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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reading List: Hunger: An Unnatural History

Russell, Sharman Apt. Hunger: An Unnatural History. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-465-07165-4.
As the author begins this volume, “Hunger is a country we enter every day…”. Our bodies (and especially our hypertrophied brains) require a constant supply of energy, and have only a limited and relatively inefficient means to store excesses and release it upon demand, and consequently we have evolved to have a strong and immediate sense for inadequate nutrition, which in the normal course of things causes us to find something to eat. When we do not eat, regardless of the cause, we experience hunger, which is one of the strongest of somatic sensations. Whether hunger is caused by famine, fasting from ritual or in search of transcendence, forgoing food in favour of others, a deliberate hunger strike with the goal of effecting social or political change, deprivation at the hands of a coercive regime, or self-induced by a dietary regime aimed at improving one's health or appearance, it has the same grip upon the gut and the brain. As I wrote in The Hacker's Diet:

Hunger is a command, not a request. Hunger is looking at your dog curled up sleeping on the rug and thinking, “I wonder how much meat there is beneath all that fur?”

Here, the author explores hunger both at the level of biochemistry (where you may be amazed how much has been learned in the past few decades as to how the body regulates appetite and the fall-back from glucose-based metabolism from food to ketone body energy produced from stored fat, and how the ratio of energy from consumption of muscle mass differs between lean and obese individuals and varies over time) and the historical and social context of hunger. We encounter mystics and saints who fast to discover a higher wisdom or their inner essence; political activists (including Gandhi) willing to starve themselves to the point of death to shame their oppressors into capitulation; peoples whose circumstances have created a perverse (to us, the well-fed) culture built around hunger as the usual state of affairs; volunteers who participated in projects to explore the process of starvation and means to rescue those near death from its consequences; doctors in the Warsaw ghetto who documented the effects of starvation in patients they lacked the resources to save; and the millions of victims of famine in the last two centuries.

In discussing famine, the author appears uncomfortable with the fact, reluctantly alluded to, that famine in the modern era is almost never the result of a shortage of food, but rather the consequence of coercive government either constraining the supply of food or blocking its delivery to those in need. Even in the great Irish famine of the 1840s, Ireland continued to export food even as its population starved. (The author argues that even had the exports been halted, the food would have been inadequate to feed the Irish, but even so, they could have saved some, and this is before considering potential food shipments from the rest of the “Union” to a starving Ireland. [Pardon me if this gets me going—ancestors….]) Certainly today it is beyond dispute that the world produces far more food (at least as measured by calories and principal nutrients) than is needed to feed its population. Consequently, whenever there is a famine, the cause is not a shortage of food but rather an interruption in its delivery to those who need it. While aid programs can help to alleviate crises, and “re-feeding” therapy can rescue those on the brink of death by hunger, the problem will persist until the dysfunctional governments that starve their people and loot aid intended for them are eliminated. Given how those who've starved in recent decades have usually been disempowered minorities, perhaps it would be more effective in the long term to arm them than to feed them.

You will not find such gnarly sentiments in this book, which is very much aligned with the NGO view that famine due to evil coercive dictatorships is just one of those things that happens, like hurricanes. That said, I cannot recommend this book too highly. The biochemical view of hunger and energy storage and release in times of feast and famine alone is worth the price of admission, and the exploration of hunger in religion, politics, and even entertainment puts it over the top. If you're dieting, this may not be the book to read, but on the other hand, maybe it's just the thing.

The author is the daughter of Milburn G. “Mel” Apt, the first human to fly faster than Mach 3, who died when his X-2 research plane crashed after its record-setting flight.

Posted at 23:29 Permalink

Friday, February 24, 2012

Reading List: Launch On Need

Guiteras, Daniel. Launch On Need. Unknown: T-Cell Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-615-37221-1.
An almost universal convention of the alternative history genre is that there is a single point of departure (which I call “the veer”) where an event or fact in the narrative differs from that in the historical record, whence the rest of the story plays out with the same logic and plausibility as what actually happened in our timeline. When this is done well, it makes for engaging and thought-provoking fiction, as there are few things which so engage the cognitive veneer of our ancient brains as asking “what if?” This book is a superb exemplar of this genre, which works both as a thriller and an exploration of how the Space Shuttle program might have coped with the damage to orbiter Columbia due to foam shed from the bipod ramp of the external tank during its launch on STS-107.

Here, the veer is imagining NASA remained the kind of “can do”, “whatever it takes” organisation that it was in the early days of space flight through the rescue of Apollo 13 instead of the sclerotic bureaucracy it had become in the Shuttle era (and remains today). Dismissing evidence of damage to Columbia's thermal protection system (TPS) due to a foam strike, and not even seeking imagery from spy satellites, NASA's passive “managers” sighed and said “nothing could be done anyway” and allowed the crew to complete their mission and die during re-entry.

This needn't have happened. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) explored whether a rescue mission (PDF, scroll down to page 173), mounted as soon as possible after the possible damage to Columbia's TPS was detected, might have been able to rescue the crew before the expendables aboard Columbia were exhausted. Their conclusion? A rescue mission was possible, but only at the cost of cutting corners on safety margins and assuming nothing went wrong in the process of bringing the rescue shuttle, Atlantis, to the pad and launching her.

In this novel, the author takes great care to respect the dead, only referring to members of Columbia's crew by their crew positions such as “commander” or “mission specialist”, and invents names for those in NASA involved in the management of the actual mission. He draws upon the CAIB-envisioned rescue mission, including tables and graphics from their report, while humanising their dry prose with views of events as they unfold by fallible humans living them.

You knew this was coming, didn't you? You were waiting for it—confess! So here we go, into the quibbles. Some of these are substantial spoilers, so be warned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Page numbers in the items below are from the Kindle edition, in which page numbers and their correspondence to print editions tend to be somewhat fluid. Consequently, depending upon how you arrive there, the page number in your edition may differ by ±1 page.

On p. 2, Brown “knew E208 was a high-resolution video camera…” which “By T-plus-240 seconds … had run through 1,000 feet of film.”
Video cameras do not use film. The confusion between video and film persists for several subsequent chapters.
On p. 5 the fifth Space Shuttle orbiter constructed is referred to as “Endeavor”.
In fact, this ship's name is properly spelled “Endeavour”, named after the Royal Navy research ship.
On p. 28 “…the crew members spent an additional 3,500 hundred hours studying and training…”
That's forty years—I think not.
On p. 55 Kalpana Chawla is described as a “female Indian astronaut.”
While Chawla was born in India, she became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and presumably relinquished her Indian citizenship in the process of naturalisation.
On p. 57 “Both [STS-107] astronauts selected for this EVA have previous spacewalk experience…”.
In fact, none of the STS-107 astronauts had ever performed an EVA.
On p. 65 “Normally, when spacewalks were part of the mission plan, the entire cabin of the orbiter was decompressed at least 24 hours prior to the start of the spacewalk.”
Are you crazy! EVA crewmembers pre-breathe pure oxygen in the cabin, then adapt to the low pressure of the spacesuit in the airlock, but the Shuttle cabin is never depressurised. If it were what would the other crewmembers breathe—Fireball XL5 oxygen pills?
On p. 75 the EVA astronaut looks out from Columbia's airlock and sees Cape Horn.
But the mission has been launched into an inclination of 39 degrees, so Cape Horn (55°59' S) should be out of sight to the South. Here is the view from Columbia's altitude on a pass over South America at the latitude of Cape Horn.
On p. 221 the countdown clock is said to have been “stuck on nine minutes zero seconds for the past three hours and twenty-seven minutes.”
The T−9 minute hold is never remotely that long. It's usually on the order of 10 to 20 minutes. If there were a reason for such a long hold, it would have been performed much earlier in the count. In any case, given the short launch window for the rendezvous, there'd be no reason for a long planned hold, and an unplanned hold would have resulted in a scrub of the mission until the next alignment with the plane of Columbia's orbit.
On p. 271 the crew of Atlantis open the payload bay doors shortly before the rendezvous with Columbia.
This makes no sense. Shuttles have to open their payload bay doors shortly after achieving orbit so that the radiators can discard heat. Atlantis would have opened its payload bay doors on the first orbit, not 24 hours later whilst approaching Columbia.
On p. 299 the consequences of blowing the crew ingress/egress hatch with the pyrotechnics is discussed.
There is no reason to consider doing this. From the inception of the shuttle program, the orbiter hatch has been able to be opened from the inside. The crew need only depressurise the orbiter and then operate the hatch opening mechanism.
On p. 332 “Standing by for communications blackout.”
The communications blackout is a staple of spaceflight drama but, in the shuttle era described in this novel, a thing of the past. While communications from the ground are blocked by plasma during reentry, communications from the shuttle routed through the TDRSS satellites are available throughout reentry except for brief periods when the orbiter's antennas are not aimed at the relay satellite overhead.
On p. 349 an Aegis guided missile cruiser shoots down the abandoned Columbia.
Where do I start? A space shuttle orbiter weighs about 100 tonnes. An SM-3 has a kinetic kill energy of around 130 megajoules, which is impressive, but is likely to pass through the structure of the shuttle, dispersing some debris, but leaving most of the mass behind. But let's suppose Columbia were dispersed into her component parts. Well, then the massive parts, such as the three main engines, would remain in orbit even longer, freed of the high-drag encumbrance of the rest of the structure, and come down hot and hard at random places around the globe. Probably, they'd splash in the ocean, but maybe they wouldn't—we'll never know.
Spoilers end here.  

While it's fun to spot and research goofs like these, I found they did not detract in any way from enjoyment of the novel, which is a perfectly plausible alternative history of Columbia's last mission.

Posted at 20:35 Permalink

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reading List: The End

Kershaw, Ian. The End. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-59420-314-5.
Ian Kershaw is the author of the definitive two-volume biography of Hitler: Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis (both of which I read before I began keeping this list). In the present volume he tackles one of the greatest puzzles of World War II: why did Germany continue fighting to the bitter end, when the Red Army was only blocks from Hitler's bunker, and long after it was apparent to those in the Nazi hierarchy, senior military commanders, industrialists, and the general populace that the war was lost and continuing the conflict would only prolong the suffering, inflict further casualties, and further devastate the infrastructure upon which survival in a postwar world would depend? It is, as the author notes, quite rare in the history of human conflict that the battle has to be taken all the way to the leader of an opponent in his capital city: Mussolini was deposed by his own Grand Council of Fascism and the king of Italy, and Japan surrendered before a single Allied soldier set foot upon the Home Islands (albeit after the imposition of a total blockade, the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, and the destruction of two cities by atomic bombs).

In addressing this question, the author recounts the last year of the war in great detail, starting with the Stauffenberg plot, which attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944. In the aftermath of this plot, a ruthless purge of those considered unreliable in the military and party ensued (in the Wehrmacht alone, around 700 officers were arrested and 110 executed), those who survived were forced to swear personal allegiance to Hitler, and additional informants and internal repression were unleashed to identify and mete out summary punishment for any perceived disloyalty or defeatist sentiment. This, in effect, aligned those who might have opposed Hitler with his own personal destiny and made any overt expression of dissent from his will to hold out to the end tantamount to suicide.

But the story does not end there. Letters from soldiers at the front, meticulously catalogued by the censors of the SD and summarised in reports to Goebbels's propaganda ministry, indicate that while morale deteriorated in the last year of the war, fear of the consequences of a defeat, particularly at the hands of the Red Army, motivated many to keep on fighting. Propaganda highlighted the atrocities committed by the “Asian Bolshevik hordes” but, if exaggerated, was grounded in fact, as the Red Army was largely given a free hand if not encouraged to exact revenge for German war crimes on Soviet territory.

As the dénouement approached, those in Hitler's inner circle, who might have otherwise moved against him under other circumstances, were paralysed by the knowledge that their own authority flowed entirely from him, and that any hint of disloyalty would cause them to be dismissed or worse (as had already happened to several). With the Party and its informants and enforcers having thoroughly infiltrated the military and civilian population, there was simply no chance for an opposition movement to establish itself. Certainly there were those, particularly on the Western front, who did as little as possible and waited for the British and Americans to arrive (the French—not so much: reprisals under the zones they occupied had already inspired fear among those in their path). But finally, as long as Hitler was determined to resist to the very last and willing to accept the total destruction of the German people who he deemed to have “failed him”, there was simply no counterpoise which could oppose him and put an end to the conflict. Tellingly, only a week after Hitler's death, his successor, Karl Dönitz, ordered the surrender of Germany.

This is a superb, thoughtful, and thoroughly documented (indeed, almost 40% of the book is source citations and notes) account of the final days of the Third Reich and an enlightening and persuasive argument as to why things ended as they did.

As with all insightful works of history, the reader may be prompted to see parallels in other epochs and current events. Personally, I gained a great deal of insight into the ongoing financial crisis and the increasingly futile efforts of those who brought it about to (as the tired phrase, endlessly repeated) “kick the can down the road” rather than make the structural changes which might address the actual causes of the problem. Now, I'm not calling the central bankers, politicians, or multinational bank syndicates Nazis—I'm simply observing that as the financial apocalypse approaches they're behaving in much the same way as the Hitler regime did in its own final days: trying increasingly desperate measures to buy first months, then weeks, then days, and ultimately hours before “The End”. Much as was the case with Hitler's inner circle, those calling the shots in the international financial system simply cannot imagine a world in which it no longer exists, or their place in such a world, so they continue to buy time, whatever the cost or how small the interval, to preserve the reference frame in which they exist. The shudder of artillery can already be felt in the bunker.

Posted at 22:12 Permalink

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reading List: Lunar Impact

Hall, R. Cargill. Lunar Impact. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1977. ISBN 978-0-486-47757-2. NASA SP-4210.
One of the wonderful things about the emergence of electronic books is that long out-of-print works from publishers' back-lists are becoming available once again since the cost of keeping them in print, after the initial conversion to an electronic format, is essentially zero. The U.S. civilian space agency NASA is to be commended for their efforts to make publications in their NASA history series available electronically at a bargain price. Many of these documents, chronicling the early days of space exploration from a perspective only a few years after the events, have been out of print for decades and some command forbidding prices on used book markets. Those interested in reading them, as opposed to collectors, now have an option as inexpensive as it is convenient to put these works in their hands.

The present volume, originally published in 1977, chronicles Project Ranger, NASA's first attempt to obtain “ground truth” about the surface of the Moon by sending probes to crash on its surface, radioing back high-resolution pictures, measuring its composition, and hard-landing scientific instruments on the surface to study the Moon's geology. When the project was begun in 1959, it was breathtakingly ambitious—so much so that one gets the sense those who set its goals did not fully appreciate the difficulty of accomplishing them. Ranger was to be not just a purpose-built lunar probe, but rather a general-purpose “bus” for lunar and planetary missions which could be equipped with different scientific instruments depending upon the destination and goals of the flight. It would incorporate, for the first time in a deep space mission, three-axis stabilisation, a steerable high-gain antenna, midcourse and terminal trajectory correction, an onboard (albeit extremely primitive) computer, real-time transmission of television imagery, support by a global Deep Space Network of tracking stations which did not exist before Ranger, sterilisation of the spacecraft to protect against contamination of celestial bodies by terrestrial organisms, and a retro-rocket and landing capsule which would allow rudimentary scientific instruments to survive thumping down on the Moon and transmit their results back to Earth.

This was a great deal to bite off, and as those charged with delivering upon these lofty goals discovered, extremely difficult to chew, especially in a period where NASA was still in the process of organising itself and lines of authority among NASA Headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (charged with developing the spacecraft and conducting the missions) and the Air Force (which provided the Atlas-Agena launch vehicle that propelled Ranger to the Moon) were ill-defined and shifting frequently. This, along with the inherent difficulty of what was being attempted, contributed to results which can scarcely be imagined in an era of super-conservative mission design: six consecutive failures between 1961 and 1964, with a wide variety of causes. Even in the early days of spaceflight, this was enough to get the attention of the press, politicians, and public, and it was highly probable that had Ranger 7 also failed, it would be the end of the program. But it didn't—de-scoped to just a camera platform, it performed flawlessly and provided the first close-up glimpse of the Moon's surface. Rangers 8 and 9 followed, both complete successes, with the latter relaying pictures “live from the Moon” to televisions of viewers around the world. To this day I recall seeing them and experiencing a sense of wonder which is difficult to appreciate in our jaded age.

Project Ranger provided both the technology and experience base used in the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury. While the scientific results of Ranger were soon eclipsed by those of the Surveyor soft landers, it is unlikely that program would have succeeded without learning the painful lessons from Ranger.

The electronic edition of this book appears to have been created by scanning a print copy and running it through an optical character recognition program, then performing a spelling check and fixing errors it noted. However, no close proofreading appears to have been done, so that scanning errors which resulted in words in the spelling dictionary were not corrected. This results in a number of goofs in the text, some of which are humorous. My favourite is the phrase “midcourse correction bum [burn]” which occurs on several occasions. I imagine a dissipated wino with his trembling finger quivering above a big red “FIRE” button at a console at JPL. British readers may…no, I'm not going there. Illustrations from the original book are scanned and included as tiny thumbnails which cannot be enlarged. This is adequate for head shots of people, but for diagrams, charts, and photographs of hardware and the lunar surface, next to useless. References to endnotes in the text look like links but (at least reading the Kindle edition on an iPad) do nothing. These minor flaws do not seriously detract from the glimpse this work provides of unmanned planetary exploration at its moment of creation or the joy that this account is once again readily available.

Unlike many of the NASA history series, a paperback reprint edition is available, published by Dover. It is, however, much more expensive than the electronic edition.

Update: Reader J. Peterson writes that a free on-line edition of this book is available on NASA's Web site, in which the illustrations may be clicked to view full-resolution images.

Posted at 22:06 Permalink

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Recipes: Fourmilab Can't Fail Paleo Egg Salad

You don't need to give up egg salad when you go paleo! Yes, you'll have to forgo the sandwich, but the best part is the yummy filling, not the bread, so prepare to feast upon the unalloyed core, which is totally paleo. Here's what you need:

Ingredient Quantity
Hard boiled eggs 4
Omega 3 Mayonnaise 4 Tbsp
Chopped green onion 2 Tbsp
Dijon mustard 1 tsp
Cayenne pepper 1/8 tsp

As a fervent believer in division of labour, I buy “pique-nique” eggs already hard boiled. These often run to the small side, and if they're seriously dinky, you might want to use five instead of four. If you prefer to boil your own eggs, here are foolproof instructions.

Peel the hard boiled eggs and throw them and the rest of the ingredients into a bowl and mash and stir until they're well mixed.

If you can't handle the heat, dispense with the cayenne pepper; if you're a hothead (like me) go wild with it. If you can't get green onions, or you prefer a crunchier onion experience, use chopped hard yellow onion instead.

This is best if you make it up, put it in the frigo, and serve it the next day, stirring it immediately before bringing it to the table. This makes about two servings, or one if it's your one meal a day.

Posted at 01:21 Permalink