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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reading List: The Character of Nations

Codevilla, Angelo. The Character of Nations. New York: Basic Books, [1997] 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-02800-9.
As George Will famously observed, “statecraft is soulcraft”. This book, drawing on examples from antiquity to the present day, and from cultures all around the world, explores how the character, culture, and morals of a people shape the political institutions they create and how, in turn, those institutions cause the character of those living under them to evolve over time. This feedback loop provides important insights into the rise and fall of nations and empires, and is acutely important in an age where the all-encompassing administrative state appears triumphant in developed nations at the very time it reduces its citizens to subservient, ovine subjects who seek advancement not through productive work but by seeking favours from those in power, which in turn imperils the wealth creation upon which the state preys.

This has, of course, been the state of affairs in the vast majority of human societies over the long span of human history but, as the author notes, for most of that history the intrusiveness of authority upon the autonomy of the individual was limited by constraints on transportation, communication, and organisation, so the scope of effective control of even the most despotic ruler rarely extended far beyond the seat of power. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were deeply concerned whether self-government of any form could function on a scale beyond that of a city-state: there were no historical precedents for such a polity enduring beyond a generation or two. Thomas Jefferson and others who believed such a government could be established and survive in America based their optimism on the character of the American people: their independence, self-reliance, morality grounded in deep religious convictions, strong families, and willingness to take up arms to defend their liberty would guide them in building a government which would reflect and promote those foundations.

Indeed, for a century and a half, despite a disastrous Civil War and innumerable challenges and crises, the character of the U.S. continued to embody that present at the founding, and millions of immigrants from cultures fundamentally different from those of the founders were readily assimilated into an ever-evolving culture which nonetheless preserved its essential character. For much of American history, people in the U.S. were citizens in the classic sense of the word: participants in self-government, mostly at a local level, and in turn accepting the governance of their fellow citizens; living lives centred around family, faith, and work, with public affairs rarely intruding directly into their lives, yet willing to come to the defence of the nation with their very lives when it was threatened.

How quaint that all seems today. Statecraft is soulcraft, and the author illustrates with numerous examples spanning millennia how even the best-intentioned changes in the relationship of the individual to the state can, over a generation or two, fundamentally and often irreversibly alter the relationship between government and the governed, transforming the character of the nation—the nature of its population, into something very different which will, in turn, summon forth a different kind of government. To be specific, and to cite the case most common in the the last century, there is a pernicious positive feedback loop which is set into motion by the enactment of even the most apparently benign social welfare programs. Each program creates a dependent client class, whose political goals naturally become to increase their benefits at the expense of the productive classes taxed to fund them. The dependent classes become reliable voting blocs for politicians who support the programs that benefit them, which motivates those politicians to expand benefits and thus grow the dependent classes. Eventually, indeed almost inevitably, the society moves toward a tipping point where net taxpayers are outvoted by tax eaters, after which the business of the society is no longer creation of wealth but rather a zero sum competition for the proceeds of redistribution by the state.

Note that the client classes in a mature redistributive state go far beyond the “poor, weak, and infirm” the politicians who promote such programs purport to champion. They include defence contractors, financial institutions dependent upon government loan guarantees and bailouts, nationalised companies, subsidised industries and commodity producers, public employee unions, well-connected lobbying and law firms, and the swarm of parasites that darken the sky above any legislature which expends the public patrimony at its sole discretion, and of course the relatives and supporters of the politicians and bureaucrats dispensing favours from the public purse.

The author distinguishes “the nation” (the people who live in a country), “the regime” (its governing institutions), and “the establishment” (the ruling class, including politicians but also media, academia, and opinion makers). When these three bodies are largely aligned, the character of the nation will be reflected in its institutions and those institutions will reinforce that character. In many circumstances, for example despotic societies, there has never been an alignment and this has often been considered the natural order of things: rulers and ruled. It is the rarest of exceptions when this triple alignment occurs, and the sad lesson of history is that even when it does, it is likely to be a transient phenomenon: we are doomed!

This is, indeed, a deeply pessimistic view of the political landscape, perhaps better read on the beach in mid-summer than by the abbreviated and wan daylight of a northern hemisphere winter solstice. The author examines in detail how seventy years of communist rule transformed the character of the Soviet population in such a manner that the emergence of the authoritarian Russian gangster state was a near-inevitable consequence. Perhaps had double-domed “defence intellectuals” read this book when it was originally published in 1997 (the present edition is revised and updated based upon subsequent events), ill-conceived attempts at “nation building” might have been avoided and many lives and vast treasure not squandered in such futile endeavours.

Posted at 15:23 Permalink

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship Now Online

The eighteenth installment in the Tom Swift adventures, Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available.

In this installment of the Tom Swift saga, published in 1915, war has erupted in Europe, and our intrepid inventor, concerned with maintaining the technological deterrent of an under-armed and isolationist “Uncle Sam”, has taken upon himself the task of constructing “on spec” a six hundred foot long airship equipped with four inch recoil-compensated guns, precision-targeted bombs, and rapid-fire defensive arms. One might say, from an after-the-innocence post-war perspective, that Tom had anticipated the inevitable involvement of his nation in the European conflict or, perhaps, that he'd been one of the first to twig to the fact that becoming a “merchant of death” was the way to riches in the “progressive” war-socialism state soon to supplant the individualist entrepreneurial society which nurtured him and he came to exemplify.

But nefarious “foreign spies” covet Tom's dreadnought of the clouds, and an implausible coalition of French, German, Russian, and British malefactors (hey, aren't these guys fighting one another?) conspire to destroy Tom's invention and, failing at that, hijack it for their own evil ends. But all ends well, thanks (uncharacteristically for a Tom Swift novel) not due to the ingenuity and pluck of the protagonist, but to a bolt from the blue.

Because there were a number of scanning artefacts and typographical errors in the source document, I subjected it to a careful proofreading. Consequently, I believe this text has fewer errors than other novels initially posted in this series. Prove me wrong! Send your corrections with the feedback form, and please cite the context of any changes you submit.

This book brings the Tom Swift saga from its inception in 1910 through 1915 for a total of eighteen books. While the first novels in the series came fast and furious, starting in 1912 one book per year was published. Seven public domain Tom Swift novels remain, and I'll continue to add them to this collection at the rate of one or two a year. There are a total of forty adventures in the original Tom Swift series, but those published between 1923 and 1941 will not enter the public domain until 95 years after their copyright date (assuming the law isn't changed before then), so none of these can be posted before 2019.

Posted at 02:56 Permalink

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reading List: Memorial Day

Flynn, Vince. Memorial Day. New York: Pocket Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7434-5398-1.
In this, the fifth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series the author returns from the more introspective view of the conflicting loyalties and priorities of the CIA's most effective loose cannon in previous novels to pen a rip-roaring edge-of-the-seat thriller which will keep you turning pages until the very last. I packed this as an “airplane book” and devoured the whole 574 page brick in less than 48 hours after I opened it on the train to the airport. Flynn is a grand master of the “just one more chapter before I go to sleep” thriller, and this is the most compelling of his novels I've read to date.

Without giving away any more than the back cover blurb, the premise is a nuclear terrorist attack on Washington, and the details of the detection of such a threat and the response to it are so precise that a U.S. government inquiry was launched into how Flynn got his information (answer—he has lots of fans in the alphabet soup agencies within a megaton or so of the Reflecting Pool). While the earlier novels in the Mitch Rapp chronicle are best read in order, you can pick this one up and enjoy it stand-alone: sure, you'll miss some of the nuances of the backgrounds and interactions among the characters, but the focus here is on crisis, mystery, taking expedient action to prevent a catastrophic outcome, and the tension between those committed to defending their nation and those committed to protecting the liberties which make that nation worthy of being defended.

As with most novels in which nuclear terrorism figures, I have some quibbles with the details, but I'm not going to natter upon them within a spoiler warning block because they made absolutely no difference to my enjoyment of this yarn. This is a thriller by a master of the genre at the height of his powers, which has not been dated in any way by the passing of years since its publication. Enjoy!

Posted at 02:32 Permalink

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading List: A Brilliant Darkness

Magueijo, João. A Brilliant Darkness. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-00903-9.
Ettore Majorana is one of the most enigmatic figures in twentieth century physics. The son of a wealthy Sicilian family and a domineering mother, he was a mathematical prodigy who, while studying for a doctorate in engineering, was recruited to join Enrico Fermi's laboratory: the “Via Panisperna boys”. (Can't read that without seeing “panspermia”? Me neither.) Majorana switched to physics, and received his doctorate at the age of 22.

At Fermi's lab, he almost immediately became known as the person who could quickly solve intractable mathematical problems others struggled with for weeks. He also acquired a reputation for working on whatever interested him, declining to collaborate with others. Further, he would often investigate a topic to his own satisfaction, speak of his conclusions to his colleagues, but never get around to writing a formal article for publication—he seemed almost totally motivated by satisfying his own intellectual curiosity and not at all by receiving credit for his work. This infuriated his fiercely competitive boss Fermi, who saw his institute scooped on multiple occasions by others who independently discovered and published work Majorana had done and left to languish in his desk drawer or discarded as being “too obvious to publish”. Still, Fermi regarded Majorana as one of those wild talents who appear upon rare occasions in the history of science. He said,

There are many categories of scientists, people of second and third rank, who do their best, but do not go very far. There are also people of first class, who make great discoveries, which are of capital importance for the development of science. But then there are the geniuses, like Galileo and Newton. Well, Ettore was one of these.

In 1933, Majorana visited Werner Heisenberg in Leipzig and quickly became a close friend of this physicist who was, in most personal traits, his polar opposite. Afterward, he returned to Rome and flip-flopped from his extroversion in the company of Heisenberg to the life of a recluse, rarely leaving his bedroom in the family mansion for almost four years. Then something happened, and he jumped into the competition for the position of full professor at the University of Naples, bypassing the requirement for an examination due to his “exceptional merit”. He emerged from his reclusion, accepted the position, and launched into his teaching career, albeit giving lectures at a level which his students often found bewildering.

Then, on March 26th, 1938, he boarded a ship in Palermo Sicily bound for Naples and was never seen again. Before his departure he had posted enigmatic letters to his employer and family, sent a telegram, and left a further letter in his hotel room which some interpreted as suicide notes, but which forensic scientists who have read thousands of suicide notes say resemble none they've ever seen (but then, would a note by a Galileo or Newton read like that of the run of the mill suicide?). This event set in motion investigation and speculation which continues to this very day. Majorana was said to have withdrawn a large sum of money from his bank a few days before: is this plausible for one bent on self-annihilation (we'll get back to that infra)? Based on his recent interest in religion and reports of his having approached religious communities to join them, members of his family spent a year following up reports that he'd joined a monastery; despite “sightings”, none of these leads panned out. Years later, multiple credible sources with nothing apparently to gain reported that Majorana had been seen on numerous occasions in Argentina, and, abandoning physics (which he had said “was on the wrong path” before his disappearance), pursued a career as an engineer.

This only scratches the surface of the legends which have grown up around Majorana. His disappearance, occurring after nuclear fission had already been produced in Fermi's laboratory, but none of the “boys” had yet realised what they'd seen, spawns speculation that Majorana, as he often did, figured it out, worked out the implications, spoke of it to someone, and was kidnapped by the Germans (maybe he mentioned it to his friend Heisenberg), the Americans, or the Soviets. There is an Italian comic book in which Majorana is abducted by Americans, spirited off to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project, only to be abducted again (to his great relief) by aliens in a flying saucer. Nobody knows—this is just one of the many mysteries bearing the name Majorana.

Today, Majorana is best known for his work on the neutrino. He responded to Paul Dirac's theory of the neutrino (which he believed unnecessarily complicated and unphysical) with his own, in which, as opposed to there being neutrinos and antineutrinos, the neutrino is its own antiparticle and hence neutrinos of the same flavour can annihilate one another. At the time these theories were proposed the neutrino had not been detected, nor would it be for twenty years. When the existence of the neutrino was confirmed (although few doubted its existence by the time Reines and Cowan detected it in 1956), few believed it would ever be possible to distinguish the Dirac and Majorana theories of the neutrino, because that particle was almost universally believed to be massless. But then the “scientific consensus” isn't always the way to bet.

Starting with solar neutrino experiments in the 1960s, and continuing to the present day, it became clear that neutrinos did have mass, albeit very little compared to the electron. This meant that the distinction between the Dirac and Majorana theories of the neutrino was accessible to experiment, and could, at least in principle, be resolved. “At least in principle”: what a clarion call to the bleeding edge experimentalist! If the neutrino is a Majorana particle, as opposed to a Dirac particle, then neutrinoless double beta decay should occur, and we'll know whether Majorana's model, proposed more than seven decades ago, was correct. I wish there'd been more discussion of the open controversy over experiments which claim a 6σ signal for neutrinoless double beta decay in 76Ge, but then one doesn't want to date one's book with matters actively disputed.

To the book: this may be the first exemplar of a new genre I'll dub “gonzo scientific biography”. Like the “new journalism” of the 1960s and '70s, this is as much about the author as the subject; the author figures as a central character in the narrative, whether transcribing his queries in pidgin Italian to the Majorana family:

“Signora wifed a brother of Ettore, Luciano?”
“What age did signora owned at that time”
“But he was olded fifty years!”
“But in end he husbanded you.”

Besides humourously trampling on the language of Dante, the author employs profanity as a superlative as do so many “new journalists”. I find this unseemly in a scientific biography of an ascetic, deeply-conflicted individual who spent most of his short life in a search for the truth and, if he erred, erred always on the side of propriety, self-denial, and commitment to dignity of all people.

Should you read this? Well, if you've come this far, of course you should!   This is an excellent, albeit flawed, biography of a singular, albeit flawed, genius whose intellectual legacy motivates massive experiments conducted deep underground and in the seas today. Suppose a neutrinoless double beta decay experiment should confirm the Majorana theory? Should he receive the Nobel prize for it? On the merits, absolutely: many physics Nobels have been awarded for far less, and let's not talk about the “soft Nobels”. But under the rules a Nobel prize can't be awarded posthumously. Which then compels one to ask, “Is Ettore dead?” Well, sure, that's the way to bet: he was born in 1906 and while many people have lived longer, most don't. But how you can you be certain? I'd say, should an experiment for neutrinoless double beta decay prove conclusive, award him the prize and see if he shows up to accept it. Then we'll all know for sure.

Heck, if he did, it'd probably make Drudge.

Posted at 01:47 Permalink

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Reading List: Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Bracken, Matthew. Enemies Foreign and Domestic. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, [2003] 2008. ISBN 978-0-9728310-1-7.
This is one of those books, like John Ross's Unintended Consequences and Vince Flynn's Term Limits in which a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism committed by the Federal Government of the United States finally pushes liberty-loving citizens to exercise “their right, … their duty, to throw off such Government” even if doing so requires the tree of liberty to be refreshed “with the blood of patriots and tyrants”.

In this novel a massacre at a football stadium which occurs under highly dubious circumstances serves as the pretext for a draconian ban on semiautomatic weapons, with immediate confiscation and harsh penalties for non-compliance. This is a step too far for a diverse collection of individuals who believe the Second Amendment to be the ultimate bastion against tyranny, and a government which abridges it to be illegitimate by that very act. Individually, they begin to take action, and what amounts to a low grade civil war begins to break out in the Tidewater region of Virgina, with government provocateurs from a rogue federal agency of jackbooted thugs (as opposed to the jackbooted thugs of other agencies which are “just following orders”) perpetrating their own atrocities, which are then used to justify even more restrictions on the individual right to bear arms, including a ban on telescopic sights (dubbed “sniper rifles”), transportation of weapons in automobiles, and random vehicle stop checkpoints searching for and confiscating firearms.

As the situation spirals increasingly out of control, entrepreneurial jackbooted thugs exploit it to gain power and funding for themselves, and the individuals resisting them come into contact with one another and begin to put the pieces together and understand who is responsible and why a federal law enforcement agency is committing domestic terrorism. Then it's payback time.

This novel is just superbly written. It contains a wealth of detail, all of it carefully researched and accurate. I only noted a couple of typos and factual goofs. The characters are complex, realistically flawed, and develop as the story unfolds. This is a thriller, not a political tract, and it will keep you turning the pages until the very end, while thinking about what you would do when liberty is on the line.

Excerpts from the book are available online at the author's Web site.

Posted at 21:48 Permalink