« November 2010 | Main | January 2011 »

Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading List: Don't Vote--It Just Encourages the Bastards

O'Rourke, P. J. Don't Vote—It Just Encourages the Bastards. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8021-1960-5.
P. J. O'Rourke is one of the most astute observers of the contemporary scene who isn't, I believe, taken as seriously as he deserves to be simply because his writing is so riotously funny. In the present book, he describes the life-changing experience which caused him to become a conservative (hint: it's the same one which can cause otherwise sane adults to contemplate buying a minivan and discover a new and distasteful definition of the word “change”), and explores the foundations of conservatism in a world increasingly dominated by nanny states, an out-of-touch and increasingly inbred ruling class, and a growing fraction of the electorate dependent upon the state and motivated to elect politicians who will distribute public largesse to them, whatever the consequences for the nation as a whole.

This is, of course, all done with great wit (and quite a bit of profanity, which may be off-putting to the more strait-laced kind of conservative), but there are a number of deep insights you'll never come across in the legacy media. For example, “We live in a democracy, rule by the people. Fifty percent of people are below average intelligence. This explains everything about politics.” The author then moves on to survey the “burning issues of our time” including the financial mess, “climate change” (where he demolishes the policy prescriptions of the warm-mongers in three paragraphs occupying less than a page), health care, terrorism, the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, and foreign policy, where he brings the wisdom of Kipling to bear on U.S. adventures in the Hindu Kush.

He concludes, in a vein more libertarian than conservative, that politics and politicians are, by their very nature, so fundamentally flawed (Let's give a small number of people a monopoly on the use of force and the ability to coercively take the earnings of others—what could possibly go wrong?) that the only solution is to dramatically reduce the scope of government, getting it out of our lives, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, cars, and all of the other places its slimy tendrils have intruded, and, for those few remaining functions where government has a legitimate reason to exist, that it be on the smallest and most local scale possible. Government is, by its very nature, a monopoly (which explains a large part of why it produces such destructive outcomes), but an ensemble of separate governments (for example, states, municipalities, and school districts in the U.S.) will be constrained by competition from their peers, as evidenced by the demographic shift from high tax to low tax states in the U.S. and the disparate economic performance of highly regulated states and those with a business climate which favours entrepreneurship.

In all, I find O'Rourke more optimistic about the prospects of the U.S. than my own view. The financial situation is simply intractable, and decades of policy implemented by both major political parties have brought the U.S. near the tipping point where a majority of the electorate pays no income tax, and hence has no motivation to support policies which would reduce the rate of growth of government, not to speak of actually shrinking it. The government/academia/media axis has become a self-reinforcing closed loop which believes things very different than the general populace, of which it is increasingly openly contemptuous. It seems to me the most likely outcome is collapse, not reform, with the form of the post-collapse society difficult to envision from a pre-discontinuity perspective. I'll be writing more about possible scenarios and their outcomes in the new year.

This book presents a single argument; it is not a collection of columns. Consequently, it is best read front to back. I would not recommend reading it straight through, however, but rather a chapter a day or every few days. In too large doses, the hilarity of the text may drown out the deeper issues being discussed. In any case, this book will leave you not only entertained but enlightened.

A podcast interview with the author is available in which he concedes that he does, in fact, actually vote.

Posted at 20:42 Permalink

Monday, December 27, 2010

Reading List: Goddess of the Market

Burns, Jennifer. Goddess of the Market. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-532487-7.
For somebody who built an entire philosophical system founded on reason, and insisted that even emotion was ultimately an expression of rational thought which could be arrived at from first principles, few modern writers have inspired such passion among their readers, disciples, enemies, critics, and participants in fields ranging from literature, politics, philosophy, religion, architecture, music, economics, and human relationships as Ayn Rand. Her two principal novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), remain among the best selling fiction titles more than half a century after their publication, with in excess of ten million copies sold. More than half a million copies of Atlas Shrugged were sold in 2009 alone.

For all the commercial success of her works, which made this refugee from the Soviet Union, writing in a language she barely knew when she arrived in the United States, wealthy before her fortieth birthday, her work was generally greeted with derision among the literary establishment, reviewers in major newspapers, and academics. By the time Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, she saw herself primarily as the founder of an all-encompassing philosophical system she named Objectivism, and her fiction as a means to demonstrate the validity of her system and communicate it to a broad audience. Academic philosophers, for the most part, did not even reject her work but simply ignored it, deeming it unworthy of their consideration. And Rand did not advance her cause by refusing to enter into the give and take of philosophical debate but instead insist that her system was self-evidently correct and had to be accepted as a package deal with no modifications.

As a result, she did not so much attract followers as disciples, who looked to her words as containing the answer to all of their questions, and whose self-worth was measured by how close they became to, as it were, the fountainhead whence they sprang. Some of these people were extremely bright, and went on to distinguished careers in which they acknowledged Rand's influence on their thinking. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle in the 1960s, making the case for a return to the gold standard in her newsletter, before becoming the maestro of paper money decades later.

Although her philosophy claimed that contradiction was impossible, her life and work were full of contradictions. While arguing that everything of value sprang from the rational creativity of free minds, she created a rigid system of thought which she insisted her followers adopt without any debate or deviation, and banished them from her circle if they dared dissent. She claimed to have created a self-consistent philosophical and moral system which was self-evidently correct, and yet she refused to debate those championing other systems. Her novels portray the state and its minions in the most starkly negative light of perhaps any broadly read fiction, and yet she detested libertarians and anarchists, defended the state as necessary to maintain the rule of law, and exulted in the success of Apollo 11 (whose launch she was invited to observe).

The passion that Ayn Rand inspires has coloured most of the many investigations of her life and work published to date. Finally, in this volume, we have a more or less dispassionate examination of her career and œuvre, based on original documents in the collection of the Ayn Rand Institute and a variety of other archives. Based upon the author's Ph.D. dissertation (and with the wealth of footnotes and source citations customary in such writing), this book makes an effort to tell the story of Ayn Rand's life, work, and their impact upon politics, economics, philosophy, and culture to date, and her lasting legacy, without taking sides. The author is neither a Rand follower nor a confirmed opponent, and pretty much lets each reader decide where they come down based on the events described.

At the outset, the author writes, “For over half a century, Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.” I initially found this very off-putting, and resigned myself to enduring another disdainful dismissal of Rand (to whose views the vast majority of the “right” over that half a century would have taken violent exception: Rand was vehemently atheist, opposing any mixing of religion and politics; a staunch supporter of abortion rights; opposed the Vietnam War and conscription; and although she rejected the legalisation of marijuana, cranked out most of her best known work while cranked on Benzedrine), as I read the book the idea began to grow on me. Indeed, many people in the libertarian and conservative worlds got their introduction to thought outside the collectivist and statist orthodoxy pervading academia and the legacy media by reading one of Ayn Rand's novels. This may have been the moment at which they first began to, as the hippies exhorted, “question authority”, and investigate other sources of information and ways of thinking and looking at the world. People who grew up with the Internet will find it almost impossible to imagine how difficult this was back in the 1960s, where even discovering the existence of a dissenting newsletter (amateurishly produced, irregularly issued, and with a tiny subscriber base) was entirely a hit or miss matter. But Ayn Rand planted the seed in the minds of millions of people, a seed which might sprout when they happened upon a like mind, or a like-minded publication.

The life of Ayn Rand is simultaneously a story of an immigrant living the American dream: success in Hollywood and Broadway and wealth beyond even her vivid imagination; the frustration of an author out of tune with the ideology of the times; the political education of one who disdained politics and politicians; the birth of one of the last “big systems” of philosophy in an age where big systems had become discredited; and a life filled with passion lived by a person obsessed with reason. The author does a thorough job of pulling this all together into a comprehensible narrative which, while thoroughly documented and eschewing enthusiasm in either direction, will keep you turning the pages. The author is an academic, and writes in the contemporary scholarly idiom: the term “right-wing” appears 15 times in the book, while “left-wing” is used not at all, even when describing officials and members of the Communist Party USA. Still, this does not detract from the value of this work: a serious, in-depth, and agenda-free examination of Ayn Rand's life, work, and influence on history, today, and tomorrow.

Posted at 00:34 Permalink

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Reading List: American Assassin

Flynn, Vince. American Assassin. New York: Atria Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-9518-2.
This is the eleventh novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. While the first ten books chronicled events in sequence, the present volume returns to Rapp's origins as an independent assassin for, but not of (officially, at least) the CIA. Here, we revisit the tragic events which predisposed him to take up his singular career, his recruitment by rising anti-terrorist “active measures” advocate Irene Kennedy, and his first encounters with covert operations mastermind Thomas Stansfield.

A central part of the story is Rapp's training at the hands of the eccentric, misanthropic, paranoid, crusty, profane, and deadly in the extreme Stan Hurley, to whom Rapp has to prove, in the most direct of ways, that he isn't a soft college boy recruited to do the hardest of jobs. While Hurley is an incidental character in the novels covering subsequent events, he is centre stage here, and Mitch Rapp fans will delight in getting to know him in depth, even if they might not be inclined to spend much time with the actual man if they encountered him in real life.

Following his training, Rapp deploys on his first mission and immediately demonstrates his inclination to be a loose cannon, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves and throwing carefully scripted and practiced plans out the window at the spur of the moment. This brings him into open conflict with Hurley, but elicits a growing admiration from Stansfield, who begins to perceive that he may have finally found a “natural”.

An ambitious mission led by Hurley to deny terrorists their financial lifeblood and bring their leaders out into the open goes horribly wrong in Beirut when Hurley and another operative are kidnapped in broad daylight and subjected to torture in one of the most harrowing scenes in all the literature of the thriller. Hurley, although getting on in years for a field operative, proves “tougher than nails” (you'll understand after you read the book) and a master at getting inside the heads of his abductors and messing with them, but ultimately it's up to Rapp, acting largely alone, adopting a persona utterly unlike his own, and risking everything on the hope of an opportunity, to come to the rescue.

I wasn't sure how well a Rapp novel set in the context of historical events (Beirut in the early 1990s) would work, but in this case Flynn pulls it off magnificently. If you want to read the Rapp novels in story line sequence, this is the place to start.

Posted at 20:17 Permalink

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reading List: The Paleo Diet

Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. ISBN 978-0-470-91302-4.
As the author of a diet book, I don't read many self-described “diet books”. First of all, I'm satisfied with the approach to weight management described in my own book; second, I don't need to lose weight; and third, I find most “diet books” built around gimmicks with little justification in biology and prone to prescribe regimes that few people are likely to stick with long enough to achieve their goal. What motivated me to read this book was a talk by Michael Rose at the First Personalized Life Extension Conference in which he mentioned the concept and this book not in conjunction with weight reduction but rather the extension of healthy lifespan in humans. Rose's argument, which is grounded in evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology, is somewhat subtle and well summarised in this article.

At the core of Rose's argument and that of the present book is the observation that while the human genome is barely different from that of human hunter-gatherers a million years ago, our present-day population has had at most 200 to 500 generations to adapt to the very different diet which emerged with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a relatively short time for adaptation and, here is the key thing (argued by Rose, but not in this book), even if modern humans had evolved adaptations to the agricultural diet (as in some cases they clearly have, lactose tolerance persisting into adulthood being one obvious example), those adaptations will not, from the simple mechanism of evolution, select out diseases caused by the new diet which only manifest themselves after the age of last reproduction in the population. So, if eating the agricultural diet (not to mention the horrors we've invented in the last century) were the cause of late-onset diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular problems, and type 2 diabetes, then evolution would have done nothing to select out the genes responsible for them, since these diseases strike most people after the age at which they've already passed on their genes to their children. Consequently, while it may be fine for young people to eat grain, dairy products, and other agricultural era innovations, folks over the age of forty may be asking for trouble by consuming foods which evolution hasn't had the chance to mold their genomes to tolerate. People whose ancestors shifted to the agricultural lifestyle much more recently, including many of African and aboriginal descent, have little or no adaptation to the agricultural diet, and may experience problems even earlier in life.

In this book, the author doesn't make these fine distinctions but rather argues that everybody can benefit from a diet resembling that which the vast majority of our ancestors—hunter-gatherers predating the advent of sedentary agriculture—ate, and to which evolution has molded our genome over that long expanse of time. This is not a “diet book” in the sense of a rigid plan for losing weight. Instead, it is a manual for adopting a lifestyle, based entirely upon non-exotic foods readily available at the supermarket, which approximates the mix of nutrients consumed by our distant ancestors. There are the usual meal plans and recipes, but the bulk of the book is a thorough survey, with extensive citations to the scientific literature, of what hunter-gatherers actually ate, the links scientists have found between the composition of the modern diet and the emergence of “diseases of civilisation” among populations that have transitioned to it in historical times, and the evidence for specific deleterious effects of major components of the modern diet such as grains and dairy products.

Not to over-simplify, but you can go a long way toward the ancestral diet simply by going to the store with an “anti-shopping list” of things not to buy, principally:

  • Grain, or anything derived from grains (bread, pasta, rice, corn)
  • Dairy products (milk, cheese, butter)
  • Fatty meats (bacon, marbled beef)
  • Starchy tuber crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • Salt or processed foods with added salt
  • Refined sugar or processed foods with added sugar
  • Oils with a high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio (safflower, peanut)

And basically, that's it! Apart from the list above you can buy whatever you want, eat it whenever you like in whatever quantity you wish, and the author asserts that if you're overweight you'll soon see your weight dropping toward your optimal weight, a variety of digestive and other problems will begin to clear up, you'll have more energy and a more consistent energy level throughout the day, and that you'll sleep better. Oh, and your chances of contracting cancer, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease will be dramatically reduced.

In practise, this means eating a lot of lean meat, seafood, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, and nuts. As the author points out, even if you have a mound of cooked boneless chicken breasts, broccoli, and apples on the table before you, you're far less likely to pig out on them compared to, say, a pile of doughnuts, because the natural foods don't give you the immediate blood sugar hit the highly glycemic processed food does. And even if you do overindulge, the caloric density in the natural foods is so much lower your jaw will get tired chewing or your gut will bust before you can go way over your calorie requirements.

Now, if even if the science is sound (there are hundreds of citations of peer reviewed publications in the bibliography, but then nutritionists are forever publishing contradictory “studies” on any topic you can imagine, and in any case epidemiology cannot establish causation) and the benefits from adopting this diet are as immediate, dramatic, and important for long-term health, a lot of people are going to have trouble with what is recommended here. Food is a lot more to humans and other species (as anybody who's had a “picky eater” cat can testify) than just molecular fuel and construction material for our bodies. Our meals nourish the soul as well as the body, and among humans shared meals are a fundamental part of our social interaction which evolution has doubtless had time to write into our genes. If you go back and look at that list of things not to eat, you'll probably discover that just about any “comfort food” you cherish probably runs afoul of one or more of the forbidden ingredients. This means that contemplating the adoption of this diet as a permanent lifestyle change can look pretty grim, unless or until you find suitable replacements that thread among the constraints. The recipes presented here are interesting, but still come across to me (not having tried them) as pretty Spartan. And recall that even Spartans lived a pretty sybaritic lifestyle compared to your average hunter-gatherer band. But, hey, peach fuzz is entirely cool!

The view of the mechanics of weight loss and gain and the interaction between exercise and weight reduction presented here is essentially 100% compatible with my own in The Hacker's Diet.

This was intriguing enough that I decided to give it a try starting a couple of weeks ago. (I have been adhering, more or less, to the food selection guidelines, but not the detailed meal plans.) The results so far are intriguing but, at this early date, inconclusive. The most dramatic effect was an almost immediate (within the first three days) crash in my always-pesky high blood pressure. This may be due entirely to putting away the salt shaker (an implement of which I have been inordinately fond since childhood), but whatever the cause, it's taken about 20 points off the systolic and 10 off the diastolic, throughout the day. Second, I've seen a consistent downward bias in my weight. Now, as I said, I didn't try this diet to lose weight (although I could drop a few kilos and still be within the target band for my height and build, and wouldn't mind doing so). In any case, these are short-term results and may include transient adaptation effects. I haven't been hungry for a moment nor have I experienced any specific cravings (except the second-order kind for popcorn with a movie). It remains to be seen what will happen when I next attend a Swiss party and have to explain that I don't eat cheese.

This is a very interesting nutritional thesis, backed by a wealth of impressive research of which I was previously unaware. It flies in the face of much of the conventional wisdom on diet and nutrition, and yet viewed from the standpoint of evolution, it makes a lot of sense. You will find the case persuasively put here and perhaps be tempted to give it a try.

Posted at 22:30 Permalink

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reading List: Path of the Assassin

Thor, Brad. Path of the Assassin. New York: Pocket Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7434-3676-2.
This, the second in the author's Scot Harvath saga, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010), starts with Agent Harvath, detached from the Secret Service and charged with cleaning up loose ends from events in the previous book, finding himself stalked and repeatedly preempted by a mysterious silver-eyed assassin who eliminates those linked to the plot he's investigating before they can be captured. Meanwhile, the Near East is careening toward war after a group calling itself the “Hand of God” commits atrocities upon Muslim holy sites, leaving a signature including the Star of David and the message “Terror for Terror”. Although the Israeli government denies any responsibility, there is substantial sympathy for these attacks within Israel, and before long reprisal attacks are mounted and raise tensions to the breaking point.

Intelligence indicates that the son of Abu Nidal has re-established his father's terrorist network and enlisted a broad coalition of Islamic barbarians in its cause. This is confirmed when a daring attack is mounted against a publicity stunt flight from the U.S. to Egypt which Harvath is charged to defeat.

And now it gets a little weird. We are expected to believe that, in just weeks or months, a public relations agent from Chicago, Meg Cassidy, whose spontaneous bravery brought down the hijackers in Cairo, could be trained to become a fully-qualified Special Forces operative, not only with the physical stamina which is found only in the best of the best, but also knowledge of a wide variety of weapons systems and technologies which veteran snake eaters spend years acquiring in the most demanding of conditions. This is as difficult to believe as the premise in G.I. Jane, and actually less so, since in that fantasy the woman in question actually wanted to become a commando.

This is a pretty good thriller, but you get the sense that Thor is still mastering the genre in this novel. He does realise that in the first novel he backed his protagonist into a corner by making him a Secret Service agent and works that out with the aid of a grateful president who appoints him to a much more loose cannon position in “Homeland Security”, which should make all of the dozens of lovers of liberty remaining in the United States shudder at that forbidding phrase.

Posted at 00:53 Permalink

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reading List: Colossus

Hiltzik, Michael. Colossus. New York: Free Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-3216-3.
This book, subtitled “Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century” chronicles the protracted, tangled, and often ugly history which led up to the undertaking, in the depths of the Great Depression, of the largest single civil engineering project ever attempted in the world up to that time, its achievement ahead of schedule and only modestly above budget, and its consequences for the Colorado River basin and the American West, which it continues to profoundly influence to this day.

Ever since the 19th century, visionaries, ambitious politicians, builders and engineers, and more than a few crackpots and confidence men had dreamt of and promoted grand schemes to harness the wild rivers of the American southwest, using their water to make the barren deserts bloom and opening up a new internal frontier for agriculture and (with cheap hydroelectric power) industry. Some of the schemes, and their consequences, were breathtaking. Consider the Alamo Canal, dug in 1900 to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley of California. In 1905, the canal, already silted up by the water of the Colorado, overflowed, creating a flood which submerged more than five hundred square miles of lowlands in southern California, creating the Salton Sea, which is still there today (albeit smaller, due to evaporation and lack of inflow). Just imagine how such an environmental disaster would be covered by the legacy media today. President Theodore Roosevelt, considered a champion of the environment and the West, declined to provide federal assistance to deal with the disaster, leaving it up to the Southern Pacific Railroad, who had just acquired title to the canal, to, as the man said, “plug the hole”.

Clearly, the challenges posed by the notoriously fickle Colorado River, known for extreme floods, heavy silt, and a tendency to jump its banks and establish new watercourses, would require a much more comprehensive and ambitious solution. Further, such a solution would require the assent of the seven states within the river basin: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, among the sparsely populated majority of which there was deep distrust that California would exploit the project to loot them of their water for its own purposes. Given the invariant nature of California politicians and subsequent events, such suspicion was entirely merited.

In the 1920s, an extensive sequence of negotiations and court decisions led to the adoption of a compact between the states (actually, under its terms, only six states had to approve it, and Arizona did not until 1944). Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover played a major part in these negotiations, although other participants dispute that his rôle was as central as he claimed in his memoirs. In December 1928, President Coolidge signed a bill authorising construction of the dam and a canal to route water downstream, and Congress appropriated US$165 million for the project, the largest single federal appropriation in the nation's history to that point.

What was proposed gave pause even to the master builders who came forward to bid on the project: an arch-gravity dam 221 metres high, 379 metres long, and 200 metres wide at its base. Its construction would require 3.25 million cubic yards (2.48 million cubic metres) of concrete, and would be, by a wide margin, the largest single structure ever built by the human species. The dam would create a reservoir containing 35.2 cubic kilometres of water, with a surface area of 640 square kilometres. These kinds of numbers had to bring a sense of “failure is not an option” even to the devil-may-care roughneck engineers of the epoch. Because, if for no other reason, they had a recent example of how the devil might care in the absence of scrupulous attention to detail. Just months before the great Colorado River dam was approved, the St. Francis Dam in California, built with the same design proposed for the new dam, suddenly failed catastrophically, killing more than 600 people downstream. William Mulholland, an enthusiastic supporter of the Colorado dam, had pronounced the St. Francis dam safe just hours before it failed. The St. Francis dam collapse was the worst civil engineering failure in American history and arguably remains so to date. The consequences of a comparable failure of the new dam were essentially unthinkable.

The contract for construction was won by a consortium of engineering firms called the “Six Companies” including names which would be celebrated in twentieth century civil engineering including Kaiser, Bechtel, and Morrison-Knudsen. Work began in 1931, as the Depression tightened its grip upon the economy and the realisation sank in that a near-term recovery was unlikely to occur. With this project one of the few enterprises hiring, a migration toward the job site began, and the labour market was entirely tilted toward the contractors. Living and working conditions at the outset were horrific, and although the former were eventually ameliorated once the company town of Boulder City was constructed, the rate of job-related deaths and injuries remained higher than those of comparable projects throughout the entire construction.

Everything was on a scale which dwarfed the experience of earlier projects. If the concrete for the dam had been poured as one monolithic block, it would have taken more than a century to cure, and the heat released in the process would have caused it to fracture into rubble. So the dam was built of more than thirty thousand blocks of concrete, each about fifty feet square and five feet high, cooled as it cured by chilled water from a refrigeration plant running through more than six hundred miles of cooling pipes embedded in the blocks. These blocks were then cemented into the structure of the dam with grout injected between the interlocking edges of adjacent blocks. And this entire structure had to be engineered to last forever and never fail.

At the ceremony marking the start of construction, Secretary of the Interior Ray Wilbur surprised the audience by referring to the project as “Hoover Dam”—the first time a comparable project had been named after a sitting president, which many thought unseemly, notwithstanding Hoover's involvement in the interstate compact behind the project. After Hoover's defeat by Roosevelt in 1932, the new administration consistently referred to the project as “Boulder Dam” and so commemorated it in a stamp issued on the occasion of the dam's dedication in September 1935. This was a bit curious as well, since the dam was actually built in Black Canyon, since the geological foundations in Boulder Canyon had been found unsuitable to anchor the structure. For years thereafter, Democrats called it “Boulder Dam”, while Republican stalwarts insisted on “Hoover Dam”. In 1947, newly-elected Republican majorities in the U.S. congress passed a bill officially naming the structure after Hoover and, signed by President Truman, so it has remained ever since.

This book provides an engaging immersion in a very different age, in which economic depression was tempered by an unshakable confidence in the future and the benefits to flow from continental scale collective projects, guided by wise men in Washington and carried out by roughnecks risking their lives in the savage environment of the West. The author discusses whether such a project could be accomplished today and concludes that it probably couldn't. (Of course, since all of the rivers with such potential for irrigation and power generation have already been dammed, the question is largely moot, but is relevant for grand scale projects such as solar power satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and other engineering works of comparable transformative consequences on the present-day economy.) We have woven such a web of environmental constraints, causes for litigation, and a tottering tower of debt that it is likely that a project such as Hoover Dam, without which the present-day U.S. southwest would not exist in its present form, could never have been carried out today, and certainly not before its scheduled completion date. Those who regard such grand earthworks as hubristic folly (to which the author tips his hat in the final chapters) might well reflect that history records the achievements of those who have grand dreams and bring them into existence, not those who sputter out their lives in courtrooms or trading floors.

Posted at 21:36 Permalink

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dietary Supplements to Combat Aging posted

I've just posted a new document:

Dietary Supplements to Combat Aging

This is based upon my own experience in developing a nutritional supplementation plan guided by information derived from the First Personalized Life Extension Conference in October 2010. Is this the program for you? Not a chance! Everybody is different, and the best way to develop a supplementation program for yourself is to perform a broad spectrum assay of your own blood and adjust your nutrient intake accordingly. I make this available not because I recommend you adopt the supplement regime upon which I've settled (which I reserve the right to revise whenever I feel like it), but because it may make you aware of supplements you've never considered before which may be important to maintaining your health, extending your lifespan, and making the most of the time you're granted in this mortal realm.

Posted at 01:40 Permalink

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reading List: The Eerie Silence

Davies, Paul. The Eerie Silence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. ISBN 978-0-547-13324-9.
The year 2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Nature paper by Cocconi and Morrison which marked the beginning of the modern era in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). They argued that the optimal channel by which technological civilisations in other star systems who wished to establish contact with those nearby in the galaxy would be narrowband microwave transmissions, perhaps pulse modulated in a pattern that would distinguish them from natural sources. Further, they demonstrated that radio telescopes existing at the time (which were modest compared to those already planned for construction in the near future) would suffice to send and receive such a signal over distances of tens of light years. The following year, Frank Drake used a 26 metre dish at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to search for such signals from two nearby sun-like stars in Project Ozma.

Over the succeeding half-century, SETI has been an off and on affair, with a variety of projects with different search strategies. Since the 1990s a low level of SETI activity has been maintained, both using radio telescopes to conduct targeted searches and piggybacking on other radio astronomy observations to conduct a sky survey for candidate signals. There is still a substantial “giggle factor” associated with “listening for ET”, and funding and allocation of telescope time for SETI is minuscule compared to other radio astronomy research. SETI has been a direct beneficiary of the exponential growth in computing power available for a given cost, and now employs spectrum analysers able to monitor millions or billions of narrowband channels simultaneously, largely eliminating the original conundrum of SETI: guessing the frequency on which the aliens would be transmitting. The Allen Telescope Array, now under construction, will increase the capability of SETI observations by orders of magnitude, and will continue to benefit from progress in microelectronics and computing.

The one thing that all SETI projects to date have in common is that they haven't found anything. Indeed, the SETI enterprise, taken as a whole, may be the longest-pursued unsuccessful search for a phenomenon in the entire history of science. The reason people don't abandon the enterprise in disappointment is that detection of a signal from an intelligent extraterrestrial source would have profound consequences for understanding the human species' place in the cosmos, the prospects for long-term survival of technological civilisations, and potential breakthroughs in all fields of knowledge if an advanced species shares their knowledge with beginners barely evolved from apes. Another reason the searchers persist is the knowledge that they've barely scratched the surface of the “search space”, having only examined a minuscule fraction of potential targets in the galaxy, and a limited range of potential frequencies and forms of modulation a communicating civilisation might employ to contact others in the galaxy. Finally, continued advances in electronics and computing are making it possible to broaden the scope of the search at a rapidly increasing rate with modest budgets.

Still, after fifty years of searching (intermittently) and finding nothing, it's worth taking a step back and thinking about what that result might mean. In this book, the author revisits the history of SETI programs to date, the assumptions and logic upon which the targets they seek were based, and argues that while conventional microwave searches for narrowband beacons should continue, it is time for a “new SETI”, based on the original mission—search for extraterrestrial intelligence, not just a search for narrowband microwave signals. “Old SETI” was very much based on assumptions about the properties of potential communicating civilisations grounded in the technologies of the 1950s. A great deal has happened since then technologically (for example, the Earth, as seen from deep space, has increasingly grown “radio dark” as high-power broadcast transmitters have been supplanted by optical fibres, cable television systems, and geosynchronous communication satellites which radiate little energy away from the Earth).

In 1959, the pioneers contemplating a SETI program based on the tools of radio astronomy mostly assumed that the civilisations whose beacons they hoped to discover would be biological organisms much like humans or their descendants, but endowed with the scientific and technological capabilities of a much longer period of time. (For statistical reasons, it is vanishingly improbable that humans would make contact with another intelligent species at a comparable state of development, since humans have had the capability to make contact for less than a century, and if other civilisations are comparably short-lived there will never be more than one in the galaxy at any given time. Hence, any signal we receive will necessarily be from a sender whose own technological civilisation is much older than our own and presumably more advanced and capable.) But it now appears probable that unless human civilisation collapses, stagnates, or is destroyed by barbarism (I put the collective probability of these outcomes at around fifty-fifty), or that some presently unenvisioned constraint puts a lid on the exponential growth of computing and communication capability, that before long, probably within this century, our species will pass through a technological singularity which will witness the emergence of artificial intelligence with intellectual capabilities on the order of 1010 to 1015 times that of present-day humans. Biological humans may continue to exist (after all, the evolution of humans didn't impact the dominance of the biosphere by bacteria), but they will no longer determine the course of technological evolution on this planet and beyond. Asking a present-day human to comprehend the priorities and capabilities of one of these successor beings is like asking a butterfly to understand Beethoven's motivations in writing the Ninth Symphony.

And yet, unless we're missing something terribly important, any aliens we're likely to contact are overwhelmingly probable to be such forbidding machine intelligences, not Romulans, Klingons, Ferengi, or even the Borg. Why would such super beings try to get our attention by establishing interstellar beacons? What would they have to say if they did contact us? Consider: how much effort does our own species exert in making contact with or carrying on a dialogue with yeast? This is the kind of gap which will exist between humans and the products of millions of years of teleological development.

And so, the author argues, while keeping a lookout for those elusive beacons (and also ultra-short laser pulses, which are an alternative mechanism of interstellar signalling unimagined when “old SETI” was born), we should also cast the net much wider, looking for the consequences of an intelligence whose motivations and capabilities we cannot hope to envision. Perhaps they have seeded the galaxy with self-reproducing von Neumann probes, one of which is patiently orbiting in the asteroid belt or at one of the Earth-Sun Lagrangian points waiting to receive a ping from us. (And speaking of that, what about those long delayed echoes anyway?) Maybe their wave of exploration passed by the solar system more than three billion years ago and seeded the Earth with the ancestral cell from which all terrestrial life is descended. Or maybe they left a different kind of life, perhaps in their garbage dumps, which lives on as a “shadow biosphere” to this day, undetected because our surveys for life don't look for biochemistry which is different from that of our own. Heck, maybe they even left a message!

We should also be on the lookout for things which don't belong, like discrepancies in isotope abundances which may be evidence of alien technology in distant geological time, or things which are missing. Where did all of those magnetic monopoles which should have been created in the Big Bang go, anyway? Or maybe they've moved on to some other, richer domain in the universe. According to the consensus model of cosmology, we have no idea whatsoever what more than 95% of the universe is made of. Maybe they've transcended their juvenile baryonic origins and decamped to the greener fields we call, in our ignorance, “dark matter” and “dark energy”. While we're pointing antennas at obsolete stars in the sky, maybe they're already here (and everywhere else), not as UFOs or alien invaders, but super-intelligences made of structures which interact only gravitationally with the thin scum of baryonic matter on top of the rich ocean of the universe. Maybe their galactic Internet traffic is already tickling the mirrors of our gravitational wave detectors at intensities we can't hope to detect with our crude technologies.

Anybody who's interested in these kinds of deep questions about some of the most profound puzzles about our place in the universe will find this book a pure delight. The Kindle edition is superbly produced, with high-resolution colour plates which display beautifully on the iPad Kindle reader, and that rarest and most welcome of attributes in an electronic book, an index which is properly linked to the text. The Kindle edition is, however, more expensive than the hardcover as of this writing.

Posted at 22:37 Permalink