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Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I no longer travel to the United States, so in a sense I have no stake in the current controversy over the intrusive and abusive genital groping pat-downs to which airline passengers in that country are being subjected by their so-called “Transportation Security Administration” (TSA). The last time I visited the U.S., in 2006, I was selected for “enhanced screening” when boarding every single flight, but at the time this involved only a top to bottom toss of my carry-on luggage, not a crotch grab. But that was enough for me to say, “Never again.”

That said, I have been dismayed to read a torrent of commentary by otherwise reasonable people arguing that beleaguered travellers should not take out their frustration upon the TSA employees chuckling at their naked bodies imaged by X-ray backscatter scanners or getting up close and personal inside their underwear. To my mind, there is no moral distinction whatsoever between the TSA agents groping airline passengers and guards at concentration camps interning political prisoners and other “enemies of the state” held without due process. Both are violating the civil rights of their victims, treating people who have never been accused, no less duly convicted of a crime as criminals, and committing overt acts which, if committed by a citizen upon them, would be deemed assault and battery and/or sexual molestation. Their only defence is that “they are only following orders” handed down to them by higher authority. Well, how has that argument worked out for those who've invoked it in war crimes tribunals in the last six decades or so?

These TSA goons are collaborators with an authoritarian regime which is violating the civil rights of citizens under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and committing crimes of assault, battery, and molestation under the shield of the power of the state. If they weren't doing so, they wouldn't forbid citizens from documenting their acts photographically or in video, nor would they pursue and intimidate videographers who capture evidence of their criminal behaviour.

Tyranny is enabled only by means of collaborators, most of whom are doubtless motivated only by the desire for a job and paycheck, but nonetheless are legally and morally culpable for all of the crimes they commit, regardless of the illegal and immoral orders they are carrying out. Tyranny cannot be opposed by citizens who react to it by “being reasonable”, or who behave like ovine subjects when abused by its minions. When you encounter the uniformed goon with the soiled rubber gloves who tells you it's a felony to photograph his or her badge number, the proper way to look at them is as a collaborator, or concentration camp guard. They are not the first cause of the abuses and crimes ordered by their employer, but they are the willing instruments by which those orders are executed. They are worthy of no moral sanction or sympathy; if they wish such, let them resign and seek gainful employment which does not involve violating the rights of citizens whose taxes pay their salaries.

Now, I'm not recommending that everybody take an in-your-face attitude to the airport goon squad. That depends upon your own appetite for confrontation and willingness to endure the consequences thereof, which may be severe. But as I see it, anybody who's so inclined and willing to shoulder the risk of responding to this assault upon the dignity of the individual by subjecting the minions who inflict it upon the population to the mockery, humiliation, and shame which their actions merit is on the side of the angels. If I had to travel there, and had the free time before the flight to endure some time in the Little Green Room, I think I'd be inclined to take the opportunity to exploit “security theatre” as an opporunity for guerrilla theatre.

History has not been kind to collaborators, nor have those they abused once the illegitimate regime they enabled falls from power. Yes, I'm talking about you, “Laurie”, at MQT. Your protectors are ephemeral; your victims will never, ever, forget.

Posted at 22:40 Permalink

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reading List: The Five-Year Party

Brandon, Craig. The Five-Year Party. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-935251-80-4.
I suspect that many readers of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons (October 2010) whose own bright college days are three or four decades behind them will conclude that Wolfe embroidered quite a bit upon the contemporary campus scene in the interest of telling an entertaining tale. In this book, based upon the author's twelve years of experience teaching journalism at Keene State College in New Hampshire and extensive research, you'll get a factual look at what goes on at “party schools”, which have de-emphasised education in favour of “retention”—in other words, extracting the maximum amount of money from students and their families, and burdening them with crushing loans which make it impossible for graduates to accumulate capital in those early years which, due to compounding, are so crucial. In fact, Charlotte Simmons actually paints a better picture of college life than that which awaits most freshmen arriving on campus: Charlotte's fictional Dupont University was an élite school, with at least one Nobel Prize winner on the faculty, and although corrupted by its high-profile athletic program, enforced genuine academic standards for the non-athlete student body and had real consequences for failure to perform.

Not so at party schools. First of all, let's examine what these “party schools” are. What they're not is the kind of small, private, liberal arts college parodied in Animal House. Instead, the lists of top party schools compiled annually by Playboy and the Princeton Review are overwhelmingly dominated by huge, taxpayer-supported, state universities. In the most recent set of lists, out of a total of twenty top party schools, only two were private institutions. Because of their massive size, state party schools account for a large fraction of the entire U.S. college enrollment, and hence are representative of college life for most students who do not enter the small number of élite schools which are feeders for the ruling class.

As with most “public services” operated by governments, things at these state institutions of “higher education” are not what they appear to be on the surface, and certainly not what parents expect when they send their son or daughter off on what they have been led to believe is the first step toward a promising career. The first lie is in the very concept of a “four-year college”: with today's absurd relaxation of standards for dropping classes, lighter class loads, and “retention” taking priority over selecting out those unsuited to instruction at the college level, only a minority of students finish in four years, and around half take more than five years to graduate, with only about 54% graduating even in six years. Apart from the wasted years of these students' lives, this means the price tag, and corresponding debt burden of a college education is 25%, 50%, or even more above the advertised sticker price, with the additional revenue going into the college's coffers and providing no incentive whatsoever to move students through the system more rapidly.

But the greatest scandal and fraud is not the binge drinking, widespread drug use, casual sex, high rates of serious crime covered up by a campus disciplinary system more interested in preserving the reputation of the institution than weeding out predators among the student body, although all of these are discussed in depth here, but rather the fact that at these gold-plated diploma mill feedlots, education has been de-emphasised to the extent of being entirely optional. Indeed, only about one fifth of university budgets goes to instruction; all the rest disappears into the fat salaries of endlessly proliferating legions of administrators, country club like student amenities, and ambitious building programs. Classes have been dumbed down to the extent that it is possible to navigate a “slacker track” to a bachelor's degree without ever taking a single course more intellectually demanding than what was once considered junior high level, or without being able to read, comprehend, and write the English language with high school proficiency. Grade inflation has resulted in more than 90% of all grades being either A or B, with a B expected by students as their reward simply for showing up, with the consequence that grade reports to parents and transcripts for prospective employers have become meaningless and impossible to evaluate.

The National Survey of Student Engagement finds that only about 10% of U.S. university students are “fully engaged”—actually behaving as college students were once expected to in order to make the most of the educational resources available to them. Twice that percent were “fully disengaged”: just there to party or passing time, while the remainder weren't full time slackers but not really interested in learning things.

Now these are very interesting numbers, and they lead me to a conclusion which the author never explores. Prior to the 1960s, it was assumed that only a minority of highest-ranking secondary school students would go on to college. With the mean IQ of bachelor's degree holders ranging from 110 to 120, this means that they necessarily make up around the top 10 to 15 percent of the population by intelligence. But now, the idea seems to be that everybody should get a “college education”, and indeed today in the U.S. around 70% of high school graduates go on to some kind of college program (although a far smaller fraction ever graduate). Now clearly, a college education which was once suited to the most intelligent 10% of the population is simply not going to work for the fat middle of the bell curve, which characterises the present-day college population. Looked at this way, the party school seems to be an inevitable consequence. If society has deemed it valuable that all shall receive a “college education”, then it is necessary to redefine “college education” as something the average citizen can accomplish and receive the requisite credential. Hence the elimination, or optional status, of actual learning, evaluation of performance, and useful grades. With universities forced to compete on their attractiveness to “the customer”—the students—they concentrate on amenities and lax enforcement of codes of conduct in order to keep those tuition dollars coming in for four, five, six, or however many years it takes.

A number of observers have wondered whether the next bubble to pop will be higher education. Certainly, the parallels are obvious: an overbuilt industry, funded by unsustainable debt, delivering a shoddy product, at a cost which has been growing much faster than inflation or the incomes of those who foot the bills. This look inside the ugly mass education business only reinforces that impression, since another consequence of a bubble is the normalisation and acceptance of absurdity by those inside it. Certainly one indication the bubble may be about to pop is that employers have twigged to the fact that a college diploma and glowing transcript from one of these rackets the author calls “subprime colleges” is no evidence whatsoever of a job applicant's literacy, knowledge, or work ethic, which explains why so many alumni of these programs are living in their parents' basements today, getting along by waiting tables or delivering pizza, while they wait for that lucky break they believe they're entitled to. This population is only likely to increase as employers in need of knowledge workers discover they can outsource those functions to Asia, where university degrees are much more rare but actually mean something.

Elite universities, of course, continue to provide excellent educational opportunities for the small number of students who make it through the rigorous selection process to get there. It's also possible for a dedicated and fully engaged student to get a pretty good education at a party school, as long as they manage to avoid the distractions, select challenging courses and dedicated professors, and don't have the bad fortune to suffer assault, rape, arson, or murder by the inebriated animals that outnumber them ten to one. But then it's up to them, after graduating, to convince employers that their degree isn't just a fancy credential, but rather something they've genuinely worked for.

Allan Bloom observed that “every age is blind to its own worst madness”, an eternal truth to which anybody who has been inside a bubble becomes painfully aware, usually after it unexpectedly pops. For those outside the U.S. education scene, this book provides a look into a bizarre mirror universe which is the daily reality for many undergraduates today. Parents planning to send their progeny off to college need to know this information, and take to heart the author's recommendations of how to look under the glossy surface and discover the reality of the institution to which their son or daughter's future will be entrusted.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are linked in the text, but the index contains just a list of terms with no links to where they appear and is consequently completely useless.

Posted at 22:03 Permalink

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reading List: Fires of Freedom

Pournelle, Jerry. Fires of Freedom. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, [1976, 1980] 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3374-3.
This book includes two classic Jerry Pournelle novels which have been long out of print. Baen Publishing is doing journeyman work bringing the back lists of science fiction masters such as Pournelle, Robert Heinlein, and Poul Anderson back to the bookshelves, and this is a much welcome addition to the list. The two novels collected here are unrelated to one another. The first, Birth of Fire, originally published in 1976, follows a gang member who accepts voluntary exile to Mars to avoid a prison sentence on Earth. Arriving on Mars, he discovers a raw frontier society dominated by large Earth corporations who exploit the largely convict labour force. Nobody has to work, but if you don't work, you don't get paid and can't recharge the air medal everybody wears around their neck. If it turns red, or you're caught in public not wearing one, good tax-paying citizens will put the freeloader “outside”—without a pressure suit.

Former gangster Garrett Pittston finds that Mars suits him just fine, and, avoiding the temptations of the big companies, signs on as a farmhand with a crusty Marsman who goes by the name of Sarge. At Windhome, Sarge's station, Garrett learns how the Marsmen claw an independent existence from the barren soil of Mars, and also how the unyielding environment has shaped their culture, in which one's word is a life or death bond. Inevitably, this culture comes into conflict with the nanny state of the colonial administration, which seeks to bring the liberty-loving Marsmen under its authority by taxing and regulating them out of existence.

Garrett finds himself in the middle of an outright war of independence, in which the Marsmen use their intimate knowledge of the planet as an ally against what, on the face of it, would appear to be overwhelming superiority of their adversaries. Garrett leads a bold mission to obtain the game-changing resource which will allow Mars to deter reprisals from Earth, and in doing so becomes a Marsman in every way.

Pournelle paints this story with spare, bold brush strokes: all non-essentials are elided, and the characters develop and events transpire with little or no filler. If Kim Stanley Robinson had told this story, it would probably have occupied two thousand pages and have readers dying of boredom or old age before anything actually happened. This book delivers an action story set in a believable environment and a society which has been shaped by it. Having been originally published in the year of the Viking landings on Mars, there are a few things it gets wrong, but there are a great many others which are spot-on, and in some cases prophetic.

The second novel in the book, King David's Spaceship, is set in the CoDominium universe in which the classic novel The Mote in God's Eye takes place. The story occurs contemporarily with The Mote, during the Second Empire of Man, when imperial forces from the planet Sparta are re-establishing contact with worlds of the original Empire of Man who have been cut off from one another, with many reverting to primitive levels of technology and civilisation in the aftermath of the catastrophic Secession Wars.

When Imperial forces arrive on Prince Samual's World, its civilisation had recovered from disastrous post-collapse warfare and plague to around the technological level of 19th century Earth. King David of the Kingdom of Haven, who hopes to unify the planet under his rule, forms an alliance with the Empire and begins to topple rivals and petty kingdoms while pacifying the less civilised South Continent. King David's chief of secret police learns, from an Imperial novel that falls into his hands, that the Empire admits worlds on different bases depending upon their political and technological evolution. Worlds which have achieved planetary government and an indigenous space travel capability are admitted as “classified worlds”, which retain a substantial degree of autonomy and are represented in one house of the Imperial government. Worlds which have not achieved these benchmarks are classed as colonies, with their local governmental institutions abolished and replaced by rule by an aristocracy of colonists imported from other, more developed planets.

David realises that, with planetary unification rapidly approaching, his days are numbered unless somehow he can demonstrate some kind of space flight capability. But the Empire enforces a rigid technology embargo against less developed worlds, putatively to allow for their “orderly development”, but at least as much to maintain the Navy's power and enrich the traders, who are a major force in the Imperial capital. Nathan McKinnie, formerly a colonel in the service of Orleans, a state whose independence was snuffed out by Haven with the help of the Navy, is recruited by the ruthless secret policeman Malcolm Dougal to lead what is supposed to be a trading expedition to the world of Makassar, whose own civilisation is arrested in a state like medieval Europe, but which is home to a “temple” said to contain a library of documents describing First Empire technology which the locals do not know how to interpret. McKinnie's mission is to gain access to the documents, discover how to build a spaceship with the resources available on Haven, and spirit this information back to his home world under the eyes of the Navy and Imperial customs officials.

Arriving on Makassar, McKinnie finds that things are even more hopeless than he imagined. The temple is in a city remote from where he landed, reachable only by crossing a continent beset with barbarian hordes, or a sea passage through a pirate fleet which has essentially shut down seafaring on the planet. Using no advanced technology apart from the knowledge in his head, he outfits a ship and recruits and trains a crew to force the passage through the pirates. When he arrives at Batav, the site of the temple, he finds it besieged by Islamic barbarians (some things never change!), who are slowly eroding the temple's defenders by sheer force of numbers.

Again, McKinnie needs no new technology, but simply knowledge of the Western way of war—in this case recruiting from the disdained dregs of society and training a heavy infantry force, which he deploys along with a newly disciplined heavy cavalry in tactical doctrine with which Cæsar would have been familiar. Having saved the temple, he forms an alliance with representatives of the Imperial Church which grants him access to the holy relics, a set of memory cubes containing the collected knowledge of the First Empire.

Back on Prince Samual's World, a Los Alamos style research establishment quickly discovers that they lack the technology to read the copies of the memory cubes they've brought back, and that the technology of even the simplest Imperial landing craft is hopelessly out of reach of their knowledge and manufacturing capabilities. So, they adopt a desperate fall back plan, and take a huge gamble to decide the fate of their world.

This is superb science fiction which combines an interesting premise, the interaction of societies at very different levels of technology and political institutions, classical warfare at sea and on land, and the difficult and often ruthless decisions which must be made when everything is at stake (you will probably remember the case of the Temple swordsmen long after you close this book). It is wonderful that these excellent yarns are back in print after far too long an absence.

Posted at 21:54 Permalink

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reading List: Blacklisted by History

Evans, M. Stanton. Blacklisted by History. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4000-8106-6.
In this book, the author, one of the lions of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, undertakes one of the most daunting tasks a historian can attempt: a dispassionate re-examination of one of the most reviled figures in modern American history, Senator Joseph McCarthy. So universal is the disdain for McCarthy by figures across the political spectrum, and so uniform is his presentation as an ogre in historical accounts, the media, and popular culture, that he has grown into a kind of legend used to scare people and intimidate those who shudder at being accused of “McCarthyism”. If you ask people about McCarthy, you'll often hear that he used the House Un-American Activities Committee to conduct witch hunts, smearing the reputations of innocent people with accusations of communism, that he destroyed the careers of people in Hollywood and caused the notorious blacklist of screen writers, and so on. None of this is so: McCarthy was in the Senate, and hence had nothing to do with activities of the House committee, which was entirely responsible for the investigation of Hollywood, in which McCarthy played no part whatsoever. The focus of his committee, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee of the U.S. Senate was on security policy and enforcement within first the State Department and later, the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army. McCarthy's hearings were not focussed on smoking out covert communists in the government, but rather investigating why communists and other security risks who had already been identified by investigations by the FBI and their employers' own internal security apparatus remained on the payroll, in sensitive policy-making positions, for years after evidence of their dubious connections and activities were brought to the attention of their employers and in direct contravention of the published security policies of both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Any book about McCarthy published in the present environment must first start out by cutting through a great deal of misinformation and propaganda which is just simply false on the face of it, but which is accepted as conventional wisdom by a great many people. The author starts by telling the actual story of McCarthy, which is little known and pretty interesting. McCarthy was born on a Wisconsin farm in 1908 and dropped out of junior high school at the age of 14 to help his parents with the farm. At age 20, he entered a high school and managed to complete the full four year curriculum in nine months, earning his diploma. Between 1930 and 1935 he worked his way through college and law school, receiving his law degree and being admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1935. In 1939 he ran for an elective post of circuit judge and defeated a well-known incumbent, becoming, at age 30, the youngest judge in the state of Wisconsin. In 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II following Pearl Harbor, McCarthy, although exempt from the draft due to his position as a sitting judge, resigned from the bench and enlisted in the Marine Corps, being commissioned as a second lieutenant (based upon his education) upon completion of boot camp. He served in the South Pacific as an intelligence officer with a dive bomber squadron, and flew a dozen missions as a tailgunner/photographer, earning the sobriquet “Tail-Gunner Joe”.

While still in the Marine Corps, McCarthy sought the Wisconsin Republican Senate nomination in 1944 and lost, but then in 1946 mounted a primary challenge to three-term incumbent senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., scion of Winconsin's first family of Republican politics, narrowly defeating him in the primary, and then won the general election in a landslide, with more than 61% of the vote. Arriving in Washington, McCarthy was perceived to be a rather undistinguished moderate Republican back-bencher, and garnered little attention by the press.

All of this changed on February 9th, 1950, when he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virgina in which he accused the State Department of being infested with communists, and claimed to have a list in his hand of known communists who continued to work at State after their identities had been made known to the Secretary of State. Just what McCarthy actually said in Wheeling remains a matter of controversy to this day, and is covered in gruelling detail in this book. This speech, and encore performances a few days later in Salt Lake City and Reno catapulted McCarthy onto the public stage, with intense scrutiny in the press and an uproar in Congress, leading to duelling committee investigations: those exploring the charges he made, and those looking into McCarthy himself, precisely what he said where and when, and how he obtained his information on security risks within the government. Oddly, from the outset, the focus within the Senate and executive branch seemed to be more on the latter than the former, with one inquiry digging into McCarthy's checkbook and his income tax returns and those of members of his family dating back to 1935—more than a decade before he was elected to the Senate.

The content of the hearings chaired by McCarthy are also often misreported and misunderstood. McCarthy was not primarily interested in uncovering Reds and their sympathisers within the government: that had already been done by investigations by the FBI and agency security organisations and duly reported to the executive departments involved. The focus of McCarthy's investigation was why, once these risks were identified, often with extensive documentation covering a period of many years, nothing was done, with those identified as security risks remaining on the job or, in some cases, allowed to resign without any note in their employment file, often to immediately find another post in a different government agency or one of the international institutions which were burgeoning in the postwar years. Such an inquiry was a fundamental exercise of the power of congressional oversight over executive branch agencies, but McCarthy (and other committees looking into such matters) ran into an impenetrable stonewall of assertions of executive privilege by both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1954, the Washington Post editorialised, “The President's authority under the Constitution to withhold from Congress confidences, presidential information, the disclosure of which would be incompatible with the public interest, is altogether beyond question”. The situational ethics of the legacy press is well illustrated by comparing this Post editorial to those two decades later when Nixon asserted the same privilege against a congressional investigation.

Indeed, the entire McCarthy episode reveals how well established, already at the mid-century point, the ruling class government/media/academia axis was. Faced with an assault largely directed at “their kind” (East Coast, Ivy League, old money, creatures of the capital) by an uncouth self-made upstart from the windswept plains, they closed ranks, launched serial investigations and media campaigns, covered up, destroyed evidence, stonewalled, and otherwise aimed to obstruct and finally destroy McCarthy. This came to fruition when McCarthy was condemned by a Senate resolution on December 2nd, 1954. (Oddly, the usual word “censure” was not used in the resolution.) Although McCarthy remained in the Senate until his death at age 48 in 1957, he was shunned in the Senate and largely ignored by the press.

The perspective of half a century later allows a retrospective on the rise and fall of McCarthy which wasn't possible in earlier accounts. Many documents relevant to McCarthy's charges, including the VENONA decrypts of Soviet cable traffic, FBI security files, and agency loyalty board investigations have been declassified in recent years (albeit, in some cases, with lengthy “redactions”—blacked out passages), and the author makes extensive use of these primary sources in the present work. In essence, what they demonstrate is that McCarthy was right: that the documents he sought in vain, blocked by claims of executive privilege, gag orders, cover-ups, and destruction of evidence were, in fact, persuasive evidence that the individuals he identified were genuine security risks who, under existing policy, should not have been employed in the sensitive positions they held. Because the entire “McCarthy era”, from his initial speech to condemnation and downfall, was less than five years in length, and involved numerous investigations, counter-investigations, and re-investigations of many of the same individuals, regarding which abundant source documents have become available, the detailed accounts in this massive book (672 pages in the trade paperback edition) can become tedious on occasion. Still, if you want to understand what really happened at this crucial episode of the early Cold War, and the background behind the defining moment of the era: the conquest of China by Mao's communists, this is an essential source.

In the Kindle edition, the footnotes, which appear at the bottom of the page in the print edition, are linked to reference numbers in the text with a numbering scheme distinct from that used for source references. Each note contains a link to return to the text at the location of the note. Source citations appear at the end of the book and are not linked in the main text. The Kindle edition includes no index.

Posted at 14:32 Permalink

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reading List: Magnificent Failure

Ryan, Craig. Magnificent Failure. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58834-141-9.
In his 1995 book, The Pre-Astronauts (which I read before I began keeping this list), the author masterfully explores the pioneering U.S. balloon flights into the upper atmosphere between the end of World War II and the first manned space flights, which brought both Air Force and Navy manned balloon programs to an abrupt halt. These flights are little remembered today (except for folks lucky enough to have an attic [or DVD] full of National Geographics from the epoch, which covered them in detail). Still less known is the story recounted here: one man's quest, fuelled only by ambition, determination, willingness to do whatever it took, persuasiveness, and sheer guts, to fly higher and free-fall farther than any man had ever done before. Without the backing of any military service, government agency, wealthy patron, or corporate sponsor, he achieved his first goal, setting an altitude record for lighter than air flight which remains unbroken more than four decades later, and tragically died from injuries sustained in his attempt to accomplish the second, after an in-flight accident which remains enigmatic and controversial to this day.

The term “American original” is over-used in describing exceptional characters that nation has produced, but if anybody deserves that designation, Nick Piantanida does. The son of immigrant parents from the Adriatic island of Korčula (now part of Croatia), Nick was born in 1932 and grew up on the gritty Depression-era streets of Union City, New Jersey in the very cauldron of the American melting pot, amid communities of Germans, Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Syrians, and Greeks. Although universally acknowledged to be extremely bright, his interests in school were mostly brawling and basketball. He excelled in the latter, sharing the 1953 YMCA All-America honours with some guy named Wilt Chamberlain. After belatedly finishing high school (bored, he had dropped out to start a scrap iron business, but was persuaded to return by his parents), he joined the Army where he was All-Army in basketball for both years of his hitch and undefeated as a heavyweight boxer. After mustering out, he received a full basketball scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University, then abruptly quit a few months into his freshman year, finding the regimentation of college life as distasteful as that of the Army.

In search of fame, fortune, and adventure, Nick next set his sights on Venezuela, where he vowed to be the first to climb Devil's Mountain, from which Angel Falls plummets 807 metres. Penniless, he recruited one of his Army buddies as a climbing partner and lined up sponsors to fund the expedition. At the outset, he knew nothing about mountaineering, so he taught himself on the Hudson River Palisades with the aid of books from the library. Upon arrival in Venezuela, the climbers learnt to their dismay that another expedition had just completed the first ascent of the mountain, so Nick vowed to make the first ascent of the north face, just beside the falls, which was thought unclimbable. After an arduous trip through the jungle, during which their guide quit and left the climbers alone, Nick and his partner made the ascent by themselves and returned to the acclaim of all. Such was the determination of this man.

Nick was always looking for adventure, celebrity, and the big score. He worked for a while as a steelworker on the high iron of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but most often supported himself and, after his marriage, his growing family, by contract truck driving and, occasionally, unemployment checks. Still, he never ceased to look for ways, always unconventional, to make his fortune, nor failed to recruit associates and find funding for his schemes. Many of his acquaintances use the word “hustler” to describe him in those days, and one doubts that Nick would be offended by the honorific. He opened an exotic animal import business, and ordered cobras, mongooses, goanna lizards, and other critters mail-order from around the world for resale to wealthy clients. When buyers failed to materialise, he staged gladiatorial contests of both animal versus animal and animal versus himself. Eventually he imported a Bengal tiger cub which he kept in his apartment until it had grown so large it could put its paws on his shoulders, whence he traded the tiger for a decrepit airplane (he had earned a pilot's license while still in his teens). Offered a spot on the New York Knicks professional basketball team, he turned it down because he thought he could make more money barnstorming in his airplane.

Nick finally found his life's vocation when, on a lark, he made a parachute jump. Soon, he had progressed from static line beginner jumps to free fall and increasingly advanced skydiving, making as many jumps as he could afford and find the time for. And then he had the Big Idea. In 1960, Joseph Kittinger had ridden a helium balloon to an altitude of 31,333 metres and bailed out, using a small drogue parachute to stabilise his fall until he opened his main parachute at an altitude of 5,330 metres. Although this was, at the time (and remains to this day) the highest altitude parachute jump ever made, skydiving purists do not consider it a true free fall jump due to the use of the stabilising chute. In 1962, Eugene Andreev jumped from a Soviet balloon at an altitude of 25,460 metres and did a pure free fall descent, stabilising himself purely by skydiving techniques, setting an official free-fall altitude record which also remains unbroken. Nick vowed to claim both the record for highest altitude ascent and longest free-fall jump for himself, and set about it with his usual energy and single-minded determination.

Piantanida faced a daunting set of challenges in achieving his goal: at the outset he had neither balloon, gondola, spacesuit, life support system, suitable parachute, nor any knowledge of or experience with the multitude of specialities whose mastery is required to survive in the stratosphere, above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere. Kittinger and Andreev were supported by all the resources, knowledge, and funding of their respective superpowers' military establishments, while Nick had—well…Nick. But he was not to be deterred, and immediately set out educating himself and lining up people, sponsors, and gear necessary for the attempt.

The story of what became known as Project Strato-Jump reads like an early Heinlein novel, with an indomitable spirit pursuing a goal other, more “reasonable”, people considered absurd or futile. By will, guile, charm, pull, intimidation, or simply wearing down adversaries until they gave in just to make him go away, he managed to line up everything he needed, including having the company which supplied NASA with its Project Gemini spacesuits custom tailor one (Nick was built like an NBA star, not an astronaut) and loan it to him for the project.

Finally, on October 22, 1965, all was ready, and Nick took to the sky above Minnesota, bound for the edge of space. But just a few minutes after launch, at just 7,000 metres, the balloon burst, probably due to a faulty seam in the polyethylene envelope, triggered by a wind shear at that altitude. Nick rode down in the gondola under its recovery parachute, then bailed out at 3200 metres, unglamorously landing in the Pig's Eye Dump in St. Paul.

Undeterred by the failure, Nick recruited a new balloon manufacturer and raised money for a second attempt, setting off again for the stratosphere a second time on February 2, 1966. This time the ascent went flawlessly, and the balloon rose to an all-time record altitude of 37,643 metres. But as Nick proceeded through the pre-jump checklist, when he attempted to disconnect the oxygen hose that fed his suit from the gondola's supply and switch over to the “bail out bottle” from which he would breathe during the descent, the disconnect fitting jammed, and he was unable to dislodge it. He was, in effect, tethered to the gondola by his oxygen line and had no option but to descend with it. Ground control cut the gondola's parachute from the balloon, and after a harrowing descent Nick and gondola landed in a farm field with only minor injuries. The jump had failed, but Nick had flown higher than any manned balloon ever had. But since the attempt was not registered as an official altitude attempt, although the altitude attained is undisputed, the record remains unofficial.

After the second failure, Nick's confidence appeared visibly shaken. Having all that expense, work, and risk undertaken come to nought due to a small detail with which nobody had been concerned prior to the flight underlined just how small the margin for error was in the extreme environment at the edge of space and, by implication, how the smallest error or oversight could lead to disaster. Still, he was bent on trying yet again, and on May 1, 1966 (since he was trying to break a Soviet record, he thought this date particularly appropriate), launched for the third time. Everything went normally as the balloon approached 17,375 metres, whereupon the ground crew monitoring the air to ground voice link heard what was described as a “whoosh” or hiss, followed by a call of “Emergen” from Nick, followed by silence. The ground crew immediately sent a radio command to cut the balloon loose, and the gondola, with Nick inside, began to descend under its cargo parachute.

Rescue crews arrived just moments after the gondola touched down and found it undamaged, but Nick was unconscious and unresponsive. He was rushed to the local hospital, treated without avail, and then transferred to a hospital in Minneapolis where he was placed in a hyperbaric chamber where treatment for decompression sickness was administered, without improvement. On June 18th, he was transferred to the National Institute of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was examined and treated by experts in decompression disease and hypoxia, but never regained consciousness. He died on August 25, 1966, with an autopsy finding the cause of death hypoxia and ruptures of the tissue in the brain due to decompression.

What happened to Nick up there in the sky? Within hours after the accident, rumours started to circulate that he was the victim of equipment failure: that his faceplate had blown out or that the pressure suit had failed in some other manner, leading to an explosive decompression. This story has been repeated so often it has become almost canon—consider this article from Wired from July 2002. Indeed, when rescuers arrived on the scene, Nick's “faceplate” was damaged, but this was just the sun visor which can be pivoted down to cover the pressure-retaining faceplate, which was intact and, in a subsequent test of the helmet, found to seal perfectly. Rescuers assumed the sun visor was damaged by impact with part of the gondola during the landing and, in any case, would not have caused a decompression however damaged.

Because the pressure suit had been cut off in the emergency room, it wasn't possible to perform a full pressure test, but meticulous inspection of the suit by the manufacturer discovered no flaws which could explain an explosive decompression. The oxygen supply system in the gondola was found to be functioning normally, with all pressure vessels and regulators operating within specifications.

So, what happened? We will never know for sure. Unlike a NASA mission, there was no telemetry, nor even a sequence camera recording what was happening in the gondola. And yet, within minutes after the accident occurred, many members of the ground crew came to a conclusion as to the probable cause, which those still alive today have seen no need to revisit. Such was their certainty that reporter Robert Vaughan gave it as the cause in the story he filed with Life magazine, which he was dismayed to see replaced with an ambiguous passage by the editors, because his explanation did not fit with the narrative chosen for the story. (The legacy media acted like the legacy media even when they were the only media and not yet legacy!)

Astonishingly, all the evidence (which, admittedly, isn't very much) seems to indicate that Nick opened his helmet visor at that extreme altitude, which allowed the air in suit to rush out (causing the “whoosh”), forcing the air from his lungs (cutting off the call of “Emergency!”), and rapidly incapacitating him. The extended hypoxia and exposure to low pressure as the gondola descended under the cargo parachute caused irreversible brain damage well before the gondola landed. But why would Nick do such a crazy thing as open his helmet visor when in the physiological equivalent of space? Again, we can never know, but what is known is that he'd done it before, at lower altitudes, to the dismay of his crew, who warned him of the potentially dire consequences. There is abundant evidence that Piantanida violated the oxygen prebreathing protocol before high altitude exposure not only on this flight, but on a regular basis. He reported symptoms completely consistent with decompression sickness (the onset of “the bends”), and is quoted as saying that he could relieve the symptoms by deflating and reinflating his suit. Finally, about as close to a smoking gun as we're likely to find, the rescue crew found Nick's pressure visor unlatched and rotated away from the seal position. Since Nick would have been in a coma well before he entered breathable atmosphere, it isn't possible he could have done this before landing, and there is no way an impact upon landing could have performed the precise sequence of operations required to depressurise the suit and open the visor.

It is impossible put oneself inside the mind of such an outlier in the human population as Nick, no less imagine what he was thinking and feeling when rising into the darkness above the dawn on the third attempt at achieving his dream. He was almost certainly suffering from symptoms of decompression sickness due to inadequate oxygen prebreathing, afflicted by chronic sleep deprivation in the rush to get the flight off, and under intense stress to complete the mission before his backers grew discouraged and the money ran out. All of these factors can cloud the judgement of even the most disciplined and best trained person, and, it must be said, Nick was neither. Perhaps the larger puzzle is why members of his crew who did understand these things, did not speak up, pull the plug, or walk off the project when they saw what was happening. But then a personality like Nick can sweep people along through its own primal power, for better or for worse; in this case, to tragedy.

Was Nick a hero? Decide for yourself—my opinion is no. In pursuing his own ego-driven ambition, he ended up leaving his wife a widow and his three daughters without a father they remember, with only a meagre life insurance policy to support them. The project was basically a stunt, mounted with the goal of turning its success into money by sales of story, film, and celebrity appearances. Even had the jump succeeded, it would have yielded no useful aeromedical research data applicable to subsequent work apart from the fact that it was possible. (In Nick's defence on this account, he approached the Air Force and NASA, inviting them to supply instrumentation and experiments for the jump, and was rebuffed.)

This book is an exhaustively researched (involving many interviews with surviving participants in the events) and artfully written account of this strange episode which was, at the same time, the last chapter of the exploration of the black beyond by intrepid men in their floating machines and a kind of false dawn precursor of the private exploration of space which is coming to the fore almost half a century after Nick Piantanida set out to pursue his black sky dream. The only embarrassing aspect to this superb book is that on occasion the author equates state-sponsored projects with competence, responsibility, and merit. Well, let's see…. In a rough calculation, using 2007 constant dollars, NASA has spent northward of half a trillion dollars, killing a total of 17 astronauts (plus other employees in industrial accidents on the ground), with all of the astronaut deaths due to foreseeable risks which management failed to identify or mitigate in time.

Project Strato-Jump, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, without resort to the state's monopoly on the use of force, set an altitude record for lighter than air flight within the atmosphere which has stood from 1966 to this writing, and accomplished it in three missions with a total budget of less than (2007 constant) US$400,000, with the loss of a single life due to pilot error. Yes, NASA has achieved much, much more. But a million times more?

This is a very long review, so if you've made it to this point and found it tedious, please accept my excuses. Nick Piantanida has haunted me for decades. I followed his exploits as they happened, and were reported on the CBS Evening News in the 1960s. I felt the frustration of the second flight (with that achingly so far and yet so near view of the Earth from altitude, when he couldn't jump), and then the dismay at the calamity on the third, then the long vigil ending with his sad demise. Astronauts were, well, astronauts, but Nick was one of us. If a truck driver from New Jersey could, by main force, travel to the black of space, then why couldn't any of us? That was the real dream of the Space Age: Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Well, Nick managed to lay his hands on a space suit and travel he did!

Anybody who swallowed the bogus mainstream media narrative of Nick's “suit failure” had to watch the subsequent Gemini and Apollo EVA missions with a special sense of apprehension. A pressure suit is one of the few things in the NASA space program which has no backup: if the pressure garment fails catastrophically, you're dead before you can do anything about it. (A slow leak isn't a problem, since there's an oxygen purge system which can maintain pressure until you can get inside, but a major seam failure, or having a visor blow out or glove pop off is endsville.) Knowing that those fellows cavorting on the Moon were wearing pretty much the same suit as Nick caused those who believed the propaganda version of his death to needlessly catch their breath every time one of them stumbled and left a sitzmark or faceplant in the eternal lunar regolith.

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