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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Reading List: The First Commandment

Thor, Brad. The First Commandment. New York: Pocket Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4516-3566-9.
This is the sixth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In the aftermath of the shocking conclusion to the previous novel, Takedown (November 2011), Department of Homeland Security agent Scot Harvath discovers that he, personally, has become the target of a plot by person or persons unknown, aimed at individuals close to him in a series of attacks of Biblical proportions.

When he starts to follow the trail of evidence back to the source, he is told to stand down by no less than the president of the United States, who declines to specify a reason. Harvath is not a man easily dissuaded, especially when convinced that his loved ones and colleagues are in imminent danger simply due to their association with him, and he goes rogue, enlisting friends in the shadowy world of private security to dig into the mystery. This doesn't sit well with the president, who puts Harvath on a proscription list and dispatches a CIA “Omega Team” to deal with him. At one point a CIA agent and friend, to whom Harvath protests that he has every right to protect those close to him, responds “You don't have any rights. Jack Rutledge is the president of the United States. When he tells you to do something, you do it.” (At this point, I'd have preferred if Harvath decked the CIA goon and explained to him that his rights come from God, not the president of the United States, and that while a politician may try to infringe those rights, they remain inherent to every person. But maybe Harvath has been working so long for the slavers that he's forgotten that.)

As Harvath follows the murky threads, he comes across evidence which suggests a cover-up extending into the oval office, and is forced into an uneasy détente with his nemesis, the pint-sized supervillain known as the Troll, whose data mining prowess permits connecting the dots in an otherwise baffling situation. (People in Harvath's line of work tend not to lack for enemies, after all.)

I found this to be the best Brad Thor novel I've read so far—it's lighter on the action and gadgets and more concentrated on the mystery and the motivations of the malefactors. I prefer to read a series of novels in the order in which they describe the life of the protagonist. This book does contain sufficient background and context so that it will work as a stand-alone thriller, but if you haven't read the previous novels, you'll miss a lot of the complexity of Harvath's relationships with characters who appear here.

Posted at 16:52 Permalink

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reading List: The Litigators

Grisham, John. The Litigators. New York: Bantam Books, [2011] 2012. ISBN 978-0-345-53688-4.
Every now and then you come across a novel where it's obvious, from the first few pages, that the author had an absolute blast telling the story, and when that's the case, the reader is generally in for a treat. This is certainly the case here.

David Zinc appeared to have it all. A Harvard Law graduate, senior associate at Chicago mega-firm Rogan Rothberg working in international bond finance, earning US$300,000 a year, with a good shot of making partner (where the real gravy train pulls into the station); he had the house, the car, and a beautiful wife pursuing her Ph.D. in art history. And then one grim Chicago morning, heading to the office for another exhausting day doing work he detested with colleagues he loathed, enriching partners he considered odious (and knowing that, if he eventually joined their ranks, the process of getting there would have made him just the same), he snapped. Suddenly, as the elevator ascended, he realised as clearly as anything he'd ever known in his life, “I cannot do this any more”.

And so, he just walked away, found a nearby bar that was open before eight in the morning, and decided to have breakfast. A Bloody Mary would do just fine, thanks, and then another and another. After an all day bender, blowing off a client meeting and infuriating his boss, texting his worried wife that all was well despite the frantic calls to her from the office asking where he was, he hails a taxi not sure where he wants to go, then, spotting an advertisement on the side of a bus, tells the driver to take him to the law offices of Finley & Figg, Attorneys.

This firm was somewhat different than the one he'd walked out of earlier that day. Oscar Finley and Wally Figg described their partnership as a “boutique firm”, but their stock in trade was quicky no-fault divorces, wills, drunk driving, and that mainstay of ground floor lawyering, personal accident cases. The firm's modest office was located near a busy intersection which provided an ongoing source of business, and the office was home to a dog named AC (for Ambulance Chaser), whose keen ears could pick up the sound of a siren even before a lawyer could hear it.

Staggering into the office, David offers his services as a new associate and, by soused bravado more than Harvard Law credentials, persuades the partners that the kid has potential, whereupon they sign him up. David quickly discovers an entire world of lawyering they don't teach at Harvard: where lawyers carry handguns in their briefcases along with legal pads, and with good reason; where making the rounds of prospective clients involves visiting emergency rooms and funeral homes, and where dissatisfied clients express their frustration in ways that go well beyond drafting a stern memorandum.

Soon, the firm stumbles onto what may be a once in a lifetime bonanza: a cholesterol drug called Krayoxx (no relation to Vioxx—none at all) which seems to cause those who take it to drop dead with heart attacks and strokes. This vaults the three-lawyer firm into the high-rolling world of mass tort litigation, with players with their own private jets and golf courses. Finley & Figg ends up at the pointy end of the spear in the litigation, which doesn't precisely go as they had hoped.

I'd like to quote one of the funniest paragraphs I've read in some time, but as there are minor spoilers in it, I'll put it behind the curtain. This is the kind of writing you'll be treated to in this novel.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
While Wally doodled on a legal pad as if he were heavily medicated, Oscar did most of the talking. “So, either we get rid of these cases and face financial ruin, or we march into federal court three weeks from Monday with a case that no lawyer in his right mind would try before a jury, a case with no liability, no experts, no decent facts, a client who's crazy half the time and stoned the other half, a client whose dead husband weighed 320 pounds and basically ate himself to death, a veritable platoon of highly paid and very skilled lawyers on the other side with an unlimited budget and experts from the finest hospitals in the country, a judge who strongly favors the other side, a judge who doesn't like us at all because he thinks we're inexperienced and incompetent, and, well, what else? What am I leaving out here, David?”

“We have no cash for litigation expenses,” David said, but only to complete the checklist.

Spoilers end here.  

This story is not just funny, but also a tale of how a lawyer, in diving off the big law rat race into the gnarly world of retail practice rediscovers his soul and that there are actually noble and worthy aspects of the law. The characters are complex and interact in believable ways, and the story unfolds as such matters might well do in the real world. There is quite a bit in common between this novel and The King of Torts (March 2004), but while that is a tragedy of hubris and nemesis, this is a tale of redemption.

Posted at 21:23 Permalink

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reading List: The True Gold Standard

Lehrman, Lewis E. The True Gold Standard. Greenwich, CT: Lehrman Institute, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9840178-0-5.
Nothing is more obvious than that the global financial system is headed for an inevitable crack-up of epic proportions. Fiat (paper) money systems usually last about forty years before imploding in the collapse of the credit expansion bubbles they predictably create. We are now 41 years after the United States broke the link between the world's reserve currency, the U.S. dollar, and gold. Since then, every currency in the world has been “floating”—decoupled from any physical backing, and valued only by comparison with the others. Uniquely in human history, all of the world now uses paper money, and they are all interlinked in a global market where shifts in sentiment or confidence can cause trillion dollar excursions in the wealth of nations in milliseconds. The risk of “contagion”, where loss of confidence in one paper currency causes a rush to the next, followed by attempts to limit its appreciation by its issuer, and a cascading race to the bottom has never been greater. The great currency and societal collapses of the past, while seeming apocalyptic to those living through them, were local; the next one is likely to be all-encompassing, with consequences which are difficult to imagine without venturing into speculative fiction.

I believe the only way to avoid this cataclysm is to get rid of all of the debt which can never be repaid and promises which can never be met, pop the credit bubble, and replace the funny money upon which the entire delusional system is based with the one standard which has stood the test of millennia: gold. If you were designing a simulation for people to live in and wanted to provide an ideal form of money, it would be hard to come up with something better than element 79. It doesn't corrode or degrade absent exposure to substances so foul as to make even thrill-seeking chemists recoil; it's easily divisible into quantities as small as one wishes, easy to certify as genuine; and has few applications which consume it, which means that the above-ground supply is essentially constant. It is also very difficult and costly to mine, which means that the supply grows almost precisely in synchronism with that of the world's population and their wealth—consequently, as a monetary standard it supports a stable price level, incapable of manipulation by politicians, bankers, or other criminal classes, and is freely exchangeable by free people everywhere without the constraints imposed by the slavers upon users of their currencies.

Now, when one discusses the gold standard, there is a standard litany of objections from those bought in to the status quo.

  • It's a step back into the past.
  • There isn't enough gold to go around.
  • It's inflexible and unable to cope with today's dynamic economy.
  • There's no way to get from here to there.

This book dispenses with these arguments in order. If we step back from the abyss of a financial cataclysm into a past with stable prices, global free trade, and the ability to make long-term investments which benefitted everybody, what's so bad about that? It doesn't matter how much gold there is—all that matters is that the quantity doesn't change at the whim of politicians: existing currencies will have to be revalued against gold, but the process of doing so will write down unpayable debts and restore solvency to the international financial system. A gold standard is inflexible by design: that's its essential feature, not a bug. Flexibility in a modern economy is provided by the myriad means of extension of credit, all of which will be anchored to reality by a stable unit of exchange. Finally, this work provides a roadmap for getting from here to there, with a period of price discovery preceding full convertibility of paper money to gold and the possibility of the implementation of convertibility being done either by a single country (creating a competitive advantage for its currency) or by a group of issuers of currencies working together. The author assumes the first currency to link to gold will be called the dollar, but I'll give equal odds it will be called the dinar, yuan, or rouble. It is difficult to get from here to there, but one must never forget the advantage that accrues to he who gets there first.

The assumption throughout is that the transition from the present paper money system to gold-backed currencies is continuous. While this is an outcome much to be preferred, I think it is, given the profligate nature of the ruling classes and their willingness to postpone any difficult decisions even to buy a mere week or two, not the way to bet. Still, even if we find ourselves crawling from the wreckage of a profoundly corrupt international financial system, this small book provides an excellent roadmap for rebuilding a moral, equitable, and sustainable system which will last for five decades or so…until the slavers win office again.

This is a plan which assumes existing institutions more or less stay in place, and that government retains its power to mandate currency at gunpoint. A softer path to hard currency might simply be allowing competing currencies, all exempt from tax upon conversion, to be used in transactions, contracts, and financial instruments. I might choose to use grammes of gold; you may prefer Euros; my neighbour may opt for Saudi certificates redeemable in barrels of crude oil; and the newlyweds down the street may go for Iowa coins exchangeable for a bushel of corn. The more the better! They'll all be seamlessly exchangeable for one another at market rates when we beam them to one another with our mobile phones or make payments, and the best ones will endure. The only losers will be archaic institutions like central banks, governments, and their treasuries. The winners will be people who created the wealth and are empowered to store and exchange it as they wish.

Posted at 22:15 Permalink

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Reading List: Red Thunder

Varley, John. Red Thunder. New York: Ace, 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-01162-9.
In my review of Ark (June 2012), I wrote that one of the most time-tested forms of science fiction was assuming a counterfactual (based upon present knowledge and conventional wisdom) and then spinning out the consequences which follow logically from it. While Ark was a disappointment, this full-on romp shows just how well the formula works when employed by a master of the genre. First, one must choose the counterfactual carefully. In this case Varley vaults over the stumbling block of most near-future science fiction and harks back to Doc Smith's Skylark novels by asking, “What if propulsion were not the problem?”.

This sets the stage for the kind of story many might have thought laughably obsolete in the 21st century: a bunch of intrepid misfits building their own spaceship and blasting off for Mars, beating en-route Chinese and American expeditions, and demonstrating their world-transforming technology in a way that no government would be able to seize for its own benefit. The characters are not supermen, but rather people so like those you know that they're completely believable, and they develop in the story as they find themselves, largely through the luck of being in the right place at the right time, able to accomplish extraordinary things. There are plenty of laughs along the way, as well as the deeply moving backstory of the characters, especially that of the semi-autistic savant Jubal Broussard who stumbles onto the discovery that changes everything for humanity, forever. His cousin, disgraced ex-astronaut Travis Broussard, gets to experience the “heady feeling to put the President on hold, refuse an order, and hang up on her, all in the space of ten minutes.” (p. 392)

The novel, dedicated to Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein, is the peer of their greatest works and an absolute hoot—enjoy!

Posted at 21:19 Permalink

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reading List: Strange Angel

Pendle, George. Strange Angel. New York: Harcourt, 2005. ISBN 978-0-15-603179-0.
For those who grew up after World War II “rocket science” meant something extremely difficult, on the very edge of the possible, pursued by the brightest of the bright, often at risk of death or dire injury. In the first half of the century, however, “rocket” was a pejorative, summoning images of pulp magazines full of “that Buck Rogers stuff”, fireworks that went fwoosh—flash—bang if all went well, and often in the other order when it didn't, with aspiring rocketeers borderline lunatics who dreamed of crazy things like travelling to the Moon but usually ended blowing things up, including, but not limited to, themselves.

This was the era in which John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons came of age. Parsons was born and spent most of his life in Pasadena, California, a community close enough to Los Angeles to participate in its frontier, “anything goes” culture, but also steeped in well-heeled old wealth, largely made in the East and seeking the perpetually clement climate of southern California. Parsons was attracted to things that went fwoosh and bang from the very start. While still a high school senior, he was hired by the Hercules Powder Company, and continued to support himself as an explosives chemist for the rest of his life. He never graduated from college, no less pursued an advanced degree, but his associates and mentors, including legends such as Theodore von Kármán were deeply impressed by his knowledge and meticulously careful work with dangerous substances and gave him their highest recommendations. On several occasions he was called as an expert witness to testify in high-profile trials involving bombings.

And yet, at the time, to speak seriously about rockets was as outré as to admit one was a fan of “scientifiction” (later science fiction), or a believer in magic. Parsons was all-in on all of them. An avid reader of science fiction and member of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Parsons rubbed shoulders with Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Forrest J. Ackerman. On the darker side, Parsons became increasingly involved in the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), followers of Aleister Crowley, and practitioners of his “magick”. One gets the sense that Parsons saw no conflict whatsoever among these pursuits—all were ways to transcend the prosaic everyday life and explore a universe enormously larger and stranger than even that of Los Angeles and its suburbs.

Parsons and his small band of rocket enthusiasts, “the suicide squad”, formed an uneasy alliance with the aeronautical laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and with access to their resources and cloak of respectability, pursued their dangerous experiments first on campus, and then after a few embarrassing misadventures, in Arroyo Seco behind Pasadena. With the entry of the United States into World War II, the armed services had difficult problems to solve which overcame the giggle factor of anything involving the word “rocket”. In particular, the U.S. Navy had an urgent need to launch heavily-laden strike aircraft from short aircraft carrier decks (steam catapults were far in the future), and were willing to consider even Buck Rogers rockets to get them off the deck. Well, at least as long as you didn't call them “rockets”! So, the Navy sought to procure “Jet Assisted Take-Off” units, and Caltech created the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” with Parsons as a founder to develop them, and then its members founded the Aerojet Engineering Corporation to build them in quantity. Nope, no rockets around here, nowhere—just jets.

Even as Parsons' rocket dreams came true and began to make him wealthy, he never forsook his other interests: they were all integral to him. He advanced in Crowley's OTO, became a regular correspondent of the Great Beast, and proprietor of the OTO lodge in Pasadena, home to a motley crew of bohemians who prefigured the beatniks and hippies of the 1950s and '60s. And he never relinquished his interest in science fiction, taking author L. Ron Hubbard into his community. Hubbard, a world class grifter even in his early days, took off with Parsons' girlfriend and most of his savings on the promise of buying yachts in Florida and selling them at a profit in California. Uh-huh! I'd put it down to destructive engrams.

Amidst all of this turmoil, Parsons made one of the most important inventions in practical rocketry of the 20th century. Apart from the work of Robert Goddard, which occurred largely disconnected from others due to Goddard's obsessive secrecy due to his earlier humiliation by learned ignoramuses, and the work by the German rocket team, conducted in secrecy in Nazi Germany, rockets mostly meant solid rockets, and solid rockets were little changed from mediaeval China: tubes packed with this or that variant of black powder which went fwoosh all at once when ignited. Nobody before Parsons saw an alternative to this. When faced by the need for a reliable, storable, long-duration burn propellant for Navy JATO boosters, he came up with the idea of castable solid propellant (initially based upon asphalt and potassium perchlorate), which could be poured as a liquid into a booster casing with a grain shape which permitted tailoring the duration and thrust profile of the motor to the mission requirements. Every single solid rocket motor used today employs this technology, and Jack Parsons, high school graduate and self-taught propulsion chemist, invented it all by himself.

On June 17th, 1952, an explosion destroyed a structure on Pasadena's Orange Grove Avenue where Jack Parsons had set up his home laboratory prior to his planned departure with his wife to Mexico. He said he had just one more job to do for his client, a company producing explosives for Hollywood special effects. Parsons was gravely injured and pronounced dead at the hospital.

The life of Jack Parsons was one which could only have occurred in the time and place he lived it. It was a time when a small band of outcasts could have seriously imagined building a rocket and travelling to the Moon; a time when the community they lived in was aboil with new religions, esoteric cults, and alternative lifestyles; and an entirely new genre of fiction was exploring the ultimate limits of the destiny of humanity and its descendents. Jack swam in this sea and relished it. His short life (just 37 years) was lived in a time and place which has never existed before and likely will never exist again. The work he did, the people he influenced, and the consequences cast a long shadow still visible today (every time you see a solid rocket booster heave a launcher off the pad, its coruscant light, casting that shadow, is Jack Parsons' legacy). This is a magnificent account of a singular life which changed our world, and is commemorated on the rock next door. On the lunar far side the 40 kilometre diameter crater Parsons is named for the man who dreamt of setting foot, by rocketry or magick, upon that orb and, in his legacy, finally did with a big footprint indeed—more than eight times larger than the one named for that Armstrong fellow.

Posted at 23:40 Permalink

Friday, July 6, 2012

Reading List: The Liberty Intrigue

Grace, Tom. The Liberty Intrigue. Unknown: Dunlap Goddard, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9656040-1-7.
This novel is a kind of parallel-universe account of the 2012 presidential election in the United States. Rather than the actual contest, featuring a GOP challenger who inspires the kind of enthusiasm as week-old left-over boiled broccoli, here an outsider, a Yooper engineer, Ross Egan, who has spent his adult life outside the U.S. and shared the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a bloody conflict in an African nation and helping to bring about an economic renaissance for its people, returns to the land of his birth and is persuaded to seek the presidency in a grass-roots, no-party bid.

Intrigue swirls around the contest from all sides. The incumbent and his foreign-born billionaire speculator backer launch an “operation chaos” intervention in open primary states intended to ensure no Republican arrives at the convention with a majority; a shadowy Internet group calling itself “WHO IS I” (based upon the grammar, I'd start with looking at those who frequent the Slashdot site) makes its presence known by a series of highly visible hack attacks and then sets itself up as an independent real-time fact-checker of the pronouncements of politicians. Opposition research turns up discrepancies in the origin of Egan's vast fortune, and a potentially devastating secret which can be sprung upon him in the last days of the campaign.

This just didn't work for me. The novel attempts to be a thriller but never actually manages to be thrilling. There are unexplained holes in the plot (Egan's energy invention is even more airy in its description than John Galt's motor) and characters often seem to act in ways that just aren't consistent with what we know of them and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Finally, the novel ends with the election, when the really interesting part would be what happens in its aftermath. All in all, if you're looking for a U.S. presidential election thriller and don't mind it being somewhat dated, I'd recommend Aaron Zelman and L. Neil Smith's Hope (March 2002) instead of this book.

I use “Unknown” as the publisher's domicile in the citation above because neither the book nor the contact page on the publisher's Web site provides this information. A WHOIS query on their domain name indicates it is hidden behind a front named “Domain Discreet Privacy Service” of Jacksonville, Florida. Way to go with the transparency and standing up in public for what you believe, guys!

Posted at 21:54 Permalink

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reading List: Did Muhammad Exist?

Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist? Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61017-061-1.
In 1851, Ernest Renan wrote that Islam “was born in the full light of history…”. But is this the case? What do we actually know of the origins of Islam, the life of its prophet, and the provenance of its holy book? In this thoroughly researched and documented investigation the author argues that the answer to these questions is very little indeed, and that contemporary evidence for the existence of a prophet in Arabia who proclaimed a scripture, led the believers into battle and prevailed, unifying the peninsula, and lived the life documented in the Muslim tradition is entirely nonexistent during the time of Muhammad's supposed life, and did not emerge until decades, and in many cases, more than a century later. Further, the historical record shows clear signs, acknowledged by contemporary historians, of having been fabricated by rival factions contending for power in the emerging Arab empire.

What is beyond dispute is that in the century and a quarter between A.D. 622 and 750, Arab armies erupted from the Arabian peninsula and conquered an empire spanning three continents, propagating a change in culture, governance, and religion which remains in effect in much of that region today. The conventional story is that these warriors were the armies of Islam, following their prophet's command to spread the word of their God and bearing his holy writ, the Qur'an, before them as they imposed it upon those they subdued by the sword. But what is the evidence for this?

When you look for it, it's remarkably scanty. As the peoples conquered by the Arab armies were, in many cases, literate, they have left records of their defeat. And in every case, they speak of the invaders as “Hagarians”, “Ishmaelites”, “Muhajirun”, or “Saracens”, and in none of these records is there a mention of an Arab prophet, much less one named “Muhammad”, or of “Islam”, or of a holy book called the “Qur'an”.

Now, for those who study the historical foundations of Christianity or Judaism, these results will be familiar—when you trace the origins of a great religious tradition back to its roots, you often discover that they disappear into a fog of legend which believers must ultimately accept on faith since historical confirmation, at this remove, is impossible. This has been the implicit assumption of those exploring the historical foundations of the Bible for at least two centuries, but it is considered extremely “edgy” to pose these questions about Islam, even today. This is because when you do, the believers are prone to use edgy weapons to cut your head off. Jews and Christians have gotten beyond this, and just shake their heads and chuckle. So some say it takes courage to raise these questions about Islam. I'd say “some” are the kind of cowards who opposed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, freeing it from the priesthood and placing it in the hands of anybody who could read. And if any throat-slitter should be irritated by these remarks and be inclined to act upon them, be advised that I not only shoot back but, circumstances depending, first.

I find the author's conclusion very plausible. After the Arab conquest, its inheritors found themselves in command of a multicontinental empire encompassing a large number of subject peoples and a multitude of cultures and religious traditions. If you were the ruler of such a newly-cobbled-together empire, wouldn't you be motivated, based upon the experience of those you have subdued, to promulgate a state religion, proclaimed in the language of the conquerer, which demanded submission? Would you not base that religion upon the revelation of a prophet, speaking to the conquerers in their own language, which came directly from God?

It is often observed that Islam, unlike the other Abrahamic religions, is uniquely both a religious and political system, leading inevitably to theocracy (which I've always believed misnamed—I'd have no problem with theocracy: rule by God; it's rule by people claiming to act in His name that always seems to end badly). But what if Islam is so intensely political precisely because it was invented to support a political agenda—that of the Arabic Empire of the Umayyad Caliphate? It's not that Islam is political because its doctrine encompasses politics as well as religion; it's that's it's political because it was designed that way by the political rulers who directed the compilation of its sacred books, its traditions, and spread it by the sword to further their imperial ambitions.

Posted at 00:23 Permalink