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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reading List: The Racketeer

Grisham, John. The Racketeer. New York: Doubleday, 2012. ISBN 978-0-345-53057-8.
Malcolm Bannister was living the life of a retail lawyer in a Virginia town, doing real estate transactions, wills, and the other routine work which occupies a three partner firm, paying the bills but never striking it rich. A law school classmate contacts him and lets him know there's a potentially large commission available for negotiating the purchase of a hunting lodge in rural Virginia for an anonymous client. Bannister doesn't like the smell of the transaction, especially after a number of odd twists and turns during the negotiation, but bills must be paid, and this fee will go a long way toward that goal. Without any warning, during a civic function, costumed goons arrest him and perp-walk him before previously-arranged state media. He, based upon his holding funds in escrow for a real estate transaction, is accused of “money laundering” and indicted as part of a RICO prosecution of a Washington influence peddler. Railroaded through the “justice system” by an ambitious federal prosecutor and sentenced by a vindictive judge, he finds himself imprisoned for ten years at a “Club Fed” facility along with other nonviolent “criminals”.

Five years into his sentence, he has become the librarian and “jailhouse lawyer” of the prison, filing motions on behalf of his fellow inmates and, on occasion, seeing injustices in their convictions reversed. He has lost everything else: his wife has divorced him and remarried, and his law licence has been revoked; he has little hope of resuming his career after release.

A jailhouse lawyer hears many things from his “clients”: some boastful, others bogus, but some revealing secrets which those holding them think might help to get them out. When a federal judge is murdered, Bannister knows, from his contacts in prison, precisely who committed the crime and leverages his position to obtain his own release, disappearance into witness protection, and immunity from prosecution for earlier acts. The FBI, under pressure to solve the case and with no other leads, is persuaded by what Bannister has to offer and takes him up on the deal.

A jailhouse lawyer, wrongly convicted on a bogus charge by a despotic regime has a great deal of time to ponder how he has been wronged, identify those responsible, and slowly and surely draw his plans against them.

This is one of the best revenge novels I've read, and it's particularly appropriate since it takes down the tyrannical regime which incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any serious country and shows how a clever individual can always outwit the bumbling collectivist leviathan as long as he refuses to engage it on level terrain but always exploits agility against the saurian brain reaction time of the state.

The only goof I noticed is that on a flight from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, passengers are required to go through passport control. As this is a domestic flight from a U.S. territory to the U.S. mainland, no passport check should be required (although in the age of Heimatsicherheitsdienst, one never knows).

I wouldn't call this a libertarian novel, as the author accepts the coercive structure of the state as a given, but it's a delightful tale of somebody who has been wronged by that foul criminal enterprise obtaining pay-back by wit and guile.

Posted at 22:45 Permalink

Monday, November 25, 2013

Reading List: Starship Century

Benford, James and Gregory Benford, eds. Starship Century. Reno, NV: Lucky Bat Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-939051-29-5.
“Is this the century when we begin to build starships?” So begins the book, produced in conjunction with the Starship Century Symposium held in May of 2013 at the University of California San Diego. Now, in a sense, we built and launched starships in the last century. Indeed, at this writing, eight objects launched from Earth are on interstellar trajectories. These are the two Pioneer spacecraft, the two Voyagers, the New Horizons Pluto flyby spacecraft, and its inert upper stage and two spin-down masses. But these objects are not aimed at any particular stars; they're simply flying outward from the solar system following whatever trajectory they were on when they completed their missions, and even if they were aimed at the nearest stars, it would take them tens of thousands of years to get there, by which time their radioactive power sources would be long exhausted and they would be inert space junk.

As long as they are built and launched by beings like humans (all bets are off should we pass the baton to immortal machines), starships or interstellar probes will probably need to complete their mission within the time scale of a human lifetime to be interesting. One can imagine multi-generation colony ships (and they are discussed here), but such ships are unlikely to be launched without confidence the destination is habitable, which can only be obtained by direct investigation by robotic probes launched previously. The closest star is around 4.3 light years from Earth. This is a daunting distance. To cross it in a human-scale time (say, within the career of a research scientist), you'd need to accelerate your probe to something on the order of 1/10 the speed of light. At this speed, each kilogram of the probe would have a kinetic energy of around 100 kilotons of TNT. A colony ship with a dry mass of 1,000 tonnes would, travelling at a tenth of the speed of light, have kinetic energy which, at a cost of USD 0.10 per kilowatt-hour, would be worth USD 12.5 trillion, which is impressive even by U.S. budget deficit standards. But you can't transmit energy to a spacecraft with 100% efficiency (the power cord is a killer!), and so the cost of a realistic mission might be ten times this.

Is it then, silly, to talk about starships? Well, not so fast. Ever since the Enlightenment, the GDP per capita has been rising rapidly. When I was a kid, millionaires were exotic creatures, while today people who bought houses in coastal California in the 1970s are all millionaires. Now it's billionaires who are the movers and shakers, and some of them are using their wealth to try to reduce the cost of access to space. (Yes, currency depreciation has accounted for a substantial part of the millionaire to billionaire transition, but the scope of what one can accomplish with a billion dollar grubstake today is still much greater than with a million dollars fifty years ago.) If this growth continues, might it not be possible that before this century is out there will be trillionaires who, perhaps in a consortium, have the ambition to expand the human presence to other stars?

This book collects contributions from those who have thought in great detail about the challenges of travel to the stars, both in nuts and bolts hardware and economic calculations and in science fictional explorations of what it will mean for the individuals involved and the societies which attempt that giant leap. There are any number of “Aha!” moments here. Freeman Dyson points out that the void between the stars is not as empty as many imagine it to be, but filled with Oort cloud objects which may extend so far as to overlap the clouds of neighbouring stars. Dyson imagines engineered organisms which could render these bodies habitable to (perhaps engineered) humans, which would expand toward the stars much like the Polynesians in the Pacific: from island to island, with a population which would dwarf both in numbers and productivity that of the inner system rock where they originated.

We will not go to the stars with rockets like we use today. The most rudimentary working of the numbers shows how absurd that would be. And yet nuclear thermal rockets, a technology developed and tested in the 1960s and 1970s, are more than adequate to develop a solar system wide economy which could support interstellar missions. Many different approaches to building starships are explored here: some defy the constraints of the rocket equation by keeping the power source in the solar system, as in “sailships” driven by laser or microwave radiation. A chapter explores “exotic propulsion”, beyond our present understanding of physics, which might change the game. (And before you dismiss such speculations, recall that according to the consensus model of cosmology, around 95% of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” whose nature is entirely unknown. Might it be possible that a vacuum propeller could be discovered which works against these pervasive media just as a submarine's propeller acts upon the ocean?)

Leavening the technical articles are science fiction stories exploring the transition from a planetary species to the stars. Science fiction provides the dreams which are then turned into equations and eventually hardware, and it has a place at this table. Indeed, many of the scientists who spoke at the conference and authored chapters in this book also write science fiction. We are far from being able to build starships or even interstellar probes but, being human, we're always looking beyond the horizon and not just imagining what's there but figuring out how we'll go and see it for ourselves. To date, humans haven't even learned how to live in space: our space stations are about camping in space, with extensive support from the Earth. We have no idea what it takes to create a self-sustaining closed ecosystem (consider that around 90% of the cells in your body are not human but rather symbiotic microbes: wouldn't you just hate it to be half way to Alpha Centauri and discover you'd left some single-celled critter behind?). If somebody waved a magic wand and handed us a propulsion module that could take us to the nearest stars within a human lifetime, there are many things we'd still need to know in order to expect to survive the journey and establish ourselves when we arrived. And, humans being humans, we'd go anyway, regardless. Gotta love this species!

This is an excellent survey of current thinking about interstellar missions. If you're interested in this subject, be sure to view the complete video archive of the conference, which includes some presentations which do not figure in this volume, including the magnificent galaxy garden.

Posted at 23:35 Permalink

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reading List: Flashback

Simmons, Dan. Flashback. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. ISBN 978-0-316-00697-2.
In the fourth decade of the 21st century, all of the dire consequences predicted when the U.S. veered onto a “progressive” path in 2008 have come to pass. Exponentially growing entitlement spending and debt, a depreciating currency being steadily displaced as the world's reserve currency, and an increasingly hollowed-out military unable to shoulder the burdens it had previously assumed in maintaining world stability all came to a head on The Day It All Hit The Fan. What is left of the United States (the Republic of Texas has opted to go it alone, while the southwest has become Nuevo Mexico, seeking to expand its territory in the ongoing reconquista) has become a run-down, has-been nation. China, joined at the hip to the U.S. economy and financial system, collapsed along with the U.S., and its territory and resources are being fought over by superpowers Japan and India, with U.S. mercenaries employed by both sides. Japan, holder of a large portion of the debt on which the U.S. defaulted, has effectively foreclosed, sending in Japanese “Advisors” who, from fortified Green Zone compounds, are the ultimate authority in their regions.

Islamic powers, with nothing to fear from a neutered U.S., make good on their vow to wipe Israel off the map, and the New Global Caliphate is mobilising Islamic immigrant communities around the world to advance its goal of global conquest. With the present so grim, millions in the U.S. have become users of the drug “flashback”, which allows those who take it to relive earlier, happier times in their lives. While not physically addictive, the contrast between the happy experiences “under the flash” and the squalid present causes many to spend whatever money they can put their hands on to escape to the past.

Nick Bottom was a Denver police department detective in charge of the investigation of the murder of the son of the Japanese Advisor in charge of the region. The victim was working on a documentary on the impact of flashback on U.S. society when, at a wrap party for the film, he and his girlfriend were killed in what amounted to a locked room mystery. Nick found lead after lead evaporating in the mysterious doings of the Japanese, and while involved in the investigation, his wife was killed in a horrific automobile accident. This tipped him over the edge, and he turned to flashback to re-live his life with her, eventually costing him his job.

Five years later, out of the blue, the Japanese Advisor summons him and offers to employ him to re-open the investigation of his son's death. Since Nick interviewed all of the persons of interest in the investigation, only he has the ability to relive those interrogations under the flash, and thus is in a unique position to discover something he missed while distracted with the case load of a busy homicide cop.

This is a gritty gumshoe procedural set in an all-too-plausible future. (OK, the flashback drug may seem to be a reach, but researchers are already talking about memory editing drugs, so who knows?) Nick discovers that all of the mysteries that haunt him may be related in some way, and has to venture into dangerous corners of this new world to follow threads which might make sense of all the puzzles.

This is one of those novels where, as the pages dwindle, you wonder how the author is going to pull everything together and begin to fear you may be headed for a cliffhanger setting the stage for a sequel. But in the last few chapters all is revealed and resolved, concluding a thoroughly satisfying yarn. If you'd like to see how noir mystery, science fiction, and a dystopian future can be blended into a page-turner, here's how it's done.

Posted at 22:41 Permalink

Monday, November 18, 2013

ETSET Version 3.4 Posted

Version 3.4 of ETSET, which translates electronic texts written in human readable form into LaTeX (and thence to PostScript and PDF, if you wish), HTML (either single document or individual chapters with navigation links), or Palm Markup Language (PML) to produce eReader books which can be read on a variety of handheld platforms, is now available.

Version 3.4 is a minor update which corrects problems when building the program on 64-bit platforms. The result of various STL string methods were stored into unsigned int variables, which resulted in errors when a string::npos value was not recognised because that 32-bit value was stored into a 64-bit unsigned int. I changed all of the relevant declarations to std::size_t, which adapts automatically to the width of values returned by STL string methods.

ETSET is a C++/STL program written using the Literate Programming methodology in the CWEB System; the source code and complete documentation (both user-level and internal) may be read online (PDF file).

Posted at 23:22 Permalink

Friday, November 15, 2013

Reading List: First Contact

Kaufman, Marc. First Contact. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-0901-4.
How many fields of science can you think of which study something for which there is no generally accepted experimental evidence whatsoever? Such areas of inquiry certainly exist: string theory and quantum gravity come immediately to mind, but those are research programs motivated by self-evident shortcomings in the theoretical foundations of physics which become apparent when our current understanding is extrapolated to very high energies. Astrobiology, the study of life in the cosmos, has, to date, only one exemplar to investigate: life on Earth. For despite the enormous diversity of terrestrial life, it shares a common genetic code and molecular machinery, and appears to be descended from a common ancestral organism.

And yet in the last few decades astrobiology has been a field which, although having not so far unambiguously identified extraterrestrial life, has learned a great deal about life on Earth, the nature of life, possible paths for the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere, and the habitats in the universe where life might be found. This book, by a veteran Washington Post science reporter, visits the astrobiologists in their native habitats, ranging from deep mines in South Africa, where organisms separated from the surface biosphere for millions of years have been identified; Antarctica, whose ice hosts microbes the likes of which might flourish on the icy bodies of the outer solar system; to planet hunters patiently observing stars from the ground and space to discover worlds orbiting distant stars.

It is amazing how much we have learned in such a short time. When I was a kid, many imagined that Venus's clouds shrouded a world of steamy jungles, and that Mars had plants which changed colour with the seasons. No planet of another star had been detected, and respectable astronomers argued that the solar system might have been formed by a freak close approach between two stars and that planets might be extremely rare. The genetic code of life had not been decoded, and an entire domain of Earthly life, bearing important clues for life's origin, was unknown and unsuspected. This book describes the discoveries which have filled in the blanks over the last few decades, painting a picture of a galaxy in which planets abound, many in the “habitable zone” of their stars. Life on Earth has been found to have colonised habitats previously considered as inhospitable to life as other worlds: absence of oxygen, no sunlight, temperatures near freezing or above the boiling point of water, extreme acidity or alkalinity: life finds a way.

We may have already discovered extraterrestrial life. The author meets the thoroughly respectable scientists who operated the life detection experiments of the Viking Mars landers in the 1970s, sought microfossils of organisms in a meteorite from Mars found in Antarctica, and searched for evidence of life in carbonaceous meteorites. Each believes the results of their work is evidence of life beyond Earth, but the standard of evidence required for such an extraordinary claim has not been met in the opinion of most investigators.

While most astrobiologists seek evidence of simple life forms (which exclusively inhabited Earth for most of its history), the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) jumps to the other end of evolution and seeks interstellar communications from other technological civilisations. While initial searches were extremely limited in the assumptions about signals they might detect, progress in computing has drastically increased the scope of these investigations. In addition, other channels of communication, such as very short optical pulses, are now being explored. While no signals have been detected in 50 years of off and on searching, only a minuscule fraction of the search space has been explored, and it may be that in retrospect we'll realise that we've had evidence of interstellar signals in our databases for years in the form of transient pulses not recognised because we were looking for narrowband continuous beacons.

Discovery of life beyond the Earth, whether humble microbes on other bodies of the solar system or an extraterrestrial civilisation millions of years older than our own spamming the galaxy with its ETwitter feed, would arguably be the most significant discovery in the history of science. If we have only one example of life in the universe, its origin may have been a forbiddingly improbable fluke which happened only once in our galaxy or in the entire universe. But if there are two independent examples of the origin of life (note that if we find life on Mars, it is crucial to determine whether it shares a common origin with terrestrial life: since meteors exchange material between the planets, it's possible Earth life originated on Mars or vice versa), then there is every reason to believe life is as common in the cosmos as we are now finding planets to be. Perhaps in the next few decades we will discover the universe to be filled with wondrous creatures awaiting our discovery. Or maybe not—we may be alone in the universe, in which case it is our destiny to bring it to life.

Posted at 23:24 Permalink

Monday, November 4, 2013

Reading List: Surrounded by Enemies

Zabel, Bryce. Surrounded by Enemies. Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-62652-431-6.
What if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas? That is the point of departure for this gripping alternative history novel by reporter, author, and screenwriter Bryce Zabel. Spared an assassin's bullet by a heroic Secret Service agent, a shaken Kennedy returns to Washington and convenes a small group of his most trusted inner circle led by his brother Robert, the attorney general, to investigate who might have launched such an attack and what steps could be taken both to prevent a second attempt and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Surveying the landscape, they conclude it might be easier to make a list of powerful forces who might not wish to kill the president. Kennedy's actions in office had given actors ranging from Cuba, anti-Castro groups in the U.S., the Mafia, FBI, CIA, senior military commanders, the Secret Service, Texas oil interests, and even Vice President Johnson potential motivations to launch or condone an attack. At the same time, while pursuing their own quiet inquiry, they must try to avert a Congressional investigation which might turn into a partisan circus, diverting attention from their strategy for Kennedy's 1964 re-election campaign.

But in the snake pit which is Washington, there is more than one way to assassinate a man, and Kennedy's almost grotesque womanising and drug use (both he and his wife were regular patients of Max Jacobson, “Dr. Feelgood”, whose “tissue regenerator” injections were laced with amphetamines) provided the ammunition his enemies needed to try to bring him down by assassinating his character in the court of public opinion.

A shadowy figure begins passing FBI files to two reporters of Top Story, a recently-launched news magazine struggling in the shadow of Time and Newsweek. After investigating the allegations and obtaining independent corroboration for some of them, Top Story runs a cover story on “The Secret Life of the President”, creating a firestorm of scrutiny of the president's private life by media who never before considered such matters worthy of investigation or reporting.

The political implications quickly assume the dimensions of a constitutional crisis, where the parties involved are forced to weigh appropriate sanctions for a president whose behaviour may have put the national security at risk versus taking actions which may give those who plotted to kill the president what they tried to achieve in Dallas with a bullet.

The plot deftly weaves historical events from the epoch with twists and turns which all follow logically from the point of departure, and the result is a very different history of the 1960s and 1970s which, to this reader who lived through those decades, seems entirely plausible. The author, who identifies himself in the introduction as “a lifelong Democrat”, brings no perceptible ideological or political agenda to the story—the characters are as complicated as the real people were, and behave in ways which are believable given the changed circumstances.

The story is told in a clever way: as a special issue of Top Story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination attempt. Written in weekly news magazine style, this allows it to cite memoirs, recollections by those involved in years after the events described, and documents which became available much later. There are a few goofs regarding historical events in the sixties which shouldn't have been affected by the alternative timeline, but readers who notice them can just chuckle and get on with the story. The book is almost entirely free of copy-editing errors.

This is a superb exemplar of alternative history, and Harry Turtledove, the cosmic grand master of the genre, contributes a foreword to the novel.

Posted at 22:04 Permalink

Friday, November 1, 2013

Puzzle: Time zones

Alice, who is in an Atlantic seaboard state (one of the states of the U.S., that is) is talking on the phone to Bob, who is in a Pacific seaboard state (again, one of the states of the U.S.). “What time is it there?”, Alice says. Bob gives the correct time where he is. “Funny, it's the same time here” says Alice. How is that possible?

I originally saw this puzzle on The Volokh Conspiracy, where it was posted on March 3rd, 2005 by Eugene Volokh. The puzzle is attributed to Warren Usui. The links to show the hint and answer no longer work in the original post, so I am re-posting the puzzle here. I have made a few minor changes in typography to conform to Fourmilab's style guide.

Posted at 14:18 Permalink