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Friday, October 29, 2010

Reading List: The Lions of Lucerne

Thor, Brad. The Lions of Lucerne. New York: Pocket Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7434-3674-8.
This was the author's first published novel, which introduced Scot Harvath, the ex-Navy SEAL around whose exploits his subsequent thrillers have centred. In the present book, Harvath has been recruited into the Secret Service and is in charge of the U.S. president's advance team and security detail for a ski trip to Utah which goes disastrously wrong when an avalanche wipes out the entire Secret Service field team except for Harvath, leaving the president missing and his daughter grievously injured. This shock is compounded manyfold when evidence indicates that the president has been kidnapped in an elaborate plot, which is soon confirmed by an incontrovertible communication from the kidnappers.

If things weren't bad enough for the seriously battered Harvath, still suffering from a concussion and “sprained body”, he finds himself framed as the person who leaked the security arrangements to the kidnappers and for the murder of two people trying to bring evidence regarding the plot to the attention of the authorities.

Harvath decides the only way he can clear his name is to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and rescue the president himself and so, grasping at the only thread of evidence he has, travels incognito to Switzerland, where he begins to unravel the details of the plot, identify the conspirators, and discover where the president is being held and devise a plan to rescue him. You don't often come across a Swiss super-villain, but there's one here, complete with an Alpine redoubt worth of a Bond blackguard.

This is a first novel, and it shows. Thor's mastery of the craft of the thriller, both in storytelling and technical detail, has improved over the years. If I hadn't read two of the more recent books, I might have been inclined to give it up after this one, but knowing what's coming, I'll continue to enjoy books from this series. In the present story, we have a vast disparity between the means (an intricate and extremely risky plot to kidnap the U.S. president) and the ends (derailing the passage of an alternative energy bill like “cap and trade”), carried out by an international conspiracy so vast that its security would almost be certain to be quickly compromised, but which is, instead, revealed through a series of fantastically improbable coincidences. Scot Harvath is pursued by two independent teams of assassins who may be the worst shots in the entire corpus of bestselling thrillers. And the Swiss authorities simply letting somebody go who smuggled a gun into Switzerland, sprayed gunfire around a Swiss city (damaging a historical landmark in the process), and then broke into a secret Swiss military base doesn't sound like the Switzerland with which I'm acquainted.

Still, this is well deserving of the designation “thriller”, and it will keep you turning the pages. It only improves from here, but I'd start with one of the more recent novels.

Posted at 22:11 Permalink

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ghost Leaves


Click image to enlarge.

Here's a curious phenomenon I observed in the Fourmilab driveway today: “ghost leaves” made of dried mud. Here's what happened: due to the excavations for the pipes for the village central wood heating plant, the driveway was covered in a uniform layer of dust. Autumn leaves fell on top of this dust, and then fog and light rain dampened them and cemented them to the top of the dust, which turned into mud.

Next, a serious downpour washed away most of the mud, except for that which was protected by the leaves. (You can see trails where some of the mud ran away to the left, which is downhill in this shot.) Finally, we had a few sunny, dry days, followed by a day of high wind, which allowed the leaves to dry and then blow away in the tempest. This left little islands of dried-out mud in the shape of the leaves which protected them from the rainstorm.

They'll all be gone after the next rain.

Posted at 20:41 Permalink

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reading List: Packing for Mars

Roach, Mary. Packing for Mars. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4.
At the dawn of the space age, nobody had any idea what effects travel into space might have on living beings, foremost among them the intrepid pilots of the first ships to explore the void. No organism from the ancestral cell of all terrestrial life up to the pointiest-headed professor speculating about its consequences had ever experienced more than an instant of weightlessness, and that usually ended badly with a sudden stop against an unyielding surface. (Fish and human divers are supported by their buoyancy in the water, but they are not weightless: the force of Earth's gravity continues to act upon their internal organs, and might prove to be essential for their correct functioning.) The eye, for example, freed of the pull of gravity, might change shape so that it couldn't focus; it might prove impossible to swallow; digestion of food in the stomach might not work without gravity to hold the contents together at the bottom; urination might fail without gravity working on the contents of the bladder, etc., etc.. The only way to be sure was to go and find out, and this delightful and witty book covers the quest to discover how to live in space, from the earliest animal experiments of the 1940s (most of which ended poorly for the animals, not due to travelling in space, but rather the reliability of the rockets and recovery systems to which they were entrusted) to present day long duration space station missions and research into the human factors of expeditions to Mars and the asteroids.

Travelling to space centres across the U.S., Russia, Europe, and Japan, the author delves into the physiological and psychological, not to mention the humourous and embarrassing aspects of venturing into the vacuum. She boards the vomit comet to experience weightlessness for herself, tries the television camera equipped “aiming practice toilet” on which space shuttle astronauts train before their missions, visits subjects in multi-month bed rest experiments studying loss of muscle and bone mass on simulated interplanetary missions, watches cadavers being used in crash tests of space capsules, tastes a wide variety of overwhelmingly ghastly space food (memo to astronaut corps worldwide: when they hire veterinarians to formulate your chow, don't expect gourmet grub on orbit), and, speaking of grubby, digs into experiments on the outer limits of lack of hygiene, including the odorifically heroic Gemini VII mission in which Frank Borman and James Lovell spent two weeks in a space smaller than the front seat of a Volkswagen Beetle with no way to bathe or open the window, nor bathroom facilities other than plastic bags. Some of the air to ground communications from that mission which weren't broadcast to the public at the time are reproduced here, and are both revealing and amusing in a grody kind of way.

We also meet the animals who preceded the first humans into space, and discover that their personalities were more diverse than those of the Right Stuff humans who followed. You may know of Ham (who was as gung-ho and outgoing as John Glenn) and Enos (who could be as cold and contemptuous as Alan Shepard, and as formidable hurling his feces at those within range as Nolan Ryan was with a baseball), but just imagine those who didn't fly, including Double Ugly, Miss Priss, and Big Mean.

There are a huge number of factoids here, all well-documented, that even the most obsessive space buff may not have come across. For example: why does motion sickness make you vomit? It makes sense to vomit if you've swallowed something truly noxious such as a glass of turpentine or a spoonful of lima beans, but it doesn't make any sense when your visual and vestibular systems are sending conflicting signals since emptying your stomach does nothing to solve the problem. Well, it turns out that functional brain imaging reveals that the “emetic brain” which handles the crucial time-sequencing of the vomit reflex just happens to be located next door in the meat computer to the area which integrates signals from the inner ear and visual system. When the latter is receiving crossed signals, it starts firing neurons wildly trying to make sense of it, and electro-chemical crosstalk gets into vomit central next door and it's a-hurling we will go. It turns out that, despite worries, most human organs work just fine in weightlessness, but some of them behave differently in ways to which space travellers must become accustomed. Consider the bladder—with gravity, the stretching of the wall of the bladder due to the weight of its contents is what triggers the urge to relieve oneself. But in weightlessness, the contents of the bladder, like other fluids, tend to cling to the walls due to surface tension, and the bladder fills up with no signal at all until it's completely full, at which point you have to go right now regardless of whatever you're doing or whether another crewmember is using the space toilet. Reusable manned spacecraft have a certain odour….

There may be nothing that better stimulates the human mind to think out of the box than pondering flight out of this world, and we come across a multitude of examples of innovative boffinology, both from the pages of history and contemporary research. There's the scientist, one of the world's preeminent authorities on chicken brains, who suggested fattening astronauts up to be 20 kilograms obese before launch, which would allow them to fly 90 day missions without the need to launch any food at all. Just imagine the morale among that crew! Not to be outdone, another genius proposed, given the rarity of laundromats in space, that astronauts' clothes be made of digestible fibres, so that they could eat their dirty laundry instead of packaged food. This seems to risk taking “Eat my shorts!” even beyond the tolerance threshold of Bart Simpson. Then consider the people who formulate simulated astronaut poop for testing space toilets, and those who study farts in space. Or, better yet, don't.

If you're remotely interested in space travel, you'll find this a thoroughly enjoyable book, and your only regret when closing it will be that it has come to an end. Speaking of which, if you don't read them as you traverse the main text, be sure to read the extensive end notes—there are additional goodies there for your delectation.

A paperback edition will be published in April 2011.

Posted at 22:17 Permalink

Friday, October 22, 2010

Reading List: The Purpose-Guided Universe

Haisch, Bernard. The Purpose-Guided Universe. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-60163-122-0.
The author, an astrophysicist who was an editor of the Astrophysical Journal for a decade, subtitles this book “Believing In Einstein, Darwin, and God”. He argues that the militant atheists who have recently argued that science is incompatible with belief in a Creator are mistaken and that, to the contrary, recent scientific results are not only compatible with, but evidence for, the intelligent design of the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe.

Central to his argument are the variety of “fine tunings” of the physical constants of nature. He lists ten of these in the book's summary, but these are chosen from a longer list. These are quantities, such as the relative masses of the neutron and proton, the ratio of the strength of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces, and the curvature of spacetime immediately after the Big Bang which, if they differed only slightly from their actual values, would have resulted in a universe in which the complexity required to evolve any imaginable form of life would not exist. But, self evidently, we're here, so we have a mystery to explain. There are really only three possibilities:

  1. The values of the fine-tuned parameters are those we measure because they can't be anything else. One day we'll discover a master equation which allows us to predict their values from first principles, and we'll discover that any change to that equation produces inconsistent results. The universe is fine tuned because that's the only way it could be.
  2. The various parameters were deliberately fine tuned by an intelligent, conscious designer bent on creating a universe in which sufficient complexity could evolve so as to populate it with autonomous, conscious beings. The universe is fine tuned by a creator because that's necessary to achieve the goal of its creation.
  3. The parameters are random, and vary from universe to universe among an ensemble in a “multiverse” encompassing a huge, and possibly infinite number of universes with no causal connection to one another. We necessarily find the parameters of the universe we inhabit to be fine tuned to permit ourselves to exist because if they weren't, we wouldn't be here to make the observations and puzzle over the results. The universe is fine tuned because it's just one of a multitude with different settings, and we can only observe one which happens to be tuned for us.

For most of the history of science, it was assumed that possibility (1)—inevitability by physical necessity—was what we'd ultimately discover once we'd teased out the fundamental laws at the deepest level of nature. Unfortunately, despite vast investment in physics, both experimental and theoretical, astronomy, and cosmology, which has matured in the last two decades from wooly speculation to a precision science, we have made essentially zero progress toward this goal. String theory, which many believed in the heady days of the mid-1980s to be the path to that set of equations you could wear on a T-shirt and which would crank out all the dial settings of our universe, now seems to indicate to some (but not all) of those pursuing it, that possibility (3): a vast “landscape” of universes, all unobservable even in principle, one of which with wildly improbable properties we find ourselves in because we couldn't exist in most of the others is the best explanation.

Maybe, the author argues, we should take another look at possibility (2). Orthodox secular scientists are aghast at the idea, arguing that to do so is to “abandon science” and reject rational inference from experimental results in favour of revelation based only on faith. Well, let's compare alternatives (2) and (3) in that respect. Number three asks us to believe in a vast or infinite number of universes, all existing in their own disconnected bubbles of spacetime and unable to communicate with one another, which cannot be detected by any imaginable experiment, without any evidence for the method by which they were created nor idea how it all got started. And all of this to explain the laws and initial conditions of the single universe we inhabit. How's that for taking things on faith?

The author's concept of God in this volume is not that of the personal God of the Abrahamic religions, but rather something akin to the universal God of some Eastern religions, as summed up in Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy. This God is a consciousness encompassing the entire universe which causes the creation of its contents, deliberately setting things up to maximise the creation of complexity, with the eventual goal of creating more and more consciousness through which the Creator can experience the universe. This is actually not unlike the scenario sketched in Scott Adams's God's Debris, which people might take with the seriousness it deserves had it been written by somebody other than the creator of Dilbert.

If you're a regular reader of this chronicle, you'll know that my own personal view is in almost 100% agreement with Dr. Haisch on the big picture, but entirely different on the nature of the Creator. I'll spare you the detailed exposition, as you can read it in my comments on Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here (February 2010). In short, I think it's more probable than not we're living in a simulation, perhaps created by a thirteen year old post-singularity superkid as a science fair project. Unlike an all-pervading but imperceptible Brahman or an infinitude of unobservable universes in an inaccessible multiverse, the simulation hypothesis makes predictions which render it falsifiable, and hence a scientific theory. Eventually, precision measurements will discover, then quantify, discrepancies due to round-off errors in the simulation (for example, an integration step which is too large), and—what do you know—we already have in hand a collection of nagging little discrepancies which look doggone suspicious to me.

This is not one of those mushy “science and religion can coexist” books. It is an exploration, by a serious scientist who has thought deeply about these matters, of why evidence derived entirely from science is pointing those with minds sufficiently open to entertain the idea, that the possibility of our universe having been deliberately created by a conscious intelligence who endowed it with the properties that permit it to produce its own expanding consciousness is no more absurd that the hypotheses favoured by those who reject that explanation, and is entirely compatible with recent experimental results, which are difficult in the extreme to explain in any other manner. Once the universe is created (or, as I'd put it, the simulation is started), there's no reason for the Creator to intervene: if all the dials and knobs are set correctly, the laws discovered by Einstein, Darwin, Maxwell, and others will take care of the rest. Hence there's no conflict between science and evidence-based belief in a God which is the first cause for all which has happened since.

Posted at 21:25 Permalink

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reading List: Uncorking the Past

McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-520-25379-7.
While a variety of animals are attracted to and consume the alcohol in naturally fermented fruit, only humans have figured out how to promote the process, producing wine from fruit and beer from cereal crops. And they've been doing it since at least the Neolithic period: the author discovered convincing evidence of a fermented beverage in residues on pottery found at the Jiahu site in China, inhabited between 7000 and 5800 B.C.

Indeed, almost every human culture which had access to fruits or grains which could be turned into an alcoholic beverage did so, and made the production and consumption of spirits an important part of their economic and spiritual life. (One puzzle is why the North American Indians, who lived among an abundance of fermentable crops never did—there are theories that tobacco and hallucinogenic mushrooms supplanted alcohol for shamanistic purposes, but basically nobody really knows.)

The author is a pioneer in the field of biomolecular archæology and head of the eponymous laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archæology and Anthropology; in this book takes us on a tour around the world and across the centuries exploring, largely through his own research and that of associates, the history of fermented beverages in a variety of cultures and what we can learn from this evidence about how they lived, were organised, and interacted with other societies. Only in recent decades has biochemical and genetic analysis progressed to the point that it is possible not only to determine from some gunk found at the bottom of an ancient pot not only that it was some kind of beer or wine, but from what species of fruit and grain it was produced, how it was prepared and fermented, and what additives it may have contained and whence they originated. Calling on experts in related disciplines such as palynology (the study of pollen and spores, not of the Alaskan politician), the author is able to reconstruct the economics of the bustling wine trade across the Mediterranean (already inferred from shipwrecks carrying large numbers of casks of wine) and the diffusion of the ancestral cultivated grape around the world, displacing indigenous grapes which were less productive for winemaking.

While the classical period around the Mediterranean is pretty much soaked in wine, and it'd be difficult to imagine the Vikings and other North Europeans without their beer and grogs, much less was known about alcoholic beverages in China, South America, and Africa. Once again, the author is on their trail, and not only reports upon his original research, but also attempts, in conjunction with micro-brewers and winemakers, to reconstruct the ancestral beverages of yore.

The biochemical anthropology of booze is not exactly a crowded field, and in this account written by one of its leaders, you get the sense of having met just about all of the people pursuing it. A great deal remains to be learnt—parts of the book read almost like a list of potential Ph.D. projects for those wishing to follow in the author's footsteps. But that's the charm of opening a new window into the past: just as DNA and other biochemical analyses revolutionised the understanding of human remains in archæology, the arsenal of modern analytical tools allows reconstructing humanity's almost universal companion through the ages, fermented beverages, and through them, uncork the way in which those cultures developed and interacted.

A paperback edition will be published in December 2010.

Posted at 20:41 Permalink

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reading List: The Ruling Class

Codevilla, Angelo. The Ruling Class. New York: Beaufort Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8253-0558-0.
This slim volume (just 160 pages) is a somewhat expanded version of the author's much discussed essay with the same title which appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of The American Spectator. One of the key aspects of “American exceptionalism” over most of the nation's history has been something it didn't have but which most European and Asian nations did: a ruling class distinct from the general citizenry. Whether the ruling class was defined by heredity (as in Britain), or by meritocratic selection (as in France since the Revolution and Germany after Bismarck), most countries had a class of rulers who associated mostly with themselves, and considered themselves to uniquely embody the expertise and wisdom to instruct the masses (a word of which they tended to be fond) in how to live their lives.

In the U.S., this was much less the case. Before the vast centralisation and growth of the federal government in the New Deal and afterward, the country was mostly run by about fifty thousand people who got involved in grass roots public service: school boards, county commissions, and local political party organisations, from whom candidates for higher office were chosen based upon merit, service, and demonstrated track record. People who have come up by such a path will tend to be pretty well anchored to the concerns of ordinary citizens because they are ordinary citizens who have volunteered their time to get involved in res publica.

But with the grand centralisation of governance in Imperial Washington over the last century, a new kind of person was attracted to what used to be, and is still called, with exquisite irony, “public service”. These are people who have graduated from a handful of élite universities and law schools, and with the exception of perhaps a brief stint at a large law firm dealing mainly with the government, spent their entire careers in the public sector and its cloud of symbiotic institutions: regulatory agencies, appointed offices, elected positions, lobbying firms, and “non-governmental organisations” which derive their entire income from the government. These individuals make up what I have been calling, after Milovan Đilas, the New Class, but which Codevilla designates the Ruling Class in the present work.

In the U.S., entry to the ruling class is not, as it is in France, a meritocracy based on competitive examinations and performance in demanding academic institutions. Instead, it is largely a matter of who you, or your family, knows, what university you attended, and how well you conform to the set of beliefs indoctrinated there. At the centre of this belief system is that a modern nation is far too complicated to be governed by citizen-legislators chosen by ignorant rubes who didn't attend Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or one of the other ruling class feeder belts, but rather must be guided by enlightened experts like, well, themselves, and that all the ills of society can be solved by giving the likes of, well, themselves, more power over the population. They justify this by their reliance on “science” (the details of which they are largely ignorant), and hence they fund a horde of “scientists” who produce “studies” which support the policies they advocate.

Codevilla estimates that about a third of the U.S. population are either members of the ruling class (a small fraction), or aligned with its policies, largely due to engineered dependency on government programs. This third finds its political vehicle in the Democratic party, which represents their interests well. What about the other two thirds, which he dubs the “Country Class” (which I think is a pretty lame term, but no better comes immediately to mind)? Well, they don't have a political party at all, really. The Republican party is largely made up of ruling class people (think son of a president George W. Bush, or son of an admiral John McCain), and quickly co-opts outsiders who make it to Washington into the Imperial ruling class mindset.

A situation where one third of the population is dictating its will to the rest, and taxing a minority to distribute the proceeds to its electoral majority, in which only about a fifth of the population believes the federal government has the consent of the governed, and two thirds of the population have no effective political vehicle to achieve their agenda is, as Jimmy Carter's pollster Pat Caddell put it, pre-revolutionary. Since the ruling class has put the country on an unsustainable course, it is axiomatic that it will not be sustained. How it will end, however, is very much up in the air. Perhaps the best outcome would be a take-over of the Republican party by those genuinely representative of the “country party”, but that will be extremely difficult without a multitude of people (encouraged by their rulers toward passivity and resignation to the status quo) jumping into the fray. If the Republicans win a resounding victory in the elections of November 2010 (largely due to voters holding their noses and saying “they can't be worse than the current bums in office”) and then revert to ruling class business as usual, it's almost certain there will be a serious third party in play in 2012, not just at the presidential level (as the author notes, for a while in 1992, Ross Perot out-polled both the first Bush and Clinton before people concluded he was a flake with funny ears), but also in congressional races. If the Republicans are largely running in 2010 on a platform of, “Hey, at least we aren't the Democrats!”, then the cry in 2012 may be “We aren't either of those foul, discredited parties.”

As fiscally responsible people, let's talk about value for money. This book just doesn't cut it. You can read the original essay for free online. Although the arguments and examples therein are somewhat fleshed out in this edition, there's no essential you'll miss in reading the magazine essay instead of this book. Further, the 160 page book is padded—I can summon no kinder word—by inclusion of the full text of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Now, these are certainly important documents, but it's not like they aren't readily available online, nor that those inclined to read the present volume are unfamiliar with them. I think their presence is mostly due to the fact that were they elided, the book would be a mere hundred pages and deemed a pamphlet at best.

This is an enlightening and important argument, and I think spot-on in diagnosing the central problem which is transforming the U.S. from an engine of innovation and productivity into a class warfare redistributive nanny state. But save your money and read the magazine article, not the book.

Posted at 21:29 Permalink

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading List: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Touchstone Books, [1959, 1960] 1990. ISBN 978-0-671-72868-7.
According to an apocryphal story, a struggling author asks his agent why his books aren't selling better, despite getting good reviews. The agent replies, “Look, the only books guaranteed to sell well are books about golf, books about cats, and books about Nazis.” Some authors have taken this too much to heart. When this massive cinder block of a book (1250 pages in the trade paperback edition) was published in 1960, its publisher did not believe a book about Nazis (or at least such a long one) would find a wide audience, and ordered an initial print run of just 12,500 copies. Well, it immediately went on to sell more than a million copies in hardback, and then another million in paperback (it was, at the time, the thickest paperback ever published). It has remained in print continuously for more than half a century, has been translated into a number of languages, and at this writing is in the top ten thousand books by sales rank on Amazon.com.

The author did not just do extensive research on Nazi Germany, he lived there from 1934 through 1940, working as a foreign correspondent based in Berlin and Vienna. He interviewed many of the principals of the Nazi regime and attended Nazi rallies and Hitler's Reichstag speeches. He was the only non-Nazi reporter present at the signing of the armistice between France and Germany in June 1940, and broke the news on CBS radio six hours before it was announced in Germany. Living in Germany, he was able to observe the relationship between ordinary Germans and the regime, but with access to news from the outside which was denied to the general populace by the rigid Nazi control of information. He left Germany in December 1940 when increasingly rigid censorship made it almost impossible to get accurate reporting out of Germany, and he feared the Gestapo were preparing an espionage case against him.

Shirer remarks in the foreword to the book that never before, and possibly never again, will historians have access to the kind of detailed information on the day-to-day decision making and intrigues of a totalitarian state that we have for Nazi Germany. Germans are, of course, famously meticulous record-keepers, and the rapid collapse and complete capitulation of the regime meant that those voluminous archives fell into the hands of the Allies almost intact. That, and the survival of diaries by a number of key figures in the senior leadership of Germany and Italy, provides a window into what those regimes were thinking as they drew plans which would lead to calamity for Europe and their ultimate downfall. The book is extensively footnoted with citations of primary sources, and footnotes expand upon items in the main text.

This book is precisely what its subtitle, “A History of Nazi Germany”, identifies it to be. It is not, and does not purport to be, an analysis of the philosophical origins of Nazism, investigation of Hitler's personality, or a history of Germany's participation in World War II. The war years occupy about half of the book, but the focus is not on the actual conduct of the war but rather the decisions which ultimately determined its outcome, and the way (often bizarre) those decisions were made. I first read this book in 1970. Rereading it four decades later, I got a great deal more out of it than I did the first time, largely because in the intervening years I'd read many other books about the period which cover aspects of the period which Shirer's pure Germany-focused reportage does not explore in detail.

The book has stood up well to the passage of time. The only striking lacuna is that when the book was written the fact that Britain had broken the German naval Enigma cryptosystem, and was thus able to read traffic between the German admiralty and the U-boats, had not yet been declassified by the British. Shirer's coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic (which is cursory), thus attributes the success in countering the U-boat threat to radar, antisubmarine air patrols, and convoys, which were certainly important, but far from the whole story.

Shirer is clearly a man of the Left (he manages to work in a snarky comment about the Coolidge administration in a book about Nazi Germany), although no fan of Stalin, who he rightly identifies as a monster. But I find that the author tangles himself up intellectually in trying to identify Hitler and Mussolini as “right wing”. Again and again he describes the leftist intellectual and political background of key figures in the Nazi and Fascist movements, and then tries to persuade us they somehow became “right wing” because they changed the colour of their shirts, even though the official platform and policies of the Nazi and Fascist regimes differed only in the details from those of Stalin, and even Stalin believed, by his own testimony, that he could work with Nazi Germany to the mutual benefit of both countries. It's worth revisiting Liberal Fascism (January 2008) for a deeper look at how collectivism, whatever the colour of the shirts or the emblem on the flags, stems from the same intellectual roots and proceeds to the same disastrous end point.

But these are quibbles about a monument of twentieth century reportage which has the authenticity of having been written by an eyewitness to many of the events described therein, the scholarship of extensive citations and quotations of original sources, and accessibility to the general reader. It is a classic which has withstood the test of time, and if I'm still around forty years hence, I'm sure I'll enjoy reading it a third time.

Posted at 22:20 Permalink

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reading List: I Am Charlotte Simmons

[Audiobook] Wolfe, Tom. I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Audiobook, Unabridged). New York: Macmillan Audio, 2004. ISBN 978-0-312-42444-2.
Thomas Sowell has written, “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late”. Tom Wolfe's extensively researched and pitch-perfect account of undergraduate life at an élite U.S. college in the first decade of the twenty-first century is a testament to what happens when the barbarians sneak into the gates of the cloistered cities of academe, gain tenure, and then turn the next generation of “little barbarians” loose into a state of nature, to do what their hormones and whims tell them to.

Our viewpoint into this alien world (which the children and grandchildren of those likely to be reading this chronicle inhabit, if they're lucky [?] enough to go to one of those élite institutions which groom them for entry into the New [or, as it is coming to be called, Ruling] Class at the cost of between a tenth and a quarter of a million dollars, often front-end loaded as debt onto the lucky students just emerging into those years otherwise best spent in accumulating capital to buy a house, start a family, and make the key early year investments in retirement and inheritance for their progeny) is Charlotte Simmons of Sparta, North Carolina, a Presidential Scholar from the hill country who, by sheer academic excellence, has won a full scholarship to Dupont University, known not only for its academic prestige, but also its formidable basketball team.

Before arriving at Dupont, Charlotte knew precisely who she was, what she wanted, and where she was going. Within days after arriving, she found herself in a bizarre mirror universe where everything she valued (and which the university purported to embody) was mocked by the behaviour of the students, professors, and administrators. Her discoveries are our discoveries of this alien culture which is producing those who will decide our fate in our old age. Worry!

Nobody remotely competes with Tom Wolfe when it comes to imbibing an alien culture, mastering its jargon and patois, and fleshing out the characters who inhabit it. Wolfe's talents are in full ascendance here, and this is a masterpiece of contemporary pedagogic anthropathology. We are doomed!

The audio programme is distributed in four files, running 31 hours and 16 minutes and includes a brief interview with the author at the end. An Audio CD edition is available, as is a paperback print edition.

Posted at 00:17 Permalink

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reading List: Damned to Heaven

Mahoney, Bob. Damned to Heaven. Austin, TX: 1st World Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0-9718562-8-8.
This may be the geekiest space thriller ever written. The author has worked as a spaceflight instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for more than a decade, training astronauts and flight controllers in the details of orbital operations. He was Lead Instructor for the first Shuttle-Mir mission. He knows his stuff, and this book, which bristles with as many acronyms and NASA jargon as a Shuttle flight plan, gets the details right and only takes liberty with the facts where necessary to advance the plot. Indeed, it seems the author is on an “expanded mission” of his NASA career as an instructor to ensure that not only those he's paid to teach, but all readers of the novel know their stuff as well—he even distinguishes acronyms pronounced letter-by-letter (such as E.V.A.) and those spoken as words (like OMS), and provides pronunciation guides for the latter.

For a first time novelist, the author writes quite well, and there are only a few typographical and factual errors. Since the dialogue is largely air to ground transmissions or proceedings of NASA mission management meetings, it comes across as stilted, but is entirely authentic—that's how they talk. Character description is rudimentary, and character development as the story progresses almost nonexistent, but then most of the characters are career civil servants who have made it to the higher echelons of an intensely politically correct and meritocratic bureaucracy where mavericks or those even remotely interesting are ground down or else cut off and jettisoned. Again, not the usual dramatis personæ of a thriller, but pretty accurate.

So what about the story? A space shuttle bound for the International Space Station suffers damage to its thermal protection system which makes it impossible to reenter safely, and the crew takes refuge on the still incomplete Station, stretching its life support resources to the limit. A series of mishaps, which may seem implausible all taken together, but every one of which has actually occurred in U.S. and Soviet space operations over the last two decades, eliminates all of the rescue alternatives but one last, desperate Hail Mary option, which a flight director embraces, not out of boldness, but because there is no other way to save the crew. Trying to thwart the rescue is a malevolent force high in the NASA management hierarchy, bent on destroying the existing human spaceflight program in order that a better replacement may be born. (The latter might have seemed preposterous when the novel was published in 2003, but looking just at the results of NASA senior management decisions in the ensuing years, it's hard to distinguish the outcomes from those of having deliberate wreckers at the helm.)

The author had just about finished the novel when the Columbia accident occurred in February 2003. Had Columbia been on a mission to the Space Station, and had the damage to its thermal protection system been detected (which is probable, as it would have been visible as the shuttle approached the station), then the scenario here, or at least the first part, would have likely occurred. The author made a few changes to the novel post-Columbia; they are detailed in notes at the end.

As a thriller, this worked for me—I read the whole thing in three days and enjoyed the author's painting his characters into corner after corner and then letting them struggle to avert disaster due to the laws of nature, ambitious bureaucratic adversaries, and cluelessness and incompetence, in ascending order of peril to mission success and crew survival. I suspect many readers will consider this a bit much; recall that I used the word “geekiest” in the first sentence of these remarks. But unlike another thriller by a NASA engineer, I was never once tempted to hurl this one into the flame trench immediately before ignition.

If the events in this book had actually happened, and an official NASA historian had written an account of them some years later, it would probably read much like this book. That is quite an achievement, and the author has accomplished that rare feat of crafting a page-turner (at least for readers who consider “geeky” a compliment) which also gets the details right and crafts scenarios which are both surprising and plausible. My quibbles with the plot are not with the technical details but rather scepticism that the NASA of today could act as quickly as in the novel, even when faced with an existential threat to its human spaceflight program.

Posted at 21:01 Permalink

Friday, October 8, 2010

Reading List: Pursuit of Honor

Flynn, Vince. Pursuit of Honor. New York: Pocket Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-9517-5.
This is the tenth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) saga, and the conclusion of the story which began in the previous volume, Extreme Measures (July 2010). In that book, a group of terrorists staged an attack in Washington D.C., with the ringleaders managing to disappear in the aftermath. In the present novel, it's time for payback, and Mitch Rapp and his team goes on the trail not only of the terrorists but also their enablers within the U.S. government.

The author says that you should be able to pick up and enjoy any of his novels without any previous context, but in my estimation you'll miss a great deal if you begin here without having read Extreme Measures. While an attempt is made (rather clumsily, it seemed to me) to brief the reader in on the events of the previous novel, those who start here will miss much of the character development of the terrorists Karim and Hakim, and the tension between Mitch Rapp and Mike Nash, whose curious parallels underlie the plot.

This is more a story of character development and conflict between personalities and visions than action, although it's far from devoid of the latter. There is some edgy political content in which I believe the author shows his contempt for certain factions and figures on the Washington scene, including “Senator ma'am”. The conclusion is satisfying although deliberately ambiguous in some regards. I appear to have been wrong in my review of Extreme Measures about where the author was taking Mike Nash, but then you never know.

This book may, in terms of the timeline, be the end of the Mitch Rapp series. Vince Flynn's forthcoming novel, American Assassin, is a “prequel”, chronicling Rapp's recruitment into the CIA, training, and deployment on his first missions. Still, it's difficult in the extreme to cork a loose cannon, so I suspect in the coming years we'll see further exploits by Mitch Rapp on the contemporary scene.

Posted at 22:49 Permalink

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Reading List: Dismantling America

Sowell, Thomas. Dismantling America. New York: Basic Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-465-02251-9.
Thomas Sowell has been, over his career, an optimist about individual liberty and economic freedom in the United States and around the world. Having been born in the segregated South, raised by a single mother in Harlem in the 1940s, he said that the progress he had observed in his own lifetime, rising from a high school dropout to the top of his profession, convinced him that America ultimately gets it right, and that opportunity for those who wish to advance through their own merit and hard work is perennial. In recent years, however, particularly since the rise and election of Barack Obama, his outlook has darkened considerably, almost approaching that of John Derbyshire. Do you think I exaggerate? Consider this passage from the preface:

No one issue and no one administration in Washington has been enough to create a perfect storm for a great nation that has weathered many storms in its more than two centuries of existence. But the Roman Empire lasted many times longer, and weathered many storms in its turbulent times—and yet it ultimately collapsed completely.

It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Europe rose again to the level it had achieved in Roman times. The collapse of civilization is not just the replacement of rulers or institutions with new rulers and new institutions. It is the destruction of a whole way of life and the painful, and sometimes pathetic, attempts to begin rebuilding amid the ruins.

Is that where America is headed? I believe it is. Our only saving grace is that we are not there yet—and that nothing is inevitable until it happens.

Strong stuff! The present volume is a collection of the author's syndicated columns dating from before the U.S. election of 2008 into the first two years of the Obama administration. In them he traces how the degeneration and systematic dismantling of the underpinnings of American society which began in the 1960s culminated in the election of Obama, opening the doors to power to radicals hostile to what the U.S. has stood for since its founding and bent on its “fundamental transformation” into something very different. Unless checked by the elections of 2010 and 2012, Sowell fears the U.S. will pass a “point of no return” where a majority of the electorate will be dependent upon government largesse funded by a minority who pay taxes. I agree: I deemed it the tipping point almost two years ago.

A common theme in Sowell's writings of the last two decades has been how public intellectuals and leftists (but I repeat myself) attach an almost talismanic power to words and assume that good intentions, expressed in phrases that make those speaking them feel good about themselves, must automatically result in the intended outcomes. Hence the belief that a “stimulus bill” will stimulate the economy, a “jobs bill” will create jobs, that “gun control” will control the use of firearms by criminals, or that a rise in the minimum wage will increase the income of entry-level workers rather than price them out of the market and send their jobs to other countries. Many of the essays here illustrate how “progressives” believe, with the conviction of cargo cultists, that their policies will turn the U.S. from a social Darwinist cowboy capitalist society to a nurturing nanny state like Sweden or the Netherlands. Now, notwithstanding that the prospects of those two countries and many other European welfare states due to demographic collapse and Islamisation are dire indeed, the present “transformation” in the U.S. is more likely, in my opinion, to render it more like Perón's Argentina than France or Germany.

Another part of the “perfect storm” envisioned by Sowell is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the imperative that will create for other states in the region to go nuclear, and the consequent possibility that terrorist groups will gain access to these weapons. He observes that Japan in 1945 was a much tougher nation than the U.S. today, yet only two nuclear bombs caused them to capitulate in a matter of days. How many cities would the U.S. have to lose? My guess is at least two but no more than five. People talk about there being no prospect of a battleship Missouri surrender in the War on Terror (or whatever they're calling it this week), but the prospect of a U.S. surrender on the carrier Khomeini in the Potomac is not as far fetched as you might think.

Sowell dashes off epigrams like others write grocery lists. Here are a few I noted:

  • One of the painful consequences of studying history is that it makes you realize how long people have been doing the same foolish things with the same disastrous results.
  • There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.
  • Do not expect sound judgments in a society where being “non-judgmental” is an exalted value. As someone has said, if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.
  • Progress in general seems to hold little interest for people who call themselves “progressives”. What arouses them are denunciations of social failures and accusations of wrong-doing.
      One wonders what they would do in heaven.
  • In a high-tech age that has seen the creation of artificial intelligence by computers, we are also seeing the creation of artificial stupidity by people who call themselves educators.
  • Most people on the left are not opposed to freedom. They are just in favor of all sorts of things that are incompatible with freedom.
  • Will those who are dismantling this society from within or those who seek to destroy us from without be the first to achieve their goal? It is too close to call.

As a collection of columns, you can read this book in any order you like (there are a few “arcs” of columns, but most are standalone), and pick it up and put it down whenever you like without missing anything. There is some duplication among the columns, but they never become tedious. Being newspaper columns, there are no source citations or notes, and there is no index. What are present in abundance are Sowell's acute observations of the contemporary scene, historical perspective, rigorous logic, economic common sense, and crystal clear exposition. I had read probably 80% of these columns when they originally appeared, but gleaned many new insights revisiting them in this collection.

The author discusses the book, topics raised in it, and the present scene in an extended video interview, for which a transcript exists. A shorter podcast interview with the author is also available.

Posted at 21:30 Permalink