« November 2019 | Main | January 2020 »

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books of the Year: 2019

Here are my picks for the best books of 2019, fiction and nonfiction. These aren't the best books published this year, but rather the best I've read in the last twelve months. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author's surname. Each title is linked to my review of the book.


  • The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation by Travis J. I. Corcoran
    I am jointly choosing these two novels as fiction books of the year. They are the first two volumes of the Aristillus series and may be read as one long story spanning two books.
Runners up:


Winner: Runners up:

Posted at 12:56 Permalink

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Reading List: The Sword and the Shield

Andrew, Christopher and Vasili Mitrokhin. The Sword and the Shield. New York: Basic Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-465-00312-9.
Vasili Mitrokhin joined the Soviet intelligence service as a foreign intelligence officer in 1948, at a time when the MGB (later to become the KGB) and the GRU were unified into a single service called the Committee of Information. By the time he was sent to his first posting abroad in 1952, the two services had split and Mitrokhin stayed with the MGB. Mitrokhin's career began in the paranoia of the final days of Stalin's regime, when foreign intelligence officers were sent on wild goose chases hunting down imagined Trotskyist and Zionist conspirators plotting against the regime. He later survived the turbulence after the death of Stalin and the execution of MGB head Lavrenti Beria, and the consolidation of power under his successors.

During the Khrushchev years, Mitrokhin became disenchanted with the regime, considering Khrushchev an uncultured barbarian whose banning of avant garde writers betrayed the tradition of Russian literature. He began to entertain dissident thoughts, not hoping for an overthrow of the Soviet regime but rather its reform by a new generation of leaders untainted by the legacy of Stalin. These thoughts were reinforced by the crushing of the reform-minded regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and his own observation of how his service, now called the KGB, manipulated the Soviet justice system to suppress dissent within the Soviet Union. He began to covertly listen to Western broadcasts and read samizdat publications by Soviet dissidents.

In 1972, the First Chief Directorate (FCD: foreign intelligence) moved from the cramped KGB headquarters in the Lubyanka in central Moscow to a new building near the ring road. Mitrokhin had sole responsibility for checking, inventorying, and transferring the entire archives, around 300,000 documents, of the FCD for transfer to the new building. These files documented the operations of the KGB and its predecessors dating back to 1918, and included the most secret records, those of Directorate S, which ran “illegals”: secret agents operating abroad under false identities. Probably no other individual ever read as many of the KGB's most secret archives as Mitrokhin. Appalled by much of the material he reviewed, he covertly began to make his own notes of the details. He started by committing key items to memory and then transcribing them every evening at home, but later made covert notes on scraps of paper which he smuggled out of KGB offices in his shoes. Each week-end he would take the notes to his dacha outside Moscow, type them up, and hide them in a series of locations which became increasingly elaborate as their volume grew.

Mitrokhin would continue to review, make notes, and add them to his hidden archive for the next twelve years until his retirement from the KGB in 1984. After Mikhail Gorbachev became party leader in 1985 and called for more openness (glasnost), Mitrokhin, shaken by what he had seen in the files regarding Soviet actions in Afghanistan, began to think of ways he might spirit his files out of the Soviet Union and publish them in the West.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin tested the new freedom of movement by visiting the capital of one of the now-independent Baltic states, carrying a sample of the material from his archive concealed in his luggage. He crossed the border with no problems and walked in to the British embassy to make a deal. After several more trips, interviews with British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers, and providing more sample material, the British agreed to arrange the exfiltration of Mitrokhin, his entire family, and the entire archive—six cases of notes. He was debriefed at a series of safe houses in Britain and began several years of work typing handwritten notes, arranging the documents, and answering questions from the SIS, all in complete secrecy. In 1995, he arranged a meeting with Christopher Andrew, co-author of the present book, to prepare a history of KGB foreign intelligence as documented in the archive.

Mitrokhin's exfiltration (I'm not sure one can call it a “defection”, since the country whose information he disclosed ceased to exist before he contacted the British) and delivery of the archive is one of the most stunning intelligence coups of all time, and the material he delivered will be an essential primary source for historians of the twentieth century. This is not just a whistle-blower disclosing operations of limited scope over a short period of time, but an authoritative summary of the entire history of the foreign intelligence and covert operations of the Soviet Union from its inception until the time it began to unravel in the mid-1980s. Mitrokhin's documents name names; identify agents, both Soviet and recruits in other countries, by codename; describe secret operations, including assassinations, subversion, “influence operations” planting propaganda in adversary media and corrupting journalists and politicians, providing weapons to insurgents, hiding caches of weapons and demolition materials in Western countries to support special forces in case of war; and trace the internal politics and conflicts within the KGB and its predecessors and with the Party and rivals, particularly military intelligence (the GRU).

Any doubts about the degree of penetration of Western governments by Soviet intelligence agents are laid to rest by the exhaustive documentation here. During the 1930s and throughout World War II, the Soviet Union had highly-placed agents throughout the British and American governments, military, diplomatic and intelligence communities, and science and technology projects. At the same time, these supposed allies had essentially zero visibility into the Soviet Union: neither the American OSS nor the British SIS had a single agent in Moscow.

And yet, despite success in infiltrating other countries and recruiting agents within them (particularly prior to the end of World War II, when many agents, such as the “Magnificent Five” [Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt] in Britain, were motivated by idealistic admiration for the Soviet project, as opposed to later, when sources tended to be in it for the money), exploitation of this vast trove of purloined secret information was uneven and often ineffective. Although it reached its apogee during the Stalin years, paranoia and intrigue are as Russian as borscht, and compromised the interpretation and use of intelligence throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Despite having loyal spies in high places in governments around the world, whenever an agent provided information which seemed “too good” or conflicted with the preconceived notions of KGB senior officials or Party leaders, it was likely to be dismissed as disinformation, often suspected to have been planted by British counterintelligence, to which the Soviets attributed almost supernatural powers, or that their agents had been turned and were feeding false information to the Centre. This was particularly evident during the period prior to the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. KGB archives record more than a hundred warnings of preparations for the attack having been forwarded to Stalin between January and June 1941, all of which were dismissed as disinformation or erroneous due to Stalin's idée fixe that Germany would not attack because it was too dependent on raw materials supplied by the Soviet Union and would not risk a two front war while Britain remained undefeated.

Further, throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, the KGB was hesitant to report intelligence which contradicted the beliefs of its masters in the Politburo or documented the failures of their policies and initiatives. In 1985, shortly after coming to power, Gorbachev lectured KGB leaders “on the impermissibility of distortions of the factual state of affairs in messages and informational reports sent to the Central Committee of the CPSU and other ruling bodies.”

Another manifestation of paranoia was deep suspicion of those who had spent time in the West. This meant that often the most effective agents who had worked undercover in the West for many years found their reports ignored due to fears that they had “gone native” or been doubled by Western counterintelligence. Spending too much time on assignment in the West was not conducive to advancement within the KGB, which resulted in the service's senior leadership having little direct experience with the West and being prone to fantastic misconceptions about the institutions and personalities of the adversary. This led to delusional schemes such as the idea of recruiting stalwart anticommunist senior figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski as KGB agents.

This is a massive compilation of data: 736 pages in the paperback edition, including almost 100 pages of detailed end notes and source citations. I would be less than candid if I gave the impression that this reads like a spy thriller: it is nothing of the sort. Although such information would have been of immense value during the Cold War, long lists of the handlers who worked with undercover agents in the West, recitations of codenames for individuals, and exhaustive descriptions of now largely forgotten episodes such as the KGB's campaign against “Eurocommunism” in the 1970s and 1980s, which it was feared would thwart Moscow's control over communist parties in Western Europe, make for heavy going for the reader.

The KGB's operations in the West were far from flawless. For decades, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) received substantial subsidies from the KGB despite consistently promising great breakthroughs and delivering nothing. Between the 1950s and 1975, KGB money was funneled to the CPUSA through two undercover agents, brothers named Morris and Jack Childs, delivering cash often exceeding a million dollars a year. Both brothers were awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1975 for their work, with Morris receiving his from Leonid Brezhnev in person. Unbeknownst to the KGB, both of the Childs brothers had been working for, and receiving salaries from, the FBI since the early 1950s, and reporting where the money came from and went—well, not the five percent they embezzled before passing it on. In the 1980s, the KGB increased the CPUSA's subsidy to two million dollars a year, despite the party's never having more than 15,000 members (some of whom, no doubt, were FBI agents).

A second doorstop of a book (736 pages) based upon the Mitrokhin archive, The World Was Going our Way, published in 2005, details the KGB's operations in the Third World during the Cold War. U.S. diplomats who regarded the globe and saw communist subversion almost everywhere were accurately reporting the situation on the ground, as the KGB's own files reveal.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 16:07 Permalink

Monday, December 23, 2019

Reading List: Vandenberg Air Force Base

Page, Joseph T., II. Vandenberg Air Force Base. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4671-3209-1.
Prior to World War II, the sleepy rural part of the southern California coast between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo was best known as the location where, in September 1923, despite a lighthouse having been in operation at Arguello Point since 1901, the U.S. Navy suffered its worst peacetime disaster, when seven destroyers, travelling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, resulting in the loss of all seven ships and the deaths of 23 crewmembers. In the 1930s, following additional wrecks in the area, a lifeboat station was established in conjunction with the lighthouse.

During World War II, the Army acquired 92,000 acres (372 km²) in the area for a training base which was called Camp Cooke, after a cavalry general who served in the Civil War, in wars with Indian tribes, and in the Mexican-American War. The camp was used for training Army troops in a variety of weapons and in tank maneuvers. After the end of the war, the base was closed and placed on inactive status, but was re-opened after the outbreak of war in Korea to train tank crews. It was once again mothballed in 1953, and remained inactive until 1957, when 64,000 acres were transferred to the U.S. Air Force to establish a missile base on the West Coast, initially called Cooke Air Force Base, intended to train missile crews and also serve as the U.S.'s first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site. On October 4th, 1958, the base was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base in honour of the late General Hoyt Vandenberg, former Air Force Chief of Staff and Director of Central Intelligence.

On December 15, 1958, a Thor intermediate range ballistic missile was launched from the new base, the first of hundreds of launches which would follow and continue up to the present day. Starting in September 1959, three Atlas ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads were deployed on open launch pads at Vandenberg, the first U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles to go on alert. The Atlas missiles remained part of the U.S. nuclear force until their retirement in May 1964.

With the advent of Earth satellites, Vandenberg became a key part of the U.S. military and civil space infrastructure. Launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida are restricted to a corridor directed eastward over the Atlantic ocean. While this is fine for satellites bound for equatorial orbits, such as the geostationary orbits used by many communication satellites, a launch into polar orbit, preferred by military reconnaissance satellites and Earth resources satellites because it allows them to overfly and image locations anywhere on Earth, would result in the rockets used to launch them dropping spent stages on land, which would vex taxpayers to the north and hotheated Latin neighbours to the south.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, however, situated on a point extending from the California coast, had nothing to the south but open ocean all the way to Antarctica. Launching southward, satellites could be placed into polar or Sun synchronous orbits without disturbing anybody but the fishes. Vandenberg thus became the prime launch site for U.S. reconnaissance satellites which, in the early days when satellites were short-lived and returned film to the Earth, required a large number of launches. The Corona spy satellites alone accounted for 144 launches from Vandenberg between 1959 and 1972.

With plans in the 1970s to replace all U.S. expendable launchers with the Space Shuttle, facilities were built at Vandenberg (Space Launch Complex 6) to process and launch the Shuttle, using a very different architecture than was employed in Florida. The Shuttle stack would be assembled on the launch pad, protected by a movable building that would retract prior to launch. The launch control centre was located just 365 metres from the launch pad (as opposed to 4.8 km away at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida), so the plan in case of a catastrophic launch accident on the pad essentially seemed to be “hope that never happens”. In any case, after spending more than US$4 billion on the facilities, after the Challenger disaster in 1986, plans for Shuttle launches from Vandenberg were abandoned, and the facility was mothballed until being adapted, years later, to launch other rockets.

This book, part of the “Images of America” series, is a collection of photographs (all black and white) covering all aspects of the history of the site from before World War II to the present day. Introductory text for each chapter and detailed captions describe the items shown and their significance to the base's history. The production quality is excellent, and I noted only one factual error in the text (the names of crew of Gemini 5). For a book of just 128 pages, the paperback is very expensive (US$22 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 18:02 Permalink

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Reading List: The Compleat Martian Invasion

Taloni, John. The Compleat Martian Invasion. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2016. ASIN B01HLTZ7MS.
A number of years have elapsed since the Martian Invasion chronicled by H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds. The damage inflicted on the Earth was severe, and the protracted process of recovery, begun in the British Empire in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, now continues under Queen Louise, Victoria's sixth child and eldest surviving heir after the catastrophe of the invasion. Just as Earth is beginning to return to normalcy, another crisis has emerged. John Bedford, who had retreated into an opium haze after the horrors of his last expedition, is summoned to Windsor Castle where Queen Louise shows him a photograph. “Those are puffs of gas on the Martian surface. The Martians are coming again, Mr. Bedford. And in far greater numbers.” Defeated the last time only due to their vulnerability to Earth's microbes, there is every reason to expect that this time the Martians will have taken precautions against that threat to their plans for conquest.

Earth's only hope to thwart the invasion before it reaches the surface and unleashes further devastation on its inhabitants is deploying weapons on platforms employing the anti-gravity material Cavorite, but the secret of manufacturing it rests with its creator, Cavor, who has been taken prisoner by the ant-like Selenites in the expedition from which Mr Bedford narrowly escaped, as chronicled in Mr Wells's The First Men in the Moon. Now, Bedford must embark on a perilous attempt to recover the Cavorite sphere lost at the end of his last adventure and then join an expedition to the Moon to rescue Cavor from the caves of the Selenites.

Meanwhile, on Barsoom (Mars), John Carter and Deja Thoris find their beloved city of Helium threatened by the Khondanes, whose deadly tripods wreaked so much havoc on Earth not long ago and are now turning their envious eyes back to the plunder that eluded them on the last attempt.

Queen Louise must assemble an international alliance, calling on all of her crowned relatives: Czar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm, and even those troublesome republican Americans, plus all the resources they can summon—the inventions of the Serbian, Tesla, the research of Maria Skłowdowska and her young Swiss assistant Albert, discovered toiling away in the patent office, the secrets recovered from Captain Nemo's island, and the mysterious interventions of the Time Traveller, who flickers in and out of existence at various moments, pursuing his own inscrutable agenda. As the conflict approaches and battle is joined, an interplanetary effort is required to save Earth from calamity.

As you might expect from this description, this is a rollicking good romp replete with references and tips of the hat to the classics of science fiction and their characters. What seems like a straightforward tale of battle and heroism takes a turn at the very end into the inspiring, with a glimpse of how different human history might have been.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available, which is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 17:20 Permalink

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Reading List: Three Laws Lethal

Walton, David. Three Laws Lethal. Jersey City, NJ: Pyr, 2019. ISBN 978-1-63388-560-8.
In the near future, autonomous vehicles, “autocars”, are available from a number of major automobile manufacturers. The self-driving capability, while not infallible, has been approved by regulatory authorities after having demonstrated that it is, on average, safer than the population of human drivers on the road and not subject to human frailties such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, while tired, or distracted by others in the car or electronic gadgets. While self-driving remains a luxury feature with which a minority of cars on the road are equipped, regulators are confident that as it spreads more widely and improves over time, the highway accident rate will decline.

But placing an algorithm and sensors in command of a vehicle with a mass of more than a tonne hurtling down the road at 100 km per hour or faster is not just a formidable technical problem, it is one with serious and unavoidable moral implications. These come into stark focus when, in an incident on a highway near Seattle, an autocar swerves to avoid a tree crashing down on the highway, hitting and killing a motorcyclist in an adjacent lane of which the car's sensors must have been aware. The car appears to have made a choice, valuing the lives of its passengers: a mother and her two children, over that of the motorcyclist. What really happened, and how the car decided what to do in that split-second, is opaque, because the software controlling it was, as all such software, proprietary and closed to independent inspection and audit by third parties. It's one thing to acknowledge that self-driving vehicles are safer, as a whole, than those with humans behind the wheel, but entirely another to cede to them the moral agency of life and death on the highway. Should an autocar value the lives of its passengers over those of others? What if there were a sole passenger in the car and two on the motorcycle? And who is liable for the death of the motorcyclist: the auto manufacturer, the developers of the software, the owner of car, the driver who switched it into automatic mode, or the regulators who approved its use on public roads? The case was headed for court, and all would be watching the precedents it might establish.

Tyler Daniels and Brandon Kincannon, graduate students in the computer science department of the University of Pennsylvania, were convinced they could do better. The key was going beyond individual vehicles which tried to operate autonomously based upon what their own sensors could glean from their immediate environment, toward an architecture where vehicles communicated with one another and coordinated their activities. This would allow sharing information over a wider area and be able to avoid accidents resulting from individual vehicles acting without the knowledge of the actions of others. Further, they wanted to re-architect individual ground transportation from a model of individually-owned and operated vehicles to transportation as a service, where customers would summon an autocar on demand with their smartphone, with the vehicle network dispatching the closest free car to their location. This would dramatically change the economics of personal transportation. The typical private car spends twenty-two out of twenty-four hours parked, taking up a parking space and depreciating as it sits idle. The transportation service autocar would be in constant service (except for downtime for maintenance, refuelling, and times of reduced demand), generating revenue for its operator. An angel investor believes their story and, most importantly, believes in them sufficiently to write a check for the initial demonstration phase of their project, and they set to work.

Their team consists of Tyler and Brandon, plus Abby and Naomi Sumner, sisters who differed in almost every way: Abby outgoing and vivacious, with an instinct for public relations and marketing, and Naomi the super-nerd, verging on being “on the spectrum”. The big day of the public roll-out of the technology arrives, and ends in disaster, killing Abby in what was supposed to be a demonstration of the system's inherent safety. The disaster puts an end to the venture and the surviving principals go their separate ways. Tyler signs on as a consultant and expert witness for the lawyers bringing the suit on behalf of the motorcyclist killed in Seattle, using the exposure to advocate for open source software being a requirement for autonomous vehicles. Brandon uses money inherited after the death of his father to launch a new venture, Black Knight, offering transportation as a service initially in the New York area and then expanding to other cities. Naomi, whose university experiment in genetic software implemented as non-player characters (NPCs) in a virtual world was the foundation of the original venture's software, sees Black Knight as a way to preserve the world and beings she has created as they develop and require more and more computing resources. Characters in the virtual world support themselves and compete by driving Black Knight cars in the real world, and as generation follows generation and natural selection works its wonders, customers and competitors are amazed at how Black Knight vehicles anticipate the needs of their users and maintain an unequalled level of efficiency.

Tyler leverages his recognition from the trial into a new self-driving venture based on open source software called “Zoom”, which spreads across the U.S. west coast and eventually comes into competition with Black Knight in the east. Somehow, Zoom's algorithms, despite being open and having a large community contributing to their development, never seem able to equal the service provided by Black Knight, which is so secretive that even Brandon, the CEO, doesn't know how Naomi's software does it.

In approaching any kind of optimisation problem such as scheduling a fleet of vehicles to anticipate and respond to real-time demand, a key question is choosing the “objective function”: how the performance of the system is evaluated based upon the stated goals of its designers. This is especially crucial when the optimisation is applied to a system connected to the real world. The parable of the “Clippy Apocalypse”, where an artificial intelligence put in charge of a paperclip factory and trained to maximise the production of paperclips escapes into the wild and eventually converts first its home planet, then the rest of the solar system, and eventually the entire visible universe into paper clips. The system worked as designed—but the objective function was poorly chosen.

Naomi's NPCs literally (or virtually) lived or died based upon their ability to provide transportation service to Black Knight's customers, and natural selection, running at the accelerated pace of the simulation they inhabited, relentlessly selected them with the objective of improving their service and expanding Black Knight's market. To the extent that, within their simulation, they perceived opposition to these goals, they would act to circumvent it—whatever it takes.

This sets the stage for one of the more imaginative tales of how artificial general intelligence might arrive through the back door: not designed in a laboratory but emerging through the process of evolution in a complex system subjected to real-world constraints and able to operate in the real world. The moral dimensions of this go well beyond the trolley problem often cited in connection with autonomous vehicles, dealing with questions of whether artificial intelligences we create for our own purposes are tools, servants, or slaves, and what happens when their purposes diverge from those for which we created them.

This is a techno-thriller, with plenty of action in the conclusion of the story, but also a cerebral exploration of the moral questions which something as seemingly straightforward and beneficial as autonomous vehicles may pose in the future.

Posted at 15:33 Permalink

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Reading List: How to Judge People by What they Look Like

Dutton, Edward. How to Judge People by What they Look Like. Oulu, Finland: Thomas Edward Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9770-6797-5.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote,

People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not as superficial as Thought. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

From childhood, however, we have been exhorted not to judge people by their appearances. In Skin in the Game (August 2019), Nassim Nicholas Taleb advises choosing the surgeon who “doesn't look like a surgeon” because their success is more likely due to competence than first impressions.

Despite this, physiognomy, assessing a person's characteristics from their appearance, is as natural to humans as breathing, and has been an instinctual part of human behaviour as old as our species. Thinkers and writers from Aristotle through the great novelists of the 19th century believed that an individual's character was reflected in, and could be inferred from their appearance, and crafted and described their characters accordingly. Jules Verne would often spend a paragraph describing the appearance of his characters and what that implied for their behaviour.

Is physiognomy all nonsense, a pseudoscience like phrenology, which purported to predict mental characteristics by measuring bumps on the skull which were claimed indicate the development of “cerebral organs” with specific functions? Or, is there something to it, after all? Humans are a social species and, as such, have evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to signals sent by others of their kind, conveyed through subtle means such as a tone of voice, facial expression, or posture. Might we also be able to perceive and interpret messages which indicate properties such as honesty, intelligence, courage, impulsiveness, criminality, diligence, and more? Such an ability, if possible, would be advantageous to individuals in interacting with others and, contributing to success in reproducing and raising offspring, would be selected for by evolution.

In this short book (or long essay—the text is just 85 pages), the author examines the evidence and concludes that there are legitimate correlations between appearance and behaviour, and that human instincts are picking up genuine signals which are useful in interacting with others. This seems perfectly plausible: the development of the human body and face are controlled by the genetic inheritance of the individual and modulated through the effects of hormones, and it is well-established that both genetics and hormones are correlated with a variety of behavioural traits.

Let's consider a reasonably straightforward example. A study published in 2008 found a statistically significant correlation between the width of the face (cheekbone to cheekbone distance compared to brow to upper lip) and aggressiveness (measured by the number of penalty minutes received) among a sample of 90 ice hockey players. Now, a wide face is also known to correlate with a high testosterone level in males, and testosterone correlates with aggressiveness and selfishness. So, it shouldn't be surprising to find the wide face morphology correlated with the consequences of high-testosterone behaviour.

In fact, testosterone and other hormone levels play a substantial part in many of the correlations between appearance and behaviour discussed by the author. Many people believe they can identify, with reasonable reliability, homosexuals just from their appearance: the term “gaydar” has come into use for this ability. In 2017, researchers trained an artificial intelligence program with a set of photographs of individuals with known sexual orientations and then tested the program on a set of more than 35,000 images. The program correctly identified the sexual orientation of men 81% of the time and women with 74% accuracy.

Of course, appearance goes well beyond factors which are inherited or determined by hormones. Tattoos, body piercings, and other irreversible modifications of appearance correlate with low time preference, which correlates with low intelligence and the other characteristics of r-selected lifestyle. Choices of clothing indicate an individual's self-identification, although fashion trends change rapidly and differ from region to region, so misinterpretation is a risk.

The author surveys a wide variety of characteristics including fat/thin body type, musculature, skin and hair, height, face shape, breast size in women, baldness and beards in men, eye spacing, tattoos, hair colour, facial symmetry, handedness, and finger length ratio, and presents citations to research, most published recently, supporting correlations between these aspects of appearance and behaviour. He cautions that while people may be good at sensing and interpreting these subtle signals among members of their own race, there are substantial and consistent differences between the races, and no inferences can be drawn from them, nor are members of one race generally able to read the signals from members of another.

One gets the sense (although less strongly) that this is another field where advances in genetics and data science are piling up a mass of evidence which will roll over the stubborn defenders of the “blank slate” like a truth tsunami. And again, this is an area where people's instincts, honed by millennia of evolution, are still relied upon despite the scorn of “experts”. (So afraid were the authors of the Wikipedia page on physiognomy [retrieved 2019-12-16] of the “computer gaydar” paper mentioned above that they declined to cite the peer reviewed paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology but instead linked to a BBC News piece which dismissed it as “dangerous” and “junk science”. Go on whistling, folks, as the wave draws near and begins to crest….)

Is the case for physiognomy definitively made? I think not, and as I suspect the author would agree, there are many aspects of appearance and a multitude of personality traits, some of which may be significantly correlated and others not at all. Still, there is evidence for some linkage, and it appears to be growing as more work in the area (which is perilous to the careers of those who dare investigate it) accumulates. The scientific evidence, summarised here, seems to be, as so often happens, confirming the instincts honed over hundreds of generations by the inexorable process of evolution: you can form some conclusions just by observing people, and this information is useful in the competition which is life on Earth. Meanwhile, when choosing programmers for a project team, the one who shows up whose eyebrows almost meet their hairline, sporting a plastic baseball cap worn backward with the adjustment strap on the smallest peg, with a scraggly soybeard, pierced nose, and visible tattoos isn't likely to be my pick. She's probably a WordPress developer.

Posted at 00:22 Permalink

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Reading List: Europa's Lost Expedition

Carroll, Michael. Europa's Lost Expedition. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2017. ISBN 978-3-319-43158-1.
In the epoch in which this story is set the expansion of the human presence into the solar system was well advanced, with large settlements on the Moon and Mars, exploitation of the abundant resources in the main asteroid belt, and research outposts in exotic environments such as Jupiter's enigmatic moon Europa, when civilisation on Earth was consumed, as so often seems to happen when too many primates who evolved to live in small bands are packed into a limited space, by a global conflict which the survivors, a decade later, refer to simply as “The War”, as its horrors and costs dwarfed all previous human conflicts.

Now, with The War over and recovery underway, scientific work is resuming, and an international expedition has been launched to explore the southern hemisphere of Europa, where the icy crust of the moon is sufficiently thin to provide access to the liquid water ocean beneath and the complex orbital dynamics of Jupiter's moons were expected to trigger a once in a decade eruption of geysers, with cracks in the ice allowing the ocean to spew into space, providing an opportunity to sample it “for free”.

Europa is not a hospitable environment for humans. Orbiting deep within Jupiter's magnetosphere, it is in the heart of the giant planet's radiation belts, which are sufficiently powerful to kill an unprotected human within minutes. But the radiation is not uniform and humans are clever. The main base on Europa, Taliesen, is located on the face of the moon that points away from Jupiter, and in the leading hemisphere where radiation is least intense. On Europa, abundant electrical power is available simply by laying out cables along the surface, in which Jupiter's magnetic field induces powerful currents as they cut it. This power is used to erect a magnetic shield around the base which protects it from the worst, just as Earth's magnetic field shields life on its surface. Brief ventures into the “hot zone” are made possible by shielded rovers and advanced anti-radiation suits.

The present expedition will not be the first to attempt exploration of the southern hemisphere. Before the War, an expedition with similar objectives ended in disaster, with the loss of all members under circumstances which remain deeply mysterious, and of which the remaining records, incomplete and garbled by radiation, provide few clues as to what happened to them. Hadley Nobile, expedition leader, is not so much concerned with the past as making the most of this rare opportunity. Her deputy and long-term collaborator, Gibson van Clive, however, is fascinated by the mystery and spends hours trying to recover and piece together the fragmentary records from the lost expedition and research the backgrounds of its members and the physical evidence, some of which makes no sense at all. The other members of the new expedition are known from their scientific reputations, but not personally to the leaders. Many people have blanks in their curricula vitae during the War years, and those who lived through that time are rarely inclined to probe too deeply.

Once the party arrive at Taliesen and begin preparations for their trip to the south, a series of “accidents” befall some members, who are found dead in circumstances which seem implausible based upon their experience. Down to the bare minimum team, with a volunteer replacement from the base's complement, Hadley decides to press on—the geysers wait for no one.

Thus begins what is basically a murder mystery, explicitly patterned on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, layered upon the enigmas of the lost expedition, the backgrounds of those in the current team, and the biosphere which may thrive in the ocean beneath the ice, driven by the tides raised by Jupiter and the other moons and fed by undersea plumes similar to those where some suspect life began on Earth.

As a mystery, there is little more that can be said without crossing the line into plot spoilers, so I will refrain from further description. Worthy of a Christie tale, there are many twists and turns, and few things are as the seem on the surface.

As in his previous novel, On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea (December 2016), the author, a distinguished scientific illustrator and popular science writer, goes to great lengths to base the exotic locale in which the story is set upon the best presently-available scientific knowledge. An appendix, “The Science Behind the Story”, provides details and source citations for the setting of the story and the technologies which figure in it.

While the science and technology are plausible extrapolations from what is presently known, the characters sometimes seem to behave more in the interests of advancing the plot than as real people would in such circumstances. If you were the leader or part of an expedition several members of which had died under suspicious circumstances at the base camp, would you really be inclined to depart for a remote field site with spotty communications along with all of the prime suspects?

Posted at 21:17 Permalink

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Reading List: The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics

Anonymous Conservative [Michael Trust]. The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics. Macclenny, FL: Federalist Publications, [2012, 2014] 2017. ISBN 978-0-9829479-3-7.
One of the puzzles noted by observers of the contemporary political and cultural scene is the division of the population into two factions, (called in the sloppy terminology of the United States) “liberal” and “conservative”, and that if you pick a member from either faction by observing his or her position on one of the divisive issues of the time, you can, with a high probability of accuracy, predict their preferences on all of a long list of other issues which do not, on the face of it, seem to have very much to do with one another. For example, here is a list of present-day hot-button issues, presented in no particular order.

  1. Health care, socialised medicine
  2. Climate change, renewable energy
  3. School choice
  4. Gun control
  5. Higher education subsidies, debt relief
  6. Free speech (hate speech laws, Internet censorship)
  7. Deficit spending, debt, and entitlement reform
  8. Immigration
  9. Tax policy, redistribution
  10. Abortion
  11. Foreign interventions, military spending

What a motley collection of topics! About the only thing they have in common is that the omnipresent administrative super-state has become involved in them in one way or another, and therefore partisans of policies affecting them view it important to influence the state's action in their regard. And yet, pick any one, tell me what policies you favour, and I'll bet I can guess at where you come down on at least eight of the other ten. What's going on?

Might there be some deeper, common thread or cause which explains this otherwise curious clustering of opinions? Maybe there's something rooted in biology, possibly even heritable, which predisposes people to choose the same option on disparate questions? Let's take a brief excursion into ecological modelling and see if there's something of interest there.

As with all modelling, we start with a simplified, almost cartoon abstraction of the gnarly complexity of the real world. Consider a closed territory (say, an island) with abundant edible vegetation and no animals. Now introduce a species, such as rabbits, which can eat the vegetation and turn it into more rabbits. We start with a small number, P, of rabbits. Now, once they get busy with bunny business, the population will expand at a rate r which is essentially constant over a large population. If r is larger than 1 (which for rabbits it will be, with litter sizes between 4 and 10 depending on the breed, and gestation time around a month) the population will increase. Since the rate of increase is constant and the total increase is proportional to the size of the existing population, this growth will be exponential. Ask any Australian.

Now, what will eventually happen? Will the island disappear under a towering pile of rabbits inexorably climbing to the top of the atmosphere? No—eventually the number of rabbits will increase to the point where they are eating all the vegetation the territory can produce. This number, K, is called the “carrying capacity” of the environment, and it is an absolute number for a given species and environment. This can be expressed as a differential equation called the Verhulst model, as follows:

\frac{dP}{dt} & = & rP(1-\frac{P}{K})

It's a maxim among popular science writers that every equation you include cuts your readership by a factor of two, so among the hardy half who remain, let's see how this works. It's really very simple (and indeed, far simpler than actual population dynamics in a real environment). The left side, “dP/dt” simply means “the rate of growth of the population P with respect to time, t”. On the right hand side, “rP” accounts for the increase (or decrease, if r is less than 0) in population, proportional to the current population. The population is limited by the carrying capacity of the habitat, K, which is modelled by the factor “(1 − P/K)”. Now think about how this works: when the population is very small, P/K will be close to zero and, subtracted from one, will yield a number very close to one. This, then, multiplied by the increase due to rP will have little effect and the growth will be largely unconstrained. As the population P grows and begins to approach K, however, P/K will approach unity and the factor will fall to zero, meaning that growth has completely stopped due to the population reaching the carrying capacity of the environment—it simply doesn't produce enough vegetation to feed any more rabbits. If the rabbit population overshoots, this factor will go negative and there will be a die-off which eventually brings the population P below the carrying capacity K. (Sorry if this seems tedious; one of the great things about learning even a very little about differential equations is that all of this is apparent at a glance from the equation once you get over the speed bump of understanding the notation and algebra involved.)

This is grossly over-simplified. In fact, real populations are prone to oscillations and even chaotic dynamics, but we don't need to get into any of that for what follows, so I won't.

Let's complicate things in our bunny paradise by introducing a population of wolves. The wolves can't eat the vegetation, since their digestive systems cannot extract nutrients from it, so their only source of food is the rabbits. Each wolf eats many rabbits every year, so a large rabbit population is required to support a modest number of wolves. Now if we go back and look at the equation for wolves, K represents the number of wolves the rabbit population can sustain, in the steady state, where the number of rabbits eaten by the wolves just balances the rabbits' rate of reproduction. This will often result in a rabbit population smaller than the carrying capacity of the environment, since their population is now constrained by wolf predation and not K.

What happens as this (oversimplified) system cranks away, generation after generation, and Darwinian evolution kicks in? Evolution consists of two processes: variation, which is largely random, and selection, which is sensitively dependent upon the environment. The rabbits are unconstrained by K, the carrying capacity of their environment. If their numbers increase beyond a population P substantially smaller than K, the wolves will simply eat more of them and bring the population back down. The rabbit population, then, is not at all constrained by K, but rather by r: the rate at which they can produce new offspring. Population biologists call this an r-selected species: evolution will select for individuals who produce the largest number of progeny in the shortest time, and hence for a life cycle which minimises parental investment in offspring and against mating strategies, such as lifetime pair bonding, which would limit their numbers. Rabbits which produce fewer offspring will lose a larger fraction of them to predation (which affects all rabbits, essentially at random), and the genes which they carry will be selected out of the population. An r-selected population, sometimes referred to as r-strategists, will tend to be small, with short gestation time, high fertility (offspring per litter), rapid maturation to the point where offspring can reproduce, and broad distribution of offspring within the environment.

Wolves operate under an entirely different set of constraints. Their entire food supply is the rabbits, and since it takes a lot of rabbits to keep a wolf going, there will be fewer wolves than rabbits. What this means, going back to the Verhulst equation, is that the 1 − P/K factor will largely determine their population: the carrying capacity K of the environment supports a much smaller population of wolves than their food source, rabbits, and if their rate of population growth r were to increase, it would simply mean that more wolves would starve due to insufficient prey. This results in an entirely different set of selection criteria driving their evolution: the wolves are said to be K-selected or K-strategists. A successful wolf (defined by evolution theory as more likely to pass its genes on to successive generations) is not one which can produce more offspring (who would merely starve by hitting the K limit before reproducing), but rather highly optimised predators, able to efficiently exploit the limited supply of rabbits, and to pass their genes on to a small number of offspring, produced infrequently, which require substantial investment by their parents to train them to hunt and, in many cases, acquire social skills to act as part of a group that hunts together. These K-selected species tend to be larger, live longer, have fewer offspring, and have parents who spend much more effort raising them and training them to be successful predators, either individually or as part of a pack.

K or r, r or K: once you've seen it, you can't look away.”

Just as our island of bunnies and wolves was over-simplified, the dichotomy of r- and K-selection is rarely precisely observed in nature (although rabbits and wolves are pretty close to the extremes, which it why I chose them). Many species fall somewhere in the middle and, more importantly, are able to shift their strategy on the fly, much faster than evolution by natural selection, based upon the availability of resources. These r/K shape-shifters react to their environment. When resources are abundant, they adopt an r-strategy, but as their numbers approach the carrying capacity of their environment, shift to life cycles you'd expect from K-selection.

What about humans? At a first glance, humans would seem to be a quintessentially K-selected species. We are large, have long lifespans (about twice as long as we “should” based upon the number of heartbeats per lifetime of other mammals), usually only produce one child (and occasionally two) per gestation, with around a one year turn-around between children, and massive investment by parents in raising infants to the point of minimal autonomy and many additional years before they become fully functional adults. Humans are “knowledge workers”, and whether they are hunter-gatherers, farmers, or denizens of cubicles at The Company, live largely by their wits, which are a combination of the innate capability of their hypertrophied brains and what they've learned in their long apprenticeship through childhood. Humans are not just predators on what they eat, but also on one another. They fight, and they fight in bands, which means that they either develop the social skills to defend themselves and meet their needs by raiding other, less competent groups, or get selected out in the fullness of evolutionary time.

But humans are also highly adaptable. Since modern humans appeared some time between fifty and two hundred thousand years ago they have survived, prospered, proliferated, and spread into almost every habitable region of the Earth. They have been hunter-gatherers, farmers, warriors, city-builders, conquerors, explorers, colonisers, traders, inventors, industrialists, financiers, managers, and, in the Final Days of their species, WordPress site administrators.

In many species, the selection of a predominantly r or K strategy is a mix of genetics and switches that get set based upon experience in the environment. It is reasonable to expect that humans, with their large brains and ability to override inherited instinct, would be especially sensitive to signals directing them to one or the other strategy.

Now, finally, we get back to politics. This was a post about politics. I hope you've been thinking about it as we spent time in the island of bunnies and wolves, the cruel realities of natural selection, and the arcana of differential equations.

What does r-selection produce in a human population? Well, it might, say, be averse to competition and all means of selection by measures of performance. It would favour the production of large numbers of offspring at an early age, by early onset of mating, promiscuity, and the raising of children by single mothers with minimal investment by them and little or none by the fathers (leaving the raising of children to the State). It would welcome other r-selected people into the community, and hence favour immigration from heavily r populations. It would oppose any kind of selection based upon performance, whether by intelligence tests, academic records, physical fitness, or job performance. It would strive to create the ideal r environment of unlimited resources, where all were provided all their basic needs without having to do anything but consume. It would oppose and be repelled by the K component of the population, seeking to marginalise it as toxic, privileged, or exploiters of the real people. It might even welcome conflict with K warriors of adversaries to reduce their numbers in otherwise pointless foreign adventures.

And K-troop? Once a society in which they initially predominated creates sufficient wealth to support a burgeoning r population, they will find themselves outnumbered and outvoted, especially once the r wave removes the firebreaks put in place when K was king to guard against majoritarian rule by an urban underclass. The K population will continue to do what they do best: preserving the institutions and infrastructure which sustain life, defending the society in the military, building and running businesses, creating the basic science and technologies to cope with emerging problems and expand the human potential, and governing an increasingly complex society made up, with every generation, of a population, and voters, who are fundamentally unlike them.

Note that the r/K model completely explains the “crunchy to soggy” evolution of societies which has been remarked upon since antiquity. Human societies always start out, as our genetic heritage predisposes us to, K-selected. We work to better our condition and turn our large brains to problem-solving and, before long, the privation our ancestors endured turns into a pretty good life and then, eventually, abundance. But abundance is what selects for the r strategy. Those who would not have reproduced, or have as many children in the K days of yore, now have babies-a-poppin' as in the introduction to Idiocracy, and before long, not waiting for genetics to do its inexorable work, but purely by a shift in incentives, the rs outvote the Ks and the Ks begin to count the days until their society runs out of the wealth which can be plundered from them.

But recall that equation. In our simple bunnies and wolves model, the resources of the island were static. Nothing the wolves could do would increase K and permit a larger rabbit and wolf population. This isn't the case for humans. K humans dramatically increase the carrying capacity of their environment by inventing new technologies such as agriculture, selective breeding of plants and animals, discovering and exploiting new energy sources such as firewood, coal, and petroleum, and exploring and settling new territories and environments which may require their discoveries to render habitable. The rs don't do these things. And as the rs predominate and take control, this momentum stalls and begins to recede. Then the hard times ensue. As Heinlein said many years ago, “This is known as bad luck.”

And then the Gods of the Copybook Headings will, with terror and slaughter return. And K-selection will, with them, again assert itself.

Is this a complete model, a Rosetta stone for human behaviour? I think not: there are a number of things it doesn't explain, and the shifts in behaviour based upon incentives are much too fast to account for by genetics. Still, when you look at those eleven issues I listed so many words ago through the r/K perspective, you can almost immediately see how each strategy maps onto one side or the other of each one, and they are consistent with the policy preferences of “liberals” and “conservatives”. There is also some rather fuzzy evidence for genetic differences (in particular the DRD4-7R allele of the dopamine receptor and size of the right brain amygdala) which appear to correlate with ideology.

Still, if you're on one side of the ideological divide and confronted with somebody on the other and try to argue from facts and logical inference, you may end up throwing up your hands (if not your breakfast) and saying, “They just don't get it!” Perhaps they don't. Perhaps they can't. Perhaps there's a difference between you and them as great as that between rabbits and wolves, which can't be worked out by predator and prey sitting down and voting on what to have for dinner. This may not be a hopeful view of the political prospect in the near future, but hope is not a strategy and to survive and prosper requires accepting reality as it is and acting accordingly.

Posted at 13:02 Permalink

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Reading List: I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 2

Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness. Vol. 2. New York: Modern Library, [1942–1945, 1995, 1999] 2001. ISBN 978-0-375-75697-9.
This is the second volume in Victor Klemperer's diaries of life as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Volume 1 (February 2009) covers the years from 1933 through 1941, in which the Nazis seized and consolidated their power, began to increasingly persecute the Jewish population, and rearm in preparation for their military conquests which began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

I described that book as “simultaneously tedious, depressing, and profoundly enlightening”. The author (a cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a respected professor of Romance languages and literature at the Technical University of Dresden when Hitler came to power in 1933. Although the son of a Reform rabbi, Klemperer had been baptised in a Christian church and considered himself a protestant Christian and entirely German. He volunteered for the German army in World War I and served at the front in the artillery and later, after recovering from a serious illness, in the army book censorship office on the Eastern front. As a fully assimilated German, he opposed all appeals to racial identity politics, Zionist as well as Nazi.

Despite his conversion to protestantism, military service to Germany, exalted rank as a professor, and decades of marriage to a woman deemed “Aryan” under the racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, Klemperer was considered a “full-blooded Jew” and was subject to ever-escalating harassment, persecution, humiliation, and expropriation as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. As civil society spiralled toward barbarism, Klemperer lost his job, his car, his telephone, his house, his freedom of movement, the right to shop in “Aryan stores”, access to public and lending libraries, and even the typewriter on which he continued to write in the hope of maintaining his sanity. His world shrank from that of a cosmopolitan professor fluent in many European languages to a single “Jews' house” in Dresden, shared with other once-prosperous families similarly evicted from their homes.

As 1942 begins, it is apparent to many in German, even Jews deprived of the “privilege” of reading newspapers and listening to the radio, not to mention foreign broadcasts, that the momentum of German conquest in the East had stalled and that the Soviet winter counterattack had begun to push the ill-equipped and -supplied German troops back from the lines they held in the fall of 1941. This was reported with euphemisms such as “shortening our line”, but it was obvious to everybody that the Soviets, not long ago reported breathlessly as “annihilated”, were nothing of the sort and that the Nazi hope of a quick victory in the East, like the fall of France in 1940, was not in the cards.

In Dresden, where Klemperer and his wife Eva remained after being forced out of their house (to which, in formalism-obsessed Germany, he retained title and responsibility for maintenance), Jews were subjected to a never-ending ratchet of abuse, oppression, and terror. Klemperer was forced to wear the yellow star (concealing it meant immediate arrest and likely “deportation” to the concentration camps in the East) and was randomly abused by strangers on the street (but would get smiles and quiet words of support from others), with each event shaking or bolstering his confidence in those who, before Hitler, he considered his “fellow Germans”.

He is prohibited from riding the tram, and must walk long distances, avoiding crowded streets where the risk of abuse from passers-by was greater. Another blow falls when Jews are forbidden to use the public library. With his typewriter seized long ago, he can only pursue his profession with pen, ink, and whatever books he can exchange with other Jews, including those left behind by those “deported”. As ban follows ban, even the simplest things such as getting shoes repaired, obtaining coal to heat the house, doing laundry, and securing food to eat become major challenges. Jews are subject to random “house searches” by the Gestapo, in which the discovery of something like his diaries might mean immediate arrest—he arranges to store the work with an “Aryan” friend of Eva, who deposits pages as they are completed. The house searches in many cases amount to pure shakedowns, where rationed and difficult-to-obtain goods such as butter, sugar, coffee, and tobacco, even if purchased with the proper coupons, are simply stolen by the Gestapo goons.

By this time every Jew knows individuals and families who have been “deported”, and the threat of joining them is ever present. Nobody seems to know precisely what is going on in those camps in the East (whose names are known: Auschwitz, Dachau, Theresienstadt, etc.) but what is obvious is that nobody sent there has ever been seen again. Sometimes relatives receive a letter saying the deportee died of disease in the camp, which seemed plausible, while others get notices their loved one was “killed while trying to escape”, which was beyond belief in the case of elderly prisoners who had difficulty walking. In any case, being “sent East” was considered equivalent to a death sentence which, for most, it was. As a war veteran and married to an “Aryan”, Klemperer was more protected than most Jews in Germany, but there was always the risk that the slightest infraction might condemn him to the camps. He knew many others who had been deported shortly after the death of their Aryan wives.

As the war in the East grinds on, it becomes increasingly clear that Germany is losing. The back-and-forth campaign in North Africa was first to show cracks in the Nazi aura of invincibility, but after the disaster at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–1943, it is obvious the situation is dire. Goebbels proclaims “total war”, and all Germans begin to feel the privation brought on by the war. The topic on everybody's lips in whispered, covert conversations is “How long can it go on?” With each reverse there are hopes that perhaps a military coup will depose the Nazis and seek peace with the Allies.

For Klemperer, such grand matters of state and history are of relatively little concern. Much more urgent are obtaining the necessities of life which, as the economy deteriorates and oppression of the Jews increases, often amount to coal to stay warm and potatoes to eat, hauled long distances by manual labour. Klemperer, like all able-bodied Jews (the definition of which is flexible: he suffers from heart disease and often has difficulty walking long distances or climbing stairs, and has vision problems as well) is assigned “war work”, which in his case amounts to menial labour tending machines producing stationery and envelopes in a paper factory. Indeed, what appear in retrospect as the pivotal moments of the war in Europe: the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, Axis defeat and evacuation of North Africa, the fall of Mussolini and Italy's leaving the Axis, the Allied D-day landings in Normandy, the assassination plot against Hitler, and more almost seem to occur off-stage here, with news filtering in bit by bit after the fact and individuals trying to piece it together and make sense of it all.

One event which is not off stage is the bombing of Dresden between February 13 and 15, 1945. The Klemperers were living at the time in the Jews' house they shared with several other families, which was located some distance from the city centre. There was massive damage in the area, but it was outside the firestorm which consumed the main targets. Victor and Eva became separated in the chaos, but were reunited near the end of the attack. Given the devastation and collapse of infrastructure, Klemperer decided to bet his life on the hope that the attack would have at least temporarily put the Gestapo out of commission and removed the yellow star, discarded all identity documents marking him as a Jew, and joined the mass of refugees, many also without papers, fleeing the ruins of Dresden. He and Eva made their way on what remained of the transportation system toward Bavaria and eastern Germany, where they had friends who might accommodate them, at least temporarily. Despite some close calls, the ruse worked, and they survived the end of the war, fall of the Nazi regime, and arrival of United States occupation troops.

After a period in which he discovered that the American occupiers, while meaning well, were completely overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of the populace amid the ruins, the Klemperers decided to make it on their own back to Dresden, which was in the Soviet zone of occupation, where they hoped their house still stood and would be restored to them as their property. The book concludes with a description of this journey across ruined Germany and final arrival at the house they occupied before the Nazis came to power.

After the war, Victor Klemperer was appointed a professor at the University of Leipzig and resumed his academic career. As political life resumed in what was then the Soviet sector and later East Germany, he joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which is usually translated to English as the East German Communist Party and was under the thumb of Moscow. Subsequently, he became a cultural ambassador of sorts for East Germany. He seems to have been a loyal communist, although in his later diaries he expressed frustration at the impotence of the “parliament” in which he was a delegate for eight years. Not to be unkind to somebody who survived as much oppression and adversity as he did, but he didn't seem to have much of a problem with a totalitarian, one party, militaristic, intrusive surveillance, police state as long as it wasn't directly persecuting him.

The author was a prolific diarist who wrote thousands of pages from the early 1900s throughout his long life. The original 1995 German publication of the 1933–1945 diaries as Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten was a substantial abridgement of the original document and even so ran to almost 1700 pages. This English translation further abridges the diaries and still often seems repetitive. End notes provide historical context, identify the many people who figure in the diary, and translate the foreign phrases the author liberally sprinkles among the text.

Posted at 22:44 Permalink