January 2012

Walsh, Michael. Early Warning. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7860-2043-0.
This is the second novel in the author's “Devlin” series of thrillers. When I read the first, Hostile Intent, I described it as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author “may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did go ahead and read the next book in the series, and I'm pleased to report that the versatile and accomplished author (see the review of Hostile Intent for a brief biography and summary of his other work) has indeed now mastered the genre and this novel is as tightly plotted, action packed, and bristling with detail as the work of Vince Flynn and Brad Thor.

In this novel, renegade billionaire Emanuel Skorzeny, after having escaped justice for the depredations he unleashed in the previous novel, has been reduced to hiding out in jurisdictions which have no extradition treaty with the United States. NSA covert agent “Devlin” is on his trail when a coordinated series of terrorist attacks strike New York City. Feckless U.S. President Jeb Tyler decides to leave New York's police Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) to fend for itself to avoid the débâcle being laid at his feet, but allows Devlin to be sent in covertly to track down and take out the malefactors. Devlin assumes his “angel of death” persona and goes to work, eventually becoming also the guardian angel of the head of CTU, old school second generation Irish cop Francis Xavier Byrne.

Devlin and the CTU eventually help the perpetrators achieve the martyrdom to which they aspire, but not before massive damage is inflicted upon the city and one terrorist goal accomplished which may cause even more in the future. How this fits into Skorzeny's evil schemes still remains to be discovered, as the mastermind's plot seems to involve not only mayhem on the streets of Manhattan but also the Higgs boson.

The action and intrigue are leavened by excursions into cryptography (did you know about the Poe Cryptographic Challenge?), the music of Edward Elgar, and Devlin's developing relationship with the enigmatic Iranian expatriate “Maryam”. This is an entertaining and satisfying thriller, and I'm planning to read the next episode, Shock Warning, in due time.


Rawles, James Wesley. Survivors. New York: Atria Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-7280-3.
This novel is frequently described as a sequel to the author's Patriots (December 2008), but in fact is set in the same time period and broadens the scope from a small group of scrupulously prepared families coping with a “grid down” societal collapse in an isolated and defensible retreat to people all around the U.S. and the globe in a wide variety of states of readiness dealing with the day to day exigencies after a hyperinflationary blow-off destroys paper money worldwide and leads to a breakdown in the just-in-time economy upon which life in the developed world has become dependent.

The novel tracks a variety of people in different circumstances: an Army captain mustered out of active duty in Afghanistan, an oil man seeking to ride out the calamity doing what he knows best, a gang leader seeing the collapse of the old order as the opportunity of a lifetime, and ordinary people forced to summon extraordinary resources from within themselves when confronted with circumstances nobody imagined plausible. Their stories illustrate how even a small degree of preparation (most importantly, the knowledge and skills you possess, not the goods and gear you own [although the latter should not be neglected—without a source of clean water, in 72 hours you're a refugee, and as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote in Lucifer's Hammer, “No place is more than two meals from a revolution”]) can make all the difference when all the rules change overnight.

Rawles is that rarest of authors: a know-it-all who actually knows it all—embedded in this story, which can be read simply as a periapocalyptic thriller, is a wealth of information for those who wish to make their own preparations for such discontinuities in their own future light cones. You'll want to read this book with a browser window open to look up terms and references to gear dropped in the text (acronyms are defined in the glossary at the end, but you're on your own in researching products).

Some mylar-thin thinkers welcome societal collapse; they imagine it will sweep away the dysfunction and corruption that surrounds us today and usher in a more honourable and moral order. Well, that may be the ultimate result (or maybe it won't: a dark age has its own momentum, and once a culture has not only forgotten what it knew, but forgotten what it has forgotten, recovery can take as long or longer than it took to initially discover what has been lost). Societal collapse, whatever the cause, will be horrific for those who endure it, many of whom will not survive and end their days in misery and terror. Civilisation is a thin veneer on the red in tooth and claw heritage of our species, and the predators among us will be the first to exploit the opportunity that a breakdown in order presents.

This novel presents a ruthlessly realistic picture of what societal collapse looks like to those living it. In a way, it is airbrushed—we see the carnage in the major metropolitan areas only from a distance. But for those looking at the seemingly endless list of “unsustainable” trends underway at present and wise enough to note that something which is unsustainable will, perforce, end, this book will help them think about the aftermath of that end and suggest preparations which may help riding it out and positioning themselves to prosper in the inevitable recovery.


Young, Anthony. The Saturn V F-1 Engine. Chichester, UK: Springer Praxis, 2009. ISBN 978-0-387-09629-2.
The F-1 rocket engine which powered the first (S-IC) stage of the Saturn V booster, which launched all of the Apollo missions to the Moon and, as a two stage variant, the Skylab space station, was one of the singular engineering achievements of the twentieth century, which this magnificent book chronicles in exquisite detail. When the U.S. Air Force contracted with Rocketdyne in 1958 for the preliminary design of a single chamber engine with between 1 and 1.5 million pounds of thrust, the largest existing U.S. rocket engine had less than a quarter the maximum thrust of the proposed new powerplant, and there was no experience base to provide confidence that problems such as ignition transients and combustion instability which bedevil liquid rockets would not prove insuperable when scaling an engine to such a size. (The Soviets were known to have heavy-lift boosters, but at the time nobody knew their engine configuration. In fact, when their details came to be known in the West, they were discovered to use multiple combustion chambers and/or clustering of engines precisely to avoid the challenges of very large engines.)

When the F-1 development began, there was no rocket on the drawing board intended to use it, nor any mission defined which would require it. The Air Force had simply established that such an engine would be adequate to accomplish any military mission in the foreseeable future. When NASA took over responsibility for heavy launchers from the Air Force, the F-1 engine became central to the evolving heavy lifters envisioned for missions beyond Earth orbit. After Kennedy's decision to mount a manned lunar landing mission, NASA embarked on a furious effort to define how such a mission could be accomplished and what hardware would be required to perform it. The only alternative to heavy lift would be a large number of launches which assembled the Moon ship in Earth orbit, which was a daunting prospect at a time when not only were rockets famously unreliable and difficult to launch on time, but nobody had ever so much as attempted rendezvous in space, no less orbital assembly or refuelling operations.

With the eventual choice of lunar orbit rendezvous as the mission mode, it became apparent that it would be possible to perform the lunar landing mission with a single launch of a booster with 7.5 million pounds of sea level thrust, which could be obtained from a cluster of five F-1 engines (which by that time NASA had specified as 1.5 million pounds of thrust). From the moment the preliminary design of the Saturn V was defined until Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the definition, design, testing, and manufacturing of the F-1 engine was squarely on the critical path of the Apollo project. If the F-1 did not work, or was insufficiently reliable to perform in a cluster of five and launch on time in tight lunar launch windows, or could not have been manufactured in the quantities required, there would be no lunar landing. If the schedule of the F-1 slipped, the Apollo project would slip day-for-day along with its prime mover.

This book recounts the history, rationale, design, development, testing, refinement, transition to serial production, integration into test articles and flight hardware, and service history of this magnificent machine. Sadly, at this remove, some of the key individuals involved in this project are no longer with us, but the author tracked down those who remain and discovered interviews done earlier by other researchers with the departed, and he stands back and lets them speak, in lengthy quotations, not just about the engineering and management challenges they faced and how they were resolved, but what it felt like to be there, then. You get the palpable sense from these accounts that despite the tension, schedule and budget pressure, long hours, and frustration as problem after problem had to be diagnosed and resolved, these people were having the time of their lives, and that they knew it at the time and cherish it even at a half century's remove. The author has collected more than a hundred contemporary photographs, many in colour, which complement the text.

A total of sixty-five F-1 engines powered 13 Saturn V flight vehicles. They performed with 100% reliability.


King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York: Scribner, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-2728-2.
I gave up on Stephen King in the early 1990s. I had become weary of what seemed to me self-indulgent doorstops of novels which could have been improved by a sharp-pencilled editor cutting them by one third to one half, but weren't because what editor would dare strike words by such a celebrated (and profitable to the publisher) author? I never made it through either Gerald's Game or Insomnia and after that I stopped trying. Recently I heard good things from several sources I respect about the present work and, despite its formidable length (850 pages in hardcover), decided to give it a try (especially since I've always been a fan of time travel fiction and purported fact) to see if, a decade and a half later, King still “has it”.

The title is the date of the assassination of the U.S. president John F. Kennedy: November the 22nd of 1963 (written in the quaint American way). In the novel, Jake Epping, a school teacher in Maine, happens to come across a splice in time or wormhole or whatever you choose to call it which allows bidirectional travel between his world in 2011 and September of 1958. Persuaded by the person who discovered the inexplicable transtemporal portal and revealed it to him, Jake takes upon himself the mission of returning to the past and living there until November of 1963 with the goal of averting the assassination and preventing the pernicious sequelæ which he believed to have originated in that calamity.

Upon arrival in the past, he discovers from other lesser wrongs he seeks to right that while the past can be changed, it doesn't like to be changed and pushes back—it is mutable but “obdurate”. As he lives his life in that lost and largely forgotten country which was the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century, he discovers how much has been lost compared to our times, and also how far we have come from commonplace and unperceived injustices and assaults upon the senses and health of that epoch. Still, with a few rare exceptions, King forgoes the smug “look at how much better we are than those rubes” tone that so many contemporary authors adopt when describing the 1950s; you get the sense that King has a deep affection for the era in which he (and I) grew up, and it's apparent here.

I'm going to go behind the curtain now to discuss some of the details of the novel and the (remarkably few) quibbles I have with it. I don't consider any of these “big spoilers”, but others may dissent, so I'd rather err on the side of caution lest some irritated time traveller come back and….

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
As I got into the novel, I was afraid I'd end up hurling it across the room (well, not actually, since I was reading the Kindle edition and I'm rather fond of my iPad) because the model of time travel employed just didn't make any sense. But before long, I began to have a deeper respect for what King was doing, and by the end of the book I came to appreciate that what he'd created was largely compatible with the past/future multiverse picture presented in David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality and my own concept of conscious yet constrained multiverse navigation in “Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena”.

If this gets made into a movie or miniseries (and that's the way to bet), I'll bet that scene on p. 178 where the playground roundy-round slowly spins with no kids in sight on a windless day makes the cut—brrrrr.

A few minutes' reflection will yield several ways that Jake, given access to the Internet in 2011 and the properties of the time portal, could have accumulated unlimited funds to use in the past without taking the risks he did. I'll avert my eyes here; removing the constraints he found himself under would torpedo a large part of the plot.

On p. 457 et seq. Jake refers to an “omnidirectional microphone” when what is meant is a “directional” or “parabolic” microphone.

On p. 506 the author states that during the Cuban missile crisis “American missile bases and the Strategic Air Command had gone to DEFCON-4 for the first time in history.” This makes the common error in popular fiction that a higher number indicates a greater alert condition or closeness to war. In fact, it goes the other way: DEFCON 5 corresponds to peacetime—the lowest state of readiness, while DEFCON 1 means nuclear war is imminent. During the Cuban missile crisis, SAC was ordered to DEFCON 2 while the balance of the military was at DEFCON 3.

On p. 635, the righthand man of the dictator of Haiti is identified as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, boss of the tonton macoute. But Baby Doc was born in 1951, and at the time would have been twelve years old, unlikely to wield such powers.

If the ending doesn't make your eyes mist up, you're probably, like the protagonist, “not a crying [person]”.

Spoilers end here.  

There is a poignant sense of the momentum of events in the past here which I have not felt in any time travel fiction since Michael Moorcock's masterpiece Behold The Man.

Bottom line? King's still got it.


February 2012

Hall, R. Cargill. Lunar Impact. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1977. ISBN 978-0-486-47757-2. NASA SP-4210.
One of the wonderful things about the emergence of electronic books is that long out-of-print works from publishers' back-lists are becoming available once again since the cost of keeping them in print, after the initial conversion to an electronic format, is essentially zero. The U.S. civilian space agency NASA is to be commended for their efforts to make publications in their NASA history series available electronically at a bargain price. Many of these documents, chronicling the early days of space exploration from a perspective only a few years after the events, have been out of print for decades and some command forbidding prices on used book markets. Those interested in reading them, as opposed to collectors, now have an option as inexpensive as it is convenient to put these works in their hands.

The present volume, originally published in 1977, chronicles Project Ranger, NASA's first attempt to obtain “ground truth” about the surface of the Moon by sending probes to crash on its surface, radioing back high-resolution pictures, measuring its composition, and hard-landing scientific instruments on the surface to study the Moon's geology. When the project was begun in 1959, it was breathtakingly ambitious—so much so that one gets the sense those who set its goals did not fully appreciate the difficulty of accomplishing them. Ranger was to be not just a purpose-built lunar probe, but rather a general-purpose “bus” for lunar and planetary missions which could be equipped with different scientific instruments depending upon the destination and goals of the flight. It would incorporate, for the first time in a deep space mission, three-axis stabilisation, a steerable high-gain antenna, midcourse and terminal trajectory correction, an onboard (albeit extremely primitive) computer, real-time transmission of television imagery, support by a global Deep Space Network of tracking stations which did not exist before Ranger, sterilisation of the spacecraft to protect against contamination of celestial bodies by terrestrial organisms, and a retro-rocket and landing capsule which would allow rudimentary scientific instruments to survive thumping down on the Moon and transmit their results back to Earth.

This was a great deal to bite off, and as those charged with delivering upon these lofty goals discovered, extremely difficult to chew, especially in a period where NASA was still in the process of organising itself and lines of authority among NASA Headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (charged with developing the spacecraft and conducting the missions) and the Air Force (which provided the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle that propelled Ranger to the Moon) were ill-defined and shifting frequently. This, along with the inherent difficulty of what was being attempted, contributed to results which can scarcely be imagined in an era of super-conservative mission design: six consecutive failures between 1961 and 1964, with a wide variety of causes. Even in the early days of spaceflight, this was enough to get the attention of the press, politicians, and public, and it was highly probable that had Ranger 7 also failed, it would be the end of the program. But it didn't—de-scoped to just a camera platform, it performed flawlessly and provided the first close-up glimpse of the Moon's surface. Rangers 8 and 9 followed, both complete successes, with the latter relaying pictures “live from the Moon” to televisions of viewers around the world. To this day I recall seeing them and experiencing a sense of wonder which is difficult to appreciate in our jaded age.

Project Ranger provided both the technology and experience base used in the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury. While the scientific results of Ranger were soon eclipsed by those of the Surveyor soft landers, it is unlikely that program would have succeeded without learning the painful lessons from Ranger.

The electronic edition of this book appears to have been created by scanning a print copy and running it through an optical character recognition program, then performing a spelling check and fixing errors it noted. However, no close proofreading appears to have been done, so that scanning errors which resulted in words in the spelling dictionary were not corrected. This results in a number of goofs in the text, some of which are humorous. My favourite is the phrase “midcourse correction bum [burn]” which occurs on several occasions. I imagine a dissipated wino with his trembling finger quivering above a big red “FIRE” button at a console at JPL. British readers may…no, I'm not going there. Illustrations from the original book are scanned and included as tiny thumbnails which cannot be enlarged. This is adequate for head shots of people, but for diagrams, charts, and photographs of hardware and the lunar surface, next to useless. References to endnotes in the text look like links but (at least reading the Kindle edition on an iPad) do nothing. These minor flaws do not seriously detract from the glimpse this work provides of unmanned planetary exploration at its moment of creation or the joy that this account is once again readily available.

Unlike many of the NASA history series, a paperback reprint edition is available, published by Dover. It is, however, much more expensive than the electronic edition.

Update: Reader J. Peterson writes that a free on-line edition of this book is available on NASA's Web site, in which the illustrations may be clicked to view full-resolution images.


Kershaw, Ian. The End. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-59420-314-5.
Ian Kershaw is the author of the definitive two-volume biography of Hitler: Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis (both of which I read before I began keeping this list). In the present volume he tackles one of the greatest puzzles of World War II: why did Germany continue fighting to the bitter end, when the Red Army was only blocks from Hitler's bunker, and long after it was apparent to those in the Nazi hierarchy, senior military commanders, industrialists, and the general populace that the war was lost and continuing the conflict would only prolong the suffering, inflict further casualties, and further devastate the infrastructure upon which survival in a postwar world would depend? It is, as the author notes, quite rare in the history of human conflict that the battle has to be taken all the way to the leader of an opponent in his capital city: Mussolini was deposed by his own Grand Council of Fascism and the king of Italy, and Japan surrendered before a single Allied soldier set foot upon the Home Islands (albeit after the imposition of a total blockade, the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, and the destruction of two cities by atomic bombs).

In addressing this question, the author recounts the last year of the war in great detail, starting with the Stauffenberg plot, which attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944. In the aftermath of this plot, a ruthless purge of those considered unreliable in the military and party ensued (in the Wehrmacht alone, around 700 officers were arrested and 110 executed), those who survived were forced to swear personal allegiance to Hitler, and additional informants and internal repression were unleashed to identify and mete out summary punishment for any perceived disloyalty or defeatist sentiment. This, in effect, aligned those who might have opposed Hitler with his own personal destiny and made any overt expression of dissent from his will to hold out to the end tantamount to suicide.

But the story does not end there. Letters from soldiers at the front, meticulously catalogued by the censors of the SD and summarised in reports to Goebbels's propaganda ministry, indicate that while morale deteriorated in the last year of the war, fear of the consequences of a defeat, particularly at the hands of the Red Army, motivated many to keep on fighting. Propaganda highlighted the atrocities committed by the “Asian Bolshevik hordes” but, if exaggerated, was grounded in fact, as the Red Army was largely given a free hand if not encouraged to exact revenge for German war crimes on Soviet territory.

As the dénouement approached, those in Hitler's inner circle, who might have otherwise moved against him under other circumstances, were paralysed by the knowledge that their own authority flowed entirely from him, and that any hint of disloyalty would cause them to be dismissed or worse (as had already happened to several). With the Party and its informants and enforcers having thoroughly infiltrated the military and civilian population, there was simply no chance for an opposition movement to establish itself. Certainly there were those, particularly on the Western front, who did as little as possible and waited for the British and Americans to arrive (the French—not so much: reprisals under the zones they occupied had already inspired fear among those in their path). But finally, as long as Hitler was determined to resist to the very last and willing to accept the total destruction of the German people who he deemed to have “failed him”, there was simply no counterpoise which could oppose him and put an end to the conflict. Tellingly, only a week after Hitler's death, his successor, Karl Dönitz, ordered the surrender of Germany.

This is a superb, thoughtful, and thoroughly documented (indeed, almost 40% of the book is source citations and notes) account of the final days of the Third Reich and an enlightening and persuasive argument as to why things ended as they did.

As with all insightful works of history, the reader may be prompted to see parallels in other epochs and current events. Personally, I gained a great deal of insight into the ongoing financial crisis and the increasingly futile efforts of those who brought it about to (as the tired phrase, endlessly repeated) “kick the can down the road” rather than make the structural changes which might address the actual causes of the problem. Now, I'm not calling the central bankers, politicians, or multinational bank syndicates Nazis—I'm simply observing that as the financial apocalypse approaches they're behaving in much the same way as the Hitler regime did in its own final days: trying increasingly desperate measures to buy first months, then weeks, then days, and ultimately hours before “The End”. Much as was the case with Hitler's inner circle, those calling the shots in the international financial system simply cannot imagine a world in which it no longer exists, or their place in such a world, so they continue to buy time, whatever the cost or how small the interval, to preserve the reference frame in which they exist. The shudder of artillery can already be felt in the bunker.


Guiteras, Daniel. Launch On Need. Unknown: T-Cell Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-615-37221-1.
An almost universal convention of the alternative history genre is that there is a single point of departure (which I call “the veer”) where an event or fact in the narrative differs from that in the historical record, whence the rest of the story plays out with the same logic and plausibility as what actually happened in our timeline. When this is done well, it makes for engaging and thought-provoking fiction, as there are few things which so engage the cognitive veneer of our ancient brains as asking “what if?” This book is a superb exemplar of this genre, which works both as a thriller and an exploration of how the Space Shuttle program might have coped with the damage to orbiter Columbia due to foam shed from the bipod ramp of the external tank during its launch on STS-107.

Here, the veer is imagining NASA remained the kind of “can do”, “whatever it takes” organisation that it was in the early days of space flight through the rescue of Apollo 13 instead of the sclerotic bureaucracy it had become in the Shuttle era (and remains today). Dismissing evidence of damage to Columbia's thermal protection system (TPS) due to a foam strike, and not even seeking imagery from spy satellites, NASA's passive “managers” sighed and said “nothing could be done anyway” and allowed the crew to complete their mission and die during re-entry.

This needn't have happened. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) explored whether a rescue mission (PDF, scroll down to page 173), mounted as soon as possible after the possible damage to Columbia's TPS was detected, might have been able to rescue the crew before the expendables aboard Columbia were exhausted. Their conclusion? A rescue mission was possible, but only at the cost of cutting corners on safety margins and assuming nothing went wrong in the process of bringing the rescue shuttle, Atlantis, to the pad and launching her.

In this novel, the author takes great care to respect the dead, only referring to members of Columbia's crew by their crew positions such as “commander” or “mission specialist”, and invents names for those in NASA involved in the management of the actual mission. He draws upon the CAIB-envisioned rescue mission, including tables and graphics from their report, while humanising their dry prose with views of events as they unfold by fallible humans living them.

You knew this was coming, didn't you? You were waiting for it—confess! So here we go, into the quibbles. Some of these are substantial spoilers, so be warned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Page numbers in the items below are from the Kindle edition, in which page numbers and their correspondence to print editions tend to be somewhat fluid. Consequently, depending upon how you arrive there, the page number in your edition may differ by ±1 page.

On p. 2, Brown “knew E208 was a high-resolution video camera…” which “By T-plus-240 seconds … had run through 1,000 feet of film.”
Video cameras do not use film. The confusion between video and film persists for several subsequent chapters.
On p. 5 the fifth Space Shuttle orbiter constructed is referred to as “Endeavor”.
In fact, this ship's name is properly spelled “Endeavour”, named after the Royal Navy research ship.
On p. 28 “…the crew members spent an additional 3,500 hundred hours studying and training…”
That's forty years—I think not.
On p. 55 Kalpana Chawla is described as a “female Indian astronaut.”
While Chawla was born in India, she became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and presumably relinquished her Indian citizenship in the process of naturalisation.
On p. 57 “Both [STS-107] astronauts selected for this EVA have previous spacewalk experience…”.
In fact, none of the STS-107 astronauts had ever performed an EVA.
On p. 65 “Normally, when spacewalks were part of the mission plan, the entire cabin of the orbiter was decompressed at least 24 hours prior to the start of the spacewalk.”
Are you crazy! EVA crewmembers pre-breathe pure oxygen in the cabin, then adapt to the low pressure of the spacesuit in the airlock, but the Shuttle cabin is never depressurised. If it were what would the other crewmembers breathe—Fireball XL5 oxygen pills?
On p. 75 the EVA astronaut looks out from Columbia's airlock and sees Cape Horn.
But the mission has been launched into an inclination of 39 degrees, so Cape Horn (55°59' S) should be out of sight to the South. Here is the view from Columbia's altitude on a pass over South America at the latitude of Cape Horn.
On p. 221 the countdown clock is said to have been “stuck on nine minutes zero seconds for the past three hours and twenty-seven minutes.”
The T−9 minute hold is never remotely that long. It's usually on the order of 10 to 20 minutes. If there were a reason for such a long hold, it would have been performed much earlier in the count. In any case, given the short launch window for the rendezvous, there'd be no reason for a long planned hold, and an unplanned hold would have resulted in a scrub of the mission until the next alignment with the plane of Columbia's orbit.
On p. 271 the crew of Atlantis open the payload bay doors shortly before the rendezvous with Columbia.
This makes no sense. Shuttles have to open their payload bay doors shortly after achieving orbit so that the radiators can discard heat. Atlantis would have opened its payload bay doors on the first orbit, not 24 hours later whilst approaching Columbia.
On p. 299 the consequences of blowing the crew ingress/egress hatch with the pyrotechnics is discussed.
There is no reason to consider doing this. From the inception of the shuttle program, the orbiter hatch has been able to be opened from the inside. The crew need only depressurise the orbiter and then operate the hatch opening mechanism.
On p. 332 “Standing by for communications blackout.”
The communications blackout is a staple of spaceflight drama but, in the shuttle era described in this novel, a thing of the past. While communications from the ground are blocked by plasma during reentry, communications from the shuttle routed through the TDRSS satellites are available throughout reentry except for brief periods when the orbiter's antennas are not aimed at the relay satellite overhead.
On p. 349 an Aegis guided missile cruiser shoots down the abandoned Columbia.
Where do I start? A space shuttle orbiter weighs about 100 tonnes. An SM-3 has a kinetic kill energy of around 130 megajoules, which is impressive, but is likely to pass through the structure of the shuttle, dispersing some debris, but leaving most of the mass behind. But let's suppose Columbia were dispersed into her component parts. Well, then the massive parts, such as the three main engines, would remain in orbit even longer, freed of the high-drag encumbrance of the rest of the structure, and come down hot and hard at random places around the globe. Probably, they'd splash in the ocean, but maybe they wouldn't—we'll never know.
Spoilers end here.  

While it's fun to spot and research goofs like these, I found they did not detract in any way from enjoyment of the novel, which is a perfectly plausible alternative history of Columbia's last mission.


Russell, Sharman Apt. Hunger: An Unnatural History. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-465-07165-4.
As the author begins this volume, “Hunger is a country we enter every day…”. Our bodies (and especially our hypertrophied brains) require a constant supply of energy, and have only a limited and relatively inefficient means to store excesses and release it upon demand, and consequently we have evolved to have a strong and immediate sense for inadequate nutrition, which in the normal course of things causes us to find something to eat. When we do not eat, regardless of the cause, we experience hunger, which is one of the strongest of somatic sensations. Whether hunger is caused by famine, fasting from ritual or in search of transcendence, forgoing food in favour of others, a deliberate hunger strike with the goal of effecting social or political change, deprivation at the hands of a coercive regime, or self-induced by a dietary regime aimed at improving one's health or appearance, it has the same grip upon the gut and the brain. As I wrote in The Hacker's Diet:

Hunger is a command, not a request. Hunger is looking at your dog curled up sleeping on the rug and thinking, “I wonder how much meat there is beneath all that fur?”

Here, the author explores hunger both at the level of biochemistry (where you may be amazed how much has been learned in the past few decades as to how the body regulates appetite and the fall-back from glucose-based metabolism from food to ketone body energy produced from stored fat, and how the ratio of energy from consumption of muscle mass differs between lean and obese individuals and varies over time) and the historical and social context of hunger. We encounter mystics and saints who fast to discover a higher wisdom or their inner essence; political activists (including Gandhi) willing to starve themselves to the point of death to shame their oppressors into capitulation; peoples whose circumstances have created a perverse (to us, the well-fed) culture built around hunger as the usual state of affairs; volunteers who participated in projects to explore the process of starvation and means to rescue those near death from its consequences; doctors in the Warsaw ghetto who documented the effects of starvation in patients they lacked the resources to save; and the millions of victims of famine in the last two centuries.

In discussing famine, the author appears uncomfortable with the fact, reluctantly alluded to, that famine in the modern era is almost never the result of a shortage of food, but rather the consequence of coercive government either constraining the supply of food or blocking its delivery to those in need. Even in the great Irish famine of the 1840s, Ireland continued to export food even as its population starved. (The author argues that even had the exports been halted, the food would have been inadequate to feed the Irish, but even so, they could have saved some, and this is before considering potential food shipments from the rest of the “Union” to a starving Ireland. [Pardon me if this gets me going—ancestors….]) Certainly today it is beyond dispute that the world produces far more food (at least as measured by calories and principal nutrients) than is needed to feed its population. Consequently, whenever there is a famine, the cause is not a shortage of food but rather an interruption in its delivery to those who need it. While aid programs can help to alleviate crises, and “re-feeding” therapy can rescue those on the brink of death by hunger, the problem will persist until the dysfunctional governments that starve their people and loot aid intended for them are eliminated. Given how those who've starved in recent decades have usually been disempowered minorities, perhaps it would be more effective in the long term to arm them than to feed them.

You will not find such gnarly sentiments in this book, which is very much aligned with the NGO view that famine due to evil coercive dictatorships is just one of those things that happens, like hurricanes. That said, I cannot recommend this book too highly. The biochemical view of hunger and energy storage and release in times of feast and famine alone is worth the price of admission, and the exploration of hunger in religion, politics, and even entertainment puts it over the top. If you're dieting, this may not be the book to read, but on the other hand, maybe it's just the thing.

The author is the daughter of Milburn G. “Mel” Apt, the first human to fly faster than Mach 3, who died when his X-2 research plane crashed after its record-setting flight.


March 2012

Mallan, Lloyd. Russia and the Big Red Lie. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1959. LCCN 59004006.
It is difficult for those who did not live through the era to appreciate the extent to which Sputnik shook the self-confidence of the West and defenders of the open society and free markets around the world. If the West's social and economic systems were genuinely superior to totalitarian rule and central planning, then how had the latter, starting from a base only a half century before where illiterate peasants were bound to the land as serfs, and in little more than a decade after their country was devastated in World War II, managed to pull off a technological achievement which had so far eluded the West and was evidence of a mastery of rocketry which could put the United States heartland at risk? Suddenly the fellow travellers and useful idiots in the West were energised: “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational socialist economy!”

The author, a prolific writer on aerospace and technology, was as impressed as anybody else by the stunning Soviet accomplishment, and undertook the daunting task of arranging a visit to the Soviet Union to see for himself the prowess of Soviet science and technology. After a halting start, he secured a visa and introductions from prominent U.S. scientists to their Soviet counterparts, and journeyed to the Soviet Union in April of 1958, travelled extensively in the country, visiting, among other destinations, Moscow, Leningrad, Odessa, Yalta, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Yerevan, Kharkov, and Alma-Ata, leaving Soviet soil in June 1958. He had extensive, on the record, meetings with a long list of eminent Soviet scientists and engineers, many members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And he came back with a conclusion utterly opposed to that of the consensus in the West: Soviet technological prowess was about 1% military-style brute force and 99% bluff and hoax.

As one intimately acquainted with Western technology, what he saw in the Soviet Union was mostly comparable to the state of the art in the West a decade earlier, and in many cases obviously copied from Western equipment. The scientists he interviewed, who had been quoted in the Soviet press as forecasting stunning achievements in the near future, often, when interviewed in person, said “that's all just theory—nobody is actually working on that”. The much-vaunted Soviet jet and turboprop airliners he'd heard of were nowhere in evidence anywhere he travelled, and evidence suggested that Soviet commercial aviation lacked navigation and instrument landing systems which were commonplace in the West.

Faced with evidence that Soviet technological accomplishments were simply another front in a propaganda offensive aimed at persuading the world of the superiority of communism, the author dug deeper into the specifics of Soviet claims, and here (from the perspective of half a century on) he got some things right and goofed on others. He goes to great length to argue that the Luna 1 Moon probe was a total hoax, based both on Soviet technological capability and the evidence of repeated failure by Western listening posts to detect its radio signals. Current thinking is that Luna 1 was a genuine mission intended to impact on the Moon, but the Soviet claim it was deliberately launched into solar orbit as an “artificial planet” propaganda aimed at covering up its missing the Moon due to a guidance failure. (This became obvious to all when the near-identical Luna 2 impacted the moon eight months later.) The fact that the Soviets possessed the technology to conduct lunar missions was demonstrated when Luna 3 flew around the Moon in October 1959 and returned the first crude images of its far side (other Luna 3 images). Although Mallan later claimed these images were faked and contained brush strokes, we now know they were genuine, since they are strikingly similar to subsequent imagery, including the albedo map from the Clementine lunar orbiter. “Vas you dere, Ivan?” Well, actually, yes. Luna 3 was the “boomerang” mission around the Moon which Mallan had heard of before visiting the Soviet Union but was told was just a theory when he was there. And yet, had the Soviets had the ability to communicate with Luna 1 at the distance of the Moon, there would have been no reason to make Luna 3 loop around the Moon in order to transmit its pictures from closer to the Earth—enigmas, enigmas, enigmas.

In other matters, the author is dead on, where distinguished Western “experts” and “analysts” were completely taken in by the propaganda. He correctly identifies the Soviet “ICBM” from the 1957 Red Square parade as an intermediate range missile closer to the German V-2 than an intercontinental weapon. (The Soviet ICBM, the R-7, was indeed tested in 1957, but it was an entirely different design and could never have been paraded on a mobile launcher; it did not enter operational service until 1959.) He is also almost precisely on the money when he estimates the Soviet “ICBM arsenal” as on the order of half a dozen missiles, while the CIA was talking about hundreds of Soviet missiles aimed at the West and demagogues were ratcheting up rhetoric about a “missile gap”.

You don't read this for factual revelations: everything discussed here is now known much better, and there are many conclusions drawn in this text from murky contemporary evidence which have proven incorrect. But if you wish to immerse yourself in the Cold War and imagine yourself trying to figure it all out from the sketchy and distorted information coming from the adversary, it is very enlightening. One wishes more people had listened to Mallan—how much folly we might have avoided.

There is also wisdom in what he got wrong. Space spectaculars can be accomplished in a military manner by expending vast resources coercively taken from the productive sector on centrally-planned projects with narrow goals. Consequently, it isn't surprising a command economy such as that of the Soviet Union managed to achieve milestones in space (while failing to deliver adequate supplies of soap and toilet paper to workers toiling in their “paradise”). Indeed, in many ways, the U.S. Apollo program was even more centrally planned than its Soviet counterpart, and the pernicious example it set has damaged efforts to sustainably develop and exploit space ever since.

This “Fawcett Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated containing a single long article. It even includes the usual delightful advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what amounts to a pulp magazine. Is this work in the public domain and hence eligible to be posted on the Web? I don't know. It may well be: it was published before 1978, and unless its copyright was renewed in 1987 when its original 28 year term expired, it is public domain. Otherwise, as a publication by a “corporate author”, it will remain in copyright until 2079, which makes a mockery of the “limited Times to Authors” provision of the U.S. Constitution. If somebody can confirm this work is in the public domain, I'll scan it and make it available on the Web.


Pennington, Maura. Great Men Are Free Men. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4664-4196-5.
This is so bad it is scarcely worth remarking upon. Hey, the Kindle edition is (at this writing) only a buck eighteen, but you also have to consider the value of the time it'll take you to read it, which is less than you might think because it's only 116 pages in the print edition, and much of that is white space around vapid dialogue. This is really a novella: there are no chapters (although two “parts” which differ little from one another, and hardly any character development. In fact, the absence of character development is only one aspect of the more general observation that nothing much happens at all.

A bunch of twenty-something members of the write-off generation are living in decadent imperial D.C., all cogs or aspiring cogs in the mindless and aimless machine of administrative soft despotism. All, that is, except for Charlie Winslow, who's working as a barista at a second-tier coffee joint until he can get into graduate school, immerse himself in philosophy, and bury himself for the rest of his life in the library, reading great works and writing “esoteric essays no one would read”. Charlie fashions himself a Great Man, and with his unique intellectual perspective towering above the molecular monolayer of his contemporaries, makes acerbic observations upon the D.C. scene which marginally irritates them. Finally, he snaps, and lets loose a tepid drizzle of speaking truth to poopheads, to which they respond “whatever”. And that's about it.

The author, who studied Russian at Dartmouth College, is a twenty-something living in D.C. who styles herself a libertarian. She writes a blog at Forbes.


Van Buren, Peter. We Meant Well. New York: Henry Holt, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8050-9436-7.
The author is a career Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department. In 2009–2010 he spent a year in Iraq as leader of two embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (ePRT) operating out of Forward Operating Bases (FOB) which were basically crusader forts in a hostile Iraqi wilderness: America inside, trouble outside. Unlike “fobbits” who rarely ventured off base, the author and his team were charged with engaging the local population to carry out “Lines of Effort” dreamed up by pointy-heads back at the palatial embassy in Baghdad or in Washington to the end of winning the “hearts and minds” of the population and “nation building”. The Iraqis were so appreciative of these efforts that they regularly attacked the FOB with mortar fire and mounted improvised explosive device (IED) and sniper attacks on those who ventured out beyond the wire.

If the whole thing were not so tawdry and tragic, the recounting of the author's experiences would be hilariously funny. If you imagine it to be a Waugh novel and read it with a dark sense of humour, it is wickedly amusing, but then one remembers that real people are dying and suffering grievous injuries, the Iraqi population are being treated as props in public relation stunts by the occupiers and deprived of any hope of bettering themselves, and all of this vast fraudulent squandering of resources is being paid for by long-suffering U.S. taxpayers or money borrowed from China and Japan, further steering the imperial power toward a debt end.

The story is told in brief chapters, each recounting a specific incident or aspect of life in Iraq. The common thread, which stretches back over millennia, is that imperial powers attempting to do good by those they subjugate will always find themselves outwitted by wily oriental gentlemen whose ancestors have spent millennia learning how to game the systems imposed by the despotisms under which they have lived. As a result, the millions poured down the rathole of “Provincial Reconstruction” predictably flows into the pockets of the bosses in the communities who set up front organisations for whatever harebrained schemes the occupiers dream up. As long as the “project” results in a ribbon-cutting ceremony covered by the press (who may, of course, be given an incentive to show up by being paid) and an impressive PowerPoint presentation for the FOB commander to help him toward his next promotion, it's deemed a success and, hey, there's a new Line of Effort from the embassy that demands another project: let's teach widows beekeeping (p. 137)—it'll only cost US$1600 per person, and each widow can expect to make US$200 a year from the honey—what a deal!

The author is clearly a creature of the Foreign Service and scarcely conceals his scorn for the military who are tasked with keeping him alive in a war zone and the politicians who define the tasks he is charged with carrying out. Still, the raw folly of “nation building” and the obdurate somnambulant stupidity of those who believe that building milk processing plants or putting on art exhibitions in a war zone will quickly convert people none of whom have a single ancestor who has ever lived in a consensually-governed society with the rule of law to model citizens in a year or two is stunningly evident.

Why are empires always so dumb? When they attain a certain stage of overreach, they seem to always assume they can instill their own unique culture in those they conquer. And yet, as Kipling wrote in 1899:

Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

When will policy makers become as wise as the mindless mechanisms of biology? When an irritant invades an organism and it can't be eliminated, the usual reaction is to surround it with an inert barrier which keeps it from causing further harm. “Nation building” is folly; far better to bomb them if they misbehave, then build a wall around the whole godforsaken place and bomb them again if any of them get out and cause any further mischief. Call it “biomimetic foreign policy”—encyst upon it!


Bracken, Matthew. Domestic Enemies. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-9728310-2-4.
This is the second novel in the author's “Enemies” trilogy, which began with Enemies Foreign and Domestic (EFAD) (December 2009). In After America (August 2011) Mark Steyn argues that if present trends continue (and that's the way to bet), within the lives of those now entering the workforce in the United States (or, at least attempting to do so, given the parlous state of the economy) what their parents called the “American dream” will have been extinguished and turned into a nightmare along the lines of Latin American authoritarian states: bifurcation of the society into a small, wealthy élite within their walled and gated communities and impoverished masses living in squalor and gang-ruled “no go” zones where civil society has collapsed.

This book picks up the story six years after the conclusion of EFAD. Ranya Bardiwell has foolishly attempted to return to the United States and been apprehended and sent to a detention and labour camp, her son taken from her at birth. When she manages to escape from the camp, she tracks down her son as having been given for adoption to the family of an FBI agent in New Mexico, and following the trail she becomes embroiled in the seething political storm of Nuevo Mexico, where separatist forces have taken power and seized upon the weakness of the Washington regime to advance their agenda of rolling back the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and creating a nation of “Aztlan” from the territories ceded by Mexico in that treaty.

As the story progresses, we see the endpoint of the reconquista in New Mexico, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and how opportunistic players on all sides seek to exploit the chaos and plunder the dwindling wealth of the dying empire for themselves. I'm not going to get into the plot or characters because almost anything I say would be a spoiler and this story does not deserve to be spoilt—it should be savoured. I consider it to be completely plausible—in the aftermath of a financial collapse and breakdown of central authority, the consequences of mass illegal immigration, “diversity”, and “multiculturalism” could, and indeed will likely lead to the kind of outcome sketched here. I found only one technical quibble in the entire novel (a turbine-powered plane “coughing and belching before catching”), but that's just worth a chuckle and doesn't detract in any way from the story. This the first thriller I recall reading in which a precocious five year old plays a central part in the story in a perfectly believable way, and told from his own perspective.

This book is perfectly accessible if read stand-alone, but I strongly recommend reading EFAD first—it not only sets the stage for the mid-collapse America in which this story plays out, but also provides the back story for Ranya Bardiwell and Bob Bullard who figure so prominently here.

Extended excerpts of this and the author's other novels are available online at the author's Web site.


April 2012

Zichek, Jared A. The Incredible Attack Aircraft of the USS United States, 1948–1949. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7643-3229-6.
In the peacetime years between the end of World War II in 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the United States Navy found itself in an existential conflict. The adversary was not a foreign fleet, but rather the newly-unified Department of Defense, to which it had been subordinated, and its new peer service, the United States Air Force, which argued that the advent of nuclear weapons and intercontinental strategic bombing had made the Navy's mission obsolete. The Operation Crossroads nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 which had shown that a well-placed fission bomb could destroy an entire carrier battle group in close formation supported the Air Force's case that aircraft carriers were simply costly targets which would be destroyed in the first days of a general conflict. Further, in a world where the principal adversary, the Soviet Union, had neither a blue water navy nor a warm weather port from which to operate one, the probability that the U.S. Navy would be called upon to support amphibious landings comparable to those of World War II appeared unlikely.

Faced with serious policy makers in positions of influence questioning the rationale for its very existence on anything like its current scale, advocates of the Navy saw seizing back part of the strategic bombardment mission from the Air Force as their salvation. This would require aircraft carriers much larger than any built before, carrier-based strategic bombers in the 100,000 pound class able to deliver the massive nuclear weapons of the epoch (10,000 pound bombs) with a combat radius of at least 1,700—ideally 2,000—miles. This led to the proposal for CVA-58, USS United States, a monster (by the standards of the time—contemporary supercarriers are larger still) flush deck carrier which would support these heavy strategic bombers and their escort craft.

This ship would require aircraft like nothing in the naval inventory, and two “Outline Specifications” were issued to industry to solicit proposals for a “Carrier-Based Landplane”: the basic subsonic strategic bomber, and a “Long Range Special Attack airplane”, which required a supersonic dash to the target. (Note that when the latter specification was issued on August 24th, 1948, less than a year had elapsed since the first supersonic flight of the Bell X-1.)

The Navy's requirements in these two specifications were not just ambitious, they were impossible given the propulsion technology of the time: the thrust and specific fuel consumption of available powerplants simply did not permit achieving all of the Navy's requirements. The designs proposed by contractors, presented in this book in exquisite detail, varied from the highly conventional, which straightforwardly conceded their shortcomings compared to what the Navy desired, to the downright bizarre (especially in the “Special Attack” category), with aircraft that look like a cross between something produced by the Lucasfilm model shop and the fleet of the Martian Air Force. Imagine a biplane that jettisons its top wing/fuel tank on the way to the target, after having been launched with a Fireball XL-5 like expendable trolley; a “parasitic” airplane which served as the horizontal stabiliser of a much larger craft outbound to the target, then separated and returned after dispatching the host to bomb them commies; or a convertible supersonic seaplane which could refuel from submarines on the way to the target. All of these and more are detailed in this superbly produced book which is virtually flawless in its editing and production values.

Nothing at all came of all of this burst of enthusiasm and creativity. On April 23rd, 1949, the USS United States was cancelled, provoking the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy and the Revolt of the Admirals. The strategic nuclear mission was definitively won by the Air Force, which would retain their monopoly status until the Navy got back into the game with the Polaris missile submarines in the 1960s.


Clark, John D. Ignition! New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1972. ISBN 978-0-8135-0725-5.
This may be the funniest book about chemistry ever written. In the golden age of science fiction, one recurring theme was the search for a super “rocket fuel” (with “fuel” used to mean “propellant”) which would enable the exploits depicted in the stories. In the years between the end of World War II and the winding down of the great space enterprise with the conclusion of the Apollo project, a small band of researchers (no more than 200 in the U.S., of whom around fifty were lead scientists), many of whom had grown up reading golden age science fiction, found themselves tasked to make their boyhood dreams real—to discover exotic propellants which would allow rockets to accomplish missions envisioned not just by visionaries but also the hard headed military men who, for the most part, paid the bills.

Propulsion chemists are a rare and special breed. As Isaac Asimov (who worked with the author during World War II) writes in a short memoir at the start of the book:

Now, it is clear that anyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad. I don't mean garden-variety crazy or merely raving lunatic. I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.

There are, after all, some chemicals that explode shatteringly, some that flame ravenously, some that corrode hellishly, some that poison sneakily, and some that stink stenchily. As far as I know, though, only liquid rocket fuels have all these delightful properties combined into one delectable whole.

And yet amazingly, as head of propulsion research at the Naval Air Rocket Test Station and its successor organisation for seventeen years, the author not only managed to emerge with all of his limbs and digits intact, his laboratory never suffered a single time-lost mishap. This, despite routinely working with substances such as:

Chlorine trifluoride, ClF3, or “CTF” as the engineers insist on calling it, is a colorless gas, a greenish liquid, or a white solid. … It is also quite probably the most vigorous fluorinating agent in existence—much more vigorous than fluorine itself. … It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water—with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals—steel, copper, aluminum, etc.—because the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminum keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes. (p. 73)

And ClF3 is pretty benign compared to some of the other dark corners of chemistry into which their research led them. There is extensive coverage of the quest for a high energy monopropellant, the discovery of which would greatly simplify the design of turbomachinery, injectors, and eliminate problems with differential thermal behaviour and mixture ratio over the operating range of an engine which used it. However, the author reminds us:

A monopropellant is a liquid which contains in itself both the fuel and the oxidizer…. But! Any intimate mixture of a fuel and an oxidizer is a potential explosive, and a molecule with one reducing (fuel) end and one oxidizing end, separated by a pair of firmly crossed fingers, is an invitation to disaster. (p. 10)

One gets an excellent sense of just how empirical all of this was. For example, in the quest for “exotic fuel” (which the author defines as “It's expensive, it's got boron in it, and it probably doesn't work.”), straightforward inorganic chemistry suggested that burning a borane with hydrazine, for example:

2B5H9 + 5N2H4 ⟶ 10BN + 19H2

would be a storable propellant with a specific impulse (Isp) of 326 seconds with a combustion chamber temperature of just 2000°K. But this reaction and the calculation of its performance assumes equilibrium conditions and, apart from a detonation (something else with which propulsion chemists are well acquainted), there are few environments as far from equilibrium as a rocket combustion chamber. In fact, when you try to fire these propellants in an engine, you discover the reaction products actually include elemental boron and ammonia, which result in disappointing performance. Check another one off the list.

Other promising propellants ran afoul of economic considerations and engineering constraints. The lithium, fluorine, and hydrogen tripropellant system has been measured (not theoretically calculated) to have a vacuum Isp of an astonishing 542 seconds at a chamber pressure of only 500 psi and temperature of 2200°K. (By comparison, the space shuttle main engine has a vacuum Isp of 452.3 sec. with a chamber pressure of 2994 psi and temperature of 3588°K; a nuclear thermal rocket would have an Isp in the 850–1000 sec. range. Recall that the relationship between Isp and mass ratio is exponential.) This level of engine performance makes a single stage to orbit vehicle not only feasible but relatively straightforward to engineer. Unfortunately, there is a catch or, to be precise, a list of catches. Lithium and fluorine are both relatively scarce and very expensive in the quantities which would be required to launch from the Earth's surface. They are also famously corrosive and toxic, and then you have to cope with designing an engine in which two of the propellants are cryogenic fluids and the third is a metal which is solid below 180°C. In the end, the performance (which is breathtaking for a chemical rocket) just isn't worth the aggravation.

In the final chapter, the author looks toward the future of liquid rocket propulsion and predicts, entirely correctly from a perspective four decades removed, that chemical propulsion was likely to continue to use the technologies upon which almost all rockets had settled by 1970: LOX/hydrocarbon for large first stages, LOX/LH2 for upper stages, and N2O4/hydrazine for storable missiles and in-space propulsion. In the end economics won out over the potential performance gains to be had from the exotic (and often far too exciting) propellants the author and his colleagues devoted their careers to exploring. He concludes as follows.

There appears to be little left to do in liquid propellant chemistry, and very few important developments to be anticipated. In short, we propellant chemists have worked ourselves out of a job. The heroic age is over.

But it was great fun while it lasted. (p. 192)

Now if you've decided that you just have to read this book and innocently click on the title above to buy a copy, you may be at as much risk of a heart attack as those toiling in the author's laboratory. This book has been out of print for decades and is considered such a classic, both for its unique coverage of the golden age of liquid propellant research, comprehensive description of the many avenues explored and eventually abandoned, hands-on chemist-to-chemist presentation of the motivation for projects and the adventures in synthesising and working with these frisky molecules, not to mention the often laugh out loud writing, that used copies, when they are available, sell for hundreds of dollars. As I am writing these remarks, seven copies are offered at Amazon at prices ranging from US$300–595. Now, this is a superb book, but it isn't that good!

If, however, you type the author's name and the title of the book into an Internet search engine, you will probably quickly come across a PDF edition consisting of scanned pages of the original book. I'm not going to link to it here, both because I don't link to works which violate copyright as a matter of principle and since my linking to a copy of the PDF edition might increase its visibility and risk of being taken down. I am not one of those people who believes “information wants to be free”, but I also doubt John Clark would have wanted his unique memoir and invaluable reference to be priced entirely beyond the means of the vast majority of those who would enjoy and be enlightened by reading it. In the case of “orphaned works”, I believe the moral situation is ambiguous (consider: if you do spend a fortune for a used copy of an out of print book, none of the proceeds benefit the author or publisher in any way). You make the call.


Flynn, Vince. Kill Shot. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4165-9520-5.
This is the twelfth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series, but chronologically is second in the saga, picking up a year after the events of American Assassin (December 2010). Mitch Rapp has hit his stride as the CIA's weapon of choice against the terror masters, operating alone with only the knowledge of a few people, dispatching his targets with head shots when they least expect it and, in doing so, beginning to sow terror among the terrorists.

Rapp is in Paris to take out the visiting Libyan oil minister, who has been a conduit for funding terrorist attacks, including the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing which killed Rapp's college sweetheart and set him on the trajectory toward his current career—this time it's personal. The hit goes horribly wrong, leaving a trail of bodies and hundreds of cartridge casings in a posh hotel, with the potential of a disastrous public relations blowback for the CIA, and Rapp's superiors looking at prospects ranging from congressional hearings at best to time in Club Fed. Based on how things went down, Rapp becomes persuaded that he was set up and does not know who he can trust and lies low, while his bosses fear the worst: that their assassin has gone rogue.

The profane and ruthless Stan Hurley, who trained Rapp and whose opinion of the “college boy” has matured from dislike to detestation and distrust, is dispatched to Paris to find out what happened, locate Rapp, and if necessary put an end to his career in the manner to which Hurley and his goons are accustomed.

This is a satisfying thriller with plenty of twists and turns, interesting and often complicated characters, and a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. We see, especially in the interrogation of “Victor”, how far Rapp has come from his first days with Hurley, and that the tension between the two may have at its roots the fact that they are becoming more and more alike, a prospect Rapp finds repellent. Unlike American Assassin, which is firmly anchored in the chaos of early 1990s Beirut, apart from a few details (such as mobile telephones being novel and uncommon), the present novel could be set at almost any time since 1990—historical events play no part in the story. It's best to read American Assassin first, as it provides the back story on the characters and will provide more insight into their motivations, but this book works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller should you prefer to start here.


Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-14-303858-0.
One of the delights of operating this site is the opportunity to interact with visitors, whom I am persuaded are among the most interesting and informed of any audience on the Web. The feedback messages and book recommendations they send are often thought-provoking and sometimes enlightening. I don't know who I have to thank for recommending this book, but I am very grateful they took the time to do so, as it is a thoroughly fascinating look at the modern food chain in the developed world, and exploration of alternatives to it.

The author begins with a look at the “industrial” food chain, which supplies the overwhelming majority of calories consumed on the planet today. Prior to the 20th century, agriculture was almost entirely powered by the Sun. It was sunlight that drove photosynthesis in plants, providing both plant crops and the feed for animals, including those used to pull ploughs and transport farm products to market. The invention of the Haber process in 1909 and its subsequent commercialisation on an industrial scale forever changed this. No longer were crop yields constrained by the amount of nitrogen which could be fixed from the air by bacteria symbiotic with the roots of legume crops, recycled onto fields in the manure and urine of animals, or harvested from the accumulated droppings birds in distant places, but rather able to be dramatically increased by the use of fertiliser whose origin traced back to the fossil fuel which provided the energy to create it. Further, fossil fuel insinuated itself into agriculture in other ways, with the tractor replacing the work of farm hands and draught animals; railroads, steam ships, trucks, and aircraft expanding the distance between production on a farm and consumption to the global scale; and innovations such as refrigeration increasing the time from harvest to use.

All of these factors so conspired to benefit the species Zea mays (which Americans call “corn” and everybody else calls “maize”) that one could craft a dark but plausible science fiction story in which that species of grass, highly modified by selective breeding by indigenous populations in the New World, was actually the dominant species on Earth, having first motivated its modification from the ancestral form to a food plant ideally suited to human consumption, then encouraged its human servants to spread it around the world, develop artificial nutrients and pesticides to allow it to be grown in a vast monoculture, eradicating competitors in its path, and becoming so central to modern human nutrition that trying to eliminate it (or allowing a natural threat to befall it) would condemn billions of humans to starvation. Once you start to think this way, you'll never regard that weedless field of towering corn stretching off to the horizon in precisely the same way….

As the author follows the industrial food chain from a farm in the corn belt to the “wet mill” in which commodity corn is broken down into its molecular constituents and then reassembled into the components of processed food, and to the feedlot, where corn products are used to “finish” meat animals which evolved on a different continent from Zea mays and consequently require food additives and constant medication simply to metabolise this foreign substance, it becomes clear that maize is not a food, but rather a feedstock (indeed, the maize you buy in the supermarket to eat yourself is not this industrial product, but rather “sweet corn” produced entirely separately), just as petroleum is used in the plastics industry. Or the food industry—when you take into account fertiliser, farm machinery, and transportation, more than one calorie of fossil fuel is consumed to produce a calorie of food energy in maize. If only we could make Twinkies directly from crude oil….

All of this (and many things I've elided here in the interest of brevity [Hah! you say]) may persuade you to “go organic” and pay a bit more for those funky foods with the labels showing verdant crops basking in the Sun, contented cows munching grass in expansive fields, and chickens being chickens, scratching for bugs at liberty. If you're already buying these “organic” products and verging on the sin of smugness for doing so, this is not your book—or maybe it is. The author digs into the “industrial organic” state of the art and discovers that while there are certainly benefits to products labelled “organic” (no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, for example, which certainly benefit the land if not the product you buy), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the villain throughout) has so watered down the definition of “organic” that most products with that designation come from “organic” factory farms, feedlots, and mass poultry confinement facilities. As usual, when the government gets involved, the whole thing is pretty much an enormous scam, which is ultimately damaging to those who are actually trying to provide products with a sustainable solar-powered food chain which respects the land and the nature of the animals living on it.

In the second section of the book, the author explores this alternative by visiting Polyface Farms in Virginia, which practices “grass farming” and produces beef, pork, chickens and eggs, turkeys, rabbits, and forest products for its local market in Virginia. The Salatin family, who owns and operates the farm, views its pastures as a giant solar collector, turning incident sunlight along with water collected by the surrounding forest into calories which feed their animals. All of the animal by-products (even the viscera and blood of chickens slaughtered on site) are recycled into the land. The only outside inputs into the solar-powered cycle are purchased chicken feed, since grass, grubs, and bugs cannot supply adequate energy for the chickens. (OK, there are also inputs of fuel for farm machinery and electricity for refrigeration and processing, but since the pastures are never ploughed, these are minimal compared to a typical farm.)

Polyface performs not only intensive agriculture, but what Salatin calls “management intensive” farming—an information age strategy informed by the traditional ecological balance between grassland, ruminants, and birds. The benefit is not just to the environment, but also in the marketplace. A small holding with only about 100 acres under cultivation is able to support an extended family, produce a variety of products, and by their quality attract customers willing to drive as far as 150 miles each way to buy them at prices well above those at the local supermarket. Anybody who worries about a possible collapse of the industrial food chain and has provided for that contingency by acquiring a plot of farm land well away from population centres will find much to ponder here. Remember, it isn't just about providing for your family and others on the farm: if you're providing food for your community, they're far more likely to come to your defence when the starving urban hordes come your way to plunder.

Finally, the author seeks to shorten his personal food chain to the irreducible minimum by becoming a hunter-gatherer. Overcoming his blue state hoplophobia and handed down mycophobia, he sets out to hunt a feral pig in Sonoma County, California and gather wild mushrooms and herbs to accompany the meal. He even “harvests” cherries from a neighbour's tree overhanging a friend's property in Berkeley under the Roman doctrine of usufruct and makes bread leavened with yeast floating in the air around his house. In doing so, he discovers that there is something to what he had previously dismissed as purple prose in accounts of hunters, and that there is a special satisfaction and feeling of closing the circle in sharing a meal with friends in which every dish was directly obtained by them, individually or in collaboration.

This exploration of food: its origins, its meaning to us, and its place in our contemporary civilisation, makes clear the many stark paradoxes of our present situation. It is abundantly clear that the industrial food chain is harmful to the land, unsustainable due to dependence on finite resources, cruel to animals caught up in it, and unhealthy in many ways to those who consume its products. And yet abandoning it in favour of any of the alternatives presented here would result in a global famine which would make the Irish, Ukrainian, and Chinese famines of the past barely a blip on the curve. Further, billions of the Earth's inhabitants today can only dream of the abundance, variety, and affordability (in terms of hours worked to provide one's food needs) of the developed world diet. And yet at the same time, when one looks at the epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders among corn-fed populations, you have to wonder whether Zea mays is already looking beyond us and plotting its next conquest.


Baxter, Stephen. Manifold: Time. New York: Del Rey, 2000. ISBN 978-0-345-43076-2.
One claim frequently made by detractors of “hard” (scientifically realistic) science fiction is that the technical details crowd out character development and plot. While this may be the case for some exemplars of the genre, this magnificent novel, diamondoid in its science, is as compelling a page-turner as any thriller I've read in years, and is populated with characters who are simultaneously several sigma eccentric yet believable, who discover profound truths about themselves and each other as the story progresses. How hard the science? Well, this is a story in which quantum gravity, closed timelike curves, the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, strange matter, the bizarre asteroid 3753 Cruithne, cosmological natural selection, the doomsday argument, Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory, entrepreneurial asteroid mining, vacuum decay, the long-term prospects for intelligent life in an expanding universe, and sentient, genetically-modified cephalopods all play a part, with the underlying science pretty much correct, at least as far as we understand these sometimes murky areas.

The novel, which was originally published in 2000, takes place in 2010 and subsequent years. NASA's human spaceflight program is grounded, and billionaire Reid Malenfant is ready to mount his own space program based on hand-me-down Shuttle hardware used to build a Big Dumb Booster with the capability to conduct an asteroid prospecting and proof-of-concept mining mission with a single launch from the private spaceport he has built in the Mojave desert. Naturally, NASA and the rest of the U.S. government is doing everything they can to obstruct him. Cornelius Taine, of the mysterious and reputedly flaky Eschatology, Inc., one of Malenfant's financial backers, comes to him with what may be evidence of “downstreamers”—intelligent beings in the distant future—attempting to communicate with humans in the present. Malenfant (who is given to such) veers off onto a tangent and re-purposes his asteroid mission to search for evidence of contact from the future.

Meanwhile, the Earth is going progressively insane. Super-intelligent children are being born at random all around the world, able to intuitively solve problems which have defied researchers for centuries, and for some reason obsessed with the image of a blue disc. Fear of the “Carter catastrophe”, which predicts, based upon the Copernican principle and Bayesian inference, that human civilisation is likely to end in around 200 years, has uncorked all kinds of craziness ranging from apathy, hedonism, denial, suicide cults, religious revivals, and wars aimed at settling old scores before the clock runs out. Ultimately, the only way to falsify the doomsday argument is to demonstrate that humans did survive well into the future beyond it, and Malenfant's renegade mission becomes the focus of global attention, with all players attempting to spin its results, whatever they may be, in their own interest.

This is a story which stretches from the present day to a future so remote and foreign to anything in our own experience that it is almost incomprehensible to us (and the characters through which we experience it) and across a potentially infinite landscape of parallel universes, in which intelligence is not an epiphenomenon emergent from the mindless interactions of particles and fields, but rather a central player in the unfolding of the cosmos. Perhaps the ultimate destiny of our species is to be eschatological engineers. That is, unless the squid get there first.

Here you will experience the sense of wonder of the very best science fiction of past golden ages before everything became dark, claustrophobic, and inward-looking—highly recommended.


May 2012

Gergel, Max G. Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide? Rockford, IL: Pierce Chemical Company, 1979. OCLC 4703212.
Throughout Max Gergel's long career he has been an unforgettable character for all who encountered him in the many rôles he has played: student, bench chemist, instructor of aviation cadets, entrepreneur, supplier to the Manhattan Project, buyer and seller of obscure reagents to a global clientele, consultant to industry, travelling salesman peddling products ranging from exotic halocarbons to roach killer and toilet bowl cleaner, and evangelist persuading young people to pursue careers in chemistry. With family and friends (and no outside capital) he founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, a specialty chemical supplier specialising in halocarbons but, operating on a shoestring, willing to make almost anything a customer was ready to purchase (even Max drew the line, however, when the silver-tongued director of the Naval Research Laboratory tried to persuade him to make pentaborane).

The narrative is as rambling and entertaining as one imagines sharing a couple (or a couple dozen) drinks with Max at an American Chemical Society meeting would have been. He jumps from family to friends to finances to business to professional colleagues to suppliers to customers to nuggets of wisdom for starting and building a business to eccentric characters he has met and worked with to his love life to the exotic and sometimes bone-chilling chemical syntheses he did in his company's rough and ready facilities. Many of Columbia's contracts involved production of moderate quantities (between a kilogram and several 55 gallon drums) of substances previously made only in test tube batches. This “medium scale chemistry”—situated between the laboratory bench and an industrial facility making tank car loads of the stuff—involves as much art (or, failing that, brute force and cunning) as it does science and engineering, and this leads to many of the adventures and misadventures chronicled here. For example, an exothermic reaction may be simple to manage when you're making a few grams of something—the liberated heat is simply conducted to the walls to the test tube and dissipated: at worst you may only need to add the reagent slowly, stir well, and/or place the reaction vessel in a water bath. But when DuPont placed an order for allene in gallon quantities, this posed a problem which Max resolved as follows.

When one treats 1,2,3-Trichloropropane with alkali and a little water the reaction is violent; there is a tendency to deposit the reaction product, the raw materials and the apparatus on the ceiling and the attending chemist. I solved this by setting up duplicate 12 liter flasks, each equipped with double reflux condensers and surrounding each with half a dozen large tubs. In practice, when the reaction “took off” I would flee through the door or window and battle the eruption with water from a garden hose. The contents flying from the flasks were deflected by the ceiling and collected under water in the tubs. I used towels to wring out the contents which separated, shipping the lower level to DuPont. They complained of solids suspended in the liquid, but accepted the product and ordered more. I increased the number of flasks to four, doubled the number of wash tubs and completed the new order.

They ordered a 55 gallon drum. … (p. 127)

All of this was in the days before the EPA, OSHA, and the rest of the suffocating blanket of soft despotism descended upon entrepreneurial ventures in the United States that actually did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and '50s, when Gergel was building his business in South Carolina, he was free to adopt the “whatever it takes” attitude which is the quintessential ingredient for success in start-ups and small business. The flexibility and ingenuity which allowed Gergel not only to compete with the titans of the chemical industry but become a valued supplier to them is precisely what is extinguished by intrusive regulation, which accounts for why sclerotic dinosaurs are so comfortable with it. On the other hand, Max's experience with methyl iodide illustrates why some of these regulations were imposed:

There is no description adequate for the revulsion I felt over handling this musky smelling, high density, deadly liquid. As residue of the toxicity I had chronic insomnia for years, and stayed quite slim. The government had me questioned by Dr. Rotariu of Loyola University for there had been a number of cases of methyl bromide poisoning and the victims were either too befuddled or too dead to be questioned. He asked me why I had not committed suicide which had been the final solution for some of the afflicted and I had to thank again the patience and wisdom of Dr. Screiber. It is to be noted that another factor was our lack of a replacement worker. (p. 130)

Whatever it takes.

This book was published by Pierce Chemical Company and was never, as best I can determine, assigned either an ISBN or Library of Congress catalogue number. I cite it above by its OCLC Control Number. The book is hopelessly out of print, and used copies, when available, sell for forbidding prices. Your only alternative to lay hands on a print copy is an inter-library loan, for which the OCLC number is a useful reference. (I hear members of the write-off generation asking, “What is this ‘library’ of which you speak?”) I found a scanned PDF edition in the library section of the Sciencemadness.org Web site; the scanned pages are sometimes a little gnarly around the bottom, but readable. You will also find the second volume of Gergel's memoirs, The Ageless Gergel, among the works in this collection.


Levin, Mark R. Ameritopia. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7324-4.
Mark Levin seems to have a particularly virtuous kind of multiple personality disorder. Anybody who has listened to his radio program will know him as a combative “no prisoners” advocate for the causes of individual liberty and civil society. In print, however, he comes across as a scholar, deeply versed in the texts he is discussing, who builds his case as the lawyer he is, layer by layer, into a persuasive argument which is difficult to refute except by recourse to denial and emotion, which are the ultimate refuge of the slavers.

In this book, Levin examines the utopian temptation, exploring four utopian visions: Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Hobbes's Leviathan, and Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto in detail, with lengthy quotations from the original texts. He then turns to the philosophical foundations of the American republic, exploring the work of Locke, Montesquieu, and the observations of Tocqueville on the reality of democracy in America.

Levin argues that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of utopian visions, and explicitly rejected them in favour of a system, based upon the wisdom of Locke and Montesquieu, which was deliberately designed to operate in spite of the weaknesses of the fallible humans which would serve as its magistrates. As Freeman Dyson observed, “The American Constitution is designed to be operated by crooks, just as the British constitution is designed to be operated by gentlemen.” Engineers who value inherent robustness in systems will immediately grasp the wisdom of this: gentlemen are scarce and vulnerable to corruption, while crooks are an inexhaustible resource.

For some crazy reason, most societies choose lawyers as legislators and executives. I think they would be much better advised to opt for folks who have designed, implemented, and debugged two or more operating systems in their careers. A political system is, after all, just an operating system that sorts out the rights and responsibilities of a multitude of independent agents, all acting in their own self interest, and equipped with the capacity to game the system and exploit any opportunity for their own ends. Looking at the classic utopias, what strikes this operating system designer is how sadly static they all are—they assume that, uniquely after billions of years of evolution and thousands of generations of humans, history has come to an end and that a wise person can now figure out how all people in an indefinite future should live their lives, necessarily forgoing improvement through disruptive technologies or ideas, as that would break the perfect system.

The American founding was the antithesis of utopia: it was a minimal operating system which was intended to provide the rule of law which enabled civil society to explore the frontiers of not just a continent but the human potential. Unlike the grand design of utopian systems, the U.S. Constitution was a lean operating system which devolved almost all initiative to “apps” created by the citizens living under it.

In the 20th century, as the U.S. consolidated itself as a continental power, emerged as a world class industrial force, and built a two ocean navy, the utopian temptation rose among the political class, who saw in the U.S. not just the sum of the individual creativity and enterprise of its citizens but the potential to build heaven on Earth if only those pesky constitutional constraints could be shed. Levin cites Wilson and FDR as exemplars of this temptation, but for most of the last century both main political parties more or less bought into transforming America into Ameritopia.

In the epilogue, Levin asks whether it is possible to reverse the trend and roll back Ameritopia into a society which values the individual above the collective and restores the essential liberty of the citizen from the intrusive state. He cites hopeful indications, such as the rise of the “Tea Party” movement, but ultimately I find these unpersuasive. Collectivism always collapses, but usually from its own internal contradictions; the way to bet in the long term is on individual liberty and free enterprise, but I expect it will take a painful and protracted economic and societal collapse to flense the burden of bad ideas which afflict us today.

In the Kindle edition the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the text, but the note citations in the main text are so tiny (at least when read with the Kindle application on the iPad) that it is almost impossible to tap upon them.


Hunter, Stephen. Soft Target. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-3870-0.
This has to be among the worst nightmares of those few functionaries tasked with the “anti-terrorist” mission in the West who are not complacent seat-warmers counting the days until their retirement or figuring out how to advance their careers or gain additional power over the citizens whose taxes fund their generous salaries and benefits. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a group of Somali militants infiltrate and stage a hostage-taking raid on “America, the Mall” in a suburb of Minneapolis (having nothing to do, of course, with another mega-mall in the vicinity). Implausibly, given the apparent provenance of the perpetrators, they manage to penetrate the mall's SCADA system and impose a full lock-down, preventing escape and diverting surveillance cameras for their own use.

This happens on the watch of Douglas Obobo, commandant of the Minnesota State Police, the son of a Kenyan graduate student and a U.S. anthropologist who, after graduating from Harvard Law School, had artfully played the affirmative action card and traded upon his glibness to hop from job to job, rising in the hierarchy without ever actually accomplishing anything. Obobo views this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate how his brand of conciliation and leading from behind can defuse a high-profile confrontation, and thwarts efforts of those under his command to even prepare backup plans should negotiations with the hostage takers fail.

Meanwhile, the FBI tries to glean evidence of how the mall's security systems were bypassed and how the attackers were armed and infiltrated, and comes across clues which suggest a very different spin on the motivation of the attack—one which senior law enforcement personnel may have to seek the assistance of their grandchildren to explain. Marine veteran Ray Cruz finds himself the man on the inside, Die Hard style, and must rely upon his own resources to take down the perpetrator of the atrocities.

I have a few quibbles. These are minor, and constitute only marginal spoilers, but I'll put them behind the curtain to avoid peeving the easily irritated.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 97, FBI sniper Dave McElroy fires at Ray Cruz, who he takes to be one of the terrorists. Firing down from the roof into the mall, he fails to correct for the angle of the shot (which requires one to hold low compared to a horizontal shot, since the distance over which the acceleration of gravity acts is reduced as the cosine of the angle of the shot). I find it very difficult to believe that a trained FBI sniper would make such an error, even under the pressure of combat. Hunters in mountain country routinely make this correction.
  • On p. 116 the garbage bag containing Reed Hobart's head is said to weigh four pounds. The mass of an average adult human head is around 5 kg, or around 11 pounds. Since Hobart has been described as a well-fed person with a “big head” (p. 112), he is unlikely to be a four pound pinhead. I'd put this down to the ever-green problem of converting between republican and imperial units.
  • Nikki Swagger's television call sign switches back and forth between WUFF and WUSS throughout the book. I really like the idea of a WUSS-TV, especially in Minneapolis.
  • On p. 251, as the lawyers are handing out business cards to escapees from the mall, the telephone area code on the cards is 309, which is in Illinois. Although I grant that it's more likely such bipedal intestinal parasites would inhabit that state than nice Minnesota, is it plausible they could have gotten to the scene in time?
Spoilers end here.  

Had, say, 200 of the 1000 patrons of the mall taken hostage availed themselves of Minnesota's concealed carry law, and had the mall not abridged citizens' God-given right to self-defence, the 16 terrorists would have been taken down in the first 90 seconds after their initial assault. Further, had the would-be terrorists known that one in five of their intended victims were packing, do you think they would have tried it? Just sayin'.

This is an excellent thriller, which puts into stark contrast just how vulnerable disarmed populations are in the places they gather in everyday life, and how absurd the humiliating security theatre is at barn doors where the horses have fled more than a decade ago. It is in many ways deeply cynical, but that cynicism is well-justified by the reality of the society in which the story is set.

A podcast interview with the author is available.


Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 1. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2005. ISBN 978-1-4700-1463-6 NASA SP-2005-4110.
This is the first book of the author's monumental four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of Challenge to Apollo (April 2008), the definitive Western history of the Soviet space program.

Chertok saw it all, from the earliest Soviet experiments with rocketry in the 1930s, uncovering the secrets of the German V-2 amid the rubble of postwar Germany (he was the director of the Institute RABE, where German and Soviet specialists worked side by side laying the foundations of postwar Soviet rocketry), the glory days of Sputnik and Gagarin, the anguish of losing the Moon race, and the emergence of Soviet preeminence in long-duration space station operations.

The first volume covers Chertok's career up to the conclusion of his work in Germany in 1947. Unlike Challenge to Apollo, which is a scholarly institutional and technical history (and consequently rather dry reading), Chertok gives you a visceral sense of what it was like to be there: sometimes chilling, as in his descriptions of the 1930s where he matter-of-factly describes his supervisors and colleagues as having been shot or sent to Siberia just as an employee in the West would speak of somebody being transferred to another office, and occasionally funny, as when he recounts the story of the imperious Valentin Glushko showing up at his door in a car belching copious smoke. It turns out that Glushko had driven all the way with the handbrake on, and his subordinate hadn't dared mention it because Glushko didn't like to be distracted when at the wheel.

When the Soviets began to roll out their space spectaculars in the late 1950s and early '60s, some in the West attributed their success to the Soviets having gotten the “good German” rocket scientists while the West ended up with the second team. Chertok's memoir puts an end to such speculation. By the time the Americans and British vacated the V-2 production areas, they had packed up and shipped out hundreds of rail cars of V-2 missiles and components and captured von Braun and all of his senior staff, who delivered extensive technical documentation as part of their surrender. This left the Soviets with pretty slim pickings, and Chertok and his staff struggled to find components, documents, and specialists left behind. This put them at a substantial disadvantage compared to the U.S., but forced them to reverse-engineer German technology and train their own people in the disciplines of guided missilery rather than rely upon a German rocket team.

History owes a great debt to Boris Chertok not only for the achievements in his six decade career (for which he was awarded Hero of Socialist Labour, the Lenin Prize, the Order of Lenin [twice], and the USSR State Prize), but for living so long and undertaking to document the momentous events he experienced at the first epoch at which such a candid account was possible. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union could the events chronicled here be freely discussed, and the merits and shortcomings of the Soviet system in accomplishing large technological projects be weighed.

As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and an online PDF edition is available.

A Kindle edition is available which is perfectly readable but rather cheaply produced. Footnotes simply appear in the text in-line somewhere after the reference, set in small red type. Words are occasionally run together and capitalisation is missing on some proper nouns. The index references page numbers from the print edition which are not included in the Kindle version, and hence are completely useless. If you have a workable PDF application on your reading device, I'd go with the NASA PDF, which is not only better formatted but free.

The original Russian edition is available online.


June 2012

McCarry, Charles. Ark. New York: Open Road, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4532-5820-0.

All right, I suppose some readers will wish me to expand somewhat on the capsule review in the first paragraph, but it really does say it all. The author is a veteran and bestselling author of spy fiction (and former deep cover CIA agent) who is best known for his Paul Christopher novels. Here he turns his hand to science fiction and promptly trips over his cloak and inflicts a savage dagger wound on the reader.

The premise is that since the Earth's core has been found to rotate faster than the outer parts of the planet (a “discovery” found, subsequent to the novel's publication, to have been in error by six orders of magnitude), the enormous kinetic energy of the core is periodically dissipated by being coupled to the mantle and crust, resulting in a “hyperquake” in which the Earth's crust would be displaced not metres on a localised basis, but kilometres and globally. This is said to explain at least some of the mass extinctions in the fossil record.

Henry Peel, an intuitive super-genius who has become the world's first trillionaire based upon his invention of room temperature superconductivity and practical fusion power, but who lives incognito, protected by his ex-special forces “chaps”, sees this coming (in a vision, just like his inventions), and decides to use his insight and wealth to do something about it. And now I draw the curtain, since this botched novel isn't worth carefully crafting non-spoiler prose to describe the multitudinous absurdities with which it is festooned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
For no reason apparent in the text, Henry recruits the protagonist and narrator, a somewhat ditzy female novelist (at one point she invites a stalker to her hide-out apartment because she forgets the reason she moved there in the first place). This character makes occasional off-the-wall suggestions which Henry, for some reason, finds profound, and becomes a member of Henry's inner circle and eventually closer still.

Henry decides that the way to survive the coming extinction event is to build a spacecraft which can cruise the solar system for generations, tended by a crew that reproduces itself, and carrying a cargo of genetically enhanced (oops!—never mind—Henry changes his mind and goes with showroom stock H. sap genome) embryos which can be decanted to establish colonies on the planets and moons and eventually repopulate the Earth. To this end, he invents:

  • A single stage to orbit reusable spaceplane powered by a new kind of engine which does not emit a rocket plume
  • A space drive which “would somehow draw its fuel from the charged particles in the solar wind”
  • Artificial gravity, based upon diamagnetism

Whenever an invention is needed to dig this plot out of a hole, Henry just has a vision and out it pops. Edison be damned—for Henry it's 100% inspiration and hold the perspiration!

He builds this enormous infrastructure in Mongolia, just across the border from China, having somehow obtained a free hand to do so while preserving his own off-the-radar privacy.

Sub-plots come and go with wild abandon. You think something's going to be significant, and then it just sputters out or vanishes as if it never happened. What the heck is with that circle of a dozen missiles in Mongolia, anyway? And you could take out the entire history and absurdly implausible coincidence of the narrator's meeting her rapist without any impact on the plot. And don't you think a trillionaire would have somebody on staff who could obtain a restraining order against the perp and hire gumshoes to keep an eye on his whereabouts?

Fundamentally, people and institutions do not behave the way they do in this story. How plausible is it that a trillionaire, building a vast multinational infrastructure for space migration, would be able to live off the radar in New York City, without any of the governments of the jurisdictions in which he was operating taking notice of his activities? Or that the media would promptly forget a juicy celebrity scandal involving said trillionaire because a bunch of earthquakes happened? Or that once the impending end of human civilisation became public that everybody would get bored with it and move on to other distractions? This whole novel reads like one of my B-list dreams: disconnected, abstracted from reality, and filled with themes that fade in and out without any sense of continuity. I suppose one could look at it as a kind of end-times love story, but who cares about love stories involving characters who are unsympathetic and implausible?

Spoilers end here.  

One gets the sense that the author hadn't read enough science fiction to fully grasp the genre. It's fine to posit a counterfactual and build the story from that point. But you can't just make stuff up with wild abandon whenever you want, no less claim that it “came in a vision” to an inventor who has no background in the field. Further, the characters (even if they are aliens utterly unlike anything in the human experience, which is not the case here) have to behave in ways consistent with their properties and context.

In a podcast interview with the author, he said that the publisher of his spy fiction declined to publish this novel because it was so different from his existing œuvre. Well, you could say that, but I suspect the publisher was being kind to a valued author in not specifying that the difference was not in genre but rather the quality of the work.


Pournelle, Jerry. A Step Farther Out. Studio City, CA: Chaos Manor Press, [1979, 1994] 2011. ASIN B004XTKFWW.
This book is a collection of essays originally published in Galaxy magazine between 1974 and 1978. They were originally collected into a book published in 1979, which was republished in 1994 with a new preface and notes from the author. This electronic edition includes all the material from the 1994 book plus a new preface which places the essays in the context of their time and the contemporary world.

I suspect that many readers of these remarks may be inclined to exclaim “Whatever possessed you to read a bunch of thirty-year-old columns from a science fiction magazine which itself disappeared from the scene in 1980?” I reply, “Because the wisdom in these explorations of science, technology, and the human prospect is just as relevant today as it was when I first read them in the original book, and taken together they limn the lost three decades of technological progress which have so blighted our lives.” Pournelle not only envisioned what was possible as humanity expanded its horizons from the Earth to become a spacefaring species drawing upon the resources of the solar system which dwarf those about which the “only one Earth” crowd fret, he also foresaw the constraint which would prevent us from today living in a perfectly achievable world, starting from the 1970s, with fusion, space power satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and innovative sources of natural gas providing energy; a robust private space infrastructure with low cost transport to Earth orbit; settlements on the Moon and Mars; exploration of the asteroids with an aim to exploit their resources; and compounded growth of technology which would not only permit human survival but “survival with style”—not only for those in the developed countries, but for all the ten billion who will inhabit this planet by the middle of the present century.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, Pournelle nails that as well. Recall whilst reading the following paragraph that it was written in 1978.

[…] Merely continue as we are now: innovative technology discouraged by taxes, environmental impact statements, reports, lawsuits, commission hearings, delays, delays, delays; space research not carried out, never officially abandoned but delayed, stretched-out, budgets cut and work confined to the studies without hardware; solving the energy crisis by conservation, with fusion research cut to the bone and beyond, continued at level-of-effort but never to a practical reactor; fission plants never officially banned, but no provision made for waste disposal or storage so that no new plants are built and the operating plants slowly are phased out; riots at nuclear power plant construction sites; legal hearings, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers…

Can you not imagine the dream being lost? Can you not imagine the nation slowly learning to “do without”, making “Smaller is Better” the national slogan, fussing over insulating attics and devoting attention to windmills; production falling, standards of living falling, until one day we discover the investments needed to go to space would be truly costly, would require cuts in essentials like food —

A world slowly settling into satisfaction with less, until there are no resources to invest in That Buck Rogers Stuff?

I can imagine that.

As can we all, as now we are living it. And yet, and yet…. One consequence of the Three Lost Decades is that the technological vision and optimistic roadmap of the future presented in these essays is just as relevant to our predicament today as when they were originally published, simply because with a few exceptions we haven't done a thing to achieve them. Indeed, today we have fewer resources with which to pursue them, having squandered our patrimony on consumption, armies of rent-seekers, and placed generations yet unborn in debt to fund our avarice. But for those who look beyond the noise of the headlines and the platitudes of politicians whose time horizon is limited to the next election, here is a roadmap for a true step farther out, in which the problems we perceive as intractable are not “managed” or “coped with”, but rather solved, just as free people have always done when unconstrained to apply their intellect, passion, and resources toward making their fortunes and, incidentally, creating wealth for all.

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. The ISBN of the original 1979 paperback edition is 978-0-441-78584-1. The formatting in the Kindle edition is imperfect, but entirely readable. As is often the case with Kindle documents, “images and tables hardest hit”: some of the tables take a bit of head-scratching to figure out, as the Kindle (or at least the iPad application which I use) particularly mangles multi-column tables. (I mean, what's with that, anyway? LaTeX got this perfectly right thirty years ago, and in a manner even beginners could use; and this was pure public domain software anybody could adopt. Sigh—three lost decades….) Formatting quibbles aside, I'm as glad I bought and read this book as I was when I first bought it and read it all those years ago. If you want to experience not just what the future could have been, then, but what it can be, now, here is an excellent place to start.

The author's Web site is an essential resource for those interested in these big ideas, grand ambitions, and the destiny of humankind and its descendents.


Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner]. Abuse of Power. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-312-55301-2.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books under his own name, is best known for his political works, four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list including one which reached the top of that list. This is his first foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting a style reminiscent of Rudy Rucker's transrealism, in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her, is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth and getting it to the public by whatever means available, immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and banned in Britain for daring to transgress the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?

While on a routine ride-along with a friend from the San Francisco Police Department bomb squad, Hatfield finds himself in the middle of a carjacking gone horribly wrong, where the evidence of his own eyes and of witnesses at the scene contradicts the soothing narrative issued by the authorities and swallowed whole by the legacy media. As Hatfield starts to dig beneath the surface, he discovers a trail of murders which seem to point to a cover-up by a shadowy but well-funded and ruthlessly efficient organisation whose motives remain opaque. This leads him on a trail which takes him to various points around the world and finally back to San Francisco, where only he and his small circle of friends can expose and thwart a plot aimed at regime change in the country which fancied itself the regime changer for the rest of the world.

Inevitably, I have some technical quibbles.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 25, it is assumed that a cellular mobile telephone can communicate with a like unit without going through the cellular network (which, in this case, is blocked by a police jammer) if it is in line of sight and close enough to the other telephone. This is not the case; even if it were technologically possible, how would the Phone Company charge you for the call?
  • On p. 144 a terrorist mole is granted a G-2 visa to work at a foreign consulate in the U.S. In fact, a G-2 visa is granted only to individuals travelling to the U.S. to attend meetings of international organisations. The individual in question would have required an A-1 or A-2 diplomatic visa to enter the U.S.
  • On p. 149 Jack takes out a Remington shotgun loaded with 12-gauge rounds, and just two paragraphs later lays “the rifle across his forearm”. A shotgun is not a rifle.
  • This is not a quibble but a high-five. The shortened URL in the decrypted message on p. 257 points precisely where the novel says it does.
  • When will thriller authors sit down and read The Effects of Nuclear Weapons? On p. 355 we're faced with the prospect of a “satchel nuke” being detonated atop one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and told:
    There would have been thousands of deaths within days, tens of thousands within weeks, over a million within a month—many of those among people who would have been needed to keep the infrastructure from collapsing. Doctors, police, workers at power plants and sewage centers. [sic (sentence fragment)] The environment would have become so toxic that rescue workers couldn't have gotten into the area, and poisoned food and water would have added exponentially to the death toll. Airdrops of fresh supplies would have led to riots, more death. Silicon Valley would have been ravaged, all but destroying the U.S. computer industry.
    Nonsense—a plausible satchel nuke of a size which Sara (admittedly a well-trained woman) could carry in a backpack would be something like the U.S. SADM, which weighed around 68 kg, more than most in-shape women. The most common version of this weapon was based upon the W54 warhead, which had a variable yield from 10 tons to 1 kiloton. Assuming the maximum one kiloton yield, a detonation would certainly demolish the Golden Gate Bridge and cause extensive damage to unreinforced structures around the Bay, but the radiation effects wouldn't be remotely as severe as asserted; there would be some casualties to those downwind and in the fallout zone, but these would be more likely in the hundreds and over one or more decades after the detonation. The fact that the detonation occurred at the top of a tower taller than those used in most surface detonations at the Nevada Test Site and above water would further reduce fallout. Silicon Valley, which is almost 100 km south of the detonation site, would be entirely unaffected apart from Twitter outages due to #OMG tweets. The whole subplot about the “hydrazine-based rocket fuel” tanker crossing the bridge is silly: hydrazine is nasty stuff to be sure, but first of all it is a hypergolic liquid rocket fuel, not an “experimental solid rocket fuel”. (Duh—if it were solid, why would you transport it in a tanker?) But apart from that, hydrazine is one of those molecules whose atoms really don't like being so close to one another, and given the slightest excuse will re-arrange themselves into a less strained configuration. Being inside a nuclear fireball is an excellent excuse to do so, hence the closer the tanker happened to be to the detonation, the less likely the dispersal of its contents would cause casualties for those downwind.
Spoilers end here.  

This is an enjoyable and promising debut for an author who is embarking upon the craft of the thriller, and none of the natters above (if you chose to read them) detracted from this reader's enjoyment of the story. Is it up to the standard of recent work from masters of the genre such as Vince Flynn or Brad Thor? No—but it's a good read and auspicious start; I will certainly give forthcoming novels from this author a try.


Hoover, Herbert. Freedom Betrayed. Edited by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8179-1234-5.
This book, begun in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, became the primary occupation of former U.S. president Herbert Hoover until his death in 1964. He originally referred to it as the “War Book” and titled subsequent draft manuscripts Lost Statesmanship, The Ordeal of the American People, and Freedom Betrayed, which was adopted for this edition. Over the two decades Hoover worked on the book, he and his staff came to refer to it as the “Magnum Opus”, and it is magnum indeed—more than 950 pages in this massive brick of a hardcover edition.

The work began as an attempt to document how, in Hoover's view, a series of diplomatic and strategic blunders committed during the Franklin Roosevelt administration had needlessly prompted Hitler's attack upon the Western democracies, forged a disastrous alliance with Stalin, and deliberately provoked Japan into attacking the U.S. and Britain in the Pacific. This was summarised by Hoover as “12 theses” in a 1946 memorandum to his research assistant (p. 830):

  1. War between Russia and Germany was inevitable.
  2. Hitler's attack on Western Democracies was only to brush them out of his way.
  3. There would have been no involvement of Western Democracies had they not gotten in his (Hitler's) way by guaranteeing Poland (March, 1939).
  4. Without prior agreement with Stalin this constituted the greatest blunder of British diplomatic history.
  5. There was no sincerity on either side of the Stalin-Hitler alliance of August, 1939.
  6. The United States or the Western Hemisphere were never in danger by Hitler.
  7. [This entry is missing in Hoover's typescript—ed.]
  8. This was even less so when Hitler determined to attack Stalin.
  9. Roosevelt, knowing this about November, 1940, had no remote warranty for putting the United States in war to “save Britain” and/or saving the United States from invasion.
  10. The use of the Navy for undeclared war on Germany was unconstitutional.
  11. There were secret military agreements with Britain probably as early of January, 1940.
  12. The Japanese war was deliberately provoked. …

…all right—eleven theses. As the years passed, Hoover expanded the scope of the project to include what he saw as the cynical selling-out of hundreds of millions of people in nations liberated from Axis occupation into Communist slavery, making a mockery of the principles espoused in the Atlantic Charter and reaffirmed on numerous occasions and endorsed by other members of the Allies, including the Soviet Union. Hoover puts the blame for this betrayal squarely at the feet of Roosevelt and Churchill, and documents how Soviet penetration of the senior levels of the Roosevelt administration promoted Stalin's agenda and led directly to the loss of China to Mao's forces and the Korean War.

As such, this is a massive work of historical revisionism which flies in the face of the mainstream narrative of the origins of World War II and the postwar period. But, far from the rantings of a crank, this is the work of a former President of the United States, who, in his career as an engineer and humanitarian work after World War I lived in or travelled extensively through all of the countries involved in the subsequent conflict and had high-level meetings with their governments. (Hoover was the only U.S. president to meet with Hitler; the contemporary notes from his 1938 meeting appear here starting on p. 837.) Further, it is a scholarly examination of the period, with extensive citations and excerpts of original sources. Hoover's work in food relief in the aftermath of World War II provided additional entrée to governments in that period and an on-the-ground view of the situation as communism tightened its grip on Eastern Europe and sought to expand into Asia.

The amount of folly chronicled here is astonishing, and the extent of the human suffering it engendered is difficult to comprehend. Indeed, Hoover's “just the facts” academic style may leave you wishing he expressed more visceral anger at all the horrible things that happened which did not have to. But then Hoover was an engineer, and we engineers don't do visceral all that well. Now, Hoover was far from immune from blunders: his predecessor in the Oval Office called him “wonder boy” for his enthusiasm for grand progressive schemes, and Hoover's mis-handling of the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash turned what might have been a short and deep recession into the First Great Depression and set the stage for the New Deal. Yet here, I think Hoover the historian pretty much gets it right, and when reading these words, last revised in 1963, one gets the sense that the verdict of history has reinforced the evidence Hoover presents here, even though his view remains anathema in an academy almost entirely in the thrall of slavers.

In the last months of his life, Hoover worked furiously to ready the manuscript for publication; he viewed it as a large part of his life's work and his final contribution to the history of the epoch. After his death, the Hoover Foundation did not proceed to publish the document for reasons which are now impossible to determine, since none of the people involved are now alive. One can speculate that they did not wish to embroil the just-deceased founder of their institution in what was sure to be a firestorm of controversy as he contradicted the smug consensus view of progressive historians of the time, but nobody really knows (and the editor, recruited by the successor of that foundation to prepare the work for publication, either did not have access to that aspect of the story or opted not to pursue it). In any case, the editor's work was massive: sorting through thousands of documents and dozens of drafts of the work, trying to discern the author's intent from pencilled-in marginal notes, tracking down citations and verifying quoted material, and writing an introduction of more than a hundred pages explaining the origins of the work, its historical context, and the methodology used to prepare this edition; the editing is a serious work of scholarship in its own right.

If you're acquainted with the period, you're unlikely to learn any new facts here, although Hoover's first-hand impressions of countries and leaders are often insightful. In the decades after Hoover's death, many documents which were under seal of official secrecy have become available, and very few of them contradict the picture presented here. (As a former president with many military and diplomatic contacts, Hoover doubtless had access to some of this material on a private basis, but he never violated these confidences in this work.) What you will learn from reading this book is that a set of facts can be interpreted in more than one way, and that if one looks at the events from 1932 through 1962 through the eyes of an observer who was, like Hoover, fundamentally a pacifist, humanitarian, and champion of liberty, you may end up with a very different impression than that in the mainstream history books. What the conventional wisdom deems a noble battle against evil can, from a different perspective, be seen as a preventable tragedy which not only consigned entire nations to slavery for decades, but sowed the seeds of tyranny in the U.S. as the welfare/warfare state consolidated itself upon the ashes of limited government and individual liberty.


July 2012

Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist? Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. ISBN 978-161017-061-1.
In 1851, Ernest Renan wrote that Islam “was born in the full light of history…”. But is this the case? What do we actually know of the origins of Islam, the life of its prophet, and the provenance of its holy book? In this thoroughly researched and documented investigation the author argues that the answer to these questions is very little indeed, and that contemporary evidence for the existence of a prophet in Arabia who proclaimed a scripture, led the believers into battle and prevailed, unifying the peninsula, and lived the life documented in the Muslim tradition is entirely nonexistent during the time of Muhammad's supposed life, and did not emerge until decades, and in many cases, more than a century later. Further, the historical record shows clear signs, acknowledged by contemporary historians, of having been fabricated by rival factions contending for power in the emerging Arab empire.

What is beyond dispute is that in the century and a quarter between A.D. 622 and 750, Arab armies erupted from the Arabian peninsula and conquered an empire spanning three continents, propagating a change in culture, governance, and religion which remains in effect in much of that region today. The conventional story is that these warriors were the armies of Islam, following their prophet's command to spread the word of their God and bearing his holy writ, the Qur'an, before them as they imposed it upon those they subdued by the sword. But what is the evidence for this?

When you look for it, it's remarkably scanty. As the peoples conquered by the Arab armies were, in many cases, literate, they have left records of their defeat. And in every case, they speak of the invaders as “Hagarians”, “Ishmaelites”, “Muhajirun”, or “Saracens”, and in none of these records is there a mention of an Arab prophet, much less one named “Muhammad”, or of “Islam”, or of a holy book called the “Qur'an”.

Now, for those who study the historical foundations of Christianity or Judaism, these results will be familiar—when you trace the origins of a great religious tradition back to its roots, you often discover that they disappear into a fog of legend which believers must ultimately accept on faith since historical confirmation, at this remove, is impossible. This has been the implicit assumption of those exploring the historical foundations of the Bible for at least two centuries, but it is considered extremely “edgy” to pose these questions about Islam, even today. This is because when you do, the believers are prone to use edgy weapons to cut your head off. Jews and Christians have gotten beyond this, and just shake their heads and chuckle. So some say it takes courage to raise these questions about Islam. I'd say “some” are the kind of cowards who opposed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, freeing it from the priesthood and placing it in the hands of anybody who could read. And if any throat-slitter should be irritated by these remarks and be inclined to act upon them, be advised that I not only shoot back but, circumstances depending, first.

I find the author's conclusion very plausible. After the Arab conquest, its inheritors found themselves in command of a multicontinental empire encompassing a large number of subject peoples and a multitude of cultures and religious traditions. If you were the ruler of such a newly-cobbled-together empire, wouldn't you be motivated, based upon the experience of those you have subdued, to promulgate a state religion, proclaimed in the language of the conquerer, which demanded submission? Would you not base that religion upon the revelation of a prophet, speaking to the conquerers in their own language, which came directly from God?

It is often observed that Islam, unlike the other Abrahamic religions, is uniquely both a religious and political system, leading inevitably to theocracy (which I've always believed misnamed—I'd have no problem with theocracy: rule by God; it's rule by people claiming to act in His name that always seems to end badly). But what if Islam is so intensely political precisely because it was invented to support a political agenda—that of the Arabic Empire of the Umayyad Caliphate? It's not that Islam is political because its doctrine encompasses politics as well as religion; it's that's it's political because it was designed that way by the political rulers who directed the compilation of its sacred books, its traditions, and spread it by the sword to further their imperial ambitions.


Grace, Tom. The Liberty Intrigue. Unknown: Dunlap Goddard, 2012. ISBN 978-0-965-60401-7.
This novel is a kind of parallel-universe account of the 2012 presidential election in the United States. Rather than the actual contest, featuring a GOP challenger who inspires the kind of enthusiasm as week-old left-over boiled broccoli, here an outsider, a Yooper engineer, Ross Egan, who has spent his adult life outside the U.S. and shared the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a bloody conflict in an African nation and helping to bring about an economic renaissance for its people, returns to the land of his birth and is persuaded to seek the presidency in a grass-roots, no-party bid.

Intrigue swirls around the contest from all sides. The incumbent and his foreign-born billionaire speculator backer launch an “operation chaos” intervention in open primary states intended to ensure no Republican arrives at the convention with a majority; a shadowy Internet group calling itself “WHO IS I” (based upon the grammar, I'd start with looking at those who frequent the Slashdot site) makes its presence known by a series of highly visible hack attacks and then sets itself up as an independent real-time fact-checker of the pronouncements of politicians. Opposition research turns up discrepancies in the origin of Egan's vast fortune, and a potentially devastating secret which can be sprung upon him in the last days of the campaign.

This just didn't work for me. The novel attempts to be a thriller but never actually manages to be thrilling. There are unexplained holes in the plot (Egan's energy invention is even more airy in its description than John Galt's motor) and characters often seem to act in ways that just aren't consistent with what we know of them and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Finally, the novel ends with the election, when the really interesting part would be what happens in its aftermath. All in all, if you're looking for a U.S. presidential election thriller and don't mind it being somewhat dated, I'd recommend Aaron Zelman and L. Neil Smith's Hope (March 2002) instead of this book.

I use “Unknown” as the publisher's domicile in the citation above because neither the book nor the contact page on the publisher's Web site provides this information. A WHOIS query on their domain name indicates it is hidden behind a front named “Domain Discreet Privacy Service” of Jacksonville, Florida. Way to go with the transparency and standing up in public for what you believe, guys!


Pendle, George. Strange Angel. New York: Harcourt, 2005. ISBN 978-0-15-603179-0.
For those who grew up after World War II “rocket science” meant something extremely difficult, on the very edge of the possible, pursued by the brightest of the bright, often at risk of death or dire injury. In the first half of the century, however, “rocket” was a pejorative, summoning images of pulp magazines full of “that Buck Rogers stuff”, fireworks that went fwoosh—flash—bang if all went well, and often in the other order when it didn't, with aspiring rocketeers borderline lunatics who dreamed of crazy things like travelling to the Moon but usually ended blowing things up, including, but not limited to, themselves.

This was the era in which John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons came of age. Parsons was born and spent most of his life in Pasadena, California, a community close enough to Los Angeles to participate in its frontier, “anything goes” culture, but also steeped in well-heeled old wealth, largely made in the East and seeking the perpetually clement climate of southern California. Parsons was attracted to things that went fwoosh and bang from the very start. While still a high school senior, he was hired by the Hercules Powder Company, and continued to support himself as an explosives chemist for the rest of his life. He never graduated from college, no less pursued an advanced degree, but his associates and mentors, including legends such as Theodore von Kármán were deeply impressed by his knowledge and meticulously careful work with dangerous substances and gave him their highest recommendations. On several occasions he was called as an expert witness to testify in high-profile trials involving bombings.

And yet, at the time, to speak seriously about rockets was as outré as to admit one was a fan of “scientifiction” (later science fiction), or a believer in magic. Parsons was all-in on all of them. An avid reader of science fiction and member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Parsons rubbed shoulders with Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Forrest J. Ackerman. On the darker side, Parsons became increasingly involved in the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), followers of Aleister Crowley, and practitioners of his “magick”. One gets the sense that Parsons saw no conflict whatsoever among these pursuits—all were ways to transcend the prosaic everyday life and explore a universe enormously larger and stranger than even that of Los Angeles and its suburbs.

Parsons and his small band of rocket enthusiasts, “the suicide squad”, formed an uneasy alliance with the aeronautical laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and with access to their resources and cloak of respectability, pursued their dangerous experiments first on campus, and then after a few embarrassing misadventures, in Arroyo Seco behind Pasadena. With the entry of the United States into World War II, the armed services had difficult problems to solve which overcame the giggle factor of anything involving the word “rocket”. In particular, the U.S. Navy had an urgent need to launch heavily-laden strike aircraft from short aircraft carrier decks (steam catapults were far in the future), and were willing to consider even Buck Rogers rockets to get them off the deck. Well, at least as long as you didn't call them “rockets”! So, the Navy sought to procure “Jet Assisted Take-Off” units, and Caltech created the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” with Parsons as a founder to develop them, and then its members founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to build them in quantity. Nope, no rockets around here, nowhere—just jets.

Even as Parsons' rocket dreams came true and began to make him wealthy, he never forsook his other interests: they were all integral to him. He advanced in Crowley's OTO, became a regular correspondent of the Great Beast, and proprietor of the OTO lodge in Pasadena, home to a motley crew of bohemians who prefigured the beatniks and hippies of the 1950s and '60s. And he never relinquished his interest in science fiction, taking author L. Ron Hubbard into his community. Hubbard, a world class grifter even in his early days, took off with Parsons' girlfriend and most of his savings on the promise of buying yachts in Florida and selling them at a profit in California. Uh-huh! I'd put it down to destructive engrams.

Amidst all of this turmoil, Parsons made one of the most important inventions in practical rocketry of the 20th century. Apart from the work of Robert Goddard, which occurred largely disconnected from others due to Goddard's obsessive secrecy due to his earlier humiliation by learned ignoramuses, and the work by the German rocket team, conducted in secrecy in Nazi Germany, rockets mostly meant solid rockets, and solid rockets were little changed from mediaeval China: tubes packed with this or that variant of black powder which went fwoosh all at once when ignited. Nobody before Parsons saw an alternative to this. When faced by the need for a reliable, storable, long-duration burn propellant for Navy JATO boosters, he came up with the idea of castable solid propellant (initially based upon asphalt and potassium perchlorate), which could be poured as a liquid into a booster casing with a grain shape which permitted tailoring the duration and thrust profile of the motor to the mission requirements. Every single solid rocket motor used today employs this technology, and Jack Parsons, high school graduate and self-taught propulsion chemist, invented it all by himself.

On June 17th, 1952, an explosion destroyed a structure on Pasadena's Orange Grove Avenue where Jack Parsons had set up his home laboratory prior to his planned departure with his wife to Mexico. He said he had just one more job to do for his client, a company producing explosives for Hollywood special effects. Parsons was gravely injured and pronounced dead at the hospital.

The life of Jack Parsons was one which could only have occurred in the time and place he lived it. It was a time when a small band of outcasts could have seriously imagined building a rocket and travelling to the Moon; a time when the community they lived in was aboil with new religions, esoteric cults, and alternative lifestyles; and an entirely new genre of fiction was exploring the ultimate limits of the destiny of humanity and its descendents. Jack swam in this sea and relished it. His short life (just 37 years) was lived in a time and place which has never existed before and likely will never exist again. The work he did, the people he influenced, and the consequences cast a long shadow still visible today (every time you see a solid rocket booster heave a launcher off the pad, its coruscant light, casting that shadow, is Jack Parsons' legacy). This is a magnificent account of a singular life which changed our world, and is commemorated on the rock next door. On the lunar far side the 40 kilometre diameter crater Parsons is named for the man who dreamt of setting foot, by rocketry or magick, upon that orb and, in his legacy, finally did with a big footprint indeed—more than eight times larger than the one named for that Armstrong fellow.


Varley, John. Red Thunder. New York: Ace, 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-01162-9.
In my review of Ark (June 2012), I wrote that one of the most time-tested forms of science fiction was assuming a counterfactual (based upon present knowledge and conventional wisdom) and then spinning out the consequences which follow logically from it. While Ark was a disappointment, this full-on romp shows just how well the formula works when employed by a master of the genre. First, one must choose the counterfactual carefully. In this case Varley vaults over the stumbling block of most near-future science fiction and harks back to Doc Smith's Skylark novels by asking, “What if propulsion were not the problem?”.

This sets the stage for the kind of story many might have thought laughably obsolete in the 21st century: a bunch of intrepid misfits building their own spaceship and blasting off for Mars, beating en-route Chinese and American expeditions, and demonstrating their world-transforming technology in a way that no government would be able to seize for its own benefit. The characters are not supermen, but rather people so like those you know that they're completely believable, and they develop in the story as they find themselves, largely through the luck of being in the right place at the right time, able to accomplish extraordinary things. There are plenty of laughs along the way, as well as the deeply moving backstory of the characters, especially that of the semi-autistic savant Jubal Broussard who stumbles onto the discovery that changes everything for humanity, forever. His cousin, disgraced ex-astronaut Travis Broussard, gets to experience the “heady feeling to put the President on hold, refuse an order, and hang up on her, all in the space of ten minutes.” (p. 392)

The novel, dedicated to Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein, is the peer of their greatest works and an absolute hoot—enjoy!


Lehrman, Lewis E. The True Gold Standard. Greenwich, CT: Lehrman Institute, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9840178-0-5.
Nothing is more obvious than that the global financial system is headed for an inevitable crack-up of epic proportions. Fiat (paper) money systems usually last about forty years before imploding in the collapse of the credit expansion bubbles they predictably create. We are now 41 years after the United States broke the link between the world's reserve currency, the U.S. dollar, and gold. Since then, every currency in the world has been “floating”—decoupled from any physical backing, and valued only by comparison with the others. Uniquely in human history, all of the world now uses paper money, and they are all interlinked in a global market where shifts in sentiment or confidence can cause trillion dollar excursions in the wealth of nations in milliseconds. The risk of “contagion”, where loss of confidence in one paper currency causes a rush to the next, followed by attempts to limit its appreciation by its issuer, and a cascading race to the bottom has never been greater. The great currency and societal collapses of the past, while seeming apocalyptic to those living through them, were local; the next one is likely to be all-encompassing, with consequences which are difficult to imagine without venturing into speculative fiction.

I believe the only way to avoid this cataclysm is to get rid of all of the debt which can never be repaid and promises which can never be met, pop the credit bubble, and replace the funny money upon which the entire delusional system is based with the one standard which has stood the test of millennia: gold. If you were designing a simulation for people to live in and wanted to provide an ideal form of money, it would be hard to come up with something better than element 79. It doesn't corrode or degrade absent exposure to substances so foul as to make even thrill-seeking chemists recoil; it's easily divisible into quantities as small as one wishes, easy to certify as genuine; and has few applications which consume it, which means that the above-ground supply is essentially constant. It is also very difficult and costly to mine, which means that the supply grows almost precisely in synchronism with that of the world's population and their wealth—consequently, as a monetary standard it supports a stable price level, incapable of manipulation by politicians, bankers, or other criminal classes, and is freely exchangeable by free people everywhere without the constraints imposed by the slavers upon users of their currencies.

Now, when one discusses the gold standard, there is a standard litany of objections from those bought in to the status quo.

  • It's a step back into the past.
  • There isn't enough gold to go around.
  • It's inflexible and unable to cope with today's dynamic economy.
  • There's no way to get from here to there.

This book dispenses with these arguments in order. If we step back from the abyss of a financial cataclysm into a past with stable prices, global free trade, and the ability to make long-term investments which benefitted everybody, what's so bad about that? It doesn't matter how much gold there is—all that matters is that the quantity doesn't change at the whim of politicians: existing currencies will have to be revalued against gold, but the process of doing so will write down unpayable debts and restore solvency to the international financial system. A gold standard is inflexible by design: that's its essential feature, not a bug. Flexibility in a modern economy is provided by the myriad means of extension of credit, all of which will be anchored to reality by a stable unit of exchange. Finally, this work provides a roadmap for getting from here to there, with a period of price discovery preceding full convertibility of paper money to gold and the possibility of the implementation of convertibility being done either by a single country (creating a competitive advantage for its currency) or by a group of issuers of currencies working together. The author assumes the first currency to link to gold will be called the dollar, but I'll give equal odds it will be called the dinar, yuan, or rouble. It is difficult to get from here to there, but one must never forget the advantage that accrues to he who gets there first.

The assumption throughout is that the transition from the present paper money system to gold-backed currencies is continuous. While this is an outcome much to be preferred, I think it is, given the profligate nature of the ruling classes and their willingness to postpone any difficult decisions even to buy a mere week or two, not the way to bet. Still, even if we find ourselves crawling from the wreckage of a profoundly corrupt international financial system, this small book provides an excellent roadmap for rebuilding a moral, equitable, and sustainable system which will last for five decades or so…until the slavers win office again.

This is a plan which assumes existing institutions more or less stay in place, and that government retains its power to mandate currency at gunpoint. A softer path to hard currency might simply be allowing competing currencies, all exempt from tax upon conversion, to be used in transactions, contracts, and financial instruments. I might choose to use grammes of gold; you may prefer Euros; my neighbour may opt for Saudi certificates redeemable in barrels of crude oil; and the newleyweds down the street may go for Iowa coins exchangeable for a bushel of corn. The more the better! They'll all be seamlessly exchangeable for one another at market rates when we beam them to one another with our mobile phones or make payments, and the best ones will endure. The only losers will be archaic institutions like central banks, governments, and their treasuries. The winners will be people who created the wealth and are empowered to store and exchange it as they wish.


Grisham, John. The Litigators. New York: Bantam Books, [2011] 2012. ISBN 978-0-345-53688-4.
Every now and then you come across a novel where it's obvious, from the first few pages, that the author had an absolute blast telling the story, and when that's the case, the reader is generally in for a treat. This is certainly the case here.

David Zinc appeared to have it all. A Harvard Law graduate, senior associate at Chicago mega-firm Rogan Rothberg working in international bond finance, earning US$300,000 a year, with a good shot of making partner (where the real gravy train pulls into the station); he had the house, the car, and a beautiful wife pursuing her Ph.D. in art history. And then one grim Chicago morning, heading to the office for another exhausting day doing work he detested with colleagues he loathed, enriching partners he considered odious (and knowing that, if he eventually joined their ranks, the process of getting there would have made him just the same), he snapped. Suddenly, as the elevator ascended, he realised as clearly as anything he'd ever known in his life, “I cannot do this any more”.

And so, he just walked away, found a nearby bar that was open before eight in the morning, and decided to have breakfast. A Bloody Mary would do just fine, thanks, and then another and another. After an all day bender, blowing off a client meeting and infuriating his boss, texting his worried wife that all was well despite the frantic calls to her from the office asking where he was, he hails a taxi not sure where he wants to go, then, spotting an advertisement on the side of a bus, tells the driver to take him to the law offices of Finley & Figg, Attorneys.

This firm was somewhat different than the one he'd walked out of earlier that day. Oscar Finley and Wally Figg described their partnership as a “boutique firm”, but their stock in trade was quicky no-fault divorces, wills, drunk driving, and that mainstay of ground floor lawyering, personal accident cases. The firm's modest office was located near a busy intersection which provided an ongoing source of business, and the office was home to a dog named AC (for Ambulance Chaser), whose keen ears could pick up the sound of a siren even before a lawyer could hear it.

Staggering into the office, David offers his services as a new associate and, by soused bravado more than Harvard Law credentials, persuades the partners that the kid has potential, whereupon they sign him up. David quickly discovers an entire world of lawyering they don't teach at Harvard: where lawyers carry handguns in their briefcases along with legal pads, and with good reason; where making the rounds of prospective clients involves visiting emergency rooms and funeral homes, and where dissatisfied clients express their frustration in ways that go well beyond drafting a stern memorandum.

Soon, the firm stumbles onto what may be a once in a lifetime bonanza: a cholesterol drug called Krayoxx (no relation to Vioxx—none at all) which seems to cause those who take it to drop dead with heart attacks and strokes. This vaults the three-lawyer firm into the high-rolling world of mass tort litigation, with players with their own private jets and golf courses. Finley & Figg ends up at the pointy end of the spear in the litigation, which doesn't precisely go as they had hoped.

I'd like to quote one of the funniest paragraphs I've read in some time, but as there are minor spoilers in it, I'll put it behind the curtain. This is the kind of writing you'll be treated to in this novel.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
While Wally doodled on a legal pad as if he were heavily medicated, Oscar did most of the talking. “So, either we get rid of these cases and face financial ruin, or we march into federal court three weeks from Monday with a case that no lawyer in his right mind would try before a jury, a case with no liability, no experts, no decent facts, a client who's crazy half the time and stoned the other half, a client whose dead husband weighed 320 pounds and basically ate himself to death, a veritable platoon of highly paid and very skilled lawyers on the other side with an unlimited budget and experts from the finest hospitals in the country, a judge who strongly favors the other side, a judge who doesn't like us at all because he thinks we're inexperienced and incompetent, and, well, what else? What am I leaving out here, David?”

“We have no cash for litigation expenses,” David said, but only to complete the checklist.

Spoilers end here.  

This story is not just funny, but also a tale of how a lawyer, in diving off the big law rat race into the gnarly world of retail practice rediscovers his soul and that there are actually noble and worthy aspects of the law. The characters are complex and interact in believable ways, and the story unfolds as such matters might well do in the real world. There is quite a bit in common between this novel and The King of Torts (March 2004), but while that is a tragedy of hubris and nemesis, this is a tale of redemption.


Thor, Brad. The First Commandment. New York: Pocket Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4516-3566-9.
This is the sixth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In the aftermath of the shocking conclusion to the previous novel, Takedown (November 2011), Department of Homeland Security agent Scot Harvath discovers that he, personally, has become the target of a plot by person or persons unknown, aimed at individuals close to him in a series of attacks of Biblical proportions.

When he starts to follow the trail of evidence back to the source, he is told to stand down by no less than the president of the United States, who declines to specify a reason. Harvath is not a man easily dissuaded, especially when convinced that his loved ones and colleagues are in imminent danger simply due to their association with him, and he goes rogue, enlisting friends in the shadowy world of private security to dig into the mystery. This doesn't sit well with the president, who puts Harvath on a proscription list and dispatches a CIA “Omega Team” to deal with him. At one point a CIA agent and friend, to whom Harvath protests that he has every right to protect those close to him, responds “You don't have any rights. Jack Rutledge is the president of the United States. When he tells you to do something, you do it.” (At this point, I'd have preferred if Harvath decked the CIA goon and explained to him that his rights come from God, not the president of the United States, and that while a politician may try to infringe those rights, they remain inherent to every person. But maybe Harvath has been working so long for the slavers that he's forgotten that.)

As Harvath follows the murky threads, he comes across evidence which suggests a cover-up extending into the oval office, and is forced into an uneasy détente with his nemesis, the pint-sized supervillain known as the Troll, whose data mining prowess permits connecting the dots in an otherwise baffling situation. (People in Harvath's line of work tend not to lack for enemies, after all.)

I found this to be the best Brad Thor novel I've read so far—it's lighter on the action and gadgets and more concentrated on the mystery and the motivations of the malefactors. I prefer to read a series of novels in the order in which they describe the life of the protagonist. This book does contain sufficient background and context so that it will work as a stand-alone thriller, but if you haven't read the previous novels, you'll miss a lot of the complexity of Harvath's relationships with characters who appear here.


August 2012

Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 2. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2006. ISBN 978-1-4700-1508-4 NASA SP-2006-4110.
This is the second book of the author's four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of Challenge to Apollo (April 2008), the definitive Western history of the Soviet space program.

Volume 2 of Chertok's chronicle begins with his return from Germany to the Soviet Union, where he discovers, to his dismay, that day-to-day life in the victorious workers' state is much harder than in the land of the defeated fascist enemy. He becomes part of the project, mandated by Stalin, to first launch captured German V-2 missiles and then produce an exact Soviet copy, designated the R-1. Chertok and his colleagues discover that making a copy of foreign technology may be more difficult than developing it from scratch—the V-2 used a multitude of steel and non-ferrous metal alloys, as well as numerous non-metallic components (seals, gaskets, insulation, etc.) which were not produced by Soviet industry. But without the experience of the German rocket team (which, by this time, was in the United States), there was no way to know whether the choice of a particular material was because its properties were essential to its function or simply because it was readily available in Germany. Thus, making an “exact copy” involved numerous difficult judgement calls where the designers had to weigh the risk of deviation from the German design against the cost of standing up a Soviet manufacturing capacity which might prove unnecessary.

After the difficult start which is the rule for missile projects, the Soviets managed to turn the R-1 into a reliable missile and, through patience and painstaking analysis of telemetry, solved a mystery which had baffled the Germans: why between 10% and 20% of V-2 warheads had detonated in a useless airburst high above the intended target. Chertok's instrumentation proved that the cause was aerodynamic heating during re-entry which caused the high explosive warhead to outgas, deform, and trigger the detonator.

As the Soviet missile program progresses, Chertok is a key player, participating in the follow-on R-2 project (essentially a Soviet Redstone—a V-2 derivative, but entirely of domestic design), the R-5 (an intermediate range ballistic missile eventually armed with nuclear warheads), and the R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, which launched Sputnik, Gagarin, and whose derivatives remain in service today, providing the only crewed access to the International Space Station as of this writing.

Not only did the Soviet engineers have to build ever larger and more complicated hardware, they essentially had to invent the discipline of systems engineering all by themselves. While even in aviation it is often possible to test components in isolation and then integrate them into a vehicle, working out interface problems as they manifest themselves, in rocketry everything interacts, and when something goes wrong, you have only the telemetry and wreckage upon which to base your diagnosis. Consider: a rocket ascending may have natural frequencies in its tankage structure excited by vibration due to combustion instabilities in the engine. This can, in turn, cause propellant delivery to the engine to oscillate, which will cause pulses in thrust, which can cause further structural stress. These excursions may cause control actuators to be over-stressed and possibly fail. When all you have to go on is a ragged cloud in the sky, bits of metal raining down on the launch site, and some telemetry squiggles for a second or two before everything went pear shaped, it can be extraordinarily difficult to figure out what went wrong. And none of this can be tested on the ground. Only a complete systems approach can begin to cope with problems like this, and building that kind of organisation required a profound change in Soviet institutions, which had previously been built around imperial chief designers with highly specialised missions. When everything interacts, you need a different structure, and it was part of the genius of Sergei Korolev to create it. (Korolev, who was the author's boss for most of the years described here, is rightly celebrated as a great engineer and champion of missile and space projects, but in Chertok's view at least equally important was his talent in quickly evaluating the potential of individuals and filling jobs with the people [often improbable candidates] best able to do them.)

In this book we see the transformation of the Soviet missile program from slavishly copying German technology to world-class innovation, producing, in short order, the first ICBM, earth satellite, lunar impact, images of the lunar far side, and interplanetary probes. The missile men found themselves vaulted from an obscure adjunct of Red Army artillery to the vanguard of Soviet prestige in the world, with the Soviet leadership urging them on to ever greater exploits.

There is a tremendous amount of detail here—so much that some readers have deemed it tedious: I found it enlightening. The author dissects the Nedelin disaster in forensic detail, as well as the much less known 1980 catastrophe at Plesetsk where 48 died because a component of the rocket used the wrong kind of solder. Rocketry is an exacting business, and it is a gift to generations about to embark upon it to imbibe the wisdom of one who was present at its creation and learned, by decades of experience, just how careful one must be to succeed at it. I could go on regaling you with anecdotes from this book but, hey, if you've made it this far, you're probably going to read it yourself, so what's the point? (But if you do, I'd suggest you read Volume 1 [May 2012] first.)

As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and an online PDF edition is available.

A Kindle edition is available which is perfectly readable but rather cheaply produced. Footnotes simply appear in the text in-line somewhere after the reference, set in small red type. The index references page numbers from the print edition which are not included in the Kindle version, and hence are completely useless. If you have a workable PDF application on your reading device, I'd go with the NASA PDF, which is not only better formatted but free.

The original Russian edition is available online.


Gelernter, David. America-Lite. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59403-606-4.
At the end of World War II, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus. All of its industrial competitors had been devastated by the war; it was self-sufficient in most essential resources; it was the unquestioned leader in science, technology, and medicine; its cultural influence was spread around the world by Hollywood movies; and the centre of the artistic and literary world had migrated from Paris to New York. The generation which had won the war, enabled by the G.I. Bill, veterans swarmed into institutions of higher learning formerly reserved for scions of the wealthy and privileged—by 1947, fully 49% of college admissions were veterans.

By 1965, two decades after the end of the war, it was pretty clear to anybody with open eyes that it all had begun to go seriously wrong. The United States was becoming ever more deeply embroiled in a land war in Asia without a rationale comprehensible to those who paid for it and were conscripted to fight there; the centres of once-great cities were beginning a death spiral in which a culture of dependency spawned a poisonous culture of crime, drugs, and the collapse of the family; the humiliatingly defeated and shamefully former Nazi collaborator French were draining the U.S. Treasury of its gold reserves, and the U.S. mint had replaced its silver coins with cheap counterfeit replacements. In August of 1965, the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles exploded in riots, and the unthinkable—U.S. citizens battling one another with deadly force in a major city, became the prototype for violent incidents to come. What happened?

In this short book (just 200 pages in the print edition), the author argues that it was what I have been calling the “culture crash” for the last decade. Here, this event is described as the “cultural revolution”: not a violent upheaval as happened in China, but a steady process through which the keys to the élite institutions which transmit the culture from generation to generation were handed over, without a struggle, from the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) patricians which had controlled them since Colonial days, to a new intellectual class, influenced by ideas from Continental Europe, which the author calls PORGIs (post-religious globalist intellectuals). Now, this is not to say that there were not intellectuals at top-tier institutions of higher learning before the cultural revolution; but they were not in charge: those who were saw their mission in a fundamentally conservative way—to conserve the grand tradition of Western civilisation by transmitting it to each successive generation, while inculcating in them the moral compass which would make them worthy leaders in business, the military, and public affairs.

The PORGIs had no use for this. They had theory, and if the facts weren't consistent with the theory and the consequences of implementing it disastrously different from those intended, well then the facts must be faulty because the theory was crystalline perfection in itself. (And all of this became manifest well before the cognitive dissonance between academic fantasy and the real world became so great that the intellectuals had to invent postmodernism, denying the very existence of objective reality.)

The PORGIs (Well, I suppose we can at least take comfort that the intellectual high ground wasn't taken over by Corgis; imagine the chaos that would have engendered!) quickly moved to eliminate the core curricula in higher learning which taught Western history, culture, and moral tradition. This was replaced (theory being supreme, and unchallenged), with indoctrination in an ideology unmoored to the facts. Rather than individuals able to think and learn on their own, those educated by the PORGIs became servomechanisms who, stimulated by this or that keyword, would spit out a rote response: “Jefferson?” “White slaveowner!”

These, the generation educated by the PORGIs, starting around the mid 1960s, the author calls PORGI airheads. We all have our own “mental furniture” which we've accumulated over our lives—the way we make sense of the bewildering flow of information from the outside world: sorting it into categories, prioritising it, and deciding how to act upon it. Those with a traditional (pre-PORGI) education, or those like myself and the vast majority of people my age or older who figured it out on their own by reading books and talking to other people, have painfully built our own mental furniture, re-arranged it as facts came in which didn't fit with the ways we'd come to understand things, and sometimes heaved the old Barcalounger out the window when something completely contradicted our previous assumptions. With PORGI airheads, none of this obtains. They do not have the historical or cultural context to evaluate how well their pre-programmed responses fit the unforgiving real world. They are like parrots: you wave a French fry at them and they say, “Hello!” Another French fry, “Hello!” You wave a titanium billet painted to look like a French fry, “Hello!” Beak notched from the attempt to peel a titanium ingot, you try it once again.


Is there anybody who has been visible on the Internet for more than a few years who has not experienced interactions with these people? Here is my own personal collection of greatest hits.

Gelernter argues that Barack Obama is the first PORGI airhead to be elected to the presidency. What some see as ideology may be better explained as servomechanism “Hello!” response to stimuli for which his mentors have pre-programmed him. He knows nothing of World War II, or the Cold War, or of colonialism in Africa, or of the rôle of the British Empire in eradicating the slave trade. All of these were deemed irrelevant by the PORGIs and PORGI airheads who trained him. And the 53% who voted for him were made a majority by the PORGI airheads cranked out every year and injected into the bloodstream of the dying civil society by an educational system almost entirely in the hands of the enemy.

What is to be done? The author's prescription is much the same as my own. We need to break the back of the higher education (and for that matter, the union-dominated primary and secondary education) system and replace it with an Internet-based educational delivery system where students will have access to courses taught by the best pedagogues in the world (ranked in real time not just by student thumbs up and down, but by objectively measured outcomes, such as third-party test scores and employment results). Then we need independent certification agencies, operating in competition with one another much like bond rating agencies, which issue “e-diplomas” based on examinations (not just like the SAT and bar exams, but also in-person and gnarly like a Ph.D. defence for the higher ranks). The pyramid of prestige would remain, as well as the cost structure: a Doctorate in Russian Literature from Harvard would open more doors at the local parking garage or fast food joint than one from Bob's Discount Degrees, but you get what you pay for. And, in any case, the certification would cost a tiny fraction of spending your prime intellectually productive years listening to tedious lectures given by graduate students marginally proficient in your own language.

The PORGIs correctly perceived the U.S. educational system to be the “keys to the kingdom”. They began, in Gramsci's long march through the institutions, to put in place the mechanisms which would tilt the electorate toward their tyrannical agenda. It is too late to reverse it; the educational establishment must be destroyed. “Destroyed?”, you ask—“These are strong words! Do you really mean it? Is it possible?” Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational global data network! Record stores…gone! Book stores…gone! Universities….

In the Kindle edition (which costs almost as much as the hardcover), the end-notes are properly bidirectionally linked to citations in the text, but the index is just a useless list of terms without links to references in the text. I'm sorry if I come across as a tedious “index hawk”, but especially when reviewing a book about declining intellectual standards, somebody has to do it.


Chiles, Patrick. Perigee. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4699-5713-5.
A few years into the future, while NASA bumbles along in its bureaucratic haze and still can't launch humans into space, a commercial “new space” company, Polaris AeroSpace Lines, has taken the next step beyond suborbital tourist hops into space for the well-heeled, and begun both scheduled and charter service in aerospace planes equipped with a combined-cycle powerplant which allows them to fly anywhere on the globe, operating at Mach 10, making multiple skips off the atmosphere, and delivering up to 30 passengers and cargo to any destination in around 90 minutes. Passengers are treated to a level of service and coddling which exceeds first class, breathtaking views from above the atmosphere along the way, and apart from the steep ticket prices, no downside apart from the zero-g toilet.

In this thriller, something goes horribly wrong during a flight from Denver to Singapore chartered by a coarse and demanding Australian media mogul, and the crew and passengers find themselves not on course for their destination but rather trapped in Earth orbit with no propellant and hence no prospect of getting back until long after their life support will be exhausted. Polaris immediately begins to mount a rescue mission based upon an orbital spacecraft they have under development, but as events play out clues begin to emerge that a series of problems are not systems failures but perhaps evidence of something much darker, in which those on the front lines trying to get their people back do not know who they can trust. Eventually, Polaris has no option but to partner with insurgent individuals in the “old space” world to attempt an improvised rescue mission.

This is a very interesting book, in that it does not read like a space thriller so much as one of the classic aviation dramas such as The High and the Mighty. We have the cast of characters: a crusty mechanic, heroic commander, hot-shot first officer, resourceful flight attendant with unexpected talents, demanding passengers, visionary company president, weaselly subordinate, and square-jawed NASA types. It all works very well, and as long as you don't spend too much time thinking about mass fractions, specific impulse, orbital mechanics, and thermal protection systems, is an enjoyable read, and provides a glimpse of a plausible future for commercial space flight (point to point hypersonic service) which is little discussed among the new space community. For those who do care about the details, they follow. Be warned—some of these are major plot spoilers, so if you're planning to read the novel it's best to give them a pass until you've finished the book.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  

  • In chapter 26 we are told that the spaceplane's electricity is produced by fuel cells. This doesn't make any sense for a suborbital craft. We're also told that it is equipped with an APU and batteries with eight hours of capacity. For a plane which can fly to its destination in 90 minutes, why would you also include a fuel cell? The APU can supply power for normal operation, and in case it fails, the batteries have plenty of capacity to get you back on the ground. Also, you'd have to carry liquid hydrogen to power the fuel cells. This would require a bulky tank and make ramp operations and logistics a nightmare.
  • Not a quibble, but rather a belly laugh in chapter 28: I had not before heard the aging International Space Station called “Cattlecar Galactica”.
  • In chapter 31, when the rescue mission is about to launch, we're told that if the launch window is missed, on the next attempt the stricken craft will be “several hundred miles farther downrange”. In fact, the problem is that on the next orbit, due to the Earth's rotation, the plane of the craft's orbit will have shifted with respect to that of the launch site, and consequently the rescue mission will have to perform a plane change as part of its trajectory. This is hideously costly in terms of fuel, and it is unlikely in the extreme the rescue mission would be able to accomplish it. All existing rendezvous missions, if they miss their launch window, must wait until the next day when the launch site once again aligns with the orbital plane of the destination.
  • In chapter 47, as passenger Magrath begins to lose it, “Sweat began to bead up on his bald head and float away.” But in weightlessness, surface tension dominates all other forces and the sweat would cling and spread out over the 'strine's pate. There is nothing to make it float away.
  • In chapter 54 and subsequently, Shuttle “rescue balls” are used to transfer passengers from the crippled spaceplane to the space station. These were said to have been kept on the station since early in the program. In fact, while NASA did develop a prototype of the Personal Rescue Enclosure, they were never flown on any Shuttle mission nor launched to the station.
  • The orbital mechanics make absolutely no sense at all. One would expect a suborbital flight between Denver and Singapore to closely follow a great circle route between those airports (with possible deviations due to noise abatement and other considerations). Since most of the flight would be outside the atmosphere, weather and winds aloft would not be a major consideration. But if flight 501 had followed such a route and have continued to boost into orbit, it would have found itself in a high-inclination retrograde orbit around the Earth: going the opposite direction to the International Space Station. Getting from such an orbit to match orbits with the ISS would require more change in velocity (delta-v) than an orbital launch from the Earth, and no spacecraft in orbit would have remotely that capability. The European service vehicle already docked at the station would only have enough propellant for a destructive re-entry.

    We're told then that the flight path would be to the east, over Europe. but why would one remotely choose such a path, especially if a goal of the flight was to set records? It would be a longer flight, and much more demanding of propellant to do it in one skip as planned. But, OK, let's assume that for some reason they did decide to go the long way around. Now, for the rescue to be plausible, we have to assume two further ridiculously improbable things: first, that the inclination of the orbit resulting from the engine runaway on the flight to Singapore would match that of the station, and second, that the moment of launch just happened to be precisely when Denver was aligned with the plane of the station's orbit. Since there is no reason that the launch would have been scheduled to meet these exacting criteria, the likelihood that the spaceplane would be in an orbit reachable from the station without a large and impossible to accomplish plane change (here, I am referring to a change in the orbital plane, not catching a connecting flight) is negligible.

Spoilers end here.  

The author's career has been in the airline industry, and this shows in the authenticity of the depiction of airline operations. Notwithstanding the natters above behind the spoiler shield, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and raced through it trying to guess how it would come out.


Rucker, Rudy. Turing & Burroughs. Manuscript, 2012.
The author was kind enough to send this reader a copy of the manuscript for copy-editing and fact checking. I've returned it, marked up, and you should be able to read it soon. I shall refrain from commenting upon the text until it's generally available. But if you're a Rudy Rucker fan, you're going to love this.


September 2012

Bracken, Matthew. Foreign Enemies and Traitors. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9728310-3-1.
This is the third novel in the author's “Enemies” trilogy, which began with Enemies Foreign and Domestic (December 2009), and continued with Domestic Enemies (March 2012). Here, we pick up the story three years after the conclusion of the second volume. Phil Carson, who we last encountered escaping from the tottering U.S. on a sailboat after his involvement in a low-intensity civil war in Virginia, is returning to the ambiguously independent Republic of Texas, smuggling contraband no longer available in the de-industrialised and bankrupt former superpower, when he is caught in a freak December hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and shipwrecked on the coast of Mississippi.

This is not the America he left. The South is effectively under martial law, administered by General Marcus Aurelius Mirabeau; east Texas has declared its independence; the Southwest has split off as Aztlan and secured autonomy in the new Constitution; the East and upper Midwest remain under the control of the ever more obviously socialist regime in Washington; and the American redoubt states in the inland northwest are the last vestige of liberty. The former United States have not only been devastated by economic collapse and civil strife stemming from the attempt to ban and confiscate weapons, but then ravaged by three disastrous hurricanes and two earthquakes on the New Madrid fault. It's as if God had turned his back on the United States of America—say “no” to Him three times, and that may happen.

Carson, a Vietnam special forces veteran, uses his skills at survival, evasion, and escape, as well as his native cunning, to escape (albeit very painfully) to Tennessee, which is in the midst of a civil war. Residents, rejecting attempts to disarm them (which would place them at risk of annihilation at the hands of the “golden horde” escaping devastated urban areas and ravaging everything in their path), are now confronted with foreign mercenaries from such exemplars of human rights and rule of law as Kazakhstan and Nigeria, brought in because U.S. troops have been found too squeamish when it come to firing on their compatriots: Kazakhstani cavalry—not so much. (In the book, these savages are referred to as “Kazaks”. “Kazakhstani” is correct, but as an abbreviation I think “Kazakh” [the name of their language] would be better.)

Carson, and the insurgents with whom he makes contact in Tennessee, come across incontrovertible evidence of an atrocity committed by Kazakhstani mercenaries, at the direction of the highest levels of what remains of the U.S. government. In a world with the media under the thumb of the regime and the free Internet a thing of the past, getting this information out requires the boldest of initiatives, and recruiting not just career NCOs, the backbone of the military, but also senior officers with the access to carry out the mission. After finishing this book, you may lose some sleep pondering the question, “At what point is a military coup the best achievable outcome?”.

This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the “Enemies” trilogy. Unlike the previous volumes, there are a number of lengthy passages, usually couched as one character filling in another about events of which they were unaware, which sketch the back story. These are nowhere near as long as Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), (which didn't bother me in the least—I thought it brilliant all of the three times I've read it), but they do ask the reader to kick back from the action and review how we got here and what was happening offstage. Despite the effort to make this book work as a stand-alone novel, I'd recommend reading the trilogy in series—if you don't you'll miss the interactions between the characters, how they came to be here, and why the fate of the odious Bob Bullard is more than justified.

Extended excerpts of this and the author's other novels are available online at the author's Web site.


Blum, Andrew. Tubes. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-199493-7.
The Internet has become a routine fixture in the lives of billions of people, the vast majority of whom have hardly any idea how it works or what physical infrastructure allows them to access and share information almost instantaneously around the globe, abolishing, in a sense, the very concept of distance. And yet the Internet exists—if it didn't, you wouldn't be able to read this. So, if it exists, where is it, and what is it made of?

In this book, the author embarks upon a quest to trace the Internet from that tangle of cables connected to the router behind his couch to the hardware which enables it to communicate with its peers worldwide. The metaphor of the Internet as a cloud—simultaneously everywhere and nowhere—has become commonplace, and yet as the author begins to dig into the details, he discovers the physical Internet is nothing like a cloud: it is remarkably centralised (a large Internet exchange or “peering location” will tend grow ever larger, since networks want to connect to a place where the greatest number of other networks connect), often grungy (when pulling fibre optic cables through century-old conduits beneath the streets of Manhattan, one's mind turns more to rats than clouds), and anything but decoupled from the details of geography (undersea cables must choose a route which minimises risk of breakage due to earthquakes and damage from ship anchors in shallow water, while taking the shortest route and connecting to the backbone at a location which will provide the lowest possible latency).

The author discovers that while much of the Internet's infrastructure is invisible to the layman, it is populated, for the most part, with people and organisations open and willing to show it off to visitors. As an amateur anthropologist, he surmises that to succeed in internetworking, those involved must necessarily be skilled in networking with one another. A visit to a NANOG gathering introduces him to this subculture and the retail politics of peering.

Finally, when non-technical people speak of “the Internet”, it isn't just the interconnectivity they're thinking of but also the data storage and computing resources accessible via the network. These also have a physical realisation in the form of huge data centres, sited based upon the availability of inexpensive electricity and cooling (a large data centre such as those operated by Google and Facebook may consume on the order of 50 megawatts of electricity and dissipate that amount of heat). While networking people tend to be gregarious bridge-builders, data centre managers view themselves as defenders of a fortress and closely guard the details of their operations from outside scrutiny. When Google was negotiating to acquire the site for their data centre in The Dalles, Oregon, they operated through an opaque front company called “Design LLC”, and required all parties to sign nondisclosure agreements. To this day, if you visit the facility, there's nothing to indicate it belongs to Google; on the second ring of perimeter fencing, there's a sign, in Gothic script, that says “voldemort industries”—don't be evil! (p. 242) (On p. 248 it is claimed that the data centre site is deliberately obscured in Google Maps. Maybe it once was, but as of this writing it is not. From above, apart from the impressive power substation, it looks no more exciting than a supermarket chain's warehouse hub.) The author finally arranges to cross the perimeter, get his retina scanned, and be taken on a walking tour around the buildings from the outside. To cap the visit, he is allowed inside to visit—the lunchroom. The food was excellent. He later visits Facebook's under-construction data centre in the area and encounters an entirely different culture, so perhaps not all data centres are Morlock territory.

The author comes across as a quintessential liberal arts major (which he was) who is alternately amused by the curious people he encounters who understand and work with actual things as opposed to words, and enthralled by the wonder of it all: transcending space and time, everywhere and nowhere, “free” services supported by tens of billions of dollars of power-gobbling, heat-belching infrastructure—oh, wow! He is also a New York collectivist whose knee-jerk reaction is “public, good; private, bad” (notwithstanding that the build-out of the Internet has been almost exclusively a private sector endeavour). He waxes poetic about the city-sponsored (paid for by grants funded by federal and state taxpayers plus loans) fibre network that The Dalles installed which, he claims, lured Google to site its data centre there. The slightest acquaintance with economics or, for that matter, arithmetic, demonstrates the absurdity of this. If you're looking for a site for a multi-billion dollar data centre, what matters is the cost of electricity and the climate (which determines cooling expenses). Compared to the price tag for the equipment inside the buildings, the cost of running a few (or a few dozen) kilometres of fibre is lost in the round-off. In fact, we know, from p. 235 that the 27 kilometre city fibre run cost US$1.8 million, while Google's investment in the data centre is several billion dollars.

These quibbles aside, this is a fascinating look at the physical substrate of the Internet. Even software people well-acquainted with the intricacies of TCP/IP may have only the fuzziest comprehension of where a packet goes after it leaves their site, and how it gets to the ultimate destination. This book provides a tour, accessible to all readers, of where the Internet comes together, and how counterintuitive its physical realisation is compared to how we think of it logically.

In the Kindle edition, end-notes are bidirectionally linked to the text, but the index is just a list of page numbers. Since the Kindle edition does include real page numbers, you can type in the number from the index, but that's hardly as convenient as books where items in the index are directly linked to the text. Citations of Internet documents in the end notes are given as URLs, but not linked; the reader must copy and paste them into a browser's address bar in order to access the documents.


Rucker, Rudy. Turing & Burroughs. Los Gatos, CA: Transreal Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9858272-3-6.
The enigmatic death of Alan Turing has long haunted those who inquire into the life of this pioneer of computer science. Forensic tests established cyanide poisoning as the cause of his death, and the inquest ruled it suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple. But the partially-eaten apple was never tested for cyanide, and Turing's mother, among other people close to him, believed the death an accident, due to ingestion of cyanide fumes from an experiment in gold plating he was known to be conducting. Still others pointed out that Turing, from his wartime work at Bletchley Park, knew all the deepest secrets of Britain's wartime work in cryptanalysis, and having been shamefully persecuted by the government for his homosexuality, might have been considered a security risk and targeted to be silenced by dark forces of the state.

This is the point of departure for this delightful alternative history romp set in the middle of the 1950s. In the novel, Turing is presumed to have gotten much further with his work on biological morphogenesis than history records. So far, in fact, that when agents from Her Majesty's spook shop botch an assassination attempt and kill his lover instead, he is able to swap faces with him and flee the country to the anything-goes international zone of Tangier.

There, he pursues his biological research, hoping to create a perfect undifferentiated tissue which can transform itself into any structure or form. He makes the acquaintance of novelist William S. Burroughs, who found in Tangier's demimonde a refuge from the scandal of the death of his wife in Mexico and his drug addiction. Turing eventually succeeds, creating a lifeform dubbed the “skug”, and merges with it, becoming a skugger. He quickly discovers that his endosymbiont has not only dramatically increased his intelligence, but also made him a shape-shifter—given the slightest bit of DNA, a skugger can perfectly imitate its source.

And not just that…. As Turing discovers when he recruits Burroughs to skugdom, skuggers are able to enskug others by transferring a fragment of skug tissue to them; they can conjugate, exchanging “wetware” (memories and acquired characteristics); and they are telepathic among one another, albeit with limited range. Burroughs, whose explorations of pharmaceutical enlightenment had been in part motivated by a search for telepathy (which he called TP), found he rather liked being a skugger and viewed it as the next step in his personal journey.

But Turing's escape from Britain failed to completely cover his tracks, and indiscretions in Tangier brought him back into the crosshairs of the silencers. Shape-shifting into another identity, he boards a tramp steamer to America, where he embarks upon a series of adventures, eventually joined by Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, on the road from Florida to Los Alamos, New Mexico, Burroughs's childhood stomping grounds, where Stanislaw Ulam, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb and, like Turing, fascinated with how simple computational systems such as cellular automata can mimic the gnarly processes of biology, has been enlisted to put an end to the “skugger menace”—perhaps a greater threat than the international communist conspiracy.

Using his skugger wiles, Turing infiltrates Los Alamos and makes contact, both physically and intellectually, with Ulam, and learns the details of the planned assault on the skugs and vows to do something about it—but what? His human part pulls him one way and his skug another.

The 1950s are often thought of as a sterile decade, characterised by conformity and paranoia. And yet, if you look beneath the surface, the seeds of everything that happened in the sixties were sown in those years. They may have initially fallen upon barren ground, but like the skug, they were preternaturally fertile and, once germinated, spread at a prodigious rate.

In the fifties, the consensus culture bifurcated into straights and beats, the latter of which Burroughs and Ginsberg were harbingers and rôle models for the emerging dissident subculture. The straights must have viewed the beats as alien—almost possessed: why else would they reject the bounty of the most prosperous society in human history which had, just a decade before, definitively defeated evil incarnate? And certainly the beats must have seen the grey uniformity surrounding them as also a kind of possession, negating the human potential in favour of a cookie-cutter existence, where mindless consumption tried to numb the anomie of a barren suburban life. This mutual distrust and paranoia was to fuel such dystopian visions as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with each subculture seeing the other as pod people.

In this novel, Rucker immerses the reader in the beat milieu, with the added twist that here they really are pod people, and loving it. No doubt the beats considered themselves superior to the straights. But what if they actually were? How would the straights react, and how would a shape-shifting, telepathic, field-upgradable counterculture respond?

Among the many treats awaiting the reader is the author's meticulous use of British idioms when describing Turing's thoughts and Burroughs's idiosyncratic grammar in the letters in his hand which appear here.

This novel engages the reader to such an extent that it's easy to overlook the extensive research that went into making it authentic, not just superficially, but in depth. Readers interested in what goes into a book like this will find the author's background notes (PDF) fascinating—they are almost as long as the novel. I wouldn't, however, read them before finishing the book, as spoilers lurk therein.

A Kindle edition is available either from Amazon or directly from the publisher, where an EPUB edition is also available (with other formats forthcoming).


Imholt, Timothy James. Nuclear Assault. Unknown: Zwicky Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-6156915-8-9.
I am not going to fret about spoilers in this review. This book is so awful that nobody should read it, and avoiding spoilers is like worrying about getting a dog turd dirty when you pick it up with toilet paper to throw it in the loo.

I acquired this book based on an Amazon suggestion of “Customers who Viewed this Item Also Viewed” and especially because, at the time I encountered it, the Kindle edition was free (it is no longer, as of this writing). Well, I'm always a sucker for free stuff, so I figured, “How bad can it be?” and downloaded it. How wrong I was—even for free, this botched attempt at a novel is overpriced.

Apart from the story, which is absurd, the author has not begun to master the basics of English composition. If I had taken a chapter or two from this novel and submitted it as a short story in my 10th grade English class, I would have received a failing grade, and deservedly so. Scarcely a page in this 224 page novel is unmarred by errors of orthography, grammar, or punctuation. The author appears to have invented his own way of expressing quotes. The following is a partial list of words in the text which are either misspelled or for which homonyms are incorrectly used:

Americans OK advice affected an arrival assess attack bathe become breathe chaperone closed continuous counsel enemy's feet first foul from had hangar harm's hero holding host hostilely intelligence it's its let's morale nights not ordnance overheard pus rarefied scientists sent sights sure the their them they times were

When you come across an instance of “where” being used in place of “were”, you might put it down to the kind of fat finger we all commit from time to time, plus sloppy proofreading. But when it happens 13 times in 224 pages, you begin to suspect the author might not really comprehend the difference between the two.

All of the characters, from special forces troops, emergency room nurses, senior military commanders, the President of the United States, to Iranian nuclear scientists speak in precisely the same dialect of fractured grammar laced with malaprops. The author has his own eccentric idea of what words should be capitalised, and applies them inconsistently. Each chapter concludes with a “news flash” and “economic news flash”, also in bizarro dialect, with the latter demonstrating the author as illiterate in economics as he is in the English language.

Then, in the last line of the novel, the reader is kicked in the teeth with something totally out of the blue.

I'd like to call this book “eminently forgettable”, but I doubt I'll forget it soon. I have read a number of manuscripts by aspiring writers (as a savage copy editor and fact checker, authors occasionally invite me to have at their work, in confidence, before sending it for publication), but this is, by far, the worst I have encountered in my entire life. You may ask why I persisted in reading beyond the first couple of chapters. It's kind of like driving past a terrible accident on the highway—do you really not slow down and look? Besides, I only review books I've finished, and I looked forward to this review as the only fun I could derive from this novel, and writing this wave-off a public service for others who might stumble upon this piece of…fiction and be inclined to pick it up.


October 2012

Smith, L. Neil. Down with Power. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61242-055-4.
In the first chapter of this superb book, the author quotes Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert”, describing himself as being “a libertarian minus the crazy stuff”, and then proceeds to ask precisely what is crazy about adopting a strict interpretation of the Zero Aggression Principle:

A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being for any reason whatever; nor will a libertarian advocate the initiation of force, or delegate it to anyone else.

Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim. (p. 20)

The subsequent chapters sort out the details of what this principle implies for contentious issues such as war powers; torture; money and legal tender laws; abortion; firearms and other weapons; “animal rights”; climate change (I do not use scare quotes on this because climate change is real and has always happened and always will—it is the hysteria over anthropogenic contributions to an eternally fluctuating process driven mostly by the Sun which is a hoax); taxation; national defence; prohibition in all of its pernicious manifestations; separation of marriage, science, and medicine from the state; immigration; intellectual property; and much more. Smith's viewpoint on these questions is largely informed by Robert LeFevre, whose wisdom he had the good fortune to imbibe at week-long seminar in 1972. (I encountered LeFevre just once, at a libertarian gathering in Marin County, California [believe it or not, such things exist, or at least existed] around 1983, and it was this experience that transformed me from a “nerf libertarian” who was prone to exclaiming “Oh, come on!” whilst reading Rothbard to the flinty variety who would go on to author the Evil Empires bumper sticker.) Sadly, Bob LeFevre is no longer with us, but if you wish to be inoculated with the burning fever of liberty which drove him and inspired those who heard him speak, this book is as close as you can come today to meeting him in person. The naïve often confuse libertarians with conservatives: to be sure, libertarians often wish to impede “progressives” whose agenda amounts to progress toward serfdom and wish, at the least, for a roll-back of the intrusions upon individual liberty which were the hallmark of the twentieth century. But genuine libertarianism, not the nerf variety, is a deeply radical doctrine which calls into question the whole leader/follower, master/slave, sovereign/subject, and state/citizen structure which has characterised human civilisation ever since hominids learned to talk and the most glib of them became politicians (“Put meat at feet of Glub and Glub give you much good stuff”).

And here is where I both quibble with and enthusiastically endorse the author's agenda. The quibble is that I fear that our species, formed by thousands of generations of hunter/gatherer and agricultural experience, has adapted, like other primates, to a social structure in which most individuals delegate decision making and even entrust their lives to “leaders” chosen by criteria deeply wired into our biology and not remotely adapted to the challenges we face today and in the future. (Hey, it could be worse: peacocks select for the most overdone tail—it's probably a blessing nakes don't have tails—imagine trying to fit them all into a joint session of Congress.) The endorsement is that I don't think it's possible to separate the spirit of individualism which is at the heart of libertarianism from the frontier. There were many things which contributed to the first American war of secession and the independent republics which emerged from it, but I believe their unique nature was in substantial part due to the fact that they were marginal settlements on the edge of an unexplored and hostile continent, where many families were entirely on their own and on the front lines, confronted by the vicissitudes of nature and crafty enemies.

Thomas Jefferson worried that as the population of cities grew compared to that of the countryside, the ethos of self-sufficiency would be eroded and be supplanted by dependency, and that this corruption and reliance upon authority founded, at its deepest level, upon the initiation of force, would subvert the morality upon which self-government must ultimately rely. In my one encounter with Robert LeFevre, he disdained the idea that “maybe if we could just get back to the Constitution” everything would be fine. Nonsense, he said: to a substantial degree the Constitution is the problem—after all, look at how it's been “interpreted” to permit all of the absurd abrogations of individual liberty and natural law since its dubious adoption in 1789. And here, I think the author may put a bit too much focus on documents (which can, have been, and forever will be) twisted by lawyers into things they never were meant to say, and too little on the frontier.

What follows is both a deeply pessimistic and unboundedly optimistic view of the human and transhuman prospect. I hope I don't lose you in the loop-the-loop. Humans, as presently constituted, have wired-in baggage which renders most of us vulnerable to glib forms of persuasion by “leaders” (who are simply those more talented than others in persuasion). The more densely humans are packed, and the greater the communication bandwidth available to them (in particular, one to many media), the more vulnerable they are to such “leadership”. Individual liberty emerges in frontier societies: those where each person and each family must be self-sufficient, without any back-up other than their relations to neighbours, but with an unlimited upside in expanding the human presence into new territory. The old America was a frontier society; the new America is a constrained society, turning inward upon itself and devouring its best to appease its worst.

So, I'm not sure this or that amendment to a document which is largely ignored will restore liberty in an environment where a near-majority of the electorate receive net benefits from the minority who pay most of the taxes. The situation in the United States, and on Earth, may well be irreversible. But the human and posthuman destiny is much, much larger than that. Perhaps we don't need a revision of governance documents as much as the opening of a frontier. Then people will be able to escape the stranglehold where seven eighths of all of their work is confiscated by the thugs who oppress them and instead use all of their sapient facilities to their own ends. As a sage author once said:

Freedom, immortality, and the stars!

Works for me. Free people expand at a rate which asymptotically approaches the speed of light. Coercive government and bureaucracy grow logarithmically, constrained by their own internal dissipation. We win; they lose.

In the Kindle edition the index is just a list of page numbers. Since the Kindle edition includes real page numbers, you can type in the number from the index, but that's not as convenient as when index citations are linked directly to references in the text.


Gordon, John Steele. A Thread Across the Ocean. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. ISBN 978-0-06-052446-3.
There are inventions, and there are meta-inventions. Many things were invented in the 19th century which contributed to the wealth of the present-day developed world, but there were also concepts which emerged in that era of “anything is possible” ferment which cast even longer shadows. One of the most important is entrepreneurship—the ability of a visionary who sees beyond the horizon of the conventional wisdom to assemble the technical know-how, the financial capital, the managers and labourers to do the work, while keeping all of the balls in the air and fending off the horrific setbacks that any breakthrough technology will necessarily encounter as it matures.

Cyrus W. Field may not have been the first entrepreneur in the modern mold, but he was without doubt one of the greatest. Having started with almost no financial resources and then made his fortune in the manufacture of paper, he turned his attention to telegraphy. Why, in the mid-19th century, should news and information between the Old World and the New move only as fast as sailing ships could convey it, while the telegraph could flash information across continents in seconds? Why, indeed?—Field took a proposal to lay a submarine cable from Newfoundland to the United States to cut two days off the transatlantic latency of around two weeks to its logical limit: a cable across the entire Atlantic which could relay information in seconds, linking the continents together in a web of information which was, if low bandwidth, almost instantaneous compared to dispatches carried on ships.

Field knew next to nothing about electricity, manufacturing of insulated cables thousands of miles long, paying-out mechanisms to lay them on the seabed, or the navigational challenges in carrying a cable from one continent to another. But he was supremely confident that success in the endeavour would enrich those who accomplished it beyond their dreams of avarice, and persuasive in enlisting in the effort not only wealthy backers to pay the bills but also technological savants including Samuel F. B. Morse and William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin), who invented the mirror galvanometer which made the submarine cable viable.

When you try to do something audacious which has never been attempted before, however great the promise, you shouldn't expect to succeed the first time, or the second, or the third…. Indeed, the history of transatlantic cable was one of frustration, dashed hopes, lost investments, derision in the popular press—until it worked. Then it was the wonder of the age. So it has been and shall always be with entrepreneurship.

Today, gigabytes per second flow beneath the oceans through the tubes. Unless you're in continental Eurasia, it's likely these bits reached you through one of them. It all had to start somewhere, and this is the chronicle of how that came to be. This may have been the first time it became evident there was a time value to information: that the news, financial quotes, and messages delivered in minutes instead of weeks were much more valuable than those which arrived long after the fact.

It is also interesting that the laying of the first successful transatlantic cable was almost entirely a British operation. While the American Cyrus Field was the promoter, almost all of the capital, the ships, the manufacture of the cable, and the scientific and engineering expertise in its production and deployment was British.


Bonanos, Christopher. Instant. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61689-085-8.
The second half of the twentieth century in the developed world was, in many ways, the age of immediate gratification, and no invention was as iconic of the epoch as the Polaroid instant photograph. No longer did people have to wait until a roll of film was full, take it to the drug store to be sent off to a photo lab, and then, a week or so later, see whether the irreplaceable pictures of their child's first birthday came out or were forever lost. With the introduction of Edwin Land's first Polaroid camera in 1948, only a minute elapsed between the click of the shutter and peeling off a completely developed black and white (well, initially, sepia and white, but that was fixed within two years) print. If the picture wasn't satisfactory, another shot could be taken on the spot, and pictures of special events could be immediately shared with others present—in a way, the Polaroid print was the original visual social medium: Flickr in the Fifties.

This book chronicles the history of Polaroid, which is inseparable from the life of its exceptional founder, CEO, and technological visionary, Edwin Land. Land, like other, more recent founders of technological empires, was a college drop-out (the tedium simply repelled him), whose instinct drove him to create products which other, more sensible, people considered impossible, for markets which did not exist, fulfilling needs which future customers did not remotely perceive they had, and then continuing to dazzle them with ever more amazing achievements. Polaroid in its heyday was the descendent of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park invention factory and the ancestor of Apple under Steve Jobs—a place where crazy, world-transforming ideas bubbled up and were groomed into products with a huge profit margin.

Although his technical knowledge was both broad and deep, and he spent most of his life in the laboratory or supervising research and product development, Edwin Land was anything but a nerd: he was deeply versed in the fine arts and literature, and assembled a large collection of photography (both instant and conventional) along with his 535 patents. He cultivated relationships with artists ranging from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol and involved them in the design and evolution of Polaroid's products. Land considered basic research part of Polaroid's mission, and viewed his work on human colour perception as his most important achievement: he told a reporter in 1959, “Photography…that is something I do for a living.”

Although Polaroid produced a wide (indeed, almost bewildering) variety of cameras and film which progressed from peel-off monochrome to professional large-format positive/negative sheets to colour to all-in-one colour film packs for the SX-70 and its successors, which miraculously developed in broad daylight after being spit out by the camera, it remained, to a large extent, a one product company—entirely identified with instant photography. And, it was not only a one product company (something with which this scrivener has some acquaintance), but a one genius company, where the entire technical direction and product strategy resided in the braincase of a single individual. This has its risks, and when the stock was flying high there was no shortage of sceptical analysts on Wall Street who pointed them out.

And then slowly, painfully, it all fell back to Earth. In 1977, Land's long-time dream of instant motion pictures was launched on the market as Polavision. The company had expended years and on the order of half a billion dollars in developing a system which produced three minute silent movies which were grainy and murky. This was launched just at the time video cassette recorders were coming onto the market, which could record and replay full television programs with sound, using inexpensive tapes which could be re-recorded. Polavision sales were dismal, and the product was discontinued two years later. In 1976, Kodak launched their own instant camera line, which cut into Polaroid's sales and set off a patent litigation battle which would last more than fourteen years and cause Polaroid to focus on the past and defending its market share rather than innovation.

Now that everybody has instant photography in the form of digital cameras and mobile telephones, all without the need of miracle chemistry, breakthrough optics, or costly film packs, you might conclude that Polaroid, like Kodak, was done in by digital. The reality is somewhat more complicated. What undermined Polaroid's business model was not digital photography, which emerged only after the company was already steep in decline, but the advent of the one hour minilab and inexpensive, highly automated, and small point-and-shoot 35 mm cameras. When the choice was between waiting a week or so for your pictures or seeing them right away, Polaroid had an edge, but when you could shoot a roll of film, drop it at the minilab in the mall when you went to do your shopping, and pick up the prints before you went home, the distinction wasn't so great. Further, the quality of prints from 35 mm film on photographic paper was dramatically better; the prints were larger; and you could order additional copies or enlargements from the negatives. Large, heavy, and clunky cameras that only took 10 pictures from an expensive film pack began to look decreasingly attractive compared to pocketable 35 mm cameras that, at least for the snapshot market, nailed focus and exposure almost every time you pushed the button.

The story of Polaroid is also one of how a company can be trapped by its business model. Polaroid's laboratories produced one of the first prototypes of a digital camera. But management wasn't interested because everybody knew that revenue came from selling film, not cameras, and a digital camera didn't use film. At the same time, Polaroid was working on a pioneering inkjet photo printer, which management disdained because it didn't produce output they considered of photographic quality. Imagine how things might have been different had somebody said, “Look, it's not as good as a photographic print—yet—but it's good enough for most of our snapshot customers, and we can replace our film revenue with sales of ink and branded paper.” But nobody said that. The Polaroid microelectronics laboratory was closed in 1993, with the assets sold to MIT and the inkjet project was terminated—those working on it went off to found the premier large-format inkjet company.

In addition to the meticulously documented history, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom regarding how companies and technologies succeed and fail. In addition, this is a gorgeous book, with numerous colour illustrations (expandable and scrollable in the Kindle edition). My only quibble is that in the Kindle edition, the index is just a list of terms, not linked to references in the text; everything else is properly linked.

Special thanks to James Lileks for recommending this book (part 2).


Rawles, James Wesley. Founders. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7282-7.
This novel is the third in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008) and continued with Survivors (January 2012). These books are not a conventional trilogy, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. Many of the same characters appear in the volumes, but different episodes in their lives are described. This installment extends the story beyond the end of the previous books (taking into account the last chapter, well beyond), but most of the story occurs in the years surrounding the Crunch. In an introductory note, the author says the books can be read in any order, but I think the reader will miss a great deal if this is the first one read—most of the characters who appear here have an extensive back-story in the previous books, and you'll miss much of what motivates them and how they found themselves in their present circumstances if you start here.

Like the earlier novels, this is part thriller and part survival tutorial. I found the two components less well integrated here than before. The author seems prone to launching into a litany of survival gear and tactics, not to mention veering off into minutiæ of Christian doctrine, leaving the story and characters on hold. For example, in chapter 20:

The gear inside the field station CONEX included a pair of R-390A HF receivers, two Sherwood SE-3 synchronous detectors, four hardwired demodulators, a half dozen multiband scanners, several digital audio recorders, two spectrum analyzers, and seven laptop computers that were loaded with demodulators, digital recorders, and decryption/encryption software.

Does this really move the plot along? Is anybody other than a wealthy oilman likely to be able to put together such a rig for signal intelligence and traffic analysis? And if not, why do we need to know all of this, as opposed to simply describing it as a “radio monitoring post”? This is not a cherry-picked example; there are numerous other indulgences in gear geekdom.

The novel covers the epic journey, largely on foot, of Ken and Terry Layton from apocalyptic Crunch Chicago, where they waited too late to get out of Dodge toward the retreat their group had prepared in the American redoubt, and the development and exploits of an insurgency against the so-called “Provisional Government” headquartered in Fort Knox, Kentucky, which is a thinly-disguised front for subjugation of the U.S. to the United Nations and looting the population. (“Meet the new boss—same as the old boss!”) Other subplots update us on the lives of characters we've met before, and provide a view of how individuals and groups try to self-organise back into a lawful and moral civil society while crawling from the wreckage of corruption and afflicted by locusts with weapons.

We don't do stars on reviews here at Fourmilab—I'm a word guy—but I do occasionally indulge in sports metaphors. I consider the first two novels home runs: if you're remotely interested in the potential of societal collapse and the steps prudent people can take to protect themselves and those close to them from its sequelæ, they are must-reads. Let's call this novel a solid double bouncing between the left and centre fielders. If you've read the first two books, you'll certainly want to read this one. If you haven't, don't start here, but begin at the beginning. This novel winds up the story, but it does so in an abrupt way which I found somewhat unconvincing—it seemed like the author was approaching a word limit and had to close it out in however sketchy a manner.

There are a few quibbles, but aren't there always?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  

  • In chapter 8 we're told that Malmstrom Air Force Base had a large inventory of JP-4 fuel. But this fuel, a 50–50 blend of kerosene and gasoline, was phased out by the U.S. Air Force in 1996 in favour of the less hazardous JP-8. It is unlikely that at least 16 years later an Air Force base would still have JP-4 in storage.
  • In chapter 11 we hear of the “UN's new headquarters in Brussels”. But, if the UN headquarters in New York had been destroyed, isn't is much more likely that the UN would fall back on the existing European headquarters in Geneva?
  • In chapter 17, Ken is “given a small bottle of flat black lacquer and a tiny brush from Durward's collection…”. But Durward was the farmer with whose family they passed the previous winter. I think either Carl or Graham was intended here.
  • In “President” Hutchings's speech in chapter 19, he states that more than 65 million people were killed by an influenza pandemic that swept the East and continues, “Without antibiotics available, the disease ran rampant until there were no more hosts to attack in the heavily populated regions.” Influenza is a viral disease, against which antibiotics are completely ineffectual. Of course, this may have been intended to highlight the cluelessness of Hutchings and how glibly the Provisional Government lied to its subjects.
  • In the glossary, CB radio is defined as a “VHF broadcasting band”. The citizens' band in the U.S. is in the 27 MHz range, which is considered in the HF band, and is not a broadcast service.
Spoilers end here.  

So, read the first two, and if you like them, by all means get this one. But don't start here.


Smith, Greg. Why I Left Goldman Sachs. New York: Grand Central, 2012. ISBN 1-4555-2747-5.
When Greg Smith graduated from Stanford in 2001, he knew precisely what career he wished to pursue and where—high stakes Wall Street finance at the firm at the tip of the pyramid: Goldman Sachs. His native talent and people skills had landed him first an internship and then an entry-level position at the firm, where he sought to master the often arcane details of the financial products with which he dealt and develop relationships with the clients with whom he interacted on a daily basis.

Goldman Sachs was founded in 1869, and rapidly established itself as one of the leading investment banks, market makers, and money managers, catering to large corporations, institutions, governments, and wealthy individual clients. While most financial companies had transformed themselves from partnerships to publicly-traded corporations, Goldman Sachs did not take this step until 1999. Remaining a partnership was part of the aura of the old Goldman: as with a private Swiss bank, partners bore unlimited personal liability for the actions of the firm, and clients were thereby reassured that the advice they received was in their own best interest.

When the author joined Goldman, the original partnership culture remained strong, and he quickly learned that to advance in the firm it was important to be perceived as a “culture keeper”—one steeped in the culture and transmitting it to new hires. But then the serial financial crises of the first decade of the 21st century began to hammer the firm: the collapse of the technology bubble, the housing boom and bust, and the sovereign debt crisis. These eroded the traditional sources of Goldman's income, and created an incentive for the firm to seek “elephant trades” which would book in excess of US$ 1 million in commissions and fees for the firm from a single transaction. Since the traditional business of buying and selling securities on behalf of a client and pocketing a commission or bid-ask spread was highly competitive (indeed, the kinds of high-roller clients who do business with Goldman could see the bids and offers in the market on their own screen before they placed an order), the elephant hunters were motivated to peddle “structured products”: exotic financial derivatives which the typical client lacked the resources to independently value, and were opaque to valuation by other than the string theorist manqués who invented them. In doing this business, Goldman transformed itself from a broker executing transactions on behalf of a client into a vendor, selling products to counterparties, who took the other side of the transaction. Now, there's nothing wrong with dealing with a counterparty: when you walk onto a used car lot with a wad of money (artfully concealed) in your pocket and the need for a ride, you're aware that the guy who walks up to greet you is your counterparty—the more you pay, the more he benefits, and the less valuable a car he manages to sell you, the better it is for him. But you knew that, going in, and you negotiate accordingly (or if you don't, you end up, as I did, with a 1966 MGB). Many Goldman Sachs customers, with relationships going back decades, had been used to their sales representatives being interested in their clients' investment strategy and recommending products consistent with it and providing excellent execution on trades. I had been a Goldman Sachs customer since 1985, first in San Francisco and then in Zürich, and this had been my experience until the late 2000s: consummate professionalism.

Greg Smith documents the erosion of the Goldman culture in New York, but when he accepted a transfer to the London office, there was a culture shock equivalent to dropping your goldfish into a bowl of Clorox. In London, routine commission (or agency) business generating fees around US$ 50,000 was disdained, and clients interested in such trades were rudely turned away. Clients were routinely referred to as “muppets”, and exploiting their naïveté was a cause for back-slapping and booking revenues to the firm (and bonuses for those who foisted toxic financial trash onto the customers).

Finally, in early 2012, the author said, “enough is enough” and published an op-ed in the New York Times summarising the indictment of the firm and Wall Street which is fully fleshed out here. In the book, the author uses the tired phrase “speaking truth to power”, but in fact power could not be more vulnerable to truth: at the heart of most customer relationships with Goldman Sachs was the assumption that the firm valued the client relationship above all, and would act in the client's interest to further the long-term relationship. Once clients began to perceive that they were mocked as “muppets” who could be looted by selling them opaque derivatives or unloading upon them whatever the proprietary trading desk wanted to dump, this relationship changed forever. Nobody will ever do business with Goldman Sachs again without looking at them as an adversary, not an advisor or advocate. Greg Smith was a witness to the transformation which caused this change, and this book is essential reading for anybody managing funds north of seven digits.

As it happens, I was a customer of Goldman Sachs throughout the period of Mr Smith's employment, and I can completely confirm his reportage of the dysfunction in the London branch. I captured an hour of pure comedy gold in Goldman Sachs Meets a Muppet when two Masters of the Universe who had parachuted into Zürich from London tried to educate me upon the management of my money. I closed my account a few days later.


Lileks, James. Graveyard Special. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2012. ASIN B00962GFES.
This novel, set in the Dinkytown neighbourhood of Minneapolis, adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus, in 1980, is narrated in the first person by Robert (not Bob) Thompson, an art history major at the university, experiencing the metropolis after having grown up in a small town in the north of the state. Robert is supporting his lavish lifestyle (a second floor room in a rooming house in Dinkytown with the U of M hockey team living downstairs) by working nights at Mama B's Trattoria, an Italian/American restaurant with a light beer and wine bar, the Grotto, downstairs. His life and career at the “Trat” and “Grot” are an immersion in the culture of 1980, and a memoir typical of millions in university at the epoch until a cook at the Trat is shot dead by a bullet which came through the window from outside, with no apparent motive or clue as to the shooter's identity.

Then Robert begins to notice things: curious connections between people, suggestions of drug deals, ambiguous evidence of wire taps, radical politics, suspicions of people being informants, and a strange propensity for people he encounters meeting with apparently random violence. As he tries to make sense of all of this, he encounters hard-boiled cops, an immigrant teacher from the Soviet Union who speaks crystalline wisdom in fractured English, and a reporter for the student newspaper with whom he is instantly smitten. The complexity and ambiguity spiral ever upward until you begin to suspect, as Robert does in chapter 30, “You never get all the answers. I suppose that's the lesson.”

Do you get all the answers? Well, read the novel and find out for yourself—I doubt you'll regret doing so. Heck, how many mystery novels have an action scene involving a Zamboni? As you'd expect from the author's work, the writing is artful and evocative, even when describing something as peripheral to the plot as turning off an Asteroids video game after closing time in the Grot.

I yanked the cord and the world of triangular spaceships and monochromatic death-rocks collapsed to a single white point. The universe was supposed to end like that, if there was enough mass and matter or something. It expands until gravity hauls everything back in; the collapse accelerates until everything that was once scattered higgily-jiggity over eternity is now summed up in a tiny white infinitely dense dot, which explodes anew into another Big Bang, another universe, another iteration of existence with its own rules, a place where perhaps Carter got a second term and Rod Stewart did not decide to embrace disco.

I would read this novel straight through, cover-to-cover. There are many characters who interact in complicated ways, and if you set it aside due to other distractions and pick it up later, you may have to do some backtracking to get back into things. There are a few copy editing errors (I noted 7), but they don't distract from the story.

At this writing, this book is available only as a Kindle e-book; a paperback edition is expected in the near future. Here are the author's comments on the occasion of the book's publication. This is the first in what James Lileks intends to be a series of between three and five novels, all set in Minneapolis in different eras, with common threads tying them together. I eagerly await the next.


November 2012

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0-19-502990-1.
This book was recommended to me by Prof. Paul Rahe after I had commented during a discussion on Ricochet about drug (and other forms of) prohibition, using the commonplace libertarian argument that regardless of what one believes about the principle of self-ownership and the dangers to society if its members ingest certain substances, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, the evidence is that prohibition of anything simply makes the problem worse—in many cases not only increasing profits to traffickers in the banned substance, spawning crime among those who contend to provide it to those who seek it in the absence of an open market, promoting contempt for the law (the president of the United States, as of this writing, admitted in his autobiography to have used a substance whose possession, had he been apprehended, was a felony), and most of all that post-prohibition, use of the forbidden substance increases, and hence however satisfying prohibition may be to those who support, enact, and enforce it, it is ultimately counterproductive, as it increases the number of people who taste the forbidden fruit.

I read every book my readers recommend, albeit not immediately, and so I put this book on my queue, and have now digested it. This is a fascinating view of a very different America: a newly independent nation in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, still mostly a coastal nation with a vast wilderness to the West, but beginning to expand over the mountains into the fertile land beyond. The one thing all European visitors to America remarked upon was that people in this brave new republic, from strait-laced New Englanders, to Virginia patricians, to plantation barons of the South, to buckskin pioneers and homesteaders across the Appalachians, drank a lot, reaching a peak around 1830 of five gallons (19 litres) of hard spirits (in excess of 45% alcohol) per capita per annum—and that “per capita” includes children and babies in a rapidly growing population, so the adults, and particularly the men, disproportionately contributed to this aggregate.

As the author teases out of the sketchy data of the period, there were a number of social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Prior to the revolution, America was a rum drinking nation, but after the break with Britain whiskey made from maize (corn, in the American vernacular) became the beverage of choice. As Americans migrated and settled the West, maize was their crop of choice, but before the era of canals and railroads, shipping their crop to the markets of the East cost more than its value. Distilling into a much-sought beverage, however, made the arduous trek to market profitable, and justified the round trip. In the rugged western frontier, drinking water was not to be trusted, and a sip of contaminated water could condemn one to a debilitating and possibly fatal bout of dysentery or cholera. None of these bugs could survive in whiskey, and hence it was seen as the healthy beverage. Finally, whiskey provides 83 calories per fluid ounce, and is thus a compact way to store and transmit food value without need for refrigeration.

Some things never change. European visitors to America remarked upon the phenomenon of “rapid eating” or, as we now call it, “fast food”. With the fare at most taverns outside the cities limited to fried corn cakes, salt pork, and whiskey, there was precious little need to linger over one's meal, and hence it was in-and-out, centuries before the burger. But then, things change. Starting around 1830, alcohol consumption in the United States began to plummet, and temperance societies began to spring up across the land. From a peak of about 5 gallons per capita, distilled spirits consumption fell to between 1 and 2 gallons and has remained more or less constant ever since.

But what is interesting is that the widespread turn away from hard liquor was not in any way produced by top-down or coercive prohibition. Instead, it was a bottom-up social movement largely coupled with the second great awakening. While this movement certainly did result in some forms of restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol, much more effective were its opprobrium against public drunkenness and those who enabled it.

This book is based on a Ph.D. thesis, and in places shows it. There is a painful attempt, based on laughably incomplete data, to quantify alcohol consumption during the early 19th century. This, I assume, is because at the epoch “social scientists” repeated the mantra “numbers are good”. This is all nonsense; ignore it. Far more credible are the reports of contemporary observers quoted in the text.

As to Prof. Rahe's assertion that prohibition reduces the consumption of a substance, I don't think this book advances that case. The collapse in the consumption of strong drink in the 1830s was a societal and moral revolution, and any restrictions on the availability of alcohol were the result of that change, not its cause. That said, I do not dispute that prohibition did reduce the reported level of alcohol consumption, but at the cost of horrific criminality and disdain for the rule of law and, after repeal, a return to the status quo ante.

If you're interested in prohibition in all of its manifestations, I recommend this book, even though it has little to do with prohibition. It is an object lesson in how a free society self-corrects from excess and re-orients itself toward behaviour which benefits its citizens.


Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long Earth. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-206775-3.
Terry Pratchett is my favourite author of satirical fantasy and Stephen Baxter is near the top of my list of contemporary hard science fiction writers, so I expected this collaboration to be outstanding. It is.

Larry Niven's Ringworld created a breathtakingly large arena for story telling, not spread among the stars but all reachable, at least in principle, just by walking. This novel expands the stage many orders of magnitude beyond that, and creates a universe in which any number of future stories may be told. The basic premise is that the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics literally exists (to be technical, Max Tegmark's Level III parallel universes), and that some humans possess a native ability to step from one universe to the next. The stepper arrives at the same location on Earth, at the same local time (there is apparently a universal clock like that assumed in quantum theory), but on a branch where the history of the Earth has diverged due to contingent events in the past. Adjacent universes tend to be alike, but the further one steps the more they differ from the original, or Datum Earth.

The one huge difference between Datum Earth and all of the others is that, as far as is known, humans evolved only on the Datum. Nobody knows why this is—perhaps there was some event in the chain of causality that produced modern humans which was so improbable it happened only once in what may be an infinite number of parallel Earths.

The ability to step was extremely rare, genetically transmitted, and often discovered only when an individual was in peril and stepped to an adjacent Earth as the ultimate flight response. All of this changed on Step Day, when Willis Linsay, a physicist in Madison, Wisconsin, posted on the Internet plans for a “stepper” which could be assembled from parts readily available from Radio Shack, plus a potato. (Although entirely solid state, it did include a tuber.) A rocker switch marked “WEST — OFF — EAST” was on the top, and when activated moved the holder of the box to an adjacent universe in the specified notional direction.

Suddenly people all over the Earth began cobbling together steppers of their own and departing for adjacent Earths. Since all of these Earths were devoid of humans (apart from those who stepped there from the Datum), they were in a state of nature, including all of those dangerous wild beasts that humans had eradicated from their world of origin. Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper, distinguishes himself by rescuing children from the Madison area who used their steppers and were so bewildered they did not know how to get back.

This brings Joshua to the attention of the shadowy Black Corporation, who recruits him (with a bit of blackmail) to explore the far reaches of the Long Earth: worlds a million or more steps from the Datum. His companion on the voyage is Lobsang, who may or may not have been a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, now instantiated in a distributed computer network, taking on physical forms ranging from a drinks machine, a humanoid, and an airship. As they explore, they encounter hominid species they call “trolls” and “elves”, which they theorise are natural steppers which evolved on the Datum and then migrated outward along the Long Earth without ever developing human-level intelligence (perhaps due to lack of selective pressure, since they could always escape competition by stepping away). But, as Joshua and Lobsang explore the Western frontier, they find a migration of trolls and elves toward the East. What are they fleeing, or what is attracting them in that direction? They also encounter human communities on the frontier, both homesteaders from the Datum and natural steppers who have established themselves on other worlds.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The concept of stepping to adjacent universes is one of those plot devices that, while opening up a huge scope for fiction, also, like the Star Trek transporter, threatens to torpedo drama. If you can escape peril simply by stepping away to another universe, how can characters be placed in difficult circumstances? In Star Trek, there always has to be some reason (“danged pesky polaron particles!”) why the transporter can't be used to beam the away team out of danger. Here, the authors appear to simply ignore the problem. In chapter 30, Joshua is attacked by elves riding giant hogs and barely escapes with his life. But, being a natural stepper, he could simply step away and wait for Lobsang to find him in an adjacent Earth. But he doesn't, and there is no explanation of why he didn't.
Spoilers end here.  

I enjoyed this book immensely, but that may be in part because I've been thinking about multiverse navigation for many years, albeit in a different context and without the potato. This is a somewhat strange superposition of fantasy and hard science fiction (which is what you'd expect, given the authors), and your estimation of it, like any measurement in quantum mechanics, will depend upon the criteria you're measuring. I note that the reviews on Amazon have a strikingly flat distribution in stars assigned—this is rare; usually a book will have a cluster at the top or bottom, or for controversial books a bimodal distribution depending upon the reader's own predisposition. I have no idea if you'll like this book, but I did. And I want a stepper.


Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End. New York: Tor Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-812-53636-2.
As I have remarked upon several occasions, I read very little contemporary science fiction, apart from works by authors I trust to deliver thoughtful and entertaining yarns. This novel is an excellent example of why. Vernor Vinge is a former professor of mathematics, a pioneer in envisioning the advent and consequences of a technological singularity, and serial winner of the most prestigious awards for science fiction. This book won the 2007 Hugo award for best novel.

And therein lies my problem with much of present-day science fiction. The fans (the Hugo is awarded based on a vote of members of the World Science Fiction Society) loved it, but I consider it entirely devoid of merit. Now authors, or at least those who view their profession as a business, are well advised to write what the audience wants to read, and evidently this work met that criterion, but it didn't work for me—in fact, I found it tedious slogging to the end, hoping it would get better or that some brilliant plot twist would redeem all the ennui of getting there. Nope: didn't happen.

Interestingly, while this book won the Hugo, it wasn't even nominated for a Nebula, which is chosen by professional writers, not the fans. I guess the writers are closer to my stick-in-the-mud preferences than the more edgy fans.

This is a story set in a 21st century society on the threshold of a technological singularity. Robert Gu, a celebrated poet felled by Alzheimer's disease, has been cured by exponentially advancing medical technology, but now he finds himself in a world radically different from the one in which his cognition faded out. He has to reconcile himself with his extended and complicated family, many of whom he treated horridly, and confront the fact that while his recovery from dementia has been complete, he seems to have lost the talent of looking at the world from an oblique angle that made his poetry compelling. Further, in a world of ubiquitous computing, haptic interfaces, augmented reality, and forms of social interaction that seemingly come and go from moment to moment, he is but a baby among the plugged-in children with whom he shares a classroom as he attempts to come up to speed.

Then, a whole bunch of stuff happens which is completely absurd, involving a mischievous rabbit which may be an autonomous artificial intelligence, a library building that pulls up its columns and walks, shadowy intelligence agencies, a technology which might be the key to large-scale mind control, battles between people committed to world-views which might be likened to an apocalyptic yet trivial conflict between My Little Pony and SpongeBob, and a “Homeland Security” agency willing to use tactical nukes on its own homeland. (Well, I suppose, the last isn't so far fetched….)

My citation of the title above is correct—I did not omit an apostrophe. The final chapter of the novel is titled “The Missing Apostrophe”. Think about it: you can read it either way.

Finally, it ends. And so, thankfully, does this review.

I have no problem with augmented reality and the emergence of artificial intelligence. Daniel Suarez's Daemon (August 2010) and Freedom™ (January 2011) limn a future far more engaging and immeasurably less silly than that of the present work. Nor does a zany view of the singularity put me off in the least: Charles Stross's Singularity Sky (February 2011) is such a masterpiece of the genre that I was reproached by some readers for having committed the sin of spoilers because I couldn't restrain myself from citing some of its many delights. This can be done well, but in my opinion it isn't here.


Feynman, Richard P., Fernando B. Morinigo, and William G. Wagner. Feynman Lectures on Gravitation. Edited by Brian Hatfield. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-8133-4038-8.
In the 1962–63 academic year at Caltech, Richard Feynman taught a course on gravitation for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. For many years the blackboard in Feynman's office contained the epigram, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” In these lectures, Feynman discards the entire geometric edifice of Einstein's theory of gravitation (general relativity) and starts from scratch, putting himself and his students in the place of physicists from Venus (who he calls “Venutians”—Feynman was famously sloppy with spelling: he often spelled “gauge” as “guage”) who have discovered the full quantum theories of electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces but have just discovered there is a very weak attractive force between all masses, regardless of their composition. (Feynman doesn't say so, but putting on the science fiction hat one might suggest that the “Venutians” hadn't previously discovered universal gravitation because the dense clouds that shroud their planet deprived them of the ability to make astronomical observations and the lack of a moon prevented them from discovering tidal effects.)

Feynman then argues that the alien physicists would suspect that this new force worked in a manner analogous to those already known, and seek to extrapolate their knowledge of electrodynamics (the quantum theory of which Feynman had played a central part in discovering, for which he would share a Nobel prize in 1965). They would then guess that the force was mediated by particles they might dub “gravitons”. Since the force appeared to follow an inverse square law, these particles must be massless (or at least have such a small mass that deviations from the inverse square law eluded all existing experiments). Since the force was universally attractive, the spin of the graviton must be even (forces mediated by odd spin bosons such as the photon follow an attraction/repulsion rule as with static electricity; no evidence of antigravity has ever been found). Spin 0 can be ruled out because it would not couple to the spin 1 photon, which would mean gravity would not deflect light, which experiment demonstrates it does. So, we're left with a spin 2 graviton. (It might be spin 4, or 6, or higher, but there's no reason to proceed with such an assumption and the horrific complexities it entails unless we find something which rules out spin 2.)

A spin 2 graviton implies a field with a tensor potential function, and from the behaviour of gravitation we know that the tensor must be symmetric. All of this allows us, by direct analogy with electrodynamics, to write down the first draft of a field theory of gravitation which, when explored, predicts the existence of gravitational radiation, the gravitational red shift, the deflection of light by massive objects, and the precession of Mercury. Eventually Feynman demonstrates that this field theory is isomorphic to Einstein's geometrical theory, and could have been arrived at without ever invoking the concept of spacetime curvature.

In this tour de force, we get to look over the shoulder of one of the most brilliant physicists of all time as he reinvents the theory of gravitation, at a time when his goal was to produce a consistent and finite quantum theory of gravitation. Feynman's intuition was that since gravity was a far weaker force than electromagnetism, it should be easier to find a quantum theory, since the higher order terms would diminish in magnitude much more rapidly. Although Feynman's physical intuition was legendary and is much on display in these lectures, in this case it led him astray: his quest for quantum gravity failed and he soon abandoned it, and fifty years later nobody has found a suitable theory (although we've discovered a great number of things which don't work). Feynman identifies one of the key problems here—since gravitation is a universally attractive force which couples to mass-energy, and a gravitational field itself has energy, gravity gravitates, and this means that the higher order terms stretch off to infinity and can't be eliminated by clever mathematics. While these effects are negligible in laboratory experiments or on the scale of the solar system (although the first-order effect can be teased out of lunar ranging experiments), in strong field situations they blow up and the theory produces nonsense results.

These lectures were given just as the renaissance of gravitational physics was about to dawn. Discovery of extragalactic radio sources with stupendous energy output had sparked speculation about relativistic “superstars”, discussed here in chapters 13 and 14, and would soon lead to observations of quasars, which would eventually be explained by that quintessential object of general relativity, the black hole. On the theoretical side, Feynman's thesis advisor John A. Wheeler was beginning to breathe life into the long-moribund field of general relativity, and would coin the phrase “black hole” in 1967.

This book is a period piece. Some of the terminology in use at the time has become obsolete: Feynman uses “wormhole” for a black hole and “Schwarzschild singularity” for what we now call its event horizon. The discussion of “superstars” is archaic now that we understand the energy source of active galactic nuclei to be accretion onto supermassive black holes. In other areas, Feynman's insights are simply breathtaking, especially when you consider they date from half a century ago. He explores Mach's principle as the origin of inertia, cosmology and the global geometry of the universe, and gravitomagnetism.

This is not the book to read if you're interested in learning the contemporary theory of gravitation. For the most commonly used geometric approach, an excellent place to start is Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation. A field theory approach closer to Feynman's is presented in Weinberg's Gravitation and Cosmology. These are both highly technical works, intended for postgraduates in physics. For a popular introduction, I'd recommend Wheeler's A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime, which is now out of print, but used copies are usually available. It's only if you understand the theory, ideally at a technical level, that you can really appreciate the brilliance of Feynman's work and how prescient his insights were for the future of the field. I first read this book in 1996 and re-reading it now, having a much deeper understanding of the geometrical formulation of general relativity, I was repeatedly awestruck watching Feynman leap from insight to insight of the kind many physicists might hope to have just once in their entire careers.

Feynman gave a total of 27 lectures in the seminar. Two of the postdocs who attended, Fernando B. Morinigo and William G. Wagner, took notes for the course, from which this book is derived. Feynman corrected the notes for the first 11 lectures, which were distributed in typescript by the Caltech bookstore but never otherwise published. In 1971 Feynman approved the distribution of lectures 12–16 by the bookstore, but by then he had lost interest in gravitation and did not correct the notes. This book contains the 16 lectures Feynman approved for distribution. The remaining 11 are mostly concerned with Feynman's groping for a theory of quantum gravity. Since he ultimately failed in this effort, it's plausible to conclude he didn't believe them worthy of circulation. John Preskill and Kip S. Thorne contribute a foreword which interprets Feynman's work from the perspective of the contemporary view of gravitation.


Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke. Agenda 21. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4767-1669-5.
In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (“Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, an action plan for “sustainable development” titled “Agenda 21” was adopted. It has since been endorsed by the governments of 178 countries, including the United States, where it was signed by president George H. W. Bush (not being a formal treaty, it was not submitted to the Senate for ratification). An organisation called Local Governments for Sustainability currently has more than 1200 member towns, cities, and counties in 70 countries, including more than 500 in the United States signed on to the program. Whenever you hear a politician talking about environmental “sustainability” or the “precautionary principle”, it's a good bet the ideas they're promoting can be traced back to Agenda 21 or its progenitors.

When you read the U.N. Agenda 21 document (which I highly encourage you to do—it is very likely your own national government has endorsed it), it comes across as the usual gassy international bureaucratese you expect from a U.N. commission, but if you read between the lines and project the goals and mechanisms advocated to their logical conclusions, the implications are very great indeed. What is envisioned is nothing less than the extinction of the developed world and the roll-back of the entire project of the enlightenment. While speaking of the lofty goal of lifting the standard of living of developing nations to that of the developed world in a manner that does not damage the environment, it is an inevitable consequence of the report's assumption of finite resources and an environment already stressed beyond the point of sustainability that the inevitable outcome of achieving “equity” will be a global levelling of the standard of living to one well below the present-day mean, necessitating a catastrophic decrease in the quality of life in developed nations, which will almost certainly eliminate their ability to invest in the research and technological development which have been the engine of human advancement since the Renaissance. The implications of this are so dire that somebody ought to write a dystopian novel about the ultimate consequences of heading down this road.

Somebody has. Glenn Beck and Harriet Parke (it's pretty clear from the acknowledgements that Parke is the principal author, while Beck contributed the afterword and lent his high-profile name to the project) have written a dark and claustrophobic view of what awaits at the end of The Road to Serfdom (May 2002). Here, as opposed to an incremental shift over decades, the United States experiences a cataclysmic socio-economic collapse which is exploited to supplant it with the Republic, ruled by the Central Authority, in which all Citizens are equal. The goals of Agenda 21 have been achieved by depopulating much of the land, letting it return to nature, packing the humans who survived the crises and conflict as the Republic consolidated its power into identical densely-packed Living Spaces, where they live their lives according to the will of the Authority and its Enforcers. Citizens are divided into castes by job category; reproductive age Citizens are “paired” by the Republic, and babies are taken from mothers at birth to be raised in Children's Villages, where they are indoctrinated to serve the Republic. Unsustainable energy sources are replaced by humans who have to do their quota of walking on “energy board” treadmills or riding “energy bicycles” everywhere, and public transportation consists of bus boxes, pulled by teams of six strong men.

Emmeline has grown up in this grim and grey world which, to her, is way things are, have always been, and always will be. Just old enough at the establishment of Republic to escape the Children's Village, she is among the final cohort of Citizens to have been raised by their parents, who told her very little of the before-time; speaking of that could imperil both parents and child. After she loses both parents (people vanishing, being “killed in industrial accidents”, or led away by Enforcers never to be seen again is common in the Republic), she discovers a legacy from her mother which provides a tenuous link to the before-time. Slowly and painfully she begins to piece together the history of the society in which she lives and what life was like before it descended to crush the human spirit. And then she must decide what to do about it.

I am sure many reviewers will dismiss this novel as a cartoon-like portrayal of ideas taken to an absurd extreme. But much the same could have been said of We, Anthem, or 1984. But the thing about dystopian novels based upon trends already in place is that they have a disturbing tendency to get things right. As I observed in my review of Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), when I first read it in 1968, it seemed to evoke a dismal future entirely different from what I expected. When I read it the third time in 2010, my estimation was that real-world events had taken us about 500 pages into the 1168 page tome. I'd probably up that number today. What is particularly disturbing about the scenario in this novel, as opposed to the works cited above, is that it describes what may be a very strong attractor for human society once rejection of progress becomes the doctrine and the population stratifies into a small ruling class and subjects entirely dependent upon the state. After all, that's how things have more or less been over most of human history and around the globe, and the brief flash of liberty, innovation, and prosperity we assume to be the normal state of affairs may simply be an ephemeral consequence of the opening of a frontier which, now having closed, concludes that aberrant chapter of history, soon to be expunged and forgotten.

This is a book which begs for one or more sequels. While the story is satisfying by itself, you put it down wondering what happens next, and what is going on outside the confines of the human hive its characters inhabit. Who are the members of the Central Authority? How do they live? How do they groom their successors? What is happening on other continents? Is there any hope the torch of liberty might be reignited?

While doubtless many will take fierce exception to the entire premise of the story, I found only one factual error. In chapter 14 Emmeline discovers a photograph which provides a link to the before-time. On it is the word “KODACHROME”. But Kodachrome was a colour slide (reversal) film, not a colour print film. Even if the print that Emmeline found had been made from a Kodachrome slide, the print wouldn't say “KODACHROME”. I did not spot a single typographical error, and if you're a regular reader of this chronicle, you'll know how rare that is. In the Kindle edition, links to documents and resources cited in the factual afterword are live and will take you directly to the cited page.


December 2012

Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 3. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, [1999] 2009. ISBN 978-1-4700-1437-7 NASA SP-2009-4110.
This is the third book of the author's four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of Challenge to Apollo (April 2008), the definitive Western history of the Soviet space program.

Volume 2 of this memoir chronicled the achievements which thrust the Soviet Union's missile and space program into the consciousness of people world-wide and sparked the space race with the United States: the development of the R-7 ICBM, Sputnik and its successors, and the first flights which photographed the far side of the Moon and impacted on its surface. In this volume, the author describes the projects and accomplishments which built upon this base and persuaded many observers of the supremacy of Soviet space technology. Since the author's speciality was control systems and radio technology, he had an almost unique perspective upon these events: unlike other designers who focussed upon one or a few projects, he was involved in almost all of the principal efforts, from intermediate range, intercontinental, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles; air and anti-missile defence; piloted spaceflight; reconnaissance, weather, and navigation satellites; communication satellites; deep space missions and the ground support for them; soft landing on the Moon; and automatic rendezvous and docking. He was present when it looked like the rudimentary R-7 ICBM might be launched in anger during the Cuban missile crisis, at the table as chief designers battled over whether combat missiles should use cryogenic or storable liquid propellants or solid fuel, and sat on endless boards of inquiry after mission failures—the first eleven attempts to soft-land on the Moon failed, and Chertok was there for each launch, subsequent tracking, and sorting through what went wrong.

This was a time of triumph for the Soviet space program: the first manned flight, endurance record after endurance record, dual flights, the first woman in space, the first flight with a crew of more than one, and the first spacewalk. But from Chertok's perspective inside the programs, and the freedom he had to write candidly in the 1990s about his experiences, it is clear that the seeds of tragedy were being sown. With the quest for one spectacular after another, each surpassing the last, the Soviets became inoculated with what NASA came to call “go fever”—a willingness to brush anomalies under the rug and normalise the abnormal because you'd gotten away with it before.

One of the most stunning examples of this is Gagarin's flight. The Vostok spacecraft consisted of a spherical descent module (basically a cannonball covered with ablative thermal protection material) and an instrument compartment containing the retro-rocket, attitude control system, and antennas. After firing the retro-rocket, the instrument compartment was supposed to separate, allowing the descent module's heat shield to protect it through atmospheric re-entry. (The Vostok performed a purely ballistic re-entry, and had no attitude control thrusters in the descent module; stability was maintained exclusively by an offset centre of gravity.) In the two unmanned test flights which preceded Garagin's mission, the instrument module had failed to cleanly separate from the descent module, but the connection burned through during re-entry and the descent module survived. Gagarin was launched in a spacecraft with the same design, and the same thing happened: there were wild oscillations, but after the link burned through his spacecraft stabilised. Astonishingly, Vostok 2 was launched with Gherman Titov on board with precisely the same flaw, and suffered the same failure during re-entry. Once again, the cosmonaut won this orbital game of Russian roulette. One wonders what lessons were learned from this. In this narrative, Chertok is simply aghast at the decision making here, but one gets the sense that you had to be there, then, to appreciate what was going through people's heads.

The author was extensively involved in the development of the first Soviet communications satellite, Molniya, and provides extensive insights into its design, testing, and early operations. It is often said that the Molniya orbit was chosen because it made the satellite visible from the Soviet far North where geostationary satellites would be too close to the horizon for reliable communication. It is certainly true that today this orbit continues to be used for communications with Russian arctic territories, but its adoption for the first Soviet communications satellite had an entirely different motivation. Due to the high latitude of the Soviet launch site in Kazakhstan, Korolev's R-7 derived booster could place only about 100 kilograms into a geostationary orbit, which was far too little for a communication satellite with the technology of the time, but it could loft 1,600 kilograms into a high-inclination Molniya orbit. The only alternative would have been for Korolev to have approached Chelomey to launch a geostationary satellite on his UR-500 (Proton) booster, which was unthinkable because at the time the two were bitter rivals. So much for the frictionless efficiency of central planning!

In engineering, one learns that every corner cut will eventually come back to cut you. Korolev died at just the time he was most needed by the Soviet space program due to a botched operation for a routine condition performed by a surgeon who had spent most of his time as a Minister of the Soviet Union and not in the operating room. Gagarin died in a jet fighter training accident which has been the subject of such an extensive and multi-layered cover-up and spin that the author simply cites various accounts and leaves it to the reader to judge. Komarov died in Soyuz 1 due to a parachute problem which would have been discovered had an unmanned flight preceded his. He was a victim of “go fever”.

There is so much insight and wisdom here I cannot possibly summarise it all; you'll have to read this book to fully appreciate it, ideally after having first read Volume 1 (May 2012) and Volume 2 (August 2012). Apart from the unique insider's perspective on the Soviet missile and space program, as a person elected a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1968 and a full member (academician) of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2000, he provides a candid view of the politics of selection of members of the Academy and how they influence policy and projects at the national level. Chertok believes that, even as one who survived Stalin's purges, there were merits to the Soviet system which have been lost in the “new Russia”. His observations are worth pondering by those who instinctively believe the market will always converge upon the optimal solution.

As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and an online edition in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats is available.

A commercial Kindle edition is available which is perfectly readable but rather cheaply produced. Footnotes simply appear in the text in-line somewhere after the reference, set in small red type. The index references page numbers from the print edition which are not included in the Kindle version, and hence are completely useless. If you have a suitable application on your reading device for one of the electronic book formats provided by NASA, I'd opt for it. They are not only better formatted but free.

The original Russian edition is available online.


Baxter, Stephen. Titan. New York: Harper Voyager, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-105713-7.
This novel begins in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century. Space shuttle Columbia has been lost in a re-entry accident, and a demoralised NASA has decided to wind down the shuttle program, with whatever is to follow, if anything, ill-defined and subject to the whims of politicians. The Huygens probe has landed on Saturn's moon Titan and returned intriguing and enigmatic results which are indicative of a complex chemistry similar, in a way, to the “primordial soup” from which life formed on the ancient Earth. As China approaches economic superpower status, it begins to flex its muscles with a military build-up, an increasingly aggressive posture toward its neighbours in the region, and a human spaceflight program which, while cautious and measured, seems bent on achieving very ambitious goals. In the United States, as the 2008 presidential election approaches, the odds on favourite to prevail is a “thin, jug-eared man of about fifty” (p. 147) with little or no interest in science and technology and an agenda of fundamental transformation of the nation. The younger generation has completely tuned out science, technology, and the space program, and some even advocate a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (p. 450).

Did I mention that this book was published in 1997?

Astronaut Paula Benacerraf has been promoted and given the mission to shut down the space shuttle program in an orderly fashion, disposing of its assets responsibly. Isaac Rosenberg, a JPL scientist working on the Huygens probe results, pitches a mission which will allow the NASA human spaceflight and solar system exploration programs to go out in a heroic effort rather than be ignominiously consigned to museums as relics of a lost age of greatness. Rosenberg (as he prefers to be addressed), argues that a space shuttle should be sent on its final mission to the only place in the solar system where its stubby wings make any sense: Titan. With an atmosphere about 50% more dense than that of the Earth, it is plausible a space shuttle orbiter could make an aerodynamic entry at Titan. (The profile would be very different, however, since Titan's low gravity [just 0.14 g] would mean that entry velocity would be lower and the scale height of the atmosphere much greater than at Earth.)

Benacerraf recruits a cabal within NASA and begins to put together a mission plan, using existing hardware, components under development for future missions, prototypes from laboratories, and legacy gear liberated from museums and static displays, to see if such an absurdly ambitious mission might be possible. They conclude that, while extraordinarily risky, nothing rules it out. With the alternative a humiliating abandonment of human spaceflight, and a crew willing to risk their lives on a mission which may prove one way (their only hope of survival on Titan being resupply missions and of return to Earth a crew rotation mission, none of which would be funded at the time of their departure), the NASA administrator is persuaded to go for it.

This novel begins as a chronicle of an heroic attempt to expand the human presence in the solar system, at a time when the door seems to be closing on the resources, will, and optimistic view of the future such efforts require. But then, as the story plays out, it becomes larger and larger, finally concluding in a breathtaking vista of the destiny of life in the galaxy, while at the same time, a chronicle of just how gnarly the reality of getting there is likely to be. I don't think I've ever read science fiction which so effectively communicated that the life of pioneers who go to other worlds to stay has a lot more in common with Ernest Shackleton than Neil Armstrong.

If you're a regular reader of these remarks, you'll know I enjoy indulging in nitpicking details in near-future hard science fiction. I'm not going to do that here, not because there aren't some things the author got wrong, but because the story is so enthralling and the characters so compelling that I couldn't care less about the occasional goof. Of course NASA would never send a space shuttle to Titan. Certainly if you worked out the delta-V, consumables requirements, long-term storability of propellants, reliability of systems over such an extended mission, and many other details you'd find it couldn't possibly work. But if these natters made you put the book down, you'd deprive yourself of a masterpiece which is simultaneously depressing in its depiction of human folly and inspiring in the heroism of individual people and the human prospect. This is a thick book: 688 pages in the print edition, and I just devoured it, unable to put it down because I couldn't wait to find out what happens next.

The Kindle edition appears to have been created by scanning a print edition with an optical character recognition program. There are dozens (I noted 49) of the kind of typographical errors one expects from such a process, a few of which I'd expect to have been caught by a spelling checker. I applaud publishers who are bringing out their back-lists in electronic editions, but for a Kindle edition which costs just one U.S. dollar less than the mass market paperback, I believe the reader should be entitled to copy editing comparable to that of a print edition.


McCahill, Tom. Tom McCahill's Car Owner Handbook. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1956.
The 1950s in the United States were immersed in the car culture, and cars meant domestic Detroit iron, not those funny little bugs from Europe that eccentric people drove. American cars of the fifties may have lacked refinement and appear somewhat grotesque to modern eyes, but they were affordable, capacious, fast, and rugged. Just about anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of mechanics could work on them, and their simple design invited customisation and performance tuning. Tom McCahill was the most prominent automotive journalist of this epoch. His monthly column and reviews of cars in Mechanix Illustrated could make or break a model's prospects in the market. He was known for his colourful language: a car didn't just go fast, but “took off like a Killarney bat”, and cornered “like a bowling ball in a sewer pipe”. McCahill was one of the first voices to speak out about the poor build quality of domestic automobiles and their mushy suspension and handling compared to European imports, and he was one of the few automotive writers at the time to regularly review imports.

In this book, McCahill shares his wisdom on many aspects of car ownership: buying a new or used car; tune-up tips; choosing tires, lubricants, and fuel; dealing with break-downs on the road; long-distance trips; performance tweaks and more. You'll also encounter long-forgotten parts of the mid-century car culture such as the whole family making a trip to Detroit to pick up their new car at the factory and breaking it in on the way home. Somewhat surprisingly for a publication from the era of big V-8 engines and twenty-five cent gas, there's even a chapter on improving mileage. The book concludes with “When to Phone the Junkman”.

Although cars have been transformed from the straightforward designs of the 1950s into machines of inscrutable complexity, often mandated by bureaucrats who ride the bus or subway to work, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom here about automobiles and driving, some of it very much ahead of its time.

This “Fawcett How-To Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated consisting entirely of McCahill's work, and even includes the usual advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what amounts to a pulp magazine which sold for 75 cents new. You may have more luck finding a copy on eBay than through Amazon used book sellers. As best I can determine, this publication was never assigned a Library of Congress control number, although others in the series were.


Greenberg, Stanley. Time Machines. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2011. ISBN 978-3-7774-4041-5.
Should our civilisation collapse due to folly, shortsightedness, and greed, and an extended dark age ensue, in which not only our painfully-acquired knowledge is lost, but even the memory of what we once knew and accomplished forgotten, certainly among the most impressive of the achievements of our lost age when discovered by those who rise from the ruins to try again will be the massive yet delicate apparatus of our great physics experiments. Many, buried deep in the Earth, will survive the chaos of the dark age and beckon to pioneers of the next age of discovery just as the tombs of Egypt did to those in our epoch. Certainly, when the explorers of that distant time first illuminate the great detector halls of our experiments, they will answer, as Howard Carter did when asked by Lord Carnarvon, “Can you see anything?”, “Yes, wonderful things.”

This book is a collection of photographs of these wonderful things, made by a master photographer and printed in a large-format (26×28 cm) coffee-table book. We visit particle accelerators in Japan, the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany; gravitational wave detectors in the U.S. and Italy; neutrino detectors in Canada, Japan, the U.S., Italy, and the South Pole; and the 3000 km² cosmic ray observatory in Argentina.

This book is mostly about the photographs, not the physics or engineering: the photographs are masterpieces. All are reproduced in monochrome, which emphasises the beautiful symmetries of these machines without the distractions of candy-coloured cable bundles. There is an introduction by particle physicist David C. Cassidy which briefly sketches the motivation for building these cathedrals of science and end notes which provide additional details of the hardware in each photograph, but you don't pay the substantial price of the book for these. The photographs are obviously large format originals (nobody could achieve this kind of control of focus and tonal range with a convenient to use camera) and they are printed exquisitely. The screen is so fine I have difficulty evaluating it even with a high power magnifier, but it looks to me like the book was printed using not just a simple halftone screen but with ink in multiple shades of grey.

The result is just gorgeous. Resist the temptation to casually flip from image to image—immerse yourself in each of them and work out the perspective. One challenge is that it's often difficult to determine the scale of what you're looking at from a cursory glance at the picture. You have to search for something with which you're familiar until it all snaps into scale; this is sometimes difficult and I found the disorientation delightful and ultimately enlightening.

You will learn nothing about physics from this book. You will learn nothing about photography apart from a goal to which to aspire as you master the art. But you will see some of the most amazing creations of the human mind, built in search of the foundations of our understanding of the universe we inhabit, photographed by a master and reproduced superbly, inviting you to linger on every image and wish you could see these wonders with your own eyes.