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Monday, April 27, 2009

Reading List: Reinventing Collapse

Orlov, Dimitry. Reinventing Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0-86571-606-3.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12. He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In this book he describes firsthand what happens when a continental scale superpower experiences economic and societal collapse, what it means to those living through it, and how those who survived managed to do so, in some cases prospering amid the rubble.

He then goes on to pose the question of whether the remaining superpower, the United States, is poised to experience a collapse of the same magnitude. This he answers in the affirmative, with only the timing uncertain (these events tend to happen abruptly and with little warning—in 1985 virtually every Western analyst assumed the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture on the world stage; six years later it was gone). He presents a U.S. collapse scenario in the form of the following theorem on p. 3, based upon the axioms of “Peak Oil” and the unsustainability of the debt the U.S. is assuming to finance its oil imports (as well as much of the rest of its consumer economy and public sector).

Oil powers just about everything in the US economy, from food production and distribution to shipping, construction and plastics manufacturing. When less oil becomes available, less is produced, but the amount of money in circulation remains the same, causing the prices for the now scarcer products to be bid up, causing inflation. The US relies on foreign investors to finance its purchases of oil, and foreign investors, seeing high inflation and economic turmoil, flee in droves. Result: less money with which to buy oil and, consequently, less oil with which to produce things. Lather, rinse, repeat; stop when you run out of oil. Now look around: Where did that economy disappear to?
Now if you believe in Peak Oil (as the author most certainly does, along with most of the rest of the catechism of the environmental left), this is pretty persuasive. But even if you don't, you can make the case for a purely economic collapse, especially with the unprecedented deficits and money creation as the present process of deleveraging accelerates into debt liquidation (either through inflation or outright default and bankruptcy). The ultimate trigger doesn't make a great deal of difference to the central argument: the U.S. runs on oil (and has no near-term politically and economically viable substitute) and depends upon borrowed money both to purchase oil and to service its ever-growing debt. At the moment creditors begin to doubt they're every going to be repaid (as happened with the Soviet Union in its final days), it's game over for the economy, even if the supply of oil remains constant.

Drawing upon the Soviet example, the author examines what an economic collapse on a comparable scale would mean for the U.S. Ironically, he concludes that many of the weaknesses which were perceived as hastening the fall of the Soviet system—lack of a viable cash economy, hoarding and self-sufficiency at the enterprise level, failure to produce consumer goods, lack of consumer credit, no private ownership of housing, and a huge and inefficient state agricultural sector which led many Soviet citizens to maintain their own small garden plots— resulted, along with the fact that the collapse was from a much lower level of prosperity, in mitigating the effects of collapse upon individuals. In the United States, which has outsourced much of its manufacturing capability, depends heavily upon immigrants in the technology sector, and has optimised its business models around high-velocity cash transactions and just in time delivery, the consequences post-collapse may be more dire than in the “primitive” Soviet system. If you're going to end up primitive, you may be better starting out primitive.

The author, although a U.S. resident for all of his adult life, did not seem to leave his dark Russian cynicism and pessimism back in the USSR. Indeed, on numerous occasions he mocks the U.S. and finds it falls short of the Soviet standard in areas such as education, health care, public transportation, energy production and distribution, approach to religion, strength of the family, and durability and repairability of capital and the few consumer goods produced. These are indicative of what he terms a “collapse gap”, which will leave the post-collapse U.S. in much worse shape than ex-Soviet Russia: in fact he believes it will never recover and after a die-off and civil strife, may fracture into a number of political entities, all reduced to a largely 19th century agrarian lifestyle. All of this seems a bit much, and is compounded by offhand remarks about the modern lifestyle which seem to indicate that his idea of a “sustainable” world would be one largely depopulated of humans in which the remainder lived in communities much like traditional African villages. That's what it may come to, but I find it difficult to see this as desirable. Sign me up for L. Neil Smith's “freedom, immortality, and the stars” instead.

The final chapter proffers a list of career opportunities which proved rewarding in post-collapse Russia and may be equally attractive elsewhere. Former lawyers, marketing executives, financial derivatives traders, food chemists, bank regulators, university administrators, and all the other towering overhead of drones and dross whose services will no longer be needed in post-collapse America may have a bright future in the fields of asset stripping, private security (or its mirror image, violent racketeering), herbalism and medical quackery, drugs and alcohol, and even employment in what remains of the public sector. Hit those books!

There are some valuable insights here into the Soviet collapse as seen from the perspective of citizens living through it and trying to make the best of the situation, and there are some observations about the U.S. which will make you think and question assumptions about the stability and prospects for survival of the economy and society on its present course. But there are so many extreme statements you come away from the book feeling like you've endured an “end is nigh” rant by a wild-eyed eccentric which dilutes the valuable observations the author makes.

Posted at 23:08 Permalink

Friday, April 24, 2009

Reading List: Transfer of Power

Flynn, Vince. Transfer of Power. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-671-02320-1.
No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that Islamic terrorists could make a successful strike on a high-profile symbol of U.S. power. Viewed from a decade later, this novel, the first featuring counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (who sometimes makes Jack Bauer seem like a bureaucrat), is astonishingly prescient. It is an almost perfect thriller—one of the most difficult to put down books I've read in quite some time. Apart from the action, which is abundant, the author has a pitch-perfect sense of the venality and fecklessness of politicians and skewers them with a gusto reminiscent of the early novels of Allen Drury.

I was completely unaware of this author and his hugely popular books (six of which, to date, have made the New York Times bestseller list) until I heard an extended interview (transcript; audio parts 1, 2, 3) with the author, after which I immediately ordered this book. It did not disappoint, and I shall be reading more in the series.

I don't read thrillers in a hyper-critical mode unless they transgress to such an extent that I begin to exclaim “oh, come on”. Still, this novel is carefully researched, and the only goof I noticed is in the Epilogue on p. 545 where “A KH-12 Keyhole satellite was moved into geosynchronous orbit over the city of Sao Paulo and began recording phone conversations”. The KH-12 (a somewhat ambiguous designation for an upgrade of the KH-11 reconnaissance satellite) operates in low Earth orbit, not geosynchronous orbit, and is an imaging satellite, not a signals intelligence satellite equipped to intercept communications. The mass market edition I read includes a teaser for Protect and Defend, the eighth novel in the series. This excerpt contains major spoilers for the earlier books, and if you're one of those people (like me) who likes to follow the books in a series in order, give it a miss.

Posted at 00:10 Permalink

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Right Here in Switzerland!

Patrick Stewart as Lenin in the penultimate episode of the BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles perfectly encapsulates why lovers of liberty and individualism, in his century as well as ours, flock to our small country which has never forsaken those ideals in seven centuries of independence, liberty, and peace.

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The echo is particularly delightful. I cannot help but note that merchandise remains available.

Toward the end of his life, Einstein was asked, “What would you do if you heard the end of the world was coming?” He replied, “I'd move back to Switzerland; everything happens so much later there.” Works for me.

Posted at 01:02 Permalink

Monday, April 20, 2009

Transferring MP3 files to an iPhone from Linux (and other operating systems)

I purchased an iPhone 3G (the only model offered for sale in Switzerland) at the end of September last year, and notwithstanding the usual speed bumps and irritations, I've been very satisfied with it so far. The first thing I did was ditch the auto-ejecting earbuds supplied with the phone for the Etymotic hf2 headset, which includes a compatible microphone and earphones which do not trigger pain nerves in the ear canal. (This product is expensive, but I recommend it with the following caveat: never succumb to the temptation to haul the iPhone out of your pocket by the headphone cable. The wire is fragile, and doing so will eventually lead to loss of continuity in one of the audio or control channels. You do not want to write off such an expensive headset and have to buy a replacement as I did—you have been warned.)

The other major irritation I had with the iPhone was the inability to upload MP3 files I'd downloaded for podcasts and other audio programmes without rebooting my computer into a legacy operating system and running iTunes. With the iPod Nano I previously carried on my daily walks, I could use gtkpod to upload the audio files directly from Linux and otherwise manage the audio content of the iPod. The iPhone, however, is locked and cannot be accessed by non-Apple applications. (Yes, I am aware of the option of breaking Apple's lockdown of the iPhone, but I do not engage in such endeavours: when I buy a product, I agree to the licence which governs it, and besides I have better things to do with my time than engage in a technological arms race with a well-funded company.) This meant that whenever I downloaded an MP3 file which I wanted to listen to, I had to boot my machine into Windows XP simply to transfer it to the iPhone (or, as I often did, unwilling to so abuse my faithful laptop, just copied it to the venerable iPod Nano and carry it along with me [but then, you don't have the cool feature of being able to answer an incoming call without juggling gizmos and asking the caller to hold on while you push buttons and fiddle with cables]).

I don't write about gripes here, but rather solutions, and here's one I wished I'd discovered earlier. There is an iPhone application called Air Sharing which presently sells for the princely sum of US$4.99 which, when installed on your iPhone and launched, looks for a WiFi access point and registers itself with an HTTP port address of 8080 (you can configure this). You can then connect to its built-in HTTP server, which allows you to manage files stored on the iPhone, including uploading files from your computer. And the key point is that you can do this from any system with a Web browser—you don't need a legacy proprietary system which runs iTunes. You can upload files in a variety of formats, but what matters to me is MP3: audio files are stored and can be played by tapping their names in the Air Sharing application window. You then get a QuickTime media player window which allows the usual control over playing the audio. I'm not sure what happens if an incoming call occurs whilst playing an uploaded MP3 file—that hasn't yet happened; if I press the headset button, the MP3 file pauses and the active iPod file resumes, so I'll have to see how this sorts out in the case of an incoming call.

As someone who downloads and listens to a lot of podcasts, and wishes to carry and juggle as few gizmos as possible, this is about the best five bucks I've ever spent. The application does much more than I've described here, but it's more than worth it to me to be able to upload audio files to the iPhone without disrupting my workflow or sullying my development machine with proprietary software from legacy vendors.

Posted at 22:38 Permalink

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Reading List: Reinventing Gravity

Moffat, John W. Reinventing Gravity. New York: Collins, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-117088-1.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, astronomers were confronted by a puzzling conflict between their increasingly precise observations and the predictions of Newton's time-tested theory of gravity. The perihelion of the elliptical orbit of the planet Mercury was found to precess by the tiny amount of 43 arc seconds per century more than could be accounted for by the gravitational influence of the Sun and the other planets. While small, the effect was unambiguously measured, and indicated that something was missing in the analysis. Urbain Le Verrier, coming off his successful prediction of the subsequently discovered planet Neptune by analysis of the orbit of Uranus, calculated that Mercury's anomalous precession could be explained by the presence of a yet unobserved planet he dubbed Vulcan. Astronomers set out to observe the elusive inner planet in transit across the Sun or during solar eclipses, and despite several sightings by respectable observers, no confirmed observations were made. Other astronomers suggested a belt of asteroids too small to observe within the orbit of Mercury could explain its orbital precession. For more than fifty years, dark matter—gravitating body or bodies so far unobserved—was invoked to explain a discrepancy between the regnant theory of gravitation and the observations of astronomers. Then, in 1915, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity which predicted that orbits in strongly curved spacetime would precess precisely the way Mercury's orbit was observed to, and that no dark matter was needed to reconcile the theory of gravitation with observations. So much for planet Vulcan, notwithstanding the subsequent one with all the pointy-eared logicians.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a disparate collection of observations on the galactic scale and beyond: the speed of rotation of stars in the discs of spiral galaxies, the velocities of galaxies in galactic clusters, gravitational lensing of distant objects by foreground galaxy clusters, the apparent acceleration of the expansion of the universe, and the power spectrum of the anisotropies in the cosmic background radiation, have yielded results grossly at variance with the predictions of General Relativity. The only way to make the results fit the theory is to assume that everything we observe in the cosmos makes up less than 5% of its total mass, and that the balance is “dark matter” and “dark energy”, neither of which has yet been observed or detected apart from their imputed gravitational effects. Sound familiar?

In this book, John Moffat, a distinguished physicist who has spent most of his long career exploring extensions to Einstein's theory of General Relativity, dares to suggest that history may be about to repeat itself, and that the discrepancy between what our theories predict and what we observe may not be due to something we haven't seen, but rather limitations in the scope of validity of our theories. Just as Newton's theory of gravity, exquisitely precise on the terrestrial scale and in the outer solar system, failed when applied to the strong gravitational field close to the Sun in which Mercury orbits, perhaps Einstein's theory also requires corrections over the very large distances involved in the galactic and cosmological scales. The author recounts his quest for such a theory, and eventual development of Modified Gravity (MOG), a scalar/tensor/vector field theory which reduces to Einstein's General Relativity when the scalar and vector fields are set to zero.

This theory is claimed to explain all of these large scale discrepancies without invoking dark matter, and to do so, after calibration of the static fields from observational data, with no free parameters (“fudge factors”). Unlike some other speculative theories, MOG makes a number of predictions which it should be possible to test in the next decade. MOG predicts a very different universe in the strong field regime than General Relativity: there are no black holes, no singularities, and the Big Bang is replaced by a universe which starts out with zero matter density and zero entropy at the start and decays because, as we all know, nothing is unstable.

The book is fascinating, but in a way unsatisfying. The mathematical essence of the theory is never explained: you'll have to read the author's professional publications to find it. There are no equations, not even in the end notes, which nonetheless contain prose such as (p. 235):

Wilson loops can describe a gauge theory such as Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism or the gauge theory of the standard model of particle physics. These loops are gauge-invariant observables obtained from the holonomy of the gauge connection around a given loop. The holonomy of a connection in differential geometry on a smooth manifold is defined as the measure to which parallel transport around closed loops fails to preserve the geometrical data being transported. Holonomy has nontrivial local and global features for curved connections.
I know that they say you lose half the audience for every equation you include in a popular science book, but this is pretty forbidding stuff for anybody who wanders into the notes. For a theory like this, the fit to the best available observational data is everything, and this is discussed almost everywhere only in qualitative terms. Let's see the numbers! Although there is a chapter on string theory and quantum gravity, these topics are dropped in the latter half of the book: MOG is a purely classical theory, and there is no discussion of how it might lead toward the quantisation of gravitation or be an emergent effective field theory of a lower level quantum substrate.

There aren't many people with the intellect, dogged persistence, and self-confidence to set out on the road to deepen our understanding of the universe at levels far removed from those of our own experience. Einstein struggled for ten years getting from Special to General Relativity, and Moffat has worked for three times as long arriving at MOG and working out its implications. If it proves correct, it will be seen as one of the greatest intellectual achievements by a single person (with a small group of collaborators) in recent history. Should that be the case (and several critical tests which may knock the theory out of the box will come in the near future), this book will prove a unique look into how the theory was so patiently constructed. It's amusing to reflect, if it turns out that dark matter and dark energy end up being epicycles invoked to avoid questioning a theory never tested in the domains in which it was being applied, how historians of science will look back at our age and wryly ask, “What were they thinking?”.

I have a photo credit on p. 119 for a vegetable.

Posted at 01:17 Permalink

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Reading List: Power, Sex, Suicide

Lane, Nick. Power, Sex, Suicide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-920564-6.
When you start to look in detail at the evolution of life on Earth, it appears to be one mystery after another. Why did life appear so quickly after the Earth became hospitable to it? Why did life spend billions of years exclusively in the form of single-celled bacteria without a nucleus (bacteria and archaea)? Why are all complex cells (eukaryotes) apparently descended from a single ancestral cell? Why did it take so long for complex multicellular organisms to evolve? (I've taken a crack [perhaps crackpot] shot at that one myself.) Why did evolution favour sexual reproduction, where two parents are required to produce offspring, while clonal reproduction is twice as efficient? Why just two sexes (among the vast majority of species) and not more? What drove the apparent trend toward greater size and complexity in multicellular organisms? Why are the life spans of organisms so accurately predicted by a power law based upon their metabolic rate? Why and how does metabolic rate fall with the size of an organism? Why did evolution favour warm-bloodedness (endothermy) when it increases an organism's requirement for food by more than an order of magnitude? Why do organisms age, and why is the rate of ageing and the appearance of degenerative diseases so closely correlated with metabolic rate? Conversely, why do birds and bats live so long: a pigeon has about the same mass and metabolic rate as a rat, yet lives ten times as long?

I was intensely interested in molecular biology and evolution of complexity in the early 1990s, but midway through that decade I kind of tuned it out—there was this “Internet” thing going on which captured my attention…. While much remains to be discovered, and many of the currently favoured hypotheses remain speculative, there has been enormous progress toward resolving these conundra in recent years, and this book is an excellent way to catch up on this research frontier.

Quite remarkably, a common thread pulling together most of these questions is one of the most humble and ubiquitous components of eukaryotic life: the mitochondria. Long recognised as the power generators of the cell (“Power”), they have been subsequently discovered to play a key rôle in the evolution of sexual reproduction (“Sex”), and in programmed cell death (apoptosis—“Suicide”). Bacteria and archaea are constrained in size by the cube/square law: they power themselves by respiratory mechanisms embedded in their cellular membranes, which grow as the square of their diameter, but consume energy within the bulk of the cell, which grows as the cube. Consequently, evolution selects for small size, as a larger bacterium can generate less energy for its internal needs. Further, bacteria compete for scarce resources purely by replication rate: a bacterium which divides even a small fraction more rapidly will quickly come to predominate in the population versus its more slowly reproducing competitors. In cell division, the most energetically costly and time consuming part is copying the genome's DNA. As a result, evolution ruthlessly selects for the shortest genome, which results in the arcane overlapping genes in bacterial DNA which look like the work of those byte-shaving programmers you knew back when computers had 8 Kb RAM. All of this conspires to keep bacteria small and simple and indeed, they appear to be as small and simple today as they were three billion years and change ago. But that isn't to say they aren't successful—you may think of them as pond scum, but if you read the bacterial blogs, they think of us as an ephemeral epiphenomenon. “It's the age of bacteria, and it always has been.”

Most popular science books deliver one central idea you'll take away from reading them. This one has a forehead slapper about every twenty pages. It is not a particularly easy read: nothing in biology is unambiguous, and you find yourself going down a road and nodding in agreement, only to find out a few pages later that a subsequent discovery has falsified the earlier conclusion. While this may be confusing, it gives a sense of how science is done, and encourages the reader toward scepticism of all “breakthroughs” reported in the legacy media.

One of the most significant results of recent research into mitochondrial function is the connection between free radical production in the respiratory pipeline and ageing. While there is a power law relationship between metabolic rate and lifespan, there are outliers (including humans, who live about twice as long as they “should” based upon their size), and a major discrepancy for birds which, while obeying the same power law, are offset toward lifespans from three to ten times as long. Current research offers a plausible explanation for this: avians require aerobic power generation much greater than mammals, and consequently have more mitochondria in their tissues and more respiratory complexes in their mitochondria. This results in lower free radical production, which retards the onset of ageing and the degenerative diseases associated with it. Maybe before long there will be a pill which amplifies the mitochondrial replication factor in humans and, even if it doesn't extend our lifespan, retards the onset of the symptoms of ageing and degenerative diseases until the very end of life (old birds are very much like young adult birds, so there's an existence proof of this). I predict that the ethical questions associated with the creation of this pill will evaporate within about 24 hours of its availability on the market. Oh, it may have side-effects, such as increasing the human lifespan to, say, 160 years. Okay, science fiction authors, over to you!

If you are even remotely interested in these questions, this is a book you'll want to read.

Posted at 00:13 Permalink

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Honeybee at Work


Click image to enlarge.

Spring is here and the bees are visiting the flowers popping up everywhere. This handheld photo was taken with a Nikon D300 camera and Micro-Nikkor 55 mm macro lens with an aperture of f/32 and exposure of 1/250 second at ISO 640 sensitivity.

Posted at 14:16 Permalink

Friday, April 10, 2009

Reading List: Vickers Viscount

Dunn, Robin MacRae. Vickers Viscount. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-065-2.
Post World War II Britain had few technological and industrial successes of which to boast: as government administered industrial policy, sweeping nationalisations, and ascendant unions gripped the economy, “brain drain” became the phrase for the era. One bright spot in this dingy landscape was the world's first turboprop powered airliner, the Vickers Viscount. Less ambitious than its contemporary, the turbojet powered De Havilland Comet, it escaped the tragic fate which befell early models of that design and caused it to lose out to competitors which entered the market much later.

Despite its conventional appearance and being equipped with propellers, the Viscount represented a genuine revolution in air transport. Its turbine engines were vastly more reliable than the finicky piston powerplants of contemporary airliners, and provided its passengers a much quieter ride, faster speed, and the ability to fly above much of the bumpy weather. Its performance combined efficiency in the European short hop market for which it was intended with a maximum range (as much as 2,450 miles for some models with optional fuel tanks) which allowed it to operate on many intercontinental routes.

From the first flight of the prototype in July 1948 through entry into regular scheduled airline service in April 1953, the Viscount pioneered and defined turboprop powered air transport. From the start, the plane was popular with airlines and their passengers, with a total of 445 being sold. Some airlines ended up buying other equipment simply because demand for Viscounts meant they could not obtain delivery positions as quickly as they required. The Viscount flew for a long list of operators in the primary and secondary market, and was adapted as a freighter, high-density holiday charter plane, and VIP and corporate transport. Its last passenger flight in the U.K. took place on April 18th, 1996, the 43rd anniversary of its entry into service.

This lavishly illustrated book tells the story of the Viscount from concept through retirement of the last exemplars. A guide helps sort through the bewildering list of model numbers assigned to variants of the basic design, and comparative specifications of the principal models are provided. Although every bit as significant a breakthrough in propulsion as the turbojet, the turboprop powered Viscount never had the glamour of the faster planes without propellers. But they got their passengers to their destinations quickly, safely, and made money for the airlines delivering them there, which is all one can ask of an airliner, and made the Viscount a milestone in British aeronautical engineering.

Posted at 21:21 Permalink

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Polar Panoramas Posted

I have just posted two panoramas assembled from photos taken last July on Fourmilab's Nuclear Ninety North expedition to the North Pole and total solar eclipse. The Polar Ice Panorama was taken near the North Pole and shows the chaotic, ever-changing icescape of the Arctic sea ice. The second shows the coastline and sea ice off Hall Island in Franz Josef Land (80°5.70'N 58°3.23'E). These are large images; use your browser's scroll bars to explore the detail in them.

Both of these panoramas were created by digitally compositing sequences of handheld images using the hugin, Panorama Tools, and Enblend free software tools.

Posted at 20:02 Permalink

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reading List: Liberty and Tyranny

Levin, Mark R. Liberty and Tyranny. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-6285-6.
Even at this remove, I can recall the precise moment when my growing unease that the world wasn't turning into the place I'd hoped to live as an adult became concrete and I first began to comprehend the reasons for the trends which worried me. It was October 27th, 1964 (or maybe a day or so later, if the broadcast was tape delayed) when I heard Ronald Reagan's speech “A Time for Choosing”, given in support of Barry Goldwater's U.S. presidential campaign. Notwithstanding the electoral disaster of the following week, many people consider Reagan's speech (often now called just “The Speech”) a pivotal moment both in the rebirth of conservatism in the United States and Reagan's own political career. I know that I was never the same afterward: I realised that the vague feelings of things going the wrong way were backed up by the facts Reagan articulated and, further and more important, that there were alternatives to the course the country and society was presently steering. That speech, little appreciated at the time, changed the course of American history and changed my life.

Here is a book with the potential to do the same for people today who, like me in 1964, are disturbed at the way things are going, particularly young people who, indoctrinated in government schools and the intellectual monoculture of higher education, have never heard the plain and yet eternal wisdom the author so eloquently and economically delivers here. The fact that this book has recently shot up to the number one rank in Amazon.com book sales indicates that not only is the message powerful, but that an audience receptive to it exists.

The author admirably cedes no linguistic ground to the enemies of freedom. At the very start he dismisses the terms “liberal” (How is it liberal to advocate state coercion as the answer to every problem?) and “progressive” (How can a counter-revolution against the inherent, unalienable rights of individual human beings in favour of the state possibly be deemed progress?) for “Statist”, which is used consistently thereafter. He defines a “Conservative” not as one who cherishes the past or desires to return to it, but rather a person who wishes to conserve the individual liberty proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and supposedly protected by the Constitution (the author and I disagree about the wisdom of the latter document and the motives of those who promoted it). A Conservative is not one who, in the 1955 words of William F. Buckley “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”, but rather believes in incremental, prudential reform, informed by the experience of those who went before, from antiquity up until yesterday, with the humility to judge every policy not by its intentions but rather by the consequences it produces, and always ready to reverse any step which proves, on balance, detrimental.

The Conservative doesn't believe in utopia, nor in the perfectibility or infinite mutability of human nature. Any aggregate of flawed humans will be inevitably flawed; that which is least flawed and allows individuals the most scope to achieve the best within themselves is as much as can be hoped for. The Conservative knows from history that every attempt by Statists to create heaven on Earth by revolutionary transformation and the hope of engendering a “new man” has ended badly, often in tragedy.

For its length, this book is the best I've encountered at delivering the essentials of the conservative (or, more properly termed, but unusable due to corruption of the language, “classical liberal”) perspective on the central issues of the time. For those who have read Burke, Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, Hayek, Bastiat, Friedman, and other classics of individual and economic liberty (the idea that these are anything but inseparable is another Statist conceit), you will find little that is new in the foundations, although all of these threads are pulled together in a comprehensible and persuasive way. For people who have never heard of any of the above, or have been taught to dismiss them as outdated, obsolete, and inapplicable to our age, this book may open the door to a new, more clear way of thinking, and through its abundant source citations (many available on the Web) invites further exploration by those who, never having thought of themselves before as “conservative”, find their heads nodding in agreement with many of the plain-spoken arguments presented here.

As the book progresses, there is less focus on fundamentals and more on issues of the day such as the regulatory state, environmentalism, immigration, welfare dependency, and foreign relations and military conflicts. This was, to me, less satisfying than the discussion of foundational principles. These issues are endlessly debated in a multitude of venues, and those who call themselves conservatives and agree on the basics nonetheless come down on different sides of many of these issues. (And why not? Conservatives draw on the lessons of the past, and there are many ways of interpreting the historical record.) The book concludes with “A Conservative Manifesto” which, while I concur that almost every point mentioned would be a step in the right direction for the United States, I cannot envision how, in the present environment, almost any of the particulars could be adopted. The change that is needed is not the election of one set of politicians to replace another—there is precious little difference between them—but rather the slow rediscovery and infusion into the culture of the invariant principles, founded in human nature rather than the theories of academics, which are so lucidly explained here. As the author notes, the statists have taken more than eight decades on their long march through the institutions to arrive at the present situation. Champions of liberty must expect to be as patient and persistent if they are to prevail. The question is whether they will enjoy the same freedom of action their opponents did, or fall victim as the soft tyranny of the providential state becomes absolute tyranny, as has so often been the case.

Posted at 01:15 Permalink

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reading List: One Second After

Forstchen, William R. One Second After. New York: Forge, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-1758-2.
Suppose, one fine spring day, with no warning or evident cause, the power went out. After a while, when it didn't come back on, you might try to telephone the power company, only to discover the phone completely dead. You pull out your mobile phone, and it too is kaput—nothing happens at all when you try to turn it on. You get the battery powered radio you keep in the basement in case of storms, and it too is dead; you swap in the batteries from the flashlight (which works) but that doesn't fix the radio. So, you decide to drive into town and see if anybody there knows what's going on. The car doesn't start. You set out on foot, only to discover when you get to the point along the lane where you can see the highway that it's full of immobile vehicles with their drivers wandering around on foot as in a daze.

What's happening—The Day the Earth Stood Still? Is there a saucer on the ground in Washington? Nobody knows: all forms of communication are down, all modes of transportation halted. You might think this yet another implausible scenario for a thriller, but what I've just described (in a form somewhat different than the novel) is pretty much what the sober-sided experts of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack sketch out in their April 2008 Critical National Infrastructures report and 2004 Executive Report as the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in space high above the continental United States. There would be no thermal, blast, or radiation effects on the ground (although somebody unlucky enough to be looking toward the location of the detonation the sky might suffer vision damage, particularly if it occurred at night), but a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created as prompt gamma rays from the nuclear detonation create free electrons in the upper atmosphere due to the Compton effect which spiral along the lines of force of Earth's magnetic field and emit an intense electric field pulse in three phases which reaches the ground and affects electrical and electronic equipment in a variety of ways, none good. As far as is known, the electromagnetic pulse is completely harmless to humans and other living organisms and would not even be perceived by them.

But it's Hell on electronics. The immediate (E1) pulse arrives at the speed of light everywhere within the line of sight of the detonation, and with a rise time of at most a few nanoseconds, gets into all kinds of electronics much faster than any form of transient protection can engage; this is what kills computer and communications gear and any other kind of electronics with exposed leads or antennas which the pulse can excite. The second phase (E2) pulse is much like the effects of a local lightning strike, and would not cause damage to equipment with proper lightning protection except that in many cases the protection mechanisms may have been damaged or disabled by the consequences of the E1 pulse (which has no counterpart in lightning, and hence lightning mitigation gear is not tested to withstand it). Finally, the E3 pulse arrives, lasting tens to hundreds of seconds, which behaves much like the fields created during a major solar/geomagnetic storm (although the EMP effect may be larger), inducing large currents in long distance electrical transmission lines and other extended conductive structures. The consequences of this kind of disruption are well documented from a number of incidents such as the 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused the collapse of the Quebec Hydro power distribution grid. But unlike a geomagnetic storm, the EMP E3 pulse can affect a much larger area, hit regions in latitudes rarely vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, and will have to be recovered from in an environment where electronics and communications are down due to the damage from the E1 and E2 pulses.

If you attribute much of the technological and economic progress of the last century and a half to the connection of the developed world by electrical, transportation, communication, and computational networks which intimately link all parts of the economy and interact with one another in complex and often non-obvious ways, you can think about the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon launched by a relatively crude missile (which need not be long range if fired, say, from a freighter outside the territorial waters of the target country) by imagining living in the 21st century, seeing the lights flicker and go out and hearing the air conditioner stop, and two minutes later you're living in 1860. None of this is fantasy—all of the EMP effects were documented in nuclear tests in the 1960s and hardening military gear against EMP has been an active area of research and development for decades: this book, which sits on my own shelf, was published 25 years ago. Little or no effort has been expended on hardening the civil infrastructure or commercial electronics against this threat.

This novel looks at what life might be like in the year following an EMP attack on the United States, seen through the microcosm of a medium sized college town in North Carolina where the protagonist is a history professor. Unlike many thrillers, the author superbly describes the sense of groping in the dark when communication is cut and rumours begin to fly, the realisation that with the transportation infrastructure down the ready food supply is measured in days (especially after the losses due to failure of refrigeration), and the consequences to those whose health depends upon medications produced at great distance and delivered on a just in time basis. It is far from a pretty picture, but given the premises of the story (about which I shall natter a bit below), entirely plausible in my opinion. This story has the heroes and stolid get-things-done people who come to the fore in times of crisis, but it also shows how thin the veneer of civilisation is when the food starts to run out and the usual social constraints and sanctions begin to fail. There's no triumphant ending: what is described is a disaster and the ensuing tragedy, with survival for some the best which can be made of the situation. The message is that this, or something like it although perhaps not so extreme, could happen, and that the time to take the relatively modest and inexpensive (at least compared to recent foreign military campaigns) steps to render an EMP attack less probable and, should one occur, to mitigate its impact on critical life-sustaining infrastructure and prepare for recovery from what damage does occur, is now, not the second after the power goes out—all across the continent.

This is a compelling page-turner, which I devoured in just a few days. I do believe the author overstates the total impact of an EMP attack. The scenario here is that essentially everything which incorporates solid state electronics or is plugged into the power grid is fried at the instant of the attack, and that only vacuum tube gear, vehicles without electronic ignition or fuel injection, and other museum pieces remain functional. All airliners en route fall from the sky when their electronics are hit by the pulse. But the EMP Commission report is relatively sanguine about equipment not connected to the power grid which doesn't have vulnerable antennas. They discuss aircraft at some length, and conclude that since all commercial and military aircraft are currently tested and certified to withstand direct lightning strikes, and all but the latest fly-by-wire planes use mechanical and hydraulic control linkages, they are unlikely to be affected by EMP. They may lose communication, and the collapse of the air traffic control system will pose major problems and doubtless lead to some tragedies, but all planes aloft raining from the sky doesn't seem to be in the cards. Automobiles and trucks were tested by the commission (see pp. 115–116 of the Critical Infrastructures report), and no damage whatsoever occurred to vehicles not running when subjected to a simulated pulse; some which were running stopped, but all but a few immediately restarted and none required more than routine garage repairs. Having the highways open and trucks on the road makes a huge difference in a disaster recovery scenario. But let me qualify these quibbles by noting that nobody knows what will actually happen: with non-nuclear EMP and other electromagnetic weapons a focus of current research, doubtless much of the information on vulnerability of various systems remains under the seal of secrecy. And besides, in a cataclysmic situation, it's usually the things you didn't think of which cause the most dire problems.

One language note: the author seems to believe that the word “of” is equivalent to “have” when used in a phrase such as “You should've” or “I'd have”—instead, he writes “You should of” and “I'd of”. At first I thought this was a dialect affectation of a single character, but it's used all over the place, by characters of all kinds of regional and cultural backgrounds. Now, this usage is grudgingly sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) by the descriptive Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (p. 679, item 2), but it just drives me nuts; if you consider the definitions of the individual words, what can “should of” possibly mean?

This novel focuses on the human story of people caught entirely by surprise trying to survive in a situation beyond their imagining one second before. If reading this book makes you ponder what steps you might take beforehand to protect your family in such a circumstance, James Wesley Rawles's Patriots (December 2008), which is being issued in a new, expanded edition in April 2009, is an excellent resource, as is Rawles's SurvivalBlog.

A podcast interview with William R. Forstchen about One Second After is available.

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