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Monday, November 26, 2012

Reading List: Agenda 21

Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke. Agenda 21. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4767-1669-5.
In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (“Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, an action plan for “sustainable development” titled “Agenda 21” was adopted. It has since been endorsed by the governments of 178 countries, including the United States, where it was signed by president George H. W. Bush (not being a formal treaty, it was not submitted to the Senate for ratification). An organisation called Local Governments for Sustainability currently has more than 1200 member towns, cities, and counties in 70 countries, including more than 500 in the United States signed on to the program. Whenever you hear a politician talking about environmental “sustainability” or the “precautionary principle”, it's a good bet the ideas they're promoting can be traced back to Agenda 21 or its progenitors.

When you read the U.N. Agenda 21 document (which I highly encourage you to do—it is very likely your own national government has endorsed it), it comes across as the usual gassy international bureaucratese you expect from a U.N. commission, but if you read between the lines and project the goals and mechanisms advocated to their logical conclusions, the implications are very great indeed. What is envisioned is nothing less than the extinction of the developed world and the roll-back of the entire project of the enlightenment. While speaking of the lofty goal of lifting the standard of living of developing nations to that of the developed world in a manner that does not damage the environment, it is an inevitable consequence of the report's assumption of finite resources and an environment already stressed beyond the point of sustainability that the inevitable outcome of achieving “equity” will be a global levelling of the standard of living to one well below the present-day mean, necessitating a catastrophic decrease in the quality of life in developed nations, which will almost certainly eliminate their ability to invest in the research and technological development which have been the engine of human advancement since the Renaissance. The implications of this are so dire that somebody ought to write a dystopian novel about the ultimate consequences of heading down this road.

Somebody has. Glenn Beck and Harriet Parke (it's pretty clear from the acknowledgements that Parke is the principal author, while Beck contributed the afterword and lent his high-profile name to the project) have written a dark and claustrophobic view of what awaits at the end of The Road to Serfdom (May 2002). Here, as opposed to an incremental shift over decades, the United States experiences a cataclysmic socio-economic collapse which is exploited to supplant it with the Republic, ruled by the Central Authority, in which all Citizens are equal. The goals of Agenda 21 have been achieved by depopulating much of the land, letting it return to nature, packing the humans who survived the crises and conflict as the Republic consolidated its power into identical densely-packed Living Spaces, where they live their lives according to the will of the Authority and its Enforcers. Citizens are divided into castes by job category; reproductive age Citizens are “paired” by the Republic, and babies are taken from mothers at birth to be raised in Children's Villages, where they are indoctrinated to serve the Republic. Unsustainable energy sources are replaced by humans who have to do their quota of walking on “energy board” treadmills or riding “energy bicycles” everywhere, and public transportation consists of bus boxes, pulled by teams of six strong men.

Emmeline has grown up in this grim and grey world which, to her, is way things are, have always been, and always will be. Just old enough at the establishment of Republic to escape the Children's Village, she is among the final cohort of Citizens to have been raised by their parents, who told her very little of the before-time; speaking of that could imperil both parents and child. After she loses both parents (people vanishing, being “killed in industrial accidents”, or led away by Enforcers never to be seen again is common in the Republic), she discovers a legacy from her mother which provides a tenuous link to the before-time. Slowly and painfully she begins to piece together the history of the society in which she lives and what life was like before it descended to crush the human spirit. And then she must decide what to do about it.

I am sure many reviewers will dismiss this novel as a cartoon-like portrayal of ideas taken to an absurd extreme. But much the same could have been said of We, Anthem, or 1984. But the thing about dystopian novels based upon trends already in place is that they have a disturbing tendency to get things right. As I observed in my review of Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), when I first read it in 1968, it seemed to evoke a dismal future entirely different from what I expected. When I read it the third time in 2010, my estimation was that real-world events had taken us about 500 pages into the 1168 page tome. I'd probably up that number today. What is particularly disturbing about the scenario in this novel, as opposed to the works cited above, is that it describes what may be a very strong attractor for human society once rejection of progress becomes the doctrine and the population stratifies into a small ruling class and subjects entirely dependent upon the state. After all, that's how things have more or less been over most of human history and around the globe, and the brief flash of liberty, innovation, and prosperity we assume to be the normal state of affairs may simply be an ephemeral consequence of the opening of a frontier which, now having closed, concludes that aberrant chapter of history, soon to be expunged and forgotten.

This is a book which begs for one or more sequels. While the story is satisfying by itself, you put it down wondering what happens next, and what is going on outside the confines of the human hive its characters inhabit. Who are the members of the Central Authority? How do they live? How do they groom their successors? What is happening on other continents? Is there any hope the torch of liberty might be reignited?

While doubtless many will take fierce exception to the entire premise of the story, I found only one factual error. In chapter 14 Emmeline discovers a photograph which provides a link to the before-time. On it is the word “KODACHROME”. But Kodachrome was a colour slide (reversal) film, not a colour print film. Even if the print that Emmeline found had been made from a Kodachrome slide, the print wouldn't say “KODACHROME”. I did not spot a single typographical error, and if you're a regular reader of this chronicle, you'll know how rare that is. In the Kindle edition, links to documents and resources cited in the factual afterword are live and will take you directly to the cited page.

Posted at 23:18 Permalink

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reading List: Feynman Lectures on Gravitation

Feynman, Richard P., Fernando B. Morinigo, and William G. Wagner. Feynman Lectures on Gravitation. Edited by Brian Hatfield. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-8133-4038-8.
In the 1962–63 academic year at Caltech, Richard Feynman taught a course on gravitation for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. For many years the blackboard in Feynman's office contained the epigram, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” In these lectures, Feynman discards the entire geometric edifice of Einstein's theory of gravitation (general relativity) and starts from scratch, putting himself and his students in the place of physicists from Venus (who he calls “Venutians”—Feynman was famously sloppy with spelling: he often spelled “gauge” as “guage”) who have discovered the full quantum theories of electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces but have just discovered there is a very weak attractive force between all masses, regardless of their composition. (Feynman doesn't say so, but putting on the science fiction hat one might suggest that the “Venutians” hadn't previously discovered universal gravitation because the dense clouds that shroud their planet deprived them of the ability to make astronomical observations and the lack of a moon prevented them from discovering tidal effects.)

Feynman then argues that the alien physicists would suspect that this new force worked in a manner analogous to those already known, and seek to extrapolate their knowledge of electrodynamics (the quantum theory of which Feynman had played a central part in discovering, for which he would share a Nobel prize in 1965). They would then guess that the force was mediated by particles they might dub “gravitons”. Since the force appeared to follow an inverse square law, these particles must be massless (or at least have such a small mass that deviations from the inverse square law eluded all existing experiments). Since the force was universally attractive, the spin of the graviton must be even (forces mediated by odd spin bosons such as the photon follow an attraction/repulsion rule as with static electricity; no evidence of antigravity has ever been found). Spin 0 can be ruled out because it would not couple to the spin 1 photon, which would mean gravity would not deflect light, which experiment demonstrates it does. So, we're left with a spin 2 graviton. (It might be spin 4, or 6, or higher, but there's no reason to proceed with such an assumption and the horrific complexities it entails unless we find something which rules out spin 2.)

A spin 2 graviton implies a field with a tensor potential function, and from the behaviour of gravitation we know that the tensor must be symmetric. All of this allows us, by direct analogy with electrodynamics, to write down the first draft of a field theory of gravitation which, when explored, predicts the existence of gravitational radiation, the gravitational red shift, the deflection of light by massive objects, and the precession of Mercury. Eventually Feynman demonstrates that this field theory is isomorphic to Einstein's geometrical theory, and could have been arrived at without ever invoking the concept of spacetime curvature.

In this tour de force, we get to look over the shoulder of one of the most brilliant physicists of all time as he reinvents the theory of gravitation, at a time when his goal was to produce a consistent and finite quantum theory of gravitation. Feynman's intuition was that since gravity was a far weaker force than electromagnetism, it should be easier to find a quantum theory, since the higher order terms would diminish in magnitude much more rapidly. Although Feynman's physical intuition was legendary and is much on display in these lectures, in this case it led him astray: his quest for quantum gravity failed and he soon abandoned it, and fifty years later nobody has found a suitable theory (although we've discovered a great number of things which don't work). Feynman identifies one of the key problems here—since gravitation is a universally attractive force which couples to mass-energy, and a gravitational field itself has energy, gravity gravitates, and this means that the higher order terms stretch off to infinity and can't be eliminated by clever mathematics. While these effects are negligible in laboratory experiments or on the scale of the solar system (although the first-order effect can be teased out of lunar ranging experiments), in strong field situations they blow up and the theory produces nonsense results.

These lectures were given just as the renaissance of gravitational physics was about to dawn. Discovery of extragalactic radio sources with stupendous energy output had sparked speculation about relativistic “superstars”, discussed here in chapters 13 and 14, and would soon lead to observations of quasars, which would eventually be explained by that quintessential object of general relativity, the black hole. On the theoretical side, Feynman's thesis advisor John A. Wheeler was beginning to breathe life into the long-moribund field of general relativity, and would coin the phrase “black hole” in 1967.

This book is a period piece. Some of the terminology in use at the time has become obsolete: Feynman uses “wormhole” for a black hole and “Schwarzschild singularity” for what we now call its event horizon. The discussion of “superstars” is archaic now that we understand the energy source of active galactic nuclei to be accretion onto supermassive black holes. In other areas, Feynman's insights are simply breathtaking, especially when you consider they date from half a century ago. He explores Mach's principle as the origin of inertia, cosmology and the global geometry of the universe, and gravitomagnetism.

This is not the book to read if you're interested in learning the contemporary theory of gravitation. For the most commonly used geometric approach, an excellent place to start is Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation. A field theory approach closer to Feynman's is presented in Weinberg's Gravitation and Cosmology. These are both highly technical works, intended for postgraduates in physics. For a popular introduction, I'd recommend Wheeler's A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime, which is now out of print, but used copies are usually available. It's only if you understand the theory, ideally at a technical level, that you can really appreciate the brilliance of Feynman's work and how prescient his insights were for the future of the field. I first read this book in 1996 and re-reading it now, having a much deeper understanding of the geometrical formulation of general relativity, I was repeatedly awestruck watching Feynman leap from insight to insight of the kind many physicists might hope to have just once in their entire careers.

Feynman gave a total of 27 lectures in the seminar. Two of the postdocs who attended, Fernando B. Morinigo and William G. Wagner, took notes for the course, from which this book is derived. Feynman corrected the notes for the first 11 lectures, which were distributed in typescript by the Caltech bookstore but never otherwise published. In 1971 Feynman approved the distribution of lectures 12–16 by the bookstore, but by then he had lost interest in gravitation and did not correct the notes. This book contains the 16 lectures Feynman approved for distribution. The remaining 11 are mostly concerned with Feynman's groping for a theory of quantum gravity. Since he ultimately failed in this effort, it's plausible to conclude he didn't believe them worthy of circulation. John Preskill and Kip S. Thorne contribute a foreword which interprets Feynman's work from the perspective of the contemporary view of gravitation.

Posted at 23:09 Permalink

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reading List: Rainbows End

Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End. New York: Tor Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8125-3636-2.
As I have remarked upon several occasions, I read very little contemporary science fiction, apart from works by authors I trust to deliver thoughtful and entertaining yarns. This novel is an excellent example of why. Vernor Vinge is a former professor of mathematics, a pioneer in envisioning the advent and consequences of a technological singularity, and serial winner of the most prestigious awards for science fiction. This book won the 2007 Hugo award for best novel.

And therein lies my problem with much of present-day science fiction. The fans (the Hugo is awarded based on a vote of members of the World Science Fiction Society) loved it, but I consider it entirely devoid of merit. Now authors, or at least those who view their profession as a business, are well advised to write what the audience wants to read, and evidently this work met that criterion, but it didn't work for me—in fact, I found it tedious slogging to the end, hoping it would get better or that some brilliant plot twist would redeem all the ennui of getting there. Nope: didn't happen.

Interestingly, while this book won the Hugo, it wasn't even nominated for a Nebula, which is chosen by professional writers, not the fans. I guess the writers are closer to my stick-in-the-mud preferences than the more edgy fans.

This is a story set in a 21st century society on the threshold of a technological singularity. Robert Gu, a celebrated poet felled by Alzheimer's disease, has been cured by exponentially advancing medical technology, but now he finds himself in a world radically different from the one in which his cognition faded out. He has to reconcile himself with his extended and complicated family, many of whom he treated horridly, and confront the fact that while his recovery from dementia has been complete, he seems to have lost the talent of looking at the world from an oblique angle that made his poetry compelling. Further, in a world of ubiquitous computing, haptic interfaces, augmented reality, and forms of social interaction that seemingly come and go from moment to moment, he is but a baby among the plugged-in children with whom he shares a classroom as he attempts to come up to speed.

Then, a whole bunch of stuff happens which is completely absurd, involving a mischievous rabbit which may be an autonomous artificial intelligence, a library building that pulls up its columns and walks, shadowy intelligence agencies, a technology which might be the key to large-scale mind control, battles between people committed to world-views which might be likened to an apocalyptic yet trivial conflict between My Little Pony and SpongeBob, and a “Homeland Security” agency willing to use tactical nukes on its own homeland. (Well, I suppose, the last isn't so far fetched….)

My citation of the title above is correct—I did not omit an apostrophe. The final chapter of the novel is titled “The Missing Apostrophe”. Think about it: you can read it either way.

Finally, it ends. And so, thankfully, does this review.

I have no problem with augmented reality and the emergence of artificial intelligence. Daniel Suarez's Daemon (August 2010) and Freedom™ (January 2011) limn a future far more engaging and immeasurably less silly than that of the present work. Nor does a zany view of the singularity put me off in the least: Charles Stross's Singularity Sky (February 2011) is such a masterpiece of the genre that I was reproached by some readers for having committed the sin of spoilers because I couldn't restrain myself from citing some of its many delights. This can be done well, but in my opinion it isn't here.

Posted at 22:50 Permalink

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reading List: The Long Earth

Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long Earth. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-06-206775-3.
Terry Pratchett is my favourite author of satirical fantasy and Stephen Baxter is near the top of my list of contemporary hard science fiction writers, so I expected this collaboration to be outstanding. It is.

Larry Niven's Ringworld created a breathtakingly large arena for story telling, not spread among the stars but all reachable, at least in principle, just by walking. This novel expands the stage many orders of magnitude beyond that, and creates a universe in which any number of future stories may be told. The basic premise is that the multiple worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics literally exists (to be technical, Max Tegmark's Level III parallel universes), and that some humans possess a native ability to step from one universe to the next. The stepper arrives at the same location on Earth, at the same local time (there is apparently a universal clock like that assumed in quantum theory), but on a branch where the history of the Earth has diverged due to contingent events in the past. Adjacent universes tend to be alike, but the further one steps the more they differ from the original, or Datum Earth.

The one huge difference between Datum Earth and all of the others is that, as far as is known, humans evolved only on the Datum. Nobody knows why this is—perhaps there was some event in the chain of causality that produced modern humans which was so improbable it happened only once in what may be an infinite number of parallel Earths.

The ability to step was extremely rare, genetically transmitted, and often discovered only when an individual was in peril and stepped to an adjacent Earth as the ultimate flight response. All of this changed on Step Day, when Willis Linsay, a physicist in Madison, Wisconsin, posted on the Internet plans for a “stepper” which could be assembled from parts readily available from Radio Shack, plus a potato. (Although entirely solid state, it did include a tuber.) A rocker switch marked “WEST — OFF — EAST” was on the top, and when activated moved the holder of the box to an adjacent universe in the specified notional direction.

Suddenly people all over the Earth began cobbling together steppers of their own and departing for adjacent Earths. Since all of these Earths were devoid of humans (apart from those who stepped there from the Datum), they were in a state of nature, including all of those dangerous wild beasts that humans had eradicated from their world of origin. Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper, distinguishes himself by rescuing children from the Madison area who used their steppers and were so bewildered they did not know how to get back.

This brings Joshua to the attention of the shadowy Black Corporation, who recruits him (with a bit of blackmail) to explore the far reaches of the Long Earth: worlds a million or more steps from the Datum. His companion on the voyage is Lobsang, who may or may not have been a Tibetan motorcycle repairman, now instantiated in a distributed computer network, taking on physical forms ranging from a drinks machine, a humanoid, and an airship. As they explore, they encounter hominid species they call “trolls” and “elves”, which they theorise are natural steppers which evolved on the Datum and then migrated outward along the Long Earth without ever developing human-level intelligence (perhaps due to lack of selective pressure, since they could always escape competition by stepping away). But, as Joshua and Lobsang explore the Western frontier, they find a migration of trolls and elves toward the East. What are they fleeing, or what is attracting them in that direction? They also encounter human communities on the frontier, both homesteaders from the Datum and natural steppers who have established themselves on other worlds.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The concept of stepping to adjacent universes is one of those plot devices that, while opening up a huge scope for fiction, also, like the Star Trek transporter, threatens to torpedo drama. If you can escape peril simply by stepping away to another universe, how can characters be placed in difficult circumstances? In Star Trek, there always has to be some reason (“danged pesky polaron particles!”) why the transporter can't be used to beam the away team out of danger. Here, the authors appear to simply ignore the problem. In chapter 30, Joshua is attacked by elves riding giant hogs and barely escapes with his life. But, being a natural stepper, he could simply step away and wait for Lobsang to find him in an adjacent Earth. But he doesn't, and there is no explanation of why he didn't.
Spoilers end here.  

I enjoyed this book immensely, but that may be in part because I've been thinking about multiverse navigation for many years, albeit in a different context and without the potato. This is a somewhat strange superposition of fantasy and hard science fiction (which is what you'd expect, given the authors), and your estimation of it, like any measurement in quantum mechanics, will depend upon the criteria you're measuring. I note that the reviews on Amazon have a strikingly flat distribution in stars assigned—this is rare; usually a book will have a cluster at the top or bottom, or for controversial books a bimodal distribution depending upon the reader's own predisposition. I have no idea if you'll like this book, but I did. And I want a stepper.

Posted at 00:39 Permalink

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading List: The Alcoholic Republic

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0-19-502990-1.
This book was recommended to me by Prof. Paul Rahe after I had commented during a discussion on Ricochet about drug (and other forms of) prohibition, using the commonplace libertarian argument that regardless of what one believes about the principle of self-ownership and the dangers to society if its members ingest certain substances, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, the evidence is that prohibition of anything simply makes the problem worse—in many cases not only increasing profits to traffickers in the banned substance, spawning crime among those who contend to provide it to those who seek it in the absence of an open market, promoting contempt for the law (the president of the United States, as of this writing, admitted in his autobiography to have used a substance whose possession, had he been apprehended, was a felony), and most of all that post-prohibition, use of the forbidden substance increases, and hence however satisfying prohibition may be to those who support, enact, and enforce it, it is ultimately counterproductive, as it increases the number of people who taste the forbidden fruit.

I read every book my readers recommend, albeit not immediately, and so I put this book on my queue, and have now digested it. This is a fascinating view of a very different America: a newly independent nation in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, still mostly a coastal nation with a vast wilderness to the West, but beginning to expand over the mountains into the fertile land beyond. The one thing all European visitors to America remarked upon was that people in this brave new republic, from strait-laced New Englanders, to Virginia patricians, to plantation barons of the South, to buckskin pioneers and homesteaders across the Appalachians, drank a lot, reaching a peak around 1830 of five gallons (19 litres) of hard spirits (in excess of 45% alcohol) per capita per annum—and that “per capita” includes children and babies in a rapidly growing population, so the adults, and particularly the men, disproportionately contributed to this aggregate.

As the author teases out of the sketchy data of the period, there were a number of social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Prior to the revolution, America was a rum drinking nation, but after the break with Britain whiskey made from maize (corn, in the American vernacular) became the beverage of choice. As Americans migrated and settled the West, maize was their crop of choice, but before the era of canals and railroads, shipping their crop to the markets of the East cost more than its value. Distilling into a much-sought beverage, however, made the arduous trek to market profitable, and justified the round trip. In the rugged western frontier, drinking water was not to be trusted, and a sip of contaminated water could condemn one to a debilitating and possibly fatal bout of dysentery or cholera. None of these bugs could survive in whiskey, and hence it was seen as the healthy beverage. Finally, whiskey provides 83 calories per fluid ounce, and is thus a compact way to store and transmit food value without need for refrigeration.

Some things never change. European visitors to America remarked upon the phenomenon of “rapid eating” or, as we now call it, “fast food”. With the fare at most taverns outside the cities limited to fried corn cakes, salt pork, and whiskey, there was precious little need to linger over one's meal, and hence it was in-and-out, centuries before the burger. But then, things change. Starting around 1830, alcohol consumption in the United States began to plummet, and temperance societies began to spring up across the land. From a peak of about 5 gallons per capita, distilled spirits consumption fell to between 1 and 2 gallons and has remained more or less constant ever since.

But what is interesting is that the widespread turn away from hard liquor was not in any way produced by top-down or coercive prohibition. Instead, it was a bottom-up social movement largely coupled with the second great awakening. While this movement certainly did result in some forms of restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol, much more effective were its opprobrium against public drunkenness and those who enabled it.

This book is based on a Ph.D. thesis, and in places shows it. There is a painful attempt, based on laughably incomplete data, to quantify alcohol consumption during the early 19th century. This, I assume, is because at the epoch “social scientists” repeated the mantra “numbers are good”. This is all nonsense; ignore it. Far more credible are the reports of contemporary observers quoted in the text.

As to Prof. Rahe's assertion that prohibition reduces the consumption of a substance, I don't think this book advances that case. The collapse in the consumption of strong drink in the 1830s was a societal and moral revolution, and any restrictions on the availability of alcohol were the result of that change, not its cause. That said, I do not dispute that prohibition did reduce the reported level of alcohol consumption, but at the cost of horrific criminality and disdain for the rule of law and, after repeal, a return to the status quo ante.

If you're interested in prohibition in all of its manifestations, I recommend this book, even though it has little to do with prohibition. It is an object lesson in how a free society self-corrects from excess and re-orients itself toward behaviour which benefits its citizens.

Posted at 23:08 Permalink