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Monday, August 26, 2013

Reading List: The Liberty Amendments

Levin, Mark R. The Liberty Amendments. New York: Threshold Editions, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-0627-0.
To many observers including this one, the United States appear to be in a death spiral, guided by an entrenched ruling class toward a future where the only question is whether a financial collapse will pauperise the citizenry before or after they are delivered into tyranny. Almost all of the usual remedies seem to have been exhausted. Both of the major political parties are firmly in the control of the ruling class who defend the status quo, and these parties so control access to the ballot, media, and campaign funding that any attempt to mount a third party challenge appears futile. Indeed, the last time a candidate from a new party won the presidency was in 1860, and that was because the Whig party was in rapid decline and the Democrat vote was split two ways.

In this book Levin argues that the time is past when a solution could be sought in electing the right people to offices in Washington and hoping they would appoint judges and executive department heads who would respect the constitution. The ruling class, which now almost completely controls the parties, has the tools to block any effective challenge from outside their ranks, and even on the rare occasion an outsider is elected, the entrenched administrative state and judiciary will continue to defy the constitution, legislating from within the executive and judicial branches. What does a written constitution mean when five lawyers, appointed for life, can decide what it means, with their decision not subject to appeal by any other branch of government?

If a solution cannot be found by electing better people to offices in Washington then, as Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Levin argues that the framers of the constitution (in particular George Mason) anticipated precisely the present situation and, in the final days of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, added text to Article Five providing that the constitution can be amended when:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments,…

Of the 27 amendments adopted so far, all have been proposed by Congress—the state convention mechanism has never been used (although in some cases Congress proposed an amendment to preempt a convention when one appeared likely). As Levin observes, the state convention process completely bypasses Washington: a convention is called by the legislatures of two thirds of the states, and amendments it proposes are adopted if ratified by three quarters of the states. Congress, the president, and the federal judiciary are completely out of the loop.

Levin proposes 11 amendments, all of which he argues are consistent with the views of the framers of the constitution and, in some cases, restore constitutional provisions which have been bypassed by clever judges, legislators, and bureaucrats. The amendments include term limits for all federal offices (including the Supreme Court); repeal of the direct election of senators and a return to their being chosen by state legislatures; super-majority overrides of Supreme Court decisions, congressional legislation, and executive branch regulations; restrictions on the taxing and spending powers (including requiring a balanced budget); reining in expansive interpretation of the commerce clause; requiring compensation for takings of private property; provisions to guard against voter fraud; and making it easier for the states to amend the constitution.

In evaluating Levin's plan, the following questions arise:

  1. Is amending the constitution by the state convention route politically achievable?
  2. Will the proposed amendments re-balance the federal system sufficiently to solve (or at least make it possible to begin to solve) its current problems?
  3. Are there problems requiring constitutional change not addressed by the proposed amendments?
  4. Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its constraints with impunity) as it has done with the existing constitution?

I will address each of these questions below. Some these matters will take us pretty deep into the weeds, and you may not completely understand the discussion without having read the book (which, of course, I heartily recommend you do).

Is amending the constitution by the state convention route politically achievable?

Today, the answer to this is no. Calling a convention to propose amendments requires requests by two thirds of state legislatures, or at least 34. Let us assume none of the 17 Democrat-controlled legislatures would vote to call a convention. That leaves 27 Republican-controlled legislatures, 5 split (one house Republican, one Democrat), and quirky Nebraska, whose legislature is officially non-partisan. Even if all of these voted for the convention, you're still one state short. But it's unlikely any of the 5 split houses would vote for a convention, and even in the 27 Republican-controlled legislatures there will be a substantial number of legislators sufficiently wedded to the establishment or fearful of loss of federal funds propping up their state's budget that they'd vote against the convention.

The author forthrightly acknowledges this, and states clearly that this is a long-term process which may take decades to accomplish. In fact, since three quarters of the states must vote to ratify amendments adopted by a convention, it wouldn't make sense to call one until there was some confidence 38 or more states would vote to adopt them. In today's environment, obtaining that kind of super-majority seems entirely out of reach.

But circumstances can change. Any attempt to re-balance the constitutional system to address the current dysfunction is racing against financial collapse at the state and federal level and societal collapse due to loss of legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its subjects, a decreasing minority of whom believe it has the “consent of the governed”. As states go bankrupt, pension obligations are defaulted upon, essential services are curtailed, and attempts to extract ever more from productive citizens through taxes, fees, regulations, depreciation of the currency, and eventually confiscation of retirement savings, the electorate in “blue” states may shift toward a re-balancing of a clearly dysfunctional and failing system.

Perhaps the question to ask is not whether this approach is feasible at present or may be at some point in the future, but rather whether any alternative plan has any hope of working.

Will the proposed amendments re-balance the federal system sufficiently to solve (or at least make it possible to begin to solve) its current problems?

It seems to me that a constitution with these amendments adopted will be far superior in terms of balance than the constitution in effect today. I say “in effect” because the constitution as intended by the framers has been so distorted and in some cases ignored that the text has little to do with how the federal government actually operates. These amendments are intended in large part to restore the original intent of the framers.

As an engineer, I am very much aware of the need for stable systems to incorporate negative feedback: when things veer off course, there needs to be a restoring force exerted in the opposite direction to steer back to the desired bearing. Many of these amendments create negative feedback mechanisms to correct excesses the framers did not anticipate. The congressional and state overrides of Supreme Court decisions and regulations provide a check on the making of law by judges and bureaucrats which were never anticipated in the original constitution. The spending and taxing amendments constrain profligate spending, runaway growth of debt, and an ever-growing tax burden on the productive sector.

I have a number of quibbles with the details and drafting of these amendments. I'm not much worried about these matters, since I'm sure that before they are presented to the states in final form for ratification they will be scrutinised in detail by eminent constitutional law scholars parsing every word for how it might be (mis)interpreted by mischievous judges. Still, here's what I noted in reading the amendments.

Some of the amendments write into the constitution matters which were left to statute in the original document. The spending amendment fixes the start of the fiscal year and cites the “Nation's gross domestic product” (defined how?). The amendments to limit the bureaucracy, protect private property, and grant the states the authority to check Congress all cite specific numbers denominated in dollars. How is a dollar to be defined in decades and centuries to come? Any specification of a specific dollar amount in the constitution is prone to becoming as quaint and irrelevant as the twenty dollars clause of the seventh amendment. The amendment to limit the bureaucracy gives constitutional status to the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, which are defined nowhere else in the document.

In the amendment to grant the states the authority to check Congress there is a drafting error. In section 4, the cross-reference (do we really want to introduce brackets into the text of the constitution?) cites “An Amendment Establishing How the States May Amend the Constitution”, while “An Amendment to Limit the Federal Bureaucracy” is clearly intended. That amendment writes the two party system into the constitution by citing a “Majority Leader” and “Minority Leader”. Yes, that's how it works now, but is it wise to freeze this political structure (which I suspect would have appalled Washington) into the fundamental document of the republic?

Are there problems requiring constitutional change not addressed by the proposed amendments?

The economic amendments fail to address the question of sound money. Ever since the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, the dollar (which, as noted above, is cited in several of the proposed amendments) has lost more than 95% of its purchasing power according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator. Inflation is the most insidious tax of all, as it penalises savers to benefit borrowers, encourages short-term planning and speculation, and allows the federal government to write down its borrowings by depreciating the monetary unit in which they are to be repaid. Further, inflation runs the risk of the U.S. dollar being displaced as the world reserve currency (which is already happening, in slow motion so far, as bilateral agreements between trading partners to use their own currencies and bypass the dollar are negotiated). A government which can print money at will can evade the taxing constraints of the proposed amendment by inflating its currency and funding its expenditures with continually depreciating dollars. This is the route most countries have taken as bankruptcy approaches.

Leaving this question unaddressed opens a dangerous loophole by which the federal government can escape taxing and spending constraints by running the printing press (as it is already doing at this writing). I don't know what the best solution would be (well, actually, I do, but they'd call me a nut if I proposed it), so let me suggest an amendment banning all legal tender laws and allowing parties to settle contracts in any unit of account they wish: dollars, euros, gold, copper, baseball cards, or goats.

I fear that the taxing amendment may be a Trojan horse with as much potential for mischief as the original commerce clause. It leaves the entire incomprehensible and deeply corrupt Internal Revenue Code in place, imposing only a limit on the amount extracted from each taxpayer and eliminating the estate tax. This means that Congress remains free to use the tax code to arbitrarily coerce or penalise behaviour as it has done ever since the passage of the sixteenth amendment. While the total take from each taxpayer is capped, the legislature is free to favour one group against another, subsidise activities by tax exemption or discourage them by penalties (think the Obamacare mandate jujitsu of the Roberts opinion), and penalise investment through punitive taxation of interest, dividends, and capital gains. A prohibition of a VAT or national sales tax is written into the constitution, thus requiring another amendment to replace the income tax (repealing the sixteenth amendment) with a consumption-based tax. If you're going to keep the income tax, I'm all for banning a VAT on top of it, but given how destructive and costly the income tax as presently constituted is to prosperity, I'd say if you're going to the trouble of calling a convention and amending the constitution, drive a stake through it and replace it with a consumption tax which wouldn't require any individual to file any forms ever. Write the maximum tax rate into the amendment, thus requiring another amendment to change it. In note 55 to chapter 5 the author states, “I do not object to ‘the Fair Tax,’ which functions as a national sales tax and eliminates all forms of revenue-based taxation, should it be a preferred amendment by delegates to a state convention.” Since eliminating the income tax removes a key mechanism by which the central government can coerce the individual citizen, I would urge it as a positive recommendation to such a convention.

Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its constraints with impunity) as it has done with the existing constitution?

This is an issue which preoccupied delegates to the constitutional convention, federalists and anti-federalists alike, in the debate over ratification of the constitution, and delegates to the ratification conventions in the states. It should equally concern us now in regard to these amendments. After all, only 14 years after the ratification of the constitution the judicial branch made a power grab in Marbury v. Madison and got away with it, establishing a precedent for judicial review which has been the foundation for troublemaking to this day. In the New Deal, the previously innocuous commerce clause was twisted to allow the federal government to regulate a farmer's growing wheat for consumption on his own farm.

A key question is the extent to which the feedback mechanisms created by these amendments will deter the kind of Houdini-like escapes from the original constitution which have brought the U.S. to its present parlous state. To my mind, they will improve things: certainly if the Supreme Court or a regulatory agency knows its decisions can be overruled, they will be deterred from overreaching even if the overrule is rarely used. Knowing how things went wrong with the original constitution will provide guidance in the course corrections to come. One advantage of an amendment convention called by the states is that the debate will be open, on the record, and ideally streamed to anybody interested in it. Being a bottom-up process, the delegates will have been selected by state legislatures close to their constituents, and their deliberations will be closely followed and commented upon by academics and legal professionals steeped in constitutional and common law, acutely aware of how clever politicians are in evading constitutional constraints.


Can the U.S. be saved? I have no idea. But this is the first plan I have encountered which seems to present a plausible path to restoring its original concept of a constitutional republic. It is a long shot; it will certainly take a great deal of effort from the bottom-up and many years to achieve; the U.S. may very well collapse before it can be implemented; but can you think of any other approach? People in the U.S. and those concerned with the consequences of its collapse will find a blueprint here, grounded in history and thoroughly documented, for an alternative path which just might work.

In the Kindle edition the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the text, and references to Web documents in the notes are linked directly to the on-line documents.

Posted at 13:31 Permalink

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reading List: Radical Abundance

Drexler, K. Eric. Radical Abundance. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61039-113-9.
Nanotechnology burst into public awareness with the publication of the author's Engines of Creation in 1986. (The author coined the word “nanotechnology” to denote engineering at the atomic scale, fabricating structures with the atomic precision of molecules. A 1974 Japanese paper had used the term “nano-technology”, but with an entirely different meaning.) Before long, the popular media were full of speculation about nanobots in the bloodstream, self-replicating assemblers terraforming planets or mining the asteroids, and a world economy transformed into one in which scarcity, in the sense we know it today, would be transcended. Those inclined to darker speculation warned of “grey goo”—runaway self-replicators which could devour the biosphere in 24 hours, or nanoengineered super weapons.

Those steeped in conventional wisdom scoffed at these “futuristic” notions, likening them to earlier predictions of nuclear power “too cheap to meter” or space colonies, but detractors found it difficult to refute Drexler's arguments that the systems he proposed violated no law of physics and that the chemistry of such structures was well-understood and predicted that, if we figured out how to construct them, they would work. Drexler's argument was reinforced when, in 1992, he published Nanosystems, a detailed technical examination of molecular engineering based upon his MIT Ph.D. dissertation.

As the 1990s progressed, there was an increasing consensus that if nanosystems existed, we would be able to fabricate nanosystems that worked as Drexler envisions, but the path from our present-day crude fabrication technologies to atomic precision on the macroscopic scale was unclear. On the other hand, there were a number of potential pathways which might get there, increasing the probability that one or more might work. The situation is not unlike that in the early days of integrated circuits. It was clear from the laws of physics that were it possible to fabricate a billion transistors on a chip they would work, but it was equally clear that a series of increasingly difficult and expensive to surmount hurdles would have to be cleared in order to fabricate such a structure. Its feasibility then became a question of whether engineers were clever enough to solve all the problems along the way and if the market for each generation of increasingly complex chips would be large enough to fund the development of the next.

A number of groups around the world, both academic and commercial, began to pursue potential paths toward nanotechnology, laying the foundation for the next step beyond conventional macromolecular chemical synthesis. It seemed like the major impediment to a rapid take-off of nanotechnology akin to that experienced in the semiconductor field was a lack of funding. But, as Eric Drexler remarked to me in a conversation in the 1990s, most of the foundation of nanotechnology was chemistry and “You can buy a lot of chemistry for a billion dollars.”

That billion dollars appeared to be at hand in 2000, when the U.S. created a billion dollar National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NNI quickly published an implementation plan which clearly stated that “the essence of nanotechnology is the ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create large structures with fundamentally new molecular organization”. And then it all went south. As is almost inevitable with government-funded science and technology programs, the usual grantmasters waddled up to the trough, stuck their snouts into the new flow of funds, and diverted it toward their research interests which have nothing to do with the mission statement of the NNI. They even managed to redefine “nanotechnology” for their own purposes to exclude the construction of objects with atomic precision. This is not to say that some of the research NNI funds isn't worthwhile, but it's not nanotechnology in the original sense of the word, and doesn't advance toward the goal of molecular manufacturing. (We often hear about government-funded research and development “picking winners and losers”. In fact, such programs pick only losers, since the winners will already have been funded by the productive sector of the economy based upon their potential return.)

In this book Drexler attempts a fundamental reset of the vision he initially presented in Engines of Creation. He concedes the word “nanotechnology” to the hogs at the federal trough and uses “atomically precise manufacturing” (APM) to denote a fabrication technology which, starting from simple molecular feedstocks, can make anything by fabricating and assembling parts in a hierarchical fashion. Just as books, music, and movies have become data files which can be transferred around the globe in seconds, copied at no cost, and accessed by a generic portable device, physical objects will be encoded as fabrication instructions which a generic factory can create as required, constrained only that the size of the factory be large enough to assemble the final product. But the same garage-sized factory can crank out automobiles, motorboats, small aircraft, bicycles, computers, furniture, and anything on that scale or smaller just as your laser printer can print any document whatsoever as long as you have a page description of it.

Further, many of these objects can be manufactured using almost exclusively the most abundant elements on Earth, reducing cost and eliminating resource constraints. And atomic precision means that there will be no waste products from the manufacturing process—all intermediate products not present in the final product will be turned back into feedstock. Ponder, for a few moments, the consequences of this for the global economy.

In chapter 5 the author introduces a heuristic for visualising the nanoscale. Imagine the world scaled up in size by a factor of ten million, and time slowed down by the same factor. This scaling preserves properties such as velocity, force, and mass, and allows visualising nanoscale machines as the same size and operating speed as those with which we are familiar. At this scale a single transistor on a contemporary microchip would be about as big as an iPad and the entire chip the size of Belgium. Using this viewpoint, the author acquaints the reader with the realities of the nanoscale and demonstrates that analogues of macroscopic machines, when we figure out how to fabricate them, will work and, because they will operate ten million times faster, will be able to process macroscopic quantities of material on a practical time scale.

But can we build them? Here, Drexler introduces the concept of “exploratory engineering”: using the known laws of physics and conservative principles of engineering to explore what is possible. Essentially, there is a landscape of feasibility. One portion is what we have already accomplished, another which is ruled out by the laws of physics. The rest is that which we could accomplish if we could figure out how and could afford it. This is a huge domain—given unlimited funds and a few decades to work on the problem, there is little doubt one could build a particle accelerator which circled the Earth's equator. Drexler cites the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky as a masterpiece of exploratory engineering highly relevant to atomically precise manufacturing. By 1903, working alone, he had demonstrated the feasibility of achieving Earth orbit by means of a multistage rocket burning liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Now, Tsiolkovsky had no idea how to build the necessary engines, fuel tanks, guidance systems, launch facilities, etc., but from basic principles he was able to show that no physical law ruled out their construction and that known materials would suffice for them to work. We are in much the same position with APM today.

The tone of this book is rather curious. Perhaps having been burned by his earlier work being sensationalised, the author is reserved to such an extent that on p. 275 he includes a two pargraph aside urging readers to “curb their enthusiasm”, and much of the text, while discussing what may be the most significant development in human history since the invention of agriculture, often reads like a white paper from the Brookings Institution with half a dozen authors: “Profound changes in national interests will call for a ground-up review of grand strategy. Means and ends, risks and opportunities, the future self-perceived interests of today's strategic competitors—none of these can be taken for granted.” (p. 269)

I am also dismayed to see that Drexler appears to have bought in to the whole anthropogenic global warming scam and repeatedly genuflects to the whole “carbon is bad” nonsense. The acknowledgements include a former advisor to the anti-human World Wide Fund for Nature.

Despite quibbles, if you've been thinking “Hey, it's the 21st century, where's my nanotechnology?”, this is the book to read. It chronicles steady progress on the foundations of APM and multiple paths through which the intermediate steps toward achieving it may be achieved. It is enlightening and encouraging. Just don't get enthusiastic.

Posted at 23:30 Permalink

Monday, August 19, 2013

Reading List: Enjoy the Decline

Clarey, Aaron. Enjoy the Decline. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4802-8476-0.
Many readers may find this book deeply cynical, disturbing, and immoral. I found it cynical, disturbing, and immoral, but also important, especially for younger people who wish to make the most of their lives and find themselves in a United States in an epoch in which it is, with the consent of the majority, descending into a grey collectivist tyranny and surveillance state, where productive and creative people are seen as subjects to be exploited to benefit an ever-growing dependent class which supports the state which supports them.

I left the United States in 1991 and have only returned since for brief visits with family or to attend professional conferences. Since 2001, as the totalitarian vibe there has grown rapidly, I try to make these visits as infrequent as possible, my last being in 2011. Since the 1990s, I have been urging productive people in the U.S. to consider emigrating but, with only a couple of exceptions, nobody has taken this advice. I've always considered this somewhat odd, since most people in the U.S. are descended from those who left their countries of birth and came there to escape tyranny and seek opportunity. But most people in the U.S. seem to recoil from the idea of leaving, even as their own government becomes more repressive and exploits them to a greater extent than the regimes their ancestors fled.

This book is addressed to productive people (primarily young ones with few existing responsibilities) who have decided to remain in the United States. (Chapter 10 discusses emigration, and while it is a useful introduction to the topic, I'd suggest those pondering that option read Time to Emigrate? [January 2007], even though it is addressed to people in the United Kingdom.) The central message is that with the re-election of Obama in 2012, the U.S. electorate have explicitly endorsed a path which will lead to economic and geopolitical decline and ever-increasing exploitation of a shrinking productive class in favour of a growing dependent population. How is a productive person, what the author calls a “Real American”, to respond to this? One could dedicate oneself to struggling to reverse the trend through political activism, or grimly struggle to make the best of the situation while working hard even as more of the fruits of one's labour are confiscated. Alternatively, one can seek to “enjoy the decline”: face the reality that once a democratic society reaches the tipping point where more than half of the electorate receives more in government transfer payments than they pay in taxes it's game over and a new set of incentives have been put in place which those wishing to make the most of their lives must face forthrightly unless they wish to live in a delusional state.

In essence, the author argues, the definition of the “good life” is fundamentally transformed once a society begins the slide into collectivist tyranny. It is a fool's errand to seek to get an advanced education when that only burdens one with debt which will take most of a lifetime to repay and make capital formation in the most productive working years impossible. Home ownership, once the goal of young people and families, and their main financial asset, only indentures you to a state which can raise property taxes at any time and confiscate your property if you cannot pay. Marriage and children must be weighed, particularly by men, against the potential downside in case things don't work out, which is why, increasingly, men are going on strike. Scrimping and saving to contribute to a retirement plan is only piling up assets a cash-strapped government may seize when it can't pay its bills, as has already happened in Argentina and other countries.

What matters? Friends, family (if you can get along with them), having a good time, making the most of the years when you can hike, climb mountains, ride motorcycles way too fast, hunt, fish, read books that interest you, and share all of this and more with a compatible companion. And you're doing this while your contemporaries are putting in 60 hour weeks, seeing half or more of their income confiscated, and hoping to do these things at some distant time in the future, assuming their pensions don't default and their retirement funds aren't stolen or inflated away.

There are a number of things here which people may find off-putting, if not shocking. In chapter 7, the author discusses the “ ‘Smith and Wesson’ Retirement Plan”—not making any provision for retirement, living it up while you can, and putting a bullet in your head when you begin to fail. I suspect this sounds like a lot better idea when you're young (the author was 38 years old at the publication date of this book) than when you're getting closer to the checkered flag. In chapter 8, introduced by a quote from Ayn Rand, he discusses the strategy of minimising one's income and thereby qualifying for as many government assistance programs as possible. Hey, if the people have legitimately voted for them, why not be a beneficiary instead of the sucker who pays for them?

Whatever you think of the advice in this book (which comes across as sincere, not satirical), the thing to keep in mind is that it is an accurate description of the incentives which now exist in the U.S. While it's unlikely that many productive people will read this book and dial their ambitions back into slacker territory or become overt parasites, what's important is the decisions made on the margin by those unsure how to proceed in their lives. As the U.S. becomes poorer, weaker, and less free, perhaps the winners, at least on a relative basis, will be those who do not rage against the dying of the light or struggle to exist as they are progressively enslaved, but rather people who opt out to the extent possible and react rationally to the incentives as they exist. I would (and have) emigrated, but if that's not possible or thinkable, this book may provide a guide to making the best of a tragic situation.

The book contains numerous citations of resources on the Web, each of which is linked in the text: in the Kindle edition, clicking the link takes you to the cited Web page.

Posted at 22:43 Permalink

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Barely Radioactive Elements

“What is the heaviest stable element?” This question, easily posed, is not so easy to answer. In fact, nobody knows. Barely Radioactive Elements explores the stability of heavy elements, the difficulty of experimentally confirming theoretical predictions of very rare events, and elements whose half-lives are longer than the lives of all stars in the universe.

Posted at 21:46 Permalink

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fourmilab Internet Connection Upgrade Complete


Today Fourmilab's fibre optic Internet connection was upgraded from 20 megabits/second symmetrical, at which speed it had run since it was installed in 2008 (which involved digging up the street), to 100 megabits/second symmetrical. This time no civil engineering was required—simply swapping out the router on my end of the fibre link and re-configuring the connections in La Neuveville and Neuchâtel.

The downtime estimated to do this was around twenty minutes, but in fact the site was down from around 13:30 to 15:57 UTC due to a misconfiguration at the Neuchâtel point of presence. Everything has been running smoothly since then, and the above run from speedtest.net indicates the results of the upgrade. The upload speed is slower than the download speed because the upload test is contending with traffic from the Web site outbound to requesters. Downloads need only contend with HTTP requests, which are small in size compared to the replies. This test was run from a client machine on the LAN, through the firewall. Most of the LAN infrastructure is 100 megabit/second Ethernet—I may upgrade some of this in the communication shack to gigabit Ethernet in order to have more headroom in switches and other network gear, but I have no plans to pull new cable to go gigabit on longer runs.

Posted at 21:12 Permalink

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Reading List: Vacuum Tube Amplifier Basics

Jurich, E. J. Vacuum Tube Amplifier Basics. 2nd. ed. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. ASIN B00C0BMTGU.
If you can get past the sloppy copy-editing and production values, this book is a useful introduction for those interested in designing and building their own vacuum tube audio equipment. Millennials and others who have only ever listened to compressed audio will wonder why anybody would want to use such an antiquated technology, but those of us who appreciate it have a simple answer: it sounds better. The reason for this is simple once you poke through the mysticism surrounding the topic. It is in the nature of audio that peaks in the signal are much higher than the mean value. Solid-state amplifiers tend to be linear up until some signal level, but then “clip”—truncating the signal into a square top, introducing odd harmonics which the human ear finds distasteful. Tube amplifiers, on the other hand, tend to round off transients which exceed their capacity, introducing mostly second harmonic distortion which the ear and brain deem “mellow”.

Do you actually believe that?”, the silicon purity police shriek. Well, as a matter of fact, I do, and I currently use a 40 watt per channel tube amplifier I built from a kit more than a decade ago. It's a classic ultra-linear design using EL34 output tubes, and it sounds much better than the 200 watt per channel solid-state amplifier it replaced (after the silicon went up in smoke).

This book will introduce you to vacuum tube circuitry, and those accustomed to solid-state designs may be amazed at how few components are needed to get the job done. Since every component in the signal path has the potential to degrade its fidelity, the simplicity of vacuum tube designs is one of the advantages that recommend them. A variety of worked-out vacuum tube designs are presented, either to be built by the hobbyist or as starting points for original designs, and detailed specifications are presented for tubes widely used in audio gear.

The production quality is what we've sadly come to expect for inexpensive Kindle-only books. I noted more than 40 typographical errors (many involving the humble apostrophe), and in the tube data at the end, information which was clearly intended to be set in columns is just run together.

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned to it.

Posted at 22:12 Permalink

Friday, August 9, 2013

Reading List: Quartered Safe Out Here

Fraser, George MacDonald. Quartered Safe Out Here. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, [1992, 2001] 2007. ISBN 978-1-60239-190-1.
George MacDonald Fraser is best known as the author of the Flashman historical novels set in the 19th century. This autobiographical account of his service in the British Army in Burma during World War II is fictionalised only in that he has changed the names of those who served with him, tried to reconstruct dialogue from memory, and reconstructed events as best he can from the snapshots the mind retains from the chaos of combat and the boredom of army life between contact with the enemy.

Fraser, though born to Scottish parents, grew up in Carlisle, England, in the region of Cumbria. When he enlisted in the army, it was in the Border Regiment, composed almost entirely of Cumbrian troops. As the author notes, “…Cumbrians of old lived by raid, cattle theft, extortion, and murder; in war they were England's vanguard, and in peace her most unruly and bloody nuisance. They hadn't changed much in four centuries, either…”. Cumbrians of the epoch retained their traditional dialect, which may seem nearly incomprehensible to those accustomed to BBC English:

No offence, lad, but ye doan't 'alf ga broon. Admit it, noo. Put a dhoti on ye, an' ye could get a job dishin 'oot egg banjoes at Wazir Ali's. Any roads, w'at Ah'm sayin' is that if ye desert oot 'ere — Ah mean, in India, ye'd 'ev to be dooally to booger off in Boorma — the ridcaps is bound to cotch thee, an' court-martial gi'es thee the choice o' five years in Teimulghari or Paint Joongle, or coomin' oop t'road to get tha bollicks shot off. It's a moog's game. (p. 71)

A great deal of the text is dialogue in dialect, and if you find that difficult to get through, it may be rough going. I usually dislike reading dialect, but agree with the author that if it had been rendered into standard English the whole flavour of his experience would have been lost. Soldiers swear, and among Cumbrians profanity is as much a part of speech as nouns and verbs; if this offends you, this is not your book.

This is one of the most remarkable accounts of infantry combat I have ever read. Fraser was a grunt—he never rose above the rank of lance corporal during the events chronicled in the book and usually was busted back to private before long. The campaign in Burma was largely ignored by the press while it was underway and forgotten thereafter, but for those involved it was warfare at the most visceral level: combat harking back to the colonial era, fought by riflemen without armour or air support. Kipling of the 1890s would have understood precisely what was going on. On the ground, Fraser and his section had little idea of the larger picture or where their campaign fit into the overall war effort. All they knew is that they were charged with chasing the Japanese out of Burma and that “Jap” might be “half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stake, but he was in no mood to surrender.” (p. 191)

This was a time where the most ordinary men from Britain and the Empire fought to defend what they confidently believed was the pinnacle of civilisation from the forces of barbarism and darkness. While constantly griping about everything, as soldiers are wont to do, when the time came they shouldered their packs, double-checked their rifles, and went out to do the job. From time to time the author reflects on how far Britain, and the rest of the West, has fallen, “One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargon-mumbling ‘counsellors’, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing.” (p. 89)

Perhaps it helps that the author is a master of the historical novel: this account does a superb job of relating events as they happened and were perceived at the time without relying on hindsight to establish a narrative. While he doesn't abjure the occasional reflexion from decades later or reference to regimental history documents, for most of the account you are there—hot, wet, filthy, constantly assailed by insects, and never knowing whether that little sound you heard was just a rustle in the jungle or a Japanese patrol ready to attack with the savagery which comes when an army knows its cause is lost, evacuation is impossible, and surrender is unthinkable.

But this is not all boredom and grim combat. The account of the air drop of supplies starting on p. 96 is one of the funniest passages I've ever read in a war memoir. Cumbrians will be Cumbrians!

Posted at 21:58 Permalink

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reading List: Xenophobia

Cawdron, Peter. Xenophobia. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4905-6823-2.
This is the author's second novel of humanity's first contact with an alien species, but it is not a sequel to his earlier Anomaly (December 2011); the story is completely unrelated, and the nature of the aliens and the way in which the story plays out could not be more different, not only from the earlier novel, but from the vast majority of first contact fiction. To borrow terminology from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, most tales of first contact are “the happening world”, cutting back and forth between national capitals, military headquarters, scientific institutions, and so on, while this story is all about “tracking with closeups”. Far from the seats of power, most of the story takes place in civil-war-torn Malawi. It works superbly.

Elizabeth Bower is a British doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières at a hospital in a rural part of the country. Without warning, a U.S. military contingent, operating under the U.N. flag, arrives with orders to evacuate all personnel. Bower refuses to abandon those in her care, and persuades a detachment of Army Rangers to accompany her and the patients to a Red Cross station in Kasungu. During the journey, Bower and the Rangers learn that Western forces are being evacuated world-wide following the announcement that an alien spacecraft is bound for Earth, and military assets are being regrouped in their home countries to defend them.

Bower and the Rangers then undertake the overland trek to the capital of Lilongwe, where they hope to catch an evacuation flight for U.S. Marines still in the city. During the journey, things get seriously weird: the alien mothership, as large as a small country, is seen passing overhead; a multitude of probes rain down and land all around, seemingly on most of the globe; and giant jellyfish-like “floaters” enter the atmosphere and begin to cruise with unfathomable objectives.

Upon arrival at the capital, their problems are not with aliens but with two-legged Terries—rebel forces. They are ambushed, captured, and delivered into the hands of a delusional, megalomaniacal, and sadistic “commander”. Bower and a Ranger who styles himself as “Elvis” are forced into an impossible situation in which their only hope is to make common cause with an alien.

This is a tautly plotted story in which the characters are genuinely fleshed-out and engaging. It does a superb job of sketching the mystery of a first contact situation: where humans and aliens lack the means to communicate all but the most basic concepts and have every reason to distrust each other's motives. As is the case with many independently-published novels, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 26. There also some factual goofs: the Moon's gravity is about 1/6 of that of the Earth, not 1/3; the verbal description of the computation of the Fibonacci sequence is incorrect; the chemical formula for water is given incorrectly; and Lagrange points are described as gravitational hilltops, while the dynamics are better described by thinking of them as valleys. None of these detracts in any way from enjoying the story.

In the latter part of the book, the scale expands at a vertiginous pace from a close-up personal story to sense of wonder on the interstellar scale. There is a scene, reminiscent of one of the most harrowing episodes in the Heinlein juveniles, which I still find chilling when I recall it today (you'll know which one I'm speaking of when you get there), in which the human future is weighed in the balance.

This is a thoroughly satisfying novel which looks at first contact in an entirely different way than any other treatment I've encountered. It will also introduce you to a new meaning of the “tree of life”.

Posted at 22:39 Permalink