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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reading List: Merchants of Despair

Zubrin, Robert Merchants of Despair. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59403-476-3.
This is one of the most important paradigm-changing books since Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism (January 2008). Zubrin seeks the common thread which unites radical environmentalism, eugenics, population control, and opposition to readily available means of controlling diseases due to hysteria engendered by overwrought prose in books written by people with no knowledge of the relevant science.

Zubrin identifies the central thread of all of these malign belief systems: anti-humanism. In 1974, the Club of Rome, in Mankind at the Turning Point, wrote, “The world has cancer and the cancer is man.” A foul synthesis of the ignorant speculations of Malthus and a misinterpretation of the work of Darwin led to a pernicious doctrine which asserted that an increasing human population would deplete a fixed pool of resources, leading to conflict and selection among a burgeoning population for those most able to secure the resources they needed to survive.

But human history since the dawn of civilisation belies this. In fact, per capita income has grown as population has increased, demonstrating that the static model is bogus. Those who want to constrain the human potential are motivated by a quest for power, not a desire to seek the best outcome for the most people. The human condition has improved over time, and at an accelerating pace since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, because of human action: the creativity of humans in devising solutions to problems and ways to meet needs often unperceived before the inventions which soon became seen as essentials were made. Further, the effects of human invention in the modern age are cumulative: any at point in history humans have access to all the discoveries of the past and, once they build upon them to create a worthwhile innovation, it is rapidly diffused around the world—in our days at close to the speed of light. The result of this is that in advanced technological societies the poor, measured by income compared to the societal mean, would have been considered wealthy not just by the standards of the pre-industrial age, but compared to those same societies in the memory of people now alive. The truly poor in today's world are those whose societies, for various reasons, are not connected to the engine of technological progress and the social restructuring it inevitably engenders.

And yet the anti-humanists have consistently argued for limiting the rate of growth of population and in many cases actually reducing the total population, applying a “precautionary principle” to investigation of new technologies and their deployment, and relinquishment of technologies deemed to be “unsustainable”. In short, what they advocate is reversing the progress since the year 1800 (and in many ways, since the Enlightenment), and returning to an imagined bucolic existence (except for, one suspects, the masters in their gated communities, attended to by the serfs as in times of old).

What Malthus and all of his followers to the present day missed is that the human population is not at all like the population of bacteria in a Petri dish or rabbits in the wild. Uniquely, humans invent things which improve their condition, create new resources by finding uses for natural materials previously regarded as “dirt”, and by doing so allow a larger population to enjoy a standard of living much better than that of previous generations. Put aside the fanatics who wish to reduce the human population by 80% or 90% (they exist, they are frighteningly influential in policy-making circles, and they are called out by name here). Suppose, for a moment, the author asks, societies in the 19th century had listened to Malthus and limited the human population to half of the historical value. Thomas Edison and Louis Pasteur did work which contributed to the well-being of their contemporaries around the globe and continue to benefit us today. In a world with half as many people, perhaps only one would have ever lived. Which would you choose?

But the influence of the anti-humans did not stop at theory. The book chronicles the sorry, often deceitful, and tragic consequences when their policies were put into action by coercive governments. The destruction wrought by “population control” measures approached, in some cases, the level of genocide. By 1975, almost one third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been sterilised by programs funded by the U.S. federal government, and a similar program on Indian reservations sterilised one quarter of Native American women of childbearing age, often without consent. Every purebred woman of the Kaw tribe of Oklahoma was sterilised in the 1970s: if that isn't genocide, what is?

If you look beneath the hood of radical environmentalism, you'll find anti-humanism driving much of the agenda. The introduction of DDT in the 1940s immediately began to put an end to the age-old scourge of malaria. Prior to World War II, between one and six million cases of malaria were reported in the U.S. every year. By 1952, application of DDT to the interior walls of houses (as well as other uses of the insecticide) had reduced the total number of confirmed cases of malaria that year to two. By the early 1960s, use of DDT had cut malaria rates in Asia and Latin America by 99%. By 1958, Malthusian anti-humanist Aldous Huxley decried this, arguing that “Quick death by malaria has been abolished; but life made miserable by undernourishment and over-crowding is now the rule, and slow death by outright starvation threatens ever greater numbers.”

Huxley did not have long to wait to see his desires fulfilled. After the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, a masterpiece of pseudoscientific deception and fraud, politicians around the world moved swiftly to ban DDT. In Sri Lanka, where malaria cases had been cut from a million or more per year to 17 in 1963, DDT was banned in 1964, and by 1969 malaria cases had increased to half a million a year. Today, DDT is banned or effectively banned in most countries, and the toll of unnecessary death due to malaria in Africa alone since the DDT ban is estimated as in excess of 100 million. Arguably, Rachel Carson and her followers are the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century. There is no credible scientific evidence whatsoever that DDT is harmful to humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, or oceanic species. To the anti-humanists, the carnage wrought by the banning of this substance is a feature, not a bug.

If you thought Agenda 21 (November 2012) was over the top, this volume will acquaint you with the real-world evil wrought by anti-humanists, and their very real agenda to exterminate a large fraction of the human population and reduce the rest (except for themselves, of course, they believe) to pre-industrial serfdom. As the author concludes:

If the idea is accepted that the world's resources are fixed with only so much to go around, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race of nation. The ultimate outcome of such a worldview can only be enforced stagnation, tyranny, war, and genocide.

This is a book which should have an impact, for the better, as great as Silent Spring had for the worse. But so deep is the infiltration of the anti-human ideologues into the cultural institutions that you'll probably never hear it mentioned except here and in similar venues which cherish individual liberty and prosperity.

Posted at 17:35 Permalink

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading List: Quantum Man

Krauss, Lawrence. Quantum Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-34065-5.
A great deal has been written about the life, career, and antics of Richard Feynman, but until the present book there was not a proper scientific biography of his work in physics and its significance in the field and consequences for subsequent research. Lawrence Krauss has masterfully remedied this lacuna with this work, which provides, at a level comprehensible to the intelligent layman, both a survey of Feynman's work, both successful and not, and also a sense of how Feynman achieved what he did and what ultimately motivated him in his often lonely quest to understand.

One often-neglected contributor to Feynman's success is discussed at length: his extraordinary skill in mathematical computation, intuitive sense of the best way to proceed toward a solution (he would often skip several intermediate steps and only fill them in when preparing work for publication), and tireless perseverance in performing daunting calculations which occupied page after page of forbidding equations. This talent was quickly recognised by those with whom he worked, and as one of the most junior physicists on the project, he was placed in charge of all computation at Los Alamos during the final phases of the Manhattan Project. Eugene Wigner said of Feynman, “He's another Dirac. Only this time human.”

Feynman's intuition and computational prowess was best demonstrated by his work on quantum electrodynamics, for which he shared a Nobel prize in 1965. (Initially Feynman didn't think too much of this work—he considered it mathematical mumbo-jumbo which swept the infinities which had plagued earlier attempts at a relativistic quantum theory of light and matter under the carpet. Only later did it become apparent that Feynman's work had laid the foundation upon which a comprehensive quantum field theory of the strong and electroweak interactions could be built.) His invention of Feynman diagrams defined the language now universally used by particle physicists to describe events in which particles interact.

Feynman was driven to understand things, and to him understanding meant being able to derive a phenomenon from first principles. Often he ignored the work of others and proceeded on his own, reinventing as he went. In numerous cases, he created new techniques and provided alternative ways of looking at a problem which provided a deeper insight into its fundamentals. A monumental illustration of Feynman's ability to do this is The Feynman Lectures on Physics, based on an undergraduate course in physics Feynman taught at Caltech in 1961–1964. Few physicists would have had the audacity to reformulate all of basic physics, from vectors and statics to quantum mechanics from scratch, and probably only Feynman could have pulled it off, which he did magnificently. As undergraduate pedagogy, the course was less than successful, but the transcribed lectures have remained in print ever since, and working physicists (and even humble engineers like me) are astounded at the insights to be had in reading and re-reading Feynman's work.

Even when Feynman failed, he failed gloriously and left behind work that continues to inspire. His unsuccessful attempt to find a quantum theory of gravitation showed that Einstein's geometric theory was completely equivalent to a field theory developed from first principles and knowledge of the properties of gravity. Feynman's foray into computation produced the Feynman Lectures On Computation, one of the first comprehensive expositions of the theory of quantum computation.

A chapter is devoted to the predictions of Feynman's 1959 lecture, “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, which is rightly viewed as the founding document of molecular nanotechnology, but, as Krauss describes, also contained the seeds of genomic biotechnology, ultra-dense data storage, and quantum material engineering. Work resulting in more than fifteen subsequent Nobel prizes is suggested in this blueprint for research. Although Feynman would go on to win his own Nobel for other work, one gets the sense he couldn't care less that others pursued the lines of investigation he sketched and were rewarded for doing so. Feynman was in the game to understand, and often didn't seem to care whether what he was pursuing was of great importance or mundane, or whether the problem he was working on from his own unique point of departure had already been solved by others long before.

Feynman was such a curious character that his larger than life personality often obscures his greatness as a scientist. This book does an excellent job of restoring that balance and showing how much his work contributed to the edifice of science in the 20th century and beyond.

Posted at 23:12 Permalink

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reading List: Fiat Money Inflation in France

White, Andrew Dickson. Fiat Money Inflation in France. Bayonne, NJ: Blackbird Books, [1876, 1896, 1912, 1914] 2011. ISBN 978-1-61053-004-0.
One of the most sure ways to destroy the economy, wealth, and morals of a society is monetary inflation: an inexorable and accelerating increase in the supply of money, which inevitably (if not always immediately) leads to ever-rising prices, collapse in saving and productive investment, and pauperisation of the working classes in favour of speculators and those with connections to the regime issuing the money.

In ancient times, debasement of the currency was accomplished by clipping coins or reducing their content of precious metal. Ever since Marco Polo returned from China with news of the tremendous innovation of paper money, unbacked paper currency (or fiat money) has been the vehicle of choice for states to loot their productive and thrifty citizens.

Between 1789 and 1796, a period encompassing the French Revolution, the French National Assembly issued assignats, paper putatively backed by the value of public lands seized from the Roman Catholic Church in the revolution. Assignats could theoretically be used to purchase these lands, and initially paid interest—they were thus a hybrid between a currency and a bond. The initial issue revived the French economy and rescued the state from bankruptcy but, as always happens, was followed by a second, third, and then a multitude of subsequent issues totally decoupled from the value of the land which was supposed to back them. This sparked an inflationary and eventually hyperinflationary spiral with savers wiped out, manufacturing and commerce grinding to a halt (due to uncertainty, inability to invest, and supply shortages) which caused wages to stagnate even as prices were running away to the upside, an enormous transfer of wealth from the general citizenry to speculators and well-connected bankers, and rampant corruption within the political class. The sequelæ of monetary debasement all played out as they always have and always will: wage and price controls, shortages, rationing, a rush to convert paper money into tangible assets as quickly as possible, capital and foreign exchange controls, prohibition on the ownership of precious metals and their confiscation, and a one-off “wealth tax” until the second, and the third, and so on. Then there was the inevitable replacement of the discredited assignats with a new paper currency, the mandats, which rapidly blew up. Then came Napoleon, who restored precious metal currency; hyperinflation so often ends up with a dictator in power.

What is remarkable about this episode is that it happened in a country which had experienced the disastrous John Law paper money bubble in 1716–1718, within the living memory of some in the assignat era and certainly in the minds of the geniuses who decided to try paper money again because “this time is different”. When it comes to paper money, this time is never different.

This short book (or long pamphlet—the 1896 edition is just 92 pages) was originally written in 1876 by the author, a president of Cornell University, as a cautionary tale against advocates of paper money and free silver in the United States. It was subsequently revised and republished on each occasion the U.S. veered further toward unbacked or “elastic” paper money. It remains one of the most straightforward accounts of a hyperinflationary episode ever written, with extensive citations of original sources. For a more detailed account of the Weimar Republic inflation in 1920s Germany, see When Money Dies (May 2011); although the circumstances were very different, the similarities will be apparent, confirming that the laws of economics manifest here are natural laws just as much as gravitation and electromagnetism, and ignoring them never ends well.

If you are looking for a Kindle edition of this book, be sure to download a free sample of the book before purchasing. As the original editions of this work are in the public domain, anybody is free to produce an electronic edition, and there are some hideous ones available; look before you buy.

Posted at 22:05 Permalink

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Reading List: Bargaining Position

Bussjaeger, Carl. Bargaining Position. Lyndeborough, NH: http://www.bussjaeger.us/, [2010] 2011.
In Net Assets (October 2002) the author chronicled the breakout of lovers of liberty from the Earth's gravity well by a variety of individual initiatives and their defeat of the forces of coercive government which wished to keep them in chains. In this sequel, set in the mid-21st century, the expansion into the solar system is entirely an economy of consensual actors, some ethical and some rogue, but all having escaped the shackles of the state, left to stew in its own stagnating juices on Earth.

The Hunters are an amorous couple who have spent the last decade on their prospecting ship, Improbable, staking claims in the asteroid belt and either working them or selling the larger ones to production companies. After a successful strike, they decide to take a working vacation exploring Jupiter's leading Trojan position. At this Lagrangian point the equilibrium between the gravity of Jupiter and the Sun creates a family of stable orbits around that point. The Trojan position can be thought of as an attractor toward which objects in similar orbits will approach and remain.

The Hunters figure that region, little-explored, might collect all kinds of interesting and potentially lucrative objects, and finance their expedition with a contract to produce a documentary about their voyage of exploration. What they discover exceeds anything they imagined to find: what appears to be an alien interstellar probe, disabled by an impact after arrival in the solar system, but with most of its systems and advanced technology intact.

This being not only an epochal discovery in human history, but valuable beyond the dreams of avarice, the Hunters set out to monetise the discovery, protect it against claim jumpers, and discover as much as they can to increase the value of what they've found to potential purchasers. What they discover makes the bargaining process even more complicated and with much higher stakes.

This is a tremendous story, and I can't go any further describing it without venturing into spoiler territory, which would desecrate this delightful novel. The book is available from the author's Web site as a free PDF download; use your favourite PDF reader application on your computer or mobile device to read it. As in common in self-published works, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 25 and I was reading for enjoyment, not doing a close-proof. None of them detract in any way from the story.

Posted at 23:12 Permalink