September 2005

Stevenson, David. 1914–1918: The History of the First World War. London: Allen Lane, 2004. ISBN 0-140-26817-0.
I have long believed that World War I was the absolutely pivotal event of the twentieth century, and that understanding its causes and consequences was essential to comprehending subsequent history. Here is an excellent single-volume history of the war for those interested in this tragic and often-neglected epoch of modern history. The author, a professor of International History at the London School of Economics, attempts to balance all aspects of the war: politics, economics, culture, ideology, demographics, and technology, as well as the actual military history of the conflict. This results in a thick (727 page), heavy book which is somewhat heavy going and best read and digested over a period of time rather than in one frontal assault (I read the book over a period of about four months). Those looking for a detailed military history won't find it here; while there is a thorough discussion of grand strategy and evolving war aims and discussion of the horrific conditions of the largely static trench warfare which characterised most of the war, there is little or no tactical description of individual battles.

The high-level integrated view of the war (and subsequent peacemaking and its undoing) is excellent for understanding the place of the war in modern history. It was World War I which, more than any other event, brought the leviathan modern nation state to its malign maturity: mass conscription, direct taxation, fiat currency, massive public debt, propaganda aimed at citizens, manipulation of the news, rationing, wage and price controls, political intrusion into the economy, and attacks on noncombatant civilians. All of these horrors, which were to characterise the balance of the last century and continue to poison the present, appeared in full force in all the powers involved in World War I. Further, the redrawing of borders which occurred following the liquidation of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires sowed the seeds of subsequent conflicts, some still underway almost a century later, to name a few: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Palestine, and Iraq.

The U.S edition, titled Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, is now available in paperback.


Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat. McLean, VA:, [1910] 2002. ISBN 1-404-33567-6.
As usual, I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a couple of months. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I noted whilst reading the book, the fourth installment in the original Tom Swift saga.

It's delightful to read a book which uses the word “filibuster” in its original sense: “to take part in a private military action in a foreign country” but somewhat disconcerting to encounter Brazilians speaking Spanish! The diving suits which allow full mobility on the abyssal plain two miles beneath the ocean surface remain as science-fictional as when this novel was written almost a century ago.


Guy, Richard K. Unsolved Problems in Number Theory. 3rd ed. New York: Springer, 2004. ISBN 0-387-20860-7.
Your hard-working and overheated CPU chip does not want you to buy this book! Collected here are hundreds of thorny problems, puzzles, and conjectures, many of which, even if you lack the cerebral horsepower to tackle a formal proof, are candidates for computational searches for solutions or counterexamples (and, indeed, a substantial number of problems posed in the first and second editions have been so resolved, some with quite modest computation by today's standards). In the 18th century, Leonhard Euler conjectured that there was no nontrivial solution to the equation:
a5 + b5 + c5 + d5 = e5
The problem remained open until 1966 when Lander and Parkin found the counterexample:
275 + 845 + 1105 + 1335 = 1445
Does the equation:
a6 + b6 + c6 + d6 + e6 = f6
have a nontrivial integer solution? Ladies and gentlemen, start your (analytical) engines! (Problem D1.) There are a large collection of mathematical curiosities here, including a series which grows so slowly it is proportional to the inverse of the Ackermann function (E20), and a conjecture (E16) regarding the esoteric equation “3x+1” about which Paul Erdös said, “Mathematics may not be ready for such problems.” The 196 palindrome problem which caused me to burn up three years of computer time some fifteen years ago closes the book (F32). Many (but not all) of the problems to which computer attacks are applicable indicate the status of searches as of 2003, giving you some idea what you're getting into should you be inclined to launch your own.

For a book devoted to one of the most finicky topics in pure mathematics, there are a dismaying number of typographical errors, and not just in the descriptive text. Even some of the LaTeX macros used to typeset the book are bungled, with “@”-form \index entries appearing explicitly in the text. Many of the errors would have been caught by a spelling checker, and there are a number of rather obvious typesetting errors in equations. As the book contains an abundance of “magic numbers” related to the various problems which may figure in computer searches, I would make a point to independently confirm their accuracy before launching any extensive computing project.


Woods, Thomas E., Jr. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-047-6.
You know you're getting old when events you lived through start showing up in history textbooks! Upon reaching that milestone (hey, it beats the alternative), you'll inevitably have the same insight which occurs whenever you see media coverage of an event at which you were personally present or read a popular account of a topic which you understand in depth—“Hey, it wasn't like that at all!”…and then you begin to wonder about all the coverage of things about which you don't have direct knowledge.

This short book (246 pages of widely-leaded text with broad margins and numerous sidebars and boxed quotations, asides, and recommendations for further reading) provides a useful antidote to the version of U.S. history currently taught in government brainwashing institutions, written from a libertarian/conservative standpoint. Those who have made an effort to educate themselves on the topics discussed will find little here they haven't already encountered, but those whose only knowledge of U.S. history comes from contemporary textbooks will encounter many eye-opening “stubborn facts” along with source citations to independently verify them (the excellent bibliography is ten pages long).

The topics covered appear to have been selected based on the degree to which the present-day collectivist academic party line is at variance with the facts (although, as Woods points out, in many cases historians specialising in given areas themselves diverge from textbook accounts). This means that while “hot spots” such as the causes of the Civil War, the events leading to U.S. entry in World War I, and the reasons for the Great Depression and the rôle of New Deal programs in ending it are discussed, many others are omitted entirely; the book is suitable as a corrective for those who know an outline of U.S. history but not as an introduction for those college graduates who believe that FDR defeated Santa Anna at the Little Big Horn.


Smith, George O. Venus Equilateral. New York: Del Rey, [1942-1945, 1947, 1976] 1980. ISBN 0-345-28953-6.
During World War II the author worked on one of the most outrageous (and successful) electrical engineering projects of all time—a vacuum tube radio set manufactured in the tens of thousands, designed to be fired from an artillery piece, withstanding an initial acceleration of 20,000 gravities and spinning at 500 revolutions per second—the radio proximity fuze. To relax, he wrote the Venus Equilateral stories, published in Astounding Science Fiction and collected in this volume along with a retrospective written in 1973 for an anthology in memory of long-time Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell, Jr.

If you like your science fiction hard, this is about as geeky as it gets:

“The nice thing about this betatron,” said Channing, “is the fact that it can and does run both ends on the same supply. The current and voltage phases are correct so that we do not require two supplies which operate in a carefully balanced condition. The cyclotron is one of the other kinds; though the one supply is strictly D.C., the strength of the field must be controlled separately from the supply to the oscillator that runs the D plates. You're sitting on a fence, juggling knobs and stuff all the time you are bombarding with a cyc.” (From “Recoil”, p. 95)
Notwithstanding such passages, and how quaint an interplanetary radio relay station based on vacuum tubes with a staff of 2700 may seem to modern readers, these are human stories which are, on occasions, breathtaking in their imagination and modernity. The account of the impact of an “efficiency expert” on a technology-based operation in “QRM—Interplanetary” is as trenchant (and funny) as anything in Dilbert. The pernicious effect of abusive patent litigation on innovation, the economics of a technological singularity created by what amounts to a nanotechnological assembler, and the risk of identity theft, are the themes of other stories which it's difficult to imagine having been written half a century ago, along with timeless insights into engineering. One, in particular, from “Firing Line” (p. 259) so struck me when I read it thirty-odd years ago that it has remained in my mind ever since as one of the principal differences between the engineer and the tinkerer, “They know one simple rule about the universe. That rule is that if anything works once, it may be made to work again.” The tinkerer is afraid to touch something once it mysteriously starts to work; an engineer is eager to tear it apart and figure out why. I found the account of the end of Venus Equilateral in “Mad Holiday” disturbing when I first read it, but now see it as a celebration of technological obsolescence as an integral part of progress, to be welcomed, and the occasion for a blow-out party, not long faces and melancholy.

Arthur C. Clarke, who contributes the introduction to this collection, read these stories while engaged in his own war work, in copies of Astounding sent from America by Willy Ley, acknowledges that these tales of communication relays in space may have played a part in his coming up with that idea.

This book is out of print, but inexpensive used copies are readily available.


Ronson, Jon. The Men Who Stare at Goats. London: Picador, 2004. ISBN 0-330-37548-2.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. If you take everything at face value, you're asked to believe that U.S. Army Intelligence harbours a New Age pentacle in the Pentagon cabal bent on transforming Special Forces soldiers into “warrior monks” who can walk through walls, become invisible, and kill goats (and presumably the enemy, even if they are not goats) just by staring at them. These wannabe paranormal super-soldiers are responsible for the cruel and inhuman torture of prisoners in Iraq by playing the Barney the Purple Dinosaur song and all-girl Fleetwood Mac covers around the clock, and are implicated in the Waco massacre, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the Heaven's Gate suicides, and have “re-activated” Uri Geller in the War on Terror.

Now, stipulating that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron, this still seems altogether too zany to be entirely credible. Lack of imagination is another well-known military characteristic, and all of this seems to be so far outside the box that it's in another universe entirely, say one summoned up by a writer predisposed to anti-American conspiracy theories, endowed with an over-active imagination, who's spent way too much time watching X-Files reruns. Anyway, that's what one would like to believe, since it's rather disturbing to contemplate living in a world in which the last remaining superpower is so disconnected from reality that its Army believes it can field soldiers with…super powers. But, as much as I'd like to dismiss this story as fantasy, I cannot entirely do so. Here's my problem: one of the central figures in the narrative is a certain Colonel John Alexander. Now I happen to know from independent and direct personal contacts that Colonel Alexander is a real person, that he is substantially as described in the book, and is involved in things every bit as weird as those with which he is associated here. So maybe all the rest is made up, but the one data point I can confirm checks out. Maybe it's time to start equipping our evil mutant attack goat legions with Ray-Ban shades! For an earlier, better sourced look at the Pentagon's first foray into psychic spying, see Jim Schnabel's 1997 Remote Viewers.

A U.S edition is now available, but presently only in hardcover; a U.S. paperback edition is scheduled for April 2006.