page diagram on page 45 of this volume explain far more about the latching mechanism of the 747 cargo door than many people might think there is to know, but since you can't otherwise understand how the door of a United 747 outbound from Honolulu could have separated in flight, it's all there.

Reading the three volumes, which cover the jet age from the de Havilland Comet through the mid 1990s, provides an interesting view of the way in which assiduous investigation of anomalies and incremental fixes have made an inherently risky activity so safe that some these days seem more concerned with fingernail clippers than engine failure or mid-air collisions. Many of the accidents in the first two volumes were due to the machine breaking in some way or another, and one by one, they have basically been fixed to the extent that in this volume, the only hardware related accident is the 747 cargo door failure (in which nine passengers died, but 345 passengers and crew survived). The other dozen are problems due to the weather, human factors, and what computer folks call “user interface”—literally so in several cases of mode confusion and mismanagement of the increasingly automated flight decks of the latest generation of airliners. Anybody designing interfaces in which the user is expected to have a correct mental model of the operation of a complex, partially opaque system will find many lessons here, some learnt at tragic cost in an environment where the stakes are high and the margin of error small.


Hawks, Tony. Round Ireland with a Fridge. London: Ebury Press, 1998. ISBN 0-09-186777-0.
The author describes himself as “not, by nature” either a drinking or a betting man. Ireland, however, can have a way of changing those particular aspects of one's nature, and so it was that after a night about which little else was recalled, our hero found himself having made a hundred pound bet that he could hitch-hike entirely around the Republic of Ireland in one calendar month, accompanied the entire way by a refrigerator. A man, at a certain stage in his life, needs a goal, even if it is, as this epic quest was described by an Irish radio host, “A totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.” And the result is this very funny book. Think about it; almost every fridge lives a life circumscribed by a corner of a kitchen—door opens—light goes on—door closes—light goes out (except when the vegetables are having one of their wild parties in the crisper—sssshhh—mustn't let the homeowner catch on). How singular and rare it is for a fridge to experience the freedom of the open road, to go surfing in the Atlantic (chapter 10), to be baptised with a Gaelic name that means “freedom”, blessed by a Benedictine nun (chapter 14), be guest of honour at perhaps the first-ever fridge party at an Irish pub (chapter 21), and make a triumphal entry into Dublin amid an army of well-wishers consisting entirely of the author pulling it on a trolley, a radio reporter carrying a mop and an ice cube tray, and an elderly bagpiper (chapter 23). Tony Hawks points out one disadvantage of his profession I'd never thought of before. When one of those bizarre things with which his life and mine are filled comes to pass, and you're trying to explain something like, “No, you see there were squirrels loose in the passenger cabin of the 747”, and you're asked the inevitable, “What are you, a comedian?”, he has to answer, “Well, actually, as a matter of fact, I am.”

A U.S. edition is now available.


July 2005

Sloane, Eric. Diary of an Early American Boy. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1962] 2004. ISBN 0-486-43666-7.
In 1805, fifteen year old Noah Blake kept a diary of his life on a farm in New England. More than a century and a half later, artist, author, and collector of early American tools Eric Sloane discovered the diary and used it as the point of departure for this look at frontier life when the frontier was still in Connecticut. Young Noah was clearly maturing into a fine specimen of the taciturn Yankee farmer—much of the diary reads like:
21: A sour, foggy Sunday.
22: Heavy downpour, but good for the crops.
23: Second day of rain. Father went to work under cover at the mill.
24: Clear day. Worked in the fields. Some of the corn has washed away.
The laconic diary entries are spun into a fictionalised but plausible story of farm life focusing on the self-reliant lifestyle and the tools and techniques upon which it was founded. Noah Blake was atypical in being an only child at a time when large families were the norm; Sloane takes advantage of this in showing Noah learning all aspects of farm life directly from his father. The numerous detailed illustrations provide a delightful glimpse into the world of two centuries ago and an appreciation for the hard work and multitude of skills it took to make a living from the land in those days.


Faverjon, Philippe. Les mensonges de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Paris: Perrin, 2004. ISBN 2-262-01949-5.
“In wartime,” said Winston Churchill, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” This book examines lies, big and small, variously motivated, made by the principal combatants in World War II, from the fabricated attack on a German radio station used as a pretext to launch the invasion of Poland which ignited the conflict, to conspiracy theories about the Yalta conference which sketched the map of postwar Europe as the war drew to a close. The nature of the lies discussed in the various chapters differs greatly—some are propaganda addressed to other countries, others intended to deceive domestic populations; some are strategic disinformation, while still others are delusions readily accepted by audiences who preferred them to the facts. Although most chapters end with a paragraph which sets the stage for the next, each is essentially a stand-alone essay which can be read on its own, and the book can be browsed in any order. The author is either (take your pick) scrupulous in his attention to historical accuracy or, (if you prefer) almost entirely in agreement with my own viewpoint on these matters. There is no “big message”, philosophical or otherwise, here, nor any partisan agenda—this is simply a catalogue of deception in wartime based on well-documented historical examples which, translated into the context of current events, can aid in critical analysis of conventional wisdom and mass stampede media coverage of present-day conflicts.


Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.


Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Rocket Boys. New York: Doubleday, 1998. ISBN 0-385-33321-8.
The author came of age in southern West Virginia during the dawn of the space age. Inspired by science fiction and the sight of Sputnik gliding through the patch of night sky between the mountains which surrounded his coal mining town, he and a group of close friends decided to build their own rockets. Counselled by the author's mother, “Don't blow yourself up”, they managed not only to avoid that downside of rocketry (although Mom's garden fence was not so lucky), but succeeded in building and launching more than thirty rockets powered by, as they progressed, first black powder, then melted saltpetre and sugar (“rocket candy”), and finally “zincoshine”, a mixture of powdered zinc and sulphur bound by 200 proof West Virginia mountain moonshine, which propelled their final rocket almost six miles into the sky. Their efforts won them the Gold and Silver award at the National Science Fair in 1960, and a ticket out of coal country for the author, who went on to a career as a NASA engineer. This is a memoir by a member of the last generation when the U.S. was still free enough for boys to be boys, and boys with dreams were encouraged to make them come true. This book will bring back fond memories for any member of that generation, and inspire envy among those who postdate that golden age.

This book served as the basis for the 1999 film October Sky, which I have not seen.


Posner, Gerald L. Secrets of the Kingdom. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6291-8.
Most of this short book (196 pages of main text) is a straightforward recounting of the history of Saudi Arabia from its founding as a unified kingdom in 1932 under Ibn Saud, and of the petroleum-dominated relationship between the United States and the kingdom up to the present, based almost entirely upon secondary sources. Chapter 10, buried amidst the narrative and barely connected to the rest, and based on the author's conversations with an unnamed Mossad (Israeli intelligence) officer and an unidentified person claiming to be an eyewitness, describes a secret scheme called “Petroleum Scorched Earth” (“Petro SE”) which, it is claimed, was discovered by NSA intercepts of Saudi communications which were shared with the Mossad and then leaked to the author.

The claim is that the Saudis have rigged all of their petroleum infrastructure so that it can be destroyed from a central point should an invader be about to seize it, or the House of Saud fall due to an internal revolution. Oil and gas production facilities tend to be spread out over large areas and have been proven quite resilient—the damage done to Kuwait's infrastructure during the first Gulf War was extensive, yet reparable in a relatively short time, and the actual petroleum reserves are buried deep in the Earth and are essentially indestructible—if a well is destroyed, you simply sink another well; it costs money, but you make it back as soon as the oil starts flowing again. Refineries and storage facilities are more easily destroyed, but the real long-term wealth (and what an invader or revolutionary movement would covet most) lies deep in the ground. Besides, most of Saudi Arabia's export income comes from unrefined products (in the first ten months of 2004, 96% of Saudi Arabia's oil exports to the U.S. were crude), so even if all the refineries were destroyed (which is difficult—refineries are big and spread out over a large area) and took a long time to rebuild, the core of the export economy would be up and running as soon as the wells were pumping and pipelines and oil terminals were repaired.

So, it is claimed, the Saudis have mined their key facilities with radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), “dirty bombs” composed of Semtex plastic explosive mixed with radioactive isotopes of cesium, rubidium (huh?), and/or strontium which, when exploded, will disperse the radioactive material over a broad area, which (p. 127) “could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years”. What's that? Do I hear some giggling from the back of the room from you guys with the nuclear bomb effects computers? Well, gosh, where shall we begin?

Let us commence by plinking an easy target, the rubidium. Metallic rubidium burns quite nicely in air, which makes it easy to disperse, but radioactively it's a dud. Natural rubidium contains about 28% of the radioactive isotope rubidium-87, but with a half-life of about 50 billion years, it's only slightly more radioactive than dirt when dispersed over any substantial area. The longest-lived artificially created isotope is rubidium-83 with a half-life of only 86 days, which means that once dispersed, you'd only have to wait a few months for it to decay away. In any case, something which decays so quickly is useless for mining facilities, since you'd need to constantly produce fresh batches of the isotope (in an IAEA inspected reactor?) and install it in the bombs. So, at least the rubidium part of this story is nonsense; how about the rest?

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 both have half-lives of about 30 years and are readily taken up and stored in the human body, so they are suitable candidates for a dirty bomb. But while a dirty bomb is a credible threat for contaminating high-value, densely populated city centres in countries whose populations are wusses about radiation, a sprawling oil field or petrochemical complex is another thing entirely. The Federation of American Scientists report, “Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat”, estimates that in the case of a cobalt-salted dirty bomb, residents who lived continuously in the contaminated area for forty years after the detonation would have a one in ten chance of death from cancer induced by the radiation. With the model cesium bomb, five city blocks would be contaminated at a level which would create a one in a thousand chance of cancer for residents.

But this is nothing! To get a little perspective on this, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Leading Causes of Death Reports, people in the United States never exposed to a dirty bomb have a 22.8% probability of dying of cancer. While the one in ten chance created by the cobalt dirty bomb is a substantial increase in this existing risk, that's the risk for people who live for forty years in the contaminated area. Working in a contaminated oil field is quite different. First of all, it's a lot easier to decontaminate steel infrastructure and open desert than a city, and oil field workers can be issued protective gear to reduce their exposure to the remaining radiation. In any case, they'd only be in the contaminated area for the work day, then return to a clean area at the end of the shift. You could restrict hiring to people 45 years and older, pay a hazard premium, and limit their contract to either a time period (say two years) or based on integrated radiation dose. Since radiation-induced cancers usually take a long time to develop, older workers are likely to die of some other cause before the effects of radiation get to them. (This sounds callous, but it's been worked out in detail in studies of post nuclear war decontamination. The rules change when you're digging out of a hole.)

Next, there is this dumb-as-a-bag-of-dirt statement on p. 127:

Saudi engineers calculated that the soil particulates beneath the surface of most of their three hundred known reserves are so fine that radioactive releases there would permit the contamination to spread widely through the soil subsurface, carrying the radioactivity far under the ground and into the unpumped oil. This gave Petro SE the added benefit of ensuring that even if a new power in the Kingdom could rebuild the surface infrastructure, the oil reserves themselves might be unusable for years.
Hey, you guys in the back—enough with the belly laughs! Did any of the editors at Random House think to work out, even if you stipulated that radioactive contamination could somehow migrate from the surface down through hundreds to thousands of metres of rock (how, due to the abundant rain?), just how much radioactive contaminant you'd have to mix with the estimated two hundred and sixty billion barrels of crude oil in the Saudi reserves to render it dangerously radioactive? In any case, even if you could magically transport the radioactive material into the oil bearing strata and supernaturally mix it with the oil, it would be easy to separate during the refining process.

Finally, there's the question of why, if the Saudis have gone to all the trouble to rig their oil facilities to self-destruct, it has remained a secret waiting to be revealed in this book. From a practical standpoint, almost all of the workers in the Saudi oil fields are foreigners. Certainly some of them would be aware of such a massive effort and, upon retirement, say something about it which the news media would pick up. But even if the secret could be kept, we're faced with the same question of deterrence which arose in the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove with the Soviet doomsday machine—it's idiotic to build a doomsday machine and keep it a secret! Its only purpose is to deter a potential attack, and if attackers don't know there's a doomsday machine, they won't be deterred. Precisely the same logic applies to the putative Saudi self-destruct button.

Now none of this argumentation proves in any way that the Saudis haven't rigged their oil fields to blow up and scatter radioactive material on the debris, just that it would be a phenomenally stupid thing for them to try to do. But then, there are plenty of precedents for the Saudis doing dumb things—they have squandered the greatest fortune in the history of the human race and, while sitting on a quarter of all the world's oil, seen their per capita GDP erode to fall between that of Poland and Latvia. If, indeed, they have done something so stupid as this scorched earth scheme, let us hope they manage the succession to the throne, looming in the near future, in a far more intelligent fashion.


Aagaard, Finn. Aagaard's Africa. Washington: National Rifle Association, 1991. ISBN 0-935998-62-4.
The author was born in Kenya in 1932 and lived there until 1977 when, after Kenya's ban on game hunting destroyed his livelihood as a safari guide, he emigrated to the United States, where he died in April 2000. This book recounts his life in Kenya, from boyhood through his career as a professional hunter and guide. If you find the thought of hunting African wildlife repellent, this is not the book for you. It does provide a fine look at Africa and its animals by a man who clearly cherished the land and the beasts which roam it, and viewed the responsible hunter as an integral part of a sustainable environment. A little forensic astronomy allows us to determine the day on which the kudu hunt described on page 124 took place. Aagaard writes, “There was a total eclipse of the sun that afternoon, but it seemed a minor event to us. Laird and I will always remember that day as ‘The Day We Shot The Kudu’.” Checking the canon of 20th century solar eclipses shows that the only total solar eclipse crossing Kenya during the years when Aagaard was hunting there was on June 30th, 1973, a seven minute totality once in a lifetime spectacle. So, the kudu hunt had to be that morning. To this amateur astronomer, no total solar eclipse is a minor event, and the one I saw in Africa will forever remain a major event in my life. A solar eclipse with seven minutes of totality is something I shall never live to see (the next occurring on June 25th, 2150), so I would have loved to have seen the last and would never have deemed it a “minor event”, but then I've never shot a kudu the morning of an eclipse!

This book is out of print and used copies, at this writing, are offered at outrageous prices. I bought this book directly from the NRA more than a decade ago—books sometimes sit on my shelf a long time before I read them. I wouldn't pay more than about USD 25 for a used copy.


Lefevre, Edwin. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. New York: John Wiley & Sons, [1923] 1994. ISBN 0-471-05970-6.
This stock market classic is a thinly fictionalised biography of the exploits of the legendary speculator Jesse Livermore, written in the form of an autobiography of “Larry Livingston”. (In 1940, shortly before his death, Livermore claimed that he had actually written the book himself, with writer Edwin Lefevre acting as editor and front-man; I know of no independent confirmation of this claim.) In any case, there are few books you can read which contain so much market wisdom packed into 300 pages of entertaining narrative. The book was published in 1923, and covers Livermore/Livingston's career from his start in the bucket shops of Boston to a millionaire market mover as the great 1920s bull market was just beginning to take off.

Trading was Livermore's life; he ended up making and losing four multi-million dollar fortunes, and was blamed for every major market crash from 1917 through the year of his death, 1940. Here is a picture of the original wild and woolly Wall Street—before the SEC, Glass-Steagall, restrictions on insider trading, and all the other party-pooping innovations of later years. Prior to 1913, there were not even any taxes on stock market profits. Market manipulation was considered (chapter 19) “no more than common merchandising processes”, and if the public gets fleeced, well, that's what they're there for! If you think today's financial futures, options, derivatives, and hedge funds are speculative, check out the description of late 19th century “bucket shops”: off-track betting parlours for stocks, which actually made no transactions in the market at all. Some things never change, however, and anybody who read chapter 23 about media hyping of stocks in the early decades of the last century would have been well cautioned against the “perma-bull” babblers who sucked the public into the dot-com bubble near the top.


August 2005

Barks, Carl. Back to the Klondike. Prescott, AZ: Gladstone, [1953] 1987. ISBN 0-944599-02-8.
When this comic was originally published in 1953, the editors considered Barks's rendition of the barroom fight and Scrooge McDuck's argument with his old flame Glittering Goldie a bit too violent for the intended audience and cut those panels from the first edition. They are restored here, except for four lost panels which have been replaced by a half-page pencil drawing of the fight scene by Barks, inked and coloured in his style for this edition. Ironically, this is one of the first Scrooge comics which shows the heart of gold (hey, he can afford it!) inside the prickly skinflint.


York, Byron. The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8238-2.
The 2004 presidential election in the United States was heralded as the coming of age of “new media”: Internet-based activism such as MoveOn, targeted voter contact like America Coming Together, political Weblogs, the Air America talk radio network, and politically-motivated films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald's Uncovered and Outfoxed. Yet, in the end, despite impressive (in fact unprecedented) fund-raising, membership numbers, and audience figures, the thoroughly conventional Bush campaign won the election, performing better in essentially every way compared to the 2000 results. This book explores what went wrong with the “new politics” revolution, and contains lessons that go well beyond the domain of politics and the borders of the United States.

The many-to-many mass medium which is the Internet provides a means for those with common interests to find one another, organise, and communicate unconstrained by time and distance. MoveOn, for example, managed so sign up 2.5 million members, and this huge number and giddy rate of growth persuaded those involved that they had tapped into a majority which could be mobilised to not only win, but as one of the MoveOn founders said not long before the election, “Yeah, we're going to win by a landslide” (p. 45). But while 2.5 million members is an impressive number, it is quite small compared to the approximately 120 million people who voted in the presidential election. That electorate is made up of about 15 million hard-core liberals and about the same number of uncompromising conservatives. The remaining 90 million are about evenly divided in leaning one direction or another, but are open to persuasion.

The Internet and the other new media appear to have provided a way for committed believers to connect with one another, ending up in an echo chamber where they came to believe that everybody shared their views. The approximately USD 200 million that went into these efforts was spent, in effect, preaching to the choir—reaching people whose minds were already made up. Outreach to swing voters was ineffective because if you're in a community which believes that anybody who disagrees is insane or brainwashed, it's difficult to persuade the undecided. Also, the closed communication loop of believers pushes rhetoric to the extremes, which alienates those in the middle.

Although the innovations in the 2004 campaign had negligible electoral success, they did shift the political landscape away from traditional party organisations to an auxiliary media-savvy network funded by wealthy donors. The consequences of this will doubtless influence U.S. politics in the future. The author, White House correspondent for National Review, writes from a conservative standpoint but had excellent access to the organisations about which he writes in the run-up to the election and provides an inside view of the new politics in the making. You have to take the author's research on faith, however, as there is not a single source citation in the book. The book's title was inspired by a 2001 Slate article, “Wanted: A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy”; there is no suggestion of the existence of a conspiracy in a legal sense.


Rucker, Rudy. Mathematicians in Love. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31584-X.
I read this book in manuscript form; the manuscript was dated 2005-07-28. Now that Tor have issued a hardcover edition, I've added its ISBN to this item. Notes and reviews are available on Rudy's Weblog.


Smith, L. Neil. The Lando Calrissian Adventures. New York: Del Rey, [1983] 1994. ISBN 0-345-39110-1.
This volume collects together the three Lando Calrissian short novels: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, and Lando Calrissian and the StarCave of ThonBoka, originally published separately in 1983 and now out of print (but readily available second-hand). All three novels together are just 409 mass market paperback pages. I wouldn't usually bother with an item of Star Wars merchandising, but as these yarns were written by one of my favourite science fiction authors, exalted cosmic libertarian L. Neil Smith, I was curious to see what he'd make of a character created by the Lucas organisation. It's pretty good, especially as a gentle introduction for younger readers who might be more inclined to read a story with a Star Wars hook than the more purely libertarian (although no more difficult to read) The Probability Broach (now available in a comic book edition!) or Pallas.

The three novels, which form a continuous story arc and are best read in order, are set in the period after Lando has won the Millennium Falcon in a card game but before he encounters Han Solo and loses the ship to him the same way. Lando is the only character in the Star Wars canon who appears here; if the name of the protagonist and ship were changed, one would scarcely guess the setting was the Star Wars universe, although parts of the “back-story” are filled in here and there, such as how a self-described interstellar gambler and con artiste came to be an expert starship pilot, why the steerable quad-guns on the Falcon “recoil” when they fire like World War II ack-ack guns, and how Lando laid his hands on enough money to “buy an entire city” (p. 408).

Lando's companion in all the adventures is the droid Vuffi Raa, also won in a card game, who is a full-fledged character and far more intriguing than any of the droids in the Star Wars movies. Unlike the stilted and mechanical robots of the films, Vuffi Raa is a highly dextrous starfish-like creature, whose five fractal-branching tentacles can detach and work independently, and who has human-level intelligence, a mysterious past (uncovered as the story progresses), and ethical conflicts between his built-in pacifism and moral obligation to his friends when they are threatened. (The cover art is hideous; Vuffi Raa, an elegant and lithe creature in the story, is shown as something like a squared-off R2-D2 with steel dreadlocks.) Now that computer graphics permits bringing to film any character the mind can imagine, Vuffi Raa would make a marvelous addition to a movie: for once, a robot fully as capable as a human without being even remotely humanoid.

The first novel is more or less straightforward storytelling, while the second and third put somewhat more of a libertarian edge on things. StarCave of ThonBoka does an excellent job of demonstrating how a large organisation built on fear and coercion, regardless how formidably armed, is vulnerable to those who think and act for themselves. This is a theme which fits perfectly with the Star Wars movies which occur in this era, but cannot be more than hinted at within the constraints of a screenplay.


Smith, Edward E. Gray Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1939-1940, 1951] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-12-3.
This is the fourth volume of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), and Galactic Patrol (March 2005). Gray Lensman ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from October 1939 through January 1940. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1951 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat from the original magazine serial.

Gray Lensman is one of the most glittering nuggets of the Golden Age of science fiction. In this story, Doc Smith completely redefined the standard for thinking big and created an arena for the conflict between civilisation and chaos that's larger than a galaxy. This single novel has more leaps of the imagination than some other authors content themselves with in their entire careers. Here we encounter the “primary projector”: a weapon which can only be used when no enemy can possibly survive or others observe because the mere knowledge that it exists may compromise its secret (this, in a story written more that a decade before the first hydrogen bomb); the “negasphere”: an object which, while described as based on antimatter, is remarkably similar to a black hole (first described by J.R. Oppenheimer and H. Snyder in 1939, the same year the serial began to run in Astounding); the hyper-spatial tube (like a traversable wormhole); the Grand Fleet (composed of one million combat units); the Z9M9Z Directrix command ship, with its “tank” display 700 feet wide by 80 feet thick able to show the tactical situation in an entire galaxy at once; directed planetary impact weapons; a multi-galactic crime syndicate; insects and worms as allies of the good guys; organ regeneration; and more. Once you've experienced the Doc Smith universe, the Star Wars Empire may feel small and antiquated.

This edition contains two Forewords: the author's original, intended to bring readers who haven't read the earlier books up to speed, and a snarky postmodern excretion by John Clute which is best skipped. If you're reading the Lensman series for the first time (this is my fourth), it's best to start either at the beginning with Triplanetary, or with Galactic Patrol, which was written first and stands on its own, not depending on any of the material introduced in the first two “prequel” volumes.


Jordan, Bill [William Henry]. No Second Place Winner. Concord, NH: Police Bookshelf, [1965] 1989. ISBN 0-936279-09-5.
This thin (114 page) book is one of the all-time classics of gunfighting, written by a man whose long career in the U.S. Border Patrol in an era when the U.S. actually defended its southern border schooled him in the essentials of bringing armed hostilities to an end as quickly and effectively as possible while minimising risk to the lawman. Although there are few pages and many pictures, in a way that's part of the message: there's nothing particularly complicated about winning a gunfight; it's a matter of skill acquired by patient practice until one can perform reliably under the enormous stress of a life-or-death situation. All of the refinements and complexity of “combat shooting” competitions are a fine game, the author argues, but have little to do with real-world situations where a peace officer has no alternative to employing deadly force.

The author stresses repeatedly that one shouldn't attempt to learn the fast draw or double action hip shooting techniques he teaches before having completely mastered single action aimed fire at bullseye targets, and advocates extensive dry-fire practice and training with wax or plastic primer-only practice loads before attempting the fast draw with live ammunition, “unless you wish to develop the three-toed limp of the typical Hollywood ‘gunslinger’” (p. 61). Jordan considers the double action revolver the only suitable weapon for a law officer, but remember that this book was written forty years ago, before the advent of today's light and reliable semiautomatics with effective factory combat loads. Still, the focus is on delivering the first shot to the malefactor's centre of gravity before he pulls the trigger, so magazine capacity and speedy reloading aren't as high priorities as they may be with today's increasingly militarised police.

This book is out of print, but used copies are readily available.


September 2005

Stevenson, David. 1914–1918: The History of the First World War. London: Allen Lane, 2004. ISBN 0-140-26817-0.
I have long believed that World War I was the absolutely pivotal event of the twentieth century, and that understanding its causes and consequences was essential to comprehending subsequent history. Here is an excellent single-volume history of the war for those interested in this tragic and often-neglected epoch of modern history. The author, a professor of International History at the London School of Economics, attempts to balance all aspects of the war: politics, economics, culture, ideology, demographics, and technology, as well as the actual military history of the conflict. This results in a thick (727 page), heavy book which is somewhat heavy going and best read and digested over a period of time rather than in one frontal assault (I read the book over a period of about four months). Those looking for a detailed military history won't find it here; while there is a thorough discussion of grand strategy and evolving war aims and discussion of the horrific conditions of the largely static trench warfare which characterised most of the war, there is little or no tactical description of individual battles.

The high-level integrated view of the war (and subsequent peacemaking and its undoing) is excellent for understanding the place of the war in modern history. It was World War I which, more than any other event, brought the leviathan modern nation state to its malign maturity: mass conscription, direct taxation, fiat currency, massive public debt, propaganda aimed at citizens, manipulation of the news, rationing, wage and price controls, political intrusion into the economy, and attacks on noncombatant civilians. All of these horrors, which were to characterise the balance of the last century and continue to poison the present, appeared in full force in all the powers involved in World War I. Further, the redrawing of borders which occurred following the liquidation of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires sowed the seeds of subsequent conflicts, some still underway almost a century later, to name a few: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Palestine, and Iraq.

The U.S edition, titled Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, is now available in paperback.


Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat. McLean, VA: IndyPublish.com, [1910] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33567-6.
As usual, I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a couple of months. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I noted whilst reading the book, the fourth installment in the original Tom Swift saga.

It's delightful to read a book which uses the word “filibuster” in its original sense: “to take part in a private military action in a foreign country” but somewhat disconcerting to encounter Brazilians speaking Spanish! The diving suits which allow full mobility on the abyssal plain two miles beneath the ocean surface remain as science-fictional as when this novel was written almost a century ago.


Guy, Richard K. Unsolved Problems in Number Theory. 3rd ed. New York: Springer, 2004. ISBN 0-387-20860-7.
Your hard-working and overheated CPU chip does not want you to buy this book! Collected here are hundreds of thorny problems, puzzles, and conjectures, many of which, even if you lack the cerebral horsepower to tackle a formal proof, are candidates for computational searches for solutions or counterexamples (and, indeed, a substantial number of problems posed in the first and second editions have been so resolved, some with quite modest computation by today's standards). In the 18th century, Leonhard Euler conjectured that there was no nontrivial solution to the equation:
a5 + b5 + c5 + d5 = e5
The problem remained open until 1966 when Lander and Parkin found the counterexample:
275 + 845 + 1105 + 1335 = 1445
Does the equation:
a6 + b6 + c6 + d6 + e6 = f6
have a nontrivial integer solution? Ladies and gentlemen, start your (analytical) engines! (Problem D1.) There are a large collection of mathematical curiosities here, including a series which grows so slowly it is proportional to the inverse of the Ackermann function (E20), and a conjecture (E16) regarding the esoteric equation “3x+1” about which Paul Erdös said, “Mathematics may not be ready for such problems.” The 196 palindrome problem which caused me to burn up three years of computer time some fifteen years ago closes the book (F32). Many (but not all) of the problems to which computer attacks are applicable indicate the status of searches as of 2003, giving you some idea what you're getting into should you be inclined to launch your own.

For a book devoted to one of the most finicky topics in pure mathematics, there are a dismaying number of typographical errors, and not just in the descriptive text. Even some of the LaTeX macros used to typeset the book are bungled, with “@”-form \index entries appearing explicitly in the text. Many of the errors would have been caught by a spelling checker, and there are a number of rather obvious typesetting errors in equations. As the book contains an abundance of “magic numbers” related to the various problems which may figure in computer searches, I would make a point to independently confirm their accuracy before launching any extensive computing project.


Woods, Thomas E., Jr. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-047-6.
You know you're getting old when events you lived through start showing up in history textbooks! Upon reaching that milestone (hey, it beats the alternative), you'll inevitably have the same insight which occurs whenever you see media coverage of an event at which you were personally present or read a popular account of a topic which you understand in depth—“Hey, it wasn't like that at all!”…and then you begin to wonder about all the coverage of things about which you don't have direct knowledge.

This short book (246 pages of widely-leaded text with broad margins and numerous sidebars and boxed quotations, asides, and recommendations for further reading) provides a useful antidote to the version of U.S. history currently taught in government brainwashing institutions, written from a libertarian/conservative standpoint. Those who have made an effort to educate themselves on the topics discussed will find little here they haven't already encountered, but those whose only knowledge of U.S. history comes from contemporary textbooks will encounter many eye-opening “stubborn facts” along with source citations to independently verify them (the excellent bibliography is ten pages long).

The topics covered appear to have been selected based on the degree to which the present-day collectivist academic party line is at variance with the facts (although, as Woods points out, in many cases historians specialising in given areas themselves diverge from textbook accounts). This means that while “hot spots” such as the causes of the Civil War, the events leading to U.S. entry in World War I, and the reasons for the Great Depression and the rôle of New Deal programs in ending it are discussed, many others are omitted entirely; the book is suitable as a corrective for those who know an outline of U.S. history but not as an introduction for those college graduates who believe that FDR defeated Santa Anna at the Little Big Horn.


Smith, George O. Venus Equilateral. New York: Del Rey, [1942-1945, 1947, 1976] 1980. ISBN 0-345-28953-6.
During World War II the author worked on one of the most outrageous (and successful) electrical engineering projects of all time—a vacuum tube radio set manufactured in the tens of thousands, designed to be fired from an artillery piece, withstanding an initial acceleration of 20,000 gravities and spinning at 500 revolutions per second—the radio proximity fuze. To relax, he wrote the Venus Equilateral stories, published in Astounding Science Fiction and collected in this volume along with a retrospective written in 1973 for an anthology in memory of long-time Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell, Jr.

If you like your science fiction hard, this is about as geeky as it gets:

“The nice thing about this betatron,” said Channing, “is the fact that it can and does run both ends on the same supply. The current and voltage phases are correct so that we do not require two supplies which operate in a carefully balanced condition. The cyclotron is one of the other kinds; though the one supply is strictly D.C., the strength of the field must be controlled separately from the supply to the oscillator that runs the D plates. You're sitting on a fence, juggling knobs and stuff all the time you are bombarding with a cyc.” (From “Recoil”, p. 95)
Notwithstanding such passages, and how quaint an interplanetary radio relay station based on vacuum tubes with a staff of 2700 may seem to modern readers, these are human stories which are, on occasions, breathtaking in their imagination and modernity. The account of the impact of an “efficiency expert” on a technology-based operation in “QRM—Interplanetary” is as trenchant (and funny) as anything in Dilbert. The pernicious effect of abusive patent litigation on innovation, the economics of a technological singularity created by what amounts to a nanotechnological assembler, and the risk of identity theft, are the themes of other stories which it's difficult to imagine having been written half a century ago, along with timeless insights into engineering. One, in particular, from “Firing Line” (p. 259) so struck me when I read it thirty-odd years ago that it has remained in my mind ever since as one of the principal differences between the engineer and the tinkerer, “They know one simple rule about the universe. That rule is that if anything works once, it may be made to work again.” The tinkerer is afraid to touch something once it mysteriously starts to work; an engineer is eager to tear it apart and figure out why. I found the account of the end of Venus Equilateral in “Mad Holiday” disturbing when I first read it, but now see it as a celebration of technological obsolescence as an integral part of progress, to be welcomed, and the occasion for a blow-out party, not long faces and melancholy.

Arthur C. Clarke, who contributes the introduction to this collection, read these stories while engaged in his own war work, in copies of Astounding sent from America by Willy Ley, acknowledges that these tales of communication relays in space may have played a part in his coming up with that idea.

This book is out of print, but inexpensive used copies are readily available.


Ronson, Jon. The Men Who Stare at Goats. London: Picador, 2004. ISBN 0-330-37548-2.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. If you take everything at face value, you're asked to believe that U.S. Army Intelligence harbours a New Age pentacle in the Pentagon cabal bent on transforming Special Forces soldiers into “warrior monks” who can walk through walls, become invisible, and kill goats (and presumably the enemy, even if they are not goats) just by staring at them. These wannabe paranormal super-soldiers are responsible for the cruel and inhuman torture of prisoners in Iraq by playing the Barney the Purple Dinosaur song and all-girl Fleetwood Mac covers around the clock, and are implicated in the Waco massacre, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the Heaven's Gate suicides, and have “re-activated” Uri Geller in the War on Terror.

Now, stipulating that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron, this still seems altogether too zany to be entirely credible. Lack of imagination is another well-known military characteristic, and all of this seems to be so far outside the box that it's in another universe entirely, say one summoned up by a writer predisposed to anti-American conspiracy theories, endowed with an over-active imagination, who's spent way too much time watching X-Files reruns. Anyway, that's what one would like to believe, since it's rather disturbing to contemplate living in a world in which the last remaining superpower is so disconnected from reality that its Army believes it can field soldiers with…super powers. But, as much as I'd like to dismiss this story as fantasy, I cannot entirely do so. Here's my problem: one of the central figures in the narrative is a certain Colonel John Alexander. Now I happen to know from independent and direct personal contacts that Colonel Alexander is a real person, that he is substantially as described in the book, and is involved in things every bit as weird as those with which he is associated here. So maybe all the rest is made up, but the one data point I can confirm checks out. Maybe it's time to start equipping our evil mutant attack goat legions with Ray-Ban shades! For an earlier, better sourced look at the Pentagon's first foray into psychic spying, see Jim Schnabel's 1997 Remote Viewers.

A U.S edition is now available, but presently only in hardcover; a U.S. paperback edition is scheduled for April 2006.


October 2005

Sloane, Eric. The Cracker Barrel. Mineola, NY: Dover, [1967] 2005. ISBN 0-486-44101-6.
In the 1960s, artist and antiquarian Eric Sloane wrote a syndicated column of which many of the best are collected in this volume. This is an excellent book for browsing in random order in the odd moment, but like the contents of the eponymous barrel, it's hard to stop after just one, so you may devour the whole thing at one sitting. Hey, at least it isn't fattening!

The column format allowed Sloane to address a variety of topics which didn't permit book-length treatment. There are gems here about word origins, what was good and not so good about “the good old days”, tools and techniques (the “variable wrench” is pure genius), art and the business of being an artist, and much more. Each column is illustrated with one of Sloane's marvelous line drawings. Praise be to Dover for putting this classic back into print where it belongs.


Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. London: Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0-141-00984-5.
Only a perfect idiot would undertake to transport two forty foot mahogany motorboats from London to Cape Town and then onward to Lake Tanganyika by ship, rail, steam tractor, and teams of oxen, there to challenge German dominance of the lake during World War I by attempting to sink a ship three times the length and seven times the displacement of the fragile craft. Fortunately, the Admiralty found just the man in Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simpson, in 1915 the oldest Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, his ascent through the ranks having been retarded due to his proclivity for sinking British ships. Spicer-Simpson was an inveterate raconteur of tall tales and insufferable know-it-all (on the ship bound for South Africa he was heard lecturing the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town on the southern constellations), and was eccentric in about as many ways as can be packed into a single human frame. Still, he and his motley team, despite innumerable misadventures (many self-inflicted), got the job done, sinking the ship they were sent to and capturing another German vessel, the first German warship ever captured by the Royal Navy. Afterward, Spicer-Simpson rather blotted his copybook by declining to engage first a German fort and then a warship both later found to have been “armed” only with wooden dummy guns. His exploits caused him to be worshipped as a god by the Holo-holo tribe, who fashioned clay effigies of him, but rather less impressed the Admiralty who, despite awarding him the DSO, re-assigned him upon his return to the routine desk job he had before the adventure. HMS Mimi and Toutou were the boats under Spicer-Simpson's command, soon joined by the captured German ship which was rechristened HMS Fifi. The events described herein (very loosely) inspired C.S.Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen and the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn film.

A U.S. edition is now available, titled Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure, but at present only in hardcover. A U.S. paperback is scheduled for March, 2006.


Radosh, Ronald and Allis Radosh. Red Star over Hollywood. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-893554-96-1.
The Hollywood blacklist has become one of the most mythic elements of the mid-20th century Red scare. Like most myths, especially those involving tinseltown, it has been re-scripted into a struggle of good (falsely-accused artists defending free speech) versus evil (paranoid witch hunters bent on censorship) at the expense of a large part of the detail and complexity of the actual events. In this book, drawing upon contemporary sources, recently released documents from the FBI and House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and interviews with surviving participants in the events, the authors patiently assemble the story of what really happened, which is substantially different than the stories retailed by partisans of the respective sides. The evolution of those who joined the Communist Party out of idealism, were repelled by its totalitarian attempts to control their creative work and/or the cynicism of its support for the 1939–1941 Nazi/Soviet pact, yet who risked their careers to save those of others by refusing to name other Party members, is evocatively sketched, along with the agenda of HUAC, which FBI documents now reveal actually had lists of party members before the hearings began, and were thus grandstanding to gain publicity and intimidate the studios into firing those who would not deny Communist affiliations. History isn't as tidy as myth: the accusers were perfectly correct in claiming that a substantial number of prominent Hollywood figures were members of the Communist Party, and the accused were perfectly correct in their claim that apart from a few egregious exceptions, Soviet and pro-communist propaganda was not inserted into Hollywood films. A mystery about one of those exceptions, the 1943 Warner Brothers film Mission to Moscow, which defended the Moscow show trials, is cleared up here. I've always wondered why, since many of the Red-baiting films of the 1950s are cult classics, this exemplar of the ideological inverse (released, after all, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were allies in World War II) has never made it to video. Well, apparently those who currently own the rights are sufficiently embarrassed by it that apart from one of the rare prints being run on television, the only place you can see it is at the film library of the Museum of Modern Art in New York or in the archive of the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Radosh is author of Commies (July 2001) and co-author of The Rosenberg File (August 2002).


Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near. New York: Viking, 2005. ISBN 0-670-03384-7.
What happens if Moore's Law—the annual doubling of computing power at constant cost—just keeps on going? In this book, inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist Ray Kurzweil extrapolates the long-term faster than exponential growth (the exponent is itself growing exponentially) in computing power to the point where the computational capacity of the human brain is available for about US$1000 (around 2020, he estimates), reverse engineering and emulation of human brain structure permits machine intelligence indistinguishable from that of humans as defined by the Turing test (around 2030), and the subsequent (and he believes inevitable) runaway growth in artificial intelligence leading to a technological singularity around 2045 when US$1000 will purchase computing power comparable to that of all presently-existing human brains and the new intelligence created in that single year will be a billion times greater than that of the entire intellectual heritage of human civilisation prior to that date. He argues that the inhabitants of this brave new world, having transcended biological computation in favour of nanotechnological substrates “trillions of trillions of times more capable” will remain human, having preserved their essential identity and evolutionary heritage across this leap to Godlike intellectual powers. Then what? One might as well have asked an ant to speculate on what newly-evolved hominids would end up accomplishing, as the gap between ourselves and these super cyborgs (some of the precursors of which the author argues are alive today) is probably greater than between arthropod and anthropoid.

Throughout this tour de force of boundless technological optimism, one is impressed by the author's adamantine intellectual integrity. This is not an advocacy document—in fact, Kurzweil's view is that the events he envisions are essentially inevitable given the technological, economic, and moral (curing disease and alleviating suffering) dynamics driving them. Potential roadblocks are discussed candidly, along with the existential risks posed by the genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) revolutions which will set the stage for the singularity. A chapter is devoted to responding to critics of various aspects of the argument, in which opposing views are treated with respect.

I'm not going to expound further in great detail. I suspect a majority of people who read these comments will, in all likelihood, read the book themselves (if they haven't already) and make up their own minds about it. If you are at all interested in the evolution of technology in this century and its consequences for the humans who are creating it, this is certainly a book you should read. The balance of these remarks discuss various matters which came to mind as I read the book; they may not make much sense unless you've read it (You are going to read it, aren't you?), but may highlight things to reflect upon as you do.

  • Switching off the simulation. Page 404 raises a somewhat arcane risk I've pondered at some length. Suppose our entire universe is a simulation run on some super-intelligent being's computer. (What's the purpose of the universe? It's a science fair project!) What should we do to avoid having the simulation turned off, which would be bad? Presumably, the most likely reason to stop the simulation is that it's become boring. Going through a technological singularity, either from the inside or from the outside looking in, certainly doesn't sound boring, so Kurzweil argues that working toward the singularity protects us, if we be simulated, from having our plug pulled. Well, maybe, but suppose the explosion in computing power accessible to the simulated beings (us) at the singularity exceeds that available to run the simulation? (This is plausible, since post-singularity computing rapidly approaches its ultimate physical limits.) Then one imagines some super-kid running top to figure out what's slowing down the First Superbeing Shooter game he's running and killing the CPU hog process. There are also things we can do which might increase the risk of the simulation's being switched off. Consider, as I've proposed, precision fundamental physics experiments aimed at detecting round-off errors in the simulation (manifested, for example, as small violations of conservation laws). Once the beings in the simulation twig to the fact that they're in a simulation and that their reality is no more accurate than double precision floating point, what's the point to letting it run?
  • Fifty bits per atom? In the description of the computational capacity of a rock (p. 131), the calculation assumes that 100 bits of memory can be encoded in each atom of a disordered medium. I don't get it; even reliably storing a single bit per atom is difficult to envision. Using the “precise position, spin, and quantum state” of a large ensemble of atoms as mentioned on p. 134 seems highly dubious.
  • Luddites. The risk from anti-technology backlash is discussed in some detail. (“Ned Ludd” himself joins in some of the trans-temporal dialogues.) One can imagine the next generation of anti-globalist demonstrators taking to the streets to protest the “evil corporations conspiring to make us all rich and immortal”.
  • Fundamentalism. Another risk is posed by fundamentalism, not so much of the religious variety, but rather fundamentalist humanists who perceive the migration of humans to non-biological substrates (at first by augmentation, later by uploading) as repellent to their biological conception of humanity. One is inclined, along with the author, simply to wait until these folks get old enough to need a hip replacement, pacemaker, or cerebral implant to reverse a degenerative disease to motivate them to recalibrate their definition of “purely biological”. Still, I'm far from the first to observe that Singularitarianism (chapter 7) itself has some things in common with religious fundamentalism. In particular, it requires faith in rationality (which, as Karl Popper observed, cannot be rationally justified), and that the intentions of super-intelligent beings, as Godlike in their powers compared to humans as we are to Saccharomyces cerevisiae, will be benign and that they will receive us into eternal life and bliss. Haven't I heard this somewhere before? The main difference is that the Singularitarian doesn't just aspire to Heaven, but to Godhood Itself. One downside of this may be that God gets quite irate.
  • Vanity. I usually try to avoid the “Washington read” (picking up a book and flipping immediately to the index to see if I'm in it), but I happened to notice in passing I made this one, for a minor citation in footnote 47 to chapter 2.
  • Spindle cells. The material about “spindle cells” on pp. 191–194 is absolutely fascinating. These are very large, deeply and widely interconnected neurons which are found only in humans and a few great apes. Humans have about 80,000 spindle cells, while gorillas have 16,000, bonobos 2,100 and chimpanzees 1,800. If you're intrigued by what makes humans human, this looks like a promising place to start.
  • Speculative physics. The author shares my interest in physics verging on the fringe, and, turning the pages of this book, we come across such topics as possible ways to exceed the speed of light, black hole ultimate computers, stable wormholes and closed timelike curves (a.k.a. time machines), baby universes, cold fusion, and more. Now, none of these things is in any way relevant to nor necessary for the advent of the singularity, which requires only well-understood mainstream physics. The speculative topics enter primarily in discussions of the ultimate limits on a post-singularity civilisation and the implications for the destiny of intelligence in the universe. In a way they may distract from the argument, since a reader might be inclined to dismiss the singularity as yet another woolly speculation, which it isn't.
  • Source citations. The end notes contain many citations of articles in Wired, which I consider an entertainment medium rather than a reliable source of technological information. There are also references to articles in Wikipedia, where any idiot can modify anything any time they feel like it. I would not consider any information from these sources reliable unless independently verified from more scholarly publications.
  • “You apes wanna live forever?” Kurzweil doesn't just anticipate the singularity, he hopes to personally experience it, to which end (p. 211) he ingests “250 supplements (pills) a day and … a half-dozen intravenous therapies each week”. Setting aside the shots, just envision two hundred and fifty pills each and every day! That's 1,750 pills a week or, if you're awake sixteen hours a day, an average of more than 15 pills per waking hour, or one pill about every four minutes (one presumes they are swallowed in batches, not spaced out, which would make for a somewhat odd social life). Between the year 2000 and the estimated arrival of human-level artificial intelligence in 2030, he will swallow in excess of two and a half million pills, which makes one wonder what the probability of choking to death on any individual pill might be. He remarks, “Although my program may seem extreme, it is actually conservative—and optimal (based on my current knowledge).” Well, okay, but I'd worry about a “strategy for preventing heart disease [which] is to adopt ten different heart-disease-prevention therapies that attack each of the known risk factors” running into unanticipated interactions, given how everything in biology tends to connect to everything else. There is little discussion of the alternative approach to immortality with which many nanotechnologists of the mambo chicken persuasion are enamoured, which involves severing the heads of recently deceased individuals and freezing them in liquid nitrogen in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.


Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête. Paris: Albert René, 2005. ISBN 2-86497-170-4.
Credit me with some restraint—I waited ten whole days after volume 33 of the Astérix saga appeared before devouring it in one sitting. If it isn't sufficiently obvious from the author's remark at the end of the album, note that planet “Tadsylwien” is an anagram of “Walt Disney”. The diffuse reflection of the countryside in the spherical spaceship on p. 8 is magnificently done.


Paul, Pamela. Pornified. New York: Times Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6.
If you've been on the receiving end of Internet junk mail as I've been until I discovered a few technical tricks (here and here) which, along with Annoyance Filter, have essentially eliminated spam from my mailbox, you're probably aware that the popular culture of the Internet is, to a substantial extent, about pornography and that this marvelous global packet switching medium is largely a means for delivering pornography both to those who seek it and those who find it, unsolicited, in their electronic mailboxes or popping up on their screens.

This is an integral part of the explosive growth of pornography along with the emergence of new media. In 1973, there were fewer than a thousand pornographic movie theatres in the U.S. (p 54). Building on the first exponential growth curve driven by home video, the Internet is bringing pornography to everybody connected and reducing the cost asymptotically to zero. On “peer to peer” networks such as Kazaa, 73% of all movie searches are for pornography and 24% of image searches are for child pornography (p. 60).

It's one thing to talk about free speech, but another to ask what the consequences might be of this explosion of consumption of material which is largely directed at men, and which not only objectifies but increasingly, as the standard of “edginess” ratchets upward, degrades women and supplants the complexity of adult human relationships with the fantasy instant gratification of “adult entertainment”.

Mark Schwartz, clinical director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, hardly a puritanical institution, says (p. 142) “Pornography is having a dramatic effect on relationships at many different levels and in many different ways—and nobody outside the sexual behavior field and the psychiatric community is talking about it.” This book, by Time magazine contributor Pamela Paul, talks about it, interviewing both professionals surveying the landscape and individuals affected in various ways by the wave of pornography sweeping over developed countries connected to the Internet. Paul quotes Judith Coché, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has 25 years experience in therapy practice as saying (p. 180), “We have an epidemic on our hands. The growth of pornography and its impact on young people is really, really dangerous. And the most dangerous part is that we don't even realize what's happening.”

Ironically, part of this is due to the overwhelming evidence of the pernicious consequences of excessive consumption of pornography and its tendency to progress into addictive behaviour from the Zillman and Bryant studies and others, which have made academic ethics committees reluctant to approve follow-up studies involving human subjects (p. 90). Would you vote, based on the evidence in hand, for a double blind study of the effects of tobacco or heroin on previously unexposed subjects?

In effect, with the technologically-mediated collapse of the social strictures against pornography, we've embarked upon a huge, entirely unplanned, social and cultural experiment unprecedented in human history. This book will make people on both sides of the debate question their assumptions; the author, while clearly appalled by the effects of pornography on many of the people she interviews, is forthright in her opposition to censorship. Even if you have no interest in pornography nor strong opinions for or against it, there's little doubt that the ever-growing intrusiveness and deviance of pornography on the Internet will be a “wedge issue” in the coming battle over the secure Internet, so the message of this book, unwelcome as it may be, should be something which everybody interested in preserving both our open society and the fragile culture which sustains it ponders at some length.


November 2005

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol. 2: Hegel and Marx. London: Routledge, [1945, 1962, 1966, 1995] 2003. ISBN 0-415-27842-2.
After tracing the Platonic origins of utopian schemes of top-down social engineering in Volume 1 (December 2003), Popper now turns to the best-known modern exemplars of the genre, Hegel and Marx, starting out by showing Aristotle's contribution to Hegel's philosophy. Popper considers Hegel a complete charlatan and his work a blizzard of obfuscation intended to dull the mind to such an extent that it can believe that the Prussian monarchy (which paid the salaries of Hegel and his acolytes) was the epitome of human freedom. For a work of serious philosophical criticism (there are more than a hundred pages of end notes in small type), Popper is forthrightly acerbic and often quite funny in his treatment of Hegel, who he disposes of in only 55 pages of this book of 470. (Popper's contemporary, Wittgenstein, gets much the same treatment. See note 51 to chapter 11, for example, in which he calls the Tractatus “reinforced dogmatism that opens wide the door to the enemy, deeply significant metaphysical nonsense…”. One begins to comprehend what possessed Wittgenstein, a year after the publication of this book, to brandish a fireplace poker at Popper.)

Readers who think of Popper as an icon of libertarianism may be surprised at his remarkably positive treatment of Marx, of whom he writes (chapter 13), “Science progresses through trial and error. Marx tried, and although he erred in his main doctrines, he did not try in vain. He opened and sharpened our eyes in many ways. A return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. All modern writers are indebted to Marx, even if they do not know it. … One cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts, his distrust of verbiage, and especially of moralizing verbiage, made him one of the world's most influential fighters against hypocisy and pharisaism. He had a burning desire to help the oppressed, and was fully conscious of the need for proving himself in deeds, and not only in words.”

To be sure, this encomium is the prelude to a detailed critique of Marx's deterministic theory of history and dubious economic notions, but unlike Hegel, Marx is given credit for trying to make sense of phenomena which few others even attempted to study scientifically. Many of the flaws in Marx's work, Popper argues, may be attributed to Marx having imbibed too deeply and uncritically the work of Hegel, and the crimes committed in the name of Marxism the result of those treating his work as received dogma, as opposed to a theory subject to refutation, as Marx himself would have viewed it.

Also surprising is his condemnation, with almost Marxist vehemence, of nineteenth century “unrestrained capitalism”, and enthusiasm for government intervention in the economy and the emergence of the modern welfare state (chapter 20 in particular). One must observe, with the advantage of sixty years hindsight, that F.A. Hayek's less sanguine contemporary perspective in The Road to Serfdom (May 2002) has proved more prophetic. Of particular interest is Popper's advocacy of “piecemeal social engineering”, as opposed to grand top-down systems such as “scientific socialism”, as the genuinely scientific method of improving society, permitting incremental progress by experiments on the margin which are subject to falsification by their results, in the same manner Popper argues the physical sciences function in The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Permit me to make a few remarks about the physical properties of this book. The paperback seems to have a spine made of triple-reinforced neutronium, and cannot be induced to lie flat by any of the usual stratagems. In fact, when reading the book, one must either use two hands to hold it open or else wedge it open with three fingers against the spine in order to read complete lines of text. This is tiring, particularly since the book is also quite heavy. If you happen to doze off whilst reading (which I'll confess happened a few times during some of the more intricate philosophical arguments), the thing will pop out of your hand, snap shut like a bear trap, and fly off in some random direction—Zzzzzz … CLACK … thud! I don't know what the problem is with the binding—I have any number of O'Reilly paperbacks about the same size and shape which lie flat without the need for any extreme measures. The text is set in a type font in which the distinction between roman and italic type is very subtle—sometimes I had to take off my glasses (I am nearsighted) and eyeball the text close-up to see if a word was actually emphasised, and that runs the risk of a bloody nose if your thumb should slip and the thing snap shut.

A U.S. edition of this volume is now back in print; for a while only Volume 1 was available from Princeton University Press. The U.K. edition of Volume 1 from Routledge remains available.


Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-013-1.
This book has the worthy goal of providing a brief, accessible antidote to the airbrushed version of Islam dispensed by its apologists and echoed by the mass media, and the relentlessly anti-Western account of the Crusades indoctrinated in the history curricula of government schools. Regrettably, the attempt falls short of the mark. The tone throughout is polemical—you don't feel like you're reading about history, religion, and culture so much as that the author is trying to persuade you to adopt his negative view of Islam, with historical facts and citations from original sources trotted out as debating points. This runs the risk of the reader suspecting the author of having cherry-picked source material, omitting that which argues the other way. I didn't find the author guilty of this, but the result is that this book is only likely to persuade those who already agree with its thesis before picking it up, which makes one wonder what's the point.

Spencer writes from an overtly Christian perspective, with parallel “Muhammad vs. Jesus” quotes in each chapter, and statements like, “If Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard the Lionhearted, and countless others hadn't risked their lives to uphold the honor of Christ and His Church thousands of miles from home, the jihadists would almost certainly have swept across Europe much sooner” (p. 160). Now, there's nothing wrong with comparing aspects of Islam to other religions to counter “moral equivalence” arguments which claim that every religion is equally guilty of intolerance, oppression, and incitement to violence, but the near-exclusive focus on Christianity is likely to be off-putting to secular readers and adherents of other religions who are just as threatened by militant, expansionist Islamic fundamentalism as Christians.

The text is poorly proofread; in several block quotations, words are run together without spaces, three times in as many lines on page 110. In the quote from John Wesley on p. 188, the whole meaning is lost when the phrase “cities razed from the foundation” is written with “raised” instead of “razed”.

The author's earlier Islam Unveiled (February 2003) is similarly flawed in tone and perspective. Had I noticed that this book was by the same author, I wouldn't have read it. It's more to read, but the combination of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002) and Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West (July 2002) will leave you with a much better understanding of the issues than this disappointing effort.


Thorpe, Peter. Why Literature Is Bad for You. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-88229-745-7.
Techies like myself often have little patience with students of the humanities, particularly those argumentative types ill-informed in anything outside their speciality often found around university campuses. After escaping from an encounter with one of these creatures, a common reaction is to shrug one's shoulders and mutter “English majors…”. I'd always assumed it was a selection effect: a career which involves reading made-up stories and then arguing vociferously about small details in them just naturally appeals to dopey people who those more engaged in the real world inevitably find tedious and irritating. But here's a book written by a professor of English Literature who argues that immersion in the humanities manufactures such people, wrecking the minds and often the lives of those who would have otherwise made well-balanced and successful accountants, scientists, physicians, engineers, or members of other productive professions.

This is either one of the most astonishing exemplars of academic apostasy ever written, or such a dry satire (which, it should be noted, is one of the author's fields of professional interest) that it slips beneath the radar of almost everybody who reads it. Peter Thorpe was a tenured (to be sure, otherwise this book would have been career suicide) associate professor of English at the University of Colorado when, around 1980, he went through what must have been a king-Hell existential mid-life crisis and penned this book which, for all its heresies, didn't wreck his career: here's a recent biography.

In any case, the message is incendiary. A professor of English Literature steps up to the podium to argue that intensive exposure to the Great Books which undergraduate and graduate students in English and their professors consider their “day job” is highly destructive to their psyches, as can be observed by the dysfunctional behaviour manifest in the denizens of a university department of humanities. So dubious is Thorpe that such departments have anything to do with human values, that he consistently encloses “humanities” in scare quotes.

Rather than attempting to recapitulate the arguments of this short and immensely entertaining polemic, I will simply cite the titles of the five parts and list the ways in which Thorpe deems the study of literature pernicious in each.

  1. Seven Types of Immaturity
    “Outgrowing” loved ones; addiction to and fomenting crises; refusal to co-operate deemed a virtue; fatalism as an excuse; self-centredness instead of self-knowledge; lust for revenge; hatred and disrespect for elders and authority.
  2. Seven Avenues to Unawareness
    Imputing “motivation” where it doesn't exist; pigeonholing people into categories; projecting one's own feelings onto others; replacement of one's own feelings with those of others; encouragement of laziness—it's easier to read than to do; excessive tolerance for incompetence; encouraging hostility and aggression.
  3. Five Avenues to Unhappiness
    Clinically or borderline paranoia, obsession with the past, materialism or irrational anti-materialism, expectation of gratitude when none is due, and being so worry-prone as to risk stomach ulcers (lighten up—this book was published two years before the discovery of H. pylori).
  4. Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers
    Misuse of opinion, faulty and false memories, dishonest use of evidence, and belief that ideas do not have consequences.
  5. Four Ways to Failing to Communicate
    Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.

That's a pretty damning bill of particulars, isn't it? Most of these indictments of the rôle of literature in inducing these dysfunctions are illustrated by fictionalised anecdotes based on individuals the author has encountered in English departments during his career. Some of the stories and arguments for how devotion to literature is the root cause of the pathology of the people who study it seem a tad over the top to this engineer, but then I haven't spent my whole adult life in an English Lit. department! The writing is entertaining and the author remains true to his profession in invoking a multitude of literary allusions to bolster his points. Whatever, it's comforting to believe that when you took advantage of Cliff's Notes to survive those soporific equation-free requirements for graduation you weren't (entirely) being lazy but also protecting your sanity and moral compass!

The book is out of print, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive. Special thanks to the visitor who recommended this book.


Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Britain. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-39-2.
History records many examples of the collapse of once great and long-established cultures. Usually, such events are the consequence of military defeat, occupation or colonisation by a foreign power, violent revolution and its totalitarian aftermath, natural disasters, or other dramatic and destructive events. In this book, Peter Hitchens chronicles the collapse, within the span of a single human lifetime (bracketed by the funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Princess Diana in 1997), of the culture which made Britain British, and maintained domestic peace in England and Wales since 1685 (and Scotland since Culloden in 1746) while the Continent was repeatedly convulsed by war and revolution. The collapse in Britain, however, occurred following victory in a global conflict in which, at the start, Britain stood alone against tyranny and barbarism, and although rooted in a time of postwar privation, demotion from great power status, and loss of empire, ran its course as the nation experienced unprecedented and broadly-based prosperity.

Hitchens argues that the British cultural collapse was almost entirely the result of well-intentioned “reform” and “modernisation” knocking out the highly evolved and subtly interconnected pillars which supported the culture, set in motion, perhaps, by immersion in American culture during World War II (see chapter 16—this argument seems rather dubious to me, since many of the postwar changes in Britain also occurred in the U.S., but afterward), and reinforced and accelerated by television broadcasting, the perils of which were prophetically sketched by T.S. Eliot in 1950 (p. 128). When the pillars of a culture: historical memory, national identity and pride, religion and morality, family, language, community, landscape and architecture, decency, and education are dislodged, even slightly, what ensues is much like the “controlled implosion” demolition of a building, with the Hobbesian forces of “every man for himself” taking the place of gravity in pulling down the structure and creating the essential preconditions for the replacement of bottom-up self-government by self-reliant citizens with authoritarian rule by élite such as Tony Blair's ambition of U.S.-style presidential power and, the leviathan where the road to serfdom leads, the emerging anti-democratic Continental super-state.

This U.S second edition includes notes which explain British terms and personalities unlikely to be familiar to readers abroad, a preface addressed to American readers, and an afterword discussing the 2001 general election and subsequent events.


Gingerich, Owen. The Book Nobody Read. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN 0-14-303476-6.
There is something about astronomy which seems to invite obsession. Otherwise, why would intelligent and seemingly rational people expend vast amounts of time and effort to compile catalogues of hundreds of thousands of stars, precisely measure the positions of planets over periods of decades, travel to the ends of the Earth to observe solar eclipses, get up before the crack of noon to see a rare transit of Mercury or Venus, or burn up months of computer time finding every planetary transit in a quarter million year interval around the present? Obsession it may be, but it's also fascinating and fun, and astronomy has profited enormously from the labours of those so obsessed, whether on a mountain top in the dead of winter, or carrying out lengthy calculations when tables of logarithms were the only computational tool available.

This book chronicles one man's magnificent thirty-year obsession. Spurred by Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, which portrayed Copernicus as a villain and his magnum opus De revolutionibus “the book that nobody read”—“an all time worst seller”, followed by the discovery of an obviously carefully read and heavily annotated first edition in the library of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, the author, an astrophysicist and Harvard professor of the history of science, found himself inexorably drawn into a quest to track down and examine every extant copy of the first (Nuremberg, 1543) and second (Basel, 1566) editions of De revolutionibus to see whether and where readers had annotated them and so determine how widely the book, of which about a thousand copies were printed in these editions—typical for scientific works at the time—was read. Unlike today, when we've been educated that writing in a book is desecration, readers in the 16th and 17th centuries often made extensive annotations to their books, even assigning students and apprentices the task of copying annotations by other learned readers into their copies.

Along the way Gingerich found himself driving down an abandoned autobahn in the no man's land between East and West Germany, testifying in the criminal trial of a book rustler, discovering the theft of copies which librarians were unaware were missing, tracking down the provenance of pages in “sophisticated” (in the original sense of the word) copies assembled from two or more incomplete originals, attending the auction at Sotheby's of a first edition with a dubious last leaf which sold for US$750,000 (the author, no impecunious naïf in the rare book game, owns two copies of the second edition himself), and discovering the fate of many less celebrated books from that era (toilet paper). De revolutionibus has survived the vicissitudes of the centuries quite well—out of about 1000 original copies of the first and second editions, approximately six hundred exemplars remain.

Aside from the adventures of the Great Copernicus Chase, there is a great deal of information about Copernicus and the revolution he discovered and sparked which dispels many widely-believed bogus notions such as:

  • Copernicus was a hero of secular science against religious fundamentalism. Wrong!   Copernicus was a deeply religious doctor of church law, canon of the Roman Catholic Varmian Cathedral in Poland. He dedicated the book to Pope Paul III.
  • Prior to Copernicus, astronomers relying on Ptolemy's geocentric system kept adding epicycles on epicycles to try to approximate the orbits of the planets. Wrong!   This makes for a great story, but there is no evidence whatsoever for “epicycles on epicycles”. The authoritative planetary ephemerides in use in the age of Copernicus were calculated using the original Ptolemaic system without additional refinements, and there are no known examples of systems with additional epicycles.
  • Copernicus banished epicycles from astronomy. Wrong!   The Copernican system, in fact, included thirty-four epicycles! Because Copernicus believed that all planetary motion was based on circles, just like Ptolemy he required epicycles to approximate motion which wasn't known to be actually elliptical prior to Kepler. In fact, the Copernican system was no more accurate in predicting planetary positions than that of Ptolemy, and ephemerides computed from it were no better.
  • The Roman Catholic Church was appalled by Copernicus's suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the cosmos and immediately banned his book. Wrong!   The first edition of De revolutionibus was published in 1543. It wasn't until 1616, more than seventy years later, that the book was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and in 1620 it was permitted as long as ten specific modifications were made. Outside Italy, few copies even in Catholic countries were censored according to these instructions. In Spain, usually thought of as a hotbed of the Inquisition, the book was never placed on the Index at all. Galileo's personal copy has the forbidden passages marked in boxes and lined through, permitting the original text to be read. There is no evidence of any copy having been destroyed on the orders of the Church, and the Vatican library has three copies of both the first and second editions.

Obviously, if you're as interested as I in eccentric topics like positional astronomy, rare books, the evolution of modern science, and the surprisingly rapid and efficient diffusion of knowledge more than five centuries before the Internet, this is a book you're probably going to read if you haven't already. The only flaw is that the colour plates (at least in the UK paperback edition I read) are terribly reproduced—they all look like nobody bothered to focus the copy camera when the separations were made; plates 4b, 6, and 7a through 7f, which show annotations in various copies, are completely useless because they're so fuzzy the annotations can barely be read, if at all.


December 2005

Malanga, Steven. The New New Left. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. ISBN 1-56663-644-2.
This thin book (or long essay—the main text is less than 150 pages), argues that urban politics in the United States has largely been captured by an iron triangle of “tax eaters”: unionised public employees, staff of government funded social and health services, and elected officials drawn largely from the first two groups and put into office by their power to raise campaign funds, get out the vote, and direct involvement in campaigns due to raw self-interest: unlike private sector voters, they are hiring their own bosses.

Unlike traditional big-city progressive politics or the New Left of the 1960s, which were ideologically driven and motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the disadvantaged (even if many of their policy prescriptions proved to be counterproductive in practice), this “new new left” puts its own well-being squarely at the top of the agenda: increasing salaries, defeating attempts to privatise government services, expanding taxpayer-funded programs, and forcing unionisation and regulation onto the private sector through schemes such as “living wage” mandates. The author fears that the steady growth in the political muscle of public sector unions may be approaching or have reached a tipping point—where, albeit not yet a numerical majority, through their organised clout they have the power to elect politicians beholden to them, however costly to the productive sector or ultimately disastrous for their cities, whose taxpayers and businesses may choose to vote with their feet for places where they are viewed as valuable members of the community rather than cash cows to be looted.

Chapter 5 dismantles Richard Florida's crackpot “Creative Class” theory, which argues that by taxing remaining workers and businesses even more heavily and spending the proceeds on art, culture, “diversity”, bike paths, and all the other stuff believed to attract the golden children of the dot.com bubble, rust belt cities already devastated by urban socialism can be reborn. Post dot.bomb, such notions are more worthy of a belly laugh than thorough refutation, but if it's counter-examples and statistics you seek, they're here.

The last three chapters focus almost entirely on New York City. I suppose this isn't surprising, both because New York is often at the cutting edge in urban trends in the U.S., and also because the author is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to its City Journal, where most of this material originally appeared.


Godwin, Robert ed. Friendship 7: The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books, 1999. ISBN 1-896522-60-2.
This installment in the Apogee NASA Mission Reports series contains original pre- and post-flight documents describing the first United States manned orbital flight piloted by John Glenn on February 20th, 1962, including a complete transcript of the air-to-ground communications from launch through splashdown. An excerpt from the Glenn's postflight debriefing describing his observations from space including the “fireflies” seen at orbital sunrise is included, along with a scientific evaluation which, in retrospect, seems to have gotten everything just about right. Glenn's own 13 page report on the flight is among the documents, as is backup pilot Scott Carpenter's report on training for the mission in which he describes the “extinctospectropolariscope-occulogyrogravoadaptometer”, abbreviated “V-Meter” in order to fit into the spacecraft (p. 110). A companion CD-ROM includes a one hour NASA film about the mission, with flight day footage from the tracking stations around the globe, and film from the pilot observation camera synchronised with recorded radio communications. An unintentionally funny introduction by the editor (complete with two idiot “it's”-es on consecutive lines) attempts to defend Glenn's 1998 political junket / P.R. stunt aboard socialist space ship Discovery. “If NASA is going to conduct gerontology experiments in orbit, who is more eminently qualified….” Well, a false predicate does imply anything, but if NASA were at all genuinely interested in geezers in space independent of political payback, why didn't they also fly John Young, only nine years Glenn's junior, who walked on the Moon, commanded the first flight of the space shuttle, was Chief of the Astronaut Office for ten years, and a NASA astronaut continuously from 1962 until his retirement in 2004, yet never given a flight assignment since 1983? Glenn's competence and courage needs no embellishment—and the contrast between the NASA in the days of his first flight and that of his second could not be more stark.


Bockris, John O'M. The New Paradigm. College Station, TX: D&M Enterprises, 2005. ISBN 0-9767444-0-6.
As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the triumphs of classical science were everywhere apparent: Newton's theories of mechanics and gravitation, Maxwell's electrodynamics, the atomic theory of chemistry, Darwin's evolution, Mendel's genetics, and the prospect of formalising all of mathematics from a small set of logical axioms. Certainly, there were a few little details awaiting explanation: the curious failure to detect ether drift in the Michelson-Morley experiment, the pesky anomalous precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury, the seeming contradiction between the equipartition of energy and the actual spectrum of black body radiation, the mysterious patterns in the spectral lines of elements, and the source of the Sun's energy, but these seemed matters the next generation of scientists could resolve by building on the firm foundation laid by the last. Few would have imagined that these curiosities would spark a thirty year revolution in physics which would show the former foundations of science to be valid only in the limits of slow velocities, weak fields, and macroscopic objects.

At the start of the twenty-first century, in the very centennial of Einstein's annus mirabilis, it is only natural to enquire how firm are the foundations of present-day science, and survey the “little details and anomalies” which might point toward scientific revolutions in this century. That is the ambitious goal of this book, whose author's long career in physical chemistry began in 1945 with a Ph.D. from Imperial College, London, and spanned more than forty years as a full professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Flinders University in Australia, and Texas A&M University, where he was Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environmental Chemistry, with more than 700 papers and twenty books to his credit. And it is at this goal that Professor Bockris utterly, unconditionally, and irredeemably fails. By the evidence of the present volume, the author, notwithstanding his distinguished credentials and long career, is a complete idiot.

That's not to say you won't learn some things by reading this book. For example, what do physicists Hendrik Lorentz, Werner Heisenberg, Hannes Alfvén, Albert A. Michelson, and Lord Rayleigh; chemist Amedeo Avogadro, astronomers Chandra Wickramasinghe, Benik Markarian, and Martin Rees; the Weyerhaeuser Company; the Doberman Pinscher dog breed; Renaissance artist Michelangelo; Cepheid variable stars; Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; the Menninger Foundation and the Cavendish Laboratory; evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; religious figures Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop Berkeley, and Teilhard de Chardin; parapsychologists York Dobyns and Brenda Dunne; anomalist William R. Corliss; and Centreville Maryland, Manila in the Philippines, and the Galapagos Islands all have in common?

The “Shaking Pillars of the Paradigm” about which the author expresses sentiments ranging from doubt to disdain in chapter 3 include mathematics (where he considers irrational roots, non-commutative multiplication of quaternions, and the theory of limits among flaws indicative of the “break down” of mathematical foundations [p. 71]), Darwinian evolution, special relativity, what he refers to as “The So-Called General Theory of Relativity” with only the vaguest notion of its content—yet is certain is dead wrong, quantum theory (see p. 120 for a totally bungled explanation of Schrodinger's cat in which he seems to think the result depends upon a decision made by the cat), the big bang (which he deems “preposterus” on p. 138) and the Doppler interpretation of redshifts, and naturalistic theories of the origin of life. Chapter 4 begins with the claim that “There is no physical model which can tell us why [electrostatic] attraction and repulsion occur” (p. 163).

And what are those stubborn facts in which the author does believe, or at least argues merit the attention of science, pointing the way to a new foundation for science in this century? Well, that would be: UFOs and alien landings; Kirlian photography; homeopathy and Jacques Benveniste's “imprinting of water”; crop circles; Qi Gong masters remotely changing the half-life of radioactive substances; the Maharishi Effect and “Vedic Physics”; “cold fusion” and the transmutation of base metals into gold (on both of which the author published while at Texas A&M); telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition; apparitions, poltergeists, haunting, demonic possession, channelling, and appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary; out of body and near-death experiences; survival after death, communication through mediums including physical manifestations, and reincarnation; and psychokinesis, faith and “anomalous” healing (including the “psychic surgeons” of the Philippines), and astrology. The only apparent criterion for the author's endorsement of a phenomenon appears to be its rejection by mainstream science.

Now, many works of crank science can be quite funny, and entirely worth reading for their amusement value. Sadly, this book is so poorly written it cannot be enjoyed even on that level. In the introduction to this reading list I mention that I don't include books which I didn't finish, but that since I've been keeping the list I've never abandoned a book partway through. Well, my record remains intact, but this one sorely tempted me. The style, if you can call it that, is such that one finds it difficult to believe English is the author's mother tongue, no less that his doctorate is from a British university at a time when language skills were valued. The prose is often almost physically painful to read. Here is an example, from footnote 37 on page 117—but you can find similar examples on almost any page; I've chosen this one because it is, in addition, almost completely irrelevant to the text it annotates.

Here, it is relevant to describe a corridor meeting with a mature colleague - keen on Quantum Mechanical calculations, - who had not the friends to give him good grades in his grant applications and thus could not employ students to work with him. I commiserated on his situation, - a professor in a science department without grant money. How can you publish I blurted out, rather tactlessly. “Ah, but I have Lili” he said (I've changed his wife's name). I knew Lili, a pleasant European woman interested in obscure religions. She had a high school education but no university training. “But” … I began to expostulate. “It's ok, ok”, said my colleague. “Well, we buy the programs to calculate bond strengths, put it in the computer and I tell Lili the quantities and she writes down the answer the computer gives. Then, we write a paper.” The program referred to is one which solves the Schrödinger equation and provides energy values, e.g., for bond strength in chemical compounds.
Now sit back, close your eyes, and imagine five hundred pages of this; in spelling, grammar, accuracy, logic, and command of the subject matter it reads like a textbook-length Slashdot post. Several recurrent characteristics are manifest in this excerpt. The author repeatedly, though not consistently, capitalises Important Words within Sentences; he uses hyphens where em-dashes are intended, and seems to have invented his own punctuation sign: a comma followed by a hyphen, which is used interchangeably with commas and em-dashes. The punctuation gives the impression that somebody glanced at the manuscript and told the author, “There aren't enough commas in it”, whereupon he went through and added three or four thousand in completely random locations, however inane. There is an inordinate fondness for “e.g.”, “i.e.”, and “cf.”, and they are used in ways which make one suspect the author isn't completely clear on their meaning or the distinctions among them. And regarding the footnote quoted above, did I mention that the author's wife is named “Lily”, and hails from Austria?

Further evidence of the attention to detail and respect for the reader can be found in chapter 3 where most of the source citations in the last thirty pages are incorrect, and the blank cross-references scattered throughout the text. Not only is it obvious the book has not been fact checked, nor even proofread; it has never even been spelling checked—common words are misspelled all over. Bockris never manages the Slashdot hallmark of misspelling “the”, but on page 475 he misspells “to” as “ot”. Throughout you get the sense that what you're reading is not so much a considered scientific exposition and argument, but rather the raw unedited output of a keystroke capturing program running on the author's computer.

Some readers may take me to task for being too harsh in these remarks, noting that the book was self-published by the author at age 82. (How do I know it was self-published? Because my copy came with the order from Amazon to the publisher to ship it to their warehouse folded inside, and the publisher's address in this document is directly linked to the author.) Well, call me unkind, but permit me to observe that readers don't get a quality discount based on the author's age from the price of US$34.95, which is on the very high end for a five hundred page paperback, nor is there a disclaimer on the front or back cover that the author might not be firing on all cylinders. Certainly, an eminent retired professor ought to be able to call on former colleagues and/or students to review a manuscript which is certain to become an important part of his intellectual legacy, especially as it attempts to expound a new paradigm for science. Even the most cursory editing to remove needless and tedious repetition could knock 100 pages off this book (and eliminating the misinformation and nonsense could probably slim it down to about ten). The vast majority of citations are to secondary sources, many popular science or new age books.

Apart from these drawbacks, Bockris, like many cranks, seems compelled to personally attack Einstein, claiming his work was derivative, hinting at plagiarism, arguing that its significance is less than its reputation implies, and relating an unsourced story claiming Einstein was a poor husband and father (and even if he were, what does that have to do with the correctness and importance of his scientific contributions?). In chapter 2, he rants upon environmental and economic issues, calls for a universal dole (p. 34) for those who do not work (while on p. 436 he decries the effects of just such a dole on Australian youth), calls (p. 57) for censorship of music, compulsory population limitation, and government mandated instruction in philosophy and religion along with promotion of religious practice. Unlike many radical environmentalists of the fascist persuasion, he candidly observes (p. 58) that some of these measures “could not achieved under the present conditions of democracy”. So, while repeatedly inveighing against the corruption of government-funded science, he advocates what amounts to totalitarian government—by scientists.


Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven. New York: Anchor Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-4000-3280-6.
This book uses the true-crime narrative of a brutal 1984 double murder committed by two Mormon fundamentalist brothers as the point of departure to explore the origin and sometimes violent early history of the Mormon faith, the evolution of Mormonism into a major mainstream religion, and the culture of present-day fundamentalist schismatic sects which continue to practice polygamy within a strictly hierarchical male-dominated society, and believe in personal revelation from God. (It should be noted that these sects, although referring to themselves as Mormon, have nothing whatsoever to do with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which excommunicates leaders of such sects and their followers, and has officially renounced the practice of polygamy since the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890. The “Mormon fundamentalist” sects believe themselves to be the true exemplars of the religion founded by Joseph Smith and reject the legitimacy of the mainstream church.)

Mormonism is almost unique among present-day large (more than 11 million members, about half in the United States) religions in having been established recently (1830) in a modern, broadly literate society, so its history is, for better or for worse, among the best historically documented of all religions. This can, of course, pose problems to any religion which claims absolute truth for its revealed messages, as the history of factionalism and schisms in Mormonism vividly demonstrates. The historical parallels between Islam and Mormonism are discussed briefly, and are well worth pondering: both were founded by new revelations building upon the Bible, both incorporated male domination and plural marriage at the outset, both were persecuted by the existing political and religious establishment, fled to a new haven in the desert, and developed in an environment of existential threats and violent responses. One shouldn't get carried away with such analogies—in particular Mormons never indulged in territorial conquest nor conversion at swordpoint. Further, the Mormon doctrine of continued revelation allows the religion to adapt as society evolves: discarding polygamy and, more recently, admitting black men to the priesthood (which, in the Mormon church, is comprised of virtually all adult male members).

Obviously, intertwining the story of the premeditated murder of a young mother and her infant committed by people who believed they were carrying out a divine revelation, with the history of a religion whose present-day believers often perceive themselves as moral exemplars in a decadent secular society is bound to be incendiary, and the reaction of the official Mormon church to the publication of the book was predictably negative. This paperback edition includes an appendix which reprints a review of a pre-publication draft of the original hardcover edition by senior church official Richard E. Turley, Jr., along with the author's response which acknowledges some factual errors noted by Turley (and corrected in this edition) while disputing his claim that the book “presents a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history” (p. 346). While the book is enlightening on each of the topics it treats, it does seem to me that it may try to do too much in too few pages. The history of the Mormon church, exploration of the present-day fundamentalist polygamous colonies in the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and the story of how the Lafferty brothers went from zealotry to murder and their apprehension and trials are all topics deserving of book-length treatment; combining them in a single volume invites claims that the violent acts of a few aberrant (and arguably insane) individuals are being used to slander a church of which they were not even members at the time of their crime.

All of the Mormon scriptures cited in the book are available on-line. Thanks to the reader who recommended this book; I'd never have otherwise discovered it.


Lileks, James. Mommy Knows Worst. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8228-5.
Why did we baby boomers end up so doggone weird? Maybe it's thanks to all the “scientific” advice our parents received from “experts” who seemed convinced that despite millennia of ever-growing human population, new parents didn't have the slightest clue what do with babies and small children. James Lileks, who is emerging as one of the most talented and prolific humorists of this young century, collects some of the very best/worst of such advice in this volume, along with his side-splitting comments, as in the earlier volumes on food and interior decoration. Flip the pages and learn, as our parents did, why babies should be turned regularly as they broil in the Sun (pp. 36–42), why doping little snookums with opiates to make the bloody squaller shut up is a bad idea (pp. 44–48), why everything should be boiled, except for those which should be double boiled (pp. 26, 58–59, 65–68), plus the perfect solution for baby's ears that stick out like air scoops (pp. 32–33). This collection is laugh-out-loud funny from cover to cover; if you're looking for more in this vein, be sure to visit The Institute of Official Cheer and other features on the author's Web site which now includes a weekly audio broadcast.


Truss, Lynne. Talk to the Hand. London: Profile Books, 2005. ISBN 1-86197-933-9.
Following the runaway success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (January 2004), one might have expected the author to follow up with another book on grammar, but instead in this outing she opted to confront the “utter bloody rudeness of everyday life”. Not long ago I might have considered these topics unrelated, but after the publication in July 2005 of Strike Out, and the subsequent discussion it engendered, I've come to realise that slapdash spelling and grammar are, as explained on page 23 here, simply one aspect of the rudeness which affronts us from all sides. As Bernard Pivot observed, “[spelling] remains a politeness one owes to our language, and a politeness one owes to those to whom one writes.”

In this book Truss parses rudeness into six categories, and explores how modern technology and society have nearly erased the distinctions between private and public spaces, encouraging or at least reducing the opprobrium of violating what were once universally shared social norms. (Imagine, for example, how shocking it would have seemed in 1965 to overhear the kind of intensely personal or confidential business conversation between two fellow passengers on a train which it is now entirely routine to hear one side of as somebody obliviously chatters into their mobile phone.)

Chapter 2, “Why am I the One Doing This?”, is 23 pages of pure wisdom for designers of business systems, customer relations managers, and designers of user interfaces for automated systems; it perfectly expresses the rage which justifiably overcomes people who feel themselves victimised for the convenience and/or profit of the counterparty in a transaction which is supposedly of mutual benefit. This is a trend which, in my opinion (particularly in computer user interface design), has been going in the wrong direction since I began to rant about it almost twenty years ago.

A U.S edition is also available.